Free At Last

My mother died a month ago today. It was a bright, sharp January Friday. A day which hinted that spring might be closer than you think. The sun was golden. If you stood in a patch of its light and tilted your head back you could feel its warmth. Mum used to like doing that. She would close her eyes and smile and stretch like a cat. Luxuriating. Basking.

I had decided to do a bit of that myself. I had no classes that day and I had delivered all my chapters for that week. I was on top of things for the first time in months. In fact, I had been feeling on top of the world all week. I had said goodbye to the woman who had been helping me through grieving Dad’s death two and half years ago. I don’t think I need to see you any more, I had said. I told her I felt lighter, freer than I had for years. I was confident that Mum was safe in the home my sister and I had found for her. I knew we had done our best for her. I was going to visit her soon and was actually looking forward to the visit instead of dreading it. The last time I had seen her I had taken my children and she had smiled and had even hugged me. I had kissed her and told her I loved her and she had thanked me for visiting. It had been a very different encounter from previous ones.

I really was happy, I realised that morning. I was no longer striving, worrying away at things I couldn’t solve. I looked out at the sun, streaming through the bare branches of the beech tree outside my study window and decided to give myself permission to take the day off.

I went to meet a friend. A stonemason. He was giving himself the day off too. I am supposed to be carving noses, he told me. I am supposed to be writing about cuckoos, I replied. We laughed as we crunched over the frosty grass towards the lake where we had been swimming through the winter. It’s the first day for a while that it’s actually felt inviting, he said, as we approached the chilly water. The sun seemed to lift a little in the sky as he said that as though smiling on us, and in that moment a flash of sapphire caught my eye.


We hadn’t seen one for months. We stopped and held our breath, whispering wonder at the small bright jewel as he skimmed the surface, laser-sharp, and landed on the far bank.

We changed and ran to the water before we could stop to think how cold it would be. Plunged in. Squealed. Whooped. Swam ten metres, then hauled ourselves out, panting and jumping about like excitable Labradors.

After coffee, gulped down as hot as we could bear to chase the bone-chill away, we said our goodbyes and agreed that had been a beautiful morning. A golden moment. One of the best.

Back home the landline was ringing. I fumbled with my key, ran to the phone. It was my sister. We hadn’t had a proper chat for weeks. Christmas, illnesses, a busy start to the term – we hadn’t had time. We spent a good three quarters of an hour catching up. She was happy. She felt lighter and better than she had in ages. Same here! I told her. We made plans to see each other. We wished each other a good weekend. I was beaming as I went upstairs to run a scalding bath.

I lowered myself, gasping, into the steamy water just as my mobile rang. I never bring it to the bathroom with me, but that day I had. I leaned forward and saw my sister’s face and name on the screen. Something made me reach to answer immediately without pause.

I’m afraid I’ve got some rather shocking news.

Her voice is unsteady. An electric pulse jolts through me. I know what she is going to say – and at the same time I don’t.

It’s Mum. She’s died.

No. I can’t. It’s not. What? I don’t. What?

Just like that. Gone. Fallen awkwardly on to the end of her bed. Probably a heart attack.

The words are far away. I am out of the bath, curled under a towel on the bathmat. Rocking. Crying. No. It’s not. No. NO.

But I’ve had such a beautiful day.

I know. So have I.

Later that evening, after phone calls had been made, grandchildren told, hugs given and received, my sister called again.

I think we let her go. I think somehow she knew – that we were happy at last. That we felt free. She has freed us.

Yes. She has. She has freed us and she herself has found freedom. She turned her face to the sun one last time, just as the kingfisher zipped across the water. She stretched and she smiled. And was gone.




A River Runs Through It

“A little waterbaby.”

That’s what Dad called me. Born in March, Pisces is my sign – not that I follow such beliefs. Although Dad’s birthday was the day before mine and water was his element too. As a young man he swam in tributaries of the Thames, learned to navigate the river by boat, taught himself to kayak. Taught me too. His best memories were made in or on water. It was where he talked of returning when he was in hospital.

“I just want to get out on the river.”

The Medway was his haven later in life. The place he went on a Sunday morning. His church. The place he went to escape Mum when it all got “too much”. By the time he was in hospital, it had all got far too much to mention.

I have inherited the obsession to run towards water whenever life overwhelms me. It runs in my veins, I am sure of it. Dark green river water. Salty-grey Atlantic sea. Turquoise lakes of it course through me. I am water and water is me. I am my element.

I first experienced the delight of running in and out of the waves when I was eighteen months old. I don’t remember. Family history relates that it was on a nippy day on the coast in Brittany. There are photos of my grandfather on the beach with me, his trousers rolled up above his lily-white ankles, this and his open collared shirt the only concessions to a day at the seaside.

“Your lips were blue, but you wouldn’t come out of the waves.”

The sea frightened Mum. The wildness and unpredictability that attracted me and Dad were the very things she couldn’t bear. When my sister got out of her depth and “nearly swept away” that confirmed her fears. She went back to that story many times over the years, as she did with many things that had upset her. The memory remained raw, like an open wound.

I am a strong swimmer. Not fast, but I have stamina. I know my limits and have a healthy respect for tides and currents. And it is cold water that I crave. No azure tropical beaches for me. Give me an English sea on a grey winter day or a river in chilly early spring.

I have been swimming in cold water ever since that holiday in Brittany. Our school had an outdoor pool. It was situated on a hill above the cluster of post-war pre-fabs that served as classrooms. It was as outmoded as the rest of the place: no heating meant it was beyond chilly year round, wind-whipped and often full of flies. I didn’t care. Swimming was the only sport I was any good at. I forgot myself when I was in the water. No one yelled at me for my lack of hand-eye coordination. No one failed to pick me for their team. No one expected anything of me but that I could swim up and down, up and down, up and down. I was weightless. Thought-less. Care-less.

Show me a strip of water, a river, a bay, a lake, a pool – even a puddle if it’s big enough – and I can’t help myself. I have to plunge in. On hot summer evenings I have been known to take a break from a riverside run and jump into the water, stopping only to remove my shoes. Sometimes I make a pilgrimage to a weir not far from where I live. I arrive early, escaping the road-race of scurrying rush-hour traffic. I hide my clothes in the roots of a tree and step out into the shallows above the weir, then push off and away from reality and into a green dream of cool wonder. Kingfishers buzz me as they skim the water looking for minnows. Swans frown and swim away. Moorhens clamour and skitter into the reeds. A heron stands, sentinel-still, convinced he is invisible. Ducks eye my bobbing head, throw back their beaks and laugh.

On walks I pick up likely dipping places. My husband rolls his eyes when I fix on a muddy cut into the bank, fashioned by years of dogs diving for sticks. He knows what I am thinking. Could I get in there? Could I get out again? Is the current too strong?

In Cornwall, in the summer months, my family joins me. We lower ourselves down from harsh granite rocks into glass-green water. On hot days the water is like crystal. Like jewels. Like silk. We have never found words adequate enough to describe its beauty. On steel-grey stormy days the water is black. Inky. Moody. I still slip in. The seize of cold on the back of my neck is a thrill. A high. I come out laughing and shaking the water off me, waving my arms and leaping about like an excitable puppy.

I had to cross the sea to get to Dad when he was dying. I sat on a ferry, watching the waves go up and down, willing him to keep breathing with each rise and fall. I went to the sea to nurse my grief after he died. I sat staring out to the horizon. I took early dips in the bay before my family were awake. I have been taking myself off to plunge into cold water regularly ever since. Last year I joined a swimming club at a local lake. I swam there every day that I could in the summer. I am still swimming there now, once a week, with the only other member mad enough to join me in November. It is healing me, this regular baptism. Washing away pain. Reminding me that life is now. This instant. And that it is for living.

When Dad died, my sister and I encouraged him to “go off down the river”. It felt natural to be saying this. As though we were sending him home. As a classicist, he would have appreciated the analogy. I like to think he would have had a smile on his face as he stepped into Charon’s boat and let the ferryman take him away. Over to the other side where the riverbank shines forever bright. And the waters run on and on for all eternity.

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Today I met with a friend whose father passed away a year ago. She told me how she has not been able to cry properly yet. She talked of her grief being locked away; of how it surfaces without warning, brimming and threatening to spill, but how it is quickly buried again. ‘I can’t let it out. I don’t want to walk around being miserable all the time,’ she said. I told her that I didn’t grieve properly until at least a year was past. In fact, I don’t think I faced the raw pain of it until I had to deal with another death, over two years on from losing Dad. And then it was the death of an animal that did it.

Two months ago our lovely Labrador, Kenna, became unwell very suddenly. One morning at breakfast time instead of wolfing her food down in seconds, she stood over her bowl, looked at the food and then looked at me. The sorrow in her eyes was unbearable. It was clear what she was saying. ‘I want to eat, but I can’t.’ She then took to her basket and lay, panting, her back legs shaking. I assumed she had been poisoned or had had an allergic reaction, so I took her to the vet, expecting to be sent packing with the appropriate prescription.

Instead we were sent to the bigger veterinary practice in the next town and I had to leave her there. For tests. Two short words whose length belies the weight and darkness of their meaning.

A few hours later I was weeping down the phone as I decoded the young vet’s careful phrases. ‘It appears there is a mass attached to her spleen. We could operate, but it might not achieve the desired outcome.’

I called a friend. She drove me to my dog. We lay on the floor, either side of her, stroked her head, her paws and told her she had been a perfect companion, a lovely creature, but that we were very sorry, the time had come to let her go. As we said this, she began to whimper. I ran to get the vet. She administered the drug and Kenna sighed her last and closed her eyes.

I howled.

The next day I went back with my husband and son. We lifted her already decomposing body into the back of the car. We drove home, the smell of her filling the air around us. We carried her into the garage while we set about digging her grave. The ground here is full of sandstone. It had begun to rain. My husband dug so far and then handed the pickaxe and spade to me. The hole was too deep and the ground too hard so I lay on the wet grass, my head in the grave as I scooped out handfuls of earth and stone and howled and howled and howled, not caring who might see or hear.

We carried her body from the garage to the grave. We lowered her in and said some words. I didn’t want to let go of her soft head, her velvet ears, her gentle nose. I had to be pulled off her.

I wish I could have buried Dad like that. I wish I could have given him a dog’s death. So much more real and pure and raging than a sanitised cremation with some lovely hymns. I wish I could have wrapped his body in a sheet and dug a grave with my bare hands and lowered his body into the earth and got down into it with him. I wish I could have done that last thing for him – given him an authentic send-off with all the blood and fluids and smells and dirt and mess that it would have entailed. Birth is not neat and clean – my children were handed to me covered in blood and mucus and they were beautiful. Why can’t we handle death in its messy reality too?

I said all this to my friend today. She nodded, tears in her eyes.

‘I sound like a madwoman, don’t I?’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘No. Perfectly sane if you ask me.’

Where I am Now

I said I wouldn’t write this blog any more. I said I would go out and live and stop dwelling on the things I have lost. But as the wonderful writer Eva Ibbotson said, “You cannot stop the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can stop them nesting in your hair.”

So that is what I have been trying to do. I have gone out. I have travelled. A lot. I have joined a choir, I have plunged into cold rivers and lakes, I have watched kingfishers and herons and cormorants and swans. I have spent time with friends and family. I have written four books this year and published two since my last blog post. I have waved my daughter off to university and watched my son bloom into a beautiful young man who now wears a suit to school (and soon, I hope, will be going to university too). And all the time I have been aware of those birds of sorrow, fluttering above me. I miss Dad. I missed him on my travels – he would have loved the sights we saw, the food we ate, the Spanish we spoke. I am sad that he wasn’t there for the kids’ GCSE and A Level results. I am sad that he’ll never read the books I have published.

There’s no doubt that they have changed me, those birds. For a while I felt so distracted by them that I lost sight of the person I had always been. I told people “I don’t feel myself”. I struggled to recapture the essence of that self; the core of Anna-ness which kept me anchored in daily life. It hasn’t helped that I have watched my children grow away from me just as I lost Dad. And my mother has slipped even further away, cocooning herself against unwanted sights, sounds, tastes, smells, feelings and thoughts while she waits for death to release her. The knowledge that she has lost the essence of her own self has played havoc with my sense of balance. I feel cast adrift. Without moorings. Without direction or purpose. Unsure of what to do next with life.

Perhaps as a consequence I have held on to the past as though clinging to a raft that will ferry me back to a place I felt safe. And I have worried over a future which is a place that looks anything but.

Today, though, I felt something shift. I was getting changed after a swim and was aware of the eerie echo from the baby pool of young mums’ voices singing. “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…” I felt the past reaching out, pulling me back to a time which has gone forever: a time when I had small soft children who would nestle in my lap rather than large, lanky teens who can’t wait to be free of me. Then I glimpsed two older ladies in baggy swimsuits and baggier bodies, unwittingly showing me the shape of things to come.

The birds of sorrow were threatening to land when a toddler-pitched scream splintered the air, wrenching me back to the present moment. I don’t want to go back to those days, not really. And I don’t want to think about the days to come. I am not young. Nor am I yet old. I am here. Now. And I will enjoy it while it lasts.


The End of This Road

It is a year to the day that I started this blog. It is two years to the day that you phoned to say that you had bad news. Two years since you told me that what happened next was “between me and my Maker.”

Two years is supposed to be enough time to have assimilated what has happened. I am supposed to stop talking about your death now. I am allowed to mention you in conversation as long as I am recounting cheery things; involving others in memories of happier times.

But two years is not enough time. Neither, I suspect, is three years. Or four. Or twenty-four. Or any number. It is only those who have not lost someone they love who think of grief in terms of a finite period.

Since joining The Dead Dads’ Club (as a friend has dubbed it) I have spoken to many people who have given up trying to explain to outsiders what grief is like. Everyone’s experience is as different as the love they have for the ones they have lost. But we all have one thing in common. We all agree that grief is now part of us, that it has changed us as all the big things in life do and that it is here to stay; to be lived with, to be carried along with us until we too have to leave, passing on the mantle to others who will bear it in their turn.

A month before you died you told me that I should “get out more”. It was a serious point, made in a conversation we were having about the sort of work I had had published up until now and what my plans were for the future. It was one of those chats which challenged me, which made me see how much more I have left to do. So that is what I am going to do now. I am going to get out more, with the sound of your voice and encouragement ringing in my heart.

I shall stop this blog today. It is time to take a different road. Writing this blog has helped me in more ways than I could have imagined. It has been different from talking and different from keeping a journal. It has helped me think through my experience and it has put me in touch with others who have been through similar times. It has opened up conversations, led me to read books I would otherwise not have read, showed the side of friends and acquaintances I did not know existed. It has also made me see how many gifts you gave me, Dad, and that the greatest one of all was storytelling. I don’t know what I will do with all these words. But I do know one thing: just as life goes on, so do the stories. There is never really an end to any of it.


Failing to Reappear

Almost two years have passed since Dad knew he was dying and Mum stopped coping with life. Almost a year since I started writing about it. There are still times when I struggle with accepting what has happened. How can Dad be here one minute and gone the next? How can Mum be here – and yet not be present?

There have been times when I have half-convinced myself that once that I have gone through this grieving business and come out the other side, things will go back to normal. My mind plays tricks on me. I catch myself thinking I might pick up the phone and talk to Dad. Or Mum might get better and not need to be in a care home any more. The house will still be there for me. I will be able to go back. In time as well as space.

Sometimes it is a relief to sleep and not think of these things. Unless, that is, I dream. A recent nightmare had my parents back in their house for a visit after my sister and I had started to clear it. Dad was cross that I had been in his study, through his desk, through his neatly filed paperwork. Mum was jubilant. “Thank you so much for getting rid of all his books!” she told me, beaming. “I have been trying to get him to do that for years.” And in the back of my mind, a panicky voice was saying, “But we’re selling the house. Mum is supposed to be going back to the care home. Dad is . . . Dad is . . . Dad is not coming back at all.” I woke up with a gasp, reality rushing back in.

Dreams like this play on my feelings of guilt in the dark early hours. My thoughts spin on a destructive loop: Dad would not be pleased with what we have done since he died. We should have found a way to keep Mum at home. We should not have sold their furniture and given their books away. We should have found a cure for Mum. What would I say to Dad if he asked me? He would not like her being on a dizzying cocktail of drugs ranging from anti-psychotics to anti-depressants to sedatives to sleeping pills and goodness only knows what else. She has Asperger’s Syndrome. We know that now. That is not a condition that needs drugs. It needs sympathy and understanding and help with learning coping strategies. Doesn’t it?

Except that, it turns out, things have moved beyond that for Mum. She is so deeply locked into her own world now that tinkering with her drugs, trying to withdraw them, makes things worse for her. Hellishly worse. It has been tried and the results were terrifying: disorientation, panic, fear, hysterics, physical instability. And so she is back on the pills again. Back on her bed. Back in a state of drug-induced calm. And we have been advised to accept this. To realise that this is what is necessary. Because we will never have her back the way she was.

I went to see her yesterday. On the train from London I stared out of the window at landmarks familiar from my childhood: the station names I could recite by heart, the fields, the white weather-board and red-brick cottages, the Oast houses, the orchards, the river. I felt the familiar weight of sadness in my chest. Mum was always so proud of being a Kentish Maid. She would lecture me on the county’s history. Now she doesn’t talk at all, other than to ask me to leave.

After my short visit, I went to sit by the river where we scattered Dad’s ashes. “The house will be sold next week,” I told him – almost two years to the day that he rang to tell me his cancer was terminal. Once Mum has gone, will I have a reason to return to Kent ever again? Will I really make the trip just to sit on that riverbank and gaze into the silt and think of Dad paddling by this spot in his canoe? How can I accept the way things are? How can everything have changed so quickly? How it is possible that Dad is no more? That Mum has turned her face to the wall? Surely I could have prevented it?

The night before I had gone to see “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”. A few lines from the play echo in my mind as I stare into the muddy water and try to hold on to an image of Dad and Mum as they were:

“The fact of [death] is nothing to do with seeing it happen – it’s not gasps and blood and falling about – that isn’t what makes it death. It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all – now you see him, now you don’t, that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back – an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on, until, finally, it is heavy with death.”

A disappearance gathering weight as it goes on. Yes. That is it. An acceptance is necessary from now on. An acceptance of Dad’s never coming back. And with that, the acceptance that Mum, as we knew her, isn’t either.

Ancient History

I have put off reading the love letters for a few weeks. I thought it was going to feel wrong: that I would be eavesdropping; spying on a private part of my parents’ lives that it was not appropriate for a child to see.

But that’s just the point. I am no longer a child. I am the parent of two adolescents who are not so far away from the age my parents were when they first met, aged 19. Is it this which gives me the distance I need?

There are letters for almost every day from May 1963 to July 1966. The overwhelming feeling I have once I have lined up Mum’s letters alongside Dad’s is one of privilege. Here is almost three years of conversation – conversation that normally would be lost to the tides of time. Amongst the records are the minutiae of a life that must be planned in pen and ink and not down a phone line or via the worldwide web. Details of train times and plans for weekends are noted alongside tentative dips into the waters of romance. These shy forays quickly blossom when Mum asks Dad to write to her in Latin. They are corresponding about meeting in London to go to Henley regatta together and Mum suggests she get up early to make the most of the day. Dad replies:

[…] sed surgere mane puellas quis, nisi cui non est ulla puella, ferat?

I have to look this up, of course, my own O Level Latin long forgotten. All I can understand is ‘girls’ and what I think is ‘jump up’. It turns out (as Dad has to subsequently explain to Mum) it is a quote taken from Ovid’s ‘Amores, Elegy XIII: The Dawn’.

[…] girls shouldn’t rise early – who would do that to a girl, save a man who has not a girl of his own?

Typical of Dad to try to make a joke in Latin. It has the desired effect, however, for soon Mum is calling him ‘O meae deliciae, Martinus’ and he is responding with ‘O lux et vita mea, Gilliana mihi carissima’.

Their shared love and knowledge of the Classics was a deep bond. The letter which brings this most starkly home is one Dad sends from his first visit to Rome in July 1963. He gushes that ‘imperial buildings and temples and basilicas and baths’ have him summoning up Ancient Rome and making him long to ‘learn Italian and take you there’.

They did exactly this in retirement, going to Italian classes together, Mum grumpy at the speed with which Dad overtook her in mastering the grammar. They hired Italian DVDs and turned off the subtitles to force themselves to concentrate and learn more quickly. They even set their SatNav to speak to them in Italian. And they visited Rome and many other parts of Italy together and with friends. When Mum was first taken very ill with anxiety and depression I sat with her and tried to distract her from her panicky thoughts, asking her where her favourite place on earth was. She suddenly stopped hyperventilating and smiled. ‘Italy,’ she said, her shoulders going down, her breathing slowing. ‘The sun. And the language. And the food.’

It seems appropriate that two Classicists should have left so much to document their marriage. Reading it now, in an age when the love letter has been replaced with images zapped from smartphone to laptop to tablet, it does feel as though I am unearthing a little bit of ancient history.