Of course it was not the first sign. Even someone with my capacity for self-delusion had to know. Had to notice.
My Mum had dementia. That thief had broken in and had not yet started running riot and ransacking, and upending and vandalising. The thief was sneaky, subtle, lulling and stilling into a sense of false security.
For a while now, I’d had to tell her the same thing twice and three times over. Sometimes I was patient. Sometimes, and this is something that can never be put right now, I was not. She did not always ask the same thing over and over, but told the same thing over and over. Always an avid reader, she left her books to one side or read the same page over and over. Yes, this was the world of over and over. Always a keen and crafty card player, when we played, she would sometimes entirely forget the rules of the game, or think we were playing a different game, or just put cards down on the table as if playing no recognised game at all.
But old people DO get forgetful, don’t they? And at other times, she was like her old self. Well, almost. Well, I could half-believe it.
It was more than the forgetfulness. More than the struggling with the once simple. She never did physically shrink, not even become especially stooped, but it seemed as if she were diminished, in a shell where a frightened child cohabited with someone who could be aggressive for no reason.
Yes, I knew the journey had started, and I knew how the journey would end, and she did, too. She was far braver, in those lucid times that were still there, than I ever was. I was the one who changed the subject, the one who said it would be fine. Of course it was more for my sake than hers. I see that now.
We lived in a big house in the country then, too big for just the two of us, really, but it was handier to stay there than to move, and, each in her own way, we couldn’t face all the hassle of moving, though she brought it up from time to time.
Oh, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea and think we lived in some kind of mansion in rolling parkland. It was on what passes for a main road in our part of the country, and was an old railway crossing house, though the railway itself hadn’t been in use for decades. I can’t even say it was a quirky original, as you can see a succession of these houses, all the same shape, with the high gabled roof, dotted along the length of the old railway line. At some point before we moved in (it was not my childhood home) a previous owner had had an extension built that distinguished it from some of the other crossing houses but, some would say, not in a good way. I don’t know if it was an intentional touch of irony or if I were reading too much into it, but the corridor connecting the original house and the annexe had something of the feel of a railway carriage about it. In its favour; there was a window halfway along it, and apart from the wide sill being handy for the ornaments we both loved, it looked out onto what we called the “Croft”, a piece of land at the back of the house, that, so the deeds told us, had once been a more or less perfect rectangle, but had been truncated at one corner for the road to be widened. The house was shabby, and in need of repairs both inside and out, and even now, Mum was more bothered about that and thought we should do something about it more than I did.
We had planted it with the much-maligned swift-growing Leylandii, and it was almost possible to believe, at least from that particular window looking out onto the croft, that you were in a little forest miles from anywhere, though often the rattle and shake of a lorry on its way to one of the Humber ports would shatter the illusion soon enough.
It was the 3rd Sunday in November 2008. That time of year when any mists and mellow fruitfulness that might have been there (that year, the mist had definitely exceeded the mellow fruitfulness) in the autumn had gone, but, though of course some shop owners thought differently, it was too early to be thinking about Christmas. We had one apple tree, but though it gave a decent display of blossom in the spring, its fruits were pretty much inedible, though the birds had other ideas, and sometimes they even seemed to get tipsy on the windfall fruit as it rotted and fomented. The apple tree was right outside the window, but as its leaves fell, it seemed to form a kind of portico for the conifers.
Throughout the morning and into the early afternoon, it had been a nothing kind of day. Cold, but not dramatically so, a grey sky, a few half-hearted splashes of rain. And then it started to snow. Snow in November, early snow. Winter impertinently, unexpectedly, gatecrashing the remnants of autumn. It was “proper snow”, too. Feather flakes, floating and swirling, and starting to settle on the ground, even though it was still damp, and on the bare boughs of the apple tree and the green boughs of the conifers.
My Mum loved snow, even if she did sometimes say it was “best on a Christmas card” and just as every family has its little rituals, one of ours was standing by a window and watching the snow fall. Especially when it came early and unexpectedly. Especially when it was “proper snow”.
I went into the lounge, and announced, almost as if I were personally responsible for it, “It’s snowing! Snowing properly!”
Now here is what would have happened in other years. She would have leapt to her feet with the vigour of a much younger woman, and come to join me at the window, and we would have watched the snow falling together. If we’d had any quarrels, then they’d be at least temporarily forgotten, and we’d have agreed that no matter what anyone said about rapid growing conifers they looked every bit as good as posh pines and the like when they were covered with snow.
I repeated my statement, thinking, yes, she’s going to get to her feet, and we’re going to watch the snow together, and say the things we always do.
I could not entirely gauge her reaction, or did not dare to, or realised it was a combination. She appeared to be entirely indifferent to the joys and beauty of the first snow, her face tired, closed in, vaguely resentful, even, as if I had disturbed her and brought her back to a time and place where she didn’t wish to be. I won’t go so far as to say she had forgotten what snow was, but she seemed to have forgotten that she had once been delighted by it, with childlike joy and enthusiasm into her old age.
She was not going to come to the window on the corridor that reminded me of a railway carriage.
I suppose that if you looked in medical textbooks, it is highly unlikely you would ever find “Failure to appreciate snow” listed as a symptom of Alzheimer’s, or a sign it is worsening and tightening its own grip.
And after that, there were still a few “better days”.
But I still knew. And I still weep, sometimes, when the first snow comes, and with the weeping comes the rage against the thief in the night that stole the joy and the memories of someone I loved and who had more than deserved years more of joy and memories and delight in the feathered flakes of the first snow.