I consider the last 12 months

It’s the autumn equinox – at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. Last year I was on my retreat at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury. I remember the time because they had dressed the well for Mabon, the old autumn festival, and it looked very lovely.

I spent those days thinking about mum; and wondering why, considering our spikey relationship, I felt so much grief. I came to the conclusion that the grief belonged to my inner child who had never felt loved enough, never felt good enough – and now never would. I realised I’d have to learn to parent myself; to encourage my own inner child myself. What I didn’t realise was what kind of year lay ahead – or how much more time I was about to spend on my own, with my own thoughts: on permanent retreat, as it were.

Within 3 months I had broken my arm, and that ushered in 3 difficult months. And then, as the initial pain and discomfort from my injury began to lessen, we went into lockdown for Covid. That was six months ago and since then, all of us have been affected to some degree or another. Now, although it’s hard to believe, the wheel of the year has turned and we are back to the equinox once again. And it’s anyone’s guess what lies ahead in the next 12 months.

On the plus side, I feel much stronger physically. My arm, while not perfect, is much improved – mainly because I’ve been doing all those boring exercises three times a day as I was told to do -and which I wouldn’t have done so diligently if it weren’t for the restrictions linked to Covid. I also feel stronger emotionally.

This time last year I saw that I’d need to cross the abyss of grief and mourning that lay between me and ‘the future’. Then I literally fell into that abyss! Symbolically, over the last few months I have been slowly walking towards the place I could see in the distance, where the stony barren landscape rose up towards the sunlight. I’m not there yet, but I feel like I’m much closer and will arrive there. In fact, while writing this, I’ve realised that, for some time now over the summer, I’ve begun to feel much more positive, much more hopeful.

I went to London recently. I saw some dear friends, had some decent conversations, visited a museum and an art gallery – and managed to visit my dentist which isn’t easy at this time of Covid! I felt energised, as if my life blood was flowing again. Now I’m back on the south coast, keeping my fingers crossed that I’ve managed to remain healthy during my trips on public transport – for the sake of the people I spent time with, as much as for myself.

12 months ago, I knew I wouldn’t be able to advance into the future until I had “crossed the abyss”. Now, ironically, I can’t make any plans anyway. It’s impossible to know what’s going to happen in the short term – and what constraints there will be on day-to-day life in the future. What the ‘new normal’ will look like when it arrives. Like everybody else, I have to make the best of things. And, as I remind myself, things could be a lot worse.

But, I’ve had plenty of time to think; to assess and analyse the past. I’ve been ‘reframing my own story’ as one of my friends described it. I’m sure this wouldn’t have happened in quite the same way had I been distracted by what we thought of as ‘normal life’.

Do I feel like I’ll emerge from the underworld having found a treasure? As far as that goes, only time will tell.  I’ve been too busy maintaining my mental balance as well as staying healthy to wonder. Paradoxically, although my life has become very isolated and closed in, the Covid restrictions do preoccupy me. Even simple things which would previously have been done without a second thought now take a great deal of planning. Plus, there is the ever-present stress: Have I got a cough? A temperature? Have I lost my sense of smell?

I think it was Carl Jung who said sometimes, day-to-day concerns keep our everyday minds occupied and allow our inner workings to gestate and develop in their own time. Having to deal with daily life stops us opening the oven too often and spoiling the cake, as it were.

For now, much as I would love to return to the Chalice Well this year, I have to count my blessings and cultivate my own garden. The garden which I have inherited from mum.

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The Chalice Well last year dressed for the Equinox.

I am overwhelmed by stories.

I couldn’t work out why it’s taking me so long to sort through everything in this small house. Then I realised: I’m overwhelmed by stories. A few years ago, I went to visit the sister of one of my friends after their mother had died. The sister was still living in their family home and she said: everything here has its own story. I got the impression this was a positive thing for her, that it made her feel grounded, anchored in the house.

It’s true, that’s how I feel when I look at my own possessions. I remember when I bought that jug or read that book. Or how I discovered that treasure in a charity shop. I enjoy the fact these objects have a resonance – a sort of animism that gives them an added dimension. But, at the moment, my task is to clear out the things that belonged to my parents. And this is hard because I’m about to throw out things that I know meant a lot to them.

For instance: my mother was very proud that she went by herself to see the exhibition of the Chinese terracotta army which was held in London during the 1980s. I know she thought the warriors were marvellous. So, when I found a set of postcards from this exhibition, I knew they would’ve had special significance for mum. And so, although they aren’t particularly special postcards, I simply can’t throw them away.

For a time, mum studied Spanish. She actually gained an O level – for which she was justifiably proud. In the loft, my brother found all her grammar books and her old good quality Langenscheidt dictionary. When I thought I’d be going to Spain in March (before Covid 19 changed our lives) I used her books to revise my own Spanish. Now I can’t let them go!

And there are other books. Her school prizes, battered, not worth anything. I doubt if even a charity would take them. But her name is inscribed inside. There’s the Pitman’s Shorthand Dictionary from 1935. She earned her living as a shorthand-typist, so this must have been important to her – and she did keep it all her life, after all. Then there’s a miniature, leather-bound hymnal and prayer book. A woman who employed my grandmother as a cook, gave this to mum and told her that Queen Victoria had exactly the same tiny artifacts. Mum mentioned this often, and they were obviously some of her most prized possessions during her childhood. We thought they had been lost, but they had been up in the loft. I don’t care whether or not Queen Victoria had a similar set – but how can I throw out something that mum truly prized?

And then there’s all the kitchenware. I use the kitchen and will probably keep some of it, but I don’t need all of it. Mum was proud of her cooking: if I throw out her plates, her pots and pans it seems like I’d be throwing her out as well. And this is not to even begin to mention my dad’s tools. They really were his most prized possessions. They might even be worth some small amount of money. But the money I’d get wouldn’t really compensate for the sense of loss I’d feel if I sold them.

None of it is really worth anything; its only value is sentimental. So how can I keep it all? Where can I keep it? And yet – how can I throw it all away? Maybe my brother has the right approach: don’t think twice, just go through it all like a whirlwind, then take it to the tip or a charity shop.

For me, it’s not so simple. Because these stories aren’t bad things; they are good things. But on a practical level, I really can’t physically keep all of it. Unlike my friend’s sister, this house is not my home. I may have lived here for nearly 6 years but it is, and has always been, a way-station, where I find myself out of necessity and from where I plan to move on, when I can. So, I don’t want to be weighed down by ‘stuff’.  But my parents’ possessions don’t feel like they’re just ‘stuff’. Getting rid of it makes me feel like I’m having to bury my parents all over again.

 

I think about mother love

After my last post, I made several attempts to write about how I am finally moving on from mum’s death but, after a couple of paragraphs, I’d lose interest and abandon them. So, I came to the conclusion that I needed to think a bit more about what I’d written last time. That I had lost something I’d been looking for – at the very moment that I found it.

For years, I’d heard people speaking of how fond they were of their mothers and I didn’t know what they were talking about. But actually, I realised I’d been looking for that feeling all my life and secretly wondering how it would be to feel it.

As I’ve already said, I was surprised at how upset I was after mum died. Since then, I’ve come to think that part of me would always be the little girl who was never loved enough; who was never quite good enough – because she exhibited a mind of her own rather than being a clone of her mother! Now I can see that I was loved. But the sad truth is that I never felt loved. I never believed I was loved, perhaps I couldn’t allow myself to be loved. Because my mother couldn’t be trusted. You never really knew where you were with her. That’s to say, her love, which I now think was genuine, was not unconditional.

As an adult, it was something I’d learnt to live with. But, as a child, it must have been very confusing. If you didn’t conform to what was required, you’d be ‘out’. If you did conform, of course, you’d be ‘in’. But this meant I became very wary. Even when I was ‘in’, I was perpetually expecting a trick – a risk of being ‘out’.

What saved me was my mother’s sisters, my aunties, who did adore me unconditionally! And of course, I adored them all back. I remember a conversation I had with them. At the time, I was in my 30s so felt I could speak to them as an equal adult. I said, ‘mum is always so rude to me!’ They burst out laughing. ‘Don’t worry, she speaks to everyone like that!’ And now I remember one of my aunts speaking to my mother, telling her off. ‘You’re nice to little children. You should be nicer to adults!’

Recently, my government, in a bizarre turn of phrase said it would ‘put its arms around us’ to help with the post-Covid economy. They’ve also used that phrase viz a viz Care Homes – (and we know just how well their policies protected Care-Home residents.) Anyway, hearing this phrase produced a sudden, fierce reaction from me: ‘Don’t put your arms around me, you horrible, dishonest, lying government! I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you – which is no distance at all.’ But I wonder whether my intense reaction to what is, after all, just another meaningless soundbite from a shambolic government, was triggered by some kind of emotional memory from my childhood: a resistance to accept protection from untrustworthy sources. Because I could never rely on my mother for emotional support. When she did try to be loving and affectionate, I would shy away like a startled wild creature. I didn’t feel protected, I felt trapped and suffocated and captured.

People who met my mother – school friends and such like – usually liked her. They all said how nice mum was and I would think, yeah, you don’t know her. So that has been one of the positive things to come out of the last few years. I did finally meet that funny, charming, witty side of her personality that she had shown to other people – but never really to us. Well, I suppose that’s how she appeared to dad, because they were very happily married for many years. The ardent love letters I found from the war years seem to confirm that, although I do remember once, I’d done something, I can’t remember what it was now, and dad said to me, in a pleading tone: don’t be like your mother! This small chink in the armour of their relationship was – and remains – very precious to me, because I was always a daddy’s girl at heart but never got much of a chance to indulge that until the last years of dad’s life.

The truth is mum was incredibly self-centred. She really wasn’t much of an empath. She did say occasionally that she appreciated me coming here to look after her, but I was always taken aback whenever she did say that, because I saw very few signs of it on a day to day level.

Yesterday was the anniversary of mum’s funeral. We did well, that day. Mum would have been pleased with it. I was pleased with it. Finding the words for the eulogy wasn’t easy although I did all right in the end (see the post). And I suppose I’ll emerge from my current muddled emotional state – in the end. One of mum’s catch phrases was ‘it’ll be all right on the night’. And I guess it will be. But first, I just have to get through this puzzling time.

 

Mum died a year ago.

It’s the anniversary of mum’s death and for the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened when she died. At the time, I wasn’t able to process the experience of her death on an emotional level. There was so much to do; so many decisions to make, so many people to inform. And that had certain advantages. If I hadn’t had to complete all the practical tasks, perhaps I would have just curled up into a ball, and sank into a slough of despond. I mean, that’s what I wanted to do. As I’ve written before, I was truly taken aback by how distressed I was when she passed.

Although I never wished her dead, I had wondered how long it would be before I’d be free to move on with my life. But when she did die, psychologically, I fell into a sort of abyss where I’ve been wandering for the last twelve months.

It was around 7.30 in the morning, when they rang to tell me she had passed in the night. I was already up and about because I was expecting a heating engineer who could come anytime between 8am and 1pm. Trying to cancel his visit via an automated response line which could not understand my increasingly distressed attempts to leave a message and cancel the visit was a horrible experience. Then I rang my brother. I had been trying to get him to come for the last three days and he’d finally said he would come that day. So, sadly, he was too late to say goodbye. And then, because I knew I’d never get a cab at that time in the morning, I quickly left the house and ran for the early bus. Within the hour, I was at the Care Home.

Several times in the past Mum had appeared to be at death’s door and then bounced back so, although we knew she was at the end of her life, we didn’t expect she would go quite so quickly. So, I was prepared, and yet I wasn’t completely prepared. Although I knew it would happen, I didn’t really believe it would actually happen so soon. They showed me into her room, and she looked like she was asleep. They had dressed her in a nice cardigan. They had given her flowers to hold, and tucked her toy rabbit in her arms. They closed the door and left me alone with mum.

And this is the moment that I return to, that to some extent holds me captive. Because it was a moment of great purity. A moment of essential being. An emotional touchstone. The hustle and bustle that follows a death hadn’t begun. My own attempts to process what had happened – and which inevitably distanced me from the raw experience of the event – hadn’t begun. It was just me sitting beside my dead mother. Like a pieta, but in reverse.

A pristine moment, suspended, archetypal. Beyond personality, or individuality, or language. A very beautiful moment, actually. I’d seen my dad in the funeral parlour. I was glad I’d gone to say goodbye but he had looked more like a waxwork version of my dad, than my real dad. But in that moment, mum was still mum: she was still warm; she looked at peace. As I say, she genuinely could have been asleep. And yet, she wasn’t asleep, she was dead.

I once saw a heart-rending film of a gorilla whose baby had died. For several days, the mother would not let her baby go. She kept hugging and hugging the corpse. She could not accept that the infant was dead. Society does not allow us that fiction. We can’t just pretend death has not occurred and yet, there is a desire to suspend belief. One minute they were here; next minute they are not. I suppose that’s the point of funereal rites, to help us come to terms with that ontological rift, that sundering of the link that bound us. Can we say that a gorilla loves their baby? I never really said I loved my mother. There was so much history. She had never given me what I would call unconditional love. And yet, there was some sort of a bond there. It’s what brought me down here to care for her.

As I sat with her, in her purple cardigan with her flowers and her rabbit and her peaceful energy – because her spirit or soul, what ever you want to call it, her restless energy – had departed and so she did appear to be at peace, I was able, finally, to feel that bond between us, without resentment or qualifications. Yet it was at that very moment  that the bond was broken – and could never be restored.

mum&alana

 

 

I did not celebrate VE day

Last week was the 75th Anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe, although not of course in South-East Asia. France has always marked May 8th as a public holiday, but not the UK. This year, however, that changed. Much was made of the fact that we had overcome great odds to win the war and would, presumably, overcome similar odds to defeat Coronavirus.

Fighting a virus is not the equivalent of fighting enemy armed forces so I didn’t think you could compare the two things. Besides which, at that point, we had been in lock down for 7 weeks. The war went on for 6 years. I could see the government wanted to whip up a sense of national fervour, but it’s hard to feel triumphal when so many people are dying – and so many of them seem to have died unnecessarily. Since the lock down, I have lost two family members – one to Covid; one, probably, to old age – but he was in a Care Home and many thousands of people – of that very generation we were meant to be applauding – have died in Care Homes during the pandemic. There’s a strong likelihood that this was linked to a lack of appropriate protective equipment and protocols for care staff to follow. Some elderly people with Covid were even sent back from hospitals to their Care Homes.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, I felt relieved I didn’t have to worry about mum. Shortly before she died her Care Home had a bout of Norovirus – inadvertently brought in by a visitor or care worker. It was obvious to me, as they are places where lots of older, vulnerable people live, and where workers come in from the community, that these homes were going to be potential danger zones. And this is not to mention the people who are being cared for in their own home by carers who go from house to house on short visits. The ones who used to come in to visit mum always wore plastic aprons and gloves (although not masks). And when the pandemic started many carers and medical workers were unable to source any further protective equipment than that basic kit.

Add to this the fact that, when they could source this equipment, the Homes found that its cost had sky-rocketed. It seems that those who had some, wanted to profit by its scarcity. The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that most Care Homes and Care Agencies are privately run: some it’s true are owned by big companies, but many, like the one where mum lived, are just small family-run businesses with narrow profit margins.

Apparently, the government was surprised by the number of deaths in Care Homes. They claimed they hadn’t realised this would happen. Do they think we were all born yesterday? It was as clear as daylight it would happen. But, in spite of the tragic number of deaths of older people in our Care Homes, our government started applauding the ‘heroes’ who’d fought in WW2. But they had done nothing to make the heroes they claim to think so highly of, safe. Quite the opposite. What hypocrisy.

That afternoon, I went out for a walk and I noted, in spite of the ban on social gatherings, discreet street parties were taking place in many cul-de-sacs and side roads. Everyone socially distanced of course! And plenty of flags (I admit a bias here: Perhaps I’m being unfair but I’m suspicious of anyone who happens to have Union Jack bunting in the cupboard). Anyway, when I got home my neighbours were all out in the front, having an impromptu get-together. No bunting though, I was relieved to note. They called me over. But I said, thanks but no thanks. I’m not in the mood to party. Apart from recently losing 2 members of my family, this remembrance of the war was bringing back a lot of stuff to do with mum – and with dad – and I was feeling too sad to make small talk.

But I also knew, looking at all their happy faces, that my neighbours just wanted to have a pleasant afternoon and a chat. And because I was feeling so on edge, I also knew it wouldn’t take much for me to express my anger at how people have been treated in the Care Homes and the hypocrisy of the government to grandstand on the memory of the war while apparently culling people who lived through it.

I appreciate what that generation did for us. I was born not long after the war; I remember the bombsites and the shortages. I was brought up on my family’s memories of the blitz and rationing. Not so much the men, who didn’t tend to speak of what they’d been through, tho in retrospect I can see that most of the men must have been suffering from PTSD – and yet they were expected to just get on with everyday life.

That evening, I watched a TV programme of film clips taken on May 8th 1944. There were celebrations, sure, but it seemed to me the exuberance came as much from relief that such a long dreadful time was over as from fun and frolics. And I’m sure that, for many, their joy would have been bittersweet.

So, I did remember them. But I chose not insult their memory with a distasteful and hypocritical show of triumphalism.

20200522_11574920200522_114814War time glamour! Mum with 2 of my aunts.20200521_160152Mum with my grandmother. She’s wearing the jacket she wore on the first date with dad.

We begin to empty the loft

It’s tricky getting up in the loft. First you have to pull down a very heavy folding ladder using a long metal pole with a hooked end. A few years ago, I could release the ladder and just about let it down without it crashing on top of my head. But I’ve never had sufficient strength to push the ladder back until it folds up and clicks into place above the trapdoor in the ceiling. It can’t be left down permanently as it would block the way into the bathroom.

The ladder is very unstable; it rocks and buckles as you climb. Then at the top, you have to haul yourself over the edge and into the loft space. My father loved going up there – until he nearly fell off the ladder – after that he was forbidden to do so. That upset him as much as having his driving licence taken away! But he squirreled away all kinds of things up there. Over the last few years when we can’t find something we know must be in the house, we’ve said: dad must’ve put it in the loft.

Both Brother and I were particularly keen to find a box of old photos: black and white snaps of the sort taken by a Brownie box camera which we remember from our childhood. They were always in a particular box but no one had seen that box in years. We said: ‘Dad must’ve put it in the loft.’ Brother did go up and have a scout around, but without success and we’d begun to say, a little fearfully: ‘perhaps dad threw them all out.’

It will be impossible to put the house on the market before the loft is emptied. And for the last few years Brother has kept saying he’ll come and empty it. Even if the ladder were down, I couldn’t get up there anymore because of my bad shoulder etc. so this is one job my brother actually has to do but, as we know, he likes to take his time. He said he would come last year, but never did come. To be fair, the last thing I wanted at that point was any extra stuff to add to all the rest of the junk I already had in front of me to sort out. Anyway, I didn’t need to worry because although he said he would do it, he didn’t do it. And then, this year in early March, he made a start.

He worked very hard. It’s dangerous carrying stuff down that damn wonky ladder. He brought a lot down and took loads of it to the tip and to charity shops – but he also left quite a lot in piles on the floor to be sorted out – and to get in my way. He was, of course, intending to return a few weeks later – but then came The Lock Down. So here I am with all of it to step over – and to sort out.

However! The great thing is – he found the photos. In a different box, in a suitcase, in all kinds of receptacles. While he was here, we spent a couple of happy evenings going through them. Exclaiming over old favourites! Puzzling over who everyone was! But we didn’t really sort them out. Now Brother can’t come back and I am here, ‘living la vida lock down’ by myself, so I’ve made a start sifting through them all.

I’ve worked out who many of the people are: some are even quite closely related to me; some I didn’t initially recognise because they’re so young – but there are others I really don’t know. Some of the snaps belonged to my mother’s three sisters – my dearly beloved aunts – but I don’t know where they were taken or who they are posing with. Is one of them the Swiss boyfriend of my aunt who never married? I know of him because they were separated by the war and although they met afterwards things ‘just weren’t the same’. Then there’s all dad’s war photos. He’s posing with his fellow guardsmen. Is one of them his best friend whose tank was hit by a shell and dad had to stand by and watch helplessly while the crew were all burnt alive? I’ll never know.

There’s lots of mum with her girlfriends. Is one of them her good mate Primmy? Or the pal whose family were on the stage? Or the one whose brother was gay? It’s such a shame these photos were hidden away. Mum would probably have recognised most of the people but it’s too late to ask her now. I emailed a few of the photos to a relation in Canada because I thought some of them were of her – and indeed of her wedding day and I hoped she’d be able to identify some of the other people there. But she’s in her 80s and, although she sends emails and seems quite computer savvy, she didn’t seem to understand what I was asking. And there’s no one else to ask.

It’s sad to have to consign all these human lives and memories to the rubbish, but what can I do? It’s hard enough to decide what photos to keep of the people I do recognise. How many baby photos of myself do I need, after all? And yet, they’re all so sweet! In fact, I seem to be building, brick by brick, photo by photo, a picture of a happy childhood which – to be honest – I didn’t remember at all.

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It’s been a long time

It’s been along time since my last blog. Mainly because I’ve been unable to type. It’s a long story…

In the middle of December, I went on a short trip to Amsterdam. We had a great time but, on the last evening, I fell over and broke my arm very badly, right up close to my shoulder.

Thank goodness, I wasn’t alone. I was with friends. They got me to the hospital, sat with me till the small hours, got me back to the hotel. The next morning, they brought me coffee, helped me get packed and dressed, got me to the station and onto the train. The journey back to London wasn’t easy. Every now and then, I get a flashback and when the memory returns, I feel sick, because actually, it was pretty dreadful! Luckily, oh how luckily, I’d arranged to spend the night with friends in London. I got a cab to their house and the next day they helped me get on my train home.

Looking back, I don’t know how I got through the next few weeks. I was a one-armed bandit in acute pain. I could hardly do a thing. I survived Christmas: friends came and collected me off the train in London and took me to their place where I was made a fuss of – and very well fed (!) – for the holidays. Then there was New Year to get through. Brother came with his partner to help me over those days. After that, there were several weeks which were quite bad. I just had to focus on coping. In retrospect, I’m not quite sure how I did manage to cope! Especially when I get one of those flashbacks! But I did cope. And of course, I was beginning to heal.

I had a few glitches with the hospital but, eventually, I started physio and my recovery began to proceed slowly but steadily. They have told me it was a pretty bad injury and it will take several months – if not the rest of the year – before I finally recover and my recovery will be determined by how diligently I do my physio exercises. However, by early March, after about 12 weeks, the pain had eased and, although my range of movement was still limited, I began to feel better and could start to do more.

In fact, this week I was supposed to be with friends in Spain – but thank goodness we didn’t go! Instead, I am beginning another 12 weeks at home – this time because of the government’s attempt to halt the spread of coronavirus. But at least, I’m able to do a lot more than I could. In fact, the last few days, I’ve been able to type – which is great.

I fell over in the street, for no particular reason that I can see. It was just a silly accident. But it felt like I’d fallen into the underworld. I think I may have mentioned last year of how surprised I was at my reaction to mum’s death. The dreams I’d had of dashing off to new horizons as soon as I could, proved to be just that: dreams. A great abyss of grief and loss and confusion opened up between me and those golden horizons. And I knew then, that the only way to cross it would be to descend into it. However, I expected this descent would be a psychological metaphor.

The truth is, I felt that when I fell, I didn’t just hit the pavement. What I’d actually done is fallen into that abyss; that I’d landed at the bottom in a barren, lifeless, rock-strewn landscape just like the underworld might be. But, at the far end, there was daylight.

I know from my reading of fairy tales and ancient myths, that a hero or heroine may enter the underworld or a labyrinth – some dark place full of danger and mystery but, if they have the right attitude, they will return to the daylight world – this time bearing a gift or a prize that they have earned through their perseverance. Comforted by this, I have tried to find a way forward. I am trying to work out what lessons I must learn, what riddle it is I must answer, before I can re-emerge into the sunlight.

And now, this. Like everyone else, I was not prepared for the global crisis we now find ourselves having to deal with. I will admit, it’s a huge relief that I don’t have to worry about mum being in lock-down in her Care Home. I can concentrate on worrying about myself! And how I’m going to find enough food – and oh god, coffee – to last for the next 12 weeks! And if, during that time, I can find my treasure, solve my riddle or whatever – so much the better.

Since I wrote this I have had two and a half weeks without a landline or internet, courtesy of a balls-up by my provider. I could only communicate with the outside world by texts and a limited amount of minutes on my old mobile, which I needed to save in case of emergencies. This would have been annoying under normal circumstances – but these times are not normal! Anyway, fingers crossed this has been resolved for now.

Keep well, everyone! Stay safe and stay sane!

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My brother and I around 1970, looking pretty cool.

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Me and my dad on holiday circa 1950!

 

It would have been mum’s birthday.

If she’d still been alive, Mum would have been 99 last weekend and I couldn’t stop myself feeling sad. I told myself, if she had still been alive, I would’ve been even more sad, desperate even, wondering how much longer it would be before I’d be free to start living my own life once again. For the last few years, I couldn’t allow myself to feel frustrated and wish she would die because that would’ve been mean and unfair. I say to myself, at least the next phase of my life has now begun, even if, at the moment, it doesn’t quite feel like it. It feels like, when you’re near the end of a book – there aren’t that many pages to go, but you haven’t actually finished reading it yet; you haven’t quite got to the conclusion. That’s how my life seems at the moment.

I don’t post much on Facebook, but I did use to post a snap of mum on her birthday, holding a sign telling us she was still ‘98 not out’ (that of course was last year) and all weekend, Facebook kept showing me: ‘Your memories from last year!’ , ‘Your memories from 3 or 4 years ago’. Pictures of Mum smiling away. Thanks, Facebook, for reminding me that she won’t be celebrating her birthday this year. However, it’s also true that mum looks so happy in these snaps. Right up to the end, she loved performing, always perked up for the camera. When I showed her how many ‘likes’ her photos had got from my F/B friends, ‘Look mum you’re on the internet!’ she was always thrilled. And it’s true that, if it hadn’t been for me, her last few years wouldn’t have been so happy.

I’m sure Brother and his kids will have noticed the date. They always came to visit on her birthday. The first year she was in the Care Home, we did manage to get her back here for the day, but by last year that was no longer possible. The Grandchildren went into the Care Home in shifts together with their much-loved Babies, and in between we all had lunch together here. Brother and Grandchildren didn’t need to make the journey this year – nor will they have to come at Xmas.

I’ve noticed that, after someone has died, their friends or family always remember their birthday. People say they meet for lunch or go to the cemetery to lay flowers. This is the date we remember, not the anniversary of the death. I suppose that’s best. It’s a date we’ve always known, and it gives a sense of continuity. Yes, our loved ones have passed, but we still remember them, we still retain them in our thoughts, they are still part of our lives even though they are no longer with us physically. In fact, I had a very dear friend who died about 25 years ago and on his birthday, I always pause, just to give some thought to his memory and to the role he played in my life. It’s still his birthday – and it’s the same with mum. I say that she would’ve been 99 a few days ago – and next year, I shall no doubt say that she would’ve been 100 – had she lived that long.

On that note, I shall mention that Dad would’ve been 100 this week if he’d still been alive. But he isn’t. He’s been dead for nearly 9 years and, over time, the raw memory of his death has faded – and, in time, it will be the same for mum. But that date in November will always be Mum’s Birthday.

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I buy myself a magic carpet

I recently went down to the wonderful Chalice Well Gardens in Glastonbury for a ‘retreat’ – a few days of calm contemplation in the lovely surroundings. Once I’d arrived and ‘let go’, I realised how tired I was, not just physically but mentally too. I kept returning to the memory of how I had sat with mum just after she’d died. That had been a beautiful, peaceful moment but, since then, I have felt as if nothing was real; that everything was make-believe. I thought this might be because I hadn’t had a proper chance to mourn. Even that first pure experience of sitting with mum after she’d passed had been marred. I’d been conscious that I was in the Care Home and must let them get on with what they needed to do; I was aware that I needed to go straight from there to the funeral directors; that I needed to get food because my brother was coming etc etc – all of those thoughts overlaying the shock that mum had actually died! For years we’d thought she might die at any time but, she didn’t die. Now she had actually gone, I felt in a sort of suspended animation.

Over the next few days of my retreat, I slowly began to relax and unwind; to detox from the stress that had been blocking my emotion. I became able to experience my grief and then, to accept that it will be my companion for a while. I also began to understand that this is just another phase in my life. Because people kept asking ‘what are you going to do now?’ I’d inadvertently fallen into that mind-set – that mum’s death had been a cut-off point and I’d immediately know what I’d do next. But the truth is, I’ve been living here for 5 years. I never expected to be here this long, but it’s ceased to be a short-term occurrence, it’s become a phase of my life in which caring for mum was one aspect – perhaps the central aspect because I would never have come here otherwise – but I can’t just close the door and walk away as if the last few years haven’t happened.

I’m sure I will eventually ‘move on’ when the time is right, but before I can do that I need to sit with my feelings and emotions for a while. I arrived at the Chalice Well on the Equinox, after which – at least in the northern hemisphere – the days grow shorter and the nights longer until we reach the Winter Solstice. I think this is a good metaphor for what I need to do. I need to let myself drop into the darkness like a seed in the earth and – as the light returns, as spring comes again – see what shoots have appeared, see what I feel like doing then.

In the short-term though, here I am still living in my parents’ house, which is not a house I would have chosen, in an area I would never have chosen – and it’s not furnished or decorated in any way that I like. Sitting beside the Chalice Well, I thought: what I need is a lovely rug. I imagined a rug rolled out in front of the fireplace. Yes, that’s what I need! It would cheer up the living room no end; it would make me feel more like it’s my place. (I am rather partial to a nice rug). Later that day, I went into the town and there, outside a shop I’ve never been in before that sells furnishing and bric-a-brac, I saw a rolled-up rug. It was a bit expensive but there was another smaller one at a better price. I didn’t go in and ask about it but the next day I decided to return to the shop and have another look.

The rugs were still there but the smaller one was too small, it wasn’t right. The guy unrolled the larger one. It was lovely. In fact, it was the rug I had imagined. The owner said: it’s not that expensive. No, I agreed, it’s not that expensive for what it is. I told him I’d go away and have a think about it. I got about 50 yards down the road. I thought to myself: what’s your problem? This is synchronicity. You imagined a rug and here it is. You love this rug! It’s come to you from the cosmos! And even though it was a sum of money, at the end of the day, it was a sum I could afford. I went back. I bought the rug.

When I unrolled it at the retreat house (because I had to fold it up properly in order to carry it on the train) the other residents admired it. One of them said: this is your magic carpet! Yes! I loved this idea.

Now I have a beautiful hearth rug that completely lifts the room and stops it looking quite so dull and dingy. If I feel a bit miz, I just go and admire my rug – and cheer up immediately. Perhaps, when I emerge from the underworld, it will help me to fly off on the next stage of my life’s journey – whatever that may be!

 

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Above: Chalice Well dressed for Mabon – or the Autumn Equinox.

Below: My magic carpet! The colours are much more jewel like than in this photo!

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I resolve a tricky problem – with a little help from The Milkman.

For the last 5 years I have dreamed of sleeping in my own bed. It’s a nice bed, a small double with a good mattress and I bought it when I moved into the studio apartment I had in London. When I moved down here, there wasn’t room for it in the spare room where I had to sleep. That only had room for a single bed. So my bed had to be stored in the garage.

After my surgery last year, I couldn’t manage in a small bed, so I moved into what had been my parents’ bedroom and slept on my mum’s old bed. It wasn’t a bad bed in itself – the mattress was good quality but it had been badly stained. I covered it with layers of blankets and sheets before I put my own bedding on top of it. I dreamed of swapping the beds over but the logistics of how I’d ever be able to do that, defeated me.

First of all, I’d have to hire two men to carry mum’s double bed out of the house – and I’d have to co-ordinate that with the pick-up service from the council, who have to be booked in advance if you want them to collect large items. I’d also need time to clean where the bed had been, hoover and dust – before these men would be able to bring my bed in from the garage – which would mean they’d need to leave and return for a second time. I felt exhausted just thinking about how on earth I was going to manage the logistics.

I wrote last time about how I realised I had to make a start on clearing the house and how I did clear out mum’s wardrobe and also, the large storage drawers under her bed. After I’d packed everything up and piled it all in the garage ready for collection by the charity, in the same determined spirit I took all the stuff that had been stacked up on top of my bed base – just boxes and odd bags and things – so the bed could be moved easily if I ever did work out how to get it inside the house.

Two days later, The Milkman turned up. He also does gardening and grass cutting, and he reaches the back garden by bringing his lawn mower through the garage. I said: I’m sorry, I’ve been sorting out mum’s stuff. You’ll have to move all these bags. He knew mum well, so he was quite understanding. I put my hand on my bed base. I said: I don’t suppose you know a couple of guys who would help me swap my bed over. He said: I can do it. I can do it now, if you want. I laughed in disbelief: What by yourself? He said: I expect the double bed comes apart. Let’s have a look.

With that, he went into the house, took the bed apart and carried it outside. I said: I’d better ring the council to take it away. He said: I can take it in my truck. My eyes were round in wonder: Really???? Yes really, he said, but first I have to go and do another job for an hour. This was perfect. It gave me time to hoover and dust and move the furniture out of his way.

I couldn’t believe it was really happening. I cleaned up – under the bed had been pretty disgusting, as I’d suspected – then he came back and brought in the bed. I have to say, at one point it did seem as if The Milkman had underestimated the difficulties he would be faced with. As he was trying to manoeuvre the bed base through the doorway into the living room, it got jammed in the hallway. Then it got entangled on a low-hanging light fitting. I hate this light fitting but it’s wired in so I can’t remove it. Luckily, I am tall, so although I couldn’t help him by taking any weight, I was able to reach up and help extricate the bed base from the light. And then, somehow, miraculously it was done. Mum’s bed was gone and my bed was there instead. I left it to air for a couple of days, burned some cleansing essential oils and, at last, slept on my own bed again.

I said to The Milkman: you have no idea how horrible it’s been sleeping on my parents’ bed! And I do think it’s been unhealthy for me psychologically, but I just couldn’t work out how to organise the changeover. Since then, even on sleepless nights, I feel so relieved that I’ve finally resolved such a huge obstacle to my attempts at house clearance. Of course, I’m already thinking about the next task I’ll have to complete but, in the meantime, I’m giving myself a bit of breathing space.

And I have now finished emptying out all the things that belonged to my parents from drawers and cupboards and my mum’s desk. I’m not saying this stuff has all left the house! Much of it is in piles: stuff to be recycled; stuff to be shown to brother and/or grandchildren; stuff I may – or may not – wish to keep myself.  It’s a long sad task, emotionally taxing as well as physically demanding. I’m continually coming across items which take me down memory lane, or which contain an essence of mum or dad as human beings and bring me sorrow.

But, at least there’s no time pressure. And at the end of each stressful day, I am very happy to lie down on my own bed!