A celebration of the life of Nan Donald 1933 – 2014

At Jewish funerals, the traditional greeting to mourners is “I wish you a long life”. I can see where they’re coming from, but a long life is not always a blessing.

Here in Britain, one in five 80 year olds already suffers from dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society has just published a report which suggests that if current trends continue, we can expect a 40% increase over the next 12 years, and while it would be wrong to call it a ‘time bomb’, it is alarming.

Dementia is a terrible disease. Its effect are devastating, not just to the sufferer but to their families. 
Watching somebody you have loved and respected all your life vanish before your eyes is extremely painful, so I was very touched that my friend Simon asked me to conduct the ceremony for his mum, the lovely Nan, and I was so glad that when I met him and his father Shaw and sisters, Louise and Pat, we were able to have a long and very laughter-filled chat about her life and times.

What we didn’t talk about – either when we met, or in the ceremony – was just how distressing it had been for the family not only to live with the looming awareness of the one-way, darkening tunnel ahead, but also to discover that there were virtually no resources to help them to care for Nan. Shaw had been Nan’s primary carer, and he couldn’t leave her side for a moment, even while she thought he was a stranger pretending to be her husband. As Louise told me later, it was the stuff of nightmares.

So, rather than relive the pain of the recent past, we spoke of Nan as she had been: a gorgeous young woman, incredibly stylish, even exotic, but never overstated. In her youth a tennis champion, a singer in the local Operatic Society, and a working mother of three, she later became a keen curler and gardener. 

She and Shaw were married for 65 years: a lifetime in itself and a story of profound love. He was a great pianist who could play the entire American songbook by ear; Nan’s greatest joy was when Shaw played for her. She would stand behind him resting her hands on his shoulders, and sometimes her sister Dolly would join in too. As her children wrote, “Her vivacity and beauty, her loveliness of heart and soul glittered and shone in the lives of those around her,” and she really was a very loving, patient mum.

The ceremony was over at Holytown, near Wishaw, where Nan and Shaw had lived all their lives, and it was as joyous an occasion as any funeral can be. Certainly there was a lot of laughter, especially at the jokes the family told against themselves, and we were all very moved when Nan’s only granddaughter, the ten-year-old Peggy-Nan got up and addressed us first in Gaelic and then in English with a tribute of her own composition.

I have to say that I was astonished, but pleasantly surprised to learn that she had never shouted at her children. Simon claims to remember a few wails of despair, but she was never angry. Even during the punk era, when the girls looked completely and utterly ridiculous with their mad clothes and egg white in their frizzled stand-up hair, she never said anything negative about their appearance – the worst reaction being a roll of the eyes and a resigned “Och!”.

The family are always in the first row, but in Wishaw that row is rather closer than usual, so I felt as though I was having a conversation, rather than delivering a speech, and I was able to look everyone in the eye. What struck me was that Nan’s children all seemed present, yet far away in their own thoughts, and when I said as much to Simon, it struck me that this was a kind of inversion of what had happened to Nan at the end of her life.

In hearing her described as she once had been, they were able to go back into the past where she still glittered and shone in their memories, just as she had done for all but the last few years of her life. I think that the email I received from Louise confirmed that. She wrote, 

“…The biggest thank you is for bringing my mum back to life as she was before that hideous illness took her further and further away from us. That took time and work on your part, for which I am so very grateful.

In a way it is more painful to have her alive again in my minds eye, but I would rather have it this way. 

Your patience and kindness and skill made it special, rather than bleakly depressing and hopeless and I thank you for making that possible. We all do. 

My thanks once again go to Louise, Pat, Simon and Shaw for allowing me not only to speak on their behalf, but also to write this piece. If you’d like to find more information about dementia and the Alzheimers Society, please click here

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