To a future self, with love from a very present present,
This is the first thing I have written – apart from endless scribbled lists and daily stream of texts and WhatsApp messages on my phone – for five months. It is the first time I have reached into the past or the future with news of anything beyond the goings-on of any particular day. The first thing with a beginning, a middle, and an end; or the possibility of a second draft. This is strange for me because I am (used to be?) a woman who wrote a lot for a job as a social researcher, writing other people’s stories. Since the baby came, there is little to narrate or explain. My days have become non-linear: a series of cycles which neither prepare for, nor reflect on the last, despite relating to and repeating each other endlessly. Time itself also takes on a cyclical quality, as I am constantly at the beginning and end of something, both new to this whole journey and very weary from what has just passed. Perhaps these are some of the reasons I am moved to write to you, my future self with dementia, now. And perhaps it is this violent and irresistible break with so much of my cognitive life which makes me feel that I may have something to say to you. Or perhaps it is only now that I find the time…
I am not saying that you are ‘like’ the baby (a tired, blunt comparison often used by those of us who talk and write about the very young and very old), nor am I saying that you are more ‘like’ me now that I am a new mum who makes wry comments about “baby brain” or “not being able to string two sentences together”. But maybe I can describe some modes of being and things that matter to us (to me and the baby) that you will understand. And maybe this will open up possibilities for us (me and you) to relate to each other, or even for you and the baby to relate to each other in the future. I want to tell you about this non-verbal, intimate, tactile, ever-present world we inhabit because I imagine that you will care about it and that you might recognise some of it, even though you may not of course remember it.
We (me and the baby) have a strangely reciprocal relationship even though only one of us can talk or plan/reflect upon how we live from one moment to the next. We become afraid, angry, listless, confused, or frustrated; and then, suddenly, we can comfort one another into blissful calm and safety. Earlier this evening he broke our smooth, rehearsed sequence of moves towards bedtime with a skittish look to one side, restless fingers suddenly rubbing furiously at his little bare head. I move him towards where he needs to be – latched onto me, feeding himself into a state of rest, giving him the only real sense of purpose he knows. But he makes a noise like an angry cat and arches his back. He cries – real tears, which I am still not used to. I wonder what’s happening, what’s tormenting him (overtiredness? pain? sickness? fear?) I have to use my instincts, the scientist in me offering me nothing in these situations. I try turning him around, patting his back and offering him the other breast. Suddenly, he is latched on and his eyes half closed. He is drinking deeply and everything is warm and fluid and his hands are curling around my fingers in something that feels just like affection.
I wonder how the baby (who will not have been a baby for a very long time now) responds to you when you have a difficult moment, how he tries to read you when you cannot articulate what you are feeling. I wonder if he feeds you now. There is so much I wonder and could ask you about your life now – what you do with your days, what you enjoy, what you think about and remember, and of course what you might be able to tell me about the world you live in. But I find myself obsessed with what your relationship is like with your son and how I might time-travel to you two, strangely, through telling you about these moments in which we are so absolutely present.
As time-travel and future speculation goes, it’s tricky basis for an original story – relationships between elderly parents and their kin have been fraught since the beginning of time and I’m sure our son won’t be the first to break with this tradition. But there could be more to this intergenerational story; maybe it could become the site of some inventiveness and imagination after all?
Because I am talking to you about all of this, it cannot be about miraculous cures for neurodegenerative disease, or neat solutions to the journey towards the end-of-life. Instead, it could be about finding wonder amongst the mundane and difficult terrain at the outer reaches of life – at the end as well as the beginning. Before the baby was born, his dad called him The Astronaut, bobbing about in his gravity-free bubble, other-worldly, visible from earth only via digital technologies. When he did ‘land’, he somehow brought with him the kind of wonder that you might imagine an extra-terrestrial being might bring – so strong that every day
it is able to break through the boring mess of motherhood. Do you still have that sense of wonder when you look at him? More importantly, does he have it when he looks at you? Can your proximity to the edge of life inspire something that makes your relationship both bearable and wonderful?
Good luck! And much love,
Natassia Brenman is a social researcher at the University of Oxford interested in health, technology and patterns of inclusion and exclusion in care. In her recent ESRC project, she explored themes of temporality, futures, and speculation in the context of dementia and brain health.