Dear Mum, I miss you….

Dear Mum

I saw your face this morning on my Facebook News Feed – once again I was blind-sided and melted into tears. It’s a face I miss seeing so much. Your smile with your sparkling eyes – knowing I can’t catch it ‘live’ again, ever, hits me in the gut each time I see your image.

It’s that one of you and Jacob – taken at our house when we were actually in Italy and all the rest of you were celebrating Hannah’s 21st birthday. Jacob is such a sweetie and you were always at your sunniest with a baby on your knee. And they seemed to love you, didn’t they? I’m thinking of that other one of you watching Jess and Izzy opening the sweets you’d given them. I miss how they loved to search in that wardrobe drawer for the chocolate you kept there for them. Just a couple of months ago, our Ali fancied some chocolate and was half way up the stairs before she remembered there was no chocolate there any more, because there was no wardrobe, because there was no you.

No you. I don’t seem to be any closer accepting it. I ache today with the missing of you – the absence of you. It’s not that I ache all the time – or at least I’m not aware of the pain. It’s that it keeps washing over me like waves of desolation that leave me trying to right myself up because they’ve knocked me off my feet once again. Turned the ground beneath me to sand that slips and slides when I’m trying to stride out. I have a feeling striding out is not going to be possible for a good while.

I missed you today as Ronnie started High School and Sammy started a new job. You’d have loved seeing him in his smart uniform. Sammy will have a uniform too. I’m so proud of her. You’d be delighted in her and in my pride. And Hannah’s birthday tomorrow. A whole year since that party. You’d have bought your card weeks ago. And slipped her extra pocket money for her Vegas holiday.

I missed you in the garden centre a few weeks ago. I just wanted a rhododendron. I simply wanted to go in, pick one, come home and plant it. All to make a corner of the garden a little brighter – cheerier. Even as I parked up I knew it would start. I could feel that now familiar tightening of stomach muscles and I started to brace myself for it.  I put on this brusque demeanour and strode purposefully away from the threat of grief, through the displays of cards, gloves, ornaments and bags –  but it caught up with me as I entered the plant display area. I looked at the roses and just knew it was with me; I hadn’t left anything. It wrapped its arms around me and the tears spilled all down my face so I couldn’t even see the bloody roses! I just felt you at my side telling me how beautiful they were. And probably urging me to pick one – because you know I love roses, don’t you? Then there was this incredible display of cottage garden perennials and I know you would have gasped at it, “Oh, just look at those” and you’d want to stop and smell and have a look at the labels. How many times have we meandered round a garden centre, Mum? How many times have we filled our trolleys with a dozen plants neither of us planned to buy?

Then I realized why I’d found the garden a difficult place this summer. It wasn’t just time and lack of it. It was because out there, I have to think of you. I might have gone weeks without talking to you sometimes, but always, always something about the garden or about plants, would be in our conversation when we spoke. It’s what you were about. And it makes me ache with the emptiness of your absence whenever I’m in my own garden or in a nursery or something. Just looking at someone else’s place too can bring me down. Like when the Magnolia flowered this Spring. You knew, I’m sure of it, that you’d never see it bloom. I loved that it was a “Stellar” – my star of a mother shining away. You’d have loved it – and it has pride of place down by the Mountain Ash that you loved in our garden (once we’d agreed that that’s what it was!). It flowered only for a few weeks, but it was stunning in its beautiful simplicity. White blooms, so pure and bright against the deep green of the Laurel. But not lasting long. Reminding me that none of us do. We’re all only here for a very short time.

It’s perfectly natural to lose your Mum when you’re in your sixties. Eighty-nine is a great age – and you lived life well and full. You had an incredibly positive impact on so many lives and so many people loved you. So we have much to be thankful for. I get all that and I’m content that you are with our Lord in eternity – though I’ve yet to grasp what that means. For now, I simply accept that somewhere, in some time, you live on and you are now fulfilled and happier than you ever were and that we will see you again.

That sort of helps, in the longer-term. But in the right here-and-now-term, it doesn’t help one bit! Because it’s now, today, in the garden; at the end of the phone; active on Facebook; sitting by me in the car; nattering away in my kitchen; talking my ears off as we trundle round shops – that’s when I want you and need you. I don’t want to wait till I leave this earth and join you in everlasting glory.

I cannot bear to think too hard about Christmas. I didn’t even have it on my radar till I saw that I was down to preach on the 16th December. The weekend we plan to inter your ashes with Dad’s. I felt sick at the thought. I realised that, in the background of my mind, the dread of meeting the one year milestone had been building. Confronted with the reality of something I clearly would not be able to do, hit me hard. I think that set me off. Reminded me that I had never travelled far from the place of broken-heartedness that losing me you had put me in. I can’t even bear to think of decorating the Church – something I’ve done for last three years. I used to tell you what we were planning and you were so great at helping me with ideas. You loved hearing about it all. You loved all that was going on in our lives.

You’ll be pleased to know we’re clinging on to one another. Me and the other girls. We see our bro too from time to time. We’re planning a holiday to commemorate what would have been your 90th birthday. It will be such a hoot. Over in Bridlington. Didn’t we have some good times over on the East coast the last few years? That picture of you nearly blowing away in Scarborough is one I treasure.

I missed you when Lou and I walked on Flamborough Head. I thought about how you used to sit in the car and read while we went off walking. Remember Cayton Bay? And you’re not there now – pretending you hadn’t been asleep. “Just resting my eyes a little” And you’re not anywhere to be found.

You’re not here to advise me. Counsel me. To listen to my moans and groans. To tell me what you’ve been up to. To play that confounded Word game with! To laugh at the tales of what Jess and Isabella have been up to. I want to tell you how Cat is in another play. I’d like to show you photos of how her children are growing up so fast. I want to tell you all about New Wine this summer. I want to see you smile. I really need to see your smile. And I want you here to believe in me. No one has ever believed in me like you. My greatest cheer-leader. The one who urged me on. My fiercely proud mum. Where the bloody hell are you?

I want you here. Now. I want this aching of heart and soul to go away. I don’t want to keep crying in garden centres. I want to lift the deep sadness that has settled on me and push it away. Yet I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll lose you completely– you won’t be there at all. The absence of you is all that I have of you – like an indentation in a seat or a crumpled cushion. The pain of you not being here comforts me because it reminds me you were here. I’m therefore left with something that is not a nothingness. I’d rather cry than not remember. At least aching is feeling.

I do miss you, Mum.

Love and hugs,

Your daughter

*****

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Our Gran – by Becci

“Our Gran” by Becci Turnbull

 

Today we remember you and say our last good bye,

 

We will celebrate the life you lived as you watch us from the sky

You’ve been so influential gran and we thank you for all you’ve done,

Coming to see you was always so much fun

Baking, running holiday club and playing fuzzy-felts

You’d always keep us busy, with 34 grandchildren in the house

We probably made you dizzy

 

Apart from Alex, who could do no wrong,

Oh far from it with those grommets haha

 

We’ll miss those muffin like Yorkshire pics,

Your famous eggy bread and your breakfast toast,

But you being here gran is what we’ll miss the most

 

We love you gran, but now it’s time to fly,

Although our hearts are breaking its time to say goodbye

We’ll keep you in our memories, we hope that you can see,

Although you are so far away you’ll always be the heart of our family

Fierce Love – Tribute to Our Mum

Our Mum was fierce – like a tiger. Let me tell you about her.

She was the best of mothers and we loved her dearly. But she would be the first to say she wasn’t perfect. She thought it was wrong to think too highly of yourself and that was something she instilled in us as we grew up (sometimes more forcefully than we might have liked). My sister, Lucille, well remembers what she said to her when my sister was anxious about people looking at her on a particular social occasion “Who’s going to be looking at you? There are far more interesting and important people to look at!”

 

She could be scary – especially when riled. We might be able to twist our dad round our fingers, but we knew Mum wasn’t to be messed with. She had no truck with excuses if the list of chores she’d left us to do hadn’t been done. Our family was definitely a Matriarchy. What she said was the rule – no matter how illogical! Woe betide us if we broke those rules – or even try to argue the logic.

Tigers defend their own though. No one dared mess with her children unless they wanted the lash of her tongue – and that could be a stinging lashing, let me assure you. I still delight in the memory of her making mincemeat of my Maths teacher at a parents’ evening. He was left in no doubt that it was his teaching that was at fault and not my inability to learn. And the teacher who told her my brother was ‘ineducable’ – he had a speech defect as child and struggled to learn to read – well, the poor woman was left trembling after Mum had finished with her. There was one time, over 30 years ago, when an elderly gent in this church, tore a strip off me for the dreadful behaviour of my two-year-old Samantha. Mum saw me and Sammy crying, flew down the path, overtook him just as he reached his car. Oh boy, he regretted his words. He could hardly drive his car for shaking.

She would always be on our side – in public. We might get a good telling off out of sight, or even a thick ear, but she always stuck up for us in front of others.

Who will have our backs now – the way she did?

Who will give us the sort of support that had her sitting up all night, sewing costumes for pantomimes, shows, rose queen pageants? Who will make us the latest fashions – hot pants, maxi dresses, penny-round shirts, so that we’d always be well dressed and that no one could look down on us? Who will decipher the sketches made on the back of bus tickets of something we needed making – the top like that, the skirt like that? And who will forget to take the pins out of the seams of our home-made clothers?

Who will root through every drawer, every cupboard, every handbag to scrape together the money needed for a school trip we so desperately wanted to go on? And who’ll go without new dresses or a holiday herself, so that her precious children, could go skiing in the Cairngorms, or kayaking in Wales, or on an exchange trip to France?

Mum believed in us fiercely. “You can be anything you want to be – if you set your heart on it” My sister, Ali, would never have gone for it and took on her dancing school, if not for mum’s belief in her. She sewed, raised funds, acted as ‘unpaid secretary’, taking calls, placing orders and doing everything she could to make sure it worked out. And who clapped the loudest when Sandra marched with the QAs as a nurse in the Army? Who cheered the most when I was in plays, or applauded the longest when I graduated? Who bought us walking boots and swelled with pride when Lou and I walked 100k? Mum could do ‘proud’ like no one else.

Who will cheer us on now?

She wasn’t the greatest of cooks. We all have wonderful memories of warm muffins on Sunday afternoons and steaming hotpots. But there were also Yorkshire puddings that resembled rubber that even the birds refused. Liver you could line your boots with. Gravy that had to be sliced not poured. She loved reading, much preferred it to housework – seldom was she seen without a book in her hand; but Mum holding a mop or a sweeping brush or even a duster is not an image any of us can recall.

At one time or another, we’ve all ended up back home. No matter how old we were, or what had happened to bring us back, her door was open to us and the children we towed along with us. Before we’d hung our coat up, she’d have our kids enrolled in school, was taking them to Brownies, Cubs, Sunday School and Holiday clubs – all smoothly done, with a huge smile on her face – caring for them as we got ourselves back on our feet. She embraced the children of our partners and they became her grandchildren overnight; treated them the same as those of her own blood.

She was an intelligent woman, no doubt about that. She also had a mule-like stubbornness that defied all logic at times. Try as I might to convince her of French and Italian pronunciations, she still insisted that it was a Kwich Lorraine, a seeabata loaf and that those green things were manjaytoots! And garlic – well that was a thing of the devil. As was pasta – olives – chilli – curry – and yoghurt. And she could never politely and quietly refuse these things – “Oh no no no!” with a face contorted with disgust, was her reply, as if we were offering her snails to eat!

But she also cared fiercely. She had time for people – enjoyed listening to their stories. She was the one on our estate when we were kids who everyone came to for advice and comfort. She has always been the one to ‘go-to’.

She was well able to voice her opinion. And she was rarely wrong – in her opinion. She could be demanding. Who else will leave a voice message “Beverley, it’s your mother. Remember me? Ring if you can find my number that you’ve obviously lost!” or “John! The “E’s’ gone off my laptop again and nothing’s coming in or going out. You’ll have to come and sort it – I’ve got to send prayers round tonight”

 

And let anyone dare distribute wedding flowers before she had given instructions! Believe me, her stick could become a javelin if crossed in such a way! Lucille’s partner will vouch for that.

Mum also loved fiercely. First, above all, she loved God and really did serve him with her heart and soul and for all of her days. She loved in a way that was unwavering and deeply loyal. She married her teenage sweetheart, my lovely dad, and he was always the only man for her. He suffered her temper, her nagging (which she termed ‘encouragement for improvement’), her strange logic and demands for certain traditions to be upheld – which led to him being thrown out the back door every NYE, kept out there till the bells had finished and let back in carrying coal, whisky, sugar and a sixpence. He died 34 years ago and she still had his pyjamas and pillow in her own bed.

It is her love that we shall miss the most. The strength of it. The force of it. The way the whole family revolved around it and were held together by it. Love which compelled her to save all year and take all her grown-up children out for a meal on HER birthday. Love which dictated she keep a drawer full of chocolate for the little ones who visited. Love that urged her to spend time on every holiday or day out looking for something the children could do at Messy Church or Rock Solid or for a flower arrangement. It was her love that fiercely shone when, only minutes after being given her terminal diagnosis, was galvanised into list-making – all the children she hadn’t bought Christmas gifts for had to be sorted. That same love had her sitting by her hospital bed writing cards to each of her children and grandchildren – painstakingly checking the list that Alison must follow to insert money into each one. When her fierceness began to ebb away, it was an honour and a privilege for my younger sisters and me to serve her by caring for as she was dying.

Today, while the pain of her death is still so raw – it feels as if her love has taken a leave of absence and that where we once revolved round her, we now revolve round an empty space. A gaping wound. It hurts and there are times we feel like howling.

But actually, I don’t believe that her love has gone. It was God-given and I think it lives on in all of us – that somehow, through being together it will be pooled and recreated; replenished and revived and passed on to our children’s children and beyond. It was too strong, too fierce to be quenched. The light of our Mum’s fierce love was far too bright to be put out.

 

Falling Apart and Holding Together

It’s two weeks almost since Mum died, a week before Christmas Day – since the light of her dazzling smile was last seen. We have cried so many tears our jaws ache and our eyes sting  – it feels as though it helps to cry – you think you’ve finished – then off you go again, triggered at the sight of a flower or a compassionate voice. This morning it was the Magnolia that did it. She bought it for my 60th birthday, insisting we got it months before the date, as they were in season then. It was a small shrub and she helped me choose it at the Garden Centre we often visited together. As I carried food waste to the compost heap earlier, there it was, singing to me with a profusion of tight buds covering it. It will give me a riot of flowers in the Spring – and she won’t be here to see them. Will they comfort me then?

Death is horrible. It rips those who watch it apart – it drains them. Forget all that ‘wasn’t it wonderful that she was surrounded by her loved ones’ business – it’s actually bollocks (‘scuse the language). No matter who is there, it’s unpleasant, heart-breaking and downright mean. It’s an affront. An assault. Death grabbed my mother, took her away from us when we need her here. Well, that’s how I feel right now. I’m not in the mood to be pacified or calmed by the comforting words, that I’ve used with other people and no doubt will use again, despite this. Right now, at this minute, I want to howl from the rooftops that I want my mum. I want her back with us. And if she could just be back for a little longer, I promise I will never be irritated when she asks me to rub her legs for the twentieth time at 3am; I won’t grit my teeth as she turns down yet another lovingly prepared meal; or argues with me that her bible needs to go there, no not there, but just there! I won’t sigh with exasperation when she demands I phone the optician to return to check her glasses, even though I know fine well she isn’t going to pick that book up and read. I will be patient. I will be kind. I promise.

Let me tell you of her dying. We had watched her becoming frailer after her diagnosis of Cholangiocarcinoma at the end of October. I write about this in Companions at Journey’s end. I said more in Reason to be about how this has become our identity – daughters of a dying mum. And we thought we were prepared. We expected it. The only unknown was the ‘when’. And the best thing, in the middle of this horror, was that we had such good professional support. Particularly, a caring and compassionate GP. Mum would not need to suffer in pain at the end of her life. Well, once again, I have to say, that was ‘bollocks’ and I’m not asking to be excused this time.

Mum spent much of her last day in this life in terrible pain. It was horrible to watch. She died on the Monday and on the Friday before, she had become so much more unsteady and my sister and I realised we would have to make a decision very soon about insisting she was nursed in bed – it was becoming unsafe for her to try to walk to the commode any more. By Sunday afternoon, the decision was taken out of our hands as her leg gave way when my sister was helping her to bed. Thankfully our daughters live close by and were able to help lift her to bed using a blanket. She was not distressed, but obviously very weary. By now she was hardly eating at all. Sips of soup, teaspoons of custard – but little else. She’d stopped reading; she wanted to talk less and less. Our plan, made over the phone that night, was to increase the carers to four times a day; ask GP to call to review; the district nurses would come in the morning anyway. The bedroom furniture was further rearranged and the bed pulled away from the wall to make nursing easier.

Events quickly overtook us. At 5 in the morning, my sister called an ambulance as she was struggling to clear her secretions. We’d been advised that the paramedics would be able to make her more comfortable, even though she would not want to go to hospital. Wrong! They were almost insistent that she go into hospital. My sister was made to feel as though she was obstructing treatment. After an hour of wrangling with them, all the time my mum telling them she did not want to go, a call was made to the on-call GP (what a useless system that is, for someone dying!!) who did an ‘over-the-phone’ assessment and agreed that staying at home was in  her best interests. Oxygen had rallied mum and she was a little brighter. The doctor told us he would leave a message with her own GP for an  urgent visit.

After half and hour, mum was clearly in pain, had become very weak and was distressed. I set off to drive across the Pennines to be with them all. My niece, daughter and sister were all round her bed, upset and anxious when I got there. Mum was dying – it was obvious now. there would be no coming back from this. He breathing was laboured; she was wracked with pain. She was SUFFERING. Lou had phoned the GP to be told by a receptionist that the doctor would come after surgery – at lunchtime! In the meantime, we had to watch our mum crying weakly in agony. I held her hand and sang the 23rd psalm to her – the Stuart Townend version, her favourite. As I sang the words “I will trust in you alone”, it sank in that no one else can be trusted. We had been assured that this very event would not be allowed to occur and yet here she was in the most awful pain – and there we were helplessly watching and trying to comfort her.

We tried MacMillan; the district nurses – all were concerned but no one could help. We had to have a doctor to prescribe the drugs she needed. Why had they not already been prescribed? Good question! And one we are pursuing in complaint to the GP.  To cut the whole story short for now though – a GP finally arrived shortly after 2pm, prescribed the drugs, was followed back to the pharmacy by the district nurses who were back within half an hour and administered them promptly. Within minutes Mum was calm and mercifully free from pain. At peace.

My sisters, brother and I left her with the grandchildren and went with the district nurse to discuss what would happen over the next 24 hours or so. We left the nurse then, in the privacy of another bedroom to write up her notes. I’d hoped to take my youngest daughter home to feed her children – it’s 4pm now-  but was called back by my brother. He was sitting holding her hand; my sister on the other side of the bed with the youngest great-grandson in her arms, a month-old baby. With no further words, Mum let go of Paul’s hand and of life and with that she was gone from us.

Then we howled. Then we sobbed. Then we clung to each other. Horrid, horrid, horrid. Ripped apart by her exit. She brought us to this world and has left us not to cope without her. Even to the end, she did it stubbornly. That’s not the way, Mum. We were all meant to be there! You were meant to wait till after Christmas Day. It was all meant to be beautiful – not this bloody mess and wrangling with doctors and watching you suffer and feeling traumatised. You did it all wrong! Come back – can’t we try again? Do it better this time?

I ache with it all. I hate that she is not her at the end of line to speak to. That she won’t phone me and berate me about something I’d said I’d do and hadn’t got around to. That she isn’t there to make selfish demands on my time or my sisters’. That I will never see that smile again. Hear her laugh. Tell me that story – again – and again. And be there when my heart is breaking. Hold me and hug me when I need the warmth that only mums are able to give. I want her so bad and it hurts so much.

My mum and I shared a faith in God and the life to come. Of course, I know where she is and that she is free, restored and with God. Well, I think I know that. Today, my faith has been battered. I am  hoping it will hold me; my fingertips are barely holding on to it – but I am angry and in pain and it feels as if my grip could slip. What will hold me then? Where can I find peace? It evades me for now. God – we need to have words. I feel so very badly let down. She was such a good servant, Lord. Why did she suffer as she did? Take her, if you must, but not like that.

In our pain we cling to each other – my sisters, brother, daughters, nieces and nephews. We know that only we fully grasp how painful this is for each of us. Our hugs are plentiful. We talk into the early hours with each other. We text, message, share photographs. She was always at the centre of things, our mum, our grandmother – she laid a great foundation; as she has gone, so we come together and rotate around her absence, pulled closer to each other in our loss.

Reason To Be

It is six weeks almost (really? Only that long?!), since we found out that Mum’s time in this world was drawing to an end. I wrote about those very first days in Companions at Journey’s end. It helps – to write about it and to talk about it.  It’s easy to feel isolated – alone in all of this. We read on a website (I had typed “what to do when someone is dying” into a browser – because I really, really want to know what to do) that feeling as if you exist in some sort of bubble, as if life is now passing you by, as if you may not be able to concentrate on anything else, as if this, this waiting for death, is all that matters – all of that is normal. The relief we all felt was wonderful. We are so afraid of getting it wrong, Of making mistakes that will somehow ‘spoil’ what is left of our mum’s life.

Some of our questions are obvious, but seem frightening to vocalize. “Who do we ring first if she dies at night?”; “What happens to her body after she dies?”; “How do we arrange a funeral?” We hesitate about asking these questions out loud at first. And how much do we talk to mum about these things? Sometimes she seems clear and keen to discuss things life her personal effects and her funeral; her financial affairs and contacting people to say goodbye to. Other times, it is as though she is in denial about everything. She can hardly walk to the commode in the bedroom, yet demands that a stair lift be fitted so can come downstairs. She feels she is going stir-crazy in her bedroom. We doubt she will actually use it. Most of the day she is simply too exhausted to do anything. Having a drink wipes her out. Yet when someone visits, she rallies, drawing strength from some reserve deep within herself. She is delighted particularly when the little ones come – Oscar, Isabella, Jessica. She loves to watch them hunt in her drawers for the chocolate she has always hidden especially for them. She’s always loved babies and toddlers and they have always responded well to her. Last week, my sister and daughter felt the tears pressing on their eyes as they watched her press a coin into the hand of Cooper, the latest addition. A tradition she has upheld with every baby who is put in her arms.

She doesn’t rally much for us now. We have to accept that exhaustion is normal; fighting spirit is rare. She can’t sleep through the night; her legs and feet throb. She can’t lie down; he lungs feel as if they are being swamped with thick fluid. She feels totally listless and her interest in anything is diminishing daily. Sleep is her best friend, but eludes her too much to refresh her sufficiently.

Professionals are being marvellous. The community nurses bring dressings, pressure relief aids and their competency, which we grasp at. She gives them a hard time, refusing their offers of painkillers (fear of constipation!) and raised foot-stools (makes her legs hurt more). They try but they cannot please her. Carers are wonderful, giving us some respite and bringing another kind face into the mix. Allowing our inter-reactions with her to not always be about bodily functions. Allowing us to take a walk or go to the shop. They even wash pots and empty bins as they brightly chatter. We are becoming very fond of them.

The GP patiently explains what to expect; holds our hands as she tells us how to report the death when it happens; talks with us of practical things and puts her arms around us when we weep. Her compassion makes us cry more, but reassures us we are not alone and that we are cared about. All the time we know we are ‘in-waiting’, that this may last days, weeks, possibly months – the time is the one thing unknown.

As I walked to the shops a few days ago, with a list of things she wanted – prunes, jellies, tissues – and instructions to pay the papers out of  “that money, not the money you draw out” – I remember thinking that this was now my ‘reason-to-be’. Not that I was a vocational shopper, but that being ‘daughter-to-my-dying-mum’ was my reason right now. It has taken centre stage in my life, as it has in my sisters’. It is what we do right now, as I described before, we are ‘companions-at-journey’s-end’. Other things happen and life goes on; other people call on our time; jobs need to be done, but “this” is the “thing” that occupies most of our waking hours, interrupts our sleep, takes up much of thinking space and prevents us from making too many long-term plans. This is just how it is. And worse, if we feel even the slightest resentment about any of that, we hear an inner voice chastising us for being mean. Sharing with each other though, we have come to understand the normality of our thoughts and our questions.  We are not mean; just human and we’re feeling our way along a tricky path.

There is something of purpose in it; this ‘reason-to-be’. We are needed, we are treasured, we are occupied purposefully and mostly, there is nowhere else we want to be. This consuming of all of our time is what we give up willingly. It has focused us on how precious life is and how much we should revel in it. How it is only in relationships with each other that we truly come alive. We give and receive from one another and become more human in the exchange.

So, as I watch Isabella and Jessica rise up and down on the electric bed, laughing joyously and see mum smiling on at them, I remember my Gran and the huge love she had. That smile replicated on my mother’s face; that delight felt in my own heart; that beauty seen in my daughter watching them too and that laughter lighting up the room from my granddaughters. And I love that each of us pass something of ourselves, down through the generations, as we pass through this life, that will live on and light up other lives once we have passed on. More of what gives us reason to be.

 

Companions at Journey’s End

A few weeks ago my Mum turned yellow – seriously yellow! She actually  looked as if she was auditioning for the Simpsons.

“Mum, you’re yellow,” I told her, trying hard not to sound too alarmed. “Oh I know, your sister keeps saying that. I can’t see it myself and I don’t feel ill.”

We persuaded her eventually- not easily – to go to the GP.  I dreaded what my sister would tell me when she ‘phoned me that night. I could be wrong, I thought. Surely a damaged heart valve is enough to be living with at 88? She couldn’t possibly have any liver damage, could she? It might be some kind of weird Hepatitis that they could deal with quickly.

I was kidding myself. I knew there were no other explanations. Urgent scan booked, two days later, on a Friday, she reluctantly (because she had a whole diary of commitments that day!) climbed into my sister’s car and they made the journey to Stepping Hill hospital. My sister drove home alone. Mum was too dehydrated for a scan; they admitted her and set up an IV drip to pump fluids into her.  She was irritated by the whole inconvenience. There were flowers to sort for church; linens to wash for Communion; hyacinths to be lifted out of dark places.

The CT scan was booked for the following Monday. Luckily, I could be there. I didn’t want to be there. Well, I was happy to be with her, but I knew, with a sickening ache in my stomach what it would reveal. I arrived at 11am and at midday she was wheeled down to Radiography and I walked alongside her. I’d be doing a lot of that in the coming days. Walking by my mum.

She wasn’t happy about the scan. “It’s the noise I’m worried about.”

“Good job you’re deaf then!” I joked. I expected her to be frightened as we waited; she was more bothered about wetting herself, being saturated with fluids and with bursting bladder. I watched through the open door as a Radiographer patiently explained what would happen. She had a professional, calm air about her that probably reassured Mum, but which brought home to me that I was now on ‘the other side’.

I was in the NHS for over 30 years; a nurse for most of that time, I also spent many years working with parents and families. I was the one doing the reassuring; patiently explaining; demonstrating compassion. Now I watched as Mum embraced the patient role; lay on a trolley and was fed through a ‘Polo-mint’, as they termed it for her amusement. I did not enjoy being a patient’s relative; I felt powerless and uncomfortable. I wanted to be ‘in-the-know’ and doing the reassuring.

Then began the waiting game. We would have the results by 7pm and my sister would be with me then. Our other 2 sisters and brother waiting in their homes for news. My eldest daughter and niece arrived at 6pm. Sammy, the eldest daughter, is good to have around on these occasions. She’s funny and loud; she helped us to forget that we were waiting for terrible news; news that wouldn’t be new; that would actually confirm what we actually already knew, but perhaps couldn’t accurately name.

He was a young man; no more than 30 – younger than my youngest. Dressed in green scrubs (so glad for those; they made him into someone who surely knew what he was talking about), he came and sat on her bed, next to me, opposite my sister and close to Mum, so that we would all hear him as he spoke. Ali and I held our breath. Mum looked totally relaxed and gave him a dazzling smile (she is so good at dazzling smiles!) as he began to explain what was going on inside her.

“There’s no real good news to share, I’m afraid. It seems there’s some mischief afoot in your tummy.” It was a good way to start. Mum grasped it, I could tell, but kept on smiling. “It looks to be a sizable tumour and we’re pretty sure it’s cancerous. It’s choking off your bile ducts and messing up the area round your gall bladder and pancreas.” A lot of Mischief afoot then.

He quietly answered our questions. He drew pictures to show what was going on. Worst of all, in his gentlest tone, he explained that there was nothing that could be done. The tumour was nasty, was large, would not respond to chemotherapy and could not be surgically removed. That’s when your blood runs a little bit icy cold; when you hear there’s no hope. That what lies ahead is painful and miserable. But they could make her more comfortable

“Are you saying there is only palliative care is all that can be offered?” He wanted to give us more than that. “We’re not quite there yet. We’re going to look at inserting stents into the ducts so that we can drain off the bilirubin – that’s what’s making her yellow.”

“Are you in any pain at the moment?” he asked Mum.

“Only in my legs. It’s all this fluid you’re putting in me.” Professionals want us to be grateful that they’re trying to help, but my Mum saw this intervention as nothing but a nuisance.

“I’m sorry it’s all bad news” he says. He sounds embarrassed; as though he feels he’s failed her. Ali and I are fighting back tears and Mum just says, “Well, what will be, will be.” He leaves us and we all sit there stunned for a minute. Mum is the first to spring into life. We are given a list of people who need to know – and later there’ll be a list of jobs that need to be done. She has a focus now; she knows ‘what’s what’ and somehow, despite the awfulness of the diagnosis, she is galvanized into action.  It is she who comforts us by giving us tasks to fill our time. Presents have to be bought; messages have to be conveyed.

And so we enter a period of madness; of conversations where people are shocked and saddened. Of busy-ness; where we work through the lists we have been given. Of questions and uncertainty; where  we struggle to find the right professional to give us accurate information. One day things seems clear – the next it appears no-one seems to know what’s going on. We hear nothing; there is nothing to tell us then suddenly she is whisked off to Wythenshawe at the crack of dawn for stents to be inserted. One day it is essential she has IV fluids; the next, when she tells them she won’t have her other arm made a mess of (her right one had a clot and became severely bruised and very sore) it apparently is no longer important. Then she has an infection, but it’s okay, she won’t need to be in a side-room as ‘it won’t be good for her mood’; the same evening, she goes to the loo and finds her bed and belongings moved to a side-room. We are exhausted with driving to this hospital, finding parking places, and with trying to find out facts about our own mother.

Most of the nurses are wonderful; some are not. There is the night nurse who refuses to let her get into bed at the side she finds easiest. Who tells her off (telling an 88-yr-old lady off! What?!) for needing to have her legs lifted into bed. ‘How do you manage at home? That’s not what we’re here for’. I wish I had met this nurse. I would have lifted her legs for her!

Then there is the day we can’t take any more. Mum is becoming depressed. She hates that she has to use a walking frame; that she needs a pressure cushion; that she cannot manage all her toilet needs and finds it difficult to wash. An alpha-female, used to being in control, she has been independent all her life. Now, daily, all that is being taken from her. She wants to be at home. And we’re told she perhaps as no more than a few months left with us. Her bilirubin levels are still staggeringly high. Her legs are swollen so much her joints can scarcely bend. She can’t sleep and she hates the food.

We decide to demand answers. What is the point of her being here if nothing more can be done? I ask, in my best voice, ready to stand up to professional defensiveness, if we can talk to someone about our mother’s care because we’re concerned. We are ready for battle but are instead disarmed by kindness and compassion from a Nurse Practitioner. I love this nurse. Plans are put into place with great haste and the very next day she is discharged into my sister Ali’s care (she lives with her).

What happens after discharge is another story – one I may tell another day. But a commode is installed; a special bed is delivered; carers are appointed; rotas for us are established; stair-lifts are installed; a funeral is talking of; application for lasting attorney is registered; the house and our lives are turned upside down. All this and more – as we all prepare to accompany our Mum on the last leg of her journey. As we make ourselves ready to let her go. As we watch her shrink, become frailer and wait for the inevitable pain to hit her in waves.

We have shed so many tears, but we’ve had to dry them for now as there is much to do. We have so little time with her, we can’t be wasting those precious moments sobbing. In the coming weeks, we are told, she will become less able and more bedridden as her muscles waste and the cancer invades other parts of her body (it has already found its way to some glands and into her right lung). Her heart is already compromised with Atrial Fibrillation and is working very hard to fight this invader; but it won’t win, we know that.

Mum has a deep faith.  She is not afraid of Death for she knows it was defeated on the Cross. She is, however, wary of dying. She knows it has to be done but she wishes it could be missed out and that she could just go straight to the Father.

And she does not want to leave us. We can’t bear the thought of her not being here. I think now, as I write this, that months from now, I will read this and she won’t be here. I won’t see her again in this world. I carry around the weight of the sadness of that with me always.

But tonight I have laid down the sadness for a little while. I have girded something within myself; something of her that birthed me and made me strong enough to face a tough world with a smile on my face. And I give thanks that I have the honour of being one of her companions as she makes this last stage of her journey. And I pray for strength to carry her, along with my sisters and brother, on that day when she can no longer carry herself. And for the fortitude to be able to let her go when the time comes.

My Face has Lived and Loved

There are these times, and as we reach middle-age they probably occur more and more frequently, when we start to accept that we won’t always have those “moments of glad grace”.[1] Sometimes, a glance in the mirror tells us the awful truth, that we’d really like to ignore for at least a few more years, of lines ever-deepening; skin ever-drying; eyes less-sparkling. There it is before us – we are becoming old. We can apply all the moisturizer we like (and believe me there are times when I have furiously coaxed my face into accepting half a pot in the vain attempt to flatten a few wrinkles!) but we this is one march of progress we have no control over.

This is my face and I love it!

The funny thing is, and I do wish I could have known this years ago, there does come a point when the horror, having moved through despair into acceptance, suddenly turns into an embracing of all that is happening. This is weird – I bet anyone under 58 will refuse to believe it! – but I actually don’t mind this aging process. In fact, you know what? I’m rather getting to enjoy it!

For years, I raged against aging; fought it, tried to tame it – then it was as if I gave up on it, despaired of it, lay down and just let it roll over me. Then I woke up one day, and said, “okay, you win! Have your way.” At that moment of letting go I felt myself laugh and I held out my arms to hug my own body (including the arms with the bingo wings, the flabby thighs, the wrinkled neck and the creased up face) and I declared that this was mine! I am what I have become because I lived and loved. These lines are statements of all the times I have laughed and cried and they are reminders of all my companions on this crazy journey we call life. I’ve loved it and I still love it.

There is so much more to see and do and hear and rejoice in, but now, the pressure to be something I am not has left me. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are times when the old insecurities creep back to niggle away and tell me ‘That doesn’t suit you’ and ask in that familiar sarcastic tone, ‘Are you really going out like that?’ What has changed is that they no longer have a grip on me; I’m not afraid to look them in the eye and assert, with a defiant tilt of my head ‘It may well not suit me, but I’m feeling good anyway, and yes, I am jolly well going out like this and you can just do one!’

I’ve been so hard on myself for so many years, it’s really a massive relief to get to this stage. Women are so very tough on themselves and on each other, aren’t they? As if we have something of a ‘duty’ to look good. And who is that determines what looking good’ actually means, anyway? Our different cultures foist these images on us, through all the different media available, and that’s reinforced in how we look at each other, speak of one another and talk about ourselves. I hear it all the time. “She’s out on a bit of weight, hasn’t she?” or even “She used to be so slim” or, my real pet hate, “She’s let herself go” How dare we let the side down by stuffing our faces with food and becoming so fat that our arms jiggle when we applaud and our thighs wobble when we run? What a terrible crime we’ve committed!

There has been many a boy who “loved [my] beauty with love false or true” and I let it matter too much. To the point where it defined who I was. There was this boy once, Michael was his name, with bright blue eyes and curly black hair and I thought he was gorgeous and my fourteen-year-old self thrilled to be chosen to be the one he snogged (sorry, very old-fashioned word!!) at a party at a friends’ house. (Do you remember those parties, where the parents, usually-unsuspecting, went and your friend invited half the year group round, we all drank something called ‘Party Seven’ and Babychams, got tiddly and some of the lucky ones paired off and the lights were turned down and we found a corner somewhere to do all that snogging and groping – never quite going ‘all-the-way-because-we’re-not easy-are-we?) So there I was, lying in his arms, feeling very chuffed when, he looked down at me and announced, “You’re really quite good-looking…(he peers at me)….from the neck down”

What?!!! You see, I should have cut and run at that point. Or possibly even smacked him. I didn’t. I swallowed the lie. I ate it and became it. I heard so many other ‘lies’ that reinforced it and my whole identity somehow became wrapped up in that “unattractive” rubbish. We have to teach our grandchildren (hopefully our children are already more resilient) to bounce away from all of that. To laugh and run and never mind.

I know someone who “loved the pilgrim Soul in [me]” – always has and always will and knows well “the sorrows of [my] changing face”. He’s the One I call Lord and he made me, in fact he “knitted me together in my mother’s womb”[2]. So many years have I fretted away though, while not fully understanding this truth. That my ‘pilgrim Soul’ is actually what really matters. I am loved because he made me; not because of what I am and what I look like. I don’t have to remain in this place, I can travel to where I’m called to be and I am held by One who also put the stars in place and made the sun to shine.

My face is changing; it shows the sorrows I’ve had, but it also declares the joys I’ve experienced and there far are more of those. It is the face of me though and I’ve lived with this changing face for a little over sixty years now, we’ve grown accustomed to each other, me and my changing face. I rejoice that, hopefully, we’ll be continuing to add lines to it in abundance for many more years to come. And if that isn’t to be, if I am called home sooner, I revel in the understanding that this face won’t be travelling with me into Eternity!

[1] “When You Are Old” W B Yeats

[2] Psalm 139:13

Reflecting on Loughrigg

Views make the climb worthwhile

At the risk of sounding super-spiritual, there really is something soul-uplifting about walking on the fells and hills. I love that feeling of pushing myself to the point of being uncomfortable; of having to really exert myself to get up the slopes; to have to struggle to reach the top. I like the thought of it all the evening before; something akin to fear, but not dread, more like excitement. ‘Will I make it? Am I going to make a fool of myself’ – it’s always there, that little bit of doubt. That whiny inner voice that tries to convince you that you can’t possibly do it – and the assertive voice that states firmly, ‘oh yes, I can! Why not me?’

The joy of reaching the top!

I like the packing of the rucksack – loading in my butties and my flapjack; maps, GPS thingy, apple, water, waterproofs, woollies, hat, Buff(believe me, there is such a thing!!); mat to sit on, banana, gaiters, spare socks, compass….the list seems endless, and the pushing down of ‘stuff’, the rearranging of it all – it’s all part of the excitement of preparation. I love waking up early, stoking up with a big breakfast, the chatter with friends as we wait to go, (‘Do we put waterproofs in rucksack or wear them for now? Do I need my middle layer on? Have I put sunscreen on’)  then nipping back inside for a last quick ‘widdle’ and then the setting off.  There we go! That’s us – off for the day to conquer a small mountain!

Coffee on the shores of Grasmere

So we set off from Rydal Hall that sunny morning in early May, led by Peter and Ann, an accomplished and experienced couple, with the gentlest of natures, lots of patience and a tangible love for walking. I picked their walk as much for them as for the fell we’d be climbing. They advised using sticks – well, Lou and I always use them anyway, if there’s any chance of a climb. We both have shot knees and, especially on the descent, feel the agony. I actually swear by them after doing the Oxfam Trail-Trek 3 years ago. They do take so much pressure off the legs and knees, and using your arms gives you a more rounded workout.

We’ve got to get up there!

The walk we did is around 8.5 miles, walking along the Coffin route as far as White Moss, then crossing the road to walk along the river linking Rydal with Grasmere, through Deerbolt Woods and along the beach of Grasmere. A gentle start, watching dogs splashing in the waters, chasing balls and generally reveling in the morning sunshine. The good weather had brought a few young families out and it was pleasant having mid-morning coffee and flapjack on the lake shore.

Coffee-time!

Pressing on, we started to climb, gently at first, but gradually becoming steeper and the heart starts pumping, as we look back on views of the lake below. It’s worth the exertion always to be able to capture that view.

Maggie takes a breather

The walk then continues to traverse above Grasmere and Rydal to Loughrigg Terrace, where we meet the turn-off to the steep ascent path up the Fell. Bracing ourselves, we proceed and for me, every step I take I’m defeating all the voices that have proclaimed what I can’t do and I’m boldly stepping into what I can and love doing. I’m nearly 60 and I’m bagging a Wainwright! It’s steep and it’s rough and the path is eroded in parts, and sometimes I’m on my hands and knees pulling myself up, but, after taking a few stops to catch my breath and take a photo (always a great excuse to have a breather!) I finally make it! I’m at the summit, 340m (about 1,300ft) above sea-level. We’re delighted, Lou and I, every climb is another shout to the wind, of “we can do it!”

Not our most glamorous selfie!

We don’t care much what we look like and that’s just as well, as we’re never really at our most glamorous on these occasions. We’re just happy to be alive and high up.

The joy of reaching the top!

Of course, after the exhilaration of climbing up, there’s the business of having to get down! So, we’re off again, on the descent, poles bearing the strain of the steepness. Then there’s those moments of looking back and seeing where we’ve been. We did that!

We actually climbed that hill. Lunch in the sunshine, when we’ve descended a couple of hundred feet feels well-deserved and most enjoyable. Fruit cake tastes amazing on a hill!

 

 

 

 

 

pennies in a tree stump
Back down by the river
home via the bridge
Wisteria
Wild garlic in grounds of Rydal

 

 

 

 

Sisters do Silver How!

Lucille on Silver How, with Grasmere and Rydal behind
Lucille on Silver How, with Grasmere and Rydal behind

My sister, Lou, started walking with me in 2012, when my hubby hurt his back and couldn’t come with me on a Walking Weekend to Keswick. (I go every year with a group from my previous church, All Saints in Marple). She’s 2 years younger than me, but back then had done very little walking and I was fitter – but only because I was training for an Oxfam Trailtrekker event. She came with me and did the Easy walk, but said it nearly killed her! Nevertheless, she wasn’t put off and caught the bug. By the following year, just walking an hour every day, she had raised her game and we could longer and tougher walks together.

This year, the weekend was based at Rydal Hall, in the Lake District. I love the place. We went up early on the Friday, before meeting up with the rest of the group and walked together up Silver How, one of the smaller hills at 325m above Grasmere. It was just over 3 miles, but it’s pretty steep at the top and the paths are rough. It can be done in a couple of hours, depending on your fitness and ability, but the views are just stunning, so it’s worth taking your time and enjoying looking out to the Langdales, Bowfell, Helm Crag, Steel Fell, Heron Pike and Fairfield if you can spot them. We had the best sort of weather for our walk – sunny with clear skies, but cool we weren’t hot and flustered as we walked.

Passing Alan Bank, which was Wordsworth’s temporary home and is now owned by the National Trust, we started off on a narrow lane, climbing quickly up what seemed like a dry river bed before emerging on to the open fellside. It was hard not to keep stopping and looking back – so beautiful with the green of early foliage so bright.

Looking down from climb up Silver How
Looking down from climb up Silver How
Looking back down to Grasmere
Looking back down to Grasmere

We then passed a deep gill on the right where there were masses of juniper bushes – they look like gorse at first. I bet in the late summer the scent of gin is fabulous!

Views as we climb Silver How
Juniper bushes in the Gill

The climb is pretty strenuous all the way and paths are narrow and stony – at one point we forded a river, which was dry on the day, but I should think is tricky after rains. On the other side of it, after a steep climb up a rocky hillside, the path widens goes across a plateau where the top of Silver How can be clearly seen. The last section is quite steep and very rubbly, with cairns marking the way. It’s fabulous when you reach the summit though – even though it was “blowing a hooley” when we got up there. We managed to keep our feet for the obligatory snap though – of course!

The Walking Reader on top of Silver How, Lake District

The Walking Reader on top of Silver How, Lake District

 

Lucille on Silver How, with Grasmere and Rydal behind
Lucille on Silver How, with Grasmere and Rydal behind

The views are so worth the aching legs! Coming down is, at times, hard going as it’s really steep and stony, but some of the way is made slightly easier with engineered steps – although these can become very tedious at times. As you can see, Lou was elated to be almost at the bottom of the slope! On the whole, a really great walk made all the more special due to the great weather and being in the company of my little sister!

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Reading Doesn’t Need To Be ‘Classic’ To Be Useful

I really hope I don’t give the impression that I only read books that are termed ‘classics’ or that I am snobby about any genre. True, there are books I’ve read that make my toes curl, as the writing, in my opinion of course, feels so dreadful. However, I have learned that in the world of reading, the saying ‘horses for courses’ most definitely applies. What I find to be awful, might appeal to others. I have good friends, whose opinion I respect, recommend books to me and which I found  to be boring, or confusing, or I simply couldn’t ‘get along with’. There are also  times when I recommend a book I enjoyed to someone who later tells me they hated it! There was a time when I would be aghast that a friend could possibly hold a different view to mine about a book, but I guess I’ve matured enough to accept that we can differ – it need not divide us though.

All reading is useful. A bold statement, I know, but I do believe it is. Even the terrible reads I have mentioned have been helpful in leading me to discern more clearly what sort of reading I am most likely to enjoy in the future. No human being has time to read everything that’s ever been written; we need ways to learn how to filter. Whatever we read adds to the refining of that filtering system. Sometimes this might mean we filter out books that we may well have liked, ‘if only we’d known’, but we simply have to have ways of cutting that pile of ‘books-still-to-read’ down to a manageable size.

The MOST useful reads though are those that make us think, no matter what genre they are described as. They might stop us in our tracks (thinking tracks, that is) and lead us to reflect on what is being said, or to make an association with some other experience we’ve had, or connect us with other thoughts we’ve had. We may not even be clear how the association is made, or why a word or phrase halts out thinking, or sends us down a new thought-track. It doesn’t really matter why or how it happens – it’s just brilliant when it does. Even better is when that thought won’t let you go; when you put the book down and it still has hold of you. You find yourself at a party, perhaps, or on a bus, or out on a walk, and there you are, thinking those thoughts that sprang to life in your reading and they’re with you now, changing the way you look at others or how you see the world. And you find yourself asking questions, saying words, telling stories, thinking more thoughts – that were never in your head before. And that’s so exciting. That’s learning. That’s useful.

What has been the most ‘useful’ book you’ve read recently?

My thoughts, opinions and general ramblings on my own reading and walking and all sorts of other things that happen in my life!