Saturday, 14 April 2012


My father has slipped from us all, his mind increasingly leached away by dementia. My one enormous regret is that, back when he’d have understood what I was on about, I couldn’t have put this book in his hands and said, ‘Hey, Dad, I’ve written a book.’. This is for him anyway.
The dedication in Olives

I can't really  say when it became obvious my dad was suffering from the slow erosion of memory that is vascular dementia. He had always seemed a little bit mad to me - when I was a kid he used to drive me to embarrassed stage whispers of "Dad, shut up would you?" as he ambled through department stores whistling or singing silly little songs. He would talk to absolute strangers, making quips and generally laughing his way around the place.

I know I inherited his sense of humour and I'm very glad of that. I dread to think what else I've inherited.

He was an inveterate doodler, every birthday card I ever had from my parents featured a version of the wartime cartoon character, Chad cracking a 'Wot - another year?' type gag. Going through his papers, I found a cartoon typical of his style in a letter and was shocked to find it wasn't his - it was my grandfather's, a cartoon to my brother nestled in an impossibly formal letter to my mother sent in the 1950s. The doodle illustrated a brilliant nonsense poem that involved a cassowary and a missionary, a piece of pure Thurber.

It really hit me four years ago. We were walking through Camarthen when he declared to me he could remember when this was all countryside on the outskirts of London. He was back in Linden Avenue, the street in Wembley he was born and grew up in. We walked through the bustling Welsh town centre together and he pointed out landmarks to me from his childhood in another town eighty years ago, back when you'd still see steam-driven traction engines on the streets.

Two weeks ago we flew to the UK, our only purpose to take my father in to a care home.That's why I was going through his papers. We sat in the kitchen together the evening he went, my inconsolable mum weeping as I sorted through bags of his old letters, photos and other stuff.

He wouldn't go the first time around. Confused and disoriented, as he always is when he's woken up from a snooze, he got as far as the front door with me as I lied to him. Opening the door meant a gust of cold air and a sight of the vile weather outside. Declaring 'This isn't me', he insisted on going back inside, dropping down onto his comfy chair in the lounge and refusing to budge, blinking owlishly as he asked where he was and who we were. We tried again the next day, taking him in the car as I dropped my mum to the hairdresser then drove on to the care home. She didn't have the strength to do it, wouldn't lie to him. It was to be a full week before she could even contemplate going to the home to visit him.

I walked him, together with a pretty nurse, through the TV room with its complement of empty-eyed old ladies and then the dining room and into the lift to the first floor. I took him as far as his bedroom and then I couldn't take it any more and fled to fetch his bag of clothes from the car. The long, shuffling walk punctuated by his constant exclamations of 'Oh dear' had taken twenty minutes. Not once had he looked around and stopped to ask where we were.

I was tormented by the thought we'd got it wrong, that I had consigned him to a lonely prison where he'd be locked in a darkened room, helpless and howling for my mother, his companion of sixty two years and latterly his carer - to the point where her own health had suffered.

He didn't miss a beat. He has not the faintest clue where he is or who the people around him are. He's warm, secure and fed and functioning at that basic, animal level. He's able to experience, but has no memory of his experiences. As it shuts down, his mind isn't even able to dredge up the old, embedded memories of his childhood or his wartime in the marines so carefully documented in the schoolbook I found in those dusty plastic bags. He doesn't remember Linden Avenue any more.

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