Roots and wings

Our last chick left the nest four days ago. He was more than ready. He had outgrown it long ago, his wings so strong and wide he would regularly knock into things. He had become frustrated with the lack of space long before the time had come to let him stand, teetering on the edge, ready for his first flutter into the big wide world. He had been given everything he needed, and more, to help him navigate this next stage. It was time to let him leap.

I had waved his sister off three years before, and that had been hard: leaving her in an empty student flat in a strange city, trying to avoid the look of panic in her eyes as she realised she was on her own for the first time in her life. I had coped by rushing home to her brother and his routine of school and drama club and pets and homework and late-night pick-ups from party venues. I had thrown myself into writing and taken on a teaching job and tried to stifle the heavy, pressing, empty feeling in my chest whenever I walked past her bedroom.

Now there are two empty bedrooms to walk past. And perhaps because I have spent more time one-to-one with my son, the heaviness in my chest seems harder to ignore. A friend asked me how he was getting on the other day and I embarrassed myself by bursting into snotty tears, as though he had died rather than moved a few hundred miles away.

On the journey to his halls of residence he became quieter even than usual. My mind whirred with things I yearned to say to him, but knew I shouldn’t. Instead I spoke a lot of nonsense to fill the silence. My mouth said, “Would you like a snack?” while my head asked, “How are you feeling? Are you nervous?” My mouth said, “Goodness, how did it get to be lunch time?” as my head asked, “Are you worried about missing friends?” My mouth said, “Will there be supper in halls for you tonight?” My head said, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

When I went to university, over thirty years ago, my parents helped me unload the car and then came to my room and hovered, not wanting to leave me, unsure of how to say goodbye. I had no idea what they were feeling, and I didn’t really care. All I knew was that I wanted them to go as soon as possible so that I could get on with this next exciting chapter of my life. My son was spared such awkward unwanted parental attention. The virus has made sure of that. We had to drop and go.

Fledgling birds are sometimes found sitting on their own, looking – to us humans – lost and abandoned. We misinterpret their situation and often make things worse for them by intervening, trying to put them back into the nest they have just flown. In fact, the parents are usually nearby and watching out for their young. They may be attending to four or five young that are scattered in different directions, but they will most likely return to care for the one that seems to have been left to find for itself. Fledglings produce sounds that their parents recognise, so one of them will return and care for it in time. When fledglings leave their nest they rarely return; it’s not a good idea to put the bird back in as it will hop right back out.

So it must be with me and my two chicks. There is no point in trying to put them back into the nest. But I can stay alert to their calls for help and be there for them when they need me. I have given them roots and now I must let them open their wings and soar.

In No Time

Time was something Mum obsessed over. Like the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland she would pace back and forth before she needed to be anywhere, checking her watch and her father’s old carriage clock and the grandfather clock in the hall, muttering over and over, “We’re going to be late!” 

No wonder, perhaps, that I seem to have inherited this trait. It drives my family mad. I have a preference for being at least five minutes early for any appointment and get tight-chested and prickly with panic if stuck in traffic, watching the minutes race on by. 

It’s a slippery thing, time. And the older I get, the more wily it becomes. Was it really five years ago today that Dad died? Because if I focus on that morning, not dissimilar to the one I can see today through my study window – quiet and still, the light low and golden – I can put myself exactly where I was and the years roll away and I am back there, by his side, watching his time run out.

Five years ago today time was of the essence. I had woken on the first day of a holiday on a remote island in the Chumphon Archipelago to a call from my sister to say that Dad had only 36 hours left to live. A quick calculation revealed that I would need every last second of those precious hours to make it back to the UK in time to see Dad before he kept his appointment with death.

I went to the beach while my husband raced around getting a taxi and booked a place on a ferry for me. The taxi had to arrive in the next ten minutes or I would miss the ferry. Oh, my fur and whiskers! While my husband rushed, I forced myself to walk slowly along the white sand. I picked up pieces of coral that looked like bleached bone. How was it possible that I was on a beach under an early morning tropical sun, while my dad was lying in a bed in the middle of the night in Kent, waiting to die. Had we done the maths right? Would my time-travelling across the zones from east to west get me to Dad before it was too late?

Thirty-six hours is not long. A day and a night and a day. Time that is easily wasted. I could spend thirty-six hours doing nothing but read, eat, sleep, repeat. Thirty-six hours is also the longest period of time a person can endure. I know this twice over, because my daughter took thirty-six hours to arrive into this world and there was not one second of that time that was not stretched with pain and fear.

In the end it did take exactly thirty-six hours for me to get to that bedside in Kent from that beach on Koh Tao. Thirty-six hours of excruciating minutes that crawled across the face of every clock I checked as though a curse had been put on them; as though I were living out a nightmare in which I was filled with a desperate need to reach my destination, but my legs were filled with lead and no amount of effort on my part was going to get me there fast enough.

I should have been used to this feeling. I had spent the past three years running on lead-filled legs, pushing boulders up hills only to have them roll back down and flatten me, time after time after time. Mum had been sick for so long by this point it had become normal to wake every morning weighed down by dread over what the day would bring. And then Dad’s cancer had crashed in and ripped the fabric of our lives apart and honestly there were days when I wanted to throw my head back and laugh like the mad women my mother was sharing a ward with.

Time played tricks on me over and over during that period. At one point in the early summer I was driving to see Dad in hospital and I completely forgot what month it was. My teenage kids seemed to suddenly skip a couple of years overnight and become young adults before my eyes. My skin wrinkled and my hair grew white as I stared at my reflection. A year disappeared in the blink of an eye. 

I wasn’t too late in the end. I walked into the darkened room where Dad lay, and exactly one hour later he drew his last breath. A breath so deep it took every last ounce of energy from him. It was, quite literally, his last gasp. Sometimes cliches are the only way to go.

Now it’s five years later. Five whole years of breathing and sleeping and reading and writing and eating and playing and laughing and loving and crying and remembering and grieving and living. Five whole years without Dad. And two and a half without Mum. And yet it’s not five years. It’s a nanosecond. A wink. A shiver. It’s as though it were only yesterday. And long may that feeling last, for as long as I can hold them in my mind’s eye, they will still be here, Mum and Dad. Together. Time without end.

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Despair for the World

It’s been a hellish week. Fires raging in the US. Hatred, anger, hurt and grief howled loud in the streets. As if a pandemic weren’t enough, we now have another disease to deal with, and this one is one hundred per cent human-born.

And why? When we are all of this world. When we are all conceived and grow and are born and live and die. Or, to borrow from the Bard:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

When my children ask me, “Why are people like this?” I have no answers. I can’t make sense of it for myself, let alone for them.

All I can do is try to find hope; to go out and look up at the trees, or to sit by the water, and to see that the world has been here long enough to see generation after generation go to war and die in pandemics, and to hate and hurt and love and grieve. And yet the world is still here. The seasons come and the seasons go and they don’t take much notice of what we humans do.

This lockdown, a poem has put it better than I ever could. It has been my solace and my inspiration. It is a small thing, a poem. It can’t solve the problems we humans are now facing. But maybe it can help to shift our focus. To help us see the bigger picture. In any case, it’s all I have for now.

THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief, I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Grief in the Time of Corona

We are all grieving. Not all of us are grieving loved ones lost to the virus, but all of us are grieving nonetheless. And we may not even know it.

“Why do I feel so tired all the time?”

“I can’t read. I can’t seem to concentrate.”

“I have lost my appetite.”

“I have this sharp pain in my chest.”

“I feel so angry.”

“I feel ridiculously weepy.”

“I feel quite panicked.”

These are some of the comments I have heard from family and friends or have read online. And they are all symptoms I recognise. When my parents died, I went through all of the above, and more. Strange surges of emotion which didn’t seem to fit my idea of what grieving should feel like. Sudden plummets in mood that could be triggered by the smallest thing. Physical aches and pains that I had never had before.

Grief is a response that comes with a whole set of behaviours, and it’s as individual in its shape and size as the person who is grieving. We don’t acknowledge it or talk about it much in our society, which is perhaps why we don’t recognise it when it comes along. We think we know what grieving is and what it’s for. It’s weeping when someone’s died. It’s feeling sad at the loss of a loved one. It’s despair at the idea we’ll never see them again.

But it’s also anger at the perceived injustice of our situation. It’s a physical ache. It’s a deep disruption and disturbance to our peace of mind. So no wonder then that when we are grieving we might want to punch and hit and kick like a toddler having a tantrum. Or curl up in a ball and hide like a wounded animal. There are no rules to grief.

Grieving is a response to loss. So it’s no surprise we are all grieving right now, because we have all lost something: our old life. So if you’re tired all the time, take a nap. If you can’t read, don’t stress about it – do some drawing or cooking or sewing or go for a walk instead. If you’ve lost your appetite, make yourself a comforting warm drink or try small snacks instead of worrying that you can’t manage a meal. If you’ve pains in your chest, try breathing exercises or yoga or mindfulness. If you’re angry go and take it out on something in a physical way – chop some logs, scour the bath, punch a cushion, go for a run. If you’re weepy, cry. If you’re panicked, talk it through with a friend.

Whatever you do to get through this crisis, remember to be kind to yourself. That’s the best advice I was given, so I feel I should pass it on. Take care.

*

A Place for Everythingmy mother, autism and me is published by HarperCollins Publishers in the UK on 9th July 2020. Available for preorder now.

Lockdown

I haven’t written about you for nearly a year, but don’t think I haven’t thought of you. I think of you, Mum, and you, Dad, every single day. In fact – if only I could tell you – I’ve written a book about you both. It will come out on 3rd July, almost five years since you died, Dad. The title mentions Mum because the ‘hook’, as publishers like to say, is her and her late diagnosis of autism. It would make you chuckle, Dad, I think: we always said, “It’s all about Mum.” She always came first because she had to. Even when you were dying of cancer. She needed us more than you did. Or so we thought.

I have had a lot of time to rethink things during lockdown. If you were both still alive now – if you were both still alive and sick now – how would you cope? Mum would be frightened to go out because of the virus, so at least she would agree to stay at home. She wouldn’t want to touch anything that had come in from outside, though, so would that mean that you, Dad, would be tasked with disinfecting everything over and over and over until you could reassure her. And if you had just come out of hospital after your first operation to remove that tumour, would you even be able to do the things Mum needed in order to feel reassured? And what about you? What about your care?

I think about how eaten up with worry and guilt I would be, not being allowed to travel to see you. I would be sitting here, looking out at blue skies, enjoying being with my kids and my husband, all the time knowing that you are shut in, together, both in pain, both suffering, both, in your separate ways, alone.

There are so many people living through all this right now. So many elderly couples, leaning on each other, each staggering under the weight of responsibility and care. So many middle-aged children, wanting desperately to see their parents and prevented from doing so. And so many more who have had to learn of a parent’s death from afar.

I haven’t written about you, but I think of you and I think of all these other people, suffering as you did, but with the added burden of lockdown. And I quietly give thanks that you were at least spared this.

**

My memoir A Place for Everything: my mother, autism and me

is published by HQ Stories on 3rd July.

Available for preorder from Waterstones, Hive and Amazon now.

Out of the Darkness

Happy Christmas to you!

 

The most wonderful time of the year – Joy to the world – Goodwill to all – ’Tis the season

Merry

Happy

Jolly

Sparkly

Shiny

Glittery

Tinselly

Christmas—

 

No

No

Stop

No room for that

 

You stop

You frown

And you say: don’t

Don’t spoilt things

There’s no room for grief/pain/loneliness/tears/sadness/moodiness

No one wants to see it. No one wants to hear it. Keep singing! Keep dancing! Keep passing the parcel until the music stops! Haven’t you heard about the glad tidings? And what about the carols and the games and the food and the telly and the parties? The sparkles and the glitter and the music and the drinking and the fun? Don’t tell me that you’re feeling low. Don’t tell me that you’re missing someone. Don’t tell me that it’s all a bit much and you’d rather hide away. ’Tis the season to be happy and jolly and bright—

 

We know

We know

But

The thing is

It’s tough

It’s bleak

It’s hard

 

when the Ghost of Christmas Past stalks the halls

when the memories well up when you least expect them

when that song

that decoration

that joke

that recipe

acts like a switch that turns on the grief and then puts it on full volume

drowning out the light

It’s hard when you’re sinking in the bleak midwinter darkness

 

Listen. We don’t want to be miserable. We don’t want to put a dampener on it all. We want to recapture the light and the laughter and the smiles and the silliness. It’s what ‘they’ would have wanted, as you keep telling us.

 

And yes, we know the light is there, it’s just that we can’t quite see it. It’s a struggle. Sometimes there’s a glimpse. A flicker. Sometimes even a flare. But it’s quickly gone. Quickly out of our grasp.

 

Be patient with us. We know you don’t understand. Yet. We won’t be like this forever. We’re reaching for the light. We’ll get there.

 

We know that one day there’ll be:

No more mourning

No more crying

No more pain

Peace on earth

Peace in our hearts

 

So let us be and give us space

One day we’ll emerge from the darkness

Thank you for understanding

 

And peace to you this Christmas

Ebb and Flow

This summer we moved to West Cornwall, our favourite place in the world. It’s the place where we have come on holiday every summer ever since the children were tiny – and most May half-terms and Easters, too. It’s the place where my husband was born and where he brought me back in the days when we were dating. It’s the place where we went on to have one of those unspoken conversations which couples have, and after which we both knew we’d somehow made a promise to one another; that a line had been drawn in the Cornish sand. It’s the place which has birthed at least one novel from me and which I hope will go on to birth many more. In any case, it’s a new chapter for all of us.

This morning I took my dog to a beach that I haven’t been to since the children were small. We had stopped coming because it gets so crowded during the holidays (especially since it’s been used to film the moodier and more romantic scenes for a well-known TV series).

In my mind, the place was a vast sandy beach with loads of space for running around. (The TV series certainly gives that impression too, from the long shots of windswept waves and towering granite cliffs.) My kids used to race back and forth from the waves at low tide, shrieking and laughing as the cold water splashed them. In my mind, it was a perfect place to take my young dog – the only member of the family who still delights in such simple pleasures. Dogs are not allowed on the beaches in the summer, but now that October is here, it’s open season. So I got up early, thinking of spending a good hour running about on the sand with the dog.

But when we got down to the cove I saw that memory had played its old tricks on me again: the beach was tiny! There wasn’t really much room for the dog to run at all, and I’d paid for a full two hours in the car park. I went and stood at the tide line and stared out to sea, letting the memories wash over me. All those sandcastles. All those picnics. There was the time my son insisted on making a “sand car”, complete with steering wheel and gear stick. There was the time we were the first to arrive on the beach and one of us shouted, “Dolphins!” We ran down to the water, stripping off and jumping into swimsuits as we ran, then plunging in, we swam out to greet them. The dolphins squealed and squeaked and we laughed and clapped as the beautiful creatures leaped and turned and played with us.

Then were the times when my daughter wouldn’t get out of the water, even though her lips were blue, while my son would start crying from the cold – he was so small and skinny. He would beg for biscuits and snuggle up to me for warmth, wrapped in his yellow towel with its little duck-faced hood. He is six-foot tall and muscle-bound now and would rather die than be seen crying. Or snuggling with his mum.

As I watch the sea coming in, I am painfully aware of how much time has past. I can’t stop time any more than I can stop the tides. I can’t bring back those wriggly little bodies who danced in and out of the waves, try as I might to conjure them up. Maybe that’s why I have a dog. I watch as she jumps in and out of the water, so overexcited her tail is whirring round and round like a helicopter blade. Her legs can’t keep up with her body; she is full to the brim of the feelings that running wild bring. She cannot contain herself. She is uninhibited by the worries and anxiety that adolescence and young adulthood bring. She is innocence and freedom and youth and joy. As my kids once were.

I walk along the tide line and look down at the shells, and I remember all the times I’ve beach-combed with my children and collected our finds in bowls and jars. I have an urge to pick up shells and pieces of sea-frosted glass right now, but who am I collecting them for? My family is as scattered now as the shells that lie strewn across the beach.

But I can’t stand and waste the morning in mourning. Life moves on, as inexorably as the tides. I can’t stop it, so I shall just have to go with the ebb and the flow. And see what this new chapter brings.

IMG_2749

Father’s Day

I am determined not to be sad this year. I have moved on. Father’s Day is about my husband’s role as father to our two kids. I decide to get on with packing for our imminent house move, to be proactive and to focus on the future.

Inevitably, though, this sends me to the boxes of letters and photos and school certificates and postcards and assorted memorabilia that I brought back from Mum and Dad’s over two years ago. I thought I had done a pretty good job of sorting when first I emptied my childhood home, but the boxes and bags have undergone two or three different stages of sifting since then. Each time I have felt able to let go of things. And today I will let go of more. I am strong enough now to throw out a whole envelope of fuzzy black and white photos which in the fug of grief I could not bear to part with. I can now discard the cards from people I have never met, the invitations from people who mean nothing to me, the maps and tickets and postcards from holidays taken before I was born.

Yet of course there is some scrap of paper somewhere in all of this that has the power to ambush me. I tell myself this isn’t so, that I am doing well, being ruthless: filling up recycling bags, not allowing myself a second glance at diaries or newspaper clippings, not allowing myself to feel sentimental over a recipe for quiche carefully cut from a magazine. Then I lift a file and there it is: the morsel that has been lying in wait to undo me. Song lyrics written in Italian in Dad’s hand – a song I remember him learning in his Italian classes with Mum:

Manca sollecita
più dell’usato,
ancor che s’agiti
con lieve fiato,
face che palpita
presso al morir,

face che palpita
presso al morir.

I have never learned Italian, so I have to look up a translation. It seems the lyrics are old and hard to translate into modern English. One version I find is: a flame that is flickering close to its end will die quickly, more quickly than usual, even though the breeze that makes it flicker is a light one. 

I find the song on YouTube and play it back. In the deep, doleful music I hear Dad’s voice. He loved to sing. He loved to learn new languages. Maybe he wrote these lyrics down in an attempt to learn them by heart. Maybe there is no significance at all to the fact that they survived being thrown away by him before he died. But it seems suddenly as though the words are steeped in significance – in a meaning personal to Dad. Because that’s what he was: a bright flame, a light that blazed. And he did die quickly in the end. He seemed to be doing well right up until his last week, and then his lungs began to fill, he became confused and sleepy and then he just slipped away. As though a light breeze had snuffed him out.

I know I am being ridiculous, behaving as though somehow Dad has reached out beyond the grave to give me this sad little note on Father’s Day. But I miss him so much, I’ll take any bit of solace I can right now.

Letting Go

IMG_5019It is almost four years since you died. The summer was much like this one: cold and grey and wet. It didn’t matter much then. None of us was bothered about getting outside. We wanted to sit with you; spend as much time as we could with you. We wanted to hold back time, to stop its flow, to halt it in its tracks. We couldn’t, of course.

This morning I went to the river. It was a day that most people would shun. Mid-June, and yet the air was barely 10 degrees. I have no idea what temperature the water was. You wouldn’t have cared. You would have been out in your canoe, looking for kingfishers, given half a chance.

I lowered myself in by the weir. The river was black and silver under a slate-grey sky. I looked down, but the water was so dark I couldn’t see the tiny fish I knew were there. I couldn’t see the pebbly bed, dotted with mussel shells. I waded out of the shallows and dipped my shoulders down and pushed away. The cold cloaked me like a silvery shroud. The current was strong. The rains of the past couple of weeks have filled the basin – in some places it has already burst its banks. Here, in the shallows, is the only safe place to get in. I had to push and kick, push and kick to get away from the pull of the weir, out into the wider water.

And then I was free to swim more slowly, to breathe more deeply. I fixed my eyes on the mother mallard ahead of me. Last week she was sitting on the pontoon, nestling her brood beneath her, sheltering them from the world. This week she has been teaching them to swim, to break free. I watched as she fussed around them. She kept one dark eye on my bobbing head, opening her beak in a low warning quack. It’s all right, I told her. I won’t hurt them. The ducklings milled around, unsure of their direction. One broke free, boldly making for the lilies, then turned back, startled by the drops of rain from the overhanging trees.

I thought of my own brood. My daughter, your granddaughter, is about to start her placement year, going into hospitals in and around Birmingham to continue her studies in medicine. She is only twenty. She is going to be seeing things I will never have to see; dealing with things I would not have any idea how to tackle. At twenty I was carefree, innocent. I had no idea what to do with my life. I was still following you and Mum. I was not bold enough to break free, even for an instant. My son, your grandson, is desperate to forge his own path. He has been straining at the leash for years now. Ever since you died.

The river was drawing me back. I was getting tired and could feel the cold taking hold of my hands and feet. I decided, reluctantly, to turn back. The current immediately caught me and propelled me. I hardly had to move to stay afloat. I thought of my new path, the one I am about to take. I am moving away from this place soon, following my heart, following the river, letting it take me to the sea. My husband and I have always talked of this, since the first day he took me to his family’s place in Cornwall. It was the place where we fell in love, the place where we looked at each other and knew that we wanted this to be for ever. I have resisted this change though. Since you died, I have not wanted any more change. Your death, Mum’s death, the loss of my childhood home – it has all been too much. There has been too much letting go. I have not wanted to let go of this place as well.

But this morning, as I turned and let the current take me, I realised that letting go is what I need to do again. And again. And again. That this is part of what life teaches us. That sometimes you just can’t fight the current any more. You need to turn and let it take you where it will.

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Reflections

I am taking my last walk of the year. I have chosen to walk along the river as the farmer has re-opened the path after months of grazing his cattle here. It is a relief to be back on my preferred route, away from the thoroughfare of the towpath and well-trodden lanes. I can breathe down here, below the canal, away from the cyclists and other dog-walkers. I need to breathe today, to take in all that has been and gone these past twelve months.

I scout out my summer swimming holes while my new dog sniffs at the base of trees, trying to decipher the messages left by other dogs, badgers, foxes and who knows what. I can’t swim today. My slipways are choked with mud and weeds. In any case the water runs too high and too fast. To every thing there is a season.

I watch my dog instead. She was born after you both died. She came to me as a gift when I most needed her. She has shown me how to live and laugh and love again.

I watch a heron rise, its wings spread wide in a New Year’s blessing. This year began with grief and loss. It started shrouded in white; it forced me to stop and take stock of what had gone and what was left. A golden summer followed, bathing that grief in warmth and the kindness of friends, old and new. And swims. So many swims. Swims which unlocked me, broke the chains and set me loose. I used that summer of freedom to write it all down: the pain, the confusion, the anger, the heartbreak.

And now, as the year draws to a close, I find myself looking forward more than I am looking back – more than I have ever looked forward before. I am looking to the day my last child leaves for university. I am looking to the plans my husband and I are making for our empty-nested future. I am realising now all that you suffered when I left home, and I am sad that you couldn’t look forward, only back, for the future frightened you with its bleached-white page.

Whereas I am excited by the possibilities it offers. I am looking forward to the day that my words will spring to life in print. Yes, a publisher has taken my words and is going to transform them into a book – a “grown-up book”, which is what you always hoped I would write. I can’t help wondering, though, would you be happy with the words I have chosen? They are about you, after all. Somehow I doubt you would be comfortable with my subject matter, even though they belong to your preferred genre: non-fiction.

And what of Dad? What would he say? I think he would probably stay silent, preferring to take your side. But privately, perhaps, on a one-to-one, maybe as we strolled along the river on a day like today, he might have put his arm around me, kissed my head and whispered, “Well done, Annakins. Well done.”