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Dementia, deep depression, and a horse called Duke

24 June 2016

An only child, facing her father’s dementia and ill health in her mother and herself, Hazel Southam coped by learning to ride, and found herself sustained by her growing relationship with a large horse

Kindred spirits: Hazel with Duke

Kindred spirits: Hazel with Duke

BACK at home, refreshed, brighter, smil­ing, I face the daunting task of telling my dad that, no, he isn’t coming home. Not now. Not ever. Sorry. I visit him as soon as I’m back and find that he has packed all his clothes and possessions into the dirty linen box, in lieu of a suitcase. Then he has for­gotten that he’s done this and is worried that things are going missing. I pretend it’s quite normal to pack your dirty linen box with books, socks, and so forth, and quietly put them all back, whilst chatting lightly.

Then I sit down and tell him the truth. This is his home now. He’s not well enough to come home. And he won’t be getting better. This team of carers can look after him properly and we simply can’t. I am very, very sorry. He looks me in the eye and under­stands. We hold hands and cry. He never cries.

We have the kind of conversation that you have before someone dies. We talk of love and laughter, God, cats, The Guardian, and cricket. I remind him of the village where we all grew up, of its orchards, his football team. He asks, “Where do I live?” and “Where is my house?” a great deal these days. I used to try explaining, but as none of it makes any sense to him — the past 75 years having been wiped out — I talk about the village instead. That he remembers.

I feel, as my mother often says, like a wrung-out piece of rag. There are things that you don’t want to tell your parents: my A-level results aren’t very good; I’ve left my job with the big publishing company; I’ll be reporting from a war zone. But “You’re not coming home” is by far the worst. I comfort myself with the thought that, however bleak this moment, it won’t come again. Daddy knows now, and whilst we may discuss it in the future, it won’t be like this. Only, of course, it is. The next day and the day after and every day for years he will ask when he’s coming home and I will have to tell him the freshly shocking news that he won’t be. Every time it will be new to him, as five minutes later he will have forgotten it entirely. It is my own personal hell, and his, too, probably.

When I was starting out in journalism, wet behind the ears and hopelessly wide-eyed, there were times when I found the living-in-London-trying-to-prove-myself lark, well, not very lark-ish. At those times, my mother’s homespun advice was to “smell something lovely; look at something lovely; taste some­thing lovely; touch something lovely; and listen to something lovely every day.” It was advice based on the dual principles of slowing down and gaining perspective by concen­trating on something other than yourself.

It works, of course. Now it sounds like mind­fulness, the latest trend in slowing-down-and-shutting-up-that-we-can’t-call-prayer-in-case-someone-thinks-we’re-religious. But then, it was just my mum’s advice, and I followed it, smelling flowers, looking at the clouds, savour­­­­ing a cup of tea, stroking the cat, and so on. Now, I can satisfy nearly all five senses with just one visit to Duke.

So I find myself, one evening after drill practice, walking up to the fields behind the yard with two other girls, leading the horses to their night-time quarters. The sky is that blueish-pinky-mauve that sums up England in midsummer and is, without doubt, my favourite colour. The light is caught some­where between the slowly setting sun and an enormous, rising harvest moon. The wayside violets are closing their petals. Late-in-the-day swallows swoop and dive around us, even skimming through the horses’ legs as we trudge slowly up the steep slope towards the fields. Swallows love farm­land, where there is a good supply of both insects and water. With water troughs for the horses and a constant amount of poo being pro­duced, the yard is perfect for the swallows. They nest in a building that we all call “the canopy”: a long open-ended barn with stalls along both sides. It is here that the horses rest during the day between rides.

The rafters are home to the swallows, which arrived this year on 14 April. They had flown all the way from their winter home in South Africa, across the Sahara — let’s think about that: a tiny bird flying at 17–22 mph across the Sahara Desert — and then on up through Morocco, Spain, and France, and finally over the Channel, back to the yard where they were born, and to which they will always return. It is quite extraordinary, and every year I cheer when I see their glossy blue-black backs swooping through the canopy and up on to a beam.

They are flying tonight to catch the rich supply of insects that dance on the still, summer-evening air. Swallows surround us. They are underneath us, flitting past on all sides, swirling above our heads, and, in the fields beyond, we can see them skimming the top of the long grass for insects that have danced their last in the yellowish air.

It is quiet, so quiet, with just the sound of three sets of heavy hooves plodding up the track. My spirit soars with the swallows. Not everything is bleak, after all. I am looking at something beautiful, listening to something beautiful, touching something beautiful as I stroke Duke’s back, and smelling that heady aroma of warm horse. All that’s left is to taste something wonderful, and over the past few days I’ve done quite enough of that.


This is an extract from My Year with a Horse: Feeling the fear but doing it anyway by Hazel Southam, to be published by Lion Books on 15 July (£8.99 pbk (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-7459-6849-0).


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