Last week, the battle my family has been waging with Alzheimer's for many years came to a head. Then, in a matter of hours, it was over. My gran slipped away, a pale, watery ghost of the woman she used to be, and our merciless foe, one of the nastiest, most formidable enemies known to man, finally disappeared from our lives.
It was about 10 years ago that my gran's personality began to change at a frightening speed. She was demonstrating all the qualities she herself – a vigorous, self-possessed livewire – had no patience for, becoming forgetful, nervous, clingy, tearful, and unsure of herself. By the time she was formally diagnosed she was a husk of her former self.
She had no recollection of most of us. She retreated to her childhood, imagining her long dead mother was brushing her hair. She struggled to walk or sit up straight. She began to fall asleep in mid-sentence but, as her sentences made less and less sense, it had little effect on conversation. Ah yes, conversation! Once upon a time she was a master of it.
Her death at 92 brought a strange mixture of feelings. There was relief; she wasn't in pain any more. And there was, of course, a huge gulp of sorrow. Then an odd thing happened.
Sparked by a single, funny memory of my granny breaking suddenly into song (which, I have since learned, was something she had done, without hesitation or embarrassment, all through her life), we began to trade memories of her before she was ill. We emailed distant relatives to inform them of her death and they all replied with anecdotes. Everyone wanted to resurrect the stories that had been respectfully warehoused for over a decade.
A cheeky, dynamic, minxy spirit emerged. My gran was an eternal flirt, a card shark and a gleeful colluder in mischief who would wink furtively at us kids whenever we were getting a telling off from our parents. She loved a jig, and lunchtime dances kept her going all the way through the Second World War while she waited for my serving grandpa to come home.
She was a tough cookie, strongly independent and confident of her worth. She knew she was the best card player among her (all-male) card school, just as she knew if she hovered around my grandpa while he was wallpapering or fixing shelves he would eventually surrender the job to her and she would do it faster and better.
Talking and laughing – lots of laughing – about my gran after her death did something I thought couldn't be done.
It stole her away from her Alzheimer's. It brought her back to life, the real person who had been so full of brio and colour before she was faded out. The last few cruel, uncharacteristic years began to dim. It felt like my gran had won; her indomitable chutzpah, passingly repressed, had bounced back to reclaim her memory.
For anyone reading this, currently watching a loved one being taken by Alzheimer's, I hope I can offer some comfort.
Dementia is a terrible adversary that will win many battles. But take heart; in the end, it will lose the war.