It is a Spring day in the mid-1980s. An elderly man gets his wallet and sets off on his customary walk to buy sweeties for his grandchildren.
But today’s walk will be different from the previous 25-minute walks he has taken, once a month, for years – because, having made it to the shop and bought the sweeties, he simply won’t be able to find the way back. The police will bring him back home hours later, when his wife and adult children have noticed his unexplained absence. He will be somewhat embarrassed and concerned enough to go to the doctor’s.
The reason will be far more serious than forgetfulness or a case of bad sense of direction. Because for him, it will be the first warning something that something unusual is happening in his brain. That one by one, in that deep, mysterious forest of his brain, over the next decade, all the trees will slowly wither and die, stripping him of his sense of identity, his memories, his future.
Alzheimer’s is one of the cruellest diseases. Over a decade, it reduced my grandfather, an active and proud man, somehow who knew how to carry basic electrical and furniture repairs, into a shadow of his former being, a shell that was able of receiving love and care but had difficulties conveying those feelings.
His condition had a catastrophic impact in the family, leading to disagreement and personal struggles. My grandmother struggled to grasp the enormity of what was happening to her husband.
In the final months of his life, he was trapped in a life he no longer understood. In the end, his mind regressed, and he forgot everything. He forgot who he was and whom he was married to, sobbing when told that his own mother had died years ago – a fact that thereafter would be hidden from him. Because sometimes, lies can be gentler and more necessary than the truth.
My grandfather died in December 1994, my last academic year at secondary school, just before a new era opened up in front of me: university, work, travel, new friendships. Avenues to opportunities that my grandparents – a company chauffeur and a former housemaid working since she was a child, later turned housewife and mum of five – wouldn’t even have dreamed of. Life isn’t always fair.
Now my four grandparents, two sets of aunts and uncles and various other relatives have stepped beyond the threshold of mortality, into that great unknown, a place where I hope they are reunited with their soulmates, looking down onto some of our happy moments from the distance. Their loss reminds me of my own parents’ fragility, as they now stand on the threshold of their 80s, and health issues begin to take their toll. They won’t always be here (or there, I should say), and dealing with that realisation is part of being an adult – accepting love and loss are a natural part of our lives.
And so I say a silent prayer that the years around the corner will be as long and free from pain as possible, with as much love, light and laughter as possible, before the seasons change and they join others in a place where the end is just the beginning. Amen.