What if you forget what I look like?




A five minute phone call time travels me back to fifteen years ago. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder courtesy of hijacking and murder, is now my lifelong adversary. John said that they found mom in a park. She was going to the airport, but couldn’t remember which one. Thank the Lord she was unharmed. Overcome with anger I clearly spelled out my hate in John’s ear. The war-torn country compelled my husband and I to seek refugee status and secure a future for our family, a hemisphere away. John didn’t budge, he wanted me to come and say my last goodbyes.

“I’ll book a bungalow for the family at a private wild reserve where you’ll be safe. Are you coming or not?” And I gave way.


High and mighty from our truck window we look down on the road-unworthy and mostly overpopulated minivans, but I avoid eye-contact from passengers at all times.  Buckled up in the backseat next to me is my six year-old Justin, holding tightly onto the framed picture of him and his three siblings. How do I explain to Justin that the Nana he loves and knows is not the person he insisted to come and see? She doesn’t know her own daughter anymore, let alone a child that she hasn’t seen in three years? Is it best to answer his questions afterwards or is it best for him to be prepared?


Firearm on the front passenger’s seat, our driver Tabu braids his way skillfully through the steady flowing traffic. Alerts on his phone enabled to warm us of stone throwers alongside the road who often disrupt travel.


Keep cell phones out of sight.

Do not protest to hi-jackers.

Give them what they ask.

Duck behind the seats and/or play dead.

The lid on my memory box just popped wide open. How on earth does one play dead at gunpoint amidst a deafening heartbeat?


Justin can’t even keep himself busy by playing games on my phone, since all daylight robbery attractions must be kept out of sight. A strange idea given the fact that our vehicle advertises the easily locatable wildlife reserve, hosting profitable tourists.  “Today we’re in luck...” Tabu announces like he just won the lottery, “...we should make it without detours and on time.”


The traffic comes to a stop. Tabu glances back at us in his rearview mirror. “What animals do you like most?” Justin is ready with his answer, “the elephants and crocodiles are the most interesting species. Daddy says the two of us are city boys, we like to watch animals from the watchtower most of the time.” The mere thought of stroking cheetahs or hand-feeding gazelles like his siblings, gives him the chills. Tabu chuckles, “this is Africa for you.”


Every morning since our arrival I say farewell to my wildlife-hyped family locked-in behind the electric fenced safehaven and every afternoon as I return unharmed it feels, in itself a miraculous victory. My love-hate relationship with this country wanting to spin out of control as the bulbless street light with poster of continued violence at arm’s length.


“Yes, the elephants are very intelligent animals. Too bad you missed out on meeting Thandi, the mother of all elephants -” Luckily Tabu reads the lift of my brow, a warning sign not to go down the poachers’ road to kill time. “The last time I saw her she teared up and didn’t want to take the orange with her trunk - I then knew she was ready to join her ancestors. Finally!”

“Justin has the memory of an elephant,” I say. The traffic jam is cleared and we take the familiar ramp to the left. Justin got sidetracked, “I know about ancestors, because I am a huge fan of Star Wars. She must be with the Force now.”


“Pedal to the metal and we’ll be there in seven minutes. You must be looking forward to seeing your Grandmother?” Seriously, did you forget where we’re heading? It’s our final visit to the facility where they keep the dementia patients, I want to shout to the world, but I keep my silence for the sake of my child.


“Not my Grandmother, she’s my Nana.” The reason for Justin’s growing restlessness is not the visit afterall. “Are we close, because I really need a bathroom?” Tabu and I answer simultaneously. “There’s no way that we can pull over, can you hold it little man? We are almost there.”


After answering nature’s call we walk hand in hand down the pastel coloured wall to Mom’s room. “Mommy, what if Nana forgot what I look like?”. I hope the nurses gave Mom the right cocktail to manage Justin’s expectations. Did they use the makeup and nail polish I bought? Strangely, I now remember thinking of her as just another child. She sometimes forgot, sometimes did things out of place. I felt in a way relieved when she left, although the underlying concern kept nagging during my sleep-deprived nights.


This is the moment, Justin knocks and opens the door.

Mom sits at the small table, doesn’t lookup when we enter, stares at a blank canvas with a palette of paint, without brushes that could harm her. The times she called with longing in her voice, I was the one suppressing my sadness by updating her with kids’ activities to uplift her spirit. Just once, can she return the favour?


Unsure why his long-time-no-see Nana doesn’t jump for joy, Justin places the newly framed picture on the dresser next to the yellowed babies’ and my wedding photos.  He draws his finger over the farewell picture of them. “Nana, I have the exact same picture of the two of us at the duck pond in my sock drawer. I missed you so much!”  


What he doesn’t tell is how he cried after you left; how hard it was on all of us. He kept looking for you, thinking you will be there if he calls your name. Mom, please? There is a special bond between the two of you, remember how you helped Justin when he wanted to send the twins back to the hospital? You helped him through the potty-training-tantrum phase. The two of you had picnics and tons of fun. Mommy? I now regret not giving him the heads-up. Justin makes his way to her, cautiously but all smiles stands behind and whispers through the teeth gaps into her ear.


“Nana?” Justin waits for her to act like she always did, waking up with a start when he sneaked up on her in the early mornings. “Nana, it’s me, Justin. Wake up!” He kisses her on the cheek. “We traveled all the way to come and see you.”


Mom turns around, combs his hair with her fingers. “My, who is this handsome kid?” He proudly opens his mouth to show the mix-matched teeth. “Justin, Nana. I’m six now and the tooth fairy has three of my teeth. That’s why you didn’t recognize me.” He points at the framed picture he put on the dresser. “Those are the four of us, Nana. Me, Lily, Carla and the baby that has your name.”


“Justin? Is this really you?” Her voice angelic in more than one way. “Na- na-a! You remember me.” She is the Mom and Nana we know so well. He leaps onto her lap and she puts her arms around him. Absent years drop like a curtain; they hug and embrace like best friends.

I look through the window at the pink-blossomed frangipani trees. Memories of the first jungle gyuguyyuiuttgjtik kfjaiaigym in our garden, vivid. Justin didn’t want to get onto the swing, distrusting that moving thing. “Once you get the hang of it you won’t ever want it to stop,” Mom assured him.  


Conflicted between loyalty and instinct Justin held on for dear life onto the chains of the swing while Mom stood in front facing him. “Now hold your breath when I push you back. When I let go you must blow as hard as you can.” After every push she jumped out of the way and their laughter tickled the twins on the blanket nearby.


“See if you can make the flowers dance by blowing on them when you swing near. Count with me, one, two, three and there you go. Up and down, back and forth, move your legs in and out ...” Justin playfully overcame his fear of heights and within days the swing had to go higher and higher until his feet almost touched the sunflowers’ faces.

The nurse checks on the commotion. “Lovely frangipanis, I would give anything to have one of those in our garden,” I convey.


Through the lens of my camera phone I see her slipping, at first unwillingly, holding with all she has onto this alife memory, but eventually clicks back to her shut-down reality. For old times’ sake Mom looks at Justin and her hand reaches for me.

John is framed in the doorway and takes the final picture of the three of us to save grace. “Time for ice-cream before we head back.” He throws Justin over his shoulder and leaves, gives me time to kneel in front of Mom. “She’s not coming back,” the nurse says gracefully and takes the lead to walk me out.


On the way back to the wildlife reserve Justin leans with his head against my shoulder our tear-wet hands lock. “That’s alright, Mommy,” he is my brave child. “Uncle John can you email the photos to us? My Daddy can print them at his work so we’ll always know what our Nana looks like.”


John honks at the taxis, checks his watch. “What time is your flight again?”


#PTSD #Africa #alzheimer #dementia #relationships #loss #grief #parenting #caregivers #mentalhealth