Subverting the desk meme

Desk 1: Approximately 100 assorted magazines. Approximately 100 assorted cover CDs. Assorted printouts that should really go into the recycling. 2009 calendar from the Science Photo Library, showing April. A Jessops Photo gift voucher pack. A pen from Cwmconnell holiday cottages in Pembrokeshire. An iPhone 3GS 32GB (white). My HP Pavilion dv2000 laptop with a cheap pair of HMV headphones and a small Maplin optical mouse plugged into it. Half a bottle of water. A Dell Optiplex 760 PC. A pair of Sennheiser earbuds for my iPhone. A telephone. Two small M&S bags. A spiral-bound notepad and accompanying pen. An HB pencil and a red ball-point pen. Beyond: a large open-plan office.

Desk 2: Strictly speaking it’s not a desk; it’s a pine table that used to belong to my grandfather, and that he used as a desk. He was a civil engineer by trade; chief divisional surveyor, I seem to recall, and the man in charge of maintaining all the roads around here, but in his spare time he was an architect, and this table was home to his drawing board. When I was young and came to stay with my grandparents, I spent quite a bit of time accompanying Pete to measure up old buildings that he was converting; he seemed to spend more time doing that, or on the golf course, or mending clocks, than he did at the office. I’m not sure how long he carried on with the architecture after he retired; well into his seventies, and probably into his eighties.

In around 2006 he asked me if I’d act as his attorney and look after his finances if he became incapable; I was happy to do so and we drew up Enduring Power of Attorney papers both for him and my grandmother. In my mind it was an insurance policy of last resort; he had a brilliant mind and I couldn’t envisage a scenario when I’d actually have to use it. He was in his mid-eighties by then, becoming a little forgetful, but nothing you couldn’t attribute to old age. I figured he’d die before he got to a state when the EPA would have to be used.

Over the next couple of years he became increasingly quiet and withdrawn, harder to have a conversation with. He’d keep telling you the same things, about how he grew up in a pub, how his mother had had a parrot. Or reciting this rhyme from his schooldays:

Johnny finding life a bore, drank some H2SO4
Johnny’s father, an M.D., gave him CaCO
3
Johnny’s neutralized, it’s
true
But now he’s full of CO
2.

Christmas 2008 we had the family over for Christmas dinner. My prevailing memory is of a starter of smoked salmon and prawns, and Pete not having a clue what to do with shell-on king prawns. The next day I drove my grandparents to stay with my parents in Wales; as we were driving out of Keynsham Pete pointed out a pub that we were passing and announced that it was his father’s pub. It wasn’t.

From that point on, every time I saw him his state of mind was slightly worse. One time we visited and he was sitting on the sofa with a piece of paper, muttering to himself. He had his rhyme about Johnny and his H2SO4 written down and was reciting it over and over again. Even that was going.

My grandmother refused local authority help for as long as she possibly could, and I think went out of her way to try and hide the true extent of Pete’s mental deterioration. She eventually agreed to him going into respite care for a week at a time. We agreed that it was time to enact the EPA; part of this process was that I had to tell Pete what I was doing and why. He had no memory of setting it up, didn’t believe that he had any money to look after, but he seemed grateful that I was doing it for him, even if he wasn’t sure who I was any more.

The respite care continued, but there were problems. I took him to his respite care once; the first thing he said to me was, “You need a haircut.” Something he just wouldn’t have said before. Without thinking I took him in Philippa’s car, a two-door Yaris, and as my grandmother had to sit in the front Pete had to go in the back. Got him in okay, but when we got to the home he couldn’t figure how to get out. He collapsed into the rear footwell, shouting “I WANT OUT” like a trapped toddler; I managed to haul him out in the end. That was the last time I saw him.

After that stay we eventually heard from his social worker that the home wouldn’t have him back. He’d been aggressive towards the other residents, he took a dislike to television and tried to rip the set off the wall, he’d wander in the night and try to get into other people’s beds. The next place he went to, his aggression was worse, to the extent that at one point the night staff felt the need to call the police. He was kept there for a couple of weeks after that, then transferred to a secure geriatric unit in Bath for assessment.

After a few weeks there he settled a bit and we were able to find a home that would accept him and could cope with his aggression. He lasted just over a week there before they realised they couldn’t cope, and he was transferred back to hospital. He was refusing medication and food by this point.

Amazingly, after a few more weeks the hospital decided that his aggression was receding and that he could be transferred back to the home. By now he was spending more and more time in bed and by all accounts becoming more peaceful. A date was set for him to be moved on the next Tuesday; he died on the Saturday night, 21 November 2009.

His GP came to see my grandmother on the Monday morning; he said that in 15 years, Pete’s was the worst case of Alzheimer’s he’d ever seen. Also that Monday morning the social worker phoned to check that everything was ready to move him back to the home the next day; no-one had bothered to tell her. The funeral director came round that morning as well and it fell to me to outline what Pete wanted; all he’d ever told anyone else was that he wanted to be strung up outside the Bristol Hippodrome, but me he’d told that he simply did not want a funeral. He was adamant on this point. I compromised a little; the next week my grandmother and I saw saw him off at the crematorium, no service, just a favourite piece of music playing. We were in and out of the crematorium, just up the hill from the house he’d converted from a Victorian office building and where they’d lived for thirteen years before moving out to Keynsham 15 years ago, in five minutes.

He wasn’t a blood relation; he and my grandmother were childhood sweethearts, and then the war happened. He flew Spitfires and Mustangs, ditched in the sea twice. My grandmother married a Canadian, had my father, moved to Canada, came back. Pete married and had two sons. Then years later, probably around 1960, they got back together.

I didn’t get any genes from him, but my atheism and distrust of authority are down to his influence. He had an anarchic streak a mile wide; he also had a vicious streak, he could be manipulative, he could be a bully. I didn’t see much of that; he tended to keep it in check around me. I’m glad I didn’t get that from him. I didn’t get his practicality, his ability to make stuff, either.

I did, amongst other things, get this table, though. On it there’s a pint glass with a bit of water in the bottom, a blank CD that I put on top of the glass of water to stop the cat trying to drink it, a keyboard, a 19-inch widescreen monitor, a set of Logitech Z4 speakers, a 2009-2010 council tax bill, a wireless receiver for Xbox controllers, three mice (one of them working, two effectively dead as the PCs they’re for are in retirement under the table), an empty coffee cup, an Epson laser printer with a Canon 400D SLR sitting on the paper tray, a pile of unsorted mail interspersed with a Koyaanisqatsi DVD, a Microsoft Office DVD and a book about Premiere Elements 8, a Mighty Boosh Zippo-style lighter, a male-male phono adapter, a paperclip, two region 1 Avengers DVDs  (1967 series), two rings, a pen, a hair tie and a box of paracetamol and codeine painkillers (nearly empty).

Since you asked, like.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Subverting the desk meme

  1. josephruss

    Brilliant as ever, Jim.

    My grandmother and her sister, my great aunt, both went through horrific, character-changing mental deterioration through dementia before they died. Luckily I was quite removed from it all, because my dad and step-mother dealt with the worst of it, but I do fear the day when I have to go through this with my parents’ generation.

    • jedburgh

      Well, if you’re lucky you may not have to; I think as far as a cure’s concerned they’re talking timescales of something like ten years or so. I hope so, because the current state of dementia care is appalling.

      The really sad thing is that Pete saw it coming. Hence asking me to act for him, and around the same time he simplified the hell out of his finances, putting what he could into joint accounts and rationalising his investments.

  2. AK

    I’m just glad my ‘Desk’ nonsense spawned something worthwhile. Great post.

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