Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Two years ago tomorrow my grandmother passed away.

Well that’s not quite true, my grandmother, or Nagu (or Gran in Hungarian), suffered from dementia. The symptoms had been coming on slowly for years, so in a way she left us years before that day. Nagu had always lived very closely to our family. My mother and father bought a block of land and built their home two doors up from my mother's family home. Nagu continued to live in her house for awhile, but eventually moved into the flat attached to the back of my parents house. So we saw her every day, she cared for us, fed us, played with us and usually went everywhere we did! I guess because of this closeness, we didn't notice the little things for quite some time.

It has probably taken us the two years since her death to forget what dementia had done to her. To strip away the symptoms of memory loss, the vagueness, the change in her personality, the regression to childhood, the loss of communication as she forgot English and reverted to speaking in Hungarian, the inability to look after herself anymore.

In the last year of her life Nagu had to go and live in a home. This was a particularly heart breaking time for our family, as she still retained enough of her memory to know that she didn’t want to be there. As she’d had a tendency to wander at night, she was effectively in the lock down high security section of the nursing home, unfortunately her mobility rapidly deteriorated once in the home so this classification was meaningless, she wasn’t going anywhere! But this meant that the others in her section weren’t capable of social interaction, usually heavily sedated they sat around staring. Every time we visited she’d ask if we would take her home. I could keep it together during the visit, but would normally cry in the car on the way home.

This is a cruel, slow disease, one without dignity.

The last time I went to see her there, I knew it would in all likelihood be the last time I saw her. She wasn’t well. She had loved our dog Nigella, and it was wonderful that the home let her come with us to visit. Nigella nuzzled her hand, and whined in a funny way, Nagu smiled. Rob and I sat in her room whilst the nurse spoon fed her some lunch, but she wasn’t eating very well, she didn’t want to finish it. Afterwards I held her hand. It was cold and so small. My grandmother was always a tease; I remember she pretended to tickle my hand and smiled at me. In that moment there was a flicker of the old Nagu. She was tired and wanted to sleep. We said goodbye and told her that we loved her. Turning to leave, I got to the door, but walked back and kissed her one more time.

Two days later Nagu fell asleep with her son watching her, her breathing slowed and she left us.

Last week my parents were talking to me about the piano. It had belonged to my grandparents; I remember asking Nagu to play for us, and being delighted as she sang along to the music. When we were in primary school all five grandchildren took up piano lessons and the piano moved into our house. It has stayed there ever since, untouched for the last 10 years. My parents said they didn’t know what to do with it. They believed nobody wanted it. The words couldn’t come out quickly enough, “but it was Nagu’s we can’t get rid of it!” They looked surprised; I haven’t played since I was 15, I told them I’d love to have it. Mum admitted to feeling relief, as she didn’t want to get rid of it really!

So I have my legacy from Nagu. Not sure where it’s going to fit one day in the hut, but to me it provides a perfect memory of Nagu, before dementia took her away.


steve said...

What a lovely post Hazel.

Even though I am bemused by our irrational attachment to innate objects and no matter how many times I try to rationalize our fixation with them, I can't ever overcome that utter humanistic compulsion to weld them onto people we love.

Your Grandma's piano is like my Mums bike or like countless other motifs that we associate with a person s life.

Embracing their bits and bobs helps them resonate longer even if it marginelizes us in the short term as comsumerists of sorts but I can cope with that

Monique said...

This is a touching story and oh so familar to my experience with my grandfather. He lived with us for 22 years until we had to put Him into care because of dementia. What a soul destroying condition not only for the person it inflicts but their carers who do lose their loved one way before they actually lose them.

You will treasure that piano for years and maybe even generations.

Thankyou for sharing your story Hazel.

Hazel said...

Steve- Thanks, I know it's totally irrational. But it also means that my silly promise to start playing again will have to be kept!

Monique, it's tough isn't it? I'm sure there are a lot of us out there who have experienced a similar loss. It certainly was heartbreaking to visit the home, it made me think about making the most of time you have with people, a cliche I know. But the stark reality of what the end of your life could be like is scary. I certainly will treasure the piano- and hope that you have something that reminds you of your grandfather.

Veronica said...

I'm so glad you've kept her piano.

She sounds like she was an amazing woman. ((hugs)) xx

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