Yesterday I visited my 91 year old grandmother in Portsmouth. She and I have been close all my life, as she’s the grandmother I’ve always lived nearest to. Growing up in Somerset, visits to Nan and Grandad’s bungalow on a weekend or during the holidays were frequent, where we would be treated with Jaffa cakes and imperial mints, and do the bingo numbers from the Mirror with them. Grandad died when I was 9, but Nan soldiered on, moving with us to Hampshire when we left Somerset, and buying a house just down the road from us. I would go there on a Friday night en route to Guides, where she would feed me beans on toast and chocolate gateau. Even when I was at university Nan would ring me every Sunday afternoon for a chat. In short, she’s been a massive part of my life.
Last year my mother had to make the unenviable decision to move Nan to a nursing home. Increasing frailty – she had a series of falls, culminating in breaking her knee and spending three months in hospital – and advancing dementia made it inevitable. So now when I visit Nan, it’s not to her bungalow or her house or her flat, but instead one room in a nursing home, where she has some photos on the wall and a few pieces of her furniture to make it feel more familiar. It’s a lovely place, where the staff are kind and considerate, and everything is set up to be the best in can be. But it’s still a nursing home, and it’s still my grandmother sitting there all day in her chair, unable to move without assistance, and a mere shell of what she used to be.
Yesterday my very dear friend Z gave birth to her son in Sydney. He was three weeks early but still 8.5lb, with a shock of dark fuzzy hair that sticks up in a mohawk. In the photos on Facebook she looks exhausted but radiant, a mother already, cradling her son and smiling up into the camera.
I am over the moon for her and her husband, but it also made me cry.
At first I wasn’t sure why. It’s such a happy, joyous occasion, so why was I sad?
And then I realised that whilst Z and her husband and this little boy are starting out their lives as a family, Nan is ending hers. She recognised me this time but I know the time will come when she won’t. She already has difficulties with my brother and thinks it’s her brother who is in the room. Dementia is cruel; it robs your memories, or twists them inwards. As well as the memory loss and physical degeneration associated with dementia, Nan’s form – DLB – also causes her to hallucinate and see things such as small children in her room, or horses running across the garden. They don’t distress her; in fact, I think it’s more distressing for the listener, as they know that this is all fantasy. She has her lucid moments before the curtain falls and she becomes fretful, or distressed, or starts talking about something that doesn’t exist.
Hearing about the birth of a little boy who is going to be part of my extended family/friends network, and who I cannot wait to meet, really brought it home to me how much I miss my Nan and how we are never going to get her back again. All we can do is make her comfortable, hold her hand and tell her we love her.
A day of contrasts; of life and death; of ends and beginnings.
Update: someone just shared this with me. His photos and words sum up what I was somewhat more clumsily trying to say.