Grace Dent: ‘Sometimes I see the terror in Dad’s eyes, and it hurts my heart’ | Family

Carlisle, 1980

My dad is making sketty for our tea. And I am helping, because I’m seven years old and nothing goes on in this house that I don’t have my nose in.

Tonight my dad’s in charge, as my mother is out doing the job that she doesn’t like mentioned. My dad’s childcare regime, like that of most 70s dads, is a rudimentary affair. As long as we’ve had food, we’re allowed to “play out” until it’s dark. Sometimes later.

Sketty is the more complex of his two-recipe artillery. His other stock standard is baked beans on fried bread. Sometimes – and this is the very best possible turn of events – we’ll get a bag of Salt ’n’ Shake crisps and 50 pence to buy us all chocolate at the off-licence. My little brother Dave likes a Curly Wurly and my dad, always, a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut. I will never see Cadbury’s purple without thinking of my father. Cadbury’s purple is love. Cadbury’s purple is me and him toddling slowly back from the NAAFI shop before he left the forces. Me holding one finger of his big hand, examining the puddles, dawdling; both of us laughing together. Me carrying a bag of Cadbury’s Buttons with a nursery rhyme of Little Jack Horner on the side. Cadbury’s purple is two identical Dairy Milk Easter eggs from Gran. One for me, one for Dave, perched on the top shelf of the living room dresser.

In the kitchen, we locate one of our stained frying pans and Dad puts it on the most reliable electric ring and adds a glug of Spry Crisp ’n Dry. We add onion and Dad smooshes it around in the warming oil with a wooden fish slice as it gently softens. He has put the spatula in my hand.

“Mind what yer doin’. Yer don’t wannalerritburn,” he says.

“I’m not lerrin’ it burn,” I say, my accent already speckled with his Merseyside tones.

My father was born on the Scotland Road in Liverpool. He is known to all his old ex-army crowd, and in his civilian role now with the RAF, as simply “Scouse”. I am seven years old, and Dad is there in some of the ways I sound my words. In the way I laugh and the way I have begun to make other people laugh. Liverpool genes are like a rogue pair of red knickers in the washing machine with your whites. They leave a trace.

Now into the pan we tip a pound of raw beef mince. It stinks something awful at first but as it browns and meets the onion, it becomes marginally less disgusting. It is time for its glamorous transformation into bolognese. But I won’t know this word for several more years; I’ll just carry on calling it sketty.

Me, Dave and Dad eat the sketty from bowls on our laps using old copies of the Evening News to stop our knees getting hot. We watch the end of the news show Nationwide or Play Your Cards Right. Dad’s sketty is always delicious. Comforting, sweet and gloriously stodgy, because Dad boiled the pasta for at least 30 minutes too long.

At some point, my mam will return from her job cleaning the betting shop, carrying a tattered copy of the Sun with all the racing fixtures and results filleted out of the back. I snap it up and sit reading the sexy problem page and puzzling over the vital statistics of the Page Three stunnas. My mother, incidentally, would strenuously deny that I was allowed to stay up past 10pm, aged seven years old, reading the Sun problem page.

Grace, aged about three, with her parents and younger brother Dave in their back garden in Aldershot. Photograph: courtesy of Grace Dent

Inevitably, something smutty will occur on the telly: a pair of tits, a swearword, something that reminds Mam we’re past the watershed, and she’ll look up from her sewing and say, “That child should be in bed!”

My dad will wrap his arm around me and say, “Oh, give her five more minutes here…she’s my only little girl.”

My mother will roll her eyes: “You’re as thick as bloody thieves, you two.”

He’ll say, “Oh, she’s my only little girl.”

And at this point in time, I have no reason not to believe him.

Christmas Eve, 1988

My dad is shelling brussels sprouts. Jona Lewie’s Stop The Cavalry is playing on the kitchen wireless, his favourite Christmas song.

Poppa-poppa-pom-pom,” hums my dad. “Poppa- poppa-pom!

Poppa-pom-pom-poppa-pom!” I sing back, bobbing along beside him. I am 15.

“Wish I was at home for Chrrrrrrrristmasssss!” we sing together.

Years later, this tune will start to cut me to the quick when it resurfaces every November, floating across the ether in Westfield Stratford City’s Costa Coffee or in late-night Ubers as I pass through Trafalgar Square. Festive whiplash, dragging you into a perfect memory you had no idea at the time was perfect.

Dad found Christmas challenging. The enforced sociableness. All these folk popping by, invading his house. His tenseness drove my mother mad. Words such as introvert, social anxiety or even Asperger’s were not part of our vocabulary in the north during all of my formative years. If you were in emotional pain and acting strangely, you were more likely to be told you were “acting like a knobhead” and to “give yourself a shake”.

But as 1988 was coming to a close, my dad seemed especially tricky. This may have had something to do with a gruff-sounding phone call I’d heard him having with his father in Liverpool. It was one of those phone chats I’d accidentally chanced upon by lying silently on the upstairs landing, earwigging.

Something something “responsibilities”. Something about doing “the right thing”. Something about sin.

1990

I cannot claim the news that my father has two other daughters has come as a complete shock. Even if the way I found out was quite shocking.

This morning, Saturday, at around six, my dad walked into my bedroom when I was half asleep. He leaned into the bed, kissed my head and said, “All right, precious, I dunno if Mam’s told you what’s going on, but I need to go and see my other girls.”

He got into his van and drove off down the M6 motorway to Liverpool to make amends with his other kids. The ones he left behind in the 60s.

I sat up in bed and rubbed sleep from my eyes. I definitely did not cry. I sat in bed for a few hours watching The Chart Show on ITV. Teenagers in the 80s were outwardly very undramatic. We’d not been primed yet by a steady diet of American TV to emit neat soundbites about our feelings.

And as I say, this news was shocking but not entirely a shock. I had found a black-and-white photo while rifling through my father’s bedside drawer years ago. It was when I was trying to win the How Many Things In a Matchbox Game for my Thursday night Brownies meeting. The rooting around cupboards and drawers looking for tiny items – a nut, a bolt, a grain of rice – went on for a whole week. Dad spurred me on until the matchbox was full. And along the way I found a photograph. Two girls, standing by a countryside gate on a ramblers’ path. On a day out. Just like the sort of days out my family went on.

I’d puzzled over the two girls’ faces for a minute or so, and then put the photo back. Then I’d pretended I’d not seen it. Children’s minds are slippery, pragmatic things. We are hellbent on self-preservation.

I thought about the clues that had led me here. Dad’s daughters had been there in a thousand awkward silences whenever I’d asked about the past. They were there in bitten lips and half-overheard adult mutterings. They were there in the faces of my Catholic scouse grandparents who, being against divorce, treated us kids like an unpleasant smell.

They were there in my dad’s embrace when sometimes, out of nowhere, he’d seem taken by emotion and would drag my tiny face against his rough soldier stubble and say, “Oh come here, precious, you’re my only little girl.” Which I realised now actually meant: “The only little girl I have left.”

As I sat on the edge of the bed, I already felt slightly sorry for my dad. I was already making excuses. Over the coming years, whenever I would talk of my dad’s life, people would reply with their own family skeletons, and then they’d bring me their own excuses, too. They’d tell me of double lives or mams who disappeared overnight. And of grandads who left to fight in wars and forgot to go home. In the “good old days” people would, could and did just disappear. It’s less painful for us if we cling to the idea that our elders did these things for reasons that went with the era: out of shame or because of religion or poverty. We don’t want to think it was down to pure selfishness. Or that sometimes, in the “good old days”, people were just absolute arseholes.

Grace Dent, aged eight, with her dad and younger brother Dave at Brownie camp outside Carlisle
Grace, aged eight, with her dad and Dave at Brownie camp outside Carlisle. Photograph: courtesy of Grace Dent

I still loved my dad, and the excuses I was making for him were getting more watertight by the minute. Leaving an ex-wife and two children – I bet he didn’t want those things in the first place. She probably trapped him. Yes, the more I thought about it, my dad had almost certainly been tricked.

October 1992

Something has been vaguely troubling me about Dad. It was a very subtle thing, but I dwelt on it for weeks after I arrived at university.

“This is Grace,” my father shouts across the car park in a weird American accent. “You’ll be seeing a lot of her.”

A group of bewildered Finnish PhD students turn around to stare at me. I’m an anonymous fresher they have no reason to know. I never see those students ever again. Or any of the other strangers my father insists on introducing me to on my first day at university, now feigning an ever-so-slightly German accent. The interactions make no sense. There is an exuberance and a lack of reasoning in his actions that is just a bit askew.

It’s impossible to pinpoint when all the stuff with Dad began. It is one of the biggest kickers for families like ours when we try to remember. But maybe it was this, decades before it got really bad. Or was it later, when he became obsessive about peeling onions before stacking them in the fridge in a neat wall to save space? Their brown gossamer skins “taking up too much room”.

But aren’t dads just weird anyway? That’s their job. Being weird, embarrassing you and driving you places. And my dad loved to drive, although some time in the 90s he became mysteriously cagey about getting behind the wheel. Sometimes on the simplest trips, my mother said, he got completely lost.

“My only little girl, off to university,” he said, picking up a box.

Oh yes, his only little girl – he never stopped with that, either.

“Do you think there is something wrong with Dad?” I said to Mam on the phone a few weeks after I left.

“What do you mean?” she said.

“Oh, just some of the stuff he does,” I said. “It’s like he’s got dementia.”

“Oh, Grace, he’s not got dementia,” she sighed. “He’s just a dickhead.”

Carlisle, August 2016

“Grace, are you there? Are you there, Grace?”

“Yes, I’m here, Dad. Are you OK?”

It’s 3am.

“Yeah, I’m OK, presh,” he begins. “I’m just thinking. I need to get a ladder.”

“Why?” I say, sitting up.

There is a long silence. I am lying in bed in their flat in Carlisle. For months Mam’s health has been trickling downhill. She assures me it’s nothing – first a cold that won’t leave, or perhaps a chest infection, then almost certainly, a doctor tells her, bronchitis. It’s certainly not cancer, nothing to worry about, and don’t worry about Dad, Dad is fine, too. Her doctor gave her more and more antibiotics until eventually, after three months, she couldn’t walk or even stand up, and was rushed to hospital. Dave called me as I was about to go on stage to talk at the Edinburgh Television festival about a Channel 4 show, before attending a fancy TV network party with my literary agent. Life had shifted gears in the past few years; I’d written books, presented TV and radio shows, and written newspaper columns. It had become hard to go anywhere without strangers narrowing their eyes and feeling they’d seen me somewhere before. But in the space of a quick phone call, everything shifted again.

Grace Dent, aged 11, on a log ride at Alton Towers with her dad and younger brother Dave
Grace, aged 11, at Alton Towers with her dad and Dave. Photograph: courtesy of Grace Dent

I’d descended on Carlisle, all sharp elbows with a notepad and pen, looking for answers and promises. Mam’s biggest concern was my dad. He couldn’t be left alone.

“I’ve told the nurses he has dementia,” she said. “They’ve put him in the office until someone could come.” It was the first time the word had come out of her mouth. I nodded, because I knew it, too. The anxiousness, the hoarding, the confusion, the lovable eccentricities that became scarier and more surreal each month.

Dad taps again at the bedroom door.

“What’s up, Dad?” I say, trying to sound very calm.

“I need to get up into the attic,” Dad says, poking his nose around the door. Dad’s enormous nose. “It’s a Roman nose,” he used to say to me. “It’s a-Roman all over my face, Gracie-girl!”

Dad is wearing a white vest and pyjama bottoms, much more unshaven than he would usually allow himself to be.

“I need to get up there,” he says. He points at the ceiling. “And, y’know, get behind the box and, well… y’know… do you know?”

“OK, well, let’s not go up there now. It will be dark up there now. Why don’t we do it first thing in the morning?”

He thinks a little, then he nods.

“OK, presh, yeah, OK, when it’s light. We’ll do it then.”

He goes back to bed. This is a flat. They do not have an attic.

I lie in bed and have a small, thoroughly futile cry. Dad gets back into his bed, but he does not switch his bedside lamp off: he is lying there waiting for the daylight, so we can begin our job.

Carlisle, October 2016

Me, Mam and Dad are eating toast in their flat in Carlisle and watching Homes Under The Hammer.

Mam is 80 but adamant that cancer, in all the places it has appeared, will not stop her, even if the pills and injections make her sick and tired.

Dad stands by my bed at 3am in his flat cap and jacket, asking when we’re going out to Asda. He will not grasp in any meaningful sense that Mam is ill. He has the news broken to him afresh each day. His reaction ranges from crying to petulant anger to saying we are trying to trick him.

I attempt to explain that Mam needs rest, that the treatment she’s having to contain the spread in her bones is brutal, that she is now the patient. But he walks about almost all of the night, so she can’t sleep and I can’t sleep and Dave can’t sleep.

If I can get a diagnosis, maybe we can get proper help. But I’m scared that if I let other people in on our secret, then this will be the end of us as a family. We might even have to let him go and live elsewhere. I cannot think of that.

There is so much I want to say to Dad, but I can’t bring myself to. Dementia is really awkward. Not just painful and frightening. Embarrassing. I don’t like to be left alone with Dad. If I’m never left alone with Dad, it won’t be my responsibility to say, “Look, Dad, do you think you have dementia?”

But sometimes I can see terror in his eyes. Sometimes, as Dad talks nowadays, midway through a nonsensical sentence his brain catches up. And right then, he understands the total ridiculousness of what he is saying, and pure shame passes across his face. I find this shame so cutting it hurts my heart, and stays with me all the time when I am back in London. I cannot eat the dinners I am supposed to review.

Which is worse? The times when he is conscious of his brain decaying and therefore panicked, or when he is blissfully unaware, completely barmy and also quite frightening?

Sometimes I get up the nerve to ask him a question in cushioned terms. “Are you feeling like you forget stuff, Dad? Like when you got up for work the other morning… did you forget you’ve retired?” But then he will deny it or pretend not to hear. Or he just tells me plainly no.

May 2018

It is 1am and in a matter of hours I am supposed to be going to London to film MasterChef and then coming back via Leeds to review a restaurant. Moving back to the north was part of my plan to keep Dad at home. I would multitask. I’d run my diary tightly. If I rent a big house, then we can all live together. And this works for a while, but I am not a nurse; I learn everything about dementia from Google.

Dad is in a small ball curled up on one side of his bed. I think he is breathing. I am trying my best but I am failing.

Dad is breathing. He has not stood up for four days. I cannot get him to drink water. I take some bread with marmalade and a small square of chocolate, but I can’t convince him to eat. Not even Dairy Milk Fruit & Nut. Is this what dying looks like? Or is he just tired? Or depressed? Me and Dave have not been able to wash him for weeks. He screams and shouts if we mention it.

I look up bedsores. Rickets. Malnutrition. I take a deep breath and look up undertakers, just in case. I also look up Alzheimer’s care homes. Outreach groups. The images are always of smiling people holding chinchillas from a local petting zoo. My father, I am quite sure, would rather be dead than do group activities. I feel like I’m betraying him by even considering humiliating him in this way.

Grace Dent, aged 21, with her dad in his garden in Currock
Grace, aged 21, with her dad in his garden in Currock. Photograph: courtesy of Grace Dent

But in the backgrounds of these pictures of dementia groups, there are always people around me and my brother’s age. Relatives. Carers. I want to hold my hand out and say, look, we are here, too. Please help us. But I am too scared.

I check Dad’s breath with my hand in front of his face, then get into bed and wonder if he will last the night. At 6am he is still breathing. Dave tells me to get to the bloody station and go to London – he can handle it. “Put your makeup on,” he says. “You’ll feel more like it by the time you pass through Preston.” I set off for MasterChef, off to eat panna cotta in front of TV cameras, and hope Dad lasts until I get back.

June 2018

I cannot tell you about the weeks before my father stopped living with us. Some of the things that he did. It was not him. It was another person. And I’ll always feel that I let him down. I couldn’t make him drink or eat, no matter what I cooked. I knew under my watch he was going to die sooner than he should.

But the fact is that leaving him in his little room in the care home while he was crying, promising him I would definitely come back, has robbed me of a bit of my heart which will never grow back.

I thought we would talk less about Dad, when he was in a safer place with trained people caring, but instead we talk more. Me, Dave and Mam conduct a continuous, ever-moving postmortem of how we got to this point. Dad’s place at the dinner table is empty. He’s not wandering the corridors at night. But this new weird silence just gives us more time to think.

November 2018

“He’s gonna need all new clothes,” Dave says on the phone.

Dad has cut his clothes into narrow strips – all of them; all his underpants, all his trousers.

“What the fuck…? What did the nurses say?”

“They say we’re going to have to take away his scissors,” he says.

“How the hell did he get scissors?” I shout as I whisk along Regent Street to BBC Radio 4. We both can’t help laughing. It is awful but darkly hysterical. It feels good to hear each other’s laughter again.

“I know – what else has he got, a set of nunchucks?” my brother says.

“I’m sorry, we’ve had to confiscate his shuriken throwing stars,” I say.

“We do apologise, but your father is no longer allowed his flamethrower,” Dave says.

It feels amazing to laugh. Even if the world is burning.

“But why is he shredding his clothes?” I sigh.

“Dunno, maybe he’s going to a fancy dress party as Robinson Crusoe,” my brother says. We both crack up laughing again.

Dementia is not meant to be funny, but sometimes it just is.

Christmas Day, 2018

I’m standing in the kitchen drinking cava and placing chipolata sausages wrapped in bacon on to a sheet pan, wearing felt antlers that jangle as I move. Mam is having one of her good days; she feels strong.

Our entire home smells of turkey fat. Paul O’Grady is on Radio 2, chatting between Christmas classics. As the poppa-poppa-poms of Jona Lewie’s Stop The Cavalry begin, I feel my eyes fill up. I take a deep breath and distract myself with a box of Paxo.

Dave’s car pulls into the driveway outside the kitchen window. He gets out and winks at me, then walks around to the passenger seat and leans in with his strong bodybuilding arms. Then, carefully, he walks up the drive carrying a very small bundle of coats.

Dave is enormous; the body inside the coats is small and frail, but I can see its face laughing. Mam appears beside me at the window, laughing.

“He’s got him!” she shouts.

We all shout, “Hello!”

Dave carries Dad gingerly through the house and plonks him down in the lounge in a big chair next to the telly. He sits blinking, trying to get his bearings. He is just a skull with a little bit of hair and a very thin body. I crouch by his chair and say, “Hello. Hello. It’s Grace. It’s Grace, Dad. Hello.”

He says, “Oh! Throw. Throw. Throw.”

He splutters on his teeth, then stops, as if that made perfect sense.

I say, “Yes!”

I know from the intonation that, if Dad had any of the words left, he’d be making a joke.

I say, “How are you?”

He says, “You here train? Train?”

I say, “Yes, train.”

I sit down. We sit in silence, staring at each other.

I say, “I love you, Dad. I love you.”

I hold his small, bony hand. He starts to cry.

I say, “It’s OK, Dad. Come on. No cry. Best dad. Best dad.”

He says, “Sometimes I feel like – am – I am – ppphhh.”

I say, “Shall we have a bit of chocolate?” I take the bar of Dairy Milk Fruit & Nut we got him for Christmas. His eyes light up.

• This is an edited extract from Hungry, published on 29 October by HarperCollins at £16.99. To order a copy for £14.78, go to guardianbookshop.com.

On 29 October, Grace Dent will talk to Felicity Cloake at a livestreamed Guardian Live event. Book tickets here.

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