“You have to do this” – in memory of Tazeen Ahmad

Over the last couple of years, since coming out of psychiatric hospital, I’ve been blessed with support from many wonderful people.

One is my friend Tazeen, whom I knew already when I saw her across the room at 10 Downing Street, while I was on day release from the hospital.

It was the only time I’ve ever been invited to Downing Street – by a charity we’d both supported.

I meant to leave her to mingle with the famous and powerful people in the room, but Tazeen spotted me and came over to say hi.

I told her that I had come directly from a mental hospital, and she laughed – but in a kindly way.

She told me a bit about her own past struggles, and stuck with me for the rest of the evening, losing all chance to mingle with the other amazing guests.

We both laughed a lot, because it’s refreshing when you can talk honestly to somebody without fear of judgement.

Over subsequent months, Tazeen frequently expressed astonishment that I lacked confidence in myself. I had amazing talent, she said – as a writer and speaker, but also as an artist. (I had shown her pictures I drew in my recovery.)

I felt grateful, as I always do when people say generous things like that. I always believed them to be sincere, but mistaken – because I simply didn’t think much of myself (massive understatement).

Tazeen made it clear that she was not just saying it. (She had many talents herself – and one was fierce encouragement.)

You are so talented!

Earlier this year, my friend was diagnosed with advanced cancer. This was devastating news for her many friends, the people she mentored and worked with – and of course infinitely worse for her family. Her sons were 14 and 12.

Over several months, knowing she hadn’t long to live, she drew us all together: people from her work in TV, from her training in therapy and coaching, and the parents of her sons’ school friends.

In the summer, she asked us to gather in her garden and say in front of her what we planned to say at her memorial. She called this her “premorial”.

It was an extraordinary day. I felt grateful all over again to have such a friend, and sorrier than ever that I was going to lose her.

Often when I visited Tazeen at home I found her very drowsy. But usually we talked for a while. One day, she said that I must sell my art, and put on an exhibition, before she died.

Then she asked me to make pictures of her with her sons, for them to remember her by. Gulp.

I did, and asked the friends I’d met at her premorial to help chip in to the cost of the printing and framing – so that the present was not just from me but from everyone.

F.T.A. and her sons

Soon after that, I got my first commission – for an oil painting, a landscape a metre wide. I was so pleased to tell Tazeen I had sold a painting.

Not long after her 48th birthday, Tazeen was taken into hospital again (it had happened before several times).

Her brother stayed with her constantly, and friends visited frequently, including some who travelled thousands of miles to do so.

Living nearby, I was able to get in every day. And going home after, I tried to make sense of what I had seen, as my friend gradually faded away, by drawing pictures.

Surrounded by friends
Surrounded by friends and family

I thought she might appreciate this, and sent a few to her brother to show her.

He liked them, and showed others too. I worried that this might invade the family’s privacy, but he reassured me it was welcome.

I was terribly sad when Tazeen died, but happy to have been with her in her last days. Last week was her funeral.

Afterwards, at her brother’s request, I took my drawings to Kenwood House, for the memorial. And I put them up in a room alongside works by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Rembrandt.

I had not managed to put on an exhibition during her life. But I managed it at her memorial. I hope she knows, and feels pleased.

Exhibit at Kenwood House
Exhibit at Kenwood House