This British Columbia cartoonist explores the ups and downs of a mother’s dementia through his art

Cartoonist Gareth Godin owns a vintage comic book store in downtown Victoria, British Columbia. He writes comic books for young adults and He teaches comics and graphic novels at Camuson College.

He also writes one cartoon every day, sometimes documenting his life, sometimes making a pun or joke.

Documenting his life means drawing moments from his mother’s mental illness.

Here’s his story, in his own words, as told to CBC’s Gregor Craigie.

Nineteen years ago, I started doing a daily comic strip.

As a cartoonist, I felt like I wasn’t really capturing enough spontaneity in my life, so I thought I’d do one every day. There were subplots, such as engagement, marriage, and having children. These subplots made their way into my daily project.

Then my mom, my biggest supporter and good friend and amazing woman in Victoria, started showing signs of dementia.

I was documenting that as I took her through this kind of adventure. It works fine, but every time I see it there’s a new thought process worth documenting.

It feels weird because cartoons have a history of being funny or satirical, but I’m trying to capture a heartfelt, honest approach to the disease.

My mom worked full time for 60 years in the hairdressing business. I started noticing amnesia maybe five years ago.

She came to visit me at my comic shop and a few minutes after she left, a skater brought her back – she fell in the street and hit her head. She was a little confused, and then I noticed that she was starting to have some memory problems. We started writing it down.

I took it for tests and it failed proprietary. Her reaction to this was that she was only joking; You didn’t take it seriously.

So we brought it back for more.

Driving it, that was the thing: She could turn left, and see there were no cars turning right—no cars—but she didn’t remember.

Oh, was there a car?

It was a constant look back. That’s when we realized we needed to stop it.

It is very difficult to make her change anything in her life. She lived on her own, ran her own business, and did everything herself.

But I feel lucky – it could have been a lot worse. She could have been angrier, or she could have been less easily consoled when she got depressed. I feel so fortunate to have how loving and easily comforted she is right now.

Scottish mom. She was born in Dundee and moved to Victoria in 1962. But she still has that broad Dundee accent.

She’s always said my whole life, “Oh, when I get emotional I’ll do this or that.”

to her, Dooley He was suffering from dementia. So when I asked, “Why am I here at these old people’s house or why can’t I remember things?”

“Oh, mom, do you finally remember?”

And you will laugh at her.

Cartoon of two people talking about dementia.  Man: I'm really sorry you have dementia, mom.  Elderly woman: It's okay.  I don't even know I have dementia.  Man: Well, that's a relief.  Elderly woman: what is comforting?  Man: You didn't know you had dementia.  Elderly woman: I suffer from dementia?
One of many Gareth Godin cartoons depicting his mother’s journey with dementia. (Gareth Godin)

The thing is no matter what we lose about my mom, there are still snippets of our relationship. Even without being able to read comics, she knows she loves me, and she knows she loves being a cartoonist.

So the moment she saw my cartoon, she was so proud of me. Unconditional support is still there.

My mom and I have the same sense of humor. If you read this 20 years ago, you would appreciate it and laugh. I show it to them, but her memory is only two or three minutes, so it wears off pretty quickly.

The hard part is figuring out where the font is for other people who might be reading it. Many go through this, and you don’t really need a cartoonist who seems to be making fun of him. But it’s an interesting kind of mental state to try and capture on paper.

I probably don’t want to caricature a friend, for fear of seeing them and thinking, “Oh, what? You made me look weird.”

But with my mom, I can put her in any animation and feel confident that I’m portraying her with integrity, so it’s easy to document. If I were a caregiver taking care of strangers, I wouldn’t want to cross that line with them.

Everyone who commented was positive. A lot of people take solace in my ink version of dementia. She helps me. Seems to help others too.

I really appreciate my mom for giving me this kind of inquiry. It is useful to me as an artist.

It allows me to deal with her in some way, every single day, knowing that she is still my mom.

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