from She Doesn’t Remember
by Jonas Brun
introduced and translated by Andy Turner
My review of Hon minns inte (She Doesn’t Remember) by Jonas Brun, which first appeared in SBR 2022:1, outlines the writer’s honest and searching account of his mother’s final years up to her death with dementia and how, as such, the work constitutes a marked departure from his earlier award-winning novels and poetry collections.
Spanning the years 2018-2010 the book is written in reverse, starting where it all ends, as one dark Stockholm December night Brun hears that his mother has taken her last breath and he and his father are subsequently told they have eight calendar days to clear her room at the care home. The extract I have chosen here takes us from that point, coming right at the very start of the book.
Described as a memoir on the cover page, the book is however much more than a simple collection of retrospective poignant vignettes. Through the power of Brun’s language, we are transported beyond the lyrical encapsulation of a mother loved, mourned and lost as we learn of Catarina’s vibrancy and achievements of a life well lived.
Writing about dementia is a loaded task. Whether we fear the disease, or already have experience of it, the threat of it remains all too real. In her recent book, What Dementia Teaches Us about Love, Nicci Gerrard meditates that dementia ‘is all around us, in our families and in our genes; perhaps in our own futures… If it’s not you or me, it’s someone we love.’ Universal indeed.
from She Doesn't Remember
She doesn’t remember I promised her I’d be back on Thursday.
That is what I have to tell myself when Thursday comes around and I don’t make the journey to see her. It is a very slow job trying to explain to Dad why I just can’t. The words don’t come out right. I have to start my sentences all over again, even though what I want to say is simple: I am so very tired.
And maybe there is no rush to visit her. Perhaps there is more time than we thought. Maybe I can allow myself to rest for a while. After all, she has been like this for more than a month. It might be another month yet. Or even more, no one knows. The only certain thing is that this is the final stage and time is running out. But no one can calculate in advance how long there is exactly.
This particular Thursday it isn’t just a question of going down to the metro and travelling all the way out to the care home. It isn’t just a question of alighting at the right station and walking the last stretch, tapping in the entry code, going up three floors in the lift, tapping the code in again by the door to the unit, following the corridor to her room. Even though I have done it hundreds of times, it is easier said than done.
Late morning, the swimming pool is almost empty. For a moment, the sun beats sharply through the glass wall looking out to the waters of Årstaviken, forcing me to squint. Long, slow movements, a few lengths. Afterwards I take a sauna. Muscle fatigue and the heat help my back to relax, relieving the pain that radiates up my neck and down my thighs. Some friends are coming over for dinner. D is cooking. I merely say she is worse, wanting us to talk about something else.
I hold D tightly before I fall asleep. It is midwinter now. No snow yet. Just the cold, black darkness that retreats for a few hours in the middle of the day.
Sitting at her side, Dad informs me that her condition is stable. I say I’ll go there on Sunday. I’ll be more up for it then, for a while at least. But when she dies, I’m not there. Neither is Dad. It doesn’t take long. When the nurse gets to us, it is already the end. A nursing assistant on nights is holding her hand. Her breathing is getting heavier and heavier. At 00.20 it stops completely. Her eyes have remained closed the whole time. A new day has just begun, the 16th of December, my birthday.
Snow is finally falling across the bare trees and the empty streets, across the leaden waters. I’m sitting in a taxi, talking to the driver and I don’t remember what I say. The bridges of Stockholm rise up to the sky and then sink back down to earth. For a moment, right at the crown of the Tranebergsbron bridge, the sky and the earth are one and the same, a oneness of pale grey with no horizon.
Dad is waiting for me outside the doors to the unit. Together, we go to her bedside. She is dressed in the summer dress with the small flowers on it. The sheets are new, white, the duvet pulled up across her chest. Dad is crying, he is crying in a way I have never seen him cry before.
Her forehead is clean, fair and cool. I touch her brow. I touch her hand. They look like her hand and her forehead, but no longer feel like either her hand or her forehead. They are so stone-still and so strange.
Her body is carried away. We are given eight calendar days to clear her room.
She doesn’t remember her direct line number was 08-620-1842.
Of course, it has been a long while since she remembered any telephone number. I pick up the phone and dial the number on the spur of the moment, I was actually going to open my diary to plan which days to visit her at the home and which days I would have off. I don’t give any thought to tapping the numbers in, they are impressed on my fingertips. Telia customer information – this number is not recognised, speaks an automated voice.
When I visit her, she often makes sounds, sighs, grunts, vowels and syllables. But no words anymore. I had hoped her recorded voice message would still be there, that I would get to hear her speak.
This hasn’t been her number for eight years. The place she used to work has now closed down, its premises vacated, the employees scattered all over, and it is highly unlikely that her voice would still be waiting down the other end. I call anyway, trying to call backwards in time.
Later that day, I unload the dishwasher. It is the afternoon and I’m the only one at home. The radio is on. I’m not listening too closely. One sentence jumps out, a single one becomes evident amid the clatter. A woman who says: all I want is for him to come and hug me again.
I stop, dead in my tracks, a plate still in my hand. It is a wish so impossible that I have pushed it away from me. Someone else has to articulate it for me to understand that this is what I long for most of all. I want to have her back. Turned towards me, arms outstretched.
I say it right out there and then: come back. I say it again: come back. I carry on: I miss you. Don’t leave me. Through my streaming snotty tears, I say: I will see you again. The way you were. I just have to.
I grew up without God. What I’m saying relates to heaven. The hope of the afterlife. She liked to tell me about how they put massive tents up, for an audience of hundreds, how they stood right in front of the pulpit, making a noise and speaking in tongues. It had mass appeal, people came from far and wide to listen.
She told me, as an amusing detail from her past, about the celebrity ministers of the Pentecostal church, who would tour the country during her childhood. She told me, in the same way, that once upon a time you would go to school on Saturdays, and were given time off to help with the potato harvest, and that girls were expected to be housewives. What really made her sceptical about all religion and the intentions of religious people was not its spiritual gloss or the speech-like sounds, but the time when Jehovah’s Witnesses called at the white house, where the family were living, to save them, the day after her dad died. Like vultures, she said.
She told me about the money box at Sunday school that took the form of a little African boy in nothing but a loincloth, who bowed when you dropped a coin inside. A symbol of a barbaric time in the past, now cleansed through the shining light of the common good. My parents never had me baptised.
I light candles in church and I don’t dare to ask her to come back. I dare only to ask for her not to suffer. But when Jesus heard it, He answered him, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.’
The hope I lack in this world, I lay beyond this world. The hope that there will be another chamber behind this chamber, a chamber that the living can know nothing about as long as we are living.
Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, ‘Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.’ If that is to be believed. Then I believe now. Her illness has transformed me into someone who places their hope beyond the limit of life. I wasn’t that person before. Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat.
She doesn’t remember wanting nice pictures of herself.
She asked for the number of a photographer who had taken publicity shots of me. This was one of the good years, just before her illness, when she seemed contented with herself.
Throughout the time I was growing up, she was dissatisfied with her appearance, sighing when she looked in the mirror. In the seventies, a doctor prescribed her slimming pills containing amphetamine. She hadn’t gone to the doctor because of her weight, but for reasons that were completely different. She never did collect the pills.
I remember us having a bath when I was a child. Her breasts kind of floated out, like balls of white bun dough, her brown nipples right there in the middle. She told me (a little proudly?) that they ruptured the machine at the maternity wing that was supposed to get the milk flowing so she could breastfeed me.
When I was about nine, I was given an essay to write for homework on the theme of ‘My Family’. It contained the sentence: My Mum is kind and slightly round in shape. She repeated it to friends, laughing. I was a child. I was still to know that shame can be hidden by laughter. I didn’t know that shame over one’s own body is a particularly toxic shame.
In one photograph from the late eighties, she is sitting beside a colleague. Mum often told me about this particular colleague; she was a former beauty queen of some kind. The beauty queen smiles into the camera, the light falling elegantly on her cheekbones and ensemble, bright and perfect. Mum is beside her in a baggy oversized sweater, she is hiding herself inside it, the way she hides in loose-fitting clothes in all photos from back then. She is leaning over a paper plate of food, her hair hanging down.
I think that was how she saw herself: someone who could never compete in the same environment as the beauty queens, and who therefore might just as well give up all but the most elementary of matters when it came to her own appearance.
Her older sister was known locally as a beauty. Being the one who came after a beauty may have had something to do with it. She liked to tell me about those beauties, the beautiful women. Very rarely about the beautiful men. The beautiful women weren’t just interesting, but vulnerable. Often they bore a secret tragedy and their stories ended with an extra something that darkened the image, such as: her husband was such a nasty piece of work, he hit her about.
The stories about the beauty queens were similar to Grandma’s tragic tales about people for whom fortune once smiled, but who had now lost everything. The lives of the beauty queens weren’t actually real. They were like a soap opera, like Falcon Crest, infinitely distant from our own existence.
Her transformation began when she was about to turn sixty. She lost weight. She had her ears pierced. She had her hair tinted. Got a new wardrobe. Maybe she thought this was her last chance? I don’t know, I can only acknowledge the difference with the benefit of hindsight. She wanted it documented. The CD with the pictures the photographer sent her is gone, of course, lost in the confusion of carrier bags.
I email S, the photographer. She replies that she doesn’t recall this job, but promises to get back when she has looked into the matter further. She has photographed thousands of people. Even so, this surprises me. How can S have forgotten my mum? It makes me wonder if the pictures exist at all. Did I ever see them? Or did she just talk about them as something she wanted, but never had done? Has my memory been playing tricks on me?
Then S gets in touch. She has no record of any files, but she has found an email with the pictures that she sent to Mum. She forwards the email to me. Not the best resolution. But there they are. The photos. So much like herself. In her favourite muted colours, red and purple. With her smile, the expression in her eyes.
At the dementia care home they use a sling hoist to lift her out of bed. They haven’t managed to get her to walk any more by herself since her fall, except once after her operation. Not even with support. The hoist is attached to a ceiling track and makes me think of an industrial robot, something that wouldn’t look out of place in car manufacturing. She only manages to sit up in her wheelchair for a few hours a day, at meal times. The staff feed her. But she eats far too little anyway, nurse C tells me. Quietly and gently she tells me this.
I wet Mum’s lips with the large cotton swab when I’m there, just how I’ve learned. I rub her dry forehead with some moisturising skin cream. I make sure to visit her when she isn’t in her wheelchair, I can’t stand seeing her in that. The bed rails are always up. She opens and closes her mouth, but no sounds pass her lips.
At home I show the photos to D and we look at them for a long time. Then I cry and ask, not D, but myself: why didn’t I record her voice? Now that she has stopped speaking altogether and it is too late, is what I find myself asking. Even though she was inevitably heading there, to the expiry of her words, I haven’t been able to imagine that it would actually happen. It would have been easy to ask her to say a few sentences into her phone’s voice recorder.
Does she remember my voice? Does it soothe her when I talk to her in her torpor? Or is it one voice among other voices, uttering words that are incomprehensible to her? Maybe it isn’t that at all, but just a sound, like a fan whirring or water running out of a tap. Anyway, I keep talking to her. Her eyes move behind her eyelids, a narrow chink opens and closes again.
Mum, I’ll be back on Thursday. That is the last thing I say to her before I leave for the day.
She doesn’t remember that the skin on the arm of a dehydrated person returns very slowly to its usual position when you lightly pinch it with your fingers, whereas the skin on the arm of an adequately hydrated person springs back quickly to its normal position after a similar pinch.
She once knew that the life of a person suffering from severe dehydration is in danger if the condition isn’t corrected quickly. I call Dad. It is early December and the daylight has already come and gone. The canal is shining in the dark, and out on Lake Hammarby the small passenger ferry travels back and forth, back and forth with its lights on. Dad and I talk about what to say when nurses and doctors ask us if they should put her on a drip. We feel differently about it. Dad talks about hope, the hope that she will get stronger, eat by herself again, get out of bed and walk. I say that, to me, she is already gone. It is as if another person is shaping those words. They are true and I don’t want to articulate them, so I let someone else do it. Someone to speak with my mouth, my voice. Someone who knows the truth and won’t be intimidated by it.
A long time ago, she said that this was exactly what she was terrified of: becoming unable to communicate, locked-in, someone who can only eat and breathe, no more. She shouldn’t have to live her horror. Dad says: I know you’re right. And I know it’s not enough for him. He sees certain things with her that I don’t see. Eyes that seek his own, sounds that could be words but for me remain only sounds.
When I was with her at the dementia care home earlier in the day, I touched her face. She was beautiful as she breathed. When I put my hand in hers, she squeezed her hand around mine. The care home nurse said it was an automatic response. You can’t be certain there’s any intention behind the movement.
I was speaking to her, yet she didn’t open her eyes. I was so terribly, so completely and utterly tired that I soon fell silent. I thought: the world is impossible without this human being. I thought: she is inscrutable. I thought: she can’t die, not now, not ever. I thought: I can’t let her down now.
She doesn’t remember wearing three rings.
The rings are in a plastic pocket marked ‘K. Brun 3 rings’ in robust, red marker pen. Staff have placed them at the foot of Mum’s ambulance trolley on her way back to the care home from the hospital. Neither Dad nor I thought to take care of the rings when she was admitted. You are not allowed to wear any jewellery during surgery.
Dad thinks we should keep the rings in the medicine cabinet in her room. C, the care home nurse, advises us against it. She explains that too many people have access to the cabinet to risk storing anything precious in there. Who will take care of the rings? A brief, irritated exchange of words ensues between Dad and me. Everything turns into an issue right now, things flare up, go away, flare up again.
I take the rings home. The diamond ring. The engagement ring. The little bird ring from Portugal. The insides of all three rings are black with a greasy, thick layer of stubborn dirt. I clean them with a toothbrush.
She mutters and pulls her hand towards her as I try to slip the engagement ring onto her ring finger the next time I visit her. It takes a long while. I have to start again several times from the beginning, before the ring is finally back where it belongs. The other two rings can stay in the plastic pocket. I can’t face putting both of those back on her.
She doesn’t remember being in hospital.
It is a Sunday and four days after her operation. The nurse from the orthopaedic ward calls half an hour before the ambulance is due to leave to take her back to the care home: Yes, the catheter is out, your mum has had something to eat and they’ve even managed to help her out of bed and got her to walk a few steps. I call Dad straight after this call with the nurse. He is upset, how can they ring us so soon after? He won’t have time get there and accompany her in the ambulance, will I do it?
I’m standing outside the shop with two heavy bags. The ice-cream melts and the frozen green beans start to thaw as we speak. Where am I supposed to put the food if I call a taxi or rush into the metro? I say it’s only an ambulance ride after all, it’s better if it can take her without us, isn’t it? Dad doesn’t think she should travel alone. The atmosphere is tetchy, ungenerous. We agree to meet at the care home.
She is half-asleep. She has a large bruise on her hand near where the drip goes in. We sit with her, I stroke her hair, then Dad strokes her hair. Every now and then her eyes flicker upwards. She has a fluid input and output chart and a schedule of when the nurses are to turn her over. The nurse has noticed the beginnings of pressure sores on her foot.
As I am about to leave, three of the residents have gathered by the door into the unit. The lady who is a head taller than the others says: there he is, the son of the one who lives at the far end, maybe he can help us? The lady in the wheelchair, the one who always knocks on everyone’s door along the corridor, wheels up to me. Can you do the door, can you hold it open for me? she asks. Yes, you have to open it, says the last lady, whose blouse is done up wrongly. I key in the code, feel those three pairs of eyes on the back of my neck, their expectation. Their fragile hands and white hair. The door opens. I turn around, try on a smile, say that I’m sorry I’ve promised not to let anyone out. I close the door behind me and hear the click of the lock. As I wait for the lift, they continue waving and tapping on the glass to alert me once again that they are there.
Above the keypad lock are four numbers, written on a piece of tape. It is the code to open the door. Since you can’t lock people in just because they have dementia, this is the process you have to follow in order to make sure that dementia patients remain in the units they would otherwise wander away from, and never find their way back to, if the doors remained open. None of the three ladies understands how to key in the code any more, even though it is written right there in front of them.
Although I understand what to do to leave the unit, I too am bound to the place. The unit follows me around like a ball and chain with its smell of piss and detergent, no matter how far away I manage to get. Only death can liberate us from it. In that way, we have something in common, the three ladies and I. And Mum.
Hon minns inte
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2021, 344 pages
Foreign rights: the author.
We are grateful to Jonas Brun and Albert Bonniers förlag for permission to publish this translated extract.
Jonas Brun's previous works include collections of poetry and three novels. Brun’s third novel Skuggland (Shadowland) won Swedish Radio Award for Best Novel of the Year in 2013. A review of She Doesn't Remember was published in SBR 2022:1, and a translated extract from his novel Nobody Compared to you was also published in SBR 2019:1-2 (in Andy Turner's translation).
Andy Turner is a literary translator and reviewer. Andy received an MA in Literary Translation from the University of East Anglia in 2017 after more than twenty years as a secondary school teacher in East London, Essex and Suffolk. He was the 2018/19 National Centre for Writing's Emerging Literary Translator in Swedish in a mentorship with Sarah Death.