“Finally a connection, at last”: How football cut through the fog of Dad’s dementia

Amid the cruelty and pain of slowly losing a loved one, the memories from a shared lifelong love of Brighton & Hove Albion still provide a spark

By Jem Stone

27 April 2024

I’m sat on the edge of a bed in a nursing home on the outskirts of Brighton on a dark Friday night. I can smell the stale odour of chips and heated-up frozen food and hear the clatter of trays and cutlery from a cramped kitchen down the way. Several young care workers nervously put their heads around the door, offering me mugs of tea, only to be met with an aggressive sigh from my frail 87-year-old dad who is perched next to me. “What do you want?” he growls and they shuffle away into the night. I mouth back the first of many apologies during tonight’s visit on his behalf.

He suddenly grabs my arm and looks at my wrist. “Have you got my watch?” A 1970s Timex that he’d given to me a few visits back. He grips the wrist tightly. “They’re trying to steal it. They’ll steal anything in here! They’re from North Korea.” He is shouting now. And then the tears start.

I desperately try to change the conversation to something, anything, to avoid the aggression, the anger, the agitation, the delusions of a different person that I still can’t get used to or understand.

“I’m going to Spurs tomorrow, Dad.” “Are you?” The tone suddenly shifts. A gentler voice re-emerges from somewhere. “Yes, they did alright last week against Palace.” “I know, I know,” he says. “Four-one.”

And then I’m totally thrown back to a time before all this. Amid the memory gaps and holes and incoherence, finally a connection, at last. I smile. “Yes. They did,” I say, amazed that merely remembering the Albion’s match result correctly from two days ago was still possible. I cry inside and slowly place my hand inside his.

It’s a few weeks before Christmas in 1976 and, unusually, I’ve been picked up from primary school in the middle of the day by my dad who has taken a rare afternoon off work. We make our way up the A23, with me in the back seat next to a bag which – thanks to my mum – is so stuffed full of sausage rolls, sandwiches, sweets and crisps that you’d imagine we’d be away for a week instead of merely a night out watching an FA Cup replay. Except this trip was going to be my first ever away game – and I was beyond thrilled.

“Where are you?” I’m shouting and then screaming, with tears running down my face. I’d let go of his hand and I was lost in a crowd of fans streaming away from the match. Seconds, then minutes, tick by. The horror and fear of being by myself hits me and races through my head. I’m utterly scared and some of the Albion and Palace fans passing by me start giving worried looks at this distressed ten-year-old boy pleading for his dad. A policeman walks over to console me. “We’ll find him.”

I’d remembered this story and used to share it over and over, but I guess only from my perspective, forgetting that it was his story too. Forgetting he might also remember the intense anxiety of searching for a little boy in a crowd of fans on a dark December night. Just my own fear at being lost, alongside that bittersweet undying respect to Dad for introducing me to the classic Brighton v Crystal Palace history from the start – the actual game, the origin story, the birth of the rivalry. Thanks to him, I’d always have that.

Only a few months ago, Dad and I were on a coach taking us to a home game at the Amex against Fulham. As the coach wound through the back streets of Hangleton and Mile Oak on a Sunday afternoon, I became aware that the old couple sat behind us kept staring at my dad. Finally, when they were absolutely sure, they greeted him by name and he turned his head but looked perplexed, startled even. “We were neighbours,” they said, and did what they could to prompt a recall, mentioning gardens, schools, grown-up children. But there was nothing there. He looked blank and almost rudely turned his head to stare back out of the window halfway through their questions. I jumped in to try and explain it away. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t know then, but it had begun. That half-century of us going to matches, together, was coming to an end.

There’s a whole new set of acronyms to learn, like LPA (Lasting Powers of Attorney) and LATE (a variant of Alzheimer’s). Endless forms and units and nurses and case workers. I’m asked to respond to yet another email with a 16-page PDF of tips and advice attached. DOLs are the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards team. I have to agree to an assessment to determine whether my dad has the capacity or not to agree to his care arrangements or whether “restrictions” would be in his “best interests”. Shorthand for being locked in and not being allowed to leave, for his own safety. I’m sent an assessment a few days later confirming what we knew all along. In among the jargon and form-filling, the colour and stories of my dad still stand out; the swearing, the exaggeration, the humour, the love.

When asked why he’d been placed in the secure home, he recalled a distant football match. Was it Crystal Palace again? He’d been at a football match a long time ago, the report said. He remembered the pain of it vividly. He had shot someone, and his son had run off and that’s why he was made to be there. A punishment. Confined to a nursing home on the edge of Brighton.

I’m still next to him on the bed. I put my arm round him again. Don’t be afraid. I haven’t run off. Nobody has been shot. I’m here. I’m here. He looks up, slowly mouths my name, picks up his Albion mug and drinks his tea.

This article first appeared in WSC 441, April 2024. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive

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