I consider the monarchy

The Queen has died. It’s a weird thing as, for most of us, she’s just always been there, a constant fixture in our lives, her face on our money, on our postage stamps. I’ve never given an awful lot of thought about what it meant to have a Queen.

However, considering I never met her and that I have no connection with her or her family, I did find myself quite upset when we knew she was dying. When the news broadcast said the close family were rushing to her bedside, I did get a little teary but I realised that was because it brought back the morning that I got a call from the Care Home to tell me I should come to see mum. It reminded me of how I tried and failed to convince my brother to come there and then, and not leave it another couple of days. He ended up missing her by a few hours. As did, apparently, her youngest grandson.

My brother mentioned the grandson. I was about to say: just like you missed saying goodbye to mum, when my brother said, the prince should have gone earlier. I wondered if that was a sort of displaced emotion, because my brother should also have gone earlier. Anyway, I didn’t point that out to him, but kept my own counsel.

Sadly, many people I’ve known have died, which is to be expected at my age, but the Queen’s death did remind me particularly of mum’s death. I suppose we blank things out when they are too hard to remember, and when something happens that is reminiscent of the original trauma, it triggers the emotions that we couldn’t allow ourselves to feel at the time, or were too busy to feel, or that we didn’t want to remember

Look at how we’ve collectively blanked out those years of Covid. Clearing out the house in preparation to move, I found the diaries I’d written during the lockdowns. Even though it’s only a couple of years ago, I was actually shocked at how little I remember of the difficult reality of how it was. So, when a major event – and it is a historical event no matter what you think of the monarchy – happens, it resonates on a deep level as the Queen was a constant fixture in our lives.

I don’t think I’ll feel the same about Charles. He and I were born virtually a month apart, and although when I was a very little girl, I might have imagined marrying a prince, by the time I’d reached my teens it was quite clear to me that he wasn’t a boy I’d get on with. Being the same age, I’m never going to really take him seriously as my King. But I was fascinated and intensely curious to observe the rituals and pageantry of the country where I was born.

I’m now staying with friends, recovering from the trauma of moving out of mum’s house. They have an apartment in Spain and I can feel myself recuperating in the sunshine and warmth. But, even though none of us would describe ourselves as monarchists, the three of us sat together and watched the Queen’s funeral. And found it quite emotional.

Although I understand intellectually what it means to have a constitutional monarch, I’m still as confused as ever about why it should matter so much, why so many people should feel so emotionally connected. I’m still no further forward in working out what it actually meant psychologically to have a Queen reigning over us – or from now on, a King.

Mum’s favourite rose has hasn’t flowered.

There’s a rose bush in the garden that mum loved very much. It’s a tall rose, a sort of sugar pink in colour, and she could see it from her bedroom window when she was sitting up in bed. It’s an old rose but every summer it would flower profusely. ‘This old rose keeps on going,’ she would say. When she was in the care home, I’d cut a few blooms and take them into her.

This year, for the first time ever, it hasn’t flowered once. It can’t be the drought because the other roses have flowered. It still has green leaves, but no buds. Now I’m about to leave the house, and there’ll be no further connexion, it felt like the rose has stopped bothering to make the effort to flower. A bit like a reverse Beauty and the Beast. Initially, I felt sad. It seemed to signify the ending of an era. But now I feel Ok about it. Now I really feel I’m allowed to move on.

It’s not the only symbolic – or superstitious, if you prefer – indication that it’s the right time to leave. It’s an old adage that a robin in the garden is the spirit of someone who’s died. Actually, there’s always been a robin in the garden, I remember dad used to talk to one, but it’s also true that the last few years robins have nested close to the house in the guttering at the top of a drainpipe. It’s a safe, sheltered place to nest, out of the reach of predatory birds and prowling cats. Last year, as I was afraid their nest would be washed away after heavy rain, I covered the tempting gutter with a piece of mesh. This year, they built their nest on top of the mesh! So, they are very much resident in the garden.

And once, when I was on the phone in the living room, talking to someone about grief and death, I looked up and saw a robin had hopped right through the back of the house and into the living room. ‘Did it seem to be looking around, checking out how things were?’ asked my pal on the other end of the phone line.

‘Well, yes it did, rather,’ I had to admit. My friend was convinced: it was the spirit of one of my parents come to see me.

Then there are the feathers. Everyone knows that, if a white feather floats down beside you, that means you’ve had a visit from a departed soul. Several times now, I’ve found some of the most downy soft, pristine white feathers scattered all over the lawn.

So, whether or not other people take this seriously, it’s made me feel that although I’m leaving the house, I’m not abandoning it. It’s the right time to go and somehow, I’m receiving permission, receiving a Blessing, if you like. As much as my parents were happy here and I want to honour that, my work here is done.

Funnily enough, as I was typing this, the new owner knocked on the door to say hallo. We went out in the garden and I showed her some of things I’ve planted. Her mother has just died and we talked about how difficult it is to let go of things that once meant something to our parents. In fact, she admired a couple of pieces of furniture which I don’t want and said I’d be more than happy to leave behind. So, I do hope the new people will also be happy here.

What I’ve got to do is make sure I’m packed up and ready to leave! At the moment I’m surrounded by chaos! There’s a lot to do, but at least most of it is my own stuff. If I decide to throw it out, that’s my choice, I don’t have to burdened by guilt or some vague sense of responsibility to the past. And my current concern is: will everything I am keeping fit into the storage space that I’ve booked to use while I’m settling on the next phase of my life!

I visit the family farm.

A few days ago, I realised it was the third anniversary of mum’s funeral. Oddly, I don’t remember the date she died, but I do remember the date of the funeral. It’s the same for dad, as a matter of fact. Perhaps because funerals are booked and planned whereas death comes unexpectedly. Anyway, on that day I was in Cornwall and I’d set off to walk round the bay from Penzance to St Michael’s Mount.

This is a particularly iconic and mysterious place. I knew, had mum been alive, she would’ve been interested to know what I was doing. They’ve built a new path for walkers and cyclists and, while I was on that path, I was passed by an interesting form of transport. I suppose essentially, it was a rickshaw. One person sits behind and pedals a bike; two people sit on a bench seat in front and look about them. The first one I saw had two very elderly ladies as passengers. What a great idea. I thought Mum would’ve loved to have been transported up and down the seafront on something like that.

Mum was always proud of her Cornish heritage. She must have inherited that pride from her mother, who inherited it from her Cornish grandmother, Mary Rowe. That sense of ancestry has been passed on to me to the extent that, when I’m in Cornwall, I always feel I’m not simply a tourist but have some deeper connection with the land. Call it my matrilineal DNA; call it what you will.

I began my family history research because mum knew very little about her family. She was thrilled when I discovered the farm where Mary Rowe was born. When some friends on a visit to the area, rather cheekily drove down the farm lane and took photos, she was fascinated. But when she died, I put my research to one side. But I still had a yen to visit the farm, if I could work out how to do it. This summer, on my way down to a cat-sitting gig for some friends in the far west of Cornwall, I bit the bullet, and stopped off in Truro – which is a mere 30-minute bus ride from where Mary Rowe was born, just over 200 years ago.

The current landowner, a charming chap, agreed to show me round. When I got lost walking over the fields from the village, he courteously came and found me. When it started to pour with rain, he kindly invited me into his house, gave me a cup of tea and entertained me with interesting tales. It was a lovely place. There were fields planted with crops but around the group of buildings, which included a Georgian manor house, were trees, gardens and rewilded areas. The cottage where my ancestors lived (probably as tenant farmers) is still standing, although a lot of the farm buildings: the barn, the dairy, the piggery – have now been converted into rented accommodation.

Of course, I know that farm life was hard; it was physical labour from morning to night – so perhaps it’s not surprising that Mary Rowe and her younger sister, Johanna, went to London to seek their fortune.

But even so, I felt like I’d entered a sort of haven, outside of time. I’d thought so often about going there, that I couldn’t quite believe I’d actually made it. The whole visit seemed slightly unreal, as if I’d entered a dream, or a different dimension. The charming owner must have thought I was a little dippy, but he did kindly drive me back to the bus stop when I mentioned I had to leave as there was a bus due but the next one was in 2 and ½ hours! He probably thought I might get lost going back across the fields.

But the point of this post is to say that, although I was doing things that would’ve interested mum, I didn’t feel like I was doing them for her, or in her memory, I felt like I was doing them because I wanted to do them. And it occurred to me that I do feel lighter. It might be because I’ll soon be able to move on, but I no longer feel like I’m carrying a burden although what that burden was, I can’t exactly say.

St Michael’s Mount

We sell Mum and Dad’s house.

My parent’s house finally went on the market and sold the first day for a good price. Of course, there are many legal things to arrange and the sale may still fall through, but so far, so good.

I’ve been waiting for this for years, but in the end it happened so fast I was in shock. My brother hadn’t been in touch for ages, I’d had to phone him to get him to come and scatter mum’s ashes. Then, overnight, he changed from a lazy dormouse to being jet-propelled. I’d got used to waiting; I’d developed a coping mechanism which involved shutting out all expectations of change. First of all, when I was here with mum, wanting to leave here involved wishing she would die, which obviously I couldn’t allow myself to do. Then I was stuck here during the Covid lockdowns, when one just had to be philosophical. Plus, I had to wait for my brother to come and help me sort things out and, as I say, he took his time.

So, when he phoned and said he’d made some appointments with a few estate agents, I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t prepared though, for him to ring up the next Sunday and say, now we’ve decided on the agent, I’ve arranged for them to come and take photos this Friday! When I protested that I simply couldn’t get the place cleaned, tidied and decluttered by then, he replied that he and his partner were coming back in three days to help. It was great to have their help in cleaning and tidying the place. But the truth is, I could’ve done with this help before. However, it is as it is.

Anyway, the marketing photos got taken and the forms were signed. I needed a few days to do some housework – which I don’t tend to do unless I have to – after which I was going away for a week to Somerset, leaving the place empty for viewings. I left here at 10 am on the Saturday morning. On Monday morning, the agent rang and said they’d had an offer, for the sum that we wanted. That weekend, I’d actually been visiting my brother to see his new home. And that Monday, he was giving me a lift over to my second stop, which was Glastonbury. We accepted the offer, which was the price we wanted, and essentially sold the house standing in a car park!

Initially I was completely flustered. Luckily, I’d arranged to spend a few days in the wonderful Chalice Well Gardens. Some American friends were in town at the same time, and I was there to meet up with them. That of course was a lot of fun. But it was also a chance for me to spend time in the gardens and sit by the Well which, as so many times in the past, helped to clear my mind and regain my equilibrium.

I realised that, when there was no possibility of change, I’d mentally buried my hopes for freedom under a frozen lake. Suddenly, the ice was breaking and things were rising up out of the water. Like monsters! Terrifying! Then after a while I thought, well, it’s what I want isn’t it? I should be feeling excited and hopeful, not terrified and anxious.

I am still concerned about how long I’ll have to pack the place up. That was really the main cause of my initial panic because, although I do plan to leave here, I didn’t expect to be under any time pressure. Or put another way, I need to quickly firm up my own plans, when I’m still adjusting to the new reality.

I am quite sad, now this phase of my life is almost over. I want to leave, but I don’t want to rush away. Although this wasn’t our family home or the home where we grew up, it will be the last link with my parents. Once the place had been decluttered for the photos and looked like it used to look when my parents lived here and were still fit and healthy, my brother got quite sentimental. He remembered his kids playing in the garden with dad, or sitting chatting with mum in the sun lounge.

I was in Australia then, and have very few memories like that. My memories are mostly of when I came back when they were failing, with all mum’s disability aids everywhere – and the hard years of being a full-time carer, followed by my surgery – caused by mum falling on me – then of being alone here, and being very lonely, of mum’s death and the covid lockdowns. But when we sell up, it will be my last link to mum and dad.

At my age, I feel like I shouldn’t feel so bereft at losing that link. But as I sat by the Chalice Well, I came back to the same old refrain. I never felt loved by them, I never felt they were proud of me. Once again, I thought I need to love myself, I need to be proud of myself. It’s no good to keep harking back to a time which is long gone. Actually I now think that they did love me and they were proud of me, but for some reason, I never got the message.

Beautiful Chalice Well gardens in their summer finery
The magical Chalice Well

We scatter mum’s ashes.

We’ve completed the final ritual. It took nearly three years because by the time we’d decided what to do, the pandemic had already arrived. But when the lockdowns came, we still hadn’t decided what to do. Mum had always expressed an interest in having a green burial or internment, so we looked on the internet and found a few sites that weren’t far from where my brother and his children live. There was one in particular that was close to Glastonbury, a place I often visit – and that mum liked. My brother went to view them but felt they were all a bit bleak and lonesome. He ‘didn’t want to leave mum there’.

I remembered she’d mentioned a local bluebell wood that she and my father had discovered not long after they moved here. I asked around and discovered there are two bluebell woods in this area, both well-known. But bluebells flower in the late spring which, for the last two years, has been a time of lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Springtime 2021, at a time when single households were allowed to mingle, a friend took me to visit one of these woodland areas. The bluebells were out and they were lovely; a literal sea of blue running through the undergrowth and lit by sunlight filtering through the tree canopy above. There was the sound of birdsong and, from the surrounding fields, the gentle bleating of sheep with their new lambs. Brother and I decided it would be a good place to take mum.

This winter has been so mild that all the spring flowers are advanced. Ones that usually open in late spring are blossoming at the same time as ones that flower in early spring. I walked through a small local wood and, sure enough, the bluebells were beginning to open much earlier than usual. I hadn’t actually heard from Brother for some time, so I rang him and asked him to come as soon as he could.

Ashes are strange things; they are ash yet they do still seem to be ensouled in some way. When we got ready to leave the house, I had the strangest feeling that mum really didn’t want to leave home. So, having explained that she couldn’t stay there any longer as we wouldn’t be staying there much longer ourselves, I walked the ashes round the house so she could say goodbye. Then we set off. The weather was dry, so the woods weren’t as muddy as they sometimes are. But because of the bluebells, they were busy with other people viewing the flowers.

Brother wanted to go to the main part. I wanted to go to the less busy part. I’d camouflaged the box that held the ashes in a large shopping bag, but I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to do the scattering without anyone noticing. In the end, Brother was right as the main area wasn’t as crowded as I’d feared and later on, we did find a lovely area that was quite private. But by that time, we’d scattered her in the other part. The place we chose was less secluded and private, as it was near a bridle path, but that meant there was more going on, more people, dogs and horses going by – which I thought mum would like.

However, finding a nice place was the easy part. The scattering wasn’t as simple as we’d expected. In fact, it descended into farce which, I believe, isn’t that unusual. First of all, I hadn’t realised how well sealed the canister was. In the end brother managed to get the lid off by using brute force, releasing puffs of ash, which was a bit alarming. At first, we were respectful. I shook some out, brother shook some out. But a big lump stayed put, seemingly stuck in the container. We slapped it, banged it on the ground, against a tree trunk, cried out in frustration and then finally, whoosh! A huge lump of my mother’s ashes splodged out, but at least it splodged out over the bluebells.

I thought: Oh mum, a difficult woman to the end! But I do feel we’ve reached some sort of closure. This actually happened three weeks ago, after which I went to Paris for two weeks. Which was wonderful, and has helped me prepare mentally for the next huge step: selling the house.

The Japanese have a word for it.

You haven’t heard from me for a while. That’s because I’ve started to become more outward looking: I’m making friends locally and I’m looking forward to things opening up after Covid – although I for one will still be taking precautions when I venture forth. I’m also feeling less trapped by the house that belonged to my parents and not so overwhelmed by objects they used and loved.

Recently, I heard mention on the radio of the Japanese belief that inanimate objects absorb energy from the people who handle them. There’s a word to describe the aura that surrounds an object after it’s been repeatedly used or loved by someone. I wasn’t able to catch the actual word, but the concept exactly described what I’d been feeling: the things that belonged to my parents and my dearly beloved aunties were surrounded by a sort of force field which I couldn’t ignore.

I had wondered if I were being overly sentimental, overly attached to things, but now I think, no, I was just sensitive to the energies people I cared about had bestowed on these articles which had no actual value in themselves.

I’ve heard of belongings being thrown in a skip or into the rubbish after someone’s death, and that’s always seemed so sad to me, so lacking in respect for the person who’s died. It’s unlikely the dead will neither know nor care what happens to their possessions, but that’s how I feel. Perhaps the people who throw away these objects without seemingly a second thought, do it to save themselves from being overwhelmed by their sense of loss – or possibly their sense of guilt because they got rid of stuff used and loved by the dear departed one. Of course, sometimes people have no choice and have to clear things out quickly so, although I haven’t been happy about being in my parents’ old home during the time of Covid, I’ve had the luxury of time to sift through so many of their possessions. And with the passing of time, it’s become easier to let go of things. Perhaps the energy that I could feel surrounding the objects has dissipated.

Just before Xmas, my brother and my nephew finally came and finished emptying the loft. I’ve spent much of the winter sorting through this last pile of ‘stuff’. It’s a big pile. However, most of this stuff belonged to me. Shifting through it has been a very different experience to shifting through things that belonged to other people. I don’t need to feel guilty that I’m being disrespectful to a dear memory – and what I decide to keep (ticket stubs to Rolling Stones and Beatles concerts from the 1960s! My first attempt at a novel!), and what I throw away (angst-ridden adolescent poetry!) really is up to me.

When I think about how our lives are so full of meaning to ourselves yet when we die, as we’ll all do at some point, how little it will mean to most other people, I always feel a sort of melancholy. The individuals in my family weren’t celebrities; they weren’t famous, but that makes their memory so poignant and makes me want to acknowledge them. They bravely continued to live their anonymous everyday lives, struggling on when things went wrong, enjoying things when they could, not, on the whole, causing any harm.

Honouring the dead is what makes us human, isn’t it? Archeologically speaking, our ancestors are considered to be human when they give their dead a ritualised burial, leaving grave goods for use in another life, or perhaps to help them to be reborn. We can’t know what they actually believed, but we do know that they did not merely cast their dead aside. When we don’t know where our loved ones are buried, when they can’t be laid to rest in peace, still remains a dreadful idea for us. Contempt for the dead is considered a mark of a monster.

So, after these two years, I’m at last getting close to the feeling the Roman poet Catullus expressed when he wrote a poem at his brother’s graveside. He’d travelled a long way to perform the funeral rites, and at the end he says Ave Atque Vale – Hail and Farewell. I think I’m slowly approaching a time when I can honour the dead and know their memory will always be with me, but their possessions don’t have to be.

I gain a new perspective

In the last few weeks, quite a lot has happened. For better or worse, we’ve started to lessen Covid restrictions. Brother has been to stay twice and we’ve cleared out a lot of things from the house. With the opening up, I was able to have some guys from the charity shop come and take away a few pieces of furniture. Of course, clearing away one load of stuff only uncovers another pile that was packed away behind the first tranche, and which I now need to sort out. But even though the place is still pretty untidy and chaotic, it does feel better. I feel like I’ve finally got some space – which is great! I feel lighter and less like I’m suffocating under the weight of stuff that didn’t even belong to me. Now I can start sorting through the stuff that does belong to me and which has been stashed away in the garage for the last seven years! But at least I’ve made a start.

Also thanks to the relaxation of restrictions, about a month ago, I was able to spend 10 days in London staying in the house of friends who themselves were able to go off for a break. It was wonderful. I saw many friends and members of my family. I touched a part of my life that’s been closed off and that I’d really missed. But it was a very intense visit. Each day I saw a different set of people, and we talked about how things have been during this weird time of Covid. Some people have coped better than others; some had an easier ride than others, but lockdown has taken its toll on everyone…including me. But I’m beginning to adjust my perspective on how things have been.

I’ve been reading a book called Mysteries of the Dark Moon by Demeter George. In it she discusses is how certain things can develop in ways which correspond to the three phases of the moon: that’s to say, a phase of growth (new moon); a phase of fulfilment (full moon) and then a phase of withdrawal (dark moon).

When I read: ‘The dark phase of the cyclical process is where healing and renewal occur.’ (p 25) it immediately struck a chord with me. As I’ve said before, since mum died, I’ve felt, metaphorically speaking, as if I were walking through a dark, barren abyss. It was an obstacle I couldn’t cross except by descending into it. In fact, it felt like I did literally fall into it when I broke my arm! Lately though, I’ve been feeling that this barren place isn’t quite so barren, or quite so dark. And I’ve been thinking I must be coming out the other side.

I really like the idea that a dark place is not necessarily a place of inertia but can also be a place of growth and transformation. Just like a seed buried deep in the earth, somehow grows into a beautiful plant; or a tiny embryo in the womb, somehow develops into the complexity of a human being, a time of ‘descent’, of sinking deep into ourselves, can be a time of renewal.

We can change old patterns of thought that have outlived their usefulness or have held us back. Letting go of them might be painful; it could well be an experience we’d prefer not to undergo. But if we do succeed in it, we may release energy which will change our ways of thinking and being and help us create something new.

Lockdown meant I’ve had to sit with my feelings. I didn’t do this intentionally. If I’d had the wonderful distractions of normal life, I would’ve been busy doing this and that, travelling, visiting: all the things I’ve always done and enjoyed. Basically, I’d have been ‘getting on with my life’ but that would’ve involved repeating the same inner patterns of behaviour that I’ve always had. This time of Covid, which for me has been a time of solitude and apparent standstill, may yet turn out to have been a time of incubation, leading to positive change.

At the beginning of the lockdown, my plans for the future were thrown into disarray. I decided the only way to cope would be to feel I’d achieved something meaningful during this enforced period of standstill. Apart from the boring yet heart-breaking clearing out of the house, I’ve been working on several projects. Now I’m thinking that there may have been some other unexpected benefits as well.

I don’t want to speak too soon. I still have to climb out of that metaphorical abyss. But when I do, I should, hopefully, be on the other side of it!

I miss my parents

I haven’t written a blog for a long time, and I think that’s a positive thing. I started it when I was isolated and struggling as my mother’s full-time carer. After mum’s death, I continued to write it as a way to understand my unexpectedly intense grief.

But things are changing. I’ve started doing things I wasn’t able to do before, not just physically because I was post-surgery or had broken my arm, but emotionally. And a few weeks ago I started the major task of emptying and cleaning the kitchen. This was mum’s domain and even though it’s several years since she actually cooked anything, it still felt like the things in it were part of her, just as dad’s tools in the garage are part of him.

One morning, though, I woke up and found I had the energy to begin clearing out the kitchen cupboards. I had to decide what I wanted to keep, at least in the short term, and what in all honesty I shall never use, which is quite a lot. I told myself: what came out can’t go back in unless you’re going to keep it. So, I’ve been ferrying stuff out to the back room, where it’s all piled up waiting to be packed up prior to being given away or taken away or whatever when the current Covid restrictions are lifted. At one point, I had so much piled up in the hall that I couldn’t get out of the front door, but even though the place was a mess, it was a mess because I was in the process of getting rid of stuff.

The kitchen is the last room in the house to be emptied of my parents’ possessions, though of course there are some things that I will be keeping. There’s still plenty to do, and I shall certainly need to have a further cull, but for now, everything that’s still here is here by my choice. There remains the furniture to sort out. But I can only go one step at a time. However, I’ve realised, it wasn’t just the weight of old baggage in the literal sense that was weighing me down. With all the lifting and moving, the stagnant air is shifting and so finally is my stagnant emotional state.

I said before, I’m beginning to see my parents as the individuals they were, without all the resentment and hurt, cross words and misunderstandings that built up between us. Things had improved the last few years, but the habits of behaviour were psychologically set. The script had been written, as they say. I see now, I could’ve enjoyed spending time with them but instead I was closed against them. I helped them because I thought that was dutiful. Because I couldn’t have lived with myself if I didn’t. But in my deep heart, I never really forgave them for how they behaved towards me when I was younger. You can unwind the metaphysical barbed wire and brambles that have protected you in the past but inevitably it will have left psychological scars.

It’s like taking off a sticking plaster and finding the wound has stopped bleeding, though it’s not yet fully healed. Or it’s healed to the extent it can be exposed to the air. What I’m coming to realise is that, in spite of everything, I did love them. And now they’re gone it’s too late to express it.

I don’t think I would ever have been able to tell them honestly how I felt but, I keep thinking, if I’d better understood who they were, then I’d have been more understanding of their behaviour. But all the time, I was nursing a seething ball of resentment and anger, caused by very real hurt that they caused me in the past and that I felt I had to defend myself against at all times.

Now I feel less defended. They were only the people they were, after all. They couldn’t be any other way. So now, when I feel I could be more emotionally open, it’s too late. I regret I was unable to reach this place while they were still alive. It’s sad and it’s also bitter sweet. Because paradoxically, if I hadn’t been stuck here in their old house during the Covid lockdown I would probably never have gone so deep into my feelings; would never have unpicked those old habits of thought. I’d never have been able to admit to myself that I did really love them, I would’ve liked to have made things all right between us and I do miss them.

I think about guilt and regret

I’ve been thinking about the difference between guilt and regret. I just read a book on grief in which the author, a psychotherapist, speaks of a client who’s just lost a beloved parent. The author says she and her client cried together for all the daughters who did their best – and it wasn’t good enough. To some extent, that’s inevitable. When people are very old, they’re going to die and you can’t change that. But it’s hard not to wonder whether you could have done better during the time before they died.

Last year I spent several months walking round a pile of shoe boxes full of old black and white photos that were piled up by the coffee table in the living room. They still are, as a matter of fact. Since New Year, I’ve begun to sort them out. I’ve got as far as sorting the snaps into mum’s family, dad’s family, our nuclear family and unknowns. Now, I’ve started to fix the photos in some old-style photo albums that probably belonged originally to my aunts. I’ve done Mum when she was young; Dad when he was young; Mum and Dad when they were newly courting or newly wed.

In certain cultures, people don’t like having their photo taken: they say it steals their soul, and on some level, I can see why they believe that because photographs do seem to still retain some substance of the person. That’s why it’s so hard to throw them away, even when I don’t know who the people are.

I look at photos of me as a little girl. It’s not me as I am now but in some sense, it is me. Clearly, I’m grown up, I no longer look like that, but internally there’s part of me that’s still that same little kid.

In their early photos, both my parents look so young and so hopeful. And presumably, inside, they never stopped being those people. I feel sad that I never knew those internal aspects of my parents. They must have been there but, for whatever reason, were covered up.

I look back to the time near the end of their lives when I spent more time with them than I had since childhood. I don’t think, practically, I could have done more than I did to help them, but perhaps I could have been more understanding, even kinder. I could’ve tried to meet and get to know those internal people. Thinking about it, I see there were clues. I saw flashes of mum as a young, adventurous girl; dad as a charmer, a bit of a lad.

Most people have to compromise, have to come to terms with the fact that life Isn’t going to turn out how they’d hoped it would. Perhaps they become bitter and battered, or feel to some extent short-changed by life. If I’d understood when I was growing up, that many of my parents’ actions stemmed from that original hope which had perhaps turned to disappointment or resentment, wouldn’t that have made a difference?  Mum said to me once: your father was very proud of you, you do know that don’t you? And I had to tell her, no I didn’t know. He never showed it. Had I known, that would have made a huge difference to me. His inability to express that pride, for whatever reason, is something lost that can never be replaced.

So, I think it’s not so much guilt that I feel but regret that things could’ve been different in the past but they weren’t. Because, in the end, they both made choices to behave as they did. I suppose that’s also true.

As far as the more recent past goes, being stuck here during Lockdown has given me an insight into much of Mum’s behaviour. I’ve understood more about the ploys she used to keep herself going. But I didn’t understand that they were ploys. I thought they were a denial of real life. Now I see that the way she spent the day looking forward to watching a TV programme that evening was her way of coping with a life that was becoming increasingly constricted and limited.

There’s other stuff, about which, in retrospect, I could’ve been more empathetic. It wouldn’t have made any difference in the long run but I would’ve better understood Mum’s behaviour and not got so irritated or perhaps been able to facilitate stuff. I feel bad thinking of how she must’ve felt having to move into the Care Home but I really couldn’t have carried on as her f/t carer. I wish things could’ve been different but, they weren’t. However, I don’t need to feel guilty about that. I can only regret that it was the case. It’s a sorrowful feeling, yes. But it’s a feeling from which you can move on. You can only do what you can do, after all.

And finally, XinNian KuaiLe to everyone. Hope the Chinese Year of the Ox will be an auspicious year for us all!

I think about 2020

At the beginning of last year, I had just fallen into the abyss. I was feeling my way through the darkness of unexpected grief, plus dealing with the physical pain and incapacity of having a badly broken upper arm. So, I was already in a sort of lockdown before the Covid nightmare arrived.

But I’ve been lucky this year compared to many. One thing I’ve been thankful for is that I didn’t have to worry about mum. Imagine if she’d been stuck in a Care Home with no visitors allowed. In many places the old people were forced to remain alone in their rooms, which would’ve driven mum crazy. Also visitors were banned; all people could do was wave at each other through a window. Mum would have understood the principle, but forgotten it again soon after and wondered why no one had come to see her.

So many people died without their loved ones being able to comfort them, to hold their hands or say goodbye. I know from my cousin’s experience, how heart rending that was for her – and for so many others. And how it added another layer of distress to what was already a shocking and unexpected death. There were limits on how many people could attend a funeral – as well as how many people could attend what should’ve been more joyful rites of passage such as weddings and major birthdays. Which is why it made so little sense to relax our vigilance for Xmas – the repercussions of which we in the UK are now having to face as yet another lock-down begins.

So many lives were touched by tragedy – which is why I can’t understand those people who deny the existence of the virus! Are they so lucky – or so cut-off – that they don’t know anyone who’s died? or know just how sick Covid can make you? and how badly it can affect some people’s health long after they’ve ‘recovered’?

2020 brought out the best and the worst in people. Some people have thought about others, have tried to build a sense of community. Neighbours offered to help me with shopping and deliveries; friends and family phoned and emailed. However, there were others who obviously didn’t give a toss about anyone else. And you can’t categorise who they are. I’ve seen old people refusing to wear masks on the bus, indulging in risky and selfish behaviour. And young people being thoughtful and considerate.

Like many, I really missed personal contact with friends and family. I recently had a Zoom call with a pal in Australia and realised he was the first person I’d spoken to in months who was outside my normal circle. I think of myself as an introverted book-worm but the truth is, I’ve always thrived on conversation and the exchange of ideas. I love telling funny stories, discussing politic, personal concerns – and books, of course! This year, I’ve had to rely on telephone calls, emails – and walks with the handful of like-minded people I know around here. But I do have the sea, only 15 minutes walk away and a great solace for the soul!

This is the longest I’ve stayed in one place for years. So, as well as missing my friends, I’ve missed travelling about. I’ve missed visits to museums and galleries, theatres, cinemas and restaurants. But, what I did instead? I cooked and gardened. I studied Italian, did a couple of MOOCs, watched some streamed theatre. And rediscovered the joys of creative writing. Not with the idea of publishing anything – but because it does transport me to another world.

Being a full-time carer didn’t leave me any time or energy to be creative. After that, I was recovering from the surgery and then dealing with mum’s death – not to mention breaking my arm at the end of 2019! All this took up all my mental and physical energy. Being isolated and locked-down has turned out to be a way for me to reconnect with my creative impulse – which I would say is a good thing.

So, although it hasn’t been easy, this year has given me a lot of space to recover, to mull over things. I’m very aware that not everyone has had that luxury. I don’t have to try to work from home while doing childcare. I have a garden. But being forced to stay in one place without my normal displacement activities has allowed a lot of stuff to come to the surface. In fact, I can see the barren abyss where I found myself at the beginning of 2020, is changing. Green shoots have started to appear from where they were buried under the ground.

My dad’s family, some people might call them Cockneys, always speak of ‘Old Year’s Night’ rather than ‘New Year’s Eve’. And that’s how I felt this year. I told my cousin I was going to sit up to midnight not to see 2021 IN, but to see 2020 OUT! Make sure it’s really gone. And when I thought: 2021 has got to be better than 2020, I knew I was echoing the thoughts of everyone else in the whole wide world! I’m looking forward to having the vaccine, to being able to see my dear friends and family, to be able to travel – or at least, to be able to make plans to travel – or just to sit in a café and have a cup of coffee!

Mind you, I haven’t even started to consider what’s going to happen with Bloody Brexit! But in the meantime, best wishes to everyone for good health and abundance in 2021!