“I love trees. They are so solid. They give me strength and support. There they stand, surviving for years and years and years – roots going deep down, right to the centre of the earth… What kind of tree would I be, I wonder? I know. An oak tree. The strength of it. The power.”
SIX MONTHS AGO, I sat down next to Rosa Peterson and we started to write a play together. A short piece – just fifteen minutes long – to be performed, alongside two others written in the same way – at West Yorkshire Playhouse’s ‘Every Third Minute’ Festival. The festival (brainchild of the formidable Nicky Taylor), was so-named, because every three minutes in the UK, somebody gets diagnosed with dementia, and was a groundbreaking theatrical investigation into, and celebration of, people’s lived experiences of dementia. More than that. Their creativity and resilience. Each person’s story: unique and special. Life after such a diagnosis. What can that be like?
Well, surprising and strange and different, reports Rosa, who spent three months sharing with me her own particular story. She has lived with dementia for the past three years. Her life – both prior to her diagnosis, and after – has thrown up many challenges. Indeed, they come on a daily basis. The lows can knock her down into a dark place. But what I didn’t expect, when I first began to write with her, was her wit, her strength of mind, her charm. And her wild and wonderful imagination.
Certainly we talked about the bad times: the hallucinations that come at night; the strange visual tricks her mind plays upon her – making the simple act of walking down the street, or crossing a threshold, sometimes difficult, even frightening; the disorientation and memory loss; the flashes of frustration and the real core of anger at her situation.
But, just as powerful, was the clear eyed wonder that Rosa takes, in the simple, natural joys of the world around her. She is someone who has never written a word in her life. Yet with a little gentle coaxing from me, the poetry soon began to flow. And she taught me to see with fresh eyes, just what beauty there is, in everyday life. How we must never take that for granted. Not for a second.
Images – of clouds, of trees, of waves, of horses – came unbidden to her mind. And very soon, a play began to emerge, shaped and moulded by me, but the words – entirely Rosa’s own.
We called it ‘A Horse Called Freedom’, and a woman called Ruth was its central narrator.
Often, it is the things that happen early in our lives – in childhood, or adolescence – that imprint themselves most strongly in our imagination. And if the memory is good, then we can return to it in our minds: catch it, like a talisman, to help us through the more complex pathways of adulthood.
So it was for Rosa. “When I was about fourteen,” she told me, “I used to go riding. I loved those horses. They said I was a natural. Sometimes we went bareback, too. No saddle, nothing. We just took them to the field and climbed on. What a lovely feeling it was. The freedom of it. Being out in the open, with the air on your face, the wind in your hair – just you and the horse beneath you, and nothing else mattered. Nothing.”
Rosa walks with a stick, after surviving a stroke fifteen years ago. These days, she has the vicissitudes of vascular dementia to deal with, too. So it’s not hard to see how magical this remembered feeling of freedom – the reality of the horses, with their power and animal vitality – remains in her mind. Better than that – her favourite horse, Jet, “black and fierce and strong”, once set off like thunder, with her still on his back, clinging on for dear life. “It was so thrilling,” she remembers, “galloping away like that!”
In the final scene of the play, after Ruth has described the predicaments she faces in her ordinary daily life, the struggles, the barriers and the disappointments, it is – appropriately enough – Jet himself who takes centre stage. He carries his rider Ruth off through the woods, faster and faster, till he sprouts wings, as wide and feathered and beautiful, as any mythical Pegasus, and flies high above the clouds, deep into the vault of the sky, into the wide blue yonder. To freedom.
And now, although the play is finished, and our weekly scribblings have come to a halt (like the runaway horse, back home in its field), I am still held in thrall to the power of Rosa’s imagination – her courage and her indomitable strength. She is an oak tree, indeed. And her wise words – and wicked laugh – resound loud in my mind and in my heart.
“It’s cool and clear
In the deepest night
There’s a handful of stars
Glittering – bright
Although they are really
So far away
If I reach, I can touch them
And here’s what they say.
It’s a message of hope
They are shining on me
‘Hang on’, they are saying
‘Soon you’ll be free.’
‘A Horse Called Freedom’ was first performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre, on March 9th, 2018, alongside ‘I See Land Ahead’ by Bob Fulcher and Dominic Gately, and ‘Hamaari Yaadain/Our Memories’ by Hamari Yaadain Memory Cafe and Ming Ho, as part of the THREE trilogy of plays in the ‘Every Third Minute Festival’, Festival Director Nicky Taylor.