It was a pleasant mid-winter afternoon. I wrapped myself in a coat, hat, gloves and woollen scarf, put in my iPod earphones and went out for a long walk. I needed to think in a cool and open space, without any distractions.
A tendency I had was to shut myself off from others. I avoided company and withdrew into my shell. I needed the loneliness and isolation to reflect and introspect.
I had lots of issues to work out in my life. As an only child, I had no siblings to share my troubles. As a loner, I had no friends to turn to.
One of my biggest troubles was that I got involved with a man when I was too young. I had followed him wherever his career led him. I had ignored my own needs and future and put all my trust and hope in him. I was totally devoted to him but after eight years in a de facto relationship, he told me that he needed his space.
My heart was broken. I thought I would die from it. A quick death would be preferable. Who knew, we don’t really need a perfect heart to live. After dramatic crying and sobbing, I was still breathing like before.
Lovers still held hands on the street, proud new mothers still pushed their prams shopping. How dared they be so happy? Didn’t they know my world had exploded? There was no reason for me to carry on!
Back to Grandma’s house I went, like a wounded animal gone to a shelter to be looked after by the keeper, till its wounds healed and it was ready to face the cruel outside world again.
As I walked along the tree lined street, listening to my favourite songs, I thought of my sad and unfair life. I stopped in front of a traffic light, waiting for it to turn green in my direction.
I sensed across the road a tall elderly gentleman staring at me intensely.
When the light turned green, I walked across the road. The gentleman stayed on the same spot. He did not move. His eyes followed me.
Once I walked next to him, he looked into my eyes and called out “Savannah Summerton!”
I stopped. That was my Grandma’s name – not a common name.
“You changed your hair colour, Savannah.”
“No, I am not Savannah.”
“No? You look so much like her. You are right, you are too young to be Savannah. I am sorry, please forgive a senile old man.”
I could see the great disappointment in his eyes.
“Do you know Savannah Summerton?”
“Oh yes, a beautiful lady. She would be 70 years old now. You look so much like her, when she was young of course. I haven’t seen her for over 50 years.”
“How do you know her?”
“We went to the same high school. I loved the school because of her. She was the most gorgeous girl in the whole school. Her skin was so smooth, her lips were so red, she walked like a lady, she talked like a lady… I am sorry, I am rambling…”
“That’s ok, really. She sounds like a nice lady.”
“The best lady I’ve ever known. No one looked as good as her, she was the best…”
The gentleman suddenly lost his balance. I was afraid he may not have been well.
“Do you live far? Would you like me to walk you home?”
“I am ok. By the way, I am Alexander Wills. I live a few doors away, at number 35 on this road.”
“I am Nicole. Tell me more about this lady Savannah.”
I was trying to find out whether he was really Grandma’s friend. I wanted to make sure before I revealed who I really was to him.
“She was in the school play one year. The local paper called her a future shining star. You should have seen her in the play. No Hollywood star could compare with her. That’s how beautiful and brilliant she was.”
“Did she become a star later?”
“I don’t think so. Perhaps she got married and had children. Most of the women in my generation were not as fortunate as your generation. You can have both worlds, family and career.”
“So Alexander, how long did you know Savannah?”
“Three years. A short time really. Those were a wonderful three years for me.”
Grandma had looked after me after Mum got remarried. For that period of 10 years, we were like best buddies. We had shared everything with each other – our likes and dislikes, our anger and envy, our happiness and sadness.
I knew Grandma’s life story like the back of my own hand but I couldn’t recall Alexander Wills. Maybe Grandma had forgotten about him because he wasn’t very important to her? Or I had forgotten about him because she had only mentioned him briefly?
I didn’t know what to do. To be safe, I decided to say nothing until checking with Grandma. I knew where he lived so I could get back to him after Grandma had given me permission.
* * *
“Never heard of Alexander Wills!”
I was so glad that I had kept my mouth shut the whole time and hadn’t brought him home with me to see Grandma, which I almost did on impulse after talking to Alexander.
“He knew you. He saw the resemblance between us.”
“That’s true! But I would remember if I dated someone for three years. I wasn’t an outgoing teenager. I joined the drama class in a moment of bravery. Never knew why the teacher gave me the main role.”
“Maybe he was in the play too?”
“No, I remember every single person in the play, including the backstage helpers.”
“Something is not right.”
“You got that right. I never dated anyone during my high school days. Something is really not right.”
I helped Grandma go up to the dusty attic. We spent two days looking for the high school yearbook. We both wanted to know who Alexander Wills was.
A lot of family history and memories lay under the dust. Once we started to search and dig, we found many forgotten things. They were not always pleasant to remember but we were caught without a choice.
I saw a cute little blue baby booty. Grandma had had a daughter; mum had had a daughter. I wondered who it could belong to.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tell you this story. It’s not pleasant to talk about but I am going to tell you anyway. God bless your Grandpa’s soul.
When your Grandpa had finished his last year of dentistry in university, he was invited to a celebration party. It was held in one of his mate’s home. His parents were away in the country that weekend.
His mate also invited some of the girls he knew in the neighbourhood. In those days, young people met at churches and sports clubs.
Your Grandpa had a little too much to drink. Like many of his mates, the next day no one remembered much about what had happened at the party.
A year later he received this blue booty in the mail. A woman claimed that it belonged to his son. She wanted him to pay child support.
He couldn’t remember if he had had sex with any girl that night.
She was living in Queensland with the baby, to avoid family embarrassment. She would let him see the baby, if he visited Queensland.
Grandpa’s parents were worried the scandal would destroy his future. They suggested he keep it a secret, not mention it to anyone and send the child support as she asked every month.
I had no idea whatsoever about this when we got married.
When Grandpa and most of his mates turned 30, four of them decided to celebrate their birthdays together. We all went to Central Australia to visit Uluru and the Olgas.
Through travelling and spending so much time with the other three wives, by the end of the trip, we had all become good friends.
One night, the men were playing darts in the hotel bar while the ladies were talking in a corner.
One lady told us that she found out her husband secretly sent child support for a kid but he didn’t even recall having sex with his mother.
That was the beginning of the rest of the men realising that they had all been conned by that sneaky woman.
It turned out that five men had been sending child support for the past eight years. None of them remembered what had happened that night. They believed that she might have added something to their drinks, that’s why no one remembered anything.
That month was the last month they sent child support of course.
No one really tried to get back their money. I think they were all too embarrassed about their stupidity. They never talked about it. None of the wives ever mentioned it again either.
It was a subject that everyone tried to forget. I don’t think I even told the story to your Mum.”
I remember Grandpa was always so dignified and wise. The story didn’t make me think he was stupid, but it did make me feel he was human like me after all.
Two days later, we found Grandma’s high school yearbook. We were both quite excited. A mystery was going to be solved.
We both went carefully through the book many times, page by page, but we couldn’t find the name Alexander Wills. He had obviously not been in the same year as Grandma. My curiosity grew stronger after we couldn’t get any information about him.
* * *
I included the road that Alexander Wills lived on in my route every time I went for a walk. I hoped to see him again, to find out what was going on.
Working changed all that. I got busy with a nine to five job. There was not much time left for me to feel sorry for myself which was good in a way.
I made weekend walks part of my exercise routine, instead of an escape from reality.
More than a year had past. I didn’t know how many times I had passed by Alexander’s front gate. I never caught any movement from inside the house. I almost gave up hope that I would see him again.
As I walked past Alexander’s house one sunny Saturday afternoon in summer, I was surprised to see him standing on the front lawn. He looked old, haggard and lost.
I stopped beside the mailbox and gave him a big smile.
His eyes suddenly lit up and he cried out with joy “Savannah Summerton!”
His joy was highly contagious. It spread all over me until I was literally jumping with joy like him.
“You changed your hair colour, Savannah.”
“No, I am not Savannah. Remember? I am Nicole.”
“Nicole? You look so much like Savannah. You are right, you are too young to be Savannah. I am sorry, please forgive a senile old man.”
Again, I could see the great disappointment in his eyes.
“Do you know Savannah Summerton?”
“Oh yes, a beautiful girl. She looks so much like you…”
Hang on, I didn’t want the same conversation as the last one. I had to direct him in a different direction.
“Alexander, did you date Savannah?”
“Date? She wouldn’t even have known I existed. A beautiful girl like her had no time for a plain boy like me.”
Aha, that explained why Grandma didn’t know him. He had been her fan, not her date. I had the wrong impression from the first talk we had.
“Were you in the same year as Savannah in high school?”
“No, she was a year ahead of me.”
An elderly lady came out from the house to the front lawn. “Come inside Alex, it’s time to have your medication.”
She was a well groomed and well dressed lady, graceful and very friendly.
She invited me inside their home to have a cuppa with them. I gladly accepted her invitation.
It was a house full of beautiful antiques and books. A grand piano sat in the corner of the unusually large lounge. On the wall opposite the piano hung a giant portrait of a glamorous looking young couple.
“We were fortunate to have this patient who painted this portrait for us as a gift, after he was back on his feet again. This work took two years to finish. We hung it in our surgery before we retired. Many of our patients loved it so much, they asked him to paint their portraits as well. At one stage, I left his business card next to the portrait so patients didn’t have to ask us for his contact number. Later he was too busy to accept more clients so he asked us to take his business card away from the portrait.”
The lady was Lucy Wills, Alexander’s wife of 34 years. She was a retired general practitioner, like her husband Alexander who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the past eight years.
He couldn’t remember much of everyday living, nor anything else. His condition had declined at a very fast rate in the past year. Soon she might have to send him to a special care unit, which would be the last resort.
While Lucy and I were talking, Alexander was quiet. He didn’t join the conversation. I thought he was not interested in what we were talking about. He reminded me of a little child. Only this little child was 69 years old and 6’ tall.
* * *
Lucy had no idea of her husband’s memory of Savannah. She was intrigued to hear that Alexander had had a long conversation with me about Savannah.
Lucy thought it would be good to see how Alexander reacted when he actually met up with my Grandma Savannah, to see if his memory would trigger some brain function.
Grandma jumped at the idea. It had been a long time since any interesting thing had happened that involved her. She was eager to do something out of the ordinary.
She dug up the photos she had of the high school play, hoping they would help Alexander in some way.
We arrived at the Wills family house one Sunday on a dry and hot summer afternoon. Lucy opened the door before we had the chance to press the doorbell.
She was most anxious to find out if she could help her husband. So were we. By that time Grandma and I were more interested to see if we could help in some way.
Alexander was slowly walking around the lounge. When he turned and saw us, he stopped immediately, his eyes sparking up instantly.
“Savannah Summerton!” He cried out.
Slowly he walked towards me.
“I am Savannah Summerton.” Grandma extended her hand.
Alexander shook Grandma’s hand. He looked at her face for a while. A smile slowly appeared on his face.
“Savannah!” He said her name softly, then bent over and kissed her hand.
When Alexander stood straight again, I could see through the tears in my eyes, both his and Grandma’s eyes were also filled with tears.
“True beauty never fades away. Your eyes still dance like I remembered. Time has been very kind to you. My dear Savannah!”
From the corner of my eyes, I saw Lucy wipe her eyes. I was overwhelmed by Alexander’s reaction.
Grandma took out the photos and showed them to Alexander.
“Do you remember the play? These are the photos I kept. Some were taken by my father, some were taken by Mr Wentworth. Do you remember him? He was the English teacher and he directed the play. This was Lisa Moorise, she played the mother.”
Alexander took the photo and looked at it for a long while. We were all anxious to hear what he was going to say.
He turned around and gave it to Grandma.
“Would you like to look at these photos?” Alexander said to Grandma. “My dad took lots of them.”
He stood up from the couch, and started to slowly walk around the lounge again, like we were not there.
“He was just like he was the first time I met him. He knew what was what.”
I couldn’t understand why he had suddenly changed. One minute he was talking normally, the next it was all gone.
“It comes and goes. The gaps between the good moments are getting longer and longer. Most of the time, he can’t even recognise his own children or me. Looking after him is a 24 hour job. I have to keep the door locked all the time, otherwise he would wander out of the house. He is like a very young child. He doesn’t know what is going on around him. It’s too dangerous to let him out on his own.”
“He knew who I was!”
“That was a moment. His brain was working alright but it only lasted a minute or so. Alex is an intelligent man. When the illness first struck him, he knew what he was facing. That was the saddest time for him to go through.”
“It must be very hard on you too.”
“At least I am able to function and make decisions. For him, it is pure suffering. He is not able to manage day to day, simple routines. When he loses the ability to eat, that would be the end of him.”
“Life can be so cruel.”
“Alex and I have had many conversations about how cruel life can be. We witnessed many such situations through our work.”
We left the Wills house in a disappointed mood.
* * *
Not long after that meeting, Lucy fell and hurt herself. She was not able to look after Alexander. He went to a home which cared for Alzheimer patients.
Grandma and I wanted to visit him. We wanted to help in any way we could.
For one reason or another, it took us more than six months to pay him a visit. I guess visiting him was not our top priority. After all, we didn’t really know him that well.
Eventually we made it to the ‘home’.
Lucy had fully recovered from the fall by then so she took us to visit Alexander.
It was a typical Melbourne windy day. It was warm under the sun but cold in the shade. Pretty much like our feelings. We didn’t know what to expect when we saw him.
After a short drive from the Wills house, I parked the car on the street and we walked to a very nice, old style, large house. It was well painted and maintained, keeping the house at its best.
Lucy punched the code into a keypad to open the entrance gate.
“That’s the way to stop the patients from wandering out on their own. Sometimes visitors take less care and patients wander out and get lost. There was a case in the past. A female patient wandered out with only a nightie on and without any shoes, on a cold raining day. A nearby neighbour spotted her and called the staff. The poor lady caught pneumonia and died two weeks later.”
We walked up the paved garden path and came to a thick steel security door. Lucy used the code to enter the building. The security system was impressive.
We went in through the side entrance, directly into the patients’ wards, without going through the front entrance and reception area.
Inside was a very different place. It was like we had entered another world.
Four or five people were in the corridor. A man saw us and walked towards Lucy, smiling at her. Before he could hug Lucy, a lady next to him pulled him away.
We walked into a room. It was a bright and large room, with a single bed, a small desk, a desk chair, an armchair and a double door wardrobe.
Alexander was motionlessly sitting on the armchair. He didn’t make a move or acknowledge Lucy when she kissed him on his forehead.
His tall body was bent forward; his lips were partially open. He was not the man I met on the street two years ago.
“He is not like the man I met 40 years ago. He was full of ambition back then, with a passion for living. Life has beginnings and endings. Sometimes there is a natural recognition that life has come as far as it can. Alex is ready. He does not have very far to reach his destiny.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t really know. I am only observing the facts. The last time Alex showed any awareness was eight months ago, when you two visited us in our home. His last words were ‘My dear Savannah’. He hasn’t spoken a word since. He made a living will when he was first diagnosed that he would not accept tube feeding or any kind of force feeding. He wanted to go when he was not able to eat…”
Lucy held Alexander’s hand and cried, “It is so hard to watch him suffer…”
Grandma and I were crying too.
I looked at Lucy and Alexander and thought that it didn’t matter what kind of marriage they had. In the end they had two separate paths to walk on their own.
No matter what kind of life one had, how smart one was, one had no control over one’s destiny.
I thought of my Dad and Grandpa. The pain of losing them never goes away but as time passed, it became manageable.
That is right, one learnt how to manage the loss, the sadness, the disappointment and the tragedy. They were part of life. No one would be privileged enough to avoid them.
My life was not worse than anyone else, it was like anyone else’s. I made it worse by thinking it was the worst. I should turn it around and make the most of it while I could.
The self-realisation gave me the strength to deal with my issues and face the challenges.
I felt stronger and ready to stand up for whatever needed me to stand up for it.
Suddenly I saw a shape, and heard a loud scream, in the corridor, followed by running footsteps.
We wiped away our tears. Lucy explained the scream to us. “He was a sports personality. He’s been here for many years. His daughter thinks he could be suffering terrible pain but the poor guy is not able to tell anyone. His daughter requests they give him a painkiller every time he screams. Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease.”
Grandma walked towards Lucy, opened her arms and embraced her. I joined with them and put my arms around both of them.
We comforted each other with our hearts. The three of us silently supported whatever was needed for Alexander. He may not have been able to show his awareness but I knew that he knew that Lucy would be alright when he was gone.
That very moment, an angel called on Alexander.