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Genes, ghosts and George

Left to right: MLO, George and our younger son on holiday in Spain

It’s deeply ironic that My Loved One should be succumbing to an age-related disease at this moment in his life. He finally became an orphan less than three years ago. Well, we knew that losing your last parent was the ultimate marker in attaining adulthood but we didn’t expect Ms Alzheimer’s to arrive on the scene almost before the “funeral baked-meats” were cold.

My father-in-law, George Frank Charles Elkin, died in October, 2014, just a few weeks short of his 90th birthday. And I am deeply thankful that he didn’t live another year or two to see his only child succumbing to Miss A because it would have been a hideous reversal of how things are meant to be.    George didn’t have Alzheimer’s. He was pretty deaf towards the end and a bit forgetful but perfectly sensible most of the time. He was just old.

When his father died, MLO was 69. They were separated by just 20 years. Back in 1944 George, 19,  knew that the army, which had just conscripted him  was about to send him to the Far East for a long stint. So he married his teenage sweetheart quickly while the going was good. A weekend’s leave a few week later meant that by the time George actually set sail for the Pacific Rim – where eventually he had to help deal with the aftermath of Japanese atrocities – his wife was pregnant with MLO.  He learned he was a father when the baby was a week old and didn’t actually see his first and only progeny until over a year later.

How, after all that, they ever settled down to become a proper family still astonishes and impresses me, but they did. MLO’s parents celebrated their diamond wedding just before her death in 2004.  George lived another ten years, most of them good ones. We took him on holiday several times with all his grandchildren and great grandchildren several times for example.

Now the reason I mention all this here is that something very odd happened when George died. MLO had never seemed to me to be in the least like his father in appearance, manner or outlook. If there were family likenesses at all it was his mother’s father and brother that MLO resembled. Well, you know how the Buddhists believe that when someone dies the soul is immediately reborn in another creature, human or animal? It was almost as if I was watching a version of that. From the moment that George breathed his last in Medway Hospital, MLO turned into him.

Logic, education and common sense tell me that it’s just the strange vagaries of genes combined with the influence of the demonic Ms A. But it feels disconcertingly uncanny when I hear George’s voice coming out of MLO’s mouth. The sound is slightly raspy and often higher pitched than it used to be. MLO also now makes exactly the same sort of (negative) remarks that his father would have done in precisely the same tone. And that’s new. When we were flying home overnight from Kuala Lumpur recently he thought the aircraft was “messing about” and that the pilot had turned off the engine.  I had to explain that we were cruising at 35,000 feet somewhere over Russia and that we’d be at Heathrow in 5 hours or so. “Huh!” he said contemptuously in George’s voice. “You’ve got more faith in British Airways than I have”.  If he were a mimic on a talent show, I’d give him full marks. Then there’s the slow trudging walk and small steps, all George could manage in his late eighties  – if I catch MLO out of the corner of my eye it’s like seeing a ghost. I do double takes all the time. And as for that silent hovering when I’m working …

What happened to that twenty years, the generation which separated MLO from his father, then? Gone. No wonder he frequently tells me that he feels he has been cheated of at least ten years of life.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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