My Mad Dad: The Diary of an Unravelling Mind, published last month, is the antithesis of “yet another Alzheimer’s book”. It’s raw, visceral, poignant and I cried for so long at the end that I didn’t dare go downstairs for a while in case My Loved One noticed. As it is, I don’t think this is one I’m going to be downloading to his Kindle (normally we share download titles) because I suspect it would tear him to shreds and what would be the point?
When she was 25 Robyn Hollingsworth went home to Pontypool, where she grew up, to help her mother with her Alzheimer’s-smitten father. She stayed for eight months at the end of which time both her parents were dead.
Yes, Robyn’s parents, who were only in their sixties, suffered the much feared fate which hovers nightmarishly over all couples living with Alzheimer’s. Her mother, always very fit, active, still working and never ill, quite suddenly succumbed to cancer and died very quickly leaving the titular “Mad Dad” a widower. Cue for this reader’s blood to run cold. Suppose that happened to me. What would become of MLO who is increasingly dependent on me for everything from telling him what day of the week it is, to administering his pills and reminding him to sterilise his denture? Best not to go there. One day at a time and all that.
Robyn kept a searingly honest diary during those eight months. Now, ten years later, she has dug it out and My Dad Dad is the pretty stunning result. Sometimes, in the early months, she is wryly amused. She is often angry and exasperated. Sometimes she says furious things to her Dad which she regrets afterwards – and goodness knows, I identify with that. She is also, by implication, dealing with a few demons of her own. She hints that her London life as a fashion buyer, whose main leisure activity was heavy drinking with “friends”, was going wrong and that she wasn’t all that sorry to leave it. Yet she misses the buzz and is witty about the contrast of small town life in Wales.
Her dad – she never tells us his name – had been a talented and successful engineer who worked all over the world. Robyn was born in Dubai and her rather marvellous brother Gareth, who’s five years her senior, in Kenya. He’s been a loving and adored father and a very competent man. Now he struggles to make a cup of coffee, on one occasion serving it to his wife in a large soup bowl. He also cusses aggressively much of the time (thank goodness I don’t – yet? – have to deal with that). Later he frequently forgets that Robyn has come home to stay and thinks, for example, that she’s popped home from university. But it gets worse and there’s a horrifying incident in which he fails to recognise her altogether, mistakes her for a burglar and grabs the carving knife. The pain and grief of watching your lovely Daddy succumb to this is almost unimaginable.
Losing your parents is a terrible experience, irrespective of your age and whatever the circumstances, for which nothing can prepare you. My parents died in 1997 and 2001. Neither had Alzheimer’s. They were a crucial part of my life for half a century and they leave a gaping hole which nothing will ever fill. I still think of them every day and often chat to them, especially to my mother, in my head. I agree with Robyn that it’s nonsense to suggest that time heals. It doesn’t. It simply gives you the space to learn to live with the loss. You grow up knowing, vaguely, that one day your parents will die and that it’s part of the generational pattern of life but I’m not sure most of us accept that fact until it’s staring you in the face.
So I sympathise deeply with Robyn who went through these horrors at quite a young age. Her parents died within months of each other too – instant orphanhood. On the other hand, because of her relative youth she has a future – and it’s a bright one. She admits it took her a long time to sort herself out but she is now happily married (to someone she originally met in primary school – how wonderful!) and she and Andy are expecting their first child in a few weeks. She has also just published this compelling book which has enjoyed a huge amount of publicity with big features in several national newspapers. I expect sales are good and I’m delighted for her.
It’s very different for someone in my position. When you’re more of less the same age (I’m younger than MLO but not by much) as the person you’re caring for, there is no future. Only bleakness and decline await. You somehow have to get your head round the peculiar idea that most of your “future” is behind you. You try to enjoy happy memories of how things used to be but, however much you work at it that’s never going to be quite as good as looking forward to things.
In short, Alzheimer’s is hideous but maybe, just maybe, marginally less so when it’s a parent than a for-life spouse.
Click this link to buy My Mad Dad