As a huge fan of Clare Furniss, I’m delighted to celebrate the recent paperback release of How Not To Disappear by running this great guest post, and a Twitter competition!
How Not to Disappear tells the story of the relationship between teenage Hattie and Gloria, the larger-than-life great-aunt she never knew she had, who is in the early stages of dementia when Hattie first meets her. It felt really natural to me to write about this because there were a lot of strong older women around in my family when I was growing up and they played a big part in my life. Although Gloria is a completely fictional character there are definitely elements of my own family in there too.
I’d wanted to write about Alzheimer’s since I was a teenager myself. My Grandma had the disease when I was growing up. She died when I was fourteen and had been diagnosed with the disease for several years by then, almost for as long as I could remember really. I just accepted it as part of who she was. I remember being fascinated by the fact that, although her short-term memory was so bad she would repeat the same conversation over and over again with no memory of it having just happened, she could remember events from the past with absolute clarity. She would tell me about watching the soldiers going off to fight in the First World War. When she described the children all lining up to see them off, it was so vivid that it felt as though she was seeing it all. It was as if her younger self was somehow perfectly preserved inside her while her older self faded.
I wanted to explore this in How Not to Disappear, that feeling that for someone with dementia the past can be clearer and more real than the present. I also wanted to try and capture the sense I had that although by the end my Grandma couldn’t remember my name or place me exactly, she always seemed to retain a sense of how she felt about me: she was always pleased to see me, always relaxed and familiar. I felt as though we still had a connection even though her memory of exactly how our lives fitted together had gone.
Below are a couple of pictures of me with my Grandma:
The other two women who inspired this story were my Nanna and my Great Aunty Eileen. I was very close to my Aunty Eileen and lived with her for a while when I first started work. We had politics in common and she was very actively involved, spending time at Greenham Common and was always at the Labour Party Conference. (At the annual Irish Night she’d still be on the dance floor at the end of the night.) She was very glamorous and loved clothes. If she took against you, you knew about it. If she liked you, you had a friend for life. She loved company and was famous for mixing extremely generous gin and tonics for her guests.
This is Aunty Eileen…