Married to Alzheimer’s: Lost and foundling: our rocky horror roadshow

A journey to France for a family wedding takes an unexpected turn on the car deck of the Cherbourg ferry

Tony and Steph Booth. ‘As Tony’s Alzheimer’s is now making him much more frail I find it easier to break our journeys into manageable sections. It stops him getting too grumpy.’ Photograph: Frank Miller

Tony and Steph Booth. ‘As Tony’s Alzheimer’s is now making him much more frail I find it easier to break our journeys into manageable sections. It stops him getting too grumpy.’ Photograph: Frank Miller

Tue, Aug 19, 2014, 01:00

Organised people always have lists. Clear, well-thought-out lists to which they can refer at appropriate moments and never lose. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and, for me, lists form the paving blocks of that road. I think perhaps I set the bar too high in my effort to follow them and not get diverted. Inevitably I go off piste. The list gets lost, which means someone is at fault and has to be shouted at. I am evenhanded when it comes to apportioning blame, so the first living thing – cat, dog or husband – to cross my path during a lost-list crisis gets to shoulder the blame.

There were several of these particular crises as I prepared to transport us all (bar the cat) to France for the wedding of one of our sons. My husband, Tony, had been looking forward to this trip for some time. I can say this with absolute certainty given the multitude of times he asked when we were going.

As Tony’s Alzheimer’s is now making him much more frail I find it easier to break our journeys into manageable sections. It stops him getting too grumpy.

Ferry to Cherbourg We spent the first night of our travels at his daughter Cherie’s country house. We then went on to Portsmouth to catch a ferry to Cherbourg. During the three-hour crossing the dogs stayed in the car, as requested.

When we returned to the car deck I could see our springer spaniel and Jack Russell jumping around in the boot, pleased to see us. Carol, our elderly rescue, a King Charles spaniel, had been left to stretch out on the back seat. As I unlocked the car she did not look quite right. And when I leaned in to check, my worst suspicions were confirmed. Although she was still warm, she was very definitely dead.

Holding Carol in my arms, I got back out of the car. Tony and our friend Chris, who was travelling with us, stood there looking at me. Tony’s reaction to being told the dog was dead was to say, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Then, realising I was serious, Chris burst into tears and Tony just looked frightened. I knew then I was to be the designated grown-up in this situation. Telling Tony and Chris to get into the car, I laid the dog in the boot with the other two. It was the only available space. The car was cram-jam with stuff for the wedding.

My main concern was that it was incredibly hot, and we faced a three-hour drive. I put the air conditioning on as cool as possible but Tony wanted the windows open. I could not get through to him this was not the best idea and in the end I simply locked the windows and blasted the air conditioning.

Tony was sitting on the back seat so that he could spread out with the newspapers and a box of biscuits, both essential travel requirements for him. He spent a good deal of the journey poking my shoulder, telling me to drive faster as there was a dead dog in the back of the car. As if this was some sort of revelation to me.

Lightning storm About an hour into the journey, and just as I thought things could not get any worse, we drove into a spectacular lightning storm. I have never seen anything like it. Sitting next to me in the front of the car, Chris happily informed me that as the car acts as a Faraday cage we did not have to be worried about being hit by lightning. I was far more concerned about the volume of water falling from the sky. I could hardly see where I was going and slowed right down. This made for safer driving, but the shoulder- poking became even more insistent.

It was somewhat reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Show. Tony has played the narrator in a number of productions but I never expected to be living it.

Eventually we arrived at our destination. My son had dug a grave before we arrived and Carol was buried with due ceremony in a garden in Brittany close to the Atlantic coast. A fitting resting place for a sweet- natured old girl.

The next few days were somewhat fraught as Tony kept forgetting the dog had died. He constantly said he thought we had more dogs. I explained, each time he asked, that Carol had died. Each time he was told he got upset again. Eventually, I took Tony to a garden centre. We bought a hydrangea bush and planted it to mark Carol’s grave. He associates this particular bush with Carol and now understands and, more importantly, remembers she is dead, and this helps to ease his repeated distress.

Things got a great deal better then. Sitting in the garden, surrounded by friends and family busily preparing for the wedding, Tony happily delighted and entertained our new French relatives with his stories, many of which required acting out.

Steph Booth lives with her husband, the actor Tony Booth, in the north of England.

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