It’s terrifying, the thought of not being able to remember anyone or anything that has been an important part of your life. It scares me more than the thought of dying alone.
I was randomly reading online yesterday, when I suddenly remembered something I wanted to read about, and by the time I had opened a new window to search for it, I had already forgotten what it was. In two seconds. I had blanked out. I had absolutely no clue what I’d been wanting to search, and I had a mild panic attack. For some strange reason, I was suddenly reminded of my late grandfather, my mom’s dad, who had Alzheimer’s towards the end of his life.
I’ve never told you about my grandfather, have I? A finer man, I’m yet to come across. P.V.Damodaran Nambiar, even the name commands respect. No, he was not like the quintessential grandfather in your huge old ancestral home, plump with a booming voice and an ever-forgiving nature, who chewed betel leaves and gave you toffees. He was tall, more than 6 foot tall, thin as a reed, with pure white hair and beard, ala M.F.Hussain. People on the roads would point to him in wonderment, thinking he was M.F.Hussain. For as far back as I can remember, he’d been like that. He was soft spoken and walked with a slight hunch. He was quick to scold if we did something he didn’t like, but just as quick to appreciate if we did something good. He had nimble fingers, which I admired a lot. I was his favourite, because I was the youngest. He was my favourite among all my grandparents, don’t know why. He was also the most respected among his family members, and the most loved among friends.
He had had a tough life, with being the eldest of a large number of siblings and his father passing away quite early on. He took care of everyone.
And for me, maybe I loved him so much- I think I was more in awe of him than anything else- because I used to love the way he spoke English, weird as that may seem. I feel- and would strongly like to believe- that I picked up the love for the language from him. After he passed away, when we were at our native place, my uncle and I were cleaning up the old house, when we found a stack of old diaries belonging to him. Even the daily entries, the mundane points, were so impeccably written. And his handwriting was like perfect italics font.
Old age struck him with a vengeance, having no mercy. He had varicose veins, bronchial ailments, cataract, and the worst of them all, dementia, which the doctor told was the starting of Alzheimer’s. Oh it’s a terrible thing to happen, dementia. It draws away from you, slowly, painfully, what was rightfully yours- your memories- and leaves you with a ghost of an old man. Towards the end, he had no memory of us, he didn’t recognize any of us, except for in flashes. He lived in the past. The past where he was younger, maybe happier, with all his children with him, his beloved three children who he loved so much, and who loved him just as much. The past where he was a handsome young man- he was just as handsome when he was old- riding his bullet and picking up his daughters from school.
I had spent an entire summer with him, my grandma, my mom and my uncle, in that rambling old house in Nadapuram. I’ll never forget that summer, I don’t wish to, because it was then, when my grandfather could no longer remember me, that I grew more fond of him. I developed a new affection and respect for him. We all used to sleep in the huge master bedroom upstairs, some on bed, some on floors, because we had to constantly keep an eye on him. He would wake up suddenly, walk to the window, mumbling, holding on to the bars and looking outside into the night, refusing to come back to bed sometimes, and suddenly he would look at me, smile, and I would see a flash of recognition in those beautiful wise eyes, and I would hopefully smile in return, hopeful that at least now, he would pat my head and call me Ammu..But just as soon as it came, the moment would be gone. And I remember thinking, I wish I were a part of his past, at least then he would remember me.
What would it be like, to not remember anything anymore? To be surrounded by people who you don’t recognize anymore? To be bathed and fed like a baby, after living a full, active life where you never depended on anyone for anything? To wake up suddenly in the middle of the night and not know what time of the day it is, because time is not really a factor for you anymore? It’s terrifying. I always used to wonder, what would he be thinking, what is going through his mind, if only I had a way to know.
I have seen the pain my mom and everyone else has been through, taking care of him. He reached a point where he couldn’t even go to the bathroom on his own. It’s not easy, you know, taking care of your aging parents the same way they took care of you when you were a baby. There’s no excitement and joy and pride. There’s just a lot of sorrow and pain, and sometimes sympathy, for this person who was your hero at one point of time. But every hero falls sometime or the other, doesn’t he? I hope I have the courage to do it when the time comes, god forbid.
Dear Manavi, I wish you knew him, your grandfather, our ‘velyacchan’. A better man hasn’t walked this earth*, and never shall.
* From Anita Nair’s book, The Better Man.