Forget Me Not
Grandpa watches me enter from a world he’s liable never to see again. Beyond the razor coils there lies a town he helped build, restaurants he used to dine at, parks and gardens that are as familiar to him as the tattoo on his right shoulder. That world exists only in his head now.
At seventy-two, Grandpa possesses a body that many men half his age would be glad to own. His boilermaker’s physique still makes a considerable impression - even in his loose prison smock. As a boy I used to visit grandpa in his workshop. Seeing him in his singlet, all muscular and veiny, made me start lifting weights in my teens. But I’m not a patch on the old man. Hisa is the kind of body sculpted by years of hard work; a body that, even with today’s conditioning programs, would be hard to replicate.
As strong as that body looks, the atrophy has already set in. It’s a decay born of broken spirit rather than old age. I’m sure he doesn’t regret it. It was an act of love after all. But that’s no consolation to a man doomed to live out his days behind bars. It’s this conflict that gnaws at grandpa every waking moment; that distracts him from my visits. Behind the glass he sits, chewing on his bottom lip, too preoccupied with his own torment to listen to what I have to say.
“Mum’s dropping by next week.”
He nods but, really, I could be telling him anything.
“She was meant to come by today but she had a dental appointment.”
“Well, I’ll be seeing you grandpa.”
There’s a shift in his expression as I get up to leave. A slight confusion registers. But he doesn’t say anything. I assume he’s still pondering the dilemma that only he can solve. I drive home, ruing another wasted visit.
Grandma was already fast deteriorating when she and grandpa celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. Over a hundred guests gathered in a rented hall decked out with streamers, balloons and a large photographic display spanning their fifty years together.
I could sense the despair in grandpa then as grandma struggled with the names of people she’d known all her life. She lost the thread of conversations; she’d break off mid-sentence and move onto an unrelated topic or just stop altogether and turn her attention elsewhere. The guests smiled sympathetically at grandpa, tried not to show too much pity, although for people who hadn’t seen grandma in a while it was hard not to pass comment. This was a woman who’d once devoured crosswords, cryptic too.
Naturally people were shocked by what they saw.
Grandpa spent even more time in his shed. He rejected suggestions that grandma would be better off in a “home”. Those who offered such advice weren’t spoken to again. I tried to skirt the issue. I asked grandpa if things were getting too much for him.
“Don’t even think about it,” he warned, tightening his vice around a piece of metal. “Look at what Leo did. You don’t do that to your partner.”
Leo McCarthy was grandpa’s next door neighbour. Leo had his wife assessed for a nursing home after he came home one day to find her polishing his golf trophies with shoe shine. Grandpa lost respect for Leo after that.
In the dusky light of his shed grandpa took out his frustration on metal and wood. At any hour of the day he could be found banging, sawing or grinding something to oblivion. Grandma was the unseen presence inside. Because most people knew where to find grandpa very few went to the house first. Those who did had to look twice when they saw grandma. Gone was the stoical matriarch; in her place a shrivelled invalid hunched in her chair. She regarded people with no more interest than if they were a piece of furniture. She’d mutter a few unintelligible words then crane her neck past them to the television. Eventually everyone headed straight for the shed.
The more time grandpa spent in his shed the more estranged he became from grandma. His relationship changed from husband to care-giver. Feeding, cleaning and bathing were punctuated by long stints in the workshop. He couldn’t bear the thought of placing her in a nursing home yet he wasn’t spending any quality time with her either.
“Have people forgotten what a marriage vow is?” was his answer to anyone who thought he could do with some respite. “For better or for worse if I remember correctly.”
Grandpa became unpleasant to be around. He lost his sense of humour, grew snappy and hostile. People stopped seeing him. If it wasn’t for the nostalgia I felt each time I entered that twilit workshop I’d have stopped seeing him too.
When grandpa arrived on our doorstep clutching one of grandma’s slippers we looked at each other to confirm our separate fears. The old man stood there trembling, chewing on his bottom lip.
“She just fell asleep in her chair.”
His eyes flitted between us. Grandma’s slipper was bent and twisted in his strong hand.
“She just…fell asleep.”
While we all knew that grandma wasn’t going to last another ten years, none of us had expected grandpa to arrive at the front door so soon - and certainly not in such a harried state. I’d always imagined grandma passing away peacefully in her sleep, grandpa breaking the news gently over the phone one morning.
“When did it happen?” mum asked, holding dad’s arm for support.
“After lunch. She finished her tea and went to sleep. She just…went to sleep.”
Toxicology reports proved grandpa correct. Grandma did go to sleep after drinking her tea. Later when the police interviewed him, grandpa admitted to slipping “a little something” in grandma’s tea to help her relax. It was the coroner’s verdict that whether premeditated or not, grandpa had slipped enough “little something” in grandma’s tea to relax her to death.
And so began our visits. It would be easier if we knew that grandpa got some enjoyment from them. But he treats us like strangers. It’s mum I feel sorry for - she being his only child and all. She clings to my hand when we go shopping, bravely warding off stares and whispers. My metacarpals get a good working over when she bumps into a neighbour and braces herself for the inevitable question.
“How’s he coping?”
They almost never mention his name or refer to him as her father. It’s as if they don’t want to shame her any further by acknowledging her relationship with the said prisoner. Mum tilts her hand in a fifty/fifty gesture. “Oh you know. He has his moments.”
She never delves deeper than this. The truth is reserved for those of us who visit grandpa once a month - sometimes twice as happens to be the case this month.
“Look who’s here grandpa!”
But this time even mum’s presence fails to lift him. It’s as if the glass filters all the warmth and love from our speech. I tell mum maybe I should step away for a minute. Give her and grandpa some time alone. But she squeezes my hand so I stay.
Leaning closer, I breathe on the glass. “I got an A for my history project. It was about the First Fleet.”
I look over my shoulder at mum. She nods for me to continue. “I was going to do one on the war, the First World War, but that was already taken. The only topics left were the First Fleet and the women’s suffrage movement - that’s the right to vote.”
Grandpa’s eyes begin to well with tears but I hardly notice. I’m on a roll now. “Did you know that Australia was actually the second nation to grant women the vote? Mrs Anderson says New Zealand was the first.”
Mum, who has noticed the tears, leans in beside me. “What’s wrong dad?”
I happily dispense with my school achievements for it’s the first time grandpa has shown any emotion since being inside. It takes a while for the old man to collect his thoughts.
“They…they all said I did it to save her dignity.”
“That’s right,” mum says, brightening at grandpa’s sudden willingness to talk. “You didn’t want to see her suffer.”
Grandpa frowns at this perfectly reasonable hypothesis. “No,” he says gravely. “No, that’s not why I did it.”
Mum takes my hand again. This time she doesn’t let go. Dad never visits anymore. He doesn’t see the point. “The old man never acknowledges us anyway,” he says. I wish dad were here now.
“Time’s almost up,” whispers the corrections officer behind us.
We wait anxiously for grandpa to continue. But his train of thought has been derailed.
“Tell me dad,” mum urges. “Tell me why you did it.”
But grandpa just sits there, chewing his lip. Mum and I exchange a troubled glance. I try to picture grandpa in his work singlet but the image won’t take anymore. All that exists of grandpa is this confused spectre of a man behind the glass. I realise there’s an uncanny parallel with grandma’s own deterioration and I look to mum to see if she’s noticed it. But she’s already on her feet. I want to tell grandpa I understand, that we all understand why he did it, but I sense the prison officer’s impatience.
On the way out mum says something that disturbs me. “I don’t know if I can come here anymore.”
“But we’re all he’s got!”
“I know. It’s just…” She starts to cry and I put an arm around her.
I peer over her shoulder at the high walls. A plastic bag is caught in the wire.
I think back to that fateful day, grandpa standing on the doorstep with grandma’s slipper in his hand. What if he hadn’t meant to kill her? What if it had been merely the start of his own decline? The plastic bag flutters against the razor teeth, not going anywhere.
Finally mum takes my hand. “Come on,” she says, clearing her nose. “I’ll buy you something to eat.”
Christian Fennell is a 32 year old Melbourne writer whose short fiction has appeared in various print and online publications including Quadrant, Ripples, Miranda and AustralianReader.com as well as having been commended in a number of short story contests.
Fennell writes: “‘Forget Me Not’ explores the ripple effect of Alzheimer’s Disease on an everyday family, a disease that not only destroys the afflicted, but those most close to her. The ending is deliberately ambiguous: did the grandfather deal his wife a merciful overdose or was it an accident, the onset of his own dementia?”
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