‘He’s in hospital again … and he’s not eating. Perhaps you should think about coming back,’ Brenda said. ‘I don’t think your dad will be going home this time.’
When the call came, I was just setting out on a new life in France.
My two daughters were grown up. With divorce behind me, I was free, and single, and still hoping to find love once more. This was supposed to be my time.
Now it was clear my father was dying. And my mother was in a care home.
I didn’t want to go back, but I knew I would.
Though what the trip would hold – for me, for my father, and though I hardly dared voice the thought, for my mother – was too much to take in.
‘An honest and thoughtful memoir. Moving but, ultimately, full of hope. Beautiful.’
The Languedoc Trilogy
‘A beautiful, intimate story of love and understanding – candid and funny. This is a lyrical memoir of hope and forgiveness.’
The Salt Path
‘A vital subject, a really strong voice and, hurrah, humour makes this absorbing reading.’
Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime
‘An eye-opening – and at times jaw dropping – account that will make you weep with its tenderness and compassion . . . A highly readable tale of redemption and a celebration of love’s many hues.‘
‘A heart-warming, heart-wrenching, and beautifully humane account of loving and caring.’
What Dementia Teaches Us About Love
What follows is a kind of scrapbook, with extracts, pictures and sound designed to be read, seen or listened to, after reading the book…
…mais chacun à son goût!
I hope you’ll enjoy seeing pictures to go with the words…there are real people and places behind the story, and this page is intended to pay tribute to them all…
French locations you’ll read about in the first chapter, and later…
My grandmother and my mother around the time they came on holiday to England from their home in Alexandria in Egypt, and never went back.
This is not my Triumph Spitfire, but mine was identical, only more rust…and me, circa 1988, on honeymoon in France with another sporty number, an MG Midget that lives yet in the garage at my old home.
Polzeath, Cornwall, summertime, but we went in the winter too, happy days…
Just in passing, this is the boat I had in mind when wanting to fish off the side and escape a dreary existence in the suburbs…I personally think my ex was a little hasty in her veto, though to be fair, she has never expressed her regret in so many words.
Dante met the love of his life only twice – once when they were both children, and once a decade later when Beatrice, or Bice, happened to walk past him in the street, accompanied by two older women, and acknowledged him with the merest wave. This simple act caused the nineteen- year-old Dante to swoon with love, a love that would dominate his thinking and his writings for the rest of his life.
This painting is by Henry Holliday, 1883
I hear Guardian Soulmates is no more, unable to compete with the plethora of platforms available to those in search of love or companionship, a hook-up, or a virtual relationship conducted in the aether.
It was a good one for oldies who, back in the day thought internet dating pretty risqué. ‘Fings ain’t wot they used to be,’ as Lionel Bart so memorably put it.
This is how I picture the policewoman taking my call about a missing body and wondering if policing is really her thing…
I took these photos on the actual day…
…and this is the actual orchid.
‘There’s something special about having that intense personal connection as part of the care, alongside the professionals, and the arrangement works like a dream, most days. Only Claire prefers that I don’t sing as I’m doing it.’
This image is from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, made in 1960, a favourite for me and my daughters, courtesy of Wikicommons, where so many of the images on this page come from. When I pretend to be draining spaghetti using a tennis racket as I hand over a fresh pad and hum ‘la-ti-ti-dah,’ (the scene is just after Miss Kubelik has attempted suicide), I get only blank looks from our carers in return.
Ceret and my new artist’s garret, a former cowshed, but home from home…
I made this film strip of images for the celebration of life
‘My Nan was deeply Catholic and expected a heaven where a man she had been engaged to – not my grandfather – would be waiting for her. Freddie, a pilot who’d crashed in the desert and died when she was eighteen years old, would come for her in a felucca, a boat common on the River Nile, gorgeous with a single white sail and laden with fruit and flowers.’
‘My grandfather, her husband, had proposed to her at Freddie’s grave. He’d told her that if she could learn to love him over time, he would always take care of her and love her in return. He said that if he could swap places with Freddie to prove his love, he would do so. Perhaps out of grief, and after a few weeks had passed, she agreed to marry him, though he wasn’t of her class and nor did he have a place in her heart as a lover. She went through with the marriage anyway, to spite her parents as much as anything, and so precipitated well over half a century of unmitigated misery for them both.’
‘…while any similarity between Genie and Audrey may be mere coincidence, it matters hugely to me, because Audrey Hepburn looks like my mum. You think I exaggerate. And you’re right, of course.’
‘The truth is, both were much the same age at much the same time when everyone adopted much the same style in hair and make-up and wardrobe. But if I associate my mum with Audrey Hepburn, and in turn associate Audrey Hepburn with Genie, perhaps that’s enough to create meaning, and a sense of longing, at least for me.’
‘‘Although there is no record of my mother’s letters to my father at this time, or at any other time come to that, it is possible to find something of her in his words. He sympathises with the pressure she must feel over their wedding arrangements, the distress and even doubt caused by their being apart, and he is achingly tender, writing twice or three times a week…’
‘Uncle Pete is Mum’s brother and one of my personal heroes, a man with qualities I have always tried hard to emulate. ‘Measure twice, cut once’ is a favourite phrase of his. He inherited his own father’s stoicism, enduring what cannot be changed and changing what must be changed, both usually involving a cup of tea and a toolkit. He cared for his own mother, my maternal grandmother, visiting her daily for fifteen years or more, taking her calls in the middle of the night, risking the wrath of his own partner to meet her often unreasonable demands.’
‘Statistics vary, but according to Carers UK, there are more than seven million carers in the UK – that is one in ten people – which, when you think about it, means there are a huge number of ordinary folk performing extraordinary feats of love and care every single day, and paying an enormous price themselves. Shocking, really.’
Given that family carers are unpaid, untrained and often unsupported, you might be interested to learn the estimated economic value of their contribution in the UK is calculated at £132bn a year. Don’t ask me how the authorities get to this figure, but we can assume one measure might be the cost of providing similar levels of care through professionals and institutions.
Those hundreds of billions are equivalent to all the healthcare services put together, including all social care and the National Health Service, or two and a half times the UK’s annual defence budget, or one and a half times the nationwide education budget, just by way of comparison. That’s a lot. And enough. Statistics can cause dizziness.
‘In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez wrote that ‘Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love.’ Okay, Gabriel, I’m with you, because I think I might be doomed to see out my days in solitude. Must I cease to hope? Or live on in desire? And where the hell is my consolation?
Like Theresa, the lovely Irish lady from the care home, I feel like shouting out to anyone who’ll listen, ‘Nurse, Nurse, what should I be doing?’
Written in 1966 by the incomparable Neil Diamond, probably my favourite sixties hit
I bought the audio cassette, (…long time ago), of Peter Coyote, an actor with a wonderful voice, reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki, when I was looking for something, anything, that would get me through the confusion of a marriage falling apart. I’m not sure I really understood very much, nor was I ever very good at meditation, but I picked up one precept…
Sounds so simple doesn’t it? But what I think it means, bear of little brain that I am, is pay attention to things as they are, not as you wish they were or as they ‘should’ be, but simply as they are.
Michel de Montaigne was a sixteenth century French statesman and author who wrote “Essais’, essays or ‘attempts’, to translate literally, and is often credited with inventing the form. In 1571, he retired from public life and for the next twenty years or so, wrote on any subject that took his fancy, sitting at a desk in the round turret room of his chateau. “I am myself the matter of my book” he said.
‘When I was thirteen or so, I spent a year at a boarding school; not the posh sort, but a shape-up-and-stand-tall kind of place run by a former military man along military lines, designed to take children who were not thriving in the state system and give them a chance to flourish in the countryside.’
The picture is of the boys’ dormitories at Sheephatch School…75 girls and 75 boys, all aged around thirteen and away from home for the first time. You could only attend for a year, but it was a good year.
I believe I got a place – I think – because I was preternaturally, painfully shy and a horrible underachiever. I seemed to be bright enough, but couldn’t pass an exam to save my life.
To everyone’s surprise, I thrived, not because of the discipline, which was frankly a pain, but because we created a world of our own and had the autonomy of being away from our parents. Oh, and because of the girls, too. Our education systems don’t stretch to such experiments in social engineering these days, more’s the pity.
…and speaking of social engineering and all things nostalgic, now I am a frontline carer, I long for that apocryphal time when district nurses on sit-up-and-beg bikes with medical kits in their wicker baskets and the special skills of a Shaman, would rescue folk before they even knew they needed rescuing, bringing comfort over a cup of tea and effective treatment to the home.
Now, partly pandemic-driven, the drift is to online consultation, more vulnerable people will fall through the Zoom gaps, when localised, person-to-person care in the community is both simple and effective, and potentially – assuming responsibilities and skills can be delegated down, as they should be wherever possible – cost effective. Devolution is always revolution, because those at the top feel threatened.
This is the actual caption from Wikicommons for this photo, discovered like so many others on this page, in this wonderful resource.
Invasion Village- Everyday Life in Orford, Suffolk, England, 1941 District Nurse Baker pushes her bicycle out of her front gate as she leaves her home on a call. Nurse Baker is in charge of the local First Aid Post and is also on the Invasion Committee.
A photograph of the happy couple, taken in the Escambray Mountains in Cuba, probably in 1958, the year I was born. Their attachment to each other and their dedication to something bigger than themselves, namely the revolution and the poorest people of the island, continued right up to Morgan’s end in front of a firing squad, and Olga’s twelve years in prison, both branded as traitors by Castro’s regime.
‘We’re told that life is loss. For me, a marriage has come and gone, Genie – who I know was never really there – is going, Marie has gone, even Maisie has gone. But it is also true that were it not for all I’ve lost, or squandered, along the way, I wouldn’t be here, and neither would Mum. I would never have learned lessons from her in what it is to care, in endurance certainly, in letting go of the past and the future and living in the moment. And I would never have had this time to reflect.
I would have missed so many lessons in love.’
But there are consolations…
…this is Frank’s cover of That’s Life, recorded in 1966…
I’ll let him take it from here…
The Maeander river was so celebrated in antiquity
for its numerous windings, that its classical name “Maeander” became,and still is, proverbial…it also inspires me to ramble a bit in love and care…that’s my excuse anyway.
A young John Martyn singing live another favourite track I play very badly on guitar, May You Never.
He died in 2009, still raising hell, despite losing a leg before he went.
so…what is this thing called love?
Cole Porter claimed that ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ with its innovative alternating major and minor key changes, was inspired by a Moroccan native dance.
It is also my inspiration for the book. Essentially the sentiment of this wonderful tune is the theme of love and care simply stated.
…this is one of the great interpretations by the incomparable Dinah Washington recorded in 1955.
Thanks for reading, watching and listening!