HANNAH – ten years gone

and her dignified death

As I pressed the “Publish” button for this post, exactly ten years ago to the day, the hour and the minute, my mother Hannah died. Knowing the exact moment of a loved-one’s death well before it happens is a dubious privilege, which until very recently in human history was the sole preserve of the relatives and friends of those on death row. However, in recent times this situation changed when, in a handful of places in the world, the laws on assisted dying were liberalised.

One such place was the country of Switzerland, which in addition to permitting assisted dying to its own citizens, allowed the setting up of Dignitas, a unique facility, on the outskirts of the city of Zurich, for the use of foreigners.

My mother was diagnosed with terminal stage-4 lung cancer in 2008, and was “given” about two-and-a-half years to live. After her first round of chemotherapy, she contacted the organisation Dignity in Dying to discuss her options for placing the end her life within her own control. Ultimately, as a British citizen, her only option when the time came, was to travel to Zurich.

And the time came in September 2010: The cancer was now spreading throughout her body and she was facing about six months of a slow and increasingly painful death. Rather than take the normal option for her compatriots, of moving into a hospice and relying on palliative care with ever-increasing doses of drugs – or, as mum regarded it, surrendering to the cancer – she decided to “take control away from the cancer, and put it into [her] own hands”.

So, on the 6th of September, accompanied by a companion, but crucially, under her own locomotion, Hannah flew to Switzerland, where four days later, at 11 o’clock Swiss time, she took a fatal draught of pentobarbital.

These are the basic facts of my mother’s passing. This post is not intended as either a vindication or a condemnation of Hannah’s actions, nor is it a discourse on the rights and wrongs of assisted suicide. Moreover, were I ever to be in a similar situation, I have no idea whether or not I would make the same choice. The one observation I will make, is that while I totally respected my mother’s decision, being aware of the exact moment of her suicide added a strange dimension to my sense of grief and loss, even as she left for the airport. Whether or not this particular form of grief and loss is preferable to what I would have gone through watching her slow demise in a hospice bed, I genuinely cannot say. The one great comfort I did have, and continue to have, is that she died in a manner of her choosing and; according to her companion, in a state of peace; and most wonderful of all, with her sharp sense of humour intact until the end, as evidenced by this closing anecdote…

When mum and her companion arrived at the house used by Dignitas, they were met by two nurses and shown into a sitting room. One of the nurses (a male), was exceedingly friendly, and especially chatty, to the point, that when he went off for a few moments to prepare the overdose, Hannah, leaned over to her companion, and whispered, “I don’t envy you having to listen to him for the rest of the day!” This says much about my mother’s indomitable personality, and I hope this small selection of photographs , taken between 1961 and 63, reveals her outward beauty too…

This beautifully tender portrait of Hannah, having just been deserted by my father, dates from early 1961, by her brother Sidney.
This picture – also 1961 – is very special to me. It was one of a series taken of me as a baby by Sidney for the Johnson’s Baby Powder campaign featured in another recent post – but this one shows mum clearly.
This dates from 1962. The model Sandra Paul was late for a Max Factor shoot and Sidney had his make-up girl prepare Hannah to stand in.
In 1962 again, this was taken (also by Sidney) at the sports day at my brother’s boarding school – mum, always stylish in those days.

Three different “daddies” for the daddy-less child…

My “first career”, MODELLING rubber products and other things…

In an earlier post I wrote about my wife Dido’s work as a model during her time in the ballet. What may be much more surprising for many of my readers and followers, is that I too had a brief career in front of the Hasselblads and Rolleiflex. For the first four or five years of my life, I was an occasional child model. In my case however, unlike my gorgeous wife, it was less to do with my photogenic qualities and more to do with the fact that the photographer in question was my mum’s brother, Sidney Pizan.

While the fact I was a cute baby and toddler (well, it’s true) was undoubtedly helpful, the main advantage for an aspiring commercial photographer based in the highly competitive world of 1960’s London advertising, was the fact my services came for free! The pictures here offer a record of what was in effect, my first career, and looking back at some of them now raises a whole gamut of emotions for reasons explained in the captions…

The man in this photo is my actual biological father, seen here together with your’s truly, my older brother and my mother. This was a government sponsored ad for the London Rubber Company (now known as Durex), as part of their 1960 “family planning” drive. Thus, the four of us represented the ideal British family, which was exquisitely ironic, given that my father’s take on family planning was of a very different order to that of Her Majesty’s Government. Within days of this shot being taken he had upped and left, and I was never to set eyes on him again. Even more paradoxical is that this is the only photo I have of him with me. The fact he’s actually holding my hand makes this an object of peculiar fascination. It’s also interesting to note in this context that my father was an advertising man, and years later, when we watched Mad Men, my mother would point out the uncanny similarities between her ex-husband and the Ted Draper character…
These are from an ad for Johnson’s Baby Powder. They date from shortly after the Family Planning shot. The hands and head are those of my much-missed, late mother, and for me there is a powerful poignancy in these images, well beyond any commercial “message”…
An ad for a very different kind of rubber object from the first. This was for Pirelli tyres and the guy driving is “my Pirelli father” – a fact I was blissfully unaware of during the shoot…
These photos with the late model and actor Norman Lambert, were my final turn as a child model. The ad was for Van Huesen shirts and if you look carefully at the image on the left, you can see that my eyes are swollen. Unfortunately, the director, innocent of my family history, early in the shoot, instructed me to “smile at daddy…”, causing me to burst into tears! Not only did it take about half-an-hour for me to regain my composure, it meant hours of work for Sidney’s touch-up photo-artist to “fix” my eyes. I should say though, that my Van Heusen “daddy”, Norman, was exceptionally patient and kind, and moreover, I was allowed to keep the set of wooden blocks. But after that, Sidney mostly resorted to professional child models, presuming they were made of sterner stuff!