“What scares me is to have a body that works but a brain that is waving goodbye. If that happens, I hope I die quickly.”
I am not an expert on dementia, simply one of the millions that are affected by a loved one suffering. I am not here to define dementia, to explain its effects or to guide you on how to avoid it. My grandparents suffered from vascular dementia for the latter part of their lives. My grandfather’s brought on by high blood pressure, strokes, and smoking during the war. My grandmothers, a lifetime of smoking (and perhaps genetic predisposition).
I want to tell you who they were and what they lost.
My grandmother, she grew up in a coal miners world. Poor from the start but immeasurably intelligent, unable to obtain proper education, she was forced into work as soon as she could earn a wage. Dreaming of grammar school but unable to go, she buried her hopes into Catholicism and work. She was a maid until 1939, when she joined the army, probably to escape the monotony of housekeeping. She rose to the rank of Sargeant, second in command of an all-female platoon. It was during this time she met my grandfather.
My grandfather heard Sheila barking orders from across the yard, it was love at first sight, to which she might have said something like: “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT SOLDIER?!”. From then on they saw more and more of each other, the classic love-at-war story. My grandfather was an AA operator, during his downtime, he played the banjolele to the troops in the mess hall, I still have that banjo today.
He did well during the war, so well, in fact, he was called into the Colonel’s office for an interview. He was to be promoted to Captain, he didn’t want the promotion. During the interview, he was asked a series of questions, most of which he answered well. There was one final question: “What do you hate the most” to which he was supposed to respond: “Hitler!”. Fred thought long and hard, realising if he answered this question appropriately, he would be promoted and moved away from Sheila. After a period of silence, Fred yelled “Prunes and Custard!”. He did not get the promotion.
After the war, my grandmother, a devout Catholic, had a child out of wedlock. Although she loved the child very much, this fact never left her, a permanent weight on her shoulders. Nevertheless, she married Fred and they began their long and happy marriage together. In a tiny council house in Birmingham, they raised their children: Barry, Jennifer, Julia, and Clare. Every Sunday they went to church, every day she cooked fantastic dinners. They didn’t have much, but they did everything they could to support their children. They saved for instruments, uniforms and even pony for my mum.
“Morning has broken,
like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken,
like the first bird
Praise for the singing,
praise for the morning
Praise for the springing
fresh from the word”
Accompanied with biscuits and tea, It was with this hymn did he wake his children every morning. His job meant he had to travel a lot, bringing back an assortment of naff gifts every time. A Japanese screen, foreign alcohol, crystal glasses or a glass polar bear. When the time came to explain where my mother and her sister came from, he explained that they were purchased from a mega store. That they couldn’t choose between them so they bought them both.
Fred and Shelia
Shelia was an amazing cook, great English spreads every Sunday for the whole family. Every bite worth the week’s wait.
One Sunday, Nan forgot how to cook the Yorkshire puddings. The food was a mess, it took hours to reach the table. Fred was in a care home, Shelia was slipping. I didn’t understand at the time, but my grandparents had dementia.
Over the next few years my grandfather slipped away, and when he died, my nan finally let go. She didn’t need to care for Fred anymore, he had finally passed, she didn’t need to hold it together anymore. Nan had carers come to the house every day for a few years before we put her in a home. Every week she got worse and worse until she was barely there anymore. There were occasions when you would catch a glimpse of her sharp wit return, a wry comment that would send the room into cackles. These moments were brief and fleeting, in her last months they were all but gone.
When she passed, the family finally breathed. The suffering was over, Fred and Shelia were together. The whole they left is gaping, but slowly it will fill.
The past seems so long ago, but it’s important never to forget. Fred and Shelia are not defined by their illness, but by the happy moments they shared, and the legacy they left behind. They are not victims of dementia, they are Fred and Shelia, they are your grandparents, they are mine. They are your mother or your father, they are loved. I am not a religious man, but, God rest your souls, we miss you.