Hannah’s ability to manage the Essex house – the garden – the cold in the winter – was deteriorating as fast as the roof.
Perhaps she was just getting old.
One night, the police rang me. She had dialled 999 in desperation and told them that she was trapped on a ledge in a warehouse. They had checked the number. She had called them from the upstairs bedroom of her home.
A sympathetic police officer met me at the door. Mum was OK, but the house was freezing cold. She had tripped the power somehow and everything was off. She had been sleeping downstairs in her clothes – who knows how long.
She was muddled, frantic, charming, as ever, to these uniformed guests gracing her home – desperate for me not to go.
Fairly quickly she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (as I have written about before) and struggled to come to terms with it – wouldn’t you?
We found her somewhere to live and sold up.
Those last few days in our family house of 40 years were a kind of bereavement. While my Mum, seemingly oblivious to her fate, hoovered away happily I set about the task of selling off furniture and getting rid of decades of stuff.
We were losing Hannah to the fog of Alzheimer’s – but we were also losing the home we had grown up in and the objects that had filled it. The place was stuffed with memories wrapped up in furniture too impractical to keep. Then there were all the other bits – the letters, diaries, stuffed toys. The detritus of childhood; parked one day and never played with again.
I kept repeating over and over to myself something my father had once said to me after the place had been robbed: “It’s people who matter, not things.”
But there were so many “things.”
Dad had been a keen photographer and there were boxes and boxes of slides, negatives, prints going back to the war and beyond.
There was no way I could sort through it all.
I threw a lot of photos on the bonfire. Burning prints folded in on themselves, lifted and drifted off into the sky. There were endless charity runs. I kept trying to reassure Hannah that all would be well – but it was heart-breaking and there was no pretending it was anything but.
The day came – we handed the keys to the new people and moved her into her new home.
It was a disaster.
The management were shockingly ill prepared for her arrival – despite my telling them over and over that Hannah had Alzheimer’s. I stayed a few days but had to leave eventually and from the off I got panicked voicemails from the manager saying my Mum was confused and kept wandering into the wrong home. Had I made a ghastly mistake?
The saving grace was the poorly paid care team. One of them – I’ll call her Blessing – took to sitting with Hannah and reassuring her and singing with her. She was the first ray of light. The second was a carer who I will call Elina. She had that “no-nonsense” approach common in central Europeans. There was no beating about the bush – she told me how it was – and set out practical measures as to how Hannah could best be provided for; things would be “OK” – she was safe now. They took her for walks, took her into town, made sure she was fed and stimulated and for a year or so things seemed to brighten up a bit.
Despite her memories sliding, Hannah remained who she had always been – gregarious, funny – wonderful. She couldn’t grasp the names of her new “friends” (the care staff) but she treated them as she had done everyone else – with warmth, bad jokes and occasional tickings off.
She became unsteady on her feet and so they got her a frame but there was no way she was going to use that – not her style – and so inevitably – she fell over.
Things deteriorated from there.
Now Mum lies in bed in what seems to be a kind of endless dream. She drifts in and out. Sometimes she will wake briefly and smile and spill out fragments – words or nicknames from the past – like the scattered embers of that desperate bonfire of photographs.
Sometimes I get “Oh hello darling! How lovely to see you!” Sometimes I get nothing. She isn’t unhappy. Who knows what is going on in her mind?
On my last visit, I noticed that someone had placed a picture of her in a wooden frame on the side of her bed. Hannah was a very beautiful woman and radiantly so in her youth. She looks twenty – twenty one perhaps. Mum came from a small village in Staffordshire and the picture looks professionally done. Perhaps it was a birthday present taken in Hanley or Newcastle – to mark the occasion.
Who had put it there?
My sister lives in San Francisco so it wasn’t her. Perhaps a relative had popped by and dropped it off. I texted around. No.
Elina came in and I had to sign some bits and we chatted as we do and I asked her casually if anyone had been.
“I only wondered,” I said “because that picture has magically appeared.”
“Oh the envelope!” Elina smiled – pointing at a brown envelope on the side.
It had been there since I moved her in. An A4 sized packet, stuffed with “bits” that I had obviously put (as you do) in a pile and never bothered moving. “I hope you don’t mind,” Elina continued “only I thought it might be rubbish so I looked inside and there were really lovely photos and there was that one of your Mum and she was so beautiful that I got a frame and put it in there. So everyone could see – you know – how beautiful she was.”
She had bought the frame herself, thought nothing of it, wouldn’t take money – put the picture of my Mum in it and performed this small act – not out of charity, or duty – but out of humanity.
There is so much hate and turmoil, self-absorption and stupidity about in the world. So much spite directed at immigrants and carers and ordinary people, doing difficult jobs. And yet, in the cracks – in this corner of Essex – one of those people – without fanfare – performed this little act of kindness, this random act of love. Thank you, Elina.
Otto English is a semi-professional irritant. This piece originally appeared on his personal blog, The Pin Prick