Laugh As We Always Laughed

My mother once thought I was Davina McCall.

At the time, she was in hospital, and the TV must have been switched to Big Brother, or somesuch. She pointed at the TV and said, “That’s you, isn’t it?” And I laughed and said, “Yes!”

Our GP had diagnosed my mother with MID – multi-infarct (or vascular) dementia – which is a series of little strokes that make parts of your brain shut down. She would have moments of complete clarity interspersed with complete confusion. We’d only realised something was very wrong when her neighbours called to say that she’d called round in a confused state, but in hindsight the signs had been developing over a long period.

It is the hardest thing, to see this happen to a loved one. Particularly a mother who was a bright, intelligent woman. Her ‘eccentric’ ways, as she got older, were something I read as just a development of her personality, but in hindsight, they were small signs of what was to come. I remember her coming to visit me when I lived in Brighton in the ’90s, and how our roles had now switched. As we walked around, I had food and water in my bag for her, and ensured there was somewhere nice for her to sit down now and then.

I was embarrassed when two good friends spied us on the seafront, and I didn’t want them to speak to us. I knew my mother ‘wasn’t right’ but didn’t know how to deal with it. Then on the way home, she got off at the wrong coach stop and there were frantic messages between me and my siblings as to her whereabouts. She was found by National Express, sitting quietly at a coach stop, miles from her destination. I still feel sick about that moment. She shouldn’t have done that trip by her self, but at that time, I was still wondering why not.

When the diagnosis came – and let me tell you that getting your mother to the doctor to be tested for something she doesn’t know she has is a challenge – then it made it easier to deal with. It’s amazing what happens when a thing is named. When a thing is named it comes with a set of characteristics and a clear set of actions. She would have to go into hospital to be properly diagnosed, before being placed in appropriate care. We would have to take her there, leave her there. We would have to visit her and find her wearing someone else’s clothes…

You have to find a way through it. A way to cope. And the way we found, my sister, me and my mum, was a way to laugh at it. Together. Whether it was Davina McCall or the small white fluffy things she ‘saw’ blowing across her bedroom floor, we laughed at them together, sometimes until we cried. We found that correcting her only made her upset and more confused. But if you went along with the fantasy, magically the whole thing became easier.

Last night I went to see David Baddiel’s one-man show about his parents: his sex-obsessed late mother and his father who has dementia. His way of coping, he said, was to find the humour in it. In the fact that his mother copied him in to sexy emails to her lover, and that his dad called his loved one ‘c*nts’.

I found myself nodding and clapping as he spoke about how weird it was to hear your parent being asked by a doctor who the prime minister is (it’s the first question on the dementia test), how he found himself apologising to friends when his dad said something inappropriate, or his inner fear of being a victim of dementia himself.

Baddiel is of an age where perhaps you have more life experience to cope with it (53) but I was 31/32. No one of my acquaintance was dealing with anything like this, and I think that’s why I wanted to hide it away from them. They were all having babies and I was on my second parental decline. It was all out of sync and I wanted to hide in my south-coast life and ignore it. I’m ashamed to say that I hid in it for as long as I could. I kept my home visits to a limited number and a limited time. I counted the hours before I could escape south again. I know I’m not the only person to have done that but that doesn’t stop the guilt.

Recently there was a Twitter thread involving acts of kindness people had witnessed in their lives. Mine stands out clear and strong. During that time, my oldest friend, Coreen, visited my mother every Saturday, almost without fail. She dropped in to have a cup of tea and a chat. She must have seen my mother struggling, surrounded by ‘her things’ in one room. She understood, she didn’t judge, she was just present. She was more present than I was. I will never forget her kindness and I dedicate this post to her.

When my mother was taken into a home to be looked after, she thought it was a hotel. She talked about the other ‘guests’ and the staff as though she was on holiday. We played along. She ordered tea in her room and told us what she thought of the food in the ‘hotel’. We laughed together. She’d look at me as though she recognised me, then once again I was Davina. I could see the switch happen in her eyes.

Thank goodness for the laughter. Even before she became ill, I remember us all laughing together. At my mum’s habit of gently reaching out to touch the petals of a beautiful flower in a landscaped garden, only to see the whole thing collapse on the ground. And the time she accidentally tried to take £1000 out of an ATM in Southport because she couldn’t use the keyboard. And the classic: the time when she asked the waitress in a cafe in a boat on the North Wales coast, if she ‘had any waffles?’ but pronounced it to rhyme with ‘raffles’. She had put on her famous posh phone voice and we laughed about it years later.

We were used to laughing together and it made sense for us to do it later, when she was struggling the most. It’s a case of taking all the anxiety away – for all concerned. She was only in the home six weeks before she died. I’ve always thought it was because she had nothing to worry about any more. Other people were finally handling everything.

Baddiel ended by saying that his show was a kind of funeral speech for his mother – that her Jewish ‘Shiva’ didn’t allow for speeches, and on the day itself, everyone just shook his hand, wished him ‘long life’ and said what a ‘wonderful woman’ his mother was. In his show, he wanted to show the full extent of how ‘wonderful’ she was and it’s fairly warts-and-all. It’s darkly hilarious.

At my mother’s funeral, I stood up and said something, but it was a poem, and quite appropriate given the subject of this blog post. It’s Death Is Nothing At All, by Henry Scott Holland, and he says:

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me.

The more I look back on that time, and the years before them, the more I see and hear that laughter. I heard everyone in the theatre laughing last night, knowing that it came from a shared experience. I felt alone at the time it was happening but so many people experience it. It’s one of life’s great taboo subjects, but we are talking about it more and more, not only because of Theresa May’s ill-advised ‘dementia tax‘ or the threat of it looming over an ageing population.

I’ve toyed with writing about this subject for years now, not quite able to find a way into an intensely personal experience. It wasn’t until I saw Baddiel on stage last night that I found that way, and let me tell you that seeing a man ‘share’ as he does is simply incredible. We’re used to women doing it, but not men. He’s turned it into a comedy show, but really it’s a very funny, and tragic, live blog.

So I’m committing the laughter to the page and not hiding the darkness that comes along with it.

It’s time we talked about this.

 

Dedicated to: the NHS, Age UK (who were so helpful and reassuring when I phoned them out of my mind with worry), my wonderful friend, Coreen Ellis.

 

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The Good Souls

This Christmas and New Year are game-changers for me. For once I haven’t fled the country, or stayed in a place I don’t want to be with people I don’t like, or roamed moodily around my own home, feeling a bit sorry for myself.

I left the decision whether or not to fly away until pretty much the last moment. I knew the guy I’m seeing would be working most of the time and only free on Christmas Day. I knew that people were saying they’d be around (those that weren’t going away) but I also knew that when it came to it, I probably wouldn’t see any of them.

People are funny about going into hiding during the Christmas holidays. They disappear from Twitter – announcing that they’re ‘taking a break’ to be with family – then suddenly they’re back, taking a break from their families…

Anyway, this year there has been no break or flight from anything for me, except the office. I know enough about Christmas now to realise that the best bit is the run-up to it. I started enjoying the party season from December 1, knowing that come the 25th it’s going to be a bit of an anti-climax, or at least a post-party chill-out (this is precisely why I start enjoying summer on June 1 – if you wait for the ‘big day’ when the sun is at its hottest, you’ve missed out on all the fun. And the big day may never arrive…)

It was a very Christmas different for me. My guy is Muslim so it was a no-booze zone and I made a halal lamb dish for us both. It was quite liberating, heading into Sainsbury’s on Christmas Eve, hearing people shouting, “WHERE ARE THE BLOODY PARSNIPS??”, knowing I wouldn’t be buying anything remotely involved in a traditional Christmas dinner.

The world didn’t end because I didn’t observe a single tradition, apart from present-opening and a pre-dinner walk. The biggest surprises of the day were finding out that my guy likes Rick Stein documentaries, animated children’s films and Gladiator. We ended up watching The Revenant, hardly joyful Christmas viewing, but at least it was set in a wintery landscape. It wasn’t White Christmas, but I enjoyed it anyway.

My guy had had his birthday a week earlier, and made it feel like my birthday by bringing around an enormous cake for me. For me! I was struck by the generosity of it. The generosity of spirit which escaped me for years, when I was with someone incredibly mean-spirited. No completely unselfish acts, no celebration of anything good (unless initiated by me), no joy in sharing a life with another person. Just being frogmarched around a shopping mall to select my own gift, which was inevitably a high-ticket consumer good because it was easy and required little thought.

Two of my best friends are Jewish and do a sort of ‘Chrismukkah’ which I rather love. We joke that they have become my ‘Jewish mothers’ but I’ve realised that they have actually become my family here in north-west London. They phone me to catch up, even though I hate phones, and I love it. They sought me out this year, separately, to arrange to meet for gift-giving and pre-Christmas cheer. I love them dearly for that. Please keep phoning me, ladies. I love it, honestly.

The week before Christmas, one of my oldest friends arrived in the country from Qatar and arranged to meet me in Kensal Rise, where I live. It had been a difficult day, because what is left of my actual family were meeting in Wales for a Christmas dinner and for reasons I won’t go into here, I couldn’t attend.

Kensal put on a show as though I’d been rehearsing it for months. The chatty barman, the friends popping past to say ‘hi’, the local pub quiz we entered into with gusto, the knowledge that these smiling friends were here to see me and that they are a big part of my life and history. The universe spoke to me loud and clear: this is my home and these people are my family.

In between Christmas and New Year I arranged to see another old friend (we date back to university), who is the mother of my godson. Thanks to the generosity of yet another one of my London Jewish framily we got free tickets to a Christmas show in Manchester and a backstage tour afterwards. I introduced my old friend to my London friend and felt grateful to have both of them in my life.

I started to think about all the good souls – the people who really matter. They are marked by their kindness and generosity. They are consistent and don’t have any agenda. They like to see me and I like to see them. It’s so beautifully simple.

My northern odyssey continued with a night out with my brother, ending up in a bar on the infamous Canal Street. Much fun was had. Over dinner I told him that the thing that most impressed me at his 60th birthday party was a) that he’d served the guests dinner himself, and b) friends of his that I’d never met came up to me and told me how kind he is to them and their families. We’re not the closest of siblings, but I am proud of who he is. And now I wonder why we’ve waited so long to have a night out in Manchester…

Finally I met up with my mum’s sister for a hug, a cup of tea and a chat. Like my mum and nan before her, she is wiser than wise. “Take each day one at a time,” were her parting words to me, and I shall. I shall.

The person who drove me to my aunt’s and came back and took me to the station at the end of the day was someone I know professionally: an illustrator. He’d also picked me up earlier, and cooked lunch for me and his family. Again, I was blown away by the generosity. The universe is literally throwing good souls at me right now.

So much crap has happened this year, I can’t wait to leave it behind and start a fresh new one. I’m not naive enough to think 2017 is going to be a bed of roses, but I’m going to be fifty, and I’m going to celebrate that with people that matter.

And in the words of Starsailor:

As I turn to you and I say
Thank goodness for the good souls
That make life better
As I turn to you and I say
If it wasn’t for the good souls
Life would not matter

Happy New Year!

Dedicated to: Justine, Chelsea, Neal, Helen(s), Jess, Phil, Sam, Jonny, Kay, Woody, James, Lucinda, Sidali, Ben, Coreen, and the people of Kensal Rise and Canal Street.