My grandmother will die twice; that’s what people tell me.
Once in memory, once in life.
As I knew her, she was a force to be reckoned with. She bought red cars and tattooed her eyebrows blue. She read tarot and danced in the kitchen, long after most grandparents would have slowed down. She told me, with the strictest instructions, that she wanted ‘Mustang Sally’ played at her funeral. She wrote me letters because she knew I loved getting mail, addressing them ‘to my best friend.’
That person is gone now.
Now, we ferret through her fridge in search of rotting food – food she can no longer remember buying, or whether it’s safe to eat. The carpet smells like stale urine, because she forgets to open the door for her beloved dog. Her favourite bedazzled shirts are stained with tea, left in the laundry basket too long to be saved. All the things that once made her happy are gone, and she sits, alone most days, in an assisted living facility, writing notes to herself so she doesn’t forget. ‘My name is Peggy. I have something called dementia. I am not quite sure what this means, but they tell me I forget things. I hope I am not too inconvenient for my family, and that I do not ask too many questions.’ This note breaks my heart. This note is not the worst.
‘MUM DIED,’ is scrawled on the calendar in shaky red letters, circled for clarity amid reminders to take medicine and walk the dog.
It was the day after my great-grandmother Dot had died, in the middle of a hot and sticky summer where Peggy’s dementia had advanced enough that the house was covered in written reminders. She hung up the phone, and before allowing herself to grieve, carved the words across an April weekend so that she would not forget. Only once the memory had been safely stored did she allow herself to sit down on the recliner and sob.
‘My name is Peggy. I have something called dementia. I hope I am not too inconvenient for my family, and that I do not ask too many questions.’
In a moment of clarity, she takes my hands and begs to go home to England. She wants to see what has become of her childhood home – to see what now stands where she stood, the last place she and her mother were truly a family, where they were both whole. ‘I won’t remember much longer. I don’t want to forget.’
But I can’t take her alone. Her memory runs on ever-shortening circuits; though she remembers how to make tea, the birth of her grandchildren and Princess Diana’s wedding, she cannot remember how to use the new remote or the name of her nursing home. Once she forgot I was staying for the night, and upon hearing a strange sound in the night, came to investigate – stark naked.
‘What were you going to do if it were an intruder?’ I asked.
‘Scare them to death, I suppose.’ Sometimes she’s still herself, shining through.
But most of the time she’s not. She looks around the room, as though surprised to find herself in this little house with temporary walls and a locked safe for her medication. It is the life she feared. A half-life of sitting and waiting, the life of someone close to death and yet not. The death of her mind, while her body soldiers on.
‘Take me home,’ she begs again.
It is both a cruelty and kindness to lie.
One night, unable to watch the tears welling any longer, I pull out my computer and pull up Google Street View. I find her old house, back in England, somewhere in the southern countryside where the houses are too small and too close together, and the city is a distant wonder. Their home is a convenience store now. The facade looks the same, she tells me, though it’s shorter than it used to be. ‘It probably fell down,’ she says, enraptured by the screen. I show her everything I can find; her street, her school, the Cadbury factory that saved their family from an even worse poverty than the one they knew. She remembers these things, sharp and clear. She points to a shed where a World War II bomb shell dropped and never exploded. ‘I suppose you wouldn’t be here if it had,’ she says. ‘I was standing ten metres away when it fell.’
I find immigration documents, her signature scrawled on a New York docking ledger. I look up at her; surprised, even now in these patchwork days, that there is still more of her past we do not know.
‘You never told me you went to New York.’
‘Did I?’ she leans over my lap, inspecting the screen. ‘Oh yes, so I did. Hated the accents.’ She tells me it was the first place the Navy sent her – or the second, she’s not quite sure.
I am surprised, even now in these patchwork days, that there is still more of her past we do not know.
I take comfort knowing she has lived such a large life that she cannot recall every corner of it; adventures stuffed so full in her mind that some jaunts were forgotten long before forgetting was a disease. Memories replaced simply because there were better adventures, bigger plans. ‘Did I tell you about Egypt?’ she asks, searching for a photo album.
Peggy used to joke that she wouldn’t grow old. ‘Thelma and Louise,’ she’d promise me. ‘Right off a cliff. Don’t grow old darling, everything sags.’
Her memory recedes like the ocean tide – the occasional surge and swell, but gradually pulling further and further from the shore.
Her mother, Dot, was fiercely independent until the day she suddenly stopped eating and slipped away. A roar and then a rattle. The way she had wanted to go. Her mind and tongue were sharp until the last. She aged with dignity; conceding her hearing, her eyesight, and at times, her balance – but she didn’t care about any of that, so long as she had her sanity. When she started getting confused, she declared she was done with the world. Her final bow, graceful to the end.
But Peggy will not be granted such dignity, and has been led, screaming and kicking, to this unquiet death. She is lucid enough, still, to feel guilty and betrayed. She worries she is a burden. She worries she did not live enough, do enough. She worries we will slip away too, caught in a riptide she can’t escape.
If I could grant her anything, I would grant her the life she wanted; gaudy jewels and social club dances, family visits she remembered and brightly coloured walls. Her tipples of sherry and friends streaming in and out. I cannot reconcile this person with the one who sits before me, cowed by fear and forgetfulness.
If I could grant her anything, I would grant her the life she wanted; gaudy jewels and social club dances, family and friends streaming in and out.
So instead, we become her memory, filling the gaps her mind has stolen. Here, she is young and whole and complete. If only for a moment, this is where she lives, again.
Her life is not terrible, even if it’s not the one she would have chosen. But it is unfair, and in the face of that injustice we fight harder to keep her with us; hoping for another good day, before her good days run out. Against time and science and industry, we gather close, pulling her in.
‘Remember, Peggy,’ we say, and give her a good memory. And sometimes those precious memories still make her smile – and that’s enough.