At age 5 I asked my Mum what a Europe was and she told me that it was like a huge cake with dozens of countries in it. I whispered to myself that she obviously meant “currants”, but I was seriously worried about how a cake could be made that was even bigger than Hendon. Our oven was small, greasy and black, the nursery school oven was bigger, but it was IN Hendon, so still not big enough. It was always comforting to have big concepts to think about whenever Mum was doing her normal crazy stuff. She told me I was going to sing for Cilla Black and dance for the Queen – and she bought me that fantastic curly bread with a shiny top from her special bakery, telling me I was precious and often whispered to me that I was the reason she wasn’t carted off to have her head fried. That made me wonder if the bakery was where the cake would be made and where people had to be careful they weren’t put in the deep fat fryer head-first. And it was my responsibility to stop that from happening. When you’re little you take all this information in as being true and in Mum’s world it was – totally normal. I asked everyone how to make a currant cake that was bigger than Hendon and people laughed – silly grown ups – what did they know? Nothing. They were always telling me to stop thinking too much and I thought up my first joke while wondering how big people were always so silly. The banging door was the signal that Daddy was home. “Knock, knock Daddy”. Who’s there Sweetie? “Europe”. Europe who? “I’M NOT A POOH – YOU’RE A POOH!” My dad had a wonderful expression on his face that I’ve never forgotten and still see today; a “that’s my girl” smirk.
I had a lot of things on my mind as a little girl; where they were going to bake this huge cake? Why people would want to fry my Mum’s head? Who was Cilla Black and how I’d get past the scary guards at Buckingham Palace?
Mum’s explanations were always fantastical – borne from a wild imagination craving freedom and the insurmountable confusion of postnatal depression which went largely undiagnosed and ignored in the 60s.
She was brushed aside by people around her and patronised as being “too excitable for her own good”. She was ill and nobody really recognised it as something that could be treated, so it was ignored. Oh no, what’s Margaret been up to now? Whenever I heard that I went into myself and thought “I can tell you some of the things she’s been up to, but you probably won’t believe me and might tell me I’m fibbing”, so I kept quiet. Keeping quiet feels like a very British thing and something that women were supposed to do in the latter part of the twentieth century. Mum being mum didn’t heed the advice from other mothers around her and got louder and louder.
I told my teacher the Europe joke and even though all the class laughed I had to stand in the corner. She tried to make me wear a sash with “naughty” written across it, but that wasn’t going to happen. What would Mum have done in that situation? She would have ripped it off and flung it out of the window singing “Goodbyee – don’t cryee – wipe a tear baby dear, from your eyeee” so I gave it a go. The class all laughed with me, but the teacher started crying. Silly grown ups: no sense of humour apart from Daddy and Nanny & Pop.
I’m working on the Celebrity Eggheads show this week and next, but Mum is very confused by the whole idea. “Eggheads? What’s that?” It’s a quiz show on BBC2 with some brilliantly clever people mum. One team are quizzers who know pretty much everything and …” she interrupts me with a “not everything, they don’t know about our special word”. That’s true Mum – some of the questions are quite difficult. “I do very little these days, Sonia darling, just lazing around. But I love Jeremy Vine though, so I’ll watch it – he’s the one asking the questions that fry your brain isn’t he?” Stopped completely in my tracks, it occurs to me that she now attributes the brain frying to quizzing rather than the dread of having Electric Shock Treatment. When Mum was diagnosed in 2010 they asked me for permission to administer EST and I refused. Back in the 60s she would be have been talking about EST when she said “They might fry your brain”, which led to her having a crippling fear of hospitals, psychiatrists or doctors all her life. No-one’s going to fry my precious Mum’s brain. I can still protect her from that lifelong fear at least and sleep peacefully in the knowledge that she’s re-assigned the phrase to a happier place. Our happy word? HUGGLES – Mum’s mixture of hug and cuddles which she invented for a children’s story she wrote in the late 60s about a dragon that ate children unless they said the magic word and answered 10 questions right. Maybe Mum could be an honorary Egghead with a delightfully scrambled, rather than a fried brain? Love her to bits.
Sometimes life can be very simple if you ask the right questions. That’s always been my belief anyway, like “How do you fancy us coming to play in the restaurant lounge when you have an event on?” or “If I got myself qualified as a bus driver can I drive some of your classic Routemasters?” My mum’s questions, however, have always been challenging and she’s as likely to ask me “How can I get to Afghanistan so that I can stand on a roadside bomb and be done with it?” as “Have you brought me any toffees?” to which the answer is always yes to the latter and “Is your passport still valid Mum?” to the former, so that the question doesn’t have the devastating impact she’s trying to create and has the wind taken out of its sails by simple, logical answers. I’ve learned that with Mum and her advancing dementia, interspersed with her magical creative thinking, you have to switch on a different pair of listening ears. Ears that leave logic, pre-conceptions and quick reactions to one side. Alexa ears … Siri ears … just listening to facts and creating as straight forward an answer as possible.
Having had a bit of down time over Christmas, Tony and I have been playing together on piano and double bass. It’s been joyful to focus on filling the house with music and it always reminds me of a hilarious exchange last year when I told Mum that I wanted to learn a bit more about harmony and improvisation.
“Hello Mum, I’ve just come back from my jazz piano lesson”
What do you mean? Don’t you mean violin?
“No, I’m no good at violin, don’t you remember I only got to Grade 3”
Surely that MAN man can teach you violin – for God’s sake! (For some reason she’s very cross at this point).
“Why Mum? I want to learn how to play jazz piano properly”
I can’t imagine him being very good at teaching you piano – he plays the violin. When did he suddenly become a piano teacher?
“EH Mum? What are you on about? He’s been teaching piano for ages, one of the best … why are you so against jazz piano lessons”
Well, I never thought much of your father’s piano playing to be honest.
Very plonky and loud. (He’s a professional violinist).
“What’s Dad got to do with this Mum?”
Well if he insists on teaching you, at least he’s getting up off his lazy arse (they divorced many years ago). Your Dad teaching YOU the piano ! Really ?!?!?!?!
“Ahhhh Mum – JAZZ piano lessons, not DAD’s piano lessons”
Pardon Sonia darling? Your Dad’s NOT teaching you the piano then?”
“No Mum – he’s sticking to the violin – I’ve got another teacher for the piano”.
Good – let him stick to the violin. And then she breaks into the Mendelssohn violin concerto – recalling every beautiful note and humming it pitch perfect – in E minor.
Mum often peppers the conversation with comments about wanting to be gone, but if she ever sees that I’m upset by hearing it she laughs and changes the subject. I know deep down that she’s tired of life and wants peace and relief from pain, but on the other hand she loves the people she’s surrounded by and tries new things every day, so her zest for life and learning is still there in between it all. My lovely friend and neighbour has just recommended a book to me; “Contended Dementia” by Oliver James and there are three rules that people can start thinking about when communicating with people who have dementia. 1) Don’t ask direct questions, 2) Listen to the expert (the person) and 3) Don’t contradict. These are all logical points that will take a bit of practice because I know I contradict my mum a lot – mainly because she says such funny things and it always makes us both laugh, but now I’m wondering if I should start listening to her with those new ears. As for not asking questions, I’ve always thought that the action of asking questions makes the person feel important, included and that it shows that you’re interested in them. The theory in dementia is that it confuses people if they don’t know an answer, can feel under pressure to give the right answer and it highlights that they have reduced short-term memory. Sometimes, when confronted with someone who doesn’t have a lot to say, it’s tempting to fire questions at them to encourage them to talk, but to them it may sound like a barrage of words that serve only to bring pressure and an unwanted spotlight.
Next time I go and see Mum I’m going to compile a playlist of songs that she’s always loved and I’ll bet you anything that she remembers every single word. She’ll probably rip off the headphones and try to give the Ipod away. I’ll keep persevering though because not only does she have a very pretty singing voice when she’s not wailing like a banshee for comic effect, but I can see the light going on in her eyes when she realises that her brain hasn’t give up on her after all.
And one day when the weather improves I can’t wait to see her eyes when we’ve loaded her wheelchair onto the bus and she sees me getting into the driving seat to drive the residents down to the seaside for fish and chips. It could go a million different ways of course. For one, she’ll insist on talking to me the whole time. She might get them all singing one of her favourite songs and I know she’ll be flinging her toffees at everyone and wondering why, two minutes later, there aren’t any left. She’ll put her toffee order in, like she always does and the next day she’ll have forgotten all about it. But I know that somewhere, deep inside that wonderful brain of hers, the memory will be lodged and the right prompt, not question, will bring it back.
At 4am on Christmas morning 3 years ago, we were woken to Danny Boy being played on our piano – full volume, same left hand chord throughout and high-pitched singing to accompany it. Mum was staying for Christmas and together with her early hours cabaret she decided that the garden patio was the best place for her portable loo. Not neatly in a corner downstairs, near her bed, but outside; in the cold, in the rain. To clarify, it was usually in the house, but whenever she wanted to use it, she’d drag it outside. She said that it was joyful to see the stars rather than a boring old ceiling and who are we to argue? Mum’s logic always makes total sense when you let her actions settle in a bit and think about what she says with an open mind.
Yesterday I went to see her and it’s obvious that she is suddenly forgetting a lot and her attention span is now pretty limited. She blurted out in the middle of her carers’ explanation of her new routine that she only wanted to hear Elvis Presley music from now on and liked Candle in the Wind.” That’s Elton, Mum – not Elvis”. No, Elvis, I like Elvis. “What Elvis songs do you like Mum?”. I’ve just told you, Candle in the Wind ! She’s getting frustrated now … mumbling under her breath that the carers are all musical halfwits. Then she shouted out … I WANT CANDLE IN THE WIND – NOW! So I found it on YouTube and played it to her. Yes, you’re ahead of me I’m sure; on seeing Elton John she was shocked. “Good gracious. What happened to his hair? And he looks very boring these days. “Mum – this is Elton John, not Elvis Presley. Would you like me to play you some Elvis Presley? Jailhouse Rock? Return to Sender? Heartbreak Hotel? “Oh dear – he HAS got depressing with his song titles hasn’t he? All so negative … heartbreak, jails. No, I’ll have Candle in the Wind again.” This went on for a while, Elton and Elvis getting intertwined and mixed up and then she suddenly broke into Danny Boy. Every single word of the verse perfect, her soft voice floating the melody with a look in her eye that seemed as if she was singing it to a long-lost friend somewhere deep in her memory. “Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling … from Glen to Glen and down the mountain side. The Summer’s gone and all the roses are falling. it’s you it’s you must go and I must bide …” Then in shrieking banshee mode with a twinkle in her eye and making everyone jump out of their skins … LA LOOO LA LAAAAAAAY, LOO LA, LOO LA, LOO LAAAAAAAAY … LE LOO LA LAAAAAY LA LOO LA LOO LA LAAAAAAAY … deep breath … la looo la LAAAAAAAAAAAY with all the stars a twinkling (she’s now remembering the stars outside I think) … la loo la loo la loo I love yooooooo soooooooo as she takes up my hand and kisses the back of it and bursts into fits of giggles.
The transformative power of music never ceases to amaze me. When I was little I was taught to play piano by a wonderful classical pianist called Angela Brownridge who lived next door. Little did I realise at the time quite what an established soloist she was and she inspired me to push myself to try pieces I’d always thought too hard. It was many years later that I caught up with Angela again. Good old Facebook. So it felt absolutely right to play some of Angela’s recordings when Tony and I got married. Mum recognised Angela’s playing, even though she couldn’t have heard those recordings for over thirty years. Angela’s style struck a note with her and although Mum’s piano playing wasn’t something that flowed naturally, Angela taught her the basics for Danny Boy when I was 6 and Mum was 39. And it’s been her party piece ever since. We sang Danny Boy together yesterday and I recorded it on my iPhone. I know that one day that will be one of the most precious pieces of music I own so I’d better back it up.
As far as New Year goes I wished her Happy New Year and her simple answer was ”Yes darling, it’s a happy year as long as you’re in it. A happy year without a tear in it”. Are they words to a famous song? I can’t seem to find it, so I’m hoping that my marvellous Mum made them up and that I’ll be able to use them in a future lyric. In her own way, my Mum has lived her life like a candle in the wind … buffeting around, changing direction with the breeze, reaching out to cling to people who never really got to know her. One thing’s for certain – she’s a legend – and a long way from burning out. Just keep her away from matches.
Ten years ago Mum decided to carpet her garden. She used cheap off-cuts, mats, rugs from charity shops and carpet tiles she’d found outside a house that was being renovated. “Well, it’ll keep the weeds down”. The neighbours weren’t impressed by the bug infestation and dreadful smell, but Mum was adamant. “I can’t be bothered with all that mowing and clipping – and I don’t have the money for a gardener to put down patio slabs, so they’ll just have to lump it”. One neighbour moved. The other complained to the council, but she was out of luck as Mum was on the vulnerable persons register and their best advice was to call the police. I in turn had a call from the local PCSO police officer who had called me a few times before about Mum’s antics and I could hear him stifling a fit of the giggles whilst Mum was effing and blinding in the background telling the neighbour to mind her own business (and I’ve cleaned that bit up). She is never subtle when riled. Mum’s always been my secret weapon because when she’s fighting her corner – or mine come to that – she’s fierce. She may be 5’1″ and size 10, but she has no fear – none. She’d walk up to gangs of blade-flicking young men on their street corner and tell them to stop showing off, put their knives away and go home. I got a call about that one. She once marched into the local off-licence and downed half a bottle of whiskey in front of the startled shop keeper who refused to sell her any more booze, telling him to mind his own business as she’d drink what she liked and she wasn’t going to pay for it. I had to go down to Littlehampton to calm her down and remove her for the police station after that one. And probably the bravest she’s ever been (apart from cycling down the M1 on her pushbike) was to sit with her Arsenal hat on, cheering on her favourite football players whilst in the opponent’s stands. Mum was a telephonist for Arsenal and as a member of staff there were strict instructions not to watch the match unless they’d bought a proper ticket. So Mum thought nobody would spot her if she snuck in and sat at the other end … red hat, arms flailing, shouting at full pelt … I expect everyone did.
I had a call today. Mum has apparently taken against lovely, gentle Jenny who is another resident in the care home. There was some kind of altercation about the television and so Mum did her usual hurling protest, but this time there was hot coffee in the cup she was throwing and it drained down the wall and onto poor Jenny too. This lady is the sweetest, quietest woman so what on Earth she’d done to rile Mum is a mystery. Jenny always talks to me about Mum as if Mum is one of her children. “She’s such a lovely little thing … always drawing pictures and skipping about”. Mum doesn’t draw and she certainly can’t skip! I can clearly remember this next bit as if it was a high-definition drama. Jenny bent down to Mum, tickled her under the chin and said “Are you ok darling? What have you been doing today? Have you drawn any nice pictures for me or the other teachers?”. Close-up on Mum as she pulled a face that should only really come out when someone passes wind after Christmas dinner. She then turned to look at me, quick edit to her looking back at Jenny, looked back at me again and said under her breath. “Ignore her – she’s nuts”. Jenny squeezed her shoulder blades together in that “aah – isn’t she sweet?” gesture that old ladies do while Mum and I both burst into fits of hysterics as Jenny ruffled her hair and said “Don’t be a naughty girl or you won’t get any peanut brittle”. Mum thought that was hilarious. “Peanut brittle – as if I could eat that with no teeth!”.
So there’s no doubt a brown coffee stain on the carpet and I’ll try to get it out when I go down to see Mum before Christmas. Sometimes I secretly wish her carpeted garden experiment had worked as it’s so “Mum”. It lasted for about three years along with the plastic flowers that she plonked into the mud and garden ornaments she’d probably “borrowed” from other gardens in the area. I tried removing those smelly carpets once, managing to get rid of two of the scraps in the middle of the night, getting myself covered in woodlice, flies and huge, fat worms. They were back again the following weekend though – the carpets – and the worms come to think about it – bright red, green, purple and yellow – the carpets, not the worms – obviously. All bits that she’d convinced a carpet fitter to give her from the back of his van. I got a call about that too – from the police officer who reminded me that Mum shouldn’t try to drive vans without the permission of the driver. This time I was laughing … Mum can’t drive. She tried learning once as she was worried that I did all the driving and she thought that she should take some of the driving burden off me. After 3 lessons she sounded like she’d got the hang of gears, clutch and acceleration so I put the L plates on and took her out for a little practice drive. A woman in a red jeep cut her up and Mum took her hand off the wheel to gesture at her. I remember leaning over to take the wheel and told Mum to put her foot on the brake pedal as I tried to steer her towards the kerb. She didn’t brake of course as the red jeep woman needed teaching a lesson in manners and Mum was accelerating towards her. Have you ever tried stopping a car by pumping the hand brake twenty times? It’s not easy. We came to a halt in the inside lane of a roundabout. We both decided that driving lessons, Mum and driving tests weren’t a marriage made in Heaven. That didn’t stop her buying a clapped out Rover and getting the dealer to park it in her moaning neighbour’s drive. Fierce and fabulous as long as she’s on your side. And she always has been, in her crazy loving way.
Mum wants Marmite for Christmas. “It’ll be a good present for you to buy me, Sonia darling as it will last a year at least – save you money”. A year, Mum? It’ll have to be a very big jar. “No, a little one is fine – hate the stuff so I won’t eat it”. Mum logic. Short blog this time. Mum is channeling her inner Tommy Cooper. Marmite it is.