Forgotten memories, unforgettable lines

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I first feared that mum’s memory lapses were more than old age forgetfulness in a brief moment of vanity last summer. I was staring at the tall, vertical mirror on her bedroom wall, pushing up my cheek muscles to hide the smile lines around my lips. Mum was watching me and said, “You are too young for Botox.” I chuckled. I wasn’t considering cosmetic intervention but at 43 and in Brazil, the land of Botox, I didn’t think that I was too young for one.

“How old do you have to be for Botox injections?” I asked giggling.

“40” she replied and I could feel deep worry wrinkles cutting into my forehead. Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore.

“And how old do you think I am, mum?”

“Aren’t you 34?” she replied dropping her gaze.

“Mum, this makes me younger than my younger brothers.”

“Are you…36?” She asked hesitantly and I realised she had lost track of the age of her offspring.

Mum’s confusions didn’t seem normal so I took her to see a neurologist, who, after examining and asking her a few questions, explained that it wasn’t uncommon for elderly people that don’t live active lives to become very forgetful. Since my father passed away, almost ten years ago, mum has become increasingly insular, so, I put her mental confusion down to her sedentary lifestyle and lack of social life.

Despite mum’s reluctance, my siblings and I tried to help her become more active. We insisted that she used her hearing aid so she could participate more in conversations, hired a physiotherapist to improve her muscle strength and mobility and took her on outings. But unfortunately, her memory continued to deteriorate. Medical exams were scheduled and the results weren’t good. This summer when I came to visit I asked her again how old I was. She had aged me a little. According to her, I’m now 40. The inaccuracy didn’t surprise me. This time I knew that her mental confusion was revealing more than her way of living. Mum is losing her sense of time – she has been diagnosed with vascular dementia.

Vascular dementia is caused by problems of blood circulation in the brain, which in mum’s case was triggered by mini-strokes in the brain (transient ischaemic attack). These strokes cause damage in the area associated with learning, memory and language. The prognosis isn’t great. If the degeneration continues to occur at a rapid rate, the life expectancy is about 10 years. As the disease progresses she will become more forgetful, frail and, confused.

It hurts to see mum not being mum, not remembering to do the things she enjoyed to do for herself and for us. I wasn’t prepared to face her old age like this and I’m still learning to accept that our roles have been reversed and that our lives and our relationship are never going to be the same.  I miss the smell of her chocolate cake but now if I want to bring that memory to life I have to do the baking myself. At the moment it’s the small things but I sense that mum is gradually being dragged to a different dimension, a world where time doesn’t matter, a planet without a past or future. And she will increasingly spend more time at this place, often confused, frustrated and alone.

Because of the nature of the disease, I don’t know if she will ever realise that she has embarked on this journey and I wonder if she will be scared. Because I am. I’m pretty frightened to see my mum slowly being transformed into a different person. I’m scared because I don’t know how I’m supposed to follow her into her new world. I’m worried because I feel hopeless. I want to rescue mum from there but the wrinkles in my forehead are getting deeper and longer as I know there is only so much I can do. I can help slow the process but I cannot stop it.

I’m starting to unknown my own mother. Mum used to be predictable, consistent and calm but her behaviour is changing and she is losing these precious parts of her character. Now, one minute she agrees to go out with me but by the time I get changed, she’s changed her mind.  Or forgot she had agreed to anything.  Mum’s confidence is being whittled away, along with her memories. She is often responding to questions with other questions, uncertain of her own words, of facts or figures. “Mum, how much did you spend at the bakery today?” I’ll ask and she will reply “Didn’t I spend nine bucks?”

I look forward to coming home every summer but I’m starting to stress about my knock at the door being answered by a different person, by a new version of mum and that maybe that person won’t know me, or my story and the essence of who I am. I hope that day never comes, but if it does, I’ll offer her a smile because she taught me that a smile and kind words can heal a broken day. And I’ll come in and look at the tall, vertical mirror on her bedroom wall and will forever cherish the smile lines I gained because of her.

A stranger gave me roses

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It was the last day of the year and I was watching my children climb durian trees in leafy Parque da Jaqueira, capturing their primate adventures with my iPhone and listening to the songs of bem-te-vi, a native Brazilian bird of yellow and brown feathers. Suddenly the bird tunes were muffled by the noise of a crowd coming our way from behind the trees on the other side of the park and I immediately put the phone in my bag and turned to look for the nearest exit. But before I asked my children to jump down and run I noticed that the approaching mob were wearing white t-shirts and holding bunches of red roses. Phew. I sighed with relief and grabbed my phone again.

The fervent murmuring lowered as the crowd broke into smaller groups and went about offering passers-by a hug and a rose. Most of the militants marched through the parks’ gates and on to the streets to approach drivers at traffic lights. I saw many getting out of their cars to exchange a smile and a hug with a stranger who also spread the love through open windows in buses, to cyclists, street vendors, and anyone willing to engage in this intimate act. I saw people with tears in their eyes, overwhelmed by emotion. I heard an elderly man saying he had not been hugged in years. I asked one of the volunteers why they were doing that and was told that the group is on a mission to simply reach out to strangers, clasp them close and make them feel better about their day – no strings attached.

I was in the park for two hours and was hugged twice by the group and the gesture made me feel warm and fuzzy indeed. I had been spreading the Christmas/New Year smile for a couple of weeks, wishing everyone a happy new year but was feeling a bit discouraged by the number of people complaining that their year had been pretty average. I was surprised to find that people that I know personally was so discontent. These are not people stricken by personal tragedies like a life-threatening illness or loss of income. What they were complaining about was that they couldn’t afford a bigger home, a dream holiday, didn’t have much ‘me’ time, their kids didn’t perform that well at school, their careers are not taking them where they want to go… first world problems we all face.

One of my friends who had “an awful year” was about to board a plane for an overseas holiday and had recently changed jobs. But it wasn’t the job of her dreams. The problem for me is that we live in a time in history in which we have never afforded and achieved so much and our lives are so abundant that it’s unfair to say that the year was ruined if we didn’t tick all boxes in our accomplishments list. We have become so obsessed with success and perfection that we created the self-improvement movement (or maybe it was the other way around), which I think is partially responsible for the widespread discontentment in our society today. The standards of happiness have become so high that too many people are thinking they are falling short of society’s expectations.

We are told that we can achieve anything and if we don’t it’s because we are not trying hard enough or didn’t follow the morning routine of the world’s most successful people. It’s about the Self, of improving our individual lives, but how about the lives of our neighbours? We are becoming increasingly isolated. We are living digital lives and moving away from our families and friends. Even if we don’t physically relocate to other geographic locations, much of our personal contact is now reduced to electronic interaction. Every year I travel back to Brazil and it always surprises me when my friends that are so active interacting with each other on social media say that they haven’t seen each other in a year. I’m also guilty, I only have to look at Facebook to see how many of my great friends have now become digital acquaintances.

Seeing people hugging, smiling, offering roses to random strangers reminded me of the essential things in life that do not need to be bought with a credit card but we forget these things when we are obsessing about our selves. We can only live authentic and satisfying lives when we realise we are all in this together but together doesn’t have the same weight through the window of a smart phone. The simple gentleness of the human touch is worth thousands of likes.

Flight wasn’t fun – now let our Brazilian holiday begin!

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Through the small oval window over the left wing, I see blue sky and soft clouds hovering above the aircraft and my dream of a breezy beach holiday getting closer below. Wait, no, that’s a mirage, what’s coming into view are houses of various colours and shapes packed together in a sprawling maze of streets and alleys – the famous Brazilian favelas. The Dreamliner tilts slightly to the right as the pilot angles the airplane for decent at Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo and I’m reminded that we still have one more connection to get to our final destination, Recife, in the northeast of Brazil. I’m staring at the plane’s current route on the in-flight entertainment system in pure silence. This is torture.

I feel a bump when the aircraft touches down and the noise of the wind hitting the flaps scares my children – I kiss their messy hair. Well, not far now, I think to myself as I stretch my legs under the seat in front of me. My back aches and limbs tingle. That’s what happens after 18 hours trapped in an aluminum tin. The seatbelt light comes off, I get up and glance at my fellow zombie-looking passengers of long haul economy class, jumping from their seats to grab their carry-on luggage. I always wonder why such a rush to deplane, we will all have to queue again at immigration and the conveyer belt. But I guess when we are disembarking from such a long flight our thoughts are no longer coherent, the brain is too tired and confused to make sense of anything. Our survival instincts direct us to get out of the plane, and to do it fast.

So I gather up my belongings and the stuff my kids dropped and put my children in the line while my husband collects the hand luggage in the overhead compartment. We are then herded off the aircraft and rush to immigration.

Fifteen minutes standing in the queue feels like an eternity when you haven’t slept in two days. Screaming and inconsolable children makes our heads thump – I feel sorry for their freaked out parents and grateful that they aren’t mine. My overtired boys stopped whining at the promise of McDonalds once we clear customs.

We go through the required procedures and are left with 30 minutes to board our flight to Recife. Our gate is on the other end of the airport so we pace down the wide glassed corridors, following the signs to terminal 2 – it’ll take eleven minutes, the sign on the wall tell us.

Guarulhos airport has been recently redesigned and looks beautiful. There is plenty of natural light and long moving walkways to my kid’s delight. Looking at them play you couldn’t tell these kids haven’t slept in two days. I notice that my eldest doesn’t have his backpack.

“Lucas where is your backpack?” I ask knowing we are in trouble.

“In the trolley, I think.” He replies walking backward on the moving belt and points to the cart my husband is pushing.

“That’s your dad’s backpack.”

“Oh,” he sighs.

“Where is your iPhone?”

“Oh, no”

I turn to my exhausted husband giving him an accusing look and remind him that “it was in the overhead compartment along with your backpack.” He has deep dark pockets around his eyes and it does not look like he’s registering what’s happening.

“We have less than 30 minutes to board the plane on the other side of the airport. Let’s just leave it.” My husband answers unsympathetically and the children stare at me with teary eyes.

“We can’t leave the kids’ iPhones behind,” I argue. “This is what we will do: give me my boarding pass and go ahead with the kids. I’ll go back to the Latam terminal to try to find the bag. I’ll meet you at the departure gate.”

I turn around and run back to the arrival’s gate as fast as I could, weaving through the rushing crowd. I feel my blond ponytail swinging frantically from side to side and beads of sweat gather in my forehead. The oncoming traffic of people look at me like I’m crazy, I think if I were in Sydney security would stop me for questioning. I make mental calculations of how long I have before my plane departs and wonder what possessed me to give iPhones to my children.

I spotted the staff in Latam uniform behind the help desk and explain I left a bag in the airplane.

“You need to go to the lost property desk,” a friendly staff explains pointing to the lift.

“But I have less than 20 minutes.”

“Just go up to level one and turn left. They will be able to help you there.”

And they do. The officer dials the aircraft and they confirm they found the said backpack.

“The customer has to board another flight in 15 minutes, could you bring the bag here immediately?” I hear him asking the person at the aircraft and cross my fingers.

“The bag will be here in five minutes.”

I wait pacing up and down the corridor, which is packed with lost items like surf boards, guitars, luggages of all shapes and sizes. I can’t take my eyes off the clock on the wall. I’ll have less than ten minutes to make my way to the gate – butterflies flutter in my stomach.

Within the promised five minutes I’m running back to the domestic gate with my faith in humanity restored. Pumping my legs as fast as they could go, I jet to my destination dodging people, luggages and trolleys. I was soaring like an eagle on a mission. No way was I going to miss my plane.

I’m approaching the gate and see a long line of passengers already boarding the flight. I spot my family there waiting for me. I wave the backpack up in the air and catch their attention – mission accomplished, I announce. Together we walk through the portal to our final destination, in three hours the plane will be kissing the ground and our summer holiday will finally begin.