What are you afraid to lose?
There are many things that we could lose over a lifetime. The material stuff generally can be replaced whereas family and friends are irreplaceable. Intangibles such as confidence, hope and creativity could come and go, repeatedly. Health and sanity are precious but sometimes we don’t realise this until something goes awry.
Let’s not forget memory, which makes us who we are, guides our actions and feelings, helps us to learn new things, and much more.
Memory loss is the most prevalent early symptom of Alzheimer’s. To lose one’s memory and, in turn, one’s identity and understanding of the surrounding world, is terrifying. Both for the individual who has been afflicted with this degenerative disease and his or her loved ones and caregivers.
In Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours, Erwin Mortier compiles a heartbreaking collage of his feelings, observations and memories as Alzheimer’s gradually took over his mother’s mind and body. This is a moving, tender tribute to his mother who was a vivacious woman before she became ill.
Death that sits at table here is called Mum. It sits at the head of the table, cloaking both her and us in sorrow, the familiar place that it has claimed for itself for months with her shuffling tread from the front door to the living room. My mother, the crow with a cold with that one teardrop always on her beak. Our nest, once so fleshy, is a buckled cage with a mechanical songbird rusting away inside.
The book is painfully beautiful, vivid and sensitive. Reading Stammered Song is like catching fleeting yet intense glimpses into the mind and heart of the author as he and his family coped with his mother’s ‘disappearance’.
He is all eyes, my father, in the square in front of the cathedral and the theatre.
I haven’t been in town for at least five years, he says.
While we were parking, the disabled card lying on the dashboard caught my eye. I turned it over and suddenly saw a photo of her, taken when she was still well.
Her broad smile, her bright-eyed look. And the pride in her make-up.
I turned the card over again. Seeing her as she was before the illness struck is unbearable. The way she looks today is equally unbearable.
We hang motionless, impotent, between what we don’t want to remember and what we can’t bear to see.
Don’t expect to breeze through Stammered Songbook. I constantly stopped to reflect, mostly to take a breather lest I got overwhelmed by sadness. It’s hard to not be touched by Mortier’s recollection of his final moments with his mother.
Stammered Songbook was originally published in Dutch in 2011. Translated into English by Paul Vincent, the book was published in 2015 by the excellent Pushkin Press which has also brought several of Mortier’s works into prominence in the English-language book world.