Five years ago, I graduated. However, I didn’t attend the ceremony - despite buying the gown, booking the hairdresser, and having family visit from interstate to cheer me on. Instead, something unexpected happened on my graduation day that derailed all our plans in an instant.
It started out like any other, with Mum and some relatives and I at an inner-city café. However, by the end of breakfast my mum, who had suddenly become very quiet, pointed to the tea pot in front of her.
“Who ordered this?” she asked.
You did, we all told her, giggling slightly. We all have those little brain snaps now and then so it was a bit amusing at the time that my mum forgot she was the only one who ordered tea amongst the sea of hipster coffees around the table. But, by the time we went to leave, more questions came, and so too the realisation that this wasn’t just one of those throwaway moments.
“Where are we?” Melbourne. “Why am I in Melbourne?” Because I’m graduating today. “You’re graduating?” Then Mum stopped, pulled at her jumper collar and necklace. “Why am I wearing this?”
For me, seeing my mum there but not really there floored me.
At that point, of course, I was panicking. And by the time we got back to the hotel, it became clear to me and my brother that my mum had lost her short-term memory. She constantly asked us the same questions over and over and even her actions were looping. For me, seeing her there but not really there floored me. I became so distraught that my mum, who was repeatedly ironing and putting my brother’s shirt into the wardrobe, actually came over to console me – putting her arm around me and telling me she was fine.
When it comes to health scares and other unfortunate events, I think it’s the unknown that is most affecting. It was for us – we had no idea why Mum had suddenly lost her memory and didn’t know if this was the start of something more sinister and that she’d soon forget our names as well. Fortunately, my mum’s condition – Transient Global Amnesia – is rare and short lived, has no lasting impact, and is not considered a precursor for dementia or Alzheimer’s. I recall the doctor reassuring us that when it comes to neurological conditions, this was one of the “better” ones. He described it like her brain being an overloaded computer that needed rebooting. The causes are unknown but older people are definitely in the higher risk bracket.
In the end, my graduation day – like most people’s – indeed made me reflect about entering the next stage of my life. However, unlike most, I was less focused on what career I was going to embark on and more mindful of the realities of adulthood, including having aging parents.
When I was younger, I felt like my parents were immortal – that they’d always be there for me to get advice from, complain to, and yes sometimes groan about to others – I was not ready to think otherwise.
When I was younger, I felt like my parents were immortal – that they’d always be there for me to get advice from, complain to, and yes sometimes groan about to others – I was not ready to think otherwise. But in the midst of my mum’s sudden memory loss, I felt like I had lost her, even though she was right in front of me.
The feeling of loss was abrupt and distressing, but thankfully it was temporary - with no lasting impact besides my mum, to this day, not remembering those few hours at all. But to me, this experience really drove home the imperative to not take her or my loved ones for granted because things really can unexpectedly and irrevocably change in an instant – whether we are ready or not.
Candice Tan is a freelance writer.