Memoir | Cancer | Health

Words With the Power To Terrify Me During My Late Wife’s Illness

Childhood memories of my gran’s illness returned decades later

Alan AJ
7 min readFeb 26, 2024


Two vases of colourful flowers
Flowers on the 5th anniversary of my wife’s death. Photo taken by the author in 2018

It began with my gran‘s illness in the 1970s

My gran’s house was brand new when she moved in, but I only knew the place half a century later in the 1970s. Although it was no longer modern, its Bakelite electrical fittings gave it character.

When I was seven, my mum shielded me from the details of her mum’s illness. That’s what adults did in those days. Although we continued to visit as usual, I may have been encouraged to play outside more often.

My gran’s dilapidated garden shed was dark and dingy, but I loved the random assortment of old, threadbare balls that lived there. They seemed special and unique to me, and I would play with them as I explored the back garden while the adults talked in the living room.

Perhaps they didn’t realise there were times when I was listening, but certain words stood out; I sensed fear when my mum and uncle spoke of cancer and Clatterbridge.

Those words would come back and terrify me as an adult.

A moment I’ll never forget

As the months went on, my gran’s health deteriorated, and she barely moved from her chair. I remember a particular day when she reached out and held my arm as she asked:

“You’ll look after your mum for me, won’t you?”

It was an emotional moment, and even though I didn’t fully understand, I intuitively felt the meaning. It was a lot of pressure for a child.

I don’t remember seeing my gran after that day, and it wasn’t long until we were quietly placing flowers at the crematorium. My uncle would measure the distance from the path to her plot in the field using his conveniently sized 12" long feet.

I could feel the emotions in the air, but it was a solemn time in an era when adults did not share such feelings openly with children. I imagine they thought I was too young to understand, but I missed my gran, too.

I heard certain words again when…



Alan AJ

Random life stories, opinions, and a dry sense of humour. A 55-year-old former electronics engineer and programmer in England. Previously 'Autistic Widower'.