The first time I lost my way, I was seven. It was December and, hand in hand, my younger brother and I were walking towards our grandfather’s house. We had missed seeing the slippery sheen of his ageing skin, hearing the ancient richness of his husky voice, smelling the scent of snuff he teased us to try but which we declined, and tasting the peppery wonder of the fresh-fish soup always served in his house. So, garbed in shorts and t-shirts and dripping with city-ness, we strolled to our grandfather’s house.
The previous year, when we returned for the Christmas holiday, I did not need anyone to guide us to his place. Because of this, because it was only a 15-minute walk from our house, and because the times were safe and children did not get snatched from the streets, when my mother asked if we could go alone and I said yes, she trusted me.
As we walked under the burn of early afternoon light, the path before us yawned like a famished mouth, void of human presence. It was just us and the scorching sun and our shadows trailing behind us. The leaves in the trees and the clouds loomed overhead. Birds called from faraway. A strangeness overtook the hungry road.
I turned and nothing looked familiar. The confusion in my eyes climbed into my brother’s eyes. Panic seized him and he began to cry. Unsure of what to do, I joined him. Crying, we walked down the road, my eyes darting about, searching for a familiar post or a familiar face.
And then, from a bend, a stranger – a dark-skinned man with a face I no longer remember – came into view. He was riding a Whitehorse bicycle, the squeaks from his sprockets punctuating the eeriness of the afternoon. He recognised us and stopped. He called us by our mother’s name and asked where we were going. I told him. He said we were headed the wrong way. Then he gestured, inviting us aboard. We wiped our tears and, with his assistance, straddled his bicycle, clutching at the stranger’s sides. With the bicycle squeaking and the wind lapping our faces in waves, he paddled us to our grandfather’s house.
My grandfather was seventy-nine when he died. But before then, in the last years, he lost his mind, and with it went his memories.
At first, he forgot names, faces, events, which he, however, recalled when explained elaborately to him. On some days, my father would engage him in conversations. “How are you feeling today?” my father would ask, to which my grandfather would respond that he was feeling better. But this was not true because we could see his voice losing its allure, his skin turning paler, his eyes darkening, losing their glimmer.
Preparing for my grandfather’s demise, my father began to ask, “Is there anybody you owe money to, any debtor or creditor we should know of?” And my grandfather, reaching into the maze of his fuzzy mind, pulled out the data he could find and fed them to my father. They continued that way until the essentials were sorted.
Some months later, the eclipse became total: nothing from my grandfather’s life was familiar, and he became a stranger to his past. The reintroductions by friends and family members befuddled him. The fond tales told to rejuvenate his mind plunged him into more confusion. He lost the language to name things, and when he attempted to, he stuttered, on the fringe of reaching for the right word but never crossing the line. The only things he knew were things happening in the now. He could neither remember my face nor my name. All the times I shared with him became memories only I could hold. As a child, I had no idea what happened to him. And when I asked, the adults around told me he was going through old people’s sickness. The sickness, however, was not named. Only later, in my late teens, did I learn about dementia and the unfair hand it dealt the old.
In addition to a loss of memory, dementia could also induce a loss of language and a decline in general cognitive functions that impair the daily performance of the affected. Often, after being diagnosed with it, the patient could have as little as three years to live. Nerve cells in the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for memory formation and cell production, suddenly begin to die. This damage spreads until the patient’s mind is entirely consumed. It sometimes affects the patient’s motor functions too, making the person a stranger to everything they learned growing up, such as accrued personality traits, the act of walking, riding a bicycle, and so on – as though the reel of one’s life was being rewound to the moment they were born, a clean, blank slate, empty of experience. It is to be lost in place, time, and self.
The adjective ‘lost’ comes from the Proto-Indo-European word leu, which means to loosen, to untie, or to separate. One can be lost in time, in place, in self, or in all three. In whichever form, being lost begins from a separation from some knowledge one needs. To be lost in place is to lack knowledge of the geographical direction with which to navigate oneself, and this form of being lost seems, to me, to be the easier one: firstly, it can be a shared experience, and secondly, a kind stranger or Google Maps can be of help. But to be lost in self, I consider the worst because it is an isolating experience – so isolating it seems like death. To be lost in self is to be separated from one’s memories, from everything that makes one uniquely oneself.
In Florian Zeller’s 2020 psychological drama The Father, Anthony, an octogenarian, played by Anthony Hopkins, lived through the advanced stages of dementia. His daughter Anne, played by Olivia Colman, moved him to her flat so she could provide him with better care. But every day, Anthony woke up still thinking he was in his house. He moved about but did not remember moving. His recent memories were corrupted by hallucinations. The boundary between what was real and what was imagined became blurred.
Living in a state of continuous disorientation, past, present, and imagined time collapsed into a single experience for Anthony. Things that happened many years ago seemed, to him, like yesterday’s event, and recent events seemed like occurrences from his distant past. He remembered his long-dead daughter as if she merely went away, travelling the world, as if, just some months ago, they spent time together. He developed an obsession with his watch, which he lost often, not by careless misplacement but by a failure to remember where it was safely kept. He seemed, also, to be obsessed with keeping track of time – time, in which he was continuously lost.
In the last sequence of the film, Anthony rose from his bed and flung open his windows to a view of a park. Outside, the day was bright. Myriads of tree leaves scribbled against the sky. A nurse walked into Anthony’s room, his medication in her hand. After a brief exchange with her, he realised he was in an institution for old people who needed care. He had been there for weeks now, weeks he could not recall. His daughter had kept him in their care when the capacity to look after him grew beyond her, but he could not remember when this happened. He stood, confused, and his loose-fitting t-shirt matching the grey of his hair shook with his shoulders as he began to sob.
He said to the nurse that he needed his mother, and then he cried louder. “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves,” he told the nurse, “the branches and the wind and the rain,” he said, incoherent as a toddler still working through the rigours of language construction. “I don’t know what’s happening anymore. Do you know what’s happening?” he asked her, his eyes misted, his face collapsed into a whimper, and his hands fisted and held up to his chest.
In that moment, he seemed as disoriented as a little boy who lost his way, crying and holding onto his brother’s hand, struggling but failing to identify the road that led to their grandfather’s house.
About the Author
Zenas Ubere is a Nigerian writer and editor. A Pushcart Prize nominee, his writings appear in Lolwe, The Forge Lit, Agbowó, Gordon Square Review, The Voyage Journal, and elsewhere. He is the coordinator of Lolwe Classes, an editor at Africa in Dialogue, and a participant in the SBMEN-Goethe Institut Arts Writing and Criticism Workshop.
*Featured image by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash