Hannah lies flickering in the half light, much as she has done for the last two years. It isn’t as painful now but I rarely leave without having first had a good sob somewhere, just out of sight of the door, in case one of the carers comes in. She flickers on and off and fades in and out. Sometimes she might say a name of an old acquaintance or a friend or an old worry. Sometimes her foggy eyes alight on me and she says: “Oh darling, thank you” and then promptly falls asleep. I sit by her buzzing bed, with Classic FM playing in the background and read her stuff; bits from the Herts Mercury, lines of poetry, things that lie dotted about the house. I no longer expect a response and in its own way it’s rather peaceful watching her lying there – breathing in and out – although to be honest I sometimes find myself wishing she would die, before I forget who she was.
Hannah was always the last person to leave a party. Glass in hand she would stand in the midst of the throng in our little village in Essex, or indeed anywhere she went, charming people, dropping clangers, making us laugh, making us embarrassed but never boring us. She was the sixth child of seven of boisterous but loving Staffordshire hill village stock. Her father was an erratic man who had survived the horrors of WW1 only to visit horrors on his own family. The sweet old grandad I knew in his dotage had in the words of my mother been a “bully” and a “layabout” for much of his life. They blamed the drink but perhaps we should also blame the war. Hannah wanted to get out and was driven to “improve” herself. She got herself into grammar school on her own initiative and despite her father telling her that he couldn’t afford the bus fare she went anyway, saying she would walk if she had to. Eventually he capitulated and the money was found. She was always very good at getting her own way. She went on to secretarial college and while there she joined the Young Conservatives and dropped the accent and after a bit got a job at Westminster as a secretary to a well-known MP. Pictures of her back in the 60s show an impossibly glamorous and beautiful woman with jet black hair and Jackie Onassis outfits. She met my Dad, they fell in love, got married and when my sister was born – moved to Essex.
The thing about Hannah was that despite the act and the put on airs and graces, it was all just that – an act. Truth be told, she didn’t care where people came from. She would talk to everyone and anyone on a level. She was simply the most gregarious person it was possible to meet. She walked with Kings, but never lost the common touch. She may have left Staffordshire, but Staffordshire hadn’t left her. Being with her was a bit like being with a minor celebrity. Everywhere you went people would pop up and say “Hello Hannah” and you’d say “who was that Mum?” and she’d say “oh that was so and so who I met on the train” or “that’s Steve who works in the garage” or “that’s that awful man who tried to chat me up at the tennis barbecue after your father died.” She was an unstoppable force. She aspired to be a Shire mother, but the truth was we lived in Essex and she couldn’t stand snobbery and was better, funnier, wittier and a far more human than those robotic women in pearls across the border in Hertfordshire who seemed to live their lives on a diet of one-upmanship. She read because she loved books not because she felt obliged to go along to book club.
She also had an epic ability to drop the most God-awful clangers.
Once at a school drinks party and despite my best efforts to warn her, she opined frankly on the tragedy of male pattern baldness striking a friend of mine to a new acquaintance who would have made Telly Savalas look like an extra in Hair. On another occasion she told a relative, dressed up to the nines in tartan at a Scottish wedding, that she thought it was extremely naff to wear kilts when one was English, adding: “but you look lovely.” And then there was the time she introduced me to Tom Stoppard, who she had known for about three minutes, by telling the great man that “my son here” wrote plays and that in her opinion my last one was much better than his.
My Dad died in the late nineties. He was quite a bit older than Hannah, but she soldiered on, kept working, kept laughing and cooking and working in Westminster despite her now advancing years. She didn’t take to being 70 and as 80 approached she felt it even more. By now I had a family of my own and we came up at weekends and I started to notice little things slipping. The fridge, always so full of food and wine got a little sparser – and then empty. Sometimes she seemed surprised to see us, despite my having phoned to say we were on the way.
I tried to convince her to sell up and leave, but she was having none of it – and you couldn’t win an argument with Hannah. I tried to take her to the Doctors but she wouldn’t get in the car. Then the calls started; sometimes as many as thirty times a day. Once she rang me and said she was trapped on a ledge. It was late at night and I thought she had been drinking so after I reassured her that she wasn’t, she rang the Police instead and they rang me and I drove up and put her to bed and the next day she said “don’t worry about me darling, all will be well.” But I knew that wasn’t going to be the case. I found myself struggling to sleep or work. I started spending more and more time up there, resenting it a little, but dreading the alternative even more. Family friends did their best to help, but she was cut adrift. She tried to engage as she had done before but the old erudition had gone and she retreated from invitations, locked the doors, lost the keys. Eventually she burned herself. In a strange way it was a blessing. I took her to the doctors and this extremely kind professional took me to one side and told me how worried she had been about Hannah and what a remarkable woman she was. I didn’t have to be told that.
She was tested and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dismissed the diagnosis as “ridiculous” and then seemed to forget about it. Well-meaning people from various agencies and charities visited and offered support and help and gave us packs in plastic folders. I knew in my gut that she wouldn’t take ‘help’ or would find artful ways to avoid it and she did.
Eventually, more through duplicity than her changing her mind, we managed to find her a “new home” on a residential site. We sold up the house and discarded 50 years of memories and history with a brutality bred out of necessity. The new place was purchased, but despite my conversations with the owner and emails to the manager they seemed surprised to discover that Hannah had Alzheimer’s and were shockingly ill prepared to deal with it. The fees immediately shot up and it felt like a punishment. I felt guilty. I felt like I’d tricked her, betrayed her, robbed her of her freedom. Friends and family comforted me – said I’d done everything I could – but she was like a caged animal rotating in her little home and occasionally walking uninvited into others. The children still came up. We still went out. Our walks reduced as the circle of her universe did – as did the conversation. I tried to talk to her about the old days, but she said she didn’t want to talk about them any-more as it made her sad.
“I want to go home.”
“This is home now Mum.”
“It isn’t darling. It isn’t.”
She was right of course.
And then eventually she fell over – an event which seemed to mark a final chapter. I braced myself and the family and waited anxiously for that call; but incredibly, two years later she is still alive.
I bring her yoghurt and juice and read to her and tell her I love her and sometimes, if I’m lucky, she says she loves me too.
Quite often, when I talk about it, people ask me if I’m ‘angry about it’ but I’m honestly not. Why should I be? There is nothing anyone could do is there. It’s something that has happened. I could go away and sit in a corner and stare into the darkness but what good would it do? My children need me to be the parent my parents were and life is short. I do feel cross with the management of the place purely because they are dreadful. I feel angry also with consecutive governments for not taking ownership of this enormous crisis and leaving families to pick up the pieces, while treating the migrant women who change and care for my Mum with utter disdain and giving them (and us) an uncertain future.
The care-staff you see are magical people. Mostly, but not exclusively, immigrants they look after her and look after me; despite the thanklessness of their task they greet me and her with such enormous warmth and comment on how amazing it is that she is still with us. You can’t fake that attitude.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that Hannah is still with us. Hannah was always the last one to leave the party you see and you don’t live as she did and then just die. She was technicolour in a black and white world. She was incorrigible, fearless, loving and protective. She was alive. She was Hannah. And wasn’t I lucky to have her.