The good thing about being part of a creative writing group is the challenge to write ‘on the spot’. For me, this gives the chance to go with whatever first comes to mind within a specific theme. Today’s challenge was to write something starting with, “All I want for Christmas …”. I did go with my first thought but couldn’t read it out; too raw. I can, however, post it here.
All I want for Christmas is to see mum once more, and for last Christmas not to have been … the last. Would she speak with dementia wit after Christmas lunch with her party hat on and her plate empty? “What are you doing for Christmas, dear?”
When I visit Aberdeen, I am at home though I have never lived there. At the beach, I see my lovely dad, imagine his steps in the sand. This was a place he loved but will sadly never visit again since he had a massive stroke in 2015. I wonder what it is like never to go home again.
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At the Falls of Feugh I imagine dad, mum, Jean, Myra and Betty (my dad’s sisters and my aunts). I gasp at the rush of the water and the bellow of emotion, of disbelief that only Jean and dad remain – the oldest and the youngest of the clan.
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At The Ashvale Restaurant, I think of the last time I was there with Jean. She was walking with a stick by then but still spritely. When we came out of the restaurant the plan had been to catch the bus back to her flat but she got going and decided she’d walk, after all. I picture her getting going, her little legs hurtling along as if she wouldn’t stop.
I go to Bagels and Stuff; it is just round the corner from Thistle Court where my aunts lived. There are so many memories of Thistle Court, yet Bagels and Stuff is my own memory supplanted when all seemed impossible. I feel comfortable there; the staff know my order and that is immeasurably reassuring.
Aberdeen: The Granite City. Union Street continues to bustle along. My favourite clock ticks and turns if not quite in time; I wait beneath it for the soldiers to start twirling to the tune of Magic Roundabout.
Every step, tread, pace, stride, I am there behind one of my relations; stepping where they have surely been, treading their memories, pacing to the sound of their voices, striding to their tune. Today I feel it as sharply as the brisk walk of my aunt heading jauntily across Union Street, before Union Square had been conceived. I am with them all; I am home.
“Home: the place where one lives permanently”. Though maybe I, like the salmon at Feugh, return by instinct to the place I feel safe, I belong.
On 5 November 2015 my Auntie Betty died. She was 87, lived in a nursing home and had lived with dementia for many years. I realised in the difficult first weeks following her death, how much Betty changed my perception of dementia over the years; what a positive view she presented of what is so often dubbed a cruel disease, a disease that steals life away … I am glad no one has trailed out one of those tired and untrue phrases such as ‘it’s probably for the best’ because I don’t see it that way at all.
Betty’s life was not stolen by dementia. She continued to live, to communicate, though she could verbalise very little, and to enjoy life. This is not the view of dementia that we see yet Betty has proven that it is possible to continue to be yourself, to make the most of life, to grasp the care that is offered and keep on living. She surprised us all when she died as she had been so well; smiling, interacting, being part of life. The time from rapidly failing health to death was quick, she did not suffer and was peaceful at the end.
The Betty I had always known was very much there to the end, regardless of dementia; it did not define her and it was not all she was. She was a sister, an aunt, a great aunt and a great great aunt. She lived and worked in Inverness as a civil servant. Betty could knit like no one else I have ever known; Fair Isle knits, any kind of complex knit you could ask of her. If she was growing up in current times, she could have made a fortune. She was, for many, many years, a Brownie Guide Leader and gave herself fully and enthusiastically to the role. A calm person, a quiet person, a private person, yet she was able to hold the attention of countless young girls over the years; some, no doubt, wished she was their auntie and I feel lucky that she was mine. Betty learned to drive at a time when few owned cars, fewer less young single women. She owned and drove a car for years – for as long as I can remember a mini, dubbed ;The Min’. Betty loved her cars and, assumably, the independence that went with them; she was devastated to have to stop driving when the early stages of dementia forced her hand. She moved from Aberdeen to Inverness to pursue her career in the Civil Service; again, unusual for a young woman in those times.
After her retirement, Betty moved back to Aberdeen and lived with her two sisters, Myra and Jean. The three of them shared holidays and interests, from bowling to the Girl Guiding Movement, to crafts, to walking; they were always active. I wonder now how difficult it was for Betty to move back ‘home’; she had carved her own life in Inverness through her work, had her own friendships and life there. When the flat ‘the aunties’ lived in was cleared at the point when Jean, the eldest, also moved into Angusfield House Care Home, we found all Betty’s retirement cards. There were so many and the affection toward her, the respect for this quiet woman, was clear to see.
To me, Betty was always there. She was one of those people who, perhaps, was more in the background, yet that gave a sense of safety, security and I hope I never took it for granted. She loved her family deeply. I have a memory that brings a lump to my throat very time I think of it, which was when I took her sister, Jean, to see her last February. Jean had been unwell and unable to visit Betty at the care home though, previously, she had visited several times a week. When Jean went into the lounge and sat down, the two sisters looked at each other and grinned; Betty said a few words – simple and evocative; ‘Jean, Jean’. She was so obviously pleased to see her sister and there was absolutely no doubt she knew who Jean was despite not seeing her for about six months.
Was Betty just lucky? Did she happen to have a contented dementia that is denied others? I don’t think so. I believe there are a number of factors that contributed, though I do accept such contented dementia is not evident for all, whatever their circumstances. One was continued family support and contact, primarily from her elder sister, Jean, who carried on visiting regularly until her own health prevented this. The rest of us visited too but, living in England, whilst Betty lived in Aberdeen meant that, though visits were regular, they were rather more spread out. (It is possibly easier and cheaper to get to Spain than Aberdeen) Then there was the care and love Betty received at the home she lived; Angusfield House Care Home in Aberdeen. She had gone from home to hospital as her health declined some four years ago; when she emerged from hospital to the home we all feared the worst as she was so frail and ‘switched off’. Angusfield nourished her in all manner of ways. As well as having good food and staff with the time and patience to feed her (Betty had always eaten slowly), they realised quite quickly that she would be better off in the downstairs part of the home rather than the ‘Dementia Unit’. This proved to be an inspired move; Betty slowly came alive again, began smiling and being part of things; it was a wonderful transformation. Each time I visited, she looked stronger somehow and was taking her place in life and living it. The last time I saw her was just a few weeks before she died; she had been smiling, holding my hand, alert and very much part of life at the home. The affection for her from the staff at the home was evident; I could see they enjoyed engaging with her, celebrated every small part she grasped in her life.
When I got the phone call telling me that Betty was very ill it was hard to compute with how she had been, hard to remember that she was, despite how well she had seemed, frail and vulnerable due to her advanced dementia. I had been on alert due to Jean, Betty’s sister, having been so unwell, expecting and dreading the phone call saying she had deteriorated, or worse, yet here was a call about Betty; it was hard to take. I knew, from the gentle yet honest way the staff members spoke to me that there was no hope of improvement; Betty’s end was close. Today, I am sitting finalising this writing the day before her funeral; arrangements are made, announcements out, plans in place … I have visited Jean at the home several times, we have cried together, we have reminisced; it is so strange to be there and for there to be no Betty who had become so part of the place. It was, without any doubt, her home and, I admit, I never imagined I would say that. I have worked as an advocate with older people living in many residential care homes and I don’t remember one where it seemed it was their home; it is good to have had my view changed.
Why ‘Wearing Blue for Betty’? Simple really, blue was her favourite colour and I have been wearing something blue in her memory and in honour of this lovely, special auntie, ever since she died. It signifies her life, her as a whole person, everything that she was. It is a reminder that dementia did not steal her, or her life, from either her or others who loved her. I am wearing blue for Betty and I am proud to have known her; I am humbled by her dignity, her quiet determination, and how she lived with dementia.
I wrote this about my Auntie Myra when she died in 2006 and thought I had lost it until I came across it recently during a sort out of drawers. I decided not to edit it because it was written from the heart in the way you can only express at the time of such an event.
Myra’s life was not without difficulty. At 14 her mother died and she left school to “keep house”. That’s how it was in those times; she cleaned and cooked and cared for my father, who was 11, and the rest of the family. I never heard her complain about it in later life; Myra was not the complaining sort. Instead, she got on and made the best of life.
My memories of her from childhood are of a fun, energetic and generous aunt who baked mountains of cakes of seemingly endless varieties. It seemed to me that the contents of those vast and many cake tins never diminished; magically, there were always more to come. I also remember the speed at which she went everywhere and the way she crossed the lights on Union Street, in Aberdeen, diagonally. Off she would go clutching my hand – a jay walker of her time. To me it seemed she had no fear.
The family holidays I remember always had Myra and my other 2 aunts, Jean and Betty, in them. The jumpers and kilts my sister and I wore, shown in now ageing photographs, were made with love by those same aunts. As a child it seemed to me there was nothing that Myra could not do.
Later, when I had my own daughter, I remember the delight in Myra’s face at first meeting her great niece; this first meeting a very special moment. My daughter was about 9 or 10 weeks at this time and we stayed a week with ‘the aunties’ as they were always collectively known to me. We were both spoilt that week in only the way that aunties can spoil their nieces. More than that, though, I remember Myra being fiercely protective of me as a single parent with a new baby. She may not have had children herself, yet she knew so much – both instinctively and from her years working as a Girl Guide leader. She talked to me on walks in Hazelhead and Duthie Park about some of those Girl Guides – she had cared much for them too.
In her latter years Myra’s health had not been so good yet her spirit, that unique sense of Myra, remained throughout. The last time I was in Aberdeen for a visit, she had slipped in and out of conversation, sometimes in the present and sometimes returning to the past. When I produced a camera, though, she leapt up, linked arms with me and turned to smile at me as we had our picture taken. I have that photograph but do not need it as the image is firmly in my mind. It is how I will remember my aunt, Myra, and is a warm memory.
We will all miss her. The idea of there not being 3 aunties as there has always been is inconceivable and, for Jean and Betty, I cannot imagine the gap Myra’s death leaves. For my dad, too, the loss of a dear sister and the woman who stepped in and did the very best she could when their mother died. And for my mum, more than just a sister-in-law; one of three true friends she made as the young woman who fell in love with and married their brother, my dad. We will all remember Myra in our own ways and with that piece of herself she gave to each of us.
Wherever she travels now, may it be in peace – it is what she deserves and is what we would all want for her. One thing is certain, she will be travelling at speed like she did across Union Street in Aberdeen, her home town.
I was in my car today, listening, as I often do on long journeys, to music. As well as tuning in to the music, I realised I was savouring the words. It has been many years since I listened to John Denver and I had downloaded one of his albums recently. I had forgotten how much I loved the purity of his voice but, also, his lyrics. Here is a musician who can tell a story through a song, the words conjuring up far distant mountains, a love of the country, a gentle humour. In particular, I noted the words of Sweet Surrender, where he reminds us to let go and live ‘without care’, using the analogy of a ‘fish in the water’ and a ‘bird in the air’.
By contrast to the calm, quiet of John Denver, I played ‘500 miles’ many times over; it’s one of my much loved travel tunes. The Proclaimers with their broad Scottish brogue belting it out for all their worth. Still it tells a story, a tale of a man who would do anything for his love, even walk 500 miles and then 500 more. It reminds me of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 and the stadium adopting it as its anthem to celebrate the winning of medals; pure gold as the saying goes.