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.

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 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.

IMG-20190927-WA0000

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.

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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!