At the age of 18 I returned to Wales by accident, to find that my Gran was beginning to suffer from it. My mother had decided to join my stepfather on his work travelling abroad, which left me with no home to return to over the holidays when at Uni. She hadn't really explained what I was supposed to do.
They'd fixed me up with a summer job at a three-star hotel near York. Almost all my belongings were crammed into the caravan the hotel owner put me in ( shared with a thousand spiders who crossed my face at night). When the owner finally asked me to bury the contents of another caravan's toilet in the hotel's grounds, I'd had enough. The job was shit (literally!).
I stood in York station without a clue where to go (actually, it was between grandparents in Weston and my Gran in Barry), when 'Cardiff' came up on the schedule. That was it!
My Gran had been one of the first women in Wales to attend university, but had to leave prematurely ( because of the First World War, I believe). She was a Primary teacher for most of her life, so teaching's in the family as well as the dreaded illness. She also had a great love of poetry and I enjoyed reading to her from her 19th century verse anthology, especially the expansive , daring poems of Whitman, so unlike her own preferred Keats and Wordsworth.
Initially, there were only a few signs of Alzheimer's. She coped reasonably well despite her serious eye condition ( I may have inherited that as well). She completed the 'Daily Telegraph' crossword every day and was sharp with her many sayings, like - ' Speak clearly if you speak at all. Carve every word before you let it fall.' I imagine her pupils in Rutland must've become accustomed to that one.
But soon her mind began to deteriorate faster than her eyesight. Her recent memory disappeared and she'd do things like bake sponges, put them in tins and forget about them. Her large larder was full of Victoria sponges in various states of decomposition. She began to ask the same things over and over again. She became very depressed, having moments of lucidity when she fully realised her condition and its inevitability.
Her sister Alice ( my Aunty Al) had suffered greatly with it, so she knew what was to come. She'd wandered the streets in her nightgown and had failed to recognise anyone, even her closest kin.
My Gran's descent into this utter abyss of the mind and eventual incarceration in a psychiatric hospital was so harrowing. I've written poems and stories about it, but never really come to terms with the tragedy.
The following poem is about a one-time friend and colleague who isn't much older than me -
See him on television in a wheel-chair,
programme about carers and Alzheimer's.
Shock knocks me : brain-quaking.
Years ago, in a circle in the Staff Room
and he was Head of Geography,
sharp as an arrete at lunchtime quizzing,
friendly comments, open as a plain.
Now , on the screen, his wife pushing him,
his features first seem unchanged ;
yet his eyes are terror-dark caves
and his mouth distorted into a crevice
all his thoughts fall down.