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The long goodbye

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During Dementia Awareness Week, poet, musician and songwriter John Baine (otherwise known as Attila the Stockbroker) has very kindly allowed us to post this very touching and powerful poem that he wrote in loving memory of his mother, Muriel.


This is a poem for you, Mum.
It’s about your long, eventful life,
the you that you were
and the you that you are now,
the different you,
the you with Alzheimers.
It’s to help you remember.
And, yes, I knew when I was writing this
that it was to help me, too.
So this is a poem for us, Mum.

You say
‘It’s like wading through treacle
and when I get through the treacle
there’s a mist
which makes me wonder
why I bothered with the treacle.’
But there are places we can go
in the hours we spend together
where there is no treacle
no mist -
where everything is clear.

Back to Gravesend
to the council house
to the stern, Victorian printer father
and the spirited, intelligent little girl
who went to Reading for the holidays
to stay with your ‘maiden aunt’, a teacher,
and discovered a new, magical world -
the piano.
Auntie Evelyn paid for your lessons
and your talent blossomed.
Church organist at 16.
And not just in music:
A scholarship to the county grammar school
Matriculation …
and then came the war.

You say
‘It’s as though bits of my mind are still awake,
and bits have gone to sleep
or start imagining things’.

You were sent to Bletchley Park.
You mostly can’t remember what happened yesterday
but you can still describe every corridor at Bletchley,
the walks through the town
and, of course, the hours at the piano
in the music room.
Typing through the night
on one of the Enigma decoding machines
Smoking to stay awake –
you’ve always hated smoking –
and the bustle and uproar
when the nonsense you were typing
suddenly turned to German
and the ‘boffins’ gathered round you, urging you on.
‘Faster! Faster!’
Your three friends:
Jean, Margaret, Win.
Still friends, nearly seventy years later.
When the mist is all around
I say ‘Tell me about Bletchley Park’.
In an instant, I have my Mum back.

You say
‘I am learning the difference
between understanding and memory.
I can still speak, still form sentences,
talk to people,
read the Guardian and enjoy it.
Though I don’t remember what I have read
or what I have said.
In one ear, out the other!
But if my memory is gone, how is it that
I remember
how to understand?’

After Bletchley: London.
Notting Hill.
Working at Bateman’s Opticians
in Kensington High Street.
Singing with the Royal Choral Society
under Malcolm Sergeant
premiering the works of Elgar.
The music appreciation class
where you met my father
Twenty-five years your senior
living in a hostel
on the run from a brutal marriage.
You brought the sunshine back into his life
and when the divorce made the national press
as a legal precedent
you didn’t care:
you were one.
Visiting the Isle of Harris
Honeymoon in Switzerland
My father’s love poems to you.
Yes, that’s where I got this from.
You tell me over and over again….
The words from him;
the music from you.
Ok, not exactly in the way you’d have expected -
Rude words!
Loud music!
But you’re used to that now.
(You’ve had more than thirty years of it,
after all!)

You say
‘I know the meaning of the phrase
‘a fate worse than death’.’

Come on, Mum.
You’re at home, in your warm, comfortable house in Southwick
We live just round the corner
I’m here, my wife Robina’s here, family and friends are here…
You could be in Baghdad or Kabul
Family killed, cowering in a ruined cellar
Not knowing who or where you were…
It’s not that bad!

You say
‘You’re right, John. I mustn’t be so silly’.
Together we smile and sing
‘Always look on the bright side of life!’
I go and make you a cup of tea.
I bring it to you.
You say
‘I know the meaning of the phrase
‘a fate worse than death’.’

Of course, I’m used to the repetition.
But I’ll never get used to that one.

Now we’re moving into the fifties
and here’s the treacle.
You can’t remember
the year I was born.
‘How can I forget that?
Then with great authority:

Hang on, Mum……
You weren’t married till fifty–three
And though I am a bit of an old git these days
I’m not THAT much of an old git.
It was FIFTY-seven.

Tears fill your eyes.
‘How can I forget that?
I remember you as a little boy.
Always questioning. Always loud.
‘No, Mummy!!’
‘Why, Mummy??’
Too right!

You say
‘I have spent my life doing
But now I’m just........being.’

The move to Southwick when I was three.
The worms, then the fish, lizards, slow worms,
newts, terrapins, snakes.
Going to football every week with my father
And the one time I heard you argue.
Do you remember why it was?
That’s right.
He’d left his Brighton season ticket
in his trouser pocket.
You put the trousers in the washing machine….
We both laugh.

You say
‘Memory is such a wonderful thing.
But you don’t appreciate that
until it’s disappearing.
My brain feels like a sponge
with great big holes in it.’

I tell you how clever you are
to use that analogy
because if you look at a photograph
of the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s
that’s exactly what it looks like –
a sponge
with great big holes in it.
Sometimes you say your brain feels like soup,
or suet pudding, or sausages,
But mostly it’s a sponge.
A thirsty sponge, full of life
which soaked up everything it possibly could
for more than eighty years
and is now, gently, leaking it away.

You say:
‘I love you, my son.
You are my rock!’
I say
I love you too, Mum.
I’m your punk rock.

Then the difficult years:
My father’s death when I was ten
(yes, it was 1968, Mum….
I know it feels like a lifetime
- it’s half of one)
My battles with school
and a new stepfather
and so away, to university,
to the world of punk rock,
to a band and a squat in Brussels,
a flat in Harlow Town
with my friend Steve
and, in 1980,
to a life as Attila the Stockbroker…
a life you tried hard to understand
and discussed with me late into the night
on my visits home.
A life you always encouraged
and were proud of
and, on a few memorable occasions,
came to share.
As we will see.

Of course, you had your own life.
Very different from mine!
Organist at three churches
Teaching the piano
Singing with the Brighton Festival Chorus
Playing with Southwick Operatic Society
President of Southwick W.I.
(Remember the gig I did for your W.I?
‘You must ask your son to come and read for us, Muriel…’
You were very worried.
I’m not surprised!
I chose my material, erm, carefully.
I got an encore.)

And, in 1981,
you’d won your first big battle:
Breast cancer.

You say
‘Alzheimer’s is such a cruel disease.
You can have your breast removed –
But not your head.
That’s a shame!’.

The surgeon prodded your breast, and said
‘That’ll have to come off.’
His exact words.
So angered and devastated were you
by his unbelievable insensitivity
that, after your mastectomy
and your recovery
(via New Zealand, where you went to see your brother –
‘If this is going to kill me
I’m going to see Mick in New Zealand first’)
you started a local counselling service
for people with cancer.
Especially women with breast cancer.
Especially women with breast cancer
dealing with insensitive male b*****ds.
You knew.
You helped so many people.
And I was so proud of you.

You say ‘Time is all out of joint.
Things that happened yesterday
seem a long time ago
and things that happened a long time ago
seem like yesterday.
That is frightening’.

Now we’re nearing the 90s
and we’re knee deep in treacle.
Remember Canada, Mum?
Not really? I’ll remind you.
You said ‘I’ll come with you!
My old Bletchley friend Win
lives in Toronto…..’
And you did.
I was touring, 11 cities,
east to west.
You stayed with Win in Toronto
then joined me on tour
all the way to Vancouver.
‘Hey, Attila’s brought his mom with him!’
You played piano for me
on my song ‘Tyler Smiles’
at the Vancouver Folk Festival
to a standing ovation
and enjoyed it so much
that two years later
you toured New Zealand with me
saw your brother Mick again -
and then to Australia.
‘Strewth, Attila’s brought his mum with him!’
They thought it’d be fun
for you to interview me
on national TV
on the beach
next to a sewage outfall.
You were brilliant.

You say
‘I feel as though I am moving slowly
down a road
which is gently subsiding’.

Mid nineties:
your swan song
with the Brighton Festival Chorus.
Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’
at the Royal Festival Hall.
Mum’s last gig.
Your favourite piece of music, ever.
I was there.

Then, in 1998,
your final tour with me,
my favourite memory of all:
‘I’ve never been to Germany, John.
I want to go there before I die.
I want to talk to the people there.
All this prejudice in my generation
is just silly’.
But Mum, I said.
It won’t be like those other tours.
I’ve told you about Germany.
I play in anti-fascist squats and autonomous centres.
We sleep on the floor half the time.
Sometimes it’s really cold and very smoky
there is loads of very loud punk rock
and everyone drinks the most INCREDIBLE amount of beer.
Including me -
I’m not sure it’s the right tour
For a lady of seventy-five…

But you were having none of it.
So off we went.
You, me, Adverts punk legend TV Smith
and Danny the driver
in my old Citroen
charging up and down the motorway.
I’d told the organisers –
and they were brilliant.
They made such a fuss of you.
Clean, comfortable and warm everywhere
no smoke
and punk rock turned down where necessary.
Most solicitous of all
my old mate
Mad Butcher Mike –
a big, hard, red skinhead,
founder of a legendary hardcore anti fascist record label,
loathed by every right wing scumbag in Germany.
You took a real shine to him.
And he to you.
‘He’s not a Mad Butcher at all, John –
He’s a very nice chap!’

Germany was your last foray.
You sailed into your eighties,
happy in Southwick.
I’d moved nearby years before
Then married Robina.
She spotted the signs before I did -
I guess I simply couldn’t believe
it would happen to you.
And then came that fateful day
in May 2004
when you set out in the car
to visit Daphne, your sister in law
and forgot where you were going
or why you were going there.

It’s been more than five years now:
and here we are.
The psychiatrist says you’re doing very well
That the tablets are working
That we’re doing all the right things
That the hours we spend are precious hours…
We know that.
I know that.
I see it in your face, every time I enter the room.
Your indomitable spirit,
your need for human warmth,
for company, for stimulation
for mental challenge
is as strong as ever.
Anyway, for me, no contest.
You made me. You need me. I’ll be there. That’s it.
But it’s hard, Mum.
For us, and, above all, for you.
Which is why I wrote this poem.
To help you remember.
The poem of your life –
The poem of our life.
Mum died on June 9th, 2010, the day before her 87th birthday.
Her last words to me were “Have a good gig!’
Thanks, Mum.
I am.

For World Alzheimer's Day, poet, musician and songwriter John Baine (otherwise known as Attila the Stockbroker) shares this touching poem that he wrote for his mum. Dedicated to all who are touched by this awful disease. 

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