My Mum Was Just Like Iris Murdoch!

Posted on November 18, 2009

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Iris Murdoch had Alzheimer’s Disease. My mum did too. And the strange thing is, it was around the same time. 1995-96. Iris died in 1999, mum in 2001. Iris was 70 odd, mum was 49.

“Iris” is a beautiful film. I have never read any of Iris Murdoch’s books. I think I am too daft for them. But the bits in the movie were lucid. Simple. Even for idiots like me. I watched the film for the first time today, though it released in 2001. I knew I couldn’t handle it. And today I realised, I still can’t. The movie is 1 hr and 27 minutes long, I bawled through it, without pausing for a single minute.

As I saw a woman of Iris’s stature, I was awed and afraid – all at the same time. And as I saw her on screen – yes, I saw Iris and not Kate Winslet or Judi Dench – I saw bits of my mother rise from the ashes. As Iris slowly realised that her “writer’s block” was in fact more, I saw mum struggle. My mum, in tears one day, asked my dad, “Do I have menin…menin…menin…” I think she meant, “meningitis” – the most serious illness of the brain that she knew.

As I saw Iris struggle with reading words as simple as “animal”, I saw my mum struggle to write her name. There’s this scene in the movie where the doctor asks Iris the name of the British Prime Minister, and Iris struts her stuff, but avoids admitting that she in fact, couldn’t, for the life of her, remember the name of that damned guy! I remembered the doc asked my mum the same question. Mum stuttered, and said, “Deve..Deve..Deve..” and stopped. H.D. Devegowda. She couldn’t articulate.

Iris was shown the picture of tennis racket, and she said, “tennis thingy”, she couldn’t remember the word “postman”, SHE – the woman who wrote twenty-five books, couldn’t remember these two-penny-bit words. Mum, the woman who spoke four languages, taught kids in school for twenty-two years to read and form sentences, couldn’t either. The doc had asked mum to draw a clock, here’s a sample of what she did:

John, Iris’s husband, well I saw bits of my dad in him, and bits of my sister and me as primary caregivers. Iris was a very desirable woman. Intriguing to the core. To call her talented is an insult, forward-thinking, an understatement. One of the most powerful scenes is when her husband, John shouts at her in bed, once the disease had almost taken over, he says, “All your friends are finished with you! I’ve got you now! Nobody else has you anymore except your fucking best friend, Dr. Fucking Alzheimer with all his fucking gifts! I’ve got you now, and I don’t want you!” It echoes the memories of things I have said to mom, or at least thought a million times. I had confessed to my then best friend JN, that I wished mum was dead.

One day, Iris just walked out of the house. John doesn’t know where she went. He looked for her everywhere and he can’t find her. Iris wandered aimlessly across the city. She didn’t know where she was, she didn’t know where she was going or where she came from, till a friend found her in a supermarket, “between the soup and the baked beans”. On a day like that, mum had wandered off too and it had taken us three hours to find her. The next day, my sister quit college and started staying home to prevent that from happening. She didn’t complete her education.

Iris and her husband lived alone, by themselves. Their house was a mess. Unwashed dishes, papers everywhere, dust, books strewn. Iris used to take care of everything. And when she fell sick, John had to. But he was too old and too distressed and too stumped to care. Something similar happened to our entire family. No one knew what was happening behind our closed doors. Most people chose not to. Others we kept away.

Iris roamed around the house aimlessly at night, so did mom. Iris sang songs from her youth, so did mum. Iris forgot John, the love of her life. And mom forgot dad, the love of her life, and me, the one she most often proclaimed in the early days of her illness, as her favourite person in the world.

Iris looked at her reflection and asked, “Who’s there?”, hey, mum did too. Iris began to fear and avoid the things she loved, so did mum. Only music seemed to matter to both of them in their last days of coherence.

Iris couldn’t hold a conversation about anything of consequence, neither could mum. She responded with kindness, as long as someone spoke to her kindly, it could be anyone. But soon, mum couldn’t even speak. She lost all speech, only sounds. Forgot how to chew, as I guess what might have happened to Iris.

But all in all, Iris, as a young person was full of life, laughter and meaningful words. My mum spoke the most insightful things, I remember them even today. In my short thirteen years of having known her, I think I learnt verbatim whatever she told me.

In the movie, Iris speaks a lot about the importance of language and education. Ironic. But true.

There’s this quote in the start of the movie,

“Education doesn’t make you happy, and nor does freedom.
We don’t become happy just because we’re free, if we are,
or because we’ve been educated, if we have,
but because education may be the means
by which we realise we are happy.
It opens our eyes, our ears…
tells us where delights are lurking…
convinces us that there is only one freedom
of any importance whatsoever… that of the mind…
and gives us the assurance,
the confidence, to walk the path our mind…
our educated mind… offers.”

My mum used to say,

“There is no wealth greater than education.
It is your key to freedom, to be whoever
you want to be. We can give you no amassed wealth,
just your education. Use it, let it give you the wings,
to a good life, to a meaningful life, and let it teach you
the value of everything and everyone good, for everything
and everyone good, is worth loving.”

So you see…like I said in the beginning, my mum was just like Iris Murdoch. At least to me.

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