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
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence