Last week we saw the passing of my cousin Tessie Fanning. Tessie sadly succumbed to covid in the Royal Free. After her passing we held an on line wake. I didn't really know too much of the story of Tessie's early years. Tessie was born with Downs syndrome a few months after my parents had me. She was the ninth of my mothers brother Jimmy and his wife Josie's children. Almost immediately the doctors identified that there was something different about Tessie and by the time Jimmy arrived a Downs diagnosis had been arrived at.
One of her elder brothers told how initially my Uncle Jimmy was so upset that he couldn't even look at Tessie, not able to deal with the news. The story goes that he was sent to check on her by Aunty Josie. When he entered the room, she gave him the biggest smile and his heart melted. After that he had a special bond with Tessie. I've got to confess that when we were kids, I didn't really know what to make of Tessie. I was more interested in playing football with her brother Greg who was a year older than me and who was at my school. In truth, I felt a bit jealous of Tessie when I was very small. She was allowed to get away with being naughty. At Church she would invade the alter to say hello to the priest. She would shout out to her brothers when they were alter servers. My Mum and Dad would, rather patronisingly, say "Oh Tessie is the happiest of the lot of us". In some ways it was true. When Tessie was born there were few serious efforts to integrate Downs children into mainstream education or even give them any sort of education. It was suggested to Jimmy and Josie that 'she'd be happier in a home' when she was born. As they had nine children already, I can only salute them for not giving in to the pressure.
Everything Tessie did was 'special'. She went to a 'Special school'. She had 'special' friends. I got a better insight into what Tessie was about when I was nine, I went to Lourdes with my Dad for a holiday, as we did every year. He made friends with a couple who had an adult son with Downs syndrome. I was confused. I was told that he was 25 but had a mental age of seven (a concept I couldn't get my head around). I was told to play with him and keep him amused. His name was Stephen and he was a really good laugh. He liked football and collected various sorts of cards such as football and car cards that were popular at the time. I was told he was 'quite high achieving' for a Downs person, a concept I didn't get at all. He could walk around, make decisions, knew what he wanted and was 'well behaved'. As we approached bars, that was always the question 'Is he well behaved?'. He was and we had a great time. I couldn't get my head around the fact that he was both and adult and younger than me. After we got back I discussed this with my Dad. He told me that because Tessie was more naughty, it was harder for her parents to take her to such places. I realised that just because someone had Downs syndrome, they were just as individual as anyone else. It was an important lesson. I think Stephen helped me appreciate that Tessie was just different and different isn't such a bad thing, is it?
Tessie was always at family events. When she became a teenager, she learned a very important talent. She learned to swear. If someone annoyed her she'd tell them to F... Off in no uncertain terms. As was the way for our family back then, I'd spend time hanging around at Gregs house and he'd spend time at mine. We'd play board games at his place. If Tessie was around she played, we'd play things like Snakes and Ladders, which were games of chance and Tessie loved them. We'd often cheat so she'd win, which she'd get most excited about. If she lost, she'd accuse the winner of cheating. Greg would mercilessly wind her up, referring to her as Albert, which she hated, but she'd give as good as she got.
As Jimmy and Josie got older, it became clear that she'd need to move to a more suitable environment. She was housed at a hostel with other Downs adults. Tessie had her own mind. Some of the staff loved her and some thought she was a troublemaker. She lead a full life, attending all manner of classes and events. She represented Barnet at The Special Olympics in Sheffield. She liked being around people and the hostel meant she had friends. She was actively involved in many of the events that Barnet hosted for people with special needs. A couple of times I'd turn up at the Town Hall and bump into Tessie who was part of a delegation meeting some visiting dignitary.
When Jimmy and Josie passed away, Tessie was lucky to have nine brothers and sisters to care for her. They made sure she attended all family events and was made a fuss of. They also kept an eye on her care. One of Tessie's brothers, Jim Junior was a Catholic Priest. Jim was a great friend of mine and a guest blogger here. As regular readers of this blog will know, I got involved with a charity called HCPT at the turn of the Century. The organisation takes people with need of assistance to Lourdes in France staying at a purpose built hostel in Bartres. When my mum had a stroke in 2001, I would take her every year. This gave my family the chance to get repairs and maintenance done to her flat, without disturbing her. She loved going and I loved spending time with her. When my Mum died in 2008, Jim junior suggested that I take Tessie instead. I was delighted at the idea. Tessie was a good laugh and I knew she'd enjoy the break from the routine. I'd only really seen Tessie at family events since she'd moved from the family house and I thought it would be good to catch up.
What I found was the Tessie was as much of a handful as ever. She knew what she wanted and what she didn't want. When we picked her up, she told me that I was her favourite cousin. She told everyone something similar. But we bonded. She'd throw a strop if I didn't sit at her table at dinner, push her wheel chair or get her a cup of tea. Often she'd be throwing a strop and I'd just walk up and say "Tessie let's have a cup of tea and a biscuit" and she'd smile and say "alright".
Her party piece was singing "A bicycle made for two". Sometimes I'd tease her and get told to "F... off", but two minutes later she'd be smiling again.
We took Tessie up to Gavarnie, which is near the Spanish border. There were horses for hire. Tessie said that she'd like to ride one. Everyone was terrified, but I figured that if she wanted to, we'd make it happen. She wasn't small and getting her on the horse was a challenge, but we did it. She absolutely loved it. I took pictures on my iPad and Tessie would tell everyone 'Thats me on a horse' showing them the picture. Most days we'd nip to the bar. If I wasn't on driving duties I'd have a beer. Tessie would have an Orangina or a hot chocolate depending on her mood. She'd tease me that I was drunk, especially after I once drank a Formidable, which is a litre glass of beer. For two days she'd go around saying "my cousin is DRUNK", which gave everyone a good laugh. I only shut her up by telling her that if I was drunk, I couldn't push her wheelchair and one of the ladies would have to (Tessie didn't like ladies pushing the chair).
Tessie had a great time and it was agreed that next time she came, her eldest sister Rita would accompany her as well. I didn't really know Rita properly. By the time I was a teenager, she had left home and has grown up children. I assumed that with Rita around, Tessie would be a bit less naughty, but she was quite happy to give Rita the run around. But we all had a fantastic time.
My fondest memory of Tessie was closer to home. She lived in Friern Barnet and back in 2012, we had a massive campaign to Save Friern Barnet Library. On the 14th December, there was a party to celebrate the official success of the campaign. Occupy had taken over the library and my band, The False Dots headlined the party celebrating the end of the Occupation. I asked Tessie to come down with her younger sister Joanna. A friend video'd the hastily arranged set that the band played. You can see Tessie boogieing into the night. As this line up of the band hadn't played together before and had a single rehearsal, it wasn't the most together set, but it was a great night and that didn't matter. It was great to see Tessie having a ball. We made a fuss of her. Everyone knew her.
Tessie would come away with us every year, until the early onset of dementia made this impossible. What was tragic for me was that as covid brought the curtain down, I couldn't get around to see her. Last week, we learned that she had Covid. It really was only a matter of time. She passed away last Thursday.
We had a hastily arranged Zoom wake in the evening and exchanged all manner of memories. I owe Tessie a lot. Whatever she was or wasn't, she taught me what humanity really is. Her brother Jim told me story that really put it in perspective. After her Mum died (her Dad had died a few years before), the family had to meet to decide what to do with the Estate. Jim said there had been a debate as to whether it would be appropriate for Tessie to attend, as it was to discuss finances and other arrangements. As is the way with our Irish gene's, Fannings have strong opinions and feisty natures and there were several disagreements about details. Jim said that as people started to get hot under the collar, Tessie suddenly announced "STOP IT MUM WOULDN'T LIKE YOU ARGUING". Everyone instantly realised that Tessie had spoken a truth that had escaped the rest of them. That was Tessie, she took no bullshit and despite whatever constraints she had, she ensured she said her piece. I will miss her. When the tears have dried, I will always remember Tessie being there for the best of times. Dancing to the Dots, smiling and being mischievous.
Tessie Fanning RIP