The visit


I BUY the card mostly out of habit. My grandmother's fingers are too frail to pick open an envelope and her eyesight is all but gone. Even if she were able to read the message inside it's been several years since either my name or hers have sparked any glimmer of recognition.
When I eventually enter the room I wait a few minutes, almost out of respect, then open the card myself and place it on the chest of drawers. Happy Birthday Nana! Well a birthday certainly, but hardly a happy one and if I'm honest the woman laid senseless on the bed isn't my Nana.  Not anymore.
Irene Roden was born on February 21st, 1926 - a full year before universal suffrage. She was still at school during the Abdication crisis and when Neville Chamberlain spoke to the nation from the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street. Her lifetime has spanned 17 Prime Ministers, 21 Olympics and the entire history of BHS (it opened within months of her birth and finally closed last year).
When I was younger I used to love talking about the past with Nana, probably aware even then that this was a living link to another world. Doodlebugs and darning needles. Copper baths and coronations...
It's very cruel to live through all that, still live and remember none of it. Nor her marriage, nor her children, nor the interwar semi where she lived for 60 odd years.
At one time, not even that long ago, we probably would have said that Nana had gone "a bit funny" or lost her marbles. Senile was the name people used when they were afraid to say dementia. Thanks to the extraordinary courage of people like Terry Pratchett, there is at last a sense that society is starting to speak properly about something which affects thousands of people.
Even now though, I think people who haven't looked it in the eye think of Alzheimer's as it is depicted in TV dramas. Old women leaving milk on the stove or muddling their names. That is how it starts yes, but it's a long way down from there.
Over the years I've seen my Nana, naturally a softly-spoken and gentle woman, transformed. Confusion turned to fear and then a sort of babbling madness. She would sit muttering to herself, glance around fearfully and occasionally shout out.
You'd come to cling to the small things. The affectionate squeeze she gave a bouquet of flowers that my Mum had bought her one Christmas. The smile when certain songs were played on the radio. The fact that she could complete Bruce Forsyth's catchphrase even after the names of her family had been smudged away like the words of a newspaper that she'd been clinging too tightly to.
Looking down now, even these things seem a long time ago. She doesn't move or even react when I say her name or reach out to touch her arm. There is music playing in the room but if she can hear it she doesn't let on.
As I stand there by the bedside I get angry. It's the sort of anger that comes from knowing there's nothing to be done but tries every door along the way. An anger that admits there's no-one to blame for this but won't stop until it has a full list of culprits.
I'm angry with myself for not visiting more, as if she's forgotten because I wasn't there to remind her. I'm angry for thinking that my own small problems - missing my old job, not sleeping well, the bus ride home each night - are anything compared to this. I'm angry because if I was still at the paper maybe I could do something more to help. I'm angry because the carer seems proud Nana's keeping down fluids and that the home "doesn't let them go without a fight." Maybe they fucking well should. Then I'm angry at myself again for hating a woman who is probably paid minimum wage to wipe shit off the walls at 3 in the morning. I'm angry at the NHS for deciding that a 91-year-old - at the point of being catatonic - is well enough to fund her own care. Cradle to the grave... Yeah right. I'm angry that people like Nana in places like these don't get a say. I'm angry that the home is staring into a financial abyss. I'm angry at the Tories for thinking that's okay and at people as a whole for thinking the Tories are okay. Are we so lacking in courage as a country that an MP who suggests that maybe everything doesn't work for everyone is branded a maniac and extremist. Or maybe it doesn't matter. May or Corbyn. Red or blue. My Nana would still be dying. Except right now it's the living which is hard to watch.
When I leave I have a whole list of things in my head because suddenly everything seems so urgent. I will go to the next constituency meeting. I'll chase that application I put in two weeks ago. I will see if I can find any mention of the clock in town which my Nana once told me that Hitler had vowed to stop. Lists made in haste, signed in fury, are quickly forgotten. Because that way you forget the anger as well and that's probably for the best.
But I promised that the one thing I would do is go back and write this down. That and a great many other things. Dig your fingers into the world and make sure it remembers, even if you forget.

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