Photo: In this picture, probably taken in 1957, I’m in India with my father Donald Macarthur Hancock and my mother Muriel Bruce Hancock. How the years have passed. How fleeting is the precious gift of life.
“Stuff just keeps on getting older.” It’s a catch phrase of mine and I frequently use it in social media posts, usually in the context of new archaeological discoveries that push back the timeline of the human presence on earth and open up unexplored gaps in our understanding of the past.
As we come to the close of this year, however, 2019, the notion of everything getting older has taken on a new, more personal and more immediate meaning for me. This was the year in which Santha and I witnessed the slow decline into death of my mother Muriel Bruce Hancock who passed away on November 14th.
Mum was a teacher all her life and I want to recognise here the vital role she played in encouraging and drawing out my calling as a storyteller. Before I could read myself she would read to me constantly from books such as the Just So Stories, The Jungle Book and the Tanglewood Tales, in the process firing my imagination. She was also a true daughter of Scotland and I grew up with a sense of outrage at the horrific treatment of the Scots by the English from the 13th century through to the 19th century. I was stirred and inspired by the fierce independent spirit and determined heroism of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. I was plunged into deep wells of sadness at the devastating outcome of the Jacobite Rebellion at the battle of Culloden in 1746.
Mum reached a grand old age, celebrating her 93rd birthday on September 10th 2019 with her customary single glass of wine. But she had been in increasingly ill health, and unable to care for herself – requiring round-the-clock nursing support — for several years before that. For this tough, clever and independent Scottish lady, the indignity of being so dependent on others, unable to walk, unable to lift herself into her wheelchair, must have been very hard to bear. Nonetheless she bore the discomfort and the helplessness and the inevitable physical indignities with stoic courage, complained little and always did everything in her power not to be a burden to anyone.
This is the first time since her passing that I have been able to bring myself to write about my mother’s death. In so doing my purpose, first and foremost, is to pay tribute to her.
Mum was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on September 10th 1926 and became the first in her family to go to university. There, at the University of Edinburgh, she met my father Donald Macarthur Hancock who was in medical school and who would go on to become a surgeon. They married in 1948 and in 1949 my mother carried their first child to term, only to deliver him stillborn. She became pregnant again soon after – with me! – and I was born on August 2nd 1950.
By this time my father, a committed Christian, was a fully-qualified surgeon and was offered a position in Edinburgh. It was a position that would have advanced his career greatly, but he turned it down and in 1954 my Mum, my Dad and I travelled by ship out to India and then by rail to the town of Vellore in southern India (Tamil Nadu) where my father would work for the next four years as a surgeon at the Christian Medical College.
I can never know how deeply the tragedy of losing their first child at birth scarred and hurt my parents. but their ordeals were not over. Soon after arriving in India, Mum was pregnant again, this time with my sister Susan who survived birth and lived to the age on 1 year before dying of a mysterious blood disease.
Mum and Dad tried once more, and another child was born to them – my brother James. He too survived birth and seemed healthy at first but as he reached the end of his first year he, in his turn, fell gravely ill. This was late in 1958. It was as though some awful curse had descended on the family, and although I was only 8 years old I remember how solidly and with what oppression the darkness and gloom settled over us. In a desperate attempt to save James we flew back from India to England. I recall that the aircraft was called a Super Constellation, and I remember the oxygen tent that was installed within it to bring my baby brother alive to London where he was rushed to Great Ormond Street Hospital but died soon after.
So I was the only survivor of the four children my Mum and Dad brought into the world. I know they did everything in their power to protect me from the terrible impact these losses had on them, but inevitably the grief seeped through and expressed itself, particularly on my mother’s part, in over-protectiveness towards me. I felt smothered, and as the years went by I became a VERY rebellious child and then a VERY rebellious teenager. My whole project was to keep my parents, particularly my mother, at arms’ length, to get as far away from them as possible and to pursue my own independent path even if it involved complete rejection of my parents and everything they stood for.
I realise now that I carried this resentment of my good and loving parents into adult life and I regret that I was never able to return my mother’s love properly. Even towards the end, I kept pushing her away.
After my father’s death in 2003 my mother moved from the North of England, where they had lived for many years, to the city of Bath where Santha and I live. She bought a house in Bath but by 2013 she was already in severely declining health and elected to move into a nursing home where she could receive the nursing care she needed.
Mum was grandmother to six grandchildren – Sean and Leila from my first marriage, Luke and Gabrielle from my second marriage, and Shanti and Ravi, from Santha’s first marriage. Mum was an AMAZING, caring, loving grandmother to all six and the love she gave so freely to all of them was returned by all of them. As more years passed she became a great grandmother also – to Nyla, the child of Leila and our son-in-law Jason, to Henry, the child of Ravi and our daughter-in-law Lydia, and to Leo and Aura, the children of Luke and our daughter-in-law Ayako.
My mother was a very smart lady and she kept her wits about her right to the end, even as her body collapsed into congestive heart-failure and pneumonia and she was admitted to Bath’s excellent Royal United Hospital for the last time. There, I am happy to say, she passed surrounded by love. We will never forget, on the morning of her last day, how her eyes lit up as she awoke from a doze to see us and her grandchildren all around her and the bright cheerful joy of her great grand-daughter Nyla. Despite ever larger doses of Fentanyl to manage severe pain caused by oedema on the lungs. Mum was fully conscious and with us almost to the end. It was a slow descent out of life, each breath shorter and separated from the next by longer and longer intervals.
Santha and I stayed with her in her hospital room for six hours after she had passed. It felt right to do so. There’s no proof, of course, but I believe that the spirit is eternal and the body only a temporary suit of clothes…
I add here a poem on the loneliness and loss of old age written by my uncle James Macaulay, my mother’s brother, the eldest surviving member of my family, who is approaching his 90th birthday. My lost sibling James was named after my uncle James. To understand the poem it is important to know what a tontine is:
Tontine (noun): An annuity shared by subscribers to a loan or common fund, the shares increasing as subscribers die until the last survivor enjoys the whole income…
THE WINNER HAS LOST
By JAMES MACAULAY
In the tontine of life
I saw off my friends
Thus scooping the pool of alone.
We joked as we played.
They came and they went,
Their funerals totalled their score.
Now I eat on my own
In the Club seen as home
As my golf-playing friends are no more.
The tontine of life seemed good at the time
For the youngest of this friendly group,
But none of us won when the playing was done.
And the winner lost all that was good.