Gabrielle Forgot, A Story of Dementia

Hi Everyone, it looks like the story I submitted for a story contest didn’t make the cut.  I really wanted to pay homage to my Mother who passed away in December so I wrote this story and now I feel like posting it here.

It is about Dementia, I hope you read it and I hope you share it with friends & family.  I would love to see this go viral and to hear what you thought of it.

Gabrielle Forgot

Written by Gail Young,

Dedicated to my Mom Gabrielle Dugas 1933-2016


What do you think of when it comes to not forgetting?

I think of a very unlikely parallel between elephants and the Italian mob – forget about it.  I must tell you about a strange connection I have to both of them!

I grew up in Quebec, more precisely in the Laurentians, the mountainous area outside of Montreal which was predominantly controlled by the Cotroni Family, the Canadian counterpart of the New York crime syndicate known as the Bonanno Family. The Bonanno Family is one of the major mafia crime families dominating organized crime in New York since the 1930’s.  They are one of the five families highlighted in the movie The Godfather. I quote the Godfather a little bit further in the story, I mean, and how can I write a story referring to the Italian mob and not talk about the greatest gangster movie of all time? Forget about it.

The Cotroni clan was led by Frank Cotroni, once known as the most powerful mob boss in Canada. I went to school with his youngest son Jimmy and my family bought a dog from them at one point. I met his mother once; she was very well-dressed and quite nice.

Now let me talk about elephants.  I can relate to their size and clumsiness, you could say my weight issues are to this day the “elephant in the room”.  I also love them because they are part of my childhood library, Babar the Elephant, a story by Lauren De Brunhoff that I read keenly in both English and French as a child.

Did you know that a herd of elephants is made up of females and calves only?  It is typical for several bulls to form a bachelor band. It is as a band that the group will search for food, water, and receptive females to mate with. This boy band is not close-knit like the female-headed herd.

The majority of Asian and African elephants have a matriarchal hierarchy very similar to the Italian mob of today, which by the way is being taken over by several prominent female bosses. “I guess that’s what happens when the men in charge get sent off to prison.”

Some of these women are just as ruthless as the men they replaced; likewise some female elephants are born to be leaders. It isn’t always the oldest or largest female who gets to lead; rather the successful leader earns her spot at the front of the herd because of her ties to other elephant families.  Once chosen she needs to establish her dominance with the younger females. “Sounds familiar?”

In the movie The Godfather – Don Corleone said to Signor Roberto, a landlord from Hell’s Kitchen, “Do me this favor. I won’t forget it. Ask your friends in the neighborhood about me. They’ll tell you I know how to return a favor.”  There’s an old saying about elephants as well: They never forget – another parallel to the Italian mob and how both conduct their business.

In the wild, an elephant matriarch’s memory is the key to the survival of the herd and for the Italian Mafia, the female Capo’s understanding of favors owed, is the key to the safety of her underlings and their families.  Ultimately they are both tasked with the grave duty of not forgetting.

What do you think of when it comes to forgetting?

I mean really forgetting, not the joking kind of forgetfulness like brain farts or dumb blond moments, which I often have, but rather the horrible kind like dementia.

In an effort to make dementia more relatable, when I started researching this story, I spoke to friends, family, and co-workers about my idea of writing a children’s story about an elephant who forgot.  It would help the younger generation to understand the implications of dementia.

The minute I mentioned Gabrielle was an elephant they all said, “Aww! That is such a great idea for a story.”  It seemed for them, as well as for me, that the thought of an elephant forgetting garnered a lot of empathy, was feasible and inspiring. The comparison with the Italian mafia came from an article I read about female mob bosses and the changing face of the Italian mafia.  I thought it was a great coup for feminism in the crime-related employment field.

My mother, Gabrielle, very recently passed away. She was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia less than 10 short years ago, it wasn’t what ultimately caused her death but in a way, it was what cut her life short.

Gabrielle’s sense of style was legendary in our family and very few people personified the glamour of Hollywood actresses from the Golden Era like my mother did.  At a very young age, after her father passed away, she became ill with whooping cough and was sent to stay with a well-to-do aunt and uncle who could cover the cost of her recovery.  Once she was better she found herself marveled by the delights and comforts of their majestic home.  She begged her aunt to stay and benefited from a strict upbringing and a stellar education in a Catholic convent.

After almost becoming a nun my mother turned her interest to nursing and became a nurse’s aide.  While working at the local hospital, a patient named Grace insisted on introducing Gabrielle to her son Peter.  It was love at first sight for Peter and Gabrielle.  They married and she soon became pregnant.  Over the span of the next 12 years they had four children together: Verda, Daniel, Gary and me, Gail.

They moved to the Laurentians where, as I mentioned at the start of the story, we knew the Cotroni family.  My mom was the boss in our little family.  She lived for us and reminded us of this constantly… in a joking way.  She ruled with a wooden spoon which amusingly, she never used to cook or hit us with, but we feared her much more than we feared our father’s wrath.

At 5’2” and 105 lbs. my mother was a force to be reckoned with. At one point my brother Daniel and I nicknamed her The Foreman because she donned a pair of steel toe boots and a long flannel nightgown while “managing” renovations on my grandfather’s farmhouse.   After 30 years of marriage she left my dad and when I packed up my things and headed to Toronto with my daughter Fallon, she followed suit and moved in with my sister Verda.

One day over a coffee at Bayview Village, my mother met Sandy. She never thought she would fall in love again, but Sandy turned out to be everything she could hope for.  She told me that another woman was interested in him, but she dug her claws in and won in the end. They were married in 2001 and until he passed away in 2011, they celebrated their love each and every day.

After Sandy passed away, my mom called me once and said she wanted to go too.  I asked my mom, “What would you say to me Mom, if I wanted to give up?”  She said, “I would tell you that I love you and I can’t lose you.”  “Well Mom I feel the same way. I’m not ready to lose you and I love you too.” I added jokingly, “Mom, God must really love you; he gave you four beautiful kids, eighty plus years on Earth and two husbands… Verda didn’t even get one LOL.”  She said, “Gail, do you know what you are?  You are my angel.”

It felt like I was losing my mom every single time I saw her.  I would ask, “Mom, do you know who I am?” She would reply, “No.”  I would say, “It’s Gail, it’s your baby.” She would say, “Oh you’re beautiful!” This statement was extremely meaningful since my mother always had issues with my hair, makeup and even my clothes.  She once told me to go home after I showed up to meet her at Bayview Village wearing track pants.

The truth is that I really, really missed that opinionated, strong mother I grew up with. It is what I admired most about her, the fearlessness she had to tell it like it is. She could really cut you down to size with just her words.  Towards the end, most of our visits together felt like the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. We were constantly caught in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over again. I could barely recognize the frail woman staring blankly back at me.

Dementia took much more than just her memories. Over the years she forgot how to position herself properly to get into the front seat of a car, how to dress herself, how to use a fork, how to speak English – reverting back to French which was her first language. Her sentences became shriveled and words needed to be added by the listener to fill in the gaps. You had to listen very closely to figure out what she was trying to say.

At one point early on, after Sandy passed away, she even forgot where she lived!!  In one incident I sent a taxi cab to pick her up.  She called me and said, “Gail can you see me?” I said, “Mom how can I see you when I’m not there?” She had wandered off and now had no idea where she was; thank God she had a cell phone. I asked if there was someone was around her that I could speak to.  She found a man and passed him the phone.  I explained the situation to him, he lived on her street and kindly offered to take her home and wait for the cab with her.  I can’t tell you how much I was panicking, pacing up and down my street as if being outside my house, miles from her, made a difference.  I was freaking out at the thought of her being lost while being so grateful to the man for understanding a daughter’s fear.

Soon after this incident, my mother moved into a senior’s residence. Not long after she called me in a panic.  She could not locate the door to her washroom which was adjacent to her bedroom.  My mom had a visual impairment caused by a stroke and she could not always figure out which direction to go in, this was intensified by dementia.  I tried my best to talk her through how to position herself in front of the door, but after almost fifteen minutes without success, I asked my daughter to take over explaining.  She finally found it! Not long after this mind boggling incident, my sister put green tape on her door to prevent this from happening again.

My brother visited with her a few years back and she remembered that many, many years ago, he had taken a small spoon from her spoon collection to give to one of his girlfriends.  This inspired her to hide all her jewelry; she then completely forgot where she hid it.  She ended up having to ask him for help to find it.

The incidents became more and more humiliating and alarming; they found her outside her apartment door, nude and confused.  When she communicated, her hands would shake autonomously and she looked scared and confused.  Some of these situations sound comical, some of them sound chilling, but for those of us touched by dementia they are all horrifying.

Imagine watching someone you love trapped by their own mind; not being able to put sentences together where once they could multi-task in their sleep.  Imagine losing your autonomy completely; it’s like a jail sentence except there is no hope for parole or early release for good behavior.  You can only look forward to being jailed forever in your own head until death takes you away.

Every picture you collected of every small thing your child did over the years, keeping their locks of hair, their first teeth as valued treasures.  You cherished every little celebration of their lives such as their first school play or dance recital, watched them through the window as they went on their first date or earlier on in life as they went to school on their very first day.  Now imagine all these memories and keepsakes, once the most treasured of your family heirlooms, disappear.

With dementia, all those memories are wiped out like a wretched virus infecting the hard drive that is your brain.  Your family is powerless to help you, every ounce of your perseverance, character, and spirit dies with every memory that is taken away, slowly rendering you unable to be part of the family you once loved and led.

In the end, as guilt sets in, the family doesn’t know whether to pray for death so that their loved one can be free of this hell, or pray for their loved one to live because they aren’t ready to lose them.

I worry that I will forget the Italian mob, the elephants and my mother.  I worry that my frazzled mind might take me down the dementia path as well.  It could be menopause, since I just turned fifty, but what if it isn’t?

I forget words, names and at times I can’t remember big gaps of my life.  I’m not as strong as Gabrielle; she was a boss, and I am just a measly underling.  I feel embarrassed when I can’t come up with quick replies; I searched around to find the proper thought and I continuously worry whether I am appearing normal.  I guess at some point I might decide to get tested for dementia or I might choose not to know at all, but for now I write about a woman that meant the world to the daughter she forgot.  I love her always with all my heart.

The elephants are endangered. Today, there are an estimated 450,000 – 700,000 African elephants and between 35,000 – 40,000 wild Asian elephants remaining.  An estimated 46.8 million people worldwide lived with dementia in 2015. These numbers will reach 74.7 million in 2030 and 131.5 million in 2050.  The number of hits by the Italian mob has fallen by 80 percent in the last 20 years but the number of people looking after parents with dementia is skyrocketing.

It’s easy to write about elephants, the Italian mob and to tell a mother’s very condensed life story. It isn’t easy or appealing to capture how dementia brutalized a little old lady, which you as the reader barely knew, but who meant the absolute world to the daughter who is writing this story, the one who Gabrielle forgot.

To all the families who care for someone with dementia, I feel your pain, remember their story and share it when and with who you can.  Someday it could be you.

Gabrielle forgot… but what if one day I forget Gabrielle?


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