My grandad was my hero. He was kind, gentle, generous and had the warmest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. I’ve got a lump in my throat now as I write this. I miss him every day.
My grandad was diagnosed with vascular dementia about five years ago, roughly around the same time as I was heading off to uni.
You might think that the diagnosis would have been a difficult thing for us to talk about. I mean, for most people, but especially for the older generation, talking about our flaws is usually something that we actively avoid.
I guess you could call it self-preservation – the less we talk about the unpleasant bits of life, the less we have to confront them. But, the truth is, having flaws doesn’t make us damaged or broken. It means we’re normal – and perfectly human. I knew this, even then. And I could talk to my grandad about anything – so why should this be any different?
He would say how frustrating it was. Sometimes, he would know exactly what it was he wanted to say, but couldn’t find the words to convey the meaning. How frustrating it would be, to do something he had done all his life – make a cup of tea – but not remember which went in the cup first: the milk, the water, the teabag.
Just try to imagine how that would make you feel. Confused? Disorientated? Even, angry?
Often, he wouldn’t be able to remember where we’d been or what we’d been doing just a week ago (or even, where we had been the day before). And yet, in the final few days of my grandad’s life, he told me a story about the rations he had to collect as a boy, so his mother could make them an apple pie. A memory that, for him, was a clear as day.
This is the reality of dementia.
Although the types and symptoms vary, the condition is often likened to a bookcase.
The top of the bookcase represents a person’s most recent memories, such as what they did today or last week. The second shelf down represents slightly earlier memories – maybe last Christmas, or the most recent holiday. As we go further down the shelves, we go slightly further back in time – when they were 60, 40, 20. Then, on the bottom shelf, there are childhood memories.
Then the bookcase is hit by dementia.
With the force, it begins to rock and the books start to fall off – starting with the books on the top shelves. More books from the lower shelves may fall off, too, until there are only books on the lowest shelves – the person’s early memories.
Luckily for my family, my grandad didn’t lose too many of his memories with us. We were able to reminisce with him about family holidays and trips to the seaside – at his beloved Sidmouth.
Last January, this was where we scattered his ashes.
We took him back to the place that he loved most in the world. What a pleasure to be able to do that for somebody – and what a pleasure for me, that it’s somewhere I’ll continue to visit for the memories it holds; not only in the past but in the present now, too.
One year on, we made the trip back to Sidmouth last weekend. And what a perfect weekend it was.
One of my goals this year is to try and get a change of scenery every month – my slightly more achievable version of ‘travel the world’. I’m not expecting to go to new, exotic places every few weeks, but to be able to change my surroundings and gain some mental clarity once a month would be a fantastic thing.
And that’s what last weekend in Sidmouth was all about. A weekend being close to my grandad, in a place that means so much to me. I perhaps appreciate that little town even more so now, than I did as a child.
Although I miss my grandad more than ever, I’m now at a point where looking back on these memories brings me happiness. For a long time, all reminiscing did was make me cry. I would only be able to remember the near past, I couldn’t look further back to the happier times.
But, although it’s such a cliché, all it took was time. It took a little time for the pain to pass and to allow me a change of perspective.
I love you Grandad, and I’ll remember you with fondness always.