Crackers used to fly freely around our old Oxfordshire farmhouse. He was free to escape, but he never did, and free to sit with us, which he did often. His favourite perch was Grandpa Budgie’s head. It was obvious from quite early on that our pet macaw, a handsome green bird who liked to dig his wrinkled black hands into a well-endowed head, preferred creatures of his own sex. The appeal of Grandpa’s trim white-grey hedge was greater than that of my brother’s schoolboy’s shrubbery. It came with the added bonus of setting off his own fantastic South American plumage, as well as the dry black tongue of which he was rather proud and which used to slip out sluggishly to test the silkiness of the hair beneath his talons.
It happens that my grandmother, Granny Budgie – my grandparents were named by us after the 40 or so budgerigars they have kept, since long before I was born, in an aviary adjoined to the large kitchen window next to the breakfast table – cannot stand dreary colours. She has always ensured that my grandfather is well-dressed. His impressive spectrum of shirts and knitwear ranges from turquoise to emerald, so there’s also the possibility that Crackers mistook Grandpa for one of his own.
But I like to think that Crackers chose Grandpa because he was the most upright member of the family. Pets, like children, can rebel against the personalities that their adoptive parents project on them. Too late, I now suspect that we had given this bird the wrong name. Crackers was an old fashioned and discerning soul, quite dry, wise too, and much cleverer than we as children might ever have been able to recognise. We spent hours trying to teach him to echo our ‘hello, hello, hellos’; instead he learned to imitate with pitch-perfection the sound of the iron-spray (which doubled as his morning shower) and the ring of the telephone.
That was years ago when Grandpa was fit and healthy, and still working every day as a farmer. Now Grandpa is approaching the mature stages of Alzheimer’s disease, still living in the old house that the two of them have transformed over the years. It’s a house full of memories, though he would never be so sentimental to think of it in that way. I often think how lucky he is to still be free to wander around those beautiful large rooms and twisty corridors, and out into the garden, around the lakes and up into the orchard.
The more I learn about Alzheimer’s, the less I know. It’s a disease of many contradictions. I remember early on being told that Grandpa was losing his memories like pages dropping at random from a book, and it seemed to make sense because he can still now narrate some chapters brilliantly, like the one where he meets Granny. The healthy brain weighs around three pounds, but the average Alzheimer’s brain weighs 40% less than that when it finally gives up (the lost pages, perhaps?). I recently discovered, though, that one of the great misconceptions about the disease is that memories never drop away completely. They just become harder to access, but are still possible with sensory stimulants like seeing a familiar face. I am sure that Grandpa’s daily flights around those somehow familiar nooks and crannies on the farm are helping to keep him and his memories alive.
Not many of our visual memories are hardwired. One Alzheimer’s manual lists those that are, rather pleasingly, as sunshine, smiles, and the fireplace. In terms of survival, the sun, top of the food chain, needs little explanation. I would have thought that the fireplace was linked with danger, but author John Zeisel suggests it is the original place of human social gathering, and claims to have observed Alzheimer’s patients being inexplicably drawn to it. A smile, of course, is the most instantly recognizable sign in the universal dictionary of emotion. For the Alzheimer’s sufferer this common language is trumped only by sound. Humans respond to music as eight month old foetuses, before we can even see. Similarly, birds’ brains are hardwired to respond to the sound of their own species’ song; even if a bird is raised in the nest of another species, it will grow up singing the song of its own kind. Research also indicates that songs expressing emotions are likely to have predated human language. No wonder then that Grandpa can pass me in the garden like a stranger – only later to be whistling along to Blondie with a profound confidence and tunefulness that we never knew in his pre-Alzheimer’s whistling.
Until recently it had never occurred to me how excluding language can be. We were en route to Wales in my grandparents’ Mini. My grandmother and I were in the front so that we could talk. Grandpa was in the back and miles away. The more absorbed Granny and I became by our conversation, the more Grandpa would ask for the radio volume to be turned up, the louder he would tap his feet and whistle. I was suddenly reminded of Crackers. He didn’t like being treated like a child, but he needed to remind us of his presence; he rarely squarked in silence, only when we were all in the room laughing and having fun without him. We all continued to view Crackers as a free spirit, happy to roam this earth on the mysterious planes of his own reality, and never once stopped to wonder about his interior monologue.
Most good pet owners learn a form of communication that does not necessarily hinge on language, a little like how when someone you love gets Alzheimer’s and they begin to change, you must negotiate with them a subtle new form of communication so that we know what they need, and they know that they’re still there and that we still love them. That’s not to say language doesn’t remain important too. Richard Taylor, a writer who developed Alzheimer’s aged 59, wrote an email to his friends four years later with the subject, ‘A Plea From All The Mes I Will Be’: ‘Although thanks to Doctor Alzheimer and his sticky footed troops tromping around between my ears, I now evolve, change, morph into ways neither of us can predict or understand – I am still me.’
In Bruno Schulz’s semi-fictional memoir of his childhood, ‘The Street of Crocodiles’, the narrator describes how his father’s retreat into the eccentricities of old age – almost certainly a form of dementia, even if not named as one in the story – began with his climbing a stepladder, where he would observe family life from a bird’s eye view. After that the old man begins to order birds’ eggs from ‘Hamburg, Holland and zoological stations in Africa’, on which he sets an enormous brood of hens from Belgium. The birds hatch and as his father’s relationship with them deepens he moves up into the attic where they live. For a brief period, the roof becomes a magnificent and exotic aviary and an escape into the recesses of the house and his own imagination, where he observes their ‘multicoloured flights […] cutting the air into packs of magic cards’. The birds begin to cross-breed, and the attic becomes a unique kingdom of extraordinary winged creatures; one of them, a condor, the narrator imagines as ‘a dried out shrunken mummy of my father’. The old man still comes downstairs to eat a meal with the family: ‘Occasionally forgetting himself, he would rise from his chair at the table, wave his arms as if they were wings […] then, rather embarrassed, he would join us laughing it off’. It’s wonderfully accurate. While Grandpa hasn’t attempted to learn the body language of another species, he will quite unexpectedly take flight from reality, often during family meals. The only thing we can do is to laugh, and he almost always joins us in genuine surprise and sparkly-eyed amusement.
Delusions are a secondary symptom of Alzheimer’s, and they don’t happen often. I wonder that we aren’t, some of us, grateful for them occasionally. I recently accompanied my grandparents to a lunch with a party of their friends. After eating everybody got tired and as we set off for a walk we soon realised that Grandpa and another man were missing from the group. I duly hurried off on a search for them, and eventually found them merrily walking down a wooded bank near the other side of the river. ‘We thought we should follow the bears!’ said his friend – who doesn’t have Alzheimer’s – with a wink. ‘Very sensible,’ I said, admiring his novel tactic for escaping polite post-lunch small talk, and ready to jump into their bear-infested wilderness.
Life with Alzheimer’s is as much a story of the carers – often a husband, wife or child – as it is of the sufferers. As the person you love begins to take regular and fabulous visits to the bird attic, the reality of losing them can be thrown in sharp relief. In ‘The Street of Crocodiles’, when the bird attic is eventually cleaned out by the maid, a reality that had seemed bearable before begins suddenly to look grim: ‘The affair of the birds was the last colourful and splendid counter-offensive of fantasy which my father, that incorrigible improviser, that fencing master of imagination, had led against the trenches and defense-works of a sterile and empty winter.’ If ever there were a ‘fencing master’ of escapism is it my grandmother. Her aviary is still very much twittering away in the garden, and now home to some citrus-winged canaries and punk-haired cockatiels as well as many fifth or sixth or twelfth generation budgies. The birds’ presence is a perennial boon.
She and I used to step into her bird world with soaked breadcrumbs and I’d watch her cooing at them to reassure them, before lifting each wooden house on their street of wooden bird-boxes from its shelf, and letting us peer inside in case any had newly hatched. For the first time in years, I did it with her again this summer, but this time I was taller than her, so it was me who lifted the boxes from the shelf. One box felt heavy and there was some awkward shuffling. Inside was a budgie unlike any I had ever seen, more vibrant in colour, with lime-green and white details, and deformed so that his legs were doing the splits, his wings useless. He had grown up in that box and never left it. Granny can look at life and death and be alarmingly practical about it. In her freezer, there’s a drawer of frozen birds in freezer bags, reserved for only the most perfect of the dead birds so that one day she can have them stuffed. She sometimes takes them out to admire their stiff bodies. But she looked so small that day, taking the wounded bird behind the door with a large stone. Reality is painful when it unexpectedly enters in on our fantasies. A healthy brain needs delusions just as much as a deteriorating one.
I rang my grandmother last week to say that I had just found Grandpa’s 80th birthday card hiding between the back pages of the novel in my handbag. It would arrive, I said, but it would be a good ten days late. ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter with Grandpa,’ she said. ‘We’ve celebrated his birthday at least four times already, with all sorts of different people. And every time, he thinks it’s his birthday. When yours arrives, we’ll have another excuse.’ She was in danger, I told her, of becoming full-time maitre d' at a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. What a picture it makes: the well-meaning late birthday cards, the budgies singing 'Happy Unbirthday', Granny in a fine hat – and Crackers dropping in from heaven to settle on Grandpa’s much less steady, but much whiter head.