At first, my mother, the poet Anne Atik, had seemed just ordinarily confused. Then, very gradually, the confusion took on a pathological aspect. She awoke in the middle of the night thinking it was morning. On what turned out to be her last Eurostar journey, she thought she had arrived in London when we had just left it. Though her sentences remained grammatically coherent, they stopped making sense. A poet and writer, she became unable to write, even to read. But she remained a poet, distilling her emotions and humour into one-liners that I took to writing down. It was as if the confusion bred by the dementia had set her free, distilling her poetic fire.
I had been observing doctors observing patients, but once my mother started entering the text, the patient ‘out there’ became a ‘you’
It was a bewildering experience – dementia always is. But my questions about the self, and the loss of self, became all the more poignant now that I could see what in my mother remained, and what was disappearing. I also better understood the patients whose stories I was writing about – while their stories helped me better understand her.
Before my father’s decline, he was a preeminent scholar of Black religious history. As brilliant as he’d been, I wasn’t sure, at the end of his...