Upside Down Apple Pie
Copyright 2020 by Marnie Devereux
course, it all
started long before that. It was just that the 'upside down apple
pie' incident was the first time anyone really noticed, apart from
suppose it all
began when an old man dropped dead in Chard High Street. Imagine.
Christmas Eve, 2001. A chilly, grey afternoon. You're out buying your
last minute bits and bobs, admiring the effort the town council have
made with this year's Christmas lights, then suddenly – bang.
Goodnight Vienna, just yards from the greengrocer's and those
nice-looking Brussels sprouts for tomorrow's turkey dinner.
did their best,
the bystanders. CPR, Nellie the Elephant and all that; called the
ambulance. Then realised he was probably dead before he hit the
it's almost dark and he hasn't come home, Mother and I made the sad
journey to Musgrove Park mortuary to identify the body. The body.
Like it had ceased to be mum's best friend; honorary grandfather to
years ago now, and ever so slowly Mother has slipped away too; in by
no means as dramatic a fashion as Don. No, Mother has decided to take
a more circuitous route to oblivion whilst remaining defiantly alive,
and, from time to time, literally, kicking.
funny disease. And by that I don't mean knock, knock jokes and banana
skins. I mean it develops in fits and starts. It cruises along like
an old jalopy, clumsily backfiring on a level road, then
free-wheeling downhill, taking a sudden turn down a bizarre one-way
was little things
at first. The nouns went. Mother, helping to wash up and put away
after Sunday lunch, couldn't recall the word 'spoon'. We laughed it
off as a momentary lapse, never guessing for one moment that the
momentary lapse would grow bigger and bigger for the next fifteen
all treated it
lightly, to begin with. Stories would be repeated, every Sunday
lunchtime. Mother would regale us with tales of how, once the cabbage
was cooked, she would drink the cabbage water because of its
health-giving properties; a story guaranteed to make my children
shudder. Of the time she went to the dentist, and the dentist asked
her to take out her teeth prior to examination, to which she replied
'I'd have a job, they're all my own'. This anecdote was always
accompanied by Mother baring her teeth in a somewhat frightening
fashion, as if to prove the veracity of her statement.
so gradually we
entered the Times of Weirdness. Taking Mother for an eye test,
wondering why she was reading out totally different letters to the
ones on the chart, and then realising she was in fact reading the
words 'FIRE EXIT' above the door opposite. Trying to explain then to
the optician that it wasn't that mum couldn't see the letters on the
chart, but that she couldn't remember what the letters were called.
Having dinner together, and trying to stop Lily from pouring her cup
of tea over her fish and chips because she thought it was gravy,
Thereby ably demonstrating the alternative meaning of the phrase 'out
to lunch'. And the apple pie. Mum's pies and puddings were legendary.
She was a real pastry princess, a queen of puddings. I only have to
utter the magical phrase 'chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce' for
my brother and I to start drooling. So when one Sunday she somewhat
apologetically brought our family of five an apple pie with no pastry
and consisting of one lonely apple in a dish, saying that she
'couldn't remember what to do', I knew something was seriously wrong.
stories became muddled. Fictions were introduced as fact, so that her
early war years taking her youngest sister for walks in her pram
became tales of how she looked after children in London during the
war, when in fact she was a land-girl in the foreign country of rural
then there were
the times when I really couldn't be sure what was real any more.
Common enough, I suppose, when someone tells you something with such
confidence in their own recollection.
was different. I have vague memories of Mother telling me this one
when I was a teenager, and the circumstances are particularly tragic.
Two Boys Drowning
upon a time,
many years ago, a little girl went to stay with her grandparents on
the Kent marshes. It was the summer holidays, and the weather was
hot. Lily, for that was the little girl's name, wandered down the
dusty lane where she met a boy from the village. He was a few years
older than her, but they passed the time of day and decided to go for
a swim in the river.
knew she wasn't
really allowed to take the path through the gate, but it was a
shortcut and she was with a big boy, so she thought her grandparents
into the river, Lily squealing with delight at the sharp coldness of
the water. But Lily was a strong swimmer, and soon she and the boy
were far out from shore. She wasn't sure what happened next, but the
boy was suddenly caught up in the tide, and was carried downstream.
He shouted for help, but Lily knew that if she followed, she would be
swept away too. So, terrified, she headed for the shore.
for breath she looked back at the fast-flowing river. The boy had
disappeared. Lily searched desperately around for a grown-up, but
they were all out working in the fields far away. She raced back to
her grandparents' cottage and hammered on the door, but no-one was
there. Later, when the grown-ups returned, she was too frightened to
say anything, convinced she would get into trouble and be told off
for breaking the rules and going through the gate. The summer ended,
and Lily went back home to her parents. She had told no-one about the
her teenage daughter's boyfriend drowns in another tragic accident.
All that Lily can say is 'Why didn't God take me instead?' Her
distraught reaction to the event is noticeably extreme; her
daughter, struggling to cope with her own grief, finds her mother's
reaction strange and overwhelming. Even at the funeral, instead of
being allowed to mourn, she is instructed to look after her mother.
boy lost in the
river was never mentioned again, until Lily was an old, old lady and
no-one could be certain if the story was true or an invention of old
age and confusion.
March 2015. My turn to visit Mother this week coincides with Mothers
Day eve. On our fortnightly visit to Asda for lunch, mum remarked
that she should be with Colin. 'After all' she said 'I'm Lily, and
he's Colin. I should be with him. I don't know why he wants to live
somewhere else'. My brother Colin is 64 years old, and left home in
1969. It's a strange world, Alzheimer's, as I have observed on many
occasions. Mother is vaguely aware that Colin is her son, but she
thinks of him more as her husband.
do a quick recce
of the house in case of urgent cleaning up requirements, but there is
nothing that can't wait until we get home. My brother, of course, is
still to some extent in denial that mum even has 'toileting issues'.
When I rang him to report the impressive cow-pat which mysteriously
appeared in the conservatory two weeks ago, heralding the onset of
Mother's double incontinence, he asked if an animal could have
wandered in and done it. 'What? I exclaimed 'And neatly closed the
French windows on its way out?!!' Even he had to admit that was a bit
of wishful thinking.
the supermarket I
park mother with the Asda security guard while I fetch a trolley from
outside. I feel a fleeting moment of guilt at leaving her for 30
seconds, but it's easier than trying to negotiate our way out
together and fight our way back inside again. Fortunately when I
return she is still where I left her, and the security guard confirms
that yes, indeed, she had been causing all sorts of havoc while I was
gone. Mother finds this hilarious. It's lovely to see her laugh. She
has the same fits of giggles as she did thirty years ago. That, at
least has not altered.
the weeks prior
we have played memory games in the supermarket. We don't play 'Name
that vegetable' today. Or sing 'Oranges and Lemons'. In four weeks,
she has completely forgotten 'carrot' and singing is another skill
that has been unlearned. Instead we wander around, with Mother
precariously in charge of steering the shopping trolley, and coo over
the baby clothes like expectant mothers. I help her feel the fabric;
the lace, velvet, fur and netting. We talk about how uplifting it is
to see bright colours, and small children. We admire the little
girl's dresses hanging on display. I say 'Of course, I never had a
little girl to dress up'. 'Neither did I' she replies. It's as if the
child that I was had never existed, which I suppose is what she
wished for my entire childhood. I'm OK with that; and yet it's sad
for us both at the same time.
make the mistake
of suggesting she tries on a pair of slippers. She clings on to the
shopping trolley like a shipwrecked sailor to flotsam. Try as I
might, she cannot negotiate letting loose her hold or sitting on the
stool provided in the shoe department, and I can see that she's
getting frightened and tearful at this new impossibility. I abandon
the project before she gets too upset, and we go back to the baby
clothes aisle to cheer ourselves up.
I take her
home, she sits, mesmerised by the Six Nations rugby on TV while I do
a quick clean-up of the bathroom. When I reappear five minutes later,
she has forgotten I'm in the house. We have reached, I think,
goldfish moments. I leave her Mothers Day card unopened on the table.
Perhaps the early evening carer will help her open it. Mother won't
know who it's from.
the UK suffer from dementia. Add to this the family, friends and
carers who also share the effects of the condition, and that's a lot
of shared collective senior moments. It's the equivalent of the whole
of Norfolk living in a continuous state of Goldfish Moments. Swimming
endlessly around and around their East Anglian goldfish bowl, every
thirty seconds discovering something new.
a copy and paste error. That last paragraph lasted exactly thirty
seconds. And then repeated itself as if it was a new thought. It's
not long, is it? How very strange, to the observer, to realise
that, from literally one moment to the next, the connections between
those nerve cells have been lost and the moment has not only passed
but been deleted from the memory. It must be exhausting to
experience. Imagine climbing Mount Everest, over and over again. The
mind-numbing hit of that view from the top, knowing with absolute
certainty that it's a vista you have never seen before. How
emotionally tiring that is. Then imagine experiencing that, all day
every day, roughly every thirty seconds. And that's without adding
the effects, more often than not, of extreme old age. My mother is
94, and every thirty seconds she climbs Mount Everest, and takes in
that mind-blowing view.
what I have written, it shocks me that these events happened as
recently as six weeks ago. Lily's decline increased so rapidly, and
once Alzheimer's had taken away all those things she had once
cognitively learned, Alzheimer's then deprived her of all those
innate skills – speech, movement, eating, drinking and,
we could no
longer nourish her body, we knew we were reaching the end. Moved to a
specialist Dementia care home, Mother's lucid moments were few. We
had a momentary breakthrough with a home-made memory book, pictures
of family and pets. Five days later, she was an empty shell. I make
what I know will be the final trip down to Exeter to see her. Her
elderly siblings have visited, said their goodbyes. My brother cannot
bear to stay any longer. He drives our aunts to the railway station
while I sit with mum in this anonymous room, a room for transient
strangers, just passing through.
has left a
radio, loudly tuned to the local radio station. I suppose they didn't
want mother to feel alone, but to me it seems brash, intrusive,
impersonal. I turn the radio off, and sit beside my mother. The
nurses have dressed her in amethyst blue, matching her eyes. She is
lying on her back, eyes half-closed, breathing heavily. Her hair is
brushed back, revealing a high forehead. Her face has a suntanned
pallor, her cheekbones standing out from shrunken skin. In profile,
she resembles an Egyptian queen awaiting burial. She is quite
have brought a
book with me. Alice in Wonderland. Mother's world has been irrational
for so long I decide the story would make as much sense to her as
anything else, so I read aloud, so she can hear the sound of her
child's voice, even if she is incapable of understanding the words.
When I reach page 9, I falter. Alice is about to drink from the
little glass bottle, and eat the magic cake. My mother has not eaten
or drunk for ten days. Her body has starved itself to death. Even the
cancer which had slowly spread across her face has disappeared
entirely in the past 24 hours, as if knowing that it has leached all
the nourishment it is going to get from this frail old body. My voice
breaks. I want my mum to drink from the little glass bottle. To eat
some magic cake that will make her all better. To bring back my mum
who in reality disappeared fifteen years ago.
take a break from
reading, and sing to my mum instead. An old song, from when she was
young. Whether it was the effect of my singing or just bad timing,
mum begins to moan in pain. I stop with the singing. The nurse comes
in, and we agree it is time for morphine. I ask the nurse to call my
brother, to tell him to get his ass back here or he'll regret it for
nurses arrive, bringing death with them in a hypodermic. They are
kind, and practical. They encourage me to hold mum's hand, to talk to
her, to get close. I despise what they are doing, and yet at the same
time I am grateful to them for easing the pain. Mum's and mine. After
the nurses are gone, my brother arrives. We wait, and time stands
still. Mum's breaths grow further apart; the silences increasing.
Just when we think it's over, she breathes again. Then, nothing.
'She's gone' my brother says. Mum's eyes are empty, staring into
nothing. I try to close her eyelids. Mum breathes again and we jump,
have a sudden, inappropriate fit of the giggles, hoping mum couldn't
hear us killing her off five minutes early. Moments later, Lily dies,
held close in my brother's arms.
dead always seem
so wise to me. The friends I lost when young seemed in death wise
beyond their years. So too Lily had transcended those Goldfish
Moments and in her passing seemed to recognise better than all of us,
the mysteries of making that transition. I hope that for Lily there
were moments of clarity in those last hours; to hear the music, see
our faces and imagine following Alice, tumbling headlong, into
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Story list and biography for Marnie
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher