Dementia, my grandfather and me

Late one night, my grampy woke up disorientated and wandered, starkers, around his village.

I didn’t know what dementia was then, but that’s what they told me he’d got. Quickly, Sunday dinners at local pubs became family gatherings by his hospital bedside. It wasn’t long before that hospital bedside turned into a care home sitting room.

Some days when we’d go, my nan would have to play his mother and my mother his sister. “The nurses are trying to kill me,” my grampy would tell us. One day, they’d have stolen his wallet. Another, they’d neglected to feed him. The next, he’d point at a shuffling resident with slippers and cane and whisper “She’s cheating on me,” to the woman acting his mother.

He still loved whisky, fudge and barbecue ribs. He never stopped fiddling with cameras or making this funny clicking noise with his mouth. But Christmas became raffles and nibbles in a room with “Merry Christmas” written on a whiteboard to remind residents what day it was. Lies about where we’d been and where we were going and why couldn’t he come with us became second nature. Nicknames of affection plastered over the cracks in his knowledge of who I was.

The things he did were funny. He’d look out of the window and see sheep grazing on the dual carriageway. Turf wars with a man he called “the loopy one who thinks he’s related to the queen” escalated, and there was amusing tension over whose seat was the one with the best view of the telly. Taking a sip of his tea, he’d make an expression like it tasted bitter and ask me to sneak in another four spoonfuls of sugar with a wink. He didn’t know he was in a care home. He thought he was on holiday - and the staff at this place were pretty good. It was easier to laugh than to get upset.

But my brother and I walked into that room apprehensively each time. Each time we smiled hello we’d watch him scrutinise our faces, our memory on the tip of his tongue. Some days he’d take longer than others, and sometimes it wouldn’t click into place at all. Usually, though, he recognised that he should recognise us.

“How’s school?” he’d ask me. “Will you ever stop growing?”

Then, he’d turn to my brother and ask “How’s football?,” squeezing his cheeks hard enough to conjure up a grimace and gritted teeth. 

“How’re you?” one of us would ask, though we knew he didn’t really know. If you’d asked him what the weather was like, or what day of the week we were on, or what he’d had for dinner, he wouldn’t know. But if you asked about his past, he’d tell you in detail. So that’s what we started to do.

I took a book of war photography to him on one visit and he sat with me, poring over the pages. He reminisced about how, when all the young children around him were being evacuated to the countryside, he’d flat-out refused to be separated from his mother. Then, how he’d signed up to go into the army and fought on Egyptian turf. He told me that he was a drummer boy, and the sense of pride and optimism it had given him. And then, how he’d been shot in the kidney.

We’d never known much about our grandparents. Up until now we’d been too young and self-important to ask and it wasn’t a conversation either of them had initiated. But as we sat together, around a table or on the arm of his chair, I learnt more and more. There are holes in the story, still - of course there are. The things he probably would’ve told me but I felt rude asking about never got mentioned. But in his hazy, muddy, between-worlds state, I was transported back through those 80 years of life as he relived them through mixed-up memories. I got to know my grandfather a little bit better than I had before. And it was dementia who introduced us.

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