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.

WANDERINGS AND WONDERING OF YOUTH

Regular readers of these pages will know that travel comprises a significant part of my life, even to the point that I once had homes concurrently in three different countries.

But, when I look back now, of all the hundreds of journeys, vacations and adventures since my first flight – aged three – to Zurich from London on a Swiss Air Caravelle (I remember that we sat facing each other with a little table between us, as on a train) – there are eight trips of which every detail remains etched into my memory.

All of these trips were specifically formative in that they either changed my life in a literal sense, or my perceptions of life in some fundamental way. Followers of this blog might already be aware of some of these episodes.

Firstly there was the trip to Israel in 1967 just weeks after the Six-Day War which blew both my 7-year old mind and my 1960’s, suburban British olfactory senses. I vividly remember being on the Golan Heights, walking along the safe paths marked out by Israeli mine disposal teams, into Quneitra and dozens of Syrian military documents blowing on the dusty hot winds like confetti. And equally, I recall the first time I tasted real humus and roasted eggplant and being almost emotionally overcome with the sheer pleasure of it;

Then there was a gastronomic drive along the length of France in 1970 which turned me into one of the England’s most precocious connoisseurs of food and wine;

A year later, I was treated to my first visit to Spain where I discovered the hitherto (to a typical Jewish lad like me) forbidden twin joys of fried bacon and fresh shellfish in addition to poolside cocktails and luxury hotels. The fact this was all part of a photographic shoot for Max Factor and that I spent the entire time in the company of two of the UK’s top fashion models was the icing on the cake for a sexually curious eleven-year-old;

Fourteen years after it was Andalusia again, but this time a romantic five days in Seville, in the company of a beautiful law student, where I discovered the exotic joys of tapas washed down with ice-cold fino and late-night flamenco.

About a decade later in 1991 saw my first flight across the Pond, where the sublime “New World” strangeness of newly-democratic Chile bludgeoned me back into painting landscapes and left me a life-long lover of cazuela de pollo;

Then, twelve years after that in 2003, there was our visit to southern India where I was held enthral to the equally glorious and wonderful strangeness of ancient Tamil Nadu and Kerala and where I discovered that a mostly vegetarian diet could almost be fun (not to mention hugely fattening);

In 2007, I made my first trip to Australia, which, especially in magnificent Melbourne turned out to be quite simply the most enjoyable and mentally invigorating shattering of dearly-held pre-conceptions I have ever experienced;

And finally, just this January, when the cliché “better (incredibly) late than never” took on a whole new profundity for me after my first visit to New York City left me and all my senses dazed, awestruck and ecstatic in equal measure.

However, when I ask myself what was the trip that played the biggest and most enduring role in shaping the adult I eventually became, it would have to be another of the trips I made to Israel; this time in in 1978, during the summer break of my first year at Saint Martin’s School of Art.

The pictures below are all that remain of my “Wanderers Period” and represent the most eloquent way I can describe the feeling and atmosphere of those six weeks; the highlight of which was when four of us – two guys and two girls – walked the entire circumference of the Sea of Galilee in two days. We slept on the pebble beaches, and lived on falafel and bags of crisps washed down with cheap wine, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Weekend in LA on our cassette player. Without going into details, it became my coming-of-age drama in every sense, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and of course, sensual. It was my “Summer of 42”, except it was 78. It was when I truly fell in love with life and this Earth (and the incomparable virtuosity of George Benson).

Most unfortunately, the large canvases that emerged from these sketches and scrawls I painted over the following year after my art school tutors deemed them “unsubtle, hopelessly romantic and naïve” – they were a bunch of passionless idiots, but that’s another story. Nevertheless, I think these pictures, for all their rawness, convey the power of an 18-year old’s emotions, lusts, yearnings and wondering (and one or two aren’t bad drawings either)…