photo Stanislas Toma, Prague 1982
I had a friend.
My friend's body is still here, but Joan is no longer with us. Alzheimer's disease took her away from me.
Years ago Joan's once brilliant brain began to shut down, gradually losing the ability to perform the most basic tasks; she gradually forgot the names of her friends, gradually she stopped to recognize us.
The BBC had a small news item yesterday, towards the end of the news, about a group of scientists calling for a three-fold increase in funding into research into dementia in the UK, urging the government to end years of underfunding for research into the debilitating disease.
Anyone can develop dementia.
Seven hundred thousand people in the UK now live with dementia, and the figure is going up fast. It is estimated that the cost of treating and caring for people with dementia is £17bn a
year - more than the cost of heart disease, stroke and cancer combined.
When we first moved here Joan was the first person to take me under her wing. I was taking a bag of household rubbish to the bin at the end of the drive, by the road, and this bright little lady, with a collie on a lead in tow, came towards me, waving her walking stick at me and hailing me. As we stood chatting, she pointed her stick at the sky above us; she had noticed a buzzard circling and so started this townie's introduction into the wonders of life in the countryside.
Joan and I became friends.
Her illness manifested itself in small ways at first, hardly noticeable. She forgot things, words mostly; but we all do that as we get older. It's what we call "having a senior moment". Only Joan's senior moments became more and more frequent until there was no question that she was suffering from the onset of dementia.
Joan loved music. She still came to visit me occasionally and, on one occasion, before she had fully succumbed to the disease, when she still had a lucid moment or two, we decided to listen to Schubert's two cello Quintett Opus 163, a sublime piece of music. We sat side by side on the sofa, both silent, both listening intently. During the Adagio I happened to look across at her, wanting to share the moment, and saw that tears were running down her cheeks, unchecked.
On impulse, I took her hand in mine; she turned to me; the pain and despair in her eyes were so great that I too felt the tears starting up; the moment was almost unbearably poignant. This was the last time our spirits connected.
I learned today that Joan has now "forgotten" how to walk, her doctor's words. not mine.
The void has truly claimed her.