I wrote this post on 17 Nov 2010. It is deeply personal and involves two periods in my life: one that was difficult and one full of hope. A lot has changed since then: Drake has died of his disease; I am back in the UK; My life has moved on in radical ways; My children are almost grown. But there is a lot in it I think worth remembering.
I haven’t written in a while–I know this is fairly self-evident and stating the obvious is not always the best approach in writing–but, I have not written because I am in the midst of everyday life in the UK and I am once again doing all the things I already wrote about as I anticipate moving more definitely to Hong Kong. I have been in the UK now since September working at the University for one last semester before I go on leave of absence. I briefly visited Hong Kong in October for Simon’s birthday, but that was literally a flying visit sandwiched between a visit to my best friend from forever (Merry) in the Netherlands, where she has been for the last year, and a trip to Brussels to do some work for the European Commission–grant reviewing, nothing glamourous. Mostly though I have been in Sheffield and I have been doing what I do in Sheffield, which is largely teach or mark papers. More recently though I have been planning for the end of the term and all the things I must organise in order to more fully close down life in the UK–sell the car, rent the flat, arrive at a more permanent solution for the storage, which also involves relocating my personal stuff from the flat and my office to either the storage or working out how to ship my things cheaply across the globe. Besides all this worry, I have also broken a tooth–but I will solve that problem when I get to the other side. I’ve also been worried about what the kids have been up to, or not up to. But I have written about all this kind of thing before and it gets boring upon repetition.
What has inspired me to write is an e-mail that my mum forwarded to me from my step-sister Jennie. Jennie’s father, my step-father, Drake is married to my mother. They got married when I was in my mid 20’s. Jennie was just a little girl then (about 4). She lived with her mother and I, most of the time, lived with myself, or Adrian, while she was growing up. I was an adult and she was a child and I don’t really know her all that well, but we have a family connection through Drake. Sadly, Drake no longer realises this as he has Alzheimer’s disease. Ironically, it is our memories of him that unite us and link us together even when those memories are not shared memories. They locate us in relation to him. It is an important and powerful force. It is these memories that was the subject of Jennie’s email.
One of the ways that we demonstrate our connections to others is through gifts. Anthropologists have long argued the importance of gifts in cementing and thickening social bonds. They help to ground memories and act as surrogates for us in our absence (which is partially why it is difficult to rid ourselves of gifts that people give us). One can tell when the effort has been made to give something someone wants and that will be emotionally useful to them (and money can fit this bill as a suitable gift as the event around spending it on something one wants can hold great pleasure, which may in turn also materialise itself into some object that triggers memory). One of the problems with being related to someone with Alzheimer’s is that gift giving is difficult, because people with Alzheimer’s are not able to recognise the objective usefulness of objects, nor are they able to form memories around the object and link those memories to past memories of the giver. If you know that the person receiving your gift is not also receiving that bit of you it seems a wasted act. Gifts need memory. But if you give nothing, then the bond seems weakened and by association, the connections we have with others though that person also seem to weaken. They move farther away from us in existential time and space.
The solution is not to give nothing, but to find something that may spark meaning for the Alzheimer’s patient, but if not that, then help to make more solid the memories that help link that person to others in the network and in a Heideggarian way make him present in the world. This is what Jennie’s wants. For Christmas she plans to give her dad a book of photographs–not a lot of words as words are difficult for Drake–but photographs that illustrate his connections to other people throughout his life. She wants something that he and others can look at and remember–even for a moment–even if for Drake it becomes a new, fleeting memory. A book that documents his time and extends the dimensions of his being in the world. It is a lovely gift to give as it also affords Drake an opportunity today to be a node around which connections are reformed through the making of this book. In a sense it enables our own being in the world as well.
I have begun to think what I would contribute. Because I was an adult when Mom and Drake married and because I have spent most of their married life living a long way away from them, my personal memories are limited. Those I do have, however, are sharply focused in my mind as they correspond to a time when I lived with them because I had cancer. I was 27. They had just moved to Seattle and I joined them. They did not even have a place to live yet, so we stayed with another relative for a while until we found a flat in the suburbs that was partly below ground and looked out–eye-level–onto a car park. The bus service was limited and I had no car, so I felt stranded and alone. It was a grim time, but all of us knew this was a temporary arrangement. I think this might be an important distinction between the working and middle classes–the belief that there are resources that can be mobilised to move out of bad situations. Drake took me to Chemo at the Hospital and he stayed with me. Sometimes after check-ups he would go with me to the brewpub in the University District and we would have a beer. It tasted wonderful. It enabled some social and everyday aspect to my life, which was dominated at that time by tumours and doctors and drugs that made me hallucinate or stay awake all night or feel weak or vomit or sleep. I don’t have photo’s of that time, so I think my first picture would be of a beer.
My second photo would be of a computer. When I finished Chemo I moved out of the flat that I shared with Mum and Drake, eventually to a small studio apartment, which also looked out onto a brick wall. I loved the flat anyway because it signalled a reentry into the world. I was poor, but I was also working at a restaurant to pay the rent and I was working on finishing my Master’s thesis. Drake gave me a computer. I spent many hours in my small apartment with my cat working on constructing some sort of narrative around industrial decline and employment restructuring in the American midwest. The thesis may not have had an intellectual impact on anyone, but without it, I could not have gone further. The prospect of finishing the degree enabled that hope than makes present circumstances bearable–that signals this moment is a stage, not the rest of one’s life. Drakes computer was the key to that hope.
My final photo would be a whale. Around the same time that I started seeing Adrian, Drake started a job at a recording company that was located on San Juan Island. One of the characteristics of the island is the fact that killer whales swim very near the shore. Drake lived in a lovely house on the island and would either commute back to the house that he and my mum lived in (they moved out of the horrible flat) or my mum would join him there. One visit that Adrian made to Seattle, early in our relationship involved a trip to the Island to visit. It was a lovely time–such a stark contrast to the previous years of difficulty–and we went whale watching.
Gifts matter because they enable giving and receiving, which are practices that must be repeated to facilitate our social selves. The thing is, the gift needs to be emotionally useful. So perhaps if you searching to give someone who has everything a gift, perhaps something small and personal (not necessarily expensive), that will, if they are very lucky, trigger those memories of a life once lived. Then, with what you have left make a donation in their name to the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org) or the Alzheimer’s research trust (http://www.alzheimers-research.org.uk/) or some other similar organisation. And if you don’t have someone to give for, then give for Drake.