Eighty-six

 

 

Moments after leaving home, I return to put my shorts on. Goodness, it is warm – the hottest Halloween, no doubt, since records began. I usually walk there but today I cab it, hoping I might see Nick who has been with Hazel this morning.  (Richard is going tomorrow). I see from the visitor’s book Nick left half an hour ago.

 

“Where are you taking Hazel today?” asks Linda on reception, “Shanghai?”

 

“No, we went there last week. – San Francisco today, I think.”

 

The door through to the dementia wing is the physical embodiment of the ‘deprivation of liberty’ document we have to sign soon. Attached to it is a note telling visitors not to let residents out – apparently two old ladies recently managed to bluff their way through and were apprehended leaving the home.

 

The leader of this escape attempt I know to have been Hazel. Sometimes, we are told, she gets distressed at what amounts to her imprisonment. Occasionally when I arrive she is lurking here with her friend and fellow escaper, the largely silent Joy.

 

But today she is sitting quietly in the main lounge. Her face lights up to see me “Dear Boy!”

“Happy birthday mother!”

“Is it my birthday? How old am I? I’m not 3 figures am I?”

 

Although she lacks her front teeth, she looks far better than those last years she spent living alone in Tonbridge, when she had given up washing and changing her clothes. Today, on her 86th birthday, she is clean, fresh and smart and her neat hair is as blond as it is grey.

 

She opens birthday cards from Brenda and Sasha, relishing Sasha’s word ‘spooktastic.’ Then it is time for her lunch. I sit with her and 2 other ladies, one of whom blurts angrily, “Where is the salt? You can’t eat this without salt!” Hazel polishes off her meal in style and I announce we are going for a walk. This is, as it has been ever since she was evacuated to the countryside 75 years ago, a favourite thing of hers.

 

We skirt along one side of the golf course and around the fine lawns which surround the handsome Victorian building that is Springfield hospital. We sit on one of our regular benches, admire the trees and watch the planes go over, two pastimes we never tire of. The sky is cloudless and Hazel is excited by the lengthening white line one plane carves upon the blue. “And look at the little pigeon. “ she says, “He’s having a good day.”

 

“How is Beth?” She asks, surprising me again with what she sometimes remembers. As she does when she picks out her grandson James from one of the old photos I have brought. We are basking in the sun now. “Look at the trees, aren’t they beautiful? The leaves coming down now…”

 

Walking back we stop off at the golf club for a drink. “Coffee or a white wine mother?” She hesitates, “A white wine please dear boy.” But this is fine, she hardly drinks alcohol these days. She praises the green-ness all around us and we laugh at some small boys struggling with big golf bags.

 

“So how was San Francisco?” asks Linda back at reception.

 

“Lovely, says Hazel, “but I’m pleased to be back.”

 

Now comes the part I find hardest. Sometimes she becomes unhappy when I leave and I have to console myself that she will have soon forgotten this distress. In the lounge a table is set with pink glasses and the carers welcome Hazel back for her birthday party. I slip away as she is toasted.

 

Walking up the road from the care home my eyes are a little damp but I pass a couple of   drunken zombies who make me laugh. It is a beautiful late afternoon in Autumn and, before I head home. I decide to take a turn around the common.

 

 

 

 

Oh Hazel

Originally Published here:

http://www.dementiablog.org/oh-hazel/

Oh Hazel

By  on 24 February 2014
http://www.dementiablog.org/oh-hazel/

http://www.dementiablog.org/oh-hazel/

 About 20 minutes into Arthur Smith sings Leonard Cohen (Volume 2) I speak a poem I have written that drastically shifts the mood of the show.

Tonbridge, Kent

Pulling up late
after the party,
they see her,
their neighbour,
standing in the street.

She is looking, she says,
for a lift to London.
She needs to get home.
‘Hazel,’ they tell her,
‘This is your home –
‘you live here, in this house.
London is 30 miles away.’

The door is open.
They take her in
and see she has packed a bag
(if a jumper and a packet of biscuits count as packing).

Oh Hazel,
It is 35 years since you left London
to live, as you liked to say, ‘in the shires’.

But there she still is
that grammar school girl
from Camberwell Green
kissing sailors and dancing
In Trafalgar Square.
It is VE day
and the rest of the century
Is yours.

Hazel Smith is my mother and the incident above was described to me by her neighbours, Paul and Lucy. When I started writing this Leonard Cohen show I had not intended to talk about her but I came to realise that one of my themes was loss and that my ma was struggling with her own losses.

Hazel bravely entered widowhood 10 years ago and did her best to embrace living alone for the first time in her life (she resisted moving in with us), but I knew how much she missed my father. Over several years she began to lose some of the things that had sustained and defined her – she stopped doing the garden, reading novels, making cakes, sending cards and letters. She began to repeat herself and mislay things and she began to drink alcohol in alarming quantities.

arthur-smith© Steve Ullathorne

I was uncertain at first about discussing her decline into dementia publicly – was it disrespectful? Too personal or too sad for what was essentially a comic enterprise? My brothers encouraged me and I did a try out in front of a small audience. I found that the sections in the show about Hazel affected the audience; afterwards several of them shared stories of their own parents and grandparents.

I won’t tell you any more about Hazel – you will have to come to the show for that – but, suffice it to say, she is now in a care home and her situation is miles better than it was last year; in some ways she is happier than she has been for years even though her short term memory is no more. My brothers and I visit her often and are always impressed by how diligent and understanding the carers are.

People say ‘live in the moment’ and I see that you can do this very easily if you can’t remember the last moment and have no idea what the next will be. On a recent visit Hazel and I watched the news headlines on TV together – famine and flooding. I remarked, “What a terrible world we live in”

“Yes,” said my mother, “I would hate it.” We laughed long and loud together.

  • Arthur Smith sings Leonard Cohen (Volume 2) The Extended Remix at the UK Jewish Comedy Festival – Thurs 3rd Dec – Tickets & Info