When I was at school and I used to label so many things as ‘lucky’ or ‘my favourite…’, I used to regard the number 28 as my ‘lucky number’. Unlike other ‘lucky’ or ‘favourites’, I had reasons for labelling 28 this way. My birthday falls on the 28th, the house number for where I lived in Birmingham was 28, my Nan was born in 1928.
Unfortunately, earlier this year, my Nan passed away. After years of waiting for a phone call to tell me it’s happened, when I finally got that call it still hit me as a total shock. No amount of preparation, or even expectation, could prepare me for it. The night before we’d been advised it wouldn’t be long, so I was expecting the call the next day. When it came, on that morning, I remember my emotion didn’t change. Looking back I probably seemed a bit emotionless when on the phone.
I was home alone that morning, not at work until 2pm. I text a few people in the family, text the other half…had a brief conversation with the other half…but at no point did I feel it had hit me. With hindsight, I took the wrong decision and I went to work. I went to tell my line manager that I would need time for a funeral. I broke down. All the emotion that had refused to show itself all burst out at once. It was the first time I’d talked about it in detail on that day and it was too much for me.
My Nan’s death wasn’t a surprise. It felt like a prolonged wait for that day, if truth be told, but it still hurt. My Nan suffered with dementia, and, years ago, she had clearly forgotten who I was and I took the decision to never go and see her again.
I will never forget the last time I saw Nan. She was in the Lickey Hills Nursing Home. I’d moved to Lowestoft with my Mum, Dad and Sister a couple of years before, and it had been a while since I’d last seen Nan, so when we visited Birmingham for a weekend I said to my Mum and Dad that I wanted to go with them to see Nan. Both of them advised me against it, but, being stubborn, I was insistent that I go. I walked in to the social room, which was effectively a large lounge/dining area, but couldn’t find Nan. The TV was in the far corner of the room surrounded by arm chairs with big backs on them. We stood by there for a few seconds to see if she was in the room. And then I remember looking towards the entrance door to the room, where we had just come from, and Nan was there.
I remember Nan was stood there, looking towards us, but not looking at us. There was nothing there. She had lost so much weight, she looked like a skeleton with skin. This old, frail, woman that I loved, and pretty much lived with during my childhood, was stood in front of me looking like a shadow of the person she was, looking straight through me. I was so scared. Without even knowing what was going on, I started crying. I ran past Nan, she didn’t even take notice of me, and I tried to get out of there. I remember getting to the main door to get out and there was a security code you had to put in to open the door. I couldn’t even collect myself to get the code in correctly. An old man that resided at the home put his hand on my shoulder…I’d guess he was trying to comfort me somehow, but it did the complete opposite and I was in an even bigger state. My head was gone. My Dad came round the corner and took me outside. We walked around Lickey Hills and I calmed down.
That was the last time I saw my Nan. I didn’t speak to her, she didn’t speak to me. That was 11 years ago. I’m full of guilt for the way I reacted that day. I constantly argue with myself about it. Should I have gone? Should I have “manned up” and stayed? Should I have gone again after? They’re questions that no matter what I answer with, or whatever anybody else answers with, I will always have. They are questions I will always throw at myself. It is a guilt, rightly or wrongly, that I will always feel. That last sight of Nan haunts me, even to this day, and it saddens me more than I can say that that is my last image of her. She didn’t deserve it.
I struggle to think of many memories of Nan before the onset of the dementia. Dementia is a truly horrific illness, and one that I was not prepared to see. I can tell so many stories about my Nan just before she went in to the home. Everyone always talks about the forgetfulness…yes, she did leave the gas on sometimes, for example…but there were other things that, actually, were sad but funny, for example, one Christmas sat watching Star Wars Empire Strikes Back, and as my Dad is about to go out my Nan is pleading with him to stay in because of all the fighting outside, pointing at the TV as if to say that battle on the sand was happening outside our front door in Birmingham. You don’t get told about things like that…you don’t get prepared…they just happen, and you never know how to handle it. As a 10/11 year old boy I remember laughing about it. What else could I do?
The last I remember of my Nan at home was when I think it really hit home with me that she was going. I was in bed and I got woke up by my Dad. I was no more than 11 years old, this is 16 years ago, and I still remember it like it only happened the other day. My Dad woke me up, he stood by the door, my Nan was stood to the left of him. He asked me, “Adam, am I your Dad?” To get woken up late at night to get asked that question by your Dad was a bit odd, and I remember asking “What?” to which my Dad said, “Your Nan is saying I’m not your Dad, and Mum isn’t your Mum. Can you tell her that we are your Mum and Dad?” I said yes, that they were Mum and Dad, their names were Mary and Roy…but my Nan argued with me to not believe them. She said, and I remember this so accurately, “They are Mary and Roy, I know, but they’re not my Mary and Roy, they’re not your Mum and Dad, they’re a different Mary and Roy.” She wanted to take me away to her house with my Sister and wait for my Mum and Dad, who were stood next to her, to come back for us. It was totally surreal, absolutely confusing and, looking back, completely heart breaking. My Nan had, on this night, gone over the line and I knew then more than ever that she was unwell. But Nan had no idea.
When she was in hospital, before going to the nursing home on Lickey Hills, we went to see her and I remember talking to a woman that looked fairly young, around 50ish maybe. She had got to know my Nan, and I remember her saying that she felt quite lucky because she knew she was being affected by Alzheimers, whereas she could tell that my Nan had no idea what was going on. I’m not particularly sure what is better…it still takes people away regardless of whether they know or not.
Looking back, perhaps the most striking thing is the appearance of my Nan from then to when I last saw her. She still looked healthy at that point, she didn’t look a shadow. She was, in fairness, still as stubborn in her attitude and personality as she had been before the illness took hold. My Nan was a strong character, a stubborn character. Five years after that hospital trip she was none of that. The degeneration, because that’s what it is, was truly terrifying. That’s the most upsetting thing about dementia. It takes a person you know and love and breaks them down in to a person you no longer recognise, and they no longer recognise you.
Eleven years on from that last visit to Nan, she has now passed on. I’m not a religious person, but I hope she has gone to a better place, a heaven if there is one. I continue to try to remember Nan for who she was. A woman that looked after me for so much of my childhood. A woman that cared for me so much. I try to block out that last image and think back to happier days with Nan. I also try to use my experiences to try to share feelings with others, and, hopefully, one day, be able to help those that feel the same way and are going through similar experiences. Knowing you’re not alone is a big thing, and it pleases me to no end that charities like Alzheimer’s Society, Dementia UK and Dementia Friends are doing so well now, and getting the publicity they deserve.
And, 16 years on from when she first went in to the home, I still say 28 is my ‘lucky’ number, and the main reason for that is, and always will be…my Nan was born in 1928.