Five-minute Memoir: How my mother, the sculptress, coped with Alzheimer's

 

My mother, Faith Tolkien, was a sculptress. She could catch the essence of a person in her portrait busts – the elusive individuality that marks each human face out from all the billions of other faces that there have ever been or ever will be.

And then one year the talent left her. She struggled for months with a portrait head but it was useless. She could not capture a likeness. Alzheimer's had arrived, moving slowly and stealthily, picking its way through her cerebral cortex like a mountaineer finding footholds in high places.

My mother was in denial and so was I, afraid to face up to a responsibility that I did not know how to handle. She called her problem short-term memory loss and started to write everything down in pocket diaries which she promptly lost. She couldn't sleep and ironed and re-ironed laundry through the long watches of the night.

But my mother, the artist, adapted to her new circumstances. She made no more portraits but instead worked from her imagination, sculpting a statue of the baby Jesus held by his father. At St Joseph's feet the tools of his trade, a hammer and nails, lie discarded as he cradles his tiny son. But they are there for a reason, pointing towards the child's future martyrdom, nailed to the cross. The father gazes with exquisite tenderness at his son and it is as if he senses the inevitability of what is to come.

After St Joseph, my mother began work on her last commission, a statue of St Leonard, the patron saint of prisoners, for her local church, St Leonard's in Watlington. But Alzheimer's now held her prisoner and she could not finish the statue. Instead, she began to dismantle the saint's hands and then his arms, expressing through her art the extinction of her talent, until finally she gave up.

The statue was covered in a dirty cloth while all around, her studio filled up with cobwebs, smelling of dust and neglect. These were hard times. She was fearful and she wandered. Over and over again she made me promise never to take her out of her home. I did so, telling myself that I would never let it happen as long as she knew where she was. And yet as she deteriorated I didn't know whether I would be able to keep my word.

But through all the anxiety and all the confusion she never lost the love in her heart. One of her carers told me that she'd arrived at the house one afternoon to find my mother cradling the head of me that she had made 12 years earlier, whispering into my green, resin, bronze ears. She knew that her sculptures contained life, even if she could no longer create them.

My mother's memory for the recent past began to disappear, draining away like wine from a glass. She forgot my childhood and it was as if I was losing it, too. The walls of the cottage where she had brought me up alone after my parents' divorce were shrinking inwards. Soon she was left only with her own earliest memories – staying up late on summer evenings in her bedroom to watch men in white flannels playing cricket on the green below her window; running to meet her father at the end of the street when he came home from work; her dog and cat lying curled up together on her invalid mother's bed.

I decided to enlist a photographer friend's help to make a book of my mother's sculpture. This was something she had always wanted. But time was running out – my mother was rapidly losing her capacity for abstract thought and I was worried that she would be unable to understand the concept that there was going to be a record of her life's work.

A sculptor friend repaired the hands and arms of St Leonard and the Bishop of Oxford came to unveil the statue. I sat beside my mother at this, her last public event. The Bishop gave an address. He said that the statue, like the church, will last long after we are all gone and forgotten. It points towards the timeless and the eternal; towards God, and I thought at that moment that he could have been speaking about all of my mother's work. I felt more proud of her than I had ever felt before.

The years that followed were not easy. I was constantly frightened for her but in the end I was able to keep my promise. When she finally left her cottage she didn't know she was leaving. She took with her a few personal possessions and her sculpture book. And later that year in the nursing home she ran her hands over the pages and looked up at me and said: "It's mine. I did it". "Yes," I said. "You did."

'Orders From Berlin', by Simon Tolkien (Harper Fiction) is out now in hardback

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015