On a few occasions I've mentioned that my father is ill, but I haven't gone any further. I think that maybe now is the time to tell you that he has Alzheimer's. He was diagnosed about three or four years ago and, as is the case with the disease, he's been declining with time. He's not at the very severe end of the spectrum at the moment - he's still essentially himself, but there are significant differences in him and he's certainly not the same person he has been. I think it's hardest for my step-mum who had to take early retirement in order to care for Dad, and of course with this role she is in the situation most of the time with little respite. I try to do what I can, help out when I can, but as my own health has declined it's been increasingly difficult to do this. I hate that. I want to help out. I want to make the most of Dad while there's as much of him there as there is. It's so hard to see him gradually decline, and know that one day he'll disappear.
Dad and my step-mum, B, are moving from Northumberland where they've lived in a very lovely house for several years back to Newcastle. This is partly to be closer to me, but mainly for increased access to services. Whilst the services for people with Alzheimer's seem to be very joined up in Northumberland, the area is so vast that there just aren't the quantity needed, and Dad and B are hoping that things will be better in this respect in the city. They'd been thinking about the possibility of moving just as global finances collapsed so delayed the move until now, and things have progressed very quickly. It took hardly any time for people to become interested in their house and to find a buyer, and equally little time for them to find a house they like, so all being well it'll progress smoothly, all the paperwork will go through quickly and it won't be long until they're living just a couple of miles from me, rather than the 25 or so miles north that they currently live from me.
Of course, one of the nightmare things of any house sale and move is the sorting, endless tidying, rationalising of belongings, and keeping on top of it once it's been done. They've done a huge amount, but one job that hasn't been done is to sort through a massive box of random photos that Dad inherited from his parents when they died. They're pretty much all of family of one kind or another, and mostly in black and white, and yesterday Dad and I started going through them, sorting them, trying to identify who's who and where. We've only made a tiny dint in the enormous pile protruding from the top of the box so we've a long way to go yet, but it's really interesting. Dad's never really told me all that much about his side of the family - Mum has always been much better about passing on family history - but now, as we've been sorting through the photographs little anecdotes have been coming out, and he's been talking about people in the family I'd never heard of. It's taken a bit of coaxing to get some of the stories out of him, not because of any reluctance, but because he kept forgetting what he was talking about or where he was up to, but then every so often he'd get into a bubble of memory and story would come back to him. Sometimes he'd start on one story, get distracted by a fleeting reference to something else and then start on another story. It didn't matter though. It was interesting. It's a lovely thing to be doing. While we were going through the photos we had B's digital dictaphone on so that we could record any little anecdotes. Most of the recording will be irrelevant and boring, but there'll be snippets that are well-worth hearing again and writing down as a more permanent record. One of the last photos we came across last night before we went downstairs for dinner is, we think, of my great-grandmother with my grandmother (nanny) as very young child - perhaps two or three years old. It took us a while to work it out, so we may be wrong, but I think not, and it feels suprisingly exciting.
Then there's a photo of one of Nanny's Irish cousins - one of those family members I hadn't known existed, although I did know that we had an Irish branch to the family tree. Anyway, the thing that struck me about the photo of this smart young man was how much he resembled my younger brother. This brother, C, was actually my cousin when he was born, but my aunt died when C was two years old and we adopted him. His older, half-brother was already living with his father, but he wasn't exactly what could be called a 'responsible' adult and having C grow up under his 'care' wasn't ever considered ... not that K ever showed any interest in adopting C, so far as I know. So yes, my aunt was my dad's sister, my younger brother was my cousin, and he bears a strong resemblence to this distant relative. It's amazing. I've seen a photo of C's Birth-Father, and I was struck then by the resemblence of C to him, and never really considered that C would have such strong resemblence to anyone else in the family (although he obviously has some features of closer relatives), but at first glance at the photo we came across of my grandmother's cousin (what relative is that to me??? I can never work these things out) I immediately saw C's smile. Weird, isn't it?
I really enjoyed going through those photos, and I'm looking forward to doing more. I'm gathering info about my own family history. I'm discovering the existence of people I never knew existed. I'm seeing resemblences where I never expected to see any. I'm finding out about my dad and his life, and soaking it all up before the memories disappear along with his brain function.