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.

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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.

 

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.

Love in Pen and Ink

When I was expecting my daughter, Mum got it into her head that I needed to sort through all the belongings that remained in my childhood home and either take them with me or throw them away. This was how I found myself on a dark, blustery December afternoon, crouched, eight months pregnant, in the attic of my parents’ house, sifting through boxes and bags and old suitcases.

I had always hated the attic, mainly because of the fear instilled in me from an early age that if I went up there I would fall through the floorboards, on to the soft insulation and through the ceiling of the room below. I hated the ladder – the rattling metallic announcement it made as it came catapulting down from the hatch. I hated the way that noise was distorted so that voices from the road outside could sound as though they were somewhere much nearer, lurking in the rafters with me. I hated the smell: the fusty, dusty, mildewed smell of old cloth and paper. And I hated the dark and the piles and piles of stuff, thrown up there, willy-nilly – a graveyard of possessions.

This time though, I was aware, possibly for the first time, that my mother had herself once been an excited and fearful first-time parent. That here, in cardboard boxes and old trunks and cases, were remnants and reminders of that time. As I pulled out a tiny, moth-eaten hand-knitted cardigan, a smocked Viyella dress, a teething ring and a plastic bag full of cards congratulating my parents on my birth, I realised that this would one day be the fate of all the items I was now amassing in preparation for my daughter’s arrival.

While I was sorting through old toys and clothes and school books, I sat down heavily on a grey metal-framed suitcase, only to find to my dismay that I had crushed it under the weight of my advancing pregnancy and that items were spewing from its sides, like jam oozing from a doughnut. I pushed myself up, intending to try to push the contents back – then stopped. The suitcase had been full of envelopes: hundreds of them. I shone a torch on them and saw the inimitable italic hand of my dad on some and my mother’s equally inimitable scrawl on the rest. I knew what they were, of course. I couldn’t bring myself to open them. It felt wrong – that while they were, at that moment, downstairs watching TV, drinking coffee, waiting for me to come down, I was up here, holding in my hands their youthful promises of love and devotion spilled out on to sheets of Basildon Bond in blue and black ink. They would never have imagined these pages would be read by anyone but each other. I couldn’t be the one to break the spell.

Fast-forward nearly twenty years, and I am now in full possession of those letters. I have sifted through so much of my parents’ lives by now that it doesn’t feel so bad, taking the letters out of the bag I carried them home in on the day we emptied our childhood home. I have read so many private things, gone through so many personal effects, been a silent witness to so many decisions made for me and my sister before we were aware of them. I haven’t read the letters properly yet, though. It has still felt like an intrusion too far. I am torn. Should I let their marriage rest in peace?

But watching my own children reach the age when my parents met each other for the first time, I feel a growing urge to open those musty, mildewed envelopes. I feel an overwhelming need to know my parents better – to understand them as the young people they once were, with all their hopes, dreams and fears. I need to know the man and the woman behind the labels Mum and Dad, in the same way that I sometimes long for my own children to see the real me behind the facade of (M)otherness.

And so I put aside a day in which to date-order the letters. I figure I am ready to read this chapter of their story, that I know it anyway from anecdote and hearsay, and that this is just more cataloguing – another part of the process of letting Dad go. I am not prepared for the surge of grief which hits me when I open the bag. Just that smell has me spinning back in time to the day in the attic when I first found them. I am undone by the force of my parents’ young love for one another, by the fact that for the best part of four years they appear to have written to each other almost every day.

‘What is the point?’ I hear myself crying. ‘All these words. All this love. All gone.’

As if in answer, the next envelope I pick up has a small bundle of photos inside. I flick through them, my face wet with tears, and see three photos of my dad in his late teens, sitting and talking to his parents. I gasp, dropping them, as though stung. A hand has flung itself out across the seas of time to wave these photos in my face.

Because it is my son in those photos. It is my son in that lanky body, that buzz-cut hair, that smile, that little frown, those gesticulating hands. My son is staring out at me from my father’s face.

So there it is. The point. All those words. All that love. It hasn’t gone. It is still here, triumphant, thumbing its nose at death while it lives on in new life.

 

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Mum has always hated Christmas. The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .

For most of our adult lives, my sister and I have not been able to understand her attitude towards it. Why, for example, would she insist on calling at the beginning of September to ask us our plans? Why would she need to know that early on precisely where we would be convening and who would be invited? Why would she need to know exactly what we, our partners and our children wanted as presents?

‘Don’t tell me!’ I would blurt out, trying to interrupt her before she reeled off a list of the gifts that were all ready, wrapped and waiting in her wardrobe before the first leaves had fallen from the trees.

As children, my sister and I would be shielded from much of Mum’s festive-based anxiety. We spent Christmas either down the road from us at our grandparents’ house, or at our uncle’s. Mum was presumably thus spared much of the shopping and cooking and decorating and anything else that caused her stress.

Looking back, Mum is almost invisible in my early childhood Christmases. I remember playing games and watching Morecambe and Wise in my grandparents’ sitting room. I remember the tree, dug from the garden every year, sitting in its pot, covered in coloured lights and tinsel. I remember my uncle wearing silly Christmas hats. I remember him and my dad telling jokes and doing their Goon Show routine as they did the washing up together. I remember the meal around the dining table, its size struggling to cope with the extra people and food. I remember my cousins arriving when I was 7 and 9 years old, adding an extra layer of excitement to the anticipation of Christmas. And I remember the table eventually admitting defeat as we and our cousins grew bigger and the four of us took up as much place and food as our parents and grandparents. That was when we decamped to my uncle’s much larger house near Winchester.

My aunt always loved Christmas. In temperament at least, she was Bob Crachit to my mother’s Scrooge. She was an only child, and freely admitted that she was making up for her own childhood in the Christmases she now hosted. Christmas to her meant fun and noise and laughter and lots and lots of people. It meant dressing up for a lavish Christmas Eve supper. It meant a house decorated in every room, Christmas music playing and the largest tree I had ever seen. It meant ‘tree presents’ as well as ‘main presents’, midnight mass in the local cathedral, and food, glorious food. If there weren’t enough beds for everyone, beds were found or made up out of whatever was available. We played charades, went for long, frosty walks with their dog, watched films on the big TV in the converted attic room and we drank champagne long before we were legally allowed to.

And Mum could not cope with any of it.

My happy reminiscences of time with my cousins is marred by memories of my mother’s black mood which would usually kick in some time late on Christmas afternoon. I have no doubt that an excess of alcohol was the trigger, but it was a mood which had been cooking slowly along with the turkey since our arrival on Christmas Eve. No one was ever prepared for the explosion; either for what would cause it or how it would be manifest. One year it was simply the fact that my aunt had cooked ‘too many potatoes’ which then built to a full-blown rant on how my aunt ‘always did everything to excess’. Another year it might have been a rage over something that was happening on the political stage, prompted by an innocent opposing point of view from someone else in the family. It could also have been the simple case that my aunt, unlike my father, grandparents and uncle, had not spent years living alongside my mother, and therefore had not understood that the best path to take was often the one of least resistance. In any case, we were in her house, so why should she put up with my mother’s behaviour? And so the rows between Mum and my aunt usually escalated, scattering the rest of us to the four corners of the house to play with presents, watch telly, wash up or nap until the storm had passed.

As my teenage years progressed, I became more and more acutely aware of the effect of Christmas on my mother. It was a flashpoint in the year that I came to dread. Her depression would kick in around the time my sister and I went back to school and would darken and deepen along with the shortening days. By Christmas she was often stuck in a mire of misery that no amount of coaxing could shift. Until a match was struck and the rage was lit.

As adults, my sister and I tried to make things right. We invited everyone to our own homes, taking it in turn every year to have our parents for the Christmas period. But this seemed to make things worse, particularly if we introduced new ‘traditions’ or cooked food in an unexpected way. We grew to dread having our parents for Christmas and would phone each other after every visit for a post mortem, tallying off the latest transgressions and disasters.

The last time I had my parents to my house for Christmas, Dad was already very tired from managing Mum and was complaining of a sore leg. They both had chest infections. Mum was on antibiotics and obsessing over what time to take them, following me around like a lost puppy, whining and complaining and driving me mad. It was not a good time. It was, however, a million miles away from what lay ahead. Unbeknownst to all of us, we were about to enter the most frightening time of our lives. Mum was sliding towards a period of high anxiety which would lead to a diagnosis of psychosis and subsequent admittance to a mental health wing. And Dad was brewing a hideous form of cancer in his leg which would eventually claim him.

Last year was our first Christmas without Mum and Dad. Dad had passed away that summer. My grandparents are long gone and my aunt passed away unexpectedly six years ago. And Mum had already firmly turned her back on the world by then. Christmas is now a non-event, something she can choose to ignore. She stays in her room, as she does every day, and waits for it to pass.

I understand now that Christmas, for a person with Asperger’s, is something close to experiencing all their worst nightmares at once.The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .

The irony is, Christmas in my house is no longer the noisy, surprise-filled occasion it once was. I have teenagers who sleep in and are no longer so enamoured with playing charades. It is a far more predictable event: a time for hibernation, reading and long walks.

Mum would probably prefer it.