“O Allah, I seek your protection from miserliness, I seek your protection from cowardice, and I seek your protection from being returned to feeble old age…” (Al-Bukhari)
There was something about her that distinguished her from the other inhabitants at the old people’s home. Mama Rumaitha, as her caretakers fondly call her, has been a resident there for a couple of years. The signs of age both conceal and confirm the strong, regal and beautiful woman she once was. Dressed immaculately in all white with a linen shawl wrapped around her hair, she sits on her wheel chair away from others in dignified silence. Like the majority of the occupants at the elderly care centre, she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease*.
The nurses informed us that she had been a school principal all her life. Her son, a resident doctor at the centre, had placed her in this home to ensure better care for her. As we talked, or tried to communicate with her, many thoughts crossed my mind and lingered long after the visit was over.
I imagined her as the strong person of authority and control she once must have been. She was not only responsible for her own decisions, but was in charge of the future of thousands of children. How analytical and sharp her mind must have been, I marvelled. Today, due to the progression of her disease, as the nerve cells in the brain degenerate, resulting in impaired thinking, impassive behavior, and fading memory, decisions are made for her.
I pictured her standing before hundreds of students every morning at assembly time, addressing them about school rules and activities. Today, she struggles to verbalise replies to our simple questions. Her tongue does not support her. I could see her wrestling with herself, as if she was trapped within her restrictive body and disappointed at her rebellious mind. Her eyes moistened – in helplessness I believe – trying to form the words, realising the futility of her efforts.
It is said that the eyes can communicate more than words. Once probably blue-grey, today their colour is cloudy with age. There were brief moments when she stared at us as if she knew us – perhaps mistaking us for her students or her family. And at other times, her eyes expressed the chaos inside – the result of her mind mixing memories of the distant past with the images of the present. Still, there were moments when she looked blank – as if there was emptiness behind those eyes, offering dark-nothingness to the gazers.
However, between those moments of confusion, for a fleeting second or two, her eyes shone with clarity and revealed a glimpse of the real her. ‘Yes,’ her eyes told me, “what you see in front of you is not Rumaitha. This is not the person even I recognise. I was once a presence of vitality, control, and intelligence. I am helpless, trapped, and dependent today. But this is not me…”
We left when it was time for her meal, knowing full well that she would not recognise us on a future visit.
Do we know where we are heading? Did Mama Rumaitha ever imagine herself in this state while she was young and active? Do we take pride in our knowledge, intelligence, or sharpness of mind? How much control do we have over our own mind and body? Who is the ONE with control?
“O Allah, I seek your protection from being returned to feeble old age.”
* Alzheimer’s disease – a degenerative condition of the mind – affects one in eight persons over 65 and nearly half of those over 85. A small percentage of people as young as their 30s and 40s also get the disease.
Huma Imam is a Dubai based writer.