It’s a Wonderful Life
“One man’s life touches so many others, when he’s not there it leaves an awfully big hole.”
Christmas eve, 2015. I was 18 years old, my first semester of my first year of uni had drawn to a close. The house was garishly bright, for a family that didn’t like Christmas too much we didn’t half deck the place out with bright lights. I was on my bed, lazily reading my book and I heard my mum summon me. I slid off my bed and went down to see what Christmas Eve dinner-related task she had lined up for me.
“I’ve just read in the paper that It’s a Wonderful Life is on Channel 4 in about 15 minutes, go and pop round to your papa’s and put it on for him, it’s his favourite film”. I nodded, bundled myself up in my winter coat, and braved the rain. The walk to my papa’s house was exactly 41 seconds, but I am a fast walker. I only had to turn one corner and cross the road, and there I was. Stood at the doorstep of the house that I considered my second home. A house that in previous years, was full of light and laughter during the month of December, but now felt lonely. Just my papa pottering around on his own.
My grandparents on my mother’s side were a force that I had admired my entire life. I always felt so lucky as a child knowing that the grandparents I treasured so much lived on the same street as me. Whenever I felt like seeing them, I toddled off. I adored them, and they adored me. My papa, a former footballer, and banker stood tall with thick grey hair, snorted when he laughed and whistled as he read the paper through his thick lenses. My granny, a small lady, let me and my cousins play dress up with her fancy scarves, she doted on everyone and was an excellent cook. My childhood was made up of the most simple but happy memories. Papa would sometimes hold a pad of paper and a pencil, would turn to me, and say in a posh English accent; “well madam, what shall I draw for you?”. Peering over the paper, I’d ask for him to draw my teddy bears having a picnic. Bessy bear (A trusted companion) would have a jam sandwich, whilst Bertie bear would enjoy some lemonade. Fluffy, was more of a cupcake type of girl. After scribbling, he’d hold up his masterpiece of the three bears on a red blanket, with a wicker basket, sipping lemonade and munching little cupcakes and sandwiches. I’d grin and nestle into his chest. He’d laugh and pick me up onto his knee. “you’re a wee artist aren’t ye?” he’d snort.
My grandparents were childhood sweethearts, falling in love in the bank where they worked. Theirs was a simple love story commencing with a cup of tea and a wink. A story I loved to hear, they married under a great lightning storm. My aunt would tell me that the sky was as black as you could imagine. Sometimes my granny would sit down and show me the photos. They both beamed. My papa in his smart suit. My granny, in a beautiful lace dress and a headpiece. Pointing at the jewellery, I would ask her if she still had it. She would then lead me through to her bedroom and we would look through her beautiful wooden jewellery box. She’d carefully hold up every ring and bangle, and tell me when she got it, how old she was when she got it, and the story behind it. On the dressing table an old black and white photo of her at 19 sat. I couldn’t help but stare at it, how little she changed apart from the wrinkles, she never had a grey hair on her head.
Both of my grandparents were diagnosed in 2011. My granny with Alzheimer’s, and my papa with vascular dementia. Two conditions different in regards to their symptoms but equally as destructive, both causing unimaginable pain for them, and suffering for my family.
Things started to go wrong in the spring of 2015 when I was 17. I was never sat down and told that they were ill, but I had guessed something was wrong. My mum and uncle sold my papa’s car after he accidentally locked himself in it and couldn’t remember how to get out, one time they came around for a meal two days before we had planned. My granny was always forgetful, but things were slipping. She began showing severe symptoms, we had an alarm fitted on their front door so we would be called if she tried to get out during the night. For weeks the phone rang at three in the morning, we would sleepily wander around and see her standing in the driveway in her nightie. We never got angry, we just gently took her arm and led her back to bed, like a child after having a nightmare. One morning she drank dish soap and spent the day crying through stomach pains. I became used to the routine of her coming around and telling me she was off out to see her mother, I became used to calmly telling her that her mum had an appointment before meeting her and that she would meet her at the house, and I would walk her back. Growing up, nothing brought me more joy than an unexpected visit from her. Now, it filled me with dread. More incidents occurred, and as a family, we were unable to cope. My days at school were now filled with anxious thoughts of her whereabouts. Double Spanish was spent hoping to God that if she did go out, she’d at least have a jacket on. I started skipping double P.E. on a Thursday to pop to ASDA and buy a box of chocolates, I’d walk to the house and share them with them. Calm at the knowledge they were both safe in the house. It was too much pressure on me, only 17. My mum is a teacher and is very busy, and my dad worked 12-hour shifts and spent a lot of time in his bed. My uncle worked in a hospital and was busy with two young children. It was a difficult decision for us. She said she wanted home. But soon home changed into a little bedroom in a lovely old age home, a new home. With photos of old movie stars on the corridor walls. School photos on the bedside and a weekly visit. Eventually, old home was forgotten. My face was now a stranger and not an adoring grandchild. She became childless and unmarried in the world in her head that took over. But she was safe and she was warm.
When my granny went into care, the relief of knowing she was safe and properly looked after did not last long. We then realised how ill and dependent on us my papa was. Vascular dementia is very different to Alzheimer’s. Vascular dementia is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain due to diseased blood vessels, which leads to problems with cognition. For my papa, he was often confused, agitated, and he would have occasional mood swings, he found it hard to communicate with us and was overwhelmed by simple tasks. He could not prepare food or wash himself, he found it hard to dress himself. He could remember us, he remembered stories and faces and names. But he couldn’t communicate them to us.
Stepping into the house, I could hear a Christmas special of some comedy show blasting from the living room. I checked the time on my phone, he wouldn’t have had his tea yet, and home help would be here in half an hour or so. He sat on the couch dozing, clearly not enthralled by the Christmas wonder of what ended up being Mrs Brown’s Boys.
I tapped his hand. He jolted awake and then he beamed; he was always happy to have visitors now. The day after my granny went into the home, the thought of him sitting in the house on his own consumed me throughout the school day. I forged a note saying that I had a doctor’s appointment and spent the afternoon with him. It was not long after his 80th birthday, and the home help had bought him a box of chocolates for him to share with my granny. “it’s for the best” he said, “I couldn’t keep her in the house. I just couldn’t do it” looking down at his wedding ring. My granny’s wedding ring was now lost, like most of the jewellery I marvelled at when I was small. She forgot how to undo the clasp of a necklace or bracelet so she would yank them off and break them. Rings and earrings were scattered about the house.
“at least you know she’s safe. You don’t need to worry about her now, she’s being well looked after. We couldn’t look after her anymore”. He nodded and his eyes twinkled.
“how about a wee chocolate” he smirked, I grinned. As a little one, my papa always said that if I ate too many chocolates or sweeties I would go “BOOM!” and he’d throw his arms out and I’d laugh, still munching on a biscuit. He’d then hand me another and wink. He hauled out the chocolates from the kitchen and told me to have as many as I wanted, we sat with a cup of tea. He asked me how school was, I explained that my Spanish was getting better but I was finding philosophy difficult. Suddenly, a car parked outside. Home help was here to make his tea. He sprung up, took the box of chocolates, and hid them behind a cushion. “Hiya Russell! Tea time!” she shrieked, “oh aye I’m starving!” he said, rubbing his stomach. I smiled, his childlike nature remained despite everything.
“Mum sent me round 'cause It’s a Wonderful Life is on in a bit, will I put that on for you?”, his face lit up. He often found it hard to communicate. The words were there but they were jumbled. For once they were jumbled with excitement. “oh yes, it’s a beautiful film”, I changed the channel. My plan was to change the channel for him, make him a cup of tea, and then go home. But I hadn’t seen him this excited since before my granny left, I couldn’t leave him. I had actually never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, so I stayed with him. Cups of tea (No milk, no sugar) in hand, we both sat on the couch to watch. He instantly started whistling the opening credits. Buffalo Gals (Won’t You Come Out Tonight?) echoed through the now often quiet house.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a beloved Christmas film that was released in 1946 (when my granny and papa were 11). It stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who sacrifices his hopes and dreams of traveling the world to help others. His little brother, his father, and his wife. On Christmas Eve he decides to take his own life. However, his guardian angel, Clarence, shows George all the lives he has touched, improved, and saved by being alive. He shows him how sad the world would be if he had never been born. After seeing how different the world would have been without him, George begs for his life back which is returned by Clarence. It’s a heartwarming black-and-white film, with those high-pitched accents that most films of the time featured. My papa loved it.
He was transfixed on the television; he could quote the entire film word for word if he could. “I wish I had a million dollars!”, “What do you want Mary? Do you want the moon? If you want it, I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down for you. Hey! That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon Mary”, “why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?”. I think he forgot I was there, he danced along to the prom scene. He grinned for the who two hours, the brightest his face had been since April. The longest I had seen a smile on his face in almost a year.
The ending scenes commenced. George Bailey had a bloodied lip but was smiling and happy. Surrounded by people, his family. Christmas songs booming on the piano. Home help had been to give my papa his tea, he inhaled it, like a small child rushing their tea so they could get back to their game or playing outside. They gave him his pudding to eat in front of the telly. Apple pie and custard. “make sure you don’t slitter” the nurse said laughing, patting his shoulder as she left.
Auld Lang Syne started to play. I was sitting right next to him by now, my eyes attached to the screen. George Bailey picked up the book with a message from Clarence written inside;
“Dear George, Remember, no man is a failure who has friends! Thanks for the wings! Love, Clarence.”
I felt tears gather in my eyes, and my papa sniffed. For the first time in the longest time, I curled myself up beside him and nestled my eighteen-year-old head in his arm. Trying to turn myself into the size of a small child. He still smelled the same, he felt the same. I cosied in as much as I could, aware I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I closed my eyes and listened to Auld Lang Syne and smiled. The bell on the Bailey family Christmas tree rang out, “look, Daddy! Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings!”, more tears welled up in my eyes, my cheeks were hot and I could feel my face turn red, my papa sniffed again.
I wrapped my arms around his arm and snuggled in, squeezing him tightly. For those three short minutes, in my head, he wasn’t ill. In those three minutes I imagined he’d offer me more sugary sweets, and he’d tell jokes or read me a story. For three minutes I was that little girl. With long blonde curls, living in a world where grandparents are eternal, too young to worry about them going anywhere or changing. I was the one being looked after, not the one doing the looking after. No worries about bids for freedom or a mood swing filled my mind. No broken china or lost wedding rings. In my mind, this was another Christmas eve full of excitement and joy, not our last one together. No care homes, no illness, no confusion. I held on to these three minutes of calm for as long as I could. My eyes squeezed tightly shut, nestled into him. The film ended. I opened my eyes and wiped away the tears that had spilled down my cheeks. I looked up at him, he was smiling. His eyes glassy from tears. “It’s the best film in the world” he said, looking down at me. He snorted, and then bopped me on the nose.
I’ve never watched It’s a Wonderful Life since.
Russell Blair, 1935–2016 and Annie Blair, 1935–2020