Last year I read Emma Healey's moving novel “Elizabeth is Missing” which is daringly written from the perspective of a woman with dementia. She captured the inner life of someone lost to herself. It's a tremendous challenge to write meaningfully about the indignities that dementia entails and make sense of the senseless. When a rational, lively person loses the facility to interact with the world accompanied by all their memories and sense of self in tow they are left only with the functions of the body and fleeting reactions to stimuli. Erwin Mortier's memoir “Stammered Songbook” is a highly personal account of the loss of his mother to dementia, but more than that it's a poetic examination of family, what loving relationships mean and the human condition. In a series of highly compressed short sections, Mortier conveys the daily experience of caring for his mother and sifting through memories of his past.
Mortier describes working with his father and other family members to care for his mother as her symptoms get progressively worse. Much of the time there is a sense of being suspended in an amorphous state: “We live in and outside of time.” Mortier’s mother is there in body, but the essence of what made her a mother, wife and friend has left with all her memories and sense of self. There are the daily tasks of care for her wellbeing which require more and more from the family. Eventually they become incapable of the fulfilling the necessary actions required to properly feed her and prevent her from hurting herself. When it becomes necessary to restrain her, the author hauntingly questions “When does care become another word for torture?” There is a solemn sense of inevitability and acknowledgement that her condition can only get worse. Yet, Mortier travels through this territory with courage savouring the remaining time he has with his mother and reflecting tenderly on family life. He powerfully describes the way that those who have left us still remain in our thoughts: “The dead have a busy time no longer being there.” There are many moments of sorrow in this account of his mother’s disease, but also some blissful light-hearted moments of relief. Passages effortlessly move from blunt facts about the reality of living with someone with dementia to memories to ruminations about life – all infused with a poetic sense that allows the specifics of his experiences to extend into a more universal, beautifully-unifying meaning.
One of the passages I found most powerful in the book was this long meditation on the meaning of love and the way in which we connect to one another: “love is attention. That they are two words for the same thing. That it isn't necessary to try to clear up every typo and obscure passage that we come across when we read the other person attentively – that a human being is difficult poetry, which you must be able to listen to without always demanding clarification, and that the best thing that can happen to us is the absolution that a loved one grants us for the unjustifiable fact that we exist and drag along with us a self that has been marked and shaped by so many others.” This so elegantly summarizes the way in which love is a form of caring without judgement. I find it a very inspirational perspective to have when considering what it really means to love someone throughout the long hard line of a lifetime no matter how much they change or become lost to us.
“Stammered Songbook” is a profound, utterly-unique book.