The first time he tried to jump from the balcony of our second-floor apartment, I stood rooted at a distance, my feet cold with fear. The second (or third, maybe fifth) time, he tried to do the same, I quietly packed my bag with my physics textbooks and sneaked out of home.
He was my mom’s father, my granddad, but everybody called him Daddy. It was in 2010 that dementia stamped its chemical footprints all over his neurological system. He was in his early sixties then. I was 17.
For most of my childhood, I thought of him as a granddad, but also as a person reduced. It’s one of those things you keep private for fear of sounding obnoxious, but the truth is I could never know what we were or are as a family. I knew, though, that something runs in us that makes us peculiarly distant from one another. When I was seven, my cousin and I would visit him at his place and he would religiously take us to the market and allow us to buy as many things as Rs 30 could buy at that time. He would then take us to a park and sit quietly in a corner while my cousin and I ran or rode the swings. He was a man of few words and would mostly stay in his room, coming out only for meals or to watch the news on TV.
It was only years later that I realised that maybe he, like everybody else in the family, did not like stories, and, perhaps, that was why he (and the others) chose to carefully guard his. As his dementia became more pronounced, he would position himself at random spots and gaze at nothing, squinting his eyes once in a while, as if he was immersed in profound thought. Or so I told myself. But as the symptoms became more pronounced and he could not tell me apart from my mother, I would wonder what it was that occupied his thoughts when he remembered nothing. He was stuck in a time loop that enveloped him, and, by extension, my mother and me, since my dad was posted in Chennai and my brother away in college. My grandmom had broken a hip, which would take four months to heal, so we had brought Daddy home. But as she recuperated, Daddy slept like a baby through the day, only to wake up with a single memory from four months ago — of him being at his home instead of ours.
Every day, he would demand an explanation about how he suddenly came to be at an alien place and if we were conspiring to keep him confined. This would be followed by my mom telling him about my grandmother’s accident — patiently first, and then frantically — as he grew more and more agitated and demanded to be freed. She kept a diary for him, writing down every detail of the days following my grandmother’s fall, so it would help him remember. It did not.
My grandfather’s failing health manifested itself in aggression. He demanded unrelentingly to be freed from captivity, threatening to file police complaints, or worse, jump from the balcony. There were days when words would be lobbied back and forth like grenades. At other times, there would be a silence so thick that it was unnerving.
I still don’t know how my mother, not the strongest person I know, kept us together during that time. I kept my distance, trying to decipher the dynamics of the Ferris wheel spinning in my grandfather’s head, which lifted us along its circumference and sometimes threw us off balance. The truth is that I did as little I could to help, because amidst all the alienation and hostility, I simply did not know how to. As months flew by, his paranoia only spiralled, and with it, my gradual loss of empathy for him — his illness had made him unapologetic and belligerent, and I knew absolutely nothing of the man that he was before.
Towards the end of his stay, there was one sinking feeling I was left with — that what happened to him should not happen to anyone else.
Around April 2010, as my grandmom recovered fully and got back to her feet, Daddy could finally walk into his own home, a few months before he would pass away, leaving me with memories of all that he was not. Of who he was, I would never know.