My grandmother was a remarkable woman. An unimportant statement perhaps — each one of our grandmothers is worth remarking on, I am sure — but my Grandmother was none the less an incredible and often peculiar, woman.
She was a teacher. Yes she taught in schools but she also taught outside of schools.
“Stop your telly gawpery goo and come and have a Maths lesson. It’s much more fun.” That was how childhood with her went. My mother was scared to bring friends home because of mandatory maths that would surely be inflicted. Sometimes all you wanted to do was “telly gawp,” but with my Nanny that was not acceptable. Not when there were things to be learnt — and there were always things to be learnt.
She was a storyteller: A hoarder of anecdotes, and a fascinating orator. Her head a family archive full of tales of brave ancestors and comic descendants.
She was a hostess. She ran a boarding house on very little money for many years, offering full board to the guests: Breakfast, elevenses’, dinner, afternoon tea and supper. She threw the doors to her nine-bedroom guesthouse wide open to the world and his brother for as long as they wanted — greeting them with a welcome cup of tea and a leaving them with with good food, hearty laughter, and Maths lessons in-between.
Nanny was a doer. She would carve teaching tools out of blocks of cork; she would collect clay from the beach and mould it into objects. She would make and decorate wedding cakes and she’d do it free of charge — she actually won a national award for her cake decorating. She was a painter, a maker of beautiful dresses, of children’s toys, of ingenious kitchen cupboards (REALLY!).
She was a musician, a pianist, a lover of tap dance. But most of all she was a singer. You could not stop her singing. So many songs she learnt on her own mother’s knee.
I have been referring to her in the past tense but my grandmother is not dead. She is alive and well. Well, except for one thing… she has Alzheimer’s.
Now she telly gawps all day long as, for her, there is nothing more to be learnt. It has been a long devolution, and we aren’t at the end yet. And sometimes you are left feeling like the person you knew has disappeared completely. That the past tense is the only tense in which they truly exist, and that what is left behind is little more than an impostor.
It happens slowly at first. You notice little things and you make sense of them, you brush them away with a sort of convoluted logic, not unlike a wish, and you assure yourself it can’t really be happening. It is unthinkable, that someone who is so alive, so bright, brighter than almost anyone, could be dimming. Then you notice more things, and what once was unthinkable becomes undeniable, and all you want to do is to stop it, there must be away to stop it! You can’t just stand back and watch them changing, can you?
But you have to, because not only are you watching them changing, but you are watching them trying, with frantic desperation to hold on, to protect you from finding out or maybe to protect themselves from you finding out, but everything they do is aimed at keeping it a secret, keeping it together. So you play a sort of game where you pretend you aren’t noticing anything and that it isn’t that odd to forget things like where you put your keys, or to eat for a couple of days, or your nephew’s name. We all do it from time to time. And that basically everything is normal. You have to play the game; you can’t not play the game.
You can’t just say “you’re losing it.” Because this is real, and they are real, and they are playing the game so furiously, as if their life depended on it. And it kind of does. So you have to play too because you love them, you can’t embarrass them, you can’t say the thing that will hurt them and scare them and alienate them more than anything they’ve heard in their life.
You see adverts that tell you, as if it were the simplest problem in the world, to “talk to them.” Just like that — talk to them! And you know the people who make those adverts have no idea what it feels like. That they have never seen the look in the eyes of someone you love so much, desperate to hold on to any semblance of normality between you. Because if the advertising companies had experienced that, they couldn’t be so blasé about telling you to “just talk to them,” as if it wasn’t the worst thing you could ever say, and the worst thing that could ever be heard.
Now I don’t know if this is everyone’s experience and no two people are the same but in some ways, it gets better as it gets worse. Even with the degeneration, time has been a great healer for my Nanny. As well as forgetting so much of how she used to be, she has forgotten how to be scared of forgetting. For my Nanny it has become a gentle illness. She is surrounded by love and care and — although she doesn’t know whether her daughter is her mother or her son her brother, or if this is the year 1960, or what a cat is — it is all okay because she is being looked after.
Sometimes it feels like she is our baby, being passed from one pair of loving hands to another. A team of people protecting her innocent belief that the world is a good place, making sure she doesn’t wander off, making sure she has lots to look at and do, even changing her nappies. With this feeling that she is our precious child, it might sound crazy but it can be hard to remember that she isn’t going to learn new rules and develop. I catch myself saying, “now remember…” and “promise me you won’t do that again.” She is the daughter who will never grow up.
Although it is so sad, there is something wonderful; there are still so many reminders of who she used to be. It seems miraculous that in this late stage, when so much has gone forever, there are still little flickers, sparks in the dark, of her true self that remain. Okay, she isn’t the hostess anymore, and she’s no longer a doer. She never teaches me maths now, she isn’t a storyteller and she can’t decorate a cake, but she still has her music.
She sings, everyday in her sweet soprano voice; she knows the words to all the old songs better than I do, and we still harmonize together. Even now she sometimes comes tap dancing into the room. And if you ask her to play the piano she can still sight-read the sheet music.
Loveliest of all at bedtime, when I turn off her light and leave her room in her old loving way she still says “Good night, God bless,” just like she always used to do.