Since Cathie Borrie delivered her keynote performance at the World Alzheimer's Day event sponsored by the Community and Access Programs of the Museum of Modern Art, her self-published manuscript has won rapturous praise from noted writers and Alzheimer's experts alike, from Maya Angelou, Lisa Genova, and Molly Peacock to Dr. Bill Thomas, Jed A. Levine of the Alzheimer's Association, NYC, and Meryl Comer of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Alzheimer's Initiative. Now it is available to the general public for the first time in a trade edition.
The Long Hello distills the seven years the author spent caring for her mother into a page-turning memoir that offers insight into the "altering world of the dementia mind." During that time, Borrie recorded brief conversations she had with her mother that revealed the transformations withinand sometimes yielded an almost Zenlike poetry. She includes selections from them in chapters about her experience that are as evocative as diary entries. Her mother was the emotional pillar and sometime breadwinner in a home touched by a birth father's alcoholism, a brother's early death, divorce, and a stepfather's remoteness. In Borrie's spare prose, her mother's story becomes a family's story as well a deeply loving portrait that embraces life.
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Forty years after his death, I dream my brother and I are walking arm in arm down a country lane in the late afternoon sun. He's close to twenty in my dream and heavier, taller. I can't stop crying.
"Hughie, I've missed you so much. I just love you so much."
He looks down, squeezes me tight.
"I know, Cath. I know."
Every day I sit with my mother and watch the sea.
There's a row of birds perched on an errant log — cormorant, cormorant, seagull, heron. Crow.
"Cathie, sometimes I drift off for ten minutes and I don't know where I've gone."
"Does that bother you, Mum?"
"No, it doesn't. Are you my daughter?"
We watch frantic wing-flitting at her bird feeder. Chickadees, starlings, sparrows. A house finch, brown-striped.
"Cath, I think it's a finch, it's only ... oh — a finch a finch a finch! Are they trying to tell you they aren't in there? What are they trying to say?"
"To say ...? I don't know."
"I think there's something, they're trying to get something across, aren't they, love?"
Bird-pecking at the feeder. I tap on the window.
"Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee. How do you think birds get their names?"
"I don't know."
"What shall I call myself? What name?"
"Don't you know?"
"Yes, but I'd like a different name."
"Well, I like Hugh or Cath but I think Hugh is better. More suitable."
"But you won't ever forget me, will you?"
"As if I ever could."
Starlings replace chickadees. The seed is getting low.
"What do you think is the most important thing, Mum? I mean, a good thing?"
"And what about the rest of your life? What's your thinking on the rest of your life?"
"Oh gosh, there can't be much left of it can there, Cath? What will I be, sixty- six?"
"You're going to be eighty-six."
"Oh yeah, eighty-six."
"How old am I?"
"Oh about sixty, sixty and the pen you're holding. I'm sixty-two or -three, the age I quickly got to."
"How would you like to live out the remainder of your days?"
"I don't know, it fills me with horror. The same as what I'm doing over there only I'll be better. I'll be flying down the hill in my jacket!"
We listen to Bach.
"Did someone take the place of A-flat minor? You know, I think about the radio, listen to the radio, and I wonder if Cath is listening, too."
"You mean ... you wonder about me when you're listening to the radio?"
"Yes. It's the only time."
Prelude no. 1 in C Major. My mother sighs, closes her eyes.
"What was he thinking? What was Bach thinking?"
"What's the nicest thing about you?"
"Okay, what's the second-nicest thing about you?"
"My love of music, my love of good music. In fact it might be the first thing. Do you know what I had last night?"
"Two lots of the London Conservatory taken away."
"What do you like least about yourself?"
"All the things I could do and wanted to do and didn't do because I couldn't be bothered."
"You always loved music, didn't you?"
"It was Mother who made me compete. Once, when I was six, at that big hotel downtown, a man lifted me up onto the piano stool and I was so mad because I could have got up by myself. Mother never forgave me for quitting, but I was just so nervous. I hated it. After I left, my piano teacher told Mother that the German adjudicator asked her where the little golden-haired girl was, the one with music in her ears."
Our eyes scan the sea.
"There's a huge freighter coming in. I wonder where it's from."
My mother squints.
"It's coming in too full, you can't see the Plimsoll line."
"You have a good eye."
"Yes, but is it the right eye?"
"You're feeling better today, aren't you?"
"Because it's all coming in and none going out."
Four cruise ships leave the harbor for Alaska one after the other.
"Here they come, Norwegian Wind, Veendam, Dawn Princess, Radiance of the Seas. They're getting bigger every year."
"I've been on one of those ships and spent a whole morning up on the bridge. You should see the instruments. Wow!"
"Which do you like better, the sea or the sky?"
"You can swim in it."
"It's always out there for you. It's always there."
I feel guilty if I don't visit her every day, all day, guilty every moment I'm not with my mother. Worrying all the time that she'll fall and not be able to call me, not remember the personal alarm pendant around her neck. Worry she'll be lonely. Most of her friends are dead, and visits from family dwindling. For a long time she won't let me hire anyone to help.
"I like my own company, I always have. So did Dad, it's one of the reasons we got on so well. I think the nicest thing about it is that I like people and they come to see me and they want to come and see you. Everything is on my head, you know. I don't want them to come and see me, or you. I'm a loner, darling, but those fancy things, they like it. It's just that I like it best when you're here, love."
"But Mum, I can't keep —"
"We don't need anyone else, lovey. I like it the way it is."
When she can no longer walk, I have to hire live-in caregivers, then worry, knowing how much she hates strangers in her home. Worry about what they're doing, not doing, and spend as much time with her as before we had help. I fire one when I learn she isn't talking to my mother. Another I'm never quite sure about quits while my mother is dying. The best, a quiet gentle soul. The one who stays.
Mum wakes up my brother and me in the middle of the night because we have to move to the country to live with her parents. We're to put a few of our favorite things into a plastic bag. My brother is eight and wants to bring his bike, but there isn't room. I'm five and bring my favorite doll but she wets herself so I have to remember all her diapers.
"Hurry, Hughie. Come on, Cath. Uncle Hugh's waiting."
"What's the matter, Mum? Where are we going? It's so dark."
She rushes back and forth from the house to the car carrying paper bags and suitcases that she hands her brother to put in the trunk. No time to pack our books, Mum's records and sheet music, photo albums.
"I feel awful bringing you out this late, Hugh, and you'll miss work tomorrow."
"It's all right, Jo."
"It's just that he's ... he's drunk most of the time now and I was afraid he might do something, I mean, to the children."
"I wish I'd known. I want you all to be safe, that's all that matters, kid."
"You're the only one I'd call, Hugh."
We hurry out to my uncle's car running in the driveway. I climb into the backseat next to my brother. He's wearing his cowboy hat and staring out the window and I want to hold his hand but he wouldn't like that. I look back at our house as we drive away to see if our dad is watching or running after us. It's pitch-black. It feels funny leaving him behind.
"He's not home right now, darling. You have to be a big girl for Mum, all right?"
"But he won't know where we are. How will he find us? We should go back for Daddy. Let's go home now, Mum. Mum?"
"Cathie, stop! Be quiet!"
My mum has never shouted at me like that. I don't know what to do. We drive to my grandparents' in the dark. No one speaks.
A few months after we move in with our grandparents our father comes to visit my brother and me. When I see his car come around the corner I run out and wrap myself around him.
He pats the top of my head. My brother stands beside my mother, watching. We drive into town to get ice-cream cones and Mum comes too, but she sits in the back. My gran says our dad isn't allowed to take my brother and me anywhere alone.
"Why not, Gran?"
"Because he drinks and he can't be trusted. Do you know he's never sent your mother a dime?"
Our father's allowed to visit my brother and me twice a month. He never comes again.
For lunch I make fruit salad and cottage cheese and one piece of whole-wheat toast. I stand at my mother's kitchen window cutting up fruit and look out at the day. It's raining. A raven watches me from his perch on the power line as the wind whisks wave tips into frothy white manes. I try not to think about where I am and what I do all day or the things I used to do and miss most — working, studying, canoeing, movies. Men.
She has her lunch on a TV table in the den.
"How are you, Mum?"
"I'm sort of dragging myself through."
"What are you dragging yourself through?"
"Oh, wheat fields and sticky things. Someone's pinning me all together. Oh yes, yes, I'm very, very clear. When that girl Cathie phoned this morning I thought, what's she phoning me for?"
"Cathie? But I'm Cathie —"
"Then I heard her say, 'Oh, because it's a day.' But she didn't say the right name. Anyway, he went into sing and you went into sing, didn't you?"
"Into ... sing? Um, I guess I did. Mum, I miss you."
"You know, I just stamp my foot and there she isn't."
"She? Oh. You know, even though I see you every day I still miss you."
"Then my daughter Cathie came back to this side when she was through over there. I guess she was through and I was so surprised and thrilled and we had tea together and it was nifty."
"Your daughter? Well, how would you like us to be related?"
"I think we're doing fine in the water."
I tell people I'm still working and making money but I'm not. Try to ignore the tightness in my chest from having to move so slowly when I like moving fast, and the creeping sense of captivity that sits heavy in my gut.
My mother sits on her couch with her eyes closed.
"Would you like to have a little rest?"
"Okay, dear. But where are you going to sit? And then you're going to go away with Dad, aren't you, and I'll be all alone."
"I never go away with Dad."
"Oh, that's good."
"You seem so tired ... are you giving up?"
"No, I don't give up. I don't know how to do it."
"Neither do I."
I draw the curtains.
"How was your day?"
"It's very hard for me to tell you because when you say, How have you been today, Mum? I try to think, and I can't think of anything. I don't know what I did this morning, I have no idea."
"Oh. Maybe a better question would be — how are you right now?"
"Well, I'm fine, just fine. Yes, it's a good, a better question to come for me."
"You look like a little porcelain doll lying there."
"Does it, does it look just like china?"
"Yes, just perfect."
"Well, that's good. Somebody's got to be perfect."
When we move in with Gran and Grampy my mum has to go back to work. She used to teach piano lessons to kids on our street because our father didn't make enough money, but now she has to go work in an office. Nobody else's mother works and I wish my mum could stay home, too. She says no one likes her boss.
"He gets mad all the time and someone's always in tears. One of the girls thinks he drinks."
Grampy wants her to find another job.
"There aren't any other jobs right now, Dad. But oh dear, the office is in a mess. The old files take up too much space, memos go unanswered, and the equipment is always breaking down, but he won't spend the money to repair it or have it replaced."
One day he shouts at her for being late with a letter and she tells us all about it at dinner.
"He just stood at the door of his office shouting — everyone could hear. But I know he never dictated that letter to me, so I marched right into his office and let him have it. I said, I quit! You don't like me, I know you don't. I can't do anything right, there's no point in me staying here any longer."
My grandmother is horrified.
"Oh, Jo, you didn't."
"Then what, Mum, then what?"
"Well, I couldn't believe it, I was so embarrassed ... but I started to cry."
Mum never cries in front of anyone.
"I tried to stop but I couldn't. I thought he was going to fire me, but instead he handed me one of his hankies and told me he couldn't stand to see a woman cry. I told him I was the only one in the office who defended him and that everyone hated working there. He said if I stayed I could take over the office and do anything I wanted. He'd give me a raise so I could send little Hughie to boarding school and order new equipment. Anything, if only I stay."
My mum stays. Her boss gives her a really big raise and even a key to the vault. She buys us all presents and picks out a pair of earrings for herself — two dangly half-moons in silver, gold, and black.
"Two dollars! I feel so guilty."
She sends me to private school as a daygirl and my brother, with the help of a bursary, to a boarding school only an hour away. My brother hasn't been doing well in school and my mother thinks he'll do better around other boys and male teachers. She says he's too old to be around just us and that my grandparents don't have the energy for an eleven-year-old boy.
Every Sunday we drive to his new school and bring him home for the day. One afternoon he cuts his hand on a shell at the beach and when I see his blood in the bathroom sink I can't stop crying.
"Oh, Mum. My Hughie ..."
"He's already back outside with his friends! Shall we surprise him with his favorite chocolate cake for dessert, darling?"
During the drive back Hughie and I see who can count the most cows or sheep and sometimes we try to guess when a mile has gone by. Mostly my brother wins. When we drop him off I look out the back window and wave and wave until I can't see him anymore.
My mum works really hard to save enough money to buy me a bike and all summer long my friends and I ride past farms with horses and cows grazing in the fields. We all like horses the best and when we make clicking sounds and kissing noises they trot over and butt our legs with their heads trying to get at the bits of carrots and apples hidden deep within our pockets. They graze on our flat outstretched hands, their big rubbery lips tickling. I wipe their slimy spit on my shorts and for the rest of the day cup my hands over my face. Breathe in horse.
When we aren't out biking we play horses and run through the woods jumping over logs we've set up across narrow twisty trails. I always rear up, snorting and pawing at the dirt. I'm lead horse, tall and fast and wild. Unbreakable.
My mother and I lie side by side on her bed and look out at the day. Cradled between steel side rails we have a view of the maple tree and the crow- peppered holly bushes.
"The trees outside your window are so lush, Mum."
"Yes, lush, and the fish jumping out of the sea. You are like the sea. Tide going in, tide going out, storms, beautiful sky ... full of fish."
She strokes my hair.
"All I ever wanted was to be a mother. Everywhere I went people would stop to tell me what beautiful babies you were — both of you with curly brown hair and big blue eyes — my little darlings. You always wanted to be where your brother was and if you couldn't find him you'd go round and knock on all the neighbors' doors until you did. Dorothy would call to say you were over there so I wouldn't worry. You just marched right in and asked if your boy was there."
"Really? Didn't he mind?"
"Oh no, love. He was always looking out for you. I was so excited when you were born. I wanted a little girl so badly, my very own little doll that I could dress up in pretty things. I called you Catherine but I should have called you Sporty!"
Bird-scrambling at the feeder.
"Have they enough seed?"
"Yes, there's still plenty, Mum."
"Your father came to the hospital after you were born. You were a cesarean and your sweet little face didn't have a mark on it! He was drunk, and threw a book at my stomach."
I cover my ears.
"Please don't tell me this story again, Mum. You have to stop telling me this story."
Five minutes later, she's forgotten. Begins again.
"Your father drank. He was jealous of you and little Hughie and said he wished you'd never been born. How could a father say that? His parents drank, both of them, and his brother. They'd all come for dinner, drunk when they arrived. It was awful. They sent your father to boarding school when he was only six, just a baby, really. You don't do that to a child, do you, Cath?"
A raven tries to land on the feeder but it's too heavy, flies away.
"One day your brother was asleep in his crib and your father came up from the basement. I made him coffee. He went down the hall to Hughie's room and ran the silver christening cup back and forth across the crib rails. Hughie woke up, screaming. Your father yelled at me, 'Can't you shut that stupid baby up? Shut that baby up!'"
"I didn't know what to do. We didn't talk about things in those days. I should have known what to do. I thought it would pass, that he'd come around."
"Oh look, the chickadees are back — look."
"You used to wait at the window for him, 'Daddy! Daddy!' He'd push you away when you tried to get on his lap. The look on your little face ... I tried to get you to stop, but you wouldn't. The lawyer said no one would believe me because he was so good at hiding his drinking and fooled everybody, even AA, and that I'd lose half my friends. Don't cry, darling, don't cry. Oh deary me, I did the best I could with the brains I had in my head."
She sips her tea.
"Is all this real or pretend?"
"I don't know. What would you like it to be?"
"All right. It's Wednesday, so that means ... yes, it's pretend."
"Oh good. But it's kind of a lousy time, isn't it?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Long Hello"
Copyright © 2015 Cathie Borrie.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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