In December, as our plane landed onto the fresh sprinkling of snow at Manchester airport, I thought of all those times when we had taken my parents on adventures with us. I remembered that day in Malaysia when we clambered onto the rickety bus at Kuching airport……
With a puff of acrid black smoke we screeched to a halt outside The Grand Supreme Hotel, tired and sagging and sandwiched between a 24-hour supermarket and a car repair shop. Alarm bells hammered in my head and I made a silent note to myself to avoid budget hotels in the future. This was Malaysia where three stars mean it’s truly awful. We were also in the middle of a roundabout, which the guidebooks later confirmed as being the size of 1½ football pitches.
Kuching, on the island of Borneo is the city of one person, one car, a city where fifteen-year-olds can drive themselves to school. The volume of traffic and constant beeping of horns was an assault on the senses. My dad looked agitated and clung to my mum, who was stroking his olive-skinned hand to reassure him. A new route on CheapAir.com from Singapore had brought us here on another of ‘my let’s have a go moments!’ We stepped gingerly off the bus tiptoeing around the potholes and open storm drains. A bead of sweat trickled down Mum’s cheek, but confidently she tucked her arm into Dad’s and steered him into the hotel.
“We’re going to have an adventure here! I can’t wait to see those orangutans tomorrow,” she said cheerfully. She was always an optimist, her glass half full.
“It’s five o’clock somewhere!” she said, implying that it was never too early for her favourite tipple, the quintessential British G & T. She steered me and Andy and her grandchildren towards the bar.
The bar tender was smiling and wearing a t-shirt displaying ‘Always Happy Hour’ so we knew we would be all right.
Dad looked restless and distracted but we didn’t know why. He was stroking a shrivelled fig in a pot, desperate for his green fingers. He couldn’t pass a garden without pulling out a weed or snapping a dead leaf off. Mum would tip out his pockets at the end of the day and find them full of his collections. He eventually sat down next to Mum who had gathered a motley collection of chairs around a table. She settled in to chat, happy to have her family around her.
‘I am going for a walk!” Dad stood up raking his strong work- worn hands through his hair, always slicked back with Brylcreem and black and shiny like a raven. Before we could stop him he disappeared.
“Derek I’m coming, can’t you wait one minute? I haven’t finished my drink!” she was not quick enough he was gone.
I don’t remember much in the minutes after. What did we do or say? We had only just arrived and Dad was missing. Mum ran after him down the dusty drive shouting his name. I was scared and felt guilty; this trip had been my idea. This was a side of Dad I hadn’t seen before.
“He has a wallet full of Singapore dollars despite me telling him to leave it behind. He has been so stubborn and angry lately.” She sighed wearily.
I was frightened, knowing Dad would stand out on the streets, an older man smartly dressed in cream linen trousers and a freshly pressed shirt. He had no water or ID with him but the worst thing was he didn’t know where he was staying.
Dad could die tonight. My imagination was running riot. The picture in my mind was not of him alive but face down in a storm drain. Is this what it feels like to prepare yourself for losing someone?
Yusaf and Iman the owners were informed. I begged them to understand the seriousness of the situation. They were amazing and offered to go out and search for him immediately, taking Mum with them. Dad’s life was in their hands and I have never felt so vulnerable and scared.
We didn’t know then that Dad was in the first stages of dementia, no one had put the pieces together. Dad had always been stubborn but the speed of his exit from the hotel surprised all of us. The fear of losing him gripped me and despite the energy-sapping heat I felt icy cold.
Minutes turned into hours and we sat and waited, empty glasses were stacking up on the table. The staff could not do enough for us, taking the children off to feed them and distract them with games.
“Where would they begin to search the maze of dimly lit streets?” I asked Andy futile questions to break the silence. Later Mum told me they visited every police station and hotel they could find. They stopped to check storm drains and to question people on the roadside. At 10:30pm van lights swept into the driveway. Relief flooded my body when I spotted my dad, quietly sitting in the back. Stiff and sore we got up shakily and smothered him with kisses but he pushed us angrily away.
“I don’t know why you were worried,” he said. “ I only went out for a walk!” He had no idea how long he had been out or how we had felt. We knew then something was wrong. Something had changed in my dad.
Back home Mum tucks a small phone into his jacket but she says he forgets how to use it. He detests technology and protests about Mum’s fussing and worrying. He carries a note now with his name and where he lives. Four years and several holidays later we call him a cat with nine lives as the losing and finding him has continued.
We didn’t want to rob him of his life or his independence so we still let him go out alone to walk and ride his bike. But when he was diagnosed with Vascular Dementia Mum had to take his car keys away and hide them.
“I can still drive can’t I? Who is telling me I can’t drive?” He wanted answers. It felt cruel to tell him he would never ever drive again.
He stays out all morning on his bike and can find his way back home. It’s a miracle, but strangely he can’t remember where the bathroom is in the house they have shared for the last 45 years.
We have all agreed, Mum, my brother and I not to take away his bike, the love of his life. It’s the last thread of our link with Dad the way he was. He had his bike built for him; they belong together. But it is hard watching him push off down the road and wondering if it will be the final time.