We’re soon to publish a book called The Little Girl in the Radiator. It’s the story of Martin Slevin’s life as a live-in carer to his mum, who suffered (and eventually died) from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s one of the most moving and also funniest books I’ve read in many years. Here’s a brief taster (from the period early in Mrs Slevin’s Alzheimer’s, when Martin found it hard to deal with):
I stepped from the shower cubicle onto the mat in the family bathroom, and reached over to take a fresh towel from the rack; I was surprised when it just fell away into perfectly cut strips. There were about 12 of them, all exactly the same width, each running the full length of the towel, and all laid back on the rack in perfect symmetry, one beside the other, like a row of soldiers on parade. It had been a big, fluffy towel and the cuts were not immediately apparent as it had been placed back together; of course, once I tried to use it the whole thing just fell to pieces. I didn’t realise it at the time, but mom had obviously been making something in her mind, and instead of using curtain material had used the towel instead. She was just doing her job. [Martin’s mother had been an excellent seamstress in her younger days.] It took me a long time to understand that.
‘What’s happened to the towel?’ I asked, standing in the hall, naked and dripping with soap, and holding up the perfect strips in either hand for my mother to see.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘What are you asking me for? It must have been Peggy, ask her.’
‘Peggy, who?’ I replied.
‘Your aunt, Peggy, of course,’ came the reply from the kitchen. ‘She’s always doing things like that.’
‘Mom,’ I said, softly, ‘Aunt Peggy’s been dead for five years.’
‘She is not!’ insisted mom. ‘I spoke to her only yesterday. What are you saying things like that for?’
I thought about what the consultant had said… the rolling up of my mother’s mental rug. If mom believed my aunt Peggy was still alive, then she must be living in a time at least five years in the past.
I found another towel.
Mom had always had a petite physical frame, and although I remember her as having a good appetite she had never put on weight. I think she lived on nervous energy most of her adult life, never doing fewer than three things at a time, and so she simply burned off the calories she consumed. She would be out at the workroom making curtains or something, and she’d keep popping into the kitchen to peel a bowl full of potatoes towards the family dinner, and then she’d write a few lines of a letter to someone. (She was a compulsive letter writer, of which more later.) Then she would return to the workroom and carry on with the curtains.
Now, though, she was gradually getting thinner and thinner. Clearly, I needed to get her eating properly. I decided to cook her a decent meal. But every packet, tin and box of food in the kitchen was months and even years out of date. She’d been less than assiduous in restocking the kitchen cupboards since my father had died.
‘All this stuff is way out of date, mom,’ I said, rummaging in a drawer for a roll of black bags.
She sat with her head in her hands and watched me empty the old tins and packets from her kitchen cupboards into the bags for the bin men to collect on Thursday.
‘You’re going to starve me to death,’ she sobbed. ‘Wait until your father gets home. He’ll have something to say about this!’
She used to say that to me when I had been a naughty child. I was 45 now, and it still made me feel uncomfortable. Dad had always been the one to punish me, to stop my pocket money, to send me to my room. I suppose I was a handful as a kid, and I always seemed to be waiting for him to come home.
‘You can’t eat this stuff,’ I said. ‘It would give you food poisoning.’
Mom shook her head. ‘Your father won’t be happy about this.’
‘Dad’s dead, mom,’ I replied, bluntly. Too bluntly.
She looked at me with disgust in her eyes.
‘How could you be so cruel to say that to me? When I think of how much your father loves you, and all the things he does for you.’
‘I know all that mom, and I loved him too. But he’s dead now, don’t you understand that?’
The brutality of ignorance. Later, much later, when I understood better how Alzheimer’s worked, I was more tactful.
Mom simply continued to stare at me, shaking her head slowly from side to side in disbelief.
‘Your father will be very angry with you when he gets home.’
I finished emptying the cupboards out, there was nothing left. I made a list of stuff we needed, and then turned to my mother.
‘We have to go shopping now, mom,’ I said. ‘It’s cold outside, put a coat on.’
Like an obedient child, she rose from the kitchen table and went into the hall. She took a coat from the hall closet and put it on. It was a pale beige raincoat, with a belt around the waist. It should have reached down to her knees, but as she stood there in the hallway I saw that it came down no further than her waist. Underneath the beltline it was all tattered; it had been cut in half.
‘I’m ready,’ she said, simply.
‘What happened to your coat?’ I sighed.
‘Peggy shortened it for me,’ she said.
I took a deep breath. ‘You can’t wear that,’ I replied.
I went into her bedroom and removed another coat from her wardrobe. ‘Put this one on,’ I said, handing it to her, without looking at it too much.
‘You’re being very bossy with me today,’ replied mom. She took off the half-a-raincoat and let it fall to the floor, slipping on the other one in its place. It was a dark blue cashmere affair that my father had bought her one year for her birthday. I remembered it.
‘Now can we go?’ she said.
The blue coat had only one sleeve; the stitching around the left shoulder seam had been unpicked and the sleeve removed.
‘For Christ’s sake, mother!’ I exclaimed.
‘What’s the matter now?’ she shouted.
‘It’s only got one fucking sleeve!’ I screamed.
‘Don’t you dare swear at me!’ she yelled back. ‘You wait until your father gets home!’
‘Dad’s fucking dead!’ I bellowed.
Mom ran into the bedroom and threw herself onto the bed. She sobbed louder and harder than I can ever remember. I stood in the hall feeling like a complete shit. I went into her bedroom and held her in my arms, and we cried together.
Eventually we stood up, and I went back to her wardrobe. I took out another coat, checked to see that it was okay, and made her put that one on. This one was bright green, it didn’t match anything she was wearing, but I didn’t care. At least it was intact.
‘Peggy must have taken the sleeve off the blue one,’ said mom. ‘She’s a bitch for doing that, isn’t she?’
We drove to Tesco and parked the car.