from Writing Over Your Face
by Anna-Karin Palm
Translated by Anna McGroarty
On 10 June 2021, critically acclaimed authors Anna-Karin Palm and Elisabeth Åsbrink joined Swedish Book Review to discuss their latest projects, the role of memory and cultural memory in their work, and the intersections of fiction and narrative non-fiction.
In connection with this event, we are delighted to present an excerpt from Anna-Karin Palm's Writing Over Your Face, translated by Anna McGroarty. Charting her mother's gradual disappearance into Alzheimer's disease, the book is a searing portrait of a life and a family, and of the various narratives that shape us.
You can view a recording of the event here.
You can also read an excerpt from Elisabeth Åsbrink's Abandonment here.
from Writing Over Your Face
You ask: Who’s your mother again?
I answer: But, that’s you. You’re my mother.
This is the moment. This is when it happens. For the first time.
Soon you’ll disappear from us.
It begins stealthily, almost imperceptibly, of course. It’s always been your biggest fear, going gaga as you’d say, and for more than twenty years you’ve been saying, in that sombre, serious voice, how scatty and forgetful you’ve become. And our job then is to respond breezily yet sympathetically, saying things like: oh, that’s nothing to worry about, that happens to everyone, I forget things all the time! Names of artists, film titles, appointments. What’s her name again, the one in that movie you know, by that director who ... Oh gosh, is that the time? Breathless and headless. Like when you stride into the kitchen purposefully only to find yourself standing there without a clue what you came to do. Get something? Eat something? Do something? You laugh heartily at my stories of how absent-minded I am. Perhaps you feel relieved. In the end, it’s your language that makes me realise that there’s something more serious going on. You start losing words. And not the names of old movie stars or complicated medical terms, either, but ordinary, everyday words. I can pinpoint exactly when I began to worry; we were talking on the phone and you were telling me what a lovely dinner you’d had, so naturally I asked what you’d eaten. Pasta, you said, and a sauce with ... with ... you know, that green stuff. That green, knobbly thing ... Broccoli? I asked. That’s it! You said. What really concerned me was that you didn’t comment on it at all. No grave voice bemoaning how doddery you’d become. It was as if you didn’t want to acknowledge it even. Broccoli.
Summer comes, and it becomes impossible to ignore it any longer. We’re in Hälsingland; my family and I in the house we’ve taken over from you, you and Father in the little cabin a few miles away, across the forest. We see each other much more frequently than we usually do in the city, and suddenly we all realise just how much Father has been covering for you. How he’s kept things chugging along to avoid change and distress. Perhaps also to not have to face what’s really happening. Suddenly it’s obvious that something really isn’t right. You can ask about things we’ve just spoken about and not remember that I already answered. You can ask the same question over and over, perhaps every fifteen minutes. You’re losing more and more words, sometimes to the extent that it’s hard to understand what you’re trying to say. It becomes a muddle, a word soup with no rhyme or reason. Sometimes your speech is almost slurred. You can hear yourself getting mixed up, but you rarely comment on it. Instead, you become quieter than normal, and pick up a habit of whistling at the table when you can’t find your way into the conversation. You fix me with an intense look and whistle through beautifully puckered lips, happy old melodies. You’re good at whistling, can carry a tune, but your meaningful gaze makes me uneasy. I don’t know how to meet it.
This is also the summer that you start wearing the cloth hat all the time. You want to keep it on indoors too, even when we’re eating. It’s a nice hat that you made yourself from remnants in a style that was popular in the ’70s. It has a wide, soft brim that you fold up so that it sits jauntily over one eye. The cleverest thing about the hat is that it has a hole in the back; a carefully hemmed opening that you can pull your long ponytail through. You’re mighty proud of this innovative feature and keen to show it off to everyone. The satisfied and somewhat impish look on your face as you angle the brim makes my heart contract slightly. You feel beautiful, creative, and talented – it’s plain to see. All this tenderness all of a sudden, I don’t know what to do with it. I’m not used to the feeling, not when it comes to you. When I ask if you’d like to take the hat off when we’re eating you answer, gravely, that the doctor told you that it’s good to cover your head, for protection. You explain that your brain was damaged many years ago, when you turned fifty. You had a big party here in the country and your siblings tossed you into the air so enthusiastically that you hit your head on one of the ceiling beams. That’s why, you say, looking me square in the eye, words elude you sometimes. And the hat helps. Your white ponytail swings as you nod emphatically.
That long, white tendril of hair ... tapering into a few straggly, almost yellow, strands at the bottom. You hardly ever cut your hair (you’ve been cutting your own for as long as I can remember). You were always so proud of it; thick and so dark that it was almost black, with slight auburn reflections brought out by the sunlight. When you were young, they used to tell you that you looked like Elizabeth Taylor (one of many famous beauties that you were likened to). When I was little you had short hair, but I know that mainly from looking at photographs. In my memories your hair is always long. It reached your waist when loose but you always wore it in a braid (on festive occasions: a cascading ponytail or a voluminous, low chignon). The centre parting, the hair softly framing your face and then the braid, braided to one side and resting over your shoulder. No other mum had a side braid. It made you seem exotic, like a Native American woman. You made many of your own clothes too; original and daring designs (I especially remember a pair of fitted terrycloth overalls in a statement floral pattern that hugged your curves and had a zip on the front) in bold colours and unexpected cuts. You stood out, attracted attention, and you wore both your creations and the looks you received well. All of this comes back to me as I watch you pull your thin, white hair through the hole in the hat.
There are doctor’s appointments, assessments and – finally – a diagnosis. This is serious business. Alzheimer’s disease. The first three times that you ask what the doctor said we tell you the truth, but we quickly realise that we can’t continue doing so. You’re crushed, distraught, and just as shocked and shaken every time. The truth won’t cut it here. Paired with your forgetfulness, it becomes a jarring cruelty; each time we tell you, it’s as if you’re receiving the news for the very first time. Each time it’s just as wounding, distressing, and awful. We stop answering and begin dodging, euphemising, and trivialising. It doesn’t take long for you to stop asking. It’s a mercy of sorts; almost the first thing to be completely erased from your mind and consciousness is the knowledge that there’s something wrong with you. As soon as you’ve forgotten this you become much happier and calmer. It’s as if there were some sort of odd logic at play here, in forgetting the worst thing first.
Alzheimer’s disease. I google and read: ‘At birth there are approximately 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain. In a person with Alzheimer’s disease, nearly 90 per cent of all these nerve cells die.’ Educational images show the nerve cells, or neurons, in the cerebral cortex; the nucleus is a small, green dot, the thread-like structures surrounding it are called dendrites and resemble some sort of sparse tooth mushroom. Then there’s a yellow chain called the axon which forms a bridge to the synapses. These too are shown in purple, but thinner and more sprawling than the dendrites. They make me think of seaweed. The synapses transmit impulses that instigate thought, action, and reaction from nerve cell to nerve cell in the space of milliseconds. The entire process is regulated by various neurotransmitters. (But what about feeling? There’s no mention of emotions here. Those that cannot be traced back to purely physical sensations like pain, itching, hunger, or desire. What about all those other complex feelings that are so entwined with our personalities? What happens to them?) Alzheimer’s disease causes plaques to form in the spaces between the neurons, usually starting in the hippocampus before spreading throughout the brain. The plaques consist mainly of a protein, beta-amyloid, which is also found in healthy brains. (Does it start growing rampantly? Why?) The other change associated with Alzheimer’s is the formation of so-called tangles, or fibrils. These are small, fibrous structures that form within the cell bodies themselves, hindering the transport of nutrients. These changes – plaques and tangles – block the neurons’ communication pathways, increasingly obstructing the transmission of impulses between different parts of the brain. With time, these changes become widespread, and more and more brain cells wither and die. I read on: The role played by plaques and tangles in Alzheimer’s disease remains unclear. Apparently, plaques can also be found in great numbers in the brains of elderly persons who don’t suffer from any form of dementia whatsoever. The disease progresses slowly over the course of four to ten years, sometimes more. It almost always manifests itself in those over the age of sixty-five and accounts for sixty per cent of all cases of dementia in Sweden. It’s hereditary to an extent, but lifestyle may play a role too. (Reading between the lines: we really don’t know why some people get Alzheimer’s.) ‘Research into Alzheimer’s is ongoing but there is currently no cure for the disease which eventually causes death.’
This all describes roughly what is happening inside your brain. It tells me nothing at all about what is happening inside you.
You’re actually happier now, most of the time at least. You often say: Oh, I’m so lucky! It’s as if the disease has smoothed out your edges, allowed you to forget all anxieties and worries. Your need to be in control has vanished too. You’re happy to let us take charge now and you do our bidding willingly. Get dressed, we’re going out! Come on, let’s eat. Why don’t you rest for a bit? I figure it’s about trust, that you know deep down that you can trust us. At last, you know this. You’re as innocent as a child and just as vulnerable. They used to refer to this state as the second childhood, and I can see why. You become giggly and giddy, like a young girl. When we’re out you want to stop to pet all the dogs, chatting happily with everyone we meet. The real test to my patience is having to walk so incredibly slowly. You take a few steps then stop. There’s so much to look at and marvel over. My body almost aches. I don’t know how to take such small steps. I remember walks with my daughter when she was little, when the whole world was full of wonder and there was adventure in every detail. But she never walked this slowly, not even back then.
All these things. There’s a thin film of dust on everything: ornaments, paintings, magazine stacks, piles of paperwork, old clothes. Your button collection, the fabrics, the yarns, the oil paints. They weigh me down, all these things, like a cloying depression. You were always able to tell the story of each individual item (very few things in this house were acquired recently); who gave you the glass bowl, who wove the rag rug, who left you the chest of drawers, who wore the ’40s dress. The things are a part of your life’s story. If you no longer remember where they came from or who gave them to you, then surely, they’re nothing but ballast now? Cluttering up every corner of the large room where you used to paint, sew, write. A bunch of inanimate objects stripped of memories. We should have a clear out, I think, throw most of it away. (You never want to throw anything away – it has got worse). Or perhaps there’s a fragment of memory hidden somewhere, in one of these things. I hold up a faded pink polyester dress with a pleated skirt and bows, a little girl’s princess costume. Maybe I wore it when I was flower girl at my aunt’s wedding? I can’t remember. Your face lights up when you see the dress: Oh, that! I don’t know what it is you remember, or indeed if you remember anything at all. Later you end up sitting for a long time, holding a trivet made from braided raffia in the shape of a flower, a tulip maybe? Your slender, brown-spotted fingers trace the coloured lines, your eyes alert and sharp. Do you see? You ask. Do you see how beautiful it is? I don’t see. I’ve almost never been able to see the world the way you do, not even before the illness. I’ve tried, I really have. It hasn’t got easier, or actually maybe it has. I don’t get annoyed anymore. It’s impossible to get annoyed with you. Exhausted, maybe, but not annoyed, snappy, or cross. The relief! I can shrug off the full, chafing weight of that feeling. I’ve worn it out. The tenderness that fills me as I watch you admire the old trivet is vast and almost mild.
Jag skriver över ditt ansikte
Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2021
Foreign rights: Johanna Lindborg, Bonnier Rights
We are grateful to the agent for permission to publish this translated extract.
Anna-Karin Palm debuted as an author in 1991, with the novel The Faun. The Painter’s Daughters, her international breakthrough, was translated into eight languages. Her authorship spans fiction, short fiction, essays and non-fiction, and her celebrated biography Selma Lagerlöf: I Want to Set the World in Motion, was nominated for the 2019 August Prize.
Anna McGroarty is a translator working from Swedish to English. She is based in the UK.