I never imagined this. If you’d have told me two years ago, that things would be the way that they are, I wouldn’t have believed you. Two years ago, I was struggling through the last couple of months of my AS Levels. Now, I’m at university (ha!)
I remember the day I got into university. I stayed up all night the night before at Shane and Jane’s because I was so nervous. Mum and I went for breakfast in Morrisons after I’d got my results. And we came and saw you – and you beamed from ear to ear. I couldn’t remember the last time you’d looked so happy about anything. You didn’t know it, but my results were on the same day as the anniversary of Nan’s death. It felt like she was looking down on me that day. I could see her pride in Mum’s face. I could see her encouragement in your smile. And for a short while, as we burbled away about what happened next, it felt like I had my Grandad back. That for that time, you weren’t ill, you remembered me, you remembered everything.
Later that day, we got a phone call to say you’d gone walkabouts from the home, and I was reminded of exactly how much had changed in the months before. You no longer live with us. You live in a residential home. And I think possibly, between standing for council and ending bad relationships, that was the single most difficult decision I have ever had to make. And one I don’t think I will ever be able to shift the feeling of guilt and shame for.
For eight years, we looked after you. Looking back, the warning signs were there – putting your glasses in the dishwasher and having us search the house high and low for them, coming into my bedroom to wake me up for school at three in the morning, leaving me plates of bread and butter and custard creams and mugs of tea in the middle of the night. It was just “Grandad being silly”. But the worse your illness gone, the more scary it became. Nearly burning the house down when you put a microwave meal in the microwave with the packaging on and blowing it up, wandering off in the middle of the night, wandering off in the middle of the day with the dog and being found on the main road not knowing where you were going.
And then it became less about you being silly, and more about you actually being ill. But you’d been ill so many times, battled car crashes and heart attacks and cancer, so surely you’d be able to fight this, too? No problem, you were made of strong stuff. But not this time. This wasn’t something that a positive mentality could get you out of. Dementia, the doctors said. Later, Alzheimers. Loss of memory, attention, language, problem solving.
It explained a lot. Like, when we watched the World Cup final together. Spain scored, I went to make a cup of tea, and you were shouting from the living room about the football, how incredible, someone had scored a few seconds later! Until I pointed out it was a replay. When you asked if I’d had much chance to speak French whilst I was away. I had been to Belfast. When you were convinced the tram crash on Coronation Street was real and you panicked about it for days. Things which were very, very real in your mind. Things that I found funny. Other people found funny too. Mum’s always said “You have to laugh otherwise you’ll cry”.
But I do cry. I cry about all the memories we’ve had, all the things we’ve done together, all the trips, all the meals, all the holidays, all the stories, that are somewhere inside your mind, enveloped by this horrible illness. An illness which, piece by piece, is taking my Grandad and his mind away.
Years ago, you were in the Navy. A boson. A Very Important Man, you used to tell me. Legend has it you told Prince Charles to “bugger off” – confirming where I get my republican tendencies from. You’ve been everywhere, you’ve done everything. Travelled the world, owned businesses, been a Freemason (A Very Important Man Who Does Very Important Secret Things), and four children, eight grandchildren and twelve (and a half!) great-grandchildren later, you have but those memories to get you through the day. All the people you met over the years, all those people who looked up to you. Michael Collings was a name everybody knew when I grew up – even now, when I’m on the doorstep talking to people in my ward and I mention you, they know who you are. They ask after you. You put on a brave face, you smile and tell me how you (apparently) knew them. I can see the cogs whirring behind your eyes. You have no more idea how you knew them that I do. But we all know you’d never admit that. Even before you got poorly, you are far too stubborn to ever admit you might not know the answer to something! Far too proud to ask for help. I think that’s a trait most of us have come away with.
I sit and listen to you talk sometimes and just wonder what it must be like to be inside your mind. When you believe you’re on a ship – do you see the ship around you? Do you not see me and wonder how I fit into your memory? Or do you just live inside your memories? I can’t imagine what it must be like not to be able to distinguish between memories and reality. I guess you can’t either; that’s the nature of the illness. And that’s what makes it worse for you – the fact you don’t understand. And worse for us because some days you’re just Michael Collings, and others, you are Michael Collings, Alzheimers sufferer. You can’t tell who you’ll be from one day to the next.
And I worry that somewhere between all your pieced-together memories and blundering your way through all the confusion, if you truly recognise me. If you remember me. If you’re proud of me. I carry with me every day an intense amount of sadness, of guilt, at my part in you moving into a residential care home. And it’s been as difficult for me to adjust as it has for you; for years, I gave up my time, my social life, to look after you. Traded in nights out for nights in listening to stories of the war, or stories of your escapades in various countries around the world. To go from revolving my days around you to, well, only having myself to entertain was difficult enough. Not having you around was difficult. Mum made enough food for three people for months because she was so used to doing so. And even now, every time I leave your home – and that’s what it is, it’s your home, although I doubt you will ever see it that way – I am overcome by all the sadness I hold towards this situation. Such a cruel situation.
And cruel too, are the feelings which creep out of watching someone you love shut down in front of your eyes. Cruel is feeling so helpless, so angry. And the overwhelming guilt following that – what right do I have to be angry at you? You never asked for this illness. Nobody ever asks for this illness.
You are the most important man in my life, Grandad. Before your illness, you helped to shape who I am. Because of you, I am stubborn. I am head strong. I don’t take things lying down. I am honest, and loyal, and I understand the importance of trust. Since your illness, you have strengthened my character. Because of you, I care about things more. I know what my priorities are. I recognise the importance – the need – for family. Because of you, I am closer to my brothers than I’ve ever been, closer to Mum than I have ever, ever been. You have always been our glue; keeping us together. You, Christopher and I have always believed, are invincible, immortal. To me? You will continue to be my pillar; we have a special bond which has been created out of something so sad and unavoidable. I will always wish you had never gotten ill, Grandad, and I will always regret all the times I felt angry or bitter because of that illness – you didn’t deserve it. But I will hold onto all the memories. Memories that Alzheimers will never be able to take away from me.
Today, you remember few things, few people. But your face always lights up when I walk into the room. I know one day you will forget me for good. And I know I will be crushed. But I know you’re still in there, Grandad. I know you’re behind those eyes. And for all those things you can’t remember, I’ll try and remember them for you.
I love you always.