A case of incurable optimism

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The Independent Online

YEARS BEFORE her death, my mother told me there must be no black ties at her funeral. "Everyonemust wear bright clothes," she said. "There must be lots of flowers and happy hymns." And a few daysago, in the beautiful little church at Barming, just outside Maidstone, she had the funeral she asked for.There were mountains of flowers, not a black tie in sight - even the bearers wore casual suits - and thecongregation sang "All things bright and beautiful". But my mother's death was not as she would havewished. And it was certainly not a death she deserved.

YEARS BEFORE her death, my mother told me there must be no black ties at her funeral. "Everyonemust wear bright clothes," she said. "There must be lots of flowers and happy hymns." And a few daysago, in the beautiful little church at Barming, just outside Maidstone, she had the funeral she asked for.There were mountains of flowers, not a black tie in sight - even the bearers wore casual suits - and thecongregation sang "All things bright and beautiful". But my mother's death was not as she would havewished. And it was certainly not a death she deserved.

My father, Bill, was much older than Peggy, already 47 when he married her in 1946. He was boroughtreasurer of Maidstone and a son of the former first mate on the Cutty Sark, the sailing clipper that is nowin permanent dry-dock at Greenwich. Peggy was 26, the daughter of well-to-do Kentish cafe-proprietors.Both had served their country. Bill was in the trenches of northern France in the First World War (Battleof Arras, 1918) and, as head of the local Home Guard in 1940, was asked by MI6 to lead a Maidstoneresistance organisation to harass the Nazis after the expected German invasion; I still possess my father'sambitious plans for blowing up Maidstone East railway station and the adjoining high level bridge overthe river Medway. My mother joined the RAF during the Battle of Britain, mending Spitfire radio sets atRAF Western Zoyland; her sister trained air gunners in radio navigation.

Peggy became a flame of optimism over my young life."Everything will always work out alright in theend," she used to say to me. And when I once asked what was the point of struggling with my homeworkwhen we were all going to die one day, she replied: "By the time you grow up, they may have found acure for that." In a way, my mother did believe in immortality and I took her incurable optimism with me,thousands of miles from Kent to Afghanistan, through the terrible battles of the Iran-Iraq war and to theconflict in Lebanon.

But there was another side to Peggy. As father fretted in retirement, she became a magistrate. I recall howone day, gently arguing with my father - whose views on criminal justice might have commendedthemselves to Judge Jeffreys - Peggy said, quite sharply: "The accused often tell the truth - and I don'talways trust policemen." As a small boy, the first book she urged me to read on my own was the Diary ofAnne Frank - because she wanted me to understand the nature of goodness. During the Israeli siege ofBeirut in 1982, she discovered a rare telephone line into the Lebanese capital from Maidstone and used itto tell me how she deplored the cruelty visited upon the Palestinians. She asked me repeatedly whygovernments spent so much money on guns.

She took up painting, water-colours and oils, still life and portraits.My father was a loyal man. He couldbe proud and generous but also censorious and authoritarian and he sometimes bullied Peggy, althoughhis closest friends would not have known this. As she looked after him in his last years - he was to die in1992, aged 93 - she talked quietly of the life of independence she would lead afterwards. She wanted totravel, to visit Lebanon and go to Ireland. She saw a lifetime of painting in front of her.

But just before my father died, she was told she had Parkinson's Disease and steadily lost the physicalability to live a dignified life - as surely as she maintained the will to survive. Within four years, she couldscarcely speak or walk. So she communicated by pointing with a stick to letters on a piece of cardboard.Then she could no longer point. She insisted on moving around the garden of her home in a wheelchair.Then Peggy became too ill to move. Her last attempt to paint ended when she threw her brush onto thefloor in frustration. Almost to the end, she believed they would find a cure for Parkinson's - the same"they" who might also one day find a cure for mortality.

In her last days, Peggy lost the power to swallow or eat and caught pneumonia. When I arrived home,she was desperately trying to cough, apparently drowning in her own lungs, weeping with pain. And as Iwatched her dying, I remembered the cost of Bill Clinton's latest adventure in the Middle East; in all, theUS government spent £70m in five minutes firing Cruise missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan.How much had it spent on investigating Parkinson's disease? How much, for that matter, had the Britishgovernment spent?

The day after she died - there was no glimmer of recognition or emotion, Peggy just stopped breathing - Icalled the Parkinson's Disease Society in London. Each year, they put up between a £1m and£1.5m on research. So did the British government. But last year, an official for the society told me,the Medical Research Council stopped funding neurological research: "no reason given." I called NewYork to talk to one of the top Parkinson's groups in the United States. Around £30m was spent bythe US government on neurological research (not all on Parkinson's), another £7m by privateorganisations, around £2.5m by the US Defence Department (for veterans) and pharmaceuticalcompanies around £27m. So we - the West - were spending less on Parkinson's research in a yearthan we spent in five minutes on weapons.

It was the kind of human folly Peggy would have understood. And at her flowered funeral, I decided topoint this out. I suggested to her friends who came to Barming church that we spent far too much timeaccepting cruel deaths, uncomplaining when money which might have cured cancer or Alzheimer's orParkinson's was spent on weapons or military adventures. "Why do we not rage against those who acceptthe shameful idea that sickness must be 'incurable', that our betters know what they are doing when theyprefer missiles to medicine?" I asked. "If resources had been better spent," I said, "Peggy would not havebeen in that coffin in front of the altar."

All this had an odd effect. You could have heard a flower petal drop when I was speaking. But theRector, a kindly, intelligent man, though evidently not from Church Militant, responded with a prayer,saying he would "commit this anger to God" - which, of course, entirely missed the point. Unless there isa Heavenly Post Office which redirects packages of anger to our presidents and prime ministers, therewasn't much point in bothering the Almighty. It was Peggy's friends I was addressing. Some of themhad told me of their own relatives who were dying of supposedly incurable diseases; yet I felt afterwardsthat I had failed to make them understand as surely as I had the Rector.

They talked about Peggy being "at rest" now that she was no longer suffering. Letters arrived that spokeof Peggy's "release" - as if my mother wanted to die. I heard from one lady about "God's will" - whichwould suggest, if taken to its logical conclusion, that God was a sadist. If the message of Peggy's lifewas optimism and joy for others, the manner of her death - courtesy of our society's inverted values - wastotally unnecessary. My father, an old-fashioned man, would have condemned my remarks in the church.My mother might have objected to their vehemence. But she would have wanted me to tell the truth.

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