Sylvie is a 16 year old student living in Scotland. She wrote a heartfelt essay, titled Forget Me Not, about her granddad's earliest signs of dementia. We have posted Sylvie's essay unedited and exactly as she sent it to us.
Forget Me Not
A tribute by Sylvie, aged sixteen
I’d never had a granddad but that was to change when I was six. My grandmother, widowed before I was born, surprised us all with the sudden announcement that she was getting married. I found it hard to imagine her as a bride in a wedding dress and even more difficult to imagine a whole new grandparent by her side.
Having had no experience of a granddad, I had only a very stereotypical idea of what one would be like - a kind, slightly tubby old man with grey hair, puffing on a pipe and wearing brown slippers - after all, this was the granddad figure that was depicted in my story books.
The first meeting was arranged and I realise now that he was probably rather nervous about meeting us whereas I was just interested in a promised trip to the local park which almost always had an ice cream van. When the doorbell rang I was taken aback to see a tall handsome man standing there. He had white hair that was neatly combed into place and a gentle face with twinkly blue eyes that promised mischief. He wasn’t wearing the brown jumper with elbow patches that I’d expected but was dressed in a button-down blue shirt and smart trousers much like my dad might wear to work.
This new granddad did not behave like a granddad either. To my amazement, once at the park, he launched himself down the slide and was first in line for an ice cream.
As I grew, so too did our affection for one another. Rather than taking on the traditional role as grandparent he became instead my friend. Before retirement he had been an accountant. You would have thought that being responsible for other people’s money meant you had to be serious but he had never grown up; he was a big kid.
In the hallway of his house was a large hamper and one afternoon I had opened the lid expecting it to be full of uninspiring things like blankets. Instead inside was a huge collection of polar bears! Each toy was different and had been carefully named by him. I remember him taking a childish delight in throwing them head first down the stairs. He reasoned that, “They wanted to go sky diving!” Every so often, for a change, he’d tie one to a long piece of elastic for a spot of bungee jumping over the landing.
Whenever I was told that we were going to visit I would run straight to my room and find a good pen because we would always sit down and do word searches together or play on our matching Nintendos. He was no ordinary granddad – he was unique.
As I got older our conversations became more and more interesting and he would often talk to me about his past. He told me how he had learned to read at an early age and would sit and read aloud from the newspaper to his parents when he was just four. He was disappointed when he finally started school to be given books with no more than a few simple words on each page. In the house he shared with Grandma almost every room was crammed with books.
The garage had been converted into a library but even then a separate cabin was built in the garden for the overflow. My Grandma told me that there were over 10,000 books, some of them rare first editions.
My sister and I decided he must be very wise and so gave him the name “Grandpa Owl” after the wise old owl in Winnie the Pooh. He lived up to his new nickname and never tired of my questions; he was the perfect person to go to for help with homework.
I had no idea that Grandpa Owl, who always had all the answers, would one day begin to slip away from me.
It started with a simple question. One summer afternoon he asked me whether I wanted a cold Sprite. Of course, I said yes but the minutes ticked by and there was still no sign of the promised drink. I went to investigate and peeking into the kitchen I saw him staring at the can puzzled. I asked him whether he was okay. He slowly shook his head and said he couldn't remember how to open it. I was shocked. I didn't understand. I opened it for him, laughing it off, but from that point on I began to notice other things that he forgot – places he’d been, his pin number, the way home...
Later I overheard my mum on the phone talking about a thing called “dementia”. This “dementia” was about to tear my grandpa from my reach and keep him lost in his forgetfulness. More and more of his memory was locked away - names, places, the days of the week and even how to get dressed and how to eat. I watched helplessly as he would stand very still willing the right words to come out but often what he said made no sense at all.
Gradually the ties that connected us so tightly became loose. Grandpa couldn’t remember what a Nintendo was or how you might use it. The books stayed on the shelves collecting dust and I was left to do the word searches on my own. Only the polar bears remained as part of our games though even they had to adjust to a less adventurous lifestyle. I had to learn to treasure the little things such as when I would tickle his toes as I’d gently place his slippers back on the right feet.
My last visit was to the care home. He had gone to live there when caring for him had become too much for my Grandma. Despite its soft furnishings, and the carers in blue uniforms efficiently bringing tea, it didn’t feel homely. I remember feeling afraid that he would not know who I was, but though he was very frail, and seemed to have shrunk, he looked up straight away and smiled directly at me. He couldn’t recall my name, or remember exactly how we were connected, but in the still handsome blue eyes there was the flicker of recognition.
“Hello, Grandpa Owl,” I said simply and I sat down on the edge of the bed with his favourite polar bear safely tucked up between us.