Things Are Still Funny

My mum's in a cancer ward. My dad's in a dementia unit. But things are still funny.

Why I didn’t cry on my wedding day

About three months ago I got married and I didn’t cry. Well, not really. There was the odd tear on a couple of occasions, like when I caught sight of my sweet uncle Jebby crying when he first saw me looking all bridey in my dress and also when The Bodyguard, my very new husband, told a room full of people how special he thinks I am. I was very moved but I didn’t full on cry. No sobs or snot or heaving breathlessness (which was handy as that wasn’t really the look I was going for). This was a surprising turn of events not least because I had been nothing short of an emotional mess in the run up. I cried in a suit shop. I cried in a suburban train station. I cried at the Marine’s dining room table as I wrote her a card, telling her just how great she is. I cried a lot. Which is what you might expect of a bride without a dad. But when it came to the day itself, there were really no tears. Not even when I placed the small photograph of my dad inside my dress pocket. There were only smiles. And that is down to two reasons – 1) nothing makes me happier than The Bodyguard by my side and 2) my friend Emsy told me so.

You see the thing about my friend Emsy is that she knows stuff. She is very clever. When we were growing up she told me she wanted to be a weather girl which I considered a near impossible task (what kind of human being can predict the weather?) but I figured if anyone was going to be able to do that job it would be Emsy. Her brother Shmadsy is pretty smart too. He was in my class all the way through primary school, dazzling us with his Rain Man abilities in fractions and beating us time and time again in Monopoly. I would try my very best to avoid playing it with him whenever he and Emsy came over to play and suggest we play Mall Madness instead (and if you are unaware of the tactics involved in taking advantage of ‘the sale at the shoe store,’ then you have missed out).

I’ve known Emsy and Shmadsy so long I can’t remember the first time we met. We were thrown into each other’s lives by our mothers, who were good pals who made each other laugh a lot. One summer, our two families went on holiday together, an experience that generated a wealth of happy memories including Shmadsy jumping onto the side of a giant rubber ring while I was sat in it, thus catapulting my head into the side of a swimming pool, and a cabaret act devised by Emsy and I involving bath towels. You will be pleased to know there is a home video of this performance lingering somewhere, complete with matching Ahkanazi sunburn. I am not sure I could bring myself to watch it though. There are too many people missing these days.

One day I came home from school and the Marine asked me if Shmadsy had been in school that day. We had just turned 11. I remember being stood in the kitchen as she asked me that question and not quite understanding why she was asking, but somehow realising it was of grave significance. It was 20 years ago but I remember exactly where we stood. The next day Emsy and Shmadsy’s lovely mum, Louise, died.

I was vaguely aware that Louise had always been poorly but, being a child, I never fully grasped how bravely she fought her battle with breast cancer. I remember marvelling at how well Emsy and Shmadsy seemed to get along while my brother and I fought vehemently over the TV remote but not appreciating how a common enemy can bring siblings closer together. Even very little ones.

They were so little. There is never a good time to lose a parent but age 11 and 12 is certainly not it. As a naive 11 year old myself, whose tears were usually shed over losing valuable pogs and the control of the TV remote, I was dumbstruck by witnessing a tragedy of this magnitude. I remember attending their shiva house, and seeing little Emsy and Shmadsy sat on their low chairs. They were too small for those chairs. I will never forget catching sight of Emsy’s face through the crowds. It was red and damp from her continual tears – a memory I can’t write about now without crying. I remember going up to her yellow bedroom after the service was over, with a group of kids, and standing silent and shocked in the corner as another, remarkably untactful, girl asked the question that we were probably all thinking at the time ‘but what will you do now you don’t have a mum?’ Emsy couldn’t answer. The yellow bedroom was filled with awkward silence and pain.

Soon after that I started saying a little prayer each night before I went to sleep, silently asking god to look out for family and friends, and there was always a special unspoken mention of Emsy and Shmadsy. For I couldn’t compute how they would cope without a mum. I thought losing a parent was the worst thing that could ever possibly happen. And whenever they came to play after that I was so paralysed by fear of saying the wrong thing that I would never mention their mum. There was a holiday snap of Louise and the Marine, smiling over cocktails, just above our fridge. I would awkwardly try to keep it out of their eyesight. Seeing as I couldn’t offer them any actual help in person, I could only give them my spiritual support, whatever that was at 11 years old.

The following summer Princess Diana died. I decided to write Prince William and Prince Harry a letter, telling them my friends Emsy and Shmadsy had lost their mum too. For some reason, I felt it was important for them to know that. They were my very brave friends, you see. Still are.

So when they got in touch late last year to let us know that this coming May will be 20 years since they lost their mum and they would be taking part in the Moonwalk Marathon, it took me all of a minute to sign up and join them. We will be walking through the night to raise funds and awareness for vital breast cancer causes. We are walking as a team which is called Louise’s Legacy. The team is now 65 people strong, bigger than either Emsy or Shmadsy imagined it would be. It is not entirely surprising to me. Louise’s legacy is different to everyone taking part, and many people are walking to honour whatever that means to them. And to me, it is the legacy of her children.

Over the past 20 years, both Emsy and Shmadsy have shown me, in their own ways and without them knowing, how it is possible cope without a parent. They demonstrate that it hurts, that the pain is always there but it is manageable. When you lose a parent, it is the other Club members who can support you in a way only they can. It was Emsy who offered me pearls of hard-earned wisdom as my dad disappeared. It was Shmadsy who cried with me in a ski chalet when I told him my dad was dying. I think we cried for both my dad and his mum and because we had both experienced too much pain too young.

But it was on Emsy’s wedding day, a few years back, when I learnt the most. I was worried for her. I wasn’t sure if she would be able to cope on such an emotionally-charged day without her mum by her side. I expected a lot of tears. But as she walked down the aisle, beautiful and beaming, it was clear that she was going to be just fine. She was so very calm. So when I shared my fears with her as my wedding day approached, confessed that for many years any thought of my wedding without my dad would make me well up and how I thought I would be too overwhelmed on the day, she reassured me, ‘You won’t be. You will be fine.’ She couldn’t tell me how she knew I would be fine but she just knew. And she was right. Despite the fact I missed out having my dad walk me down the aisle, something I suspect he would have really enjoyed, I managed to sustain a sense of calm that meant I could simply concentrate on being so very, very happy. See? Emsy knows stuff. Just like she knew that when the sun came out on the day of our wedding, after a week of perpetual December drear and drizzle, that that was my dad, making his presence felt. Being witch-like, the Marine and I had the same feeling when we woke up that morning. And so did Emsy. She really would make an excellent weather girl.

I’m fine. Sort of.

I’ve envisioned writing this opening sentence for a good few months now. It was to read as follows:

‘Firstly, I’m fine.’

Perhaps not my most poetic opener but the most necessary. I felt compelled to reassure everyone who had reached out to me 5 months ago that I was doing ok. So many people had sent me such wonderful words of comfort from far and wide. To this day, I am stunned by the support my family and I received. I wanted to let all of those people know that I was doing fine. That I had just been busy getting on with life, especially as my life had changed in an almost implausible film plot-like fashion all within a 2 week period. You know, just in case I needed a bit more drama in my life.

Good drama though. I moved in with a boy with a kind smile and a penchant for stickers (yes, he is 31, what of it?) who has firmly established himself as my Bodyguard, offering much needed protection while overcoming various obstacles in life – from escorting me home from France with utmost care on the eve of the funeral to guiding me through various domestic challenges like how to operate the oven correctly (you might think I am exaggerating on that point…ok, carry on thinking that, no need to correct you, moving on, nothing to see here)

The following week I started a big grown up job. With business cards and everything. There I was, being an actual adult handing out business cards (despite the fact they were, for the most part, entirely unnecessary) at breakfast meetings and coming home to a kitchen stocked with the likes of halloumi, coriander and a fully functioning oven and one, two, three I was making home made vinaigrette dressing and boom, I was grown up (my Flatmate – can’t call her ex-flatmate, it sounds like we broke up and I love her too much – barely recognises me).

And it was great. Still is. I live a wonderful life.

But I suppose if I had written I was fine, I wouldn’t be being totally honest. Because I am not totally fine. Perhaps you can tell by the way I wrote ‘the funeral’ as opposed to ‘my dad’s funeral’ and that up until this point I’ve not actually been able to write the words ‘since my dad died.’ That, just now, was the first time I had written those words and they took some rehearsal. I find them quite hard to say too. Whenever I need to say them I find my mouth becomes dry, as though I’m chewing on cotton wool and I can’t get them out. Whenever I’ve needed to refer to that time (and don’t let the drama of this paragraph fool you, there are certainly some entertaining stories from then which will, in time, be shared…well the non-offensive ones at least)  I’ve been using the phrase ‘when I sat shiva’ instead, assuming everyone I speak to understands fluent Jew.

Perhaps the first time I realised I wasn’t totally fine was quite soon after the event, on the tube, when I heard a little French girl speak. I could instantly hear my Dad make his quintessential Dad joke ‘how come that little girl speaks better French than I do?’ and I missed my dad and his crap jokes more than anything. It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach and I buckled slightly. I straightened up, took a deep breath, wiped away the few tears and carried on reading my magazine. See? Fine, but not totally fine.

Soon after I found my intention to respond to those who had written me such generous letters of condolence was impossible to meet. Generous may sound like an odd way to describe them but that’s how they seemed to me. People were so giving in their emotion and thoughts, I was truly amazed. But I couldn’t bring myself to reread them, let alone conjure up any words to respond. I still haven’t and perhaps I never will. Apologies to those reading who have written. I hope you understand.

I then realised I was crying a lot on occasions which took me by surprise. I cried uncontrollably at the funeral of a total stranger. Admittedly, anyone could have attended that service, learnt what a wonderful man and devoted father he was and welled up at the fact he had died far too young and tragically, so my reaction wasn’t entirely nonsensical. But I also found myself crying while listening to a segment of American public radio detailing young, female, criminal offenders apologising to their mothers for all they had put them through via the medium of song in a penitentiary produced musical. This reaction made less sense. I could hardly relate. The closest I’ve been to being punished by the judiciary system is a few bad dates with various members of the legal profession.*

Now, 5 months on, I think…well…I was a bit stupid. Or at least quite naive to think that I could tell you all I was fine. My father’s passing was entirely for the best, he had no real life to live, it was an end to a terrible curse. What was it Mad Uncle, my dad’s brother, said in his speech at the funeral (which was so wonderful it was a shame it wasn’t recorded)? I think it was something like ‘time to strike up the brass band.’ The worst was over. Plus I did not have to suddenly endure what many of those who lose loved ones must – adapting to living a life without that person in it. I had had about 8 years practice. There was no sudden void and I had so much going on anyway, distracted by assembling Ikea furniture and bonding with new colleagues and whatnot.

But still, my daddy died. I had suffered a trauma. I was, as the Marine reminded me after sobbing into a Macmillan Cancer PR’s face at work event (a story for another time perhaps) ‘still quite raw.’

(That bloody Marine, she knows everything).

Of course the sadness will linger, as it has ever since my Dad started to disappear but the rawness will heal. And the fact that I have just written this blog is testament to that. Just like Amanda Seyfried’s character in Mean Girls who can sense the rain with her boobs (because they get wet) whenever I feel ready to write a blog, I know I am doing ok. I suppose it’s like an emotional limp of sorts that I’ll always have. I’ll always stumble during father of the bride speeches and when I hear 6 year olds speak French. I’ll falter when the Bodyguard does something so freakily similar to my Dad (namely changing the lyrics of songs to include Manchester United references) as I desperately wish they could have met. But I’ve got used to walking this way and although I’ve taken a few tumbles lately, I’m lucky enough to have people in my life who prop me up whenever I buckle…so I’ll get around just fine.


*to the lawyers/barristers I’ve dated who may be reading this…just kidding!




Goodbye Dad

On Saturday, my lovely dad passed away.

In accordance with Jewish law, the funeral took place quickly, on Sunday, before my dad’s immediate family – the Marine, Boo Boo, Grandma Cheesecake, Sneering Aunty, Mad Uncle and myself – began the process of sitting shiva. Lasting the best part of a week, this tradition involves low chairs, ripped cardigans, hundreds of visitors and copious amounts of food and is bound to be something I write about at a later stage (as it has generated a wealth of material!) It also involves nightly prayers during which either a religious leader or someone close to the deceased says a few words.

Last night I spoke. This is what I said:

‘During the past few days I’ve been indulging myself in a memory from my early adolescent years when I developed a typical teenage inability to cope with an early morning. First thing every weekday, I would stumble downstairs to the kitchen in a bright orange dressing gown, barely able to open my eyes and essentially mute apart from emitting a few grunts.

This event never ceased to amuse my dad.

As I emerged he would chuckle, down tools – be that a grapefruit knife (for he was king of the grapefruits in our house) or his cornflakes he was about to warm in the microwave – and come to greet me. He would shuffle over in his slippers and open his arms for me. I would then lay my head and hands on his chest and he would enclose his arms around me. I didn’t need to put my arms around him. He hugged me enough for the both of us. We would stand like that for 10 seconds or so and in that brief time he would ease me into my day. Every day.

I say I’ve indulged myself in this memory as I haven’t been able to let myself think about it for the past 8 years or so. Neither consciously nor sub consciously, my mind has never wandered there in recent years. I think perhaps as a self-defense mechanism. It would have hurt too much. For the past 5 years my dad rarely acknowledged my presence in a room, perhaps laughed at me only a couple of times (and we wouldn’t really know why he was laughing) and has never been able to open his arms to embrace me. There were times when we had to uncurl his fingers to hold his hand.

I’ve survived this tragedy by following the lead of two incredibly strong women at the centre of it. My mum and grandma (aka the Marine and Grandma Cheesecake) have shown this family how to love and lose with dignity. Some of you know I have written a blog about my family but what you don’t know is that every time I come to write a memory about my dad the way he was in happier times I have had to stop mid sentence, take a minute, catch my breath and wipe away the tears before carrying on. The pain hasn’t gone away. It never will. But in laying my lovely daddy to rest I feel we have all felt a sense of release and in that release we have found the way back to the memories of my dad the way he was before he was stolen from us by an unrelenting foe of a disease.

In the past few days I’ve remembered simple, silly things, like the way we sat at the dinner table – he at the head, me on his left, Ben on his right, Mum next to Ben. How he would finish every meal with a banana before whispering ‘watch this’ to me while he attempted to overhead lob the banana skin into the sink from where he was sat, a trick with an approximate 30% success rate which rarely amused my mother. How every kvetch of ‘ooh’ would always be followed by ‘ah, cantona,’ a mantra Ben, Mum and I have also adopted, something I know he would be proud of.

And with the help of all you stood here and in the incredibly large crowd at the funeral, your letters, your phone calls, your texts and messages, we have managed to stand stronger than ever before. I think I can speak on behalf of the whole family when I say how much your support has meant to us, not only this past week, but over these past painful years. I’ve loved every story about my dad you have chosen to share with us again and enjoyed spotting the themes – several of them involve telling someone to ‘F off’ in some shape or form – but mainly they reflect what a loyal, grounded and loved person my daddy was.

Now, with this sense of finality in the air, we can do what I think my dad would want us to do – remember him back to us.

I think he would like us to think of him like I do of him in that early morning embrace – strong, warm, protective and gently amused by us all.’

Public Speaking

I am trying to remember all the times I’ve spoken in public. I am realising that it has sort of been my thing for as long as I can remember. Grandpa Mustard once told me that I had ‘the gift of the gab’ (which could have been his diplomatic way of alerting me to my oversized and overused gob) and I was relentlessly mocked during primary school for always being cast as the narrator in various plays. Apparently I had few qualms about getting up in front of a crowd and telling them what’s what.

The earliest memories I have of public speaking are from Channukah plays in infant school. We were all charged with one line each and I proclaimed mine, which, if I remember correctly went something along the lines of ‘my menorah is made of bronze’ (eat your heart out, Humphrey Bogart) with such utter preciousness that I felt compelled to provide an unnecessary cue for my fellow student up next. I think the Marine likens the experience of watching me in this play to something akin to nails scratching a chalkboard and still teases me about it to this day. She also constantly reminds my 30 year old brother of the time he played an elephant in his primary school depiction of the tale of Noah’s Ark complete with his digital watch at the end of his arm/trunk. I think my parents had to be escorted out of that assembly hall (two by two) due to incessant giggles.

I gave a talk on Anne Frank when I first got to secondary school that won some sort of prize which I probably would not have received if I had decided to go with my original idea for a topic – the long overlooked eighties classic, Space Camp. 

The best presentations I ever delivered at university were usually on the mornings after a student night simply and succinctly called ‘Vodbull’ named after the ‘uplifting’ cocktail of vodka and redbull which had the power to carry on ‘inspiring’ a drinker well into the next day. I delivered some of my most profound thoughts on the evolution of American culture whilst still hyped up on sugary booziness. I am not sure what that says about me. Or American culture.

I co-chaired my best friends’ wedding a couple of years ago. I had known both the bride and groom since nursery. They had mocked my default position as narrator for many years and yet were keen to recreate the dynamic, only in better clothes. I managed to introduce the groom’s very handsome Argentine cousin to give the toast to the State of Israel without drooling  (significantly) so that was an achievement of sorts.

And then earlier this year I addressed an audience of 600 at the Fed annual dinner following the film appeal featuring myself and both my parents. We formed one of four stories detailing what The Fed does for our community. The focus in our particular portion of the film was on my mother, who wept as she detailed the demise of her husband as he succumbed to Alzheimer’s. I then got up and spoke for approximately three minutes. All eyes and all ears on me. I can’t really remember anything about it except how glad I was I managed to stay upright throughout. Not to employ cliché but I now know it’s cliché for a reason – my legs felt just like jelly. I was convinced they would buckle. I’m not really sure how I got through it but I did. Although standing under a spotlight on a stage in front of 600 people who have just glimpsed into your private world of tragedy may sound exposing, I felt a certain sense of detachment that kept me calm.

(Click here if you would like to watch the video and my speech)

The evening was a success and The Fed’s CEO was keen to spread the word further, particularly down South. There are so many young Jewish Mancunians living in London that you can barely swing a rat in Kilburn without coming across a familiar face and vowel sound.

Wheels were set in motion, spreadsheets devised and emails sent out inviting the expat Mancunian congregation down South to attend an evening generously hosted by a very important man with a penthouse/transport museum. The evening was called ‘Time to talk about our Parents’ and again, I got up to speak to do exactly that.

And then I was taken somewhat by surprise. People had asked me if I was nervous in the run up to the event but I reasoned that if I had managed to to speak in front of 600 people on this subject, then a small group would be a doddle. I could not have been more wrong.

Out of all the times I’ve spoken in public, this was by far the hardest. I had to dig deep to hold it together. As I spoke about how I still cannot bear to see my my mum cry and the heartbreak that comes with watching your pillars of strength falter, and in my dad’s case, crumble, I started to wobble. And then I felt like I was about to break, that my resolve would collapse. Again, I am not sure how, but I just about managed to catch myself and hold myself together to make it through to the end of the speech. I then subsequently hid in the shoulder of my friend and co-organiser for the event, who had offered emotional support before I even knew needed it because she’s pretty smart like that.

This time there were only approximately 30 people in the room when I spoke but I could see all of their faces. They were faces I had grown up with and all they stared back at mine intently. And they looked sad. They looked sad for me. It was an incredibly moving experience. And then I noticed one face not looking in my direction. One of my closest looked away half way through the speech. I sensed they too were struggling to hold it together. And it moved me even more.

Everyone in that room became a closer friend to me that night. And they became a friend to The Fed. They gathered around me, showed their support and asked one simple but crucial question –  ‘how can I help?’

It may have been the hardest speech I have ever delivered. But I have never felt more proud.

Happy Birthday Daddy

Happy 60th birthday Daddy.

What would we do to celebrate if things were…well…different?

Well Mum (you know her by Mum, others know her as the Marine but, fortunately and unfortunately, you weren’t around for any of that) might have wanted to throw you a party but since you were always, to put it bluntly, an antisocial bugger, I think you might have vetoed that option.

Perhaps there would be a tea party with just the family at Grandma Cheesecake’s since you could just about tolerate your own family (although your nephews and nieces did refer to you as Wicked Uncle Mickey. Half-jokingly. You can thank Sneering Aunty for that). There would be triangle sandwiches garnished with cherry tomatoes and watercress sprinkles. There would be dishes of ready buttered sliced cake. Pre-cake before the cake which would not, controversially, come from Grandma Cheesecake’s kitchen, but, as tradition dictates, that of the inimitable Estelle Shiers’ (the Mary Berry of the Manchester Jewish community) who would have piped her gloriously dimpled technicolour icing along two separate sponges shaped into a six and a zero. There would be a picture taken as you blew out the candles. And another picture with the three of us gathered around you, framing you. Your team.

Perhaps the three of us would take you away somewhere. I always said one day I would take you to the Monaco Grand Prix. I’m not entirely sure why but Formula 1 became our little sport. I didn’t really know much about it and you didn’t try to teach me unless I asked but I always found crawling onto the couch on a Sunday morning as you sat in your straight back chair watching the cars grunt and whizz around the tarmac extremely comforting. Mum might have brought us bagels on the plastic plates with the green and orange flower motif. Boo Boo might have been in the next room fixing/breaking a computer (depending on how you valued his efforts). Was that, what they call, domestic bliss? I don’t think we ever realised how lucky we were then.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to take you to the Monaco Grand Prix but I knew I just wanted to become someone who could do that. I couldn’t wait to make you proud.

I think we would have bought you a guitar. You were always a frustrated rock star. It was obvious from the way you used to strum your belly and pick out chords on your palm. In recent years we have caught you trying to do something similar, even if you just tap your finger to a tune. We haven’t seen you do that for a while. I’m not sure if we will ever see you do that again.

We would need to buy your guitar lessons too. Although how much patience you would have for them is debatable. I can hear the chorus of expletives that would inevitably accompany your musical journey.

I think I would make you a mix tape. It would feature some of your favourite and most amusingly obscure tracks.  Track 1 would be Blue’s ‘Fly By’, because there was something about a boy-band aspiring to gangster heights that really appealed to you. And the bespectacled, cropped top sensation that was Anastacia with her 1999 smash hit ‘Outta Love’ would be on there because you liked that too. I would include those classic songs from the 70s that you loved, especially the ones that occasionally come on the radio when we visit you that make Mum’s eyes well with tears – the songs you fell in love to. The last song would be the New Radicals ‘You Get What you Give’ because you absolutely loved that song. I can see you ‘dancing’ to it now in our living room when the shopping mall set music video came on seemingly depicting a flash mob gone wild. Bending your knees to the beat, you looked like a newly potty-trained toddler unsure of his next move. But you always looked happy. I couldn’t listen to that song for a long time after you got ill. I just played the intro to it now and I could only get to the crescendo after the counting in before I choked up.

Perhaps we would do something involving boats. You always enjoyed watching boats. I think you found it very peaceful. It was nice to see you so contented. Maybe we would even go on a boat trip for the day. Somewhere sunny. You would wear your flip flops with velcro fastening despite the fact it’s no longer 1993. You wouldn’t care. You were never a boat shoe kind of guy.

Wow, 60 hey? You don’t look a day over 40 – the upside of teenage hair loss means you’ve looked middle aged since your early twenties. Something to be thankful for then?

On the other hand, you do look different. It’s in your eyes. Something’s missing. When you look at me I don’t know  if it’s me you’re actually seeing. I hope it is.

We can’t do any of this for your birthday Dad and for that I am more sorry than you know. You deserve it all.

We won’t do a party in your care home. We did that the first year you moved there five years ago and it was, all in all, a pretty horrendous experience. The faux cheer of a tea party laid out in a communal sitting room whilst we all tried to calm you down from your agitated state made it too miserable to bear. We decided to abandon the fuss from that year on.

To be honest with you Dad, every time your birthday has come around since then, I’ve forced myself not to think about it. It hurts too much, They are painful reminders of celebrations unsung as well as a reiteration of the tragedy that is the thick fog of dementia that descended upon you so young and never lifted. They now mark each year stolen. From you and from us.

But today is your 60th. It’s a day to make a fuss. And whilst we can’t do any of the things I’ve imagined, I can tell anyone who cares to read about how we would celebrate you and what you’ve meant to us. If we could. If things were different.

Clever Friends

Recently a Very Clever Friend text me a link to an article about her Very Clever Brother. I received it as I was rushing out to another very clever friend’s birthday dinner so I didn’t have time to read the article then. You know how it is… I was running  late and there was a cake to negotiate (carrying it. Not baking it. But with my pitiful upper body strength, that’s quite a challenge too) and there was a discussion about the number of candles needed (recently my flatmate had kicked off my own birthday by walking into my room with a cake replete with the full 28 candles and nearly caused a small accident. Because nothing says many happy returns quite like setting your pyjamas alight) and we live up two flights of stairs so there was a matter of, you know, walking down them  and it was all go go go and…

In truth, I needed at least 24 hours and two glasses of wine before I could bring myself to read my Very Clever Friend’s text.

It’s not that I didn’t like my Very Clever Friend or her Very Clever Brother. In fact I suspect they are two of the finest people Leeds has ever produced (Mancunians insert disparaging Leeds joke here). It’s just that I didn’t want to click on the link because I already knew where it would lead.

I’ve mentioned this Very Clever Brother before. (Back then I called him Very Bright Boy which I now realise is possibly one of the most patronising pseudonyms in this blog, especially as his job is basically finding a cure for Alzheimer’s so you know, not really in a position to be belittled, so if you’re reading, I apologise. Grandma Pigeon Poo on the other hand, you will just have to deal with it) So yes this link was to a news story on the latest developments in studying the cause of Alzheimer’s and this Very Clever Brother had basically been, as the youths say, ‘smacking it.’ He and his team had got down and dirty with the early stages of Alzheimer’s and discovered a kicking off point in the disease  (not quite sure why I feel the need to describe groundbreaking scientific research using street slang – it could be a self-defense mechanism or it could be from spending too much time with friends who imitate urban teenagers but that’s just how it is for now). Anyway, this was a significant step on the road to an Alzheimer’s cure.

I read it and I cried. It was one of those cries that took me by surprise even though I subconsciously suspected I would have that reaction hence the need for a bit of time and dutch courage. Still, it was one of those cries that caught me and resulted in a gasp, a gulp and perhaps even a bit of a squawk. Brilliant. Even better seeing as I was on the tube at the time (not that anyone batted an eyelid #London)

I cried because I imagined how proud my Very Clever Friend and her family would be of her Very Clever Brother. And I’m all for making your family proud, that’s quite a big deal to me, and I was partly overcome by some sort of sisterly connection that sensed how proud my Very Clever Friend must have been (FYI my brother’s really clever too. He fixes computers, not brain plaque, but believe me, when the air conditioning in a Middle Eastern hotel room is broken on a family holiday and Boo Boo fixes it, he’s Albert bloody Einstein)

But I also cried for me and my family. I cried because it was too late for us. It is too late for my dad. With every news story of a potential Alzheimer’s breakthrough I read, my heart stops at a crossroads (like Britney. Sorry, couldn’t help myself, back to the serious bit now). It lifts at the idea of a life freed from the inexplicably cruel grasp of  Alzheimer’s. And then it sinks at the reality – that my family will never know that life.

It is a very selfish sadness.

It doesn’t paint me in a particularly benevolent light but it is the truth. And, if I am honest, I can’t imagine I’m alone in having feelings of this kind. A disease is just an illness before it affects someone you love. Then it becomes heartache. It becomes personal.

I admitted to the selfish sadness, both to myself and my Very Clever Friend but then I squashed it. Because in a medical unit in another part of town, the Marine was being informed that she was, as the youths say, ‘smacking’ Myeloma. Her immune system was off the heezy (Ok. I hate myself now. And am probably making little sense to anyone over the age of 35) but basically the Marine’s naughty proteins are nowhere to be seen. There is no whiff of class disruption. All is well. And the Marine is flitting from one European break to the next (as her Facebook friends will be reliably informed. Whether they like it or not) and there’s not one iota of illness in her midst.

For now.

Because the thing is, the Marine and her combat team (ie her nearest and dearest) all do their best to live life to the full despite the knowledge that deep down beneath those invisible naughty proteins the Marine has, as of now, an incurable illness. I say ‘as of now’ because the only way I can emotionally cope with that fact is by holding an unwavering belief in medicine and doctors. They’ll fix it. They just have to. Where there is a will there is a way and by god does the Marine have some bloody will.

But willpower alone isn’t going to get her through. She will need the help of those Very Clever Brothers and Very Clever Sisters all across the world devoting their life’s work to smacking blood cancer once and for all.

So here’s to our Very Clever Friends and to our Very Clever Brothers and Sisters…whether you can fix dementia or air conditioning units, we’d be lost without you.

PS I want to say hello to all my lovely new Australian readers who found this blog when my article was published over there. Thank you for your wonderful messages upon reading. Despite literally being on the other side of the world, it just goes to show how far kindness and empathy travels.


Oh the title of this post? No, that isn’t a technical error or a mother of a typo.  Nope, that’s just a little something something I carefully crafted/banged out on my keyboard to accurately reflect this post’s content. I think it really speaks to the heart at the matter at hand which is this…words fail me.

I still can’t find the right words. Which is irritating as I really want to. I really want to be able to describe how it felt to be on the receiving end that Saturday my article was published. Because it was quite something.

I suppose I can’t find the words because that day and those following were really all about other people’s words. There were texts and facebook messages and blog comments and tweets and emails and I’m sure someone sent a pigeon (must have been my Grandma). All of them were quite literally stunning in their praise and their support. And some moved me to tears as people shared their own sadness. I didn’t quite know how to process it all.

When anyone said anything to me in person (remember, I am quite awkward in person at the best of times so someone showering me with praise about a highly personal subject matter ain’t going to bring out the articulate in me) all I could rustle up was ‘it was quite overwhelming’ and a ‘thank you’ or a ‘that’s very kind of you to say’ which just sounded like a Kate Middleton affectation that I couldn’t quite pull off seeing as I look a bugger in a wrap dress and I’m not, in fact, a Duchess.

Words failed me. I suppose I had poured all my words out into that article. So everything else was superfluous.

This is probably why when asked similar questions on a radio show the following week I found myself pretty much quoting from my article verbatim. I throw in this mention of a radio show oh so casually as though it is a totally natural thing for me to do. Let me tell you, it is not. I cannot remember the last time I was that terrified. I could feel the blood rush to my head and my hands were shaking so violently I nearly shattered a biro (I realise this is not quite a near-death experience but anyone who has experienced a biro leak on them knows it’s nothing short of a calamity). Regardless of the overwhelming terror I felt as I spoke apparently I did fine. There was only one question that stumped me. And it had stumped me a few months earlier as the Marine and I featured in an appeal video for The Fed, the essential charity that oversees my dad’s care home.

The question was this… ‘what was your dad like before the illness struck?’

The answer should be pretty simple right? This is my dad after all. And although he has been gone for a good few years I had him for a lot more. So it should be easy to surmise who he was in a few sentences.


Case in point, my answer on the radio:

‘He was typically Northern. With a Northern sense of humour’

Whaaaaaaaaaat? What was I even saying? What does typically Northern even mean? It smacks of ‘down tut mines before a quick pint on way home.’ The man was a management consultant. The only pint he would pick up on the way home was one of milk from Sainsburys. By the John Lewis.  Not quite sure where I suddenly located this deep rooted Northern sensibility in and amongst his middle class suburban lifestyle. Baffling.

On the appeal video, I seem to remember saying something along the lines of ‘He hated City fans. Probably still does’. Shockingly, this did not make it into the final edit. It wasn’t my most powerful point that would get those watching to up their donations.

I joke but I think throughout this past month, when my emotions have been laid bare for the world to see in all sorts of ways, it has been thinking about this question after the spotlight has turned off that affected me the most. If I’m honest it made me terribly sad. And terrified. Am I forgetting my dad? My real dad, the dad I was lucky to have for nearly two decades before a selfish disease came to take him away.

When Alzheimer’s strikes a family it is nothing short of a weapon of mass destruction. The collateral damage is devastating. And perhaps because the last eight years have been devoted to doing our best to repair that damage, trying to rebuild our foundations without one of our strongest pillars, I haven’t given myself much of a chance to think back to a time before the attack. Recalling peace time can be excruciatingly painful whilst sat amidst ruins.

But really I needn’t fear. Because what I’ve realised is that through this blog I’ve been able to remember my real dad. Thanks to you reading it, I’ve carried on. And I’ve not just told you tales of blood cancers and care homes (the title of my second album). I’ve been able to share stories of holidays and obscure traditions. Every now and again I get the opportunity to write my real dad back.

And through this blog I found the courage to write that article. As a result,  so many people who knew my dad got in touch. Whether it was simply a message to say how the photo of the two of us together featured in the article made them think of him and remember him fondly or someone who took the time to come on here and call him a ‘mensch’, one of my all time favourite Yiddishisms and a true compliment. Those messages went straight to the heart.

So to those of you who read the article and contacted me I thank you. It was clear I needed your words in return for mine. And to those of you who got in touch and talked of the Michael you knew, I am truly grateful. I needed those words more than most.