On Tuesday of this week what used to be called the Royal Canadian Navy, now known as Maritime Command, turned 100 years old. I take note of this milestone for two reasons.
The first reason I took note on Tuesday was I rose to the news that the first sailor to die in Afghanistan had fallen on Monday afternoon, the victim of a roadside bomb. He was returning from diffusing another bomb at the time.
As I write this, I’ve just returned from having been on a bridge on the Highway of Heroes as the motorcade carrying his body, the military & police escort and his grieving family travelled to Toronto. He is the 143rd Canadian to make that solemn journey as Canadians fill the bridges to honour and show our respect to him and their families.
The second reason I took note of the naval milestone is my late grandfather, Cyril Instance, served in the RCN during both world wars
Grandpa came from a sailing background, his own father, my great-grandfather was serving as a fireman on the Titanic on its fateful voyage in 1914. Grandpa was active duty in WW1, wounded in battle, which one I’ve forgotten the name of. During WW2 he served in Halifax, attaining the rank of CRPO, Chief Regulating Petty Officer, he was in charge of training and discipline.
Somehow that rank suited him, my memories of him was as a stern disciplinarian who loved growing flowers. He had a greenhouse at one time just west of where I now live. I remember visiting there and the long rows of flowers he would carefully tend to sell to local gardeners.
Unfortunately my more vivid memories of grandpa was as he descended into the hell of Alzheimer’s disease. We didn’t know what it was at first, he was several years into it before there was a diagnosis. What we knew was the way it was manifesting within him.
We didn’t know that when grandpa turned every conversation to talking about being in the navy it wasn’t him being fixated on having been in the navy. It was that disease robbing him of other memories. He would occasionally speak of the years he spent as a driver on the street cars in Toronto but as time went on, those memories were too recent for him.
We didn’t know when grandpa couldn’t remember where the ash tray was beside his hand that it wasn’t him but that damn disease. We’d bring him and grandma out for a visit from their apartment in Toronto and within a day or so grandpa was anxious to get home. He needed more familiar surroundings, that disease made him unsettled in the less familiar surroundings of our home.
On one of those visits I took my grandmother out for an afternoon to give her a break from his constant need for her to be close by. She enjoyed herself. I had some errands to do in Belleville and we stopped into the branch on the way back. I made her a cup of tea and coaxed her into playing a few pieces on the piano. She was a wonderful pianist but difficult to get her to play.
I agreed that the next day I’d take grandpa out for the day to allow mother and grandma to have a visit uninterrupted. Grandpa reacted to the news he was going out with me by refusing to go. I put on a very hurt air and told him that I was hurt that he’d make a date with his granddaughter and then stand her up. Too proud to admit he didn’t remember, he decided he was going.
It was a difficult day. It was hard to watch over someone who had reached a point that even hearing him talking about the navy would have been preferable to hearing him ask the same question over and over as he searched through the increasing fog in his brain to find the familiar.
Every few minutes he would ask me if he’d been down this road before. I’d tell him yes. He had lived in the area years ago, he likely had been on those same roads and somewhere in that fog was something familiar. There was a few lucid moments as we’d pass flower beds and he’d recognise what was planted there and tell me what they were.
On the way home, I also took grandpa into the branch and made him a cup of tea as the guys tried to politely chat with him. When we got home, he told grandma he’d had a really nice day and we’d stopped into the Legion for a beer. At that stage alcohol and grandpa didn’t mix, which is why I made him a cup of tea.
The murderous look grandma shot me quickly subsided when I told her that he had exactly what she had the day before. Man was I glad of that, that sweet little soul was deadly when angered.
When I think about grandma and grandpa; the long years of his descent into that soul robbing disease and how painful it was for grandma to watch helplessly as it happened; I remember how fortunate I am that even though both my parents were taken from the family with cancer, they didn’t suffer long.