Apart from the hostess, I knew no one else at the demolition party. I was therefore very grateful to strike up a conversation with a lady holding a glass of apple juice.
She’d recently watched a play performed by one of her grandchildren. It revolved around a family whose soldier son was missing, presumed dead. After the war, another lad turned up, claiming to be their son. Amazingly, he demonstrated incredible insight into their home, family and town.
My new friend explained:
‘The lad who turned up was actually their son’s friend. The two young men had been in the trenches together, where there was nothing to do, no iPhone, no texting. They just talked and talked. This lad had no family of his own. He had heard his friend’s stories so often, and so much wanted a family that he inhabited his dead friend’s persona.’
My friend then told me she used to work in a nursing home and care for some of the residents with dementia.
‘The residents used to repeat stories of their life over and over again. I’d listen each time as if I were hearing it for the first time, showing interest, paying attention and commenting.
‘One of the residents had been a teacher during the Great Depression. She persuaded the principal to provide sandwiches at school because the students didn’t have enough to eat. She was a single lady and had some fashionable friends. She used to collect dresses from her friends. She then gave them to the mothers of her students, mothers who took care of the rest of the family and seldom had anything for themselves.
‘As the teacher aged, she repeated stories of her childhood more often because with dementia the earliest memories are the last to go. Towards the end of her life, she could no longer speak. Sometimes she would get tired and upset at the end of the day – the Sundown Syndrome. She couldn’t speak but she would make these noises.
‘One evening when she was upset I went over to her and said “I am going to tell you your story”. I could do this because hearing is one of the last senses to go. Also, I had heard her childhood stories so many times that I could visualise them and repeat them to her. Remember, I had been at the nursing home for a very long time.
‘So I said, “When you were a little girl, you lived in this seaside town, in a double-storey house and your father was the postmaster. Your brother was five years older than you and your sister was five years younger. And you used to go upstairs and stand on the bath and look out of the tall window and watch the ships sail into port.”
‘All this while, I had my hand gently on her arm, and I’m praying for her too. As I repeated her story to her, she calmed right down.’
I raised a hand to wipe away a tear.
I thought to myself: how incredible. Through the fog of dementia, the teacher heard and recognised the story of her childhood. The story, the voice, the touch formed a connection that said: I know you; I understand you. What comfort that must have been to this teacher, once so full of life and ideas, now locked into herself, unable to speak or communicate.
Precious is the story that brings peace. The story would have been lost if no one had listened, if no one had remembered. To listen attentively so many times till you can visualise and repeat a story is surely a gift, a gift that you might one day return to the giver.
It was late and time to leave. I said my goodbyes. As I walked out into the night, I looked back at the old house that would soon be bulldozed. The family will live somewhere else, but only temporarily. Once their new house is ready, they will return.