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Posts from the ‘Bereavement’ Category

We do not heal the past by dwelling there, but…

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Today is Dad’s birthday…

There are days, moments perhaps, when I need to listen to sad music and cry about my dad. It’s part of acceptance/healing/being human.

We do not heal the past by dwelling there; we heal the past by living fully in the present, said Marianne Williamson.

I don’t believe grief ever goes away or that you ever stop mourning those you love. And I don’t believe in pretending. So I don’t entirely support Marianne Williamson’s quote; I think emotions are far too complicated for such simplicity and I think remembering is important. We learn from life, we take hurt onboard and we carry the past as experience and wisdom, and are better for it in many ways.

But the trauma of Dad’s death and the events surrounding it are memories that harm me and I can’t work over them or through them, I need to shut them away. After years of circling distress, I choose to ignore the day he died and concentrate instead on the day he was born, and be forever grateful that he came into this world.

He was complicated and at times difficult but he had an amazing brain and amazing insight. I believe he observed life in a very special way and saw beyond façades in a way most people seem incapable of, and today I celebrate his life with a pride so huge it fills my chest. And he’s not completely gone; his children and grandchildren (and future great-grandchildren) are making sure of that.

It is not easy to shake off elements of the past while keeping hold of that which is dear to us and that which is good for us but I think that’s what we should do: live in the present but bring the past with us. After all it’s made us what we are today.

Why I knew I would love The Night Rainbow

The Night Rainbow by Claire King

The Night Rainbow by Claire King

In 2010, I bought a copy of the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, and found a story by Claire King, called Wine at Breakfast, which was written in a way that seemed to fit me. It had a rhythm that felt familiar and matched the way my own word rhythms work. This made it natural for me to read it as if it belonged in my head. And it contained all the things that I find powerful and captivating: family, love, imperfection, struggle – the wow!ness, if you like, of real life.

So I decided to stalk this writer and was delighted to find her on Twitter. I was also delighted to discover she was every bit as human and warm as her writing suggested.

At this time I was going through a type of writing immersion: I was taking a writing course with the Open University, writing daily, following hundreds of writers on Twitter, joining groups and subscribing to writing magazines. I found another winning short story by Claire, in Writers’ Forum Magazine, about the exhaustion of being a new mother. Again it had all the things that suited me and was delivered in Claire’s natural musical phrasing so that the words flow through and over you instead of bumping and making you take breath in the wrong places. When someone writes that well, there’s no need for bells and whistles – the way the pull of human struggle is written and draws out your emotions is enough of a ride.

What I like best about Claire, though, is not that she is good writer. It’s that she doesn’t talk about her writing all the time – she talks about life, she makes jokes, she puts her family in the number one position before everything else in her life. She doesn’t judge others. She likes silliness, food, drink, the open air, and life – real life – in general, and she sends herself up. You get the feeling talking to her that she knows how short and sweet life is and that in order to cope with the briefness we need to appreciate the sweetness. There is also an overwhelming sense of empathy and understanding that emanates from things Claire says. She comes across as someone who knows what pain looks like and has possibly seen things that give her a special perspective on life and a deep understanding of people. She shares. And shares this well in her writing.

So when (in 2011?) I heard Claire’s first novel was to be published, I was very excited. I was in the middle of writing an important assignment but stopped and had a drink for her (“in the middle” in a “checking out what was happening on Twitter” kind of way!).

I finally got a copy of The Night Rainbow in my hands when it was published in February this year, and found myself in the most wonderful position of knowing without a doubt that I would love it. Things at home had been tough for one reason or another and I was shattered and low, so I put the book on the shelf next to the bed and waited. I knew there would come a time when I would be ready.

And finally, four months later – eight days ago, I was ready. Not liking spoilers of any kind, I had carefully avoided reviews about the book, and I let the whole experience be a complete surprise.

While you could apply terms such as “unputdownable”, and “page turner” to this book, I was strong and managed to stop turning pages and put it down each night and make it last a week. I’m glad I didn’t take a one-day trip to be in France with a little girl called Pea and her world. I’m pleased I got to visit for a week, and get a feel for the place.

Just as Claire doesn’t tell the reader how to think, I don’t want to tell you what to think of the book. And there are a couple of surprises that unravel along the way – one of which I feel must unravel at the reader’s pace so they have their own unique experience whilst reading. What I can say though, is that the beautifully rhythmic writing is there, the human condition is there – everywhere! My senses came alive, my heart was broken and patched up, and I really felt I’d stepped outside myself and been Pea in France for a while.
There is one strong thread throughout the book and that is the sense that the boundaries between what is real and what is not real are often blurred. The absence of speech marks makes this especially clear. While we are watching 5-year-old Pea struggle so enormously to make sense of the world – and perhaps we are happy sometimes that she doesn’t – we can also be allowed to think that we as adults – and indeed the adults in the book – are just as guilty of seeing things through only one pair of eyes, through one perspective as Pea does, and how that can never and will never give the whole truth.

Of course I will take my own individual reading of this book and make it fit my own concerns, but what I gained from the novel was a sense that it is all too easy to judge and/or be afraid of others but we are all the sum of life’s struggles and need to be loved. There was not one character that was truly awful or wholly bad, but there were often behaviours that concerned or had an adverse effect on others. This is how human beings are. Revolving the story around Pea’s perspective gives an insight into how complicated we can look from the outside and how actions or words can be misinterpreted, but overall, most of us are pretty decent people. As time goes by in the story we can see how the adults struggle just as much Pea to make sense of the signs and misread each other.

On a personal level, I recognised the exhaustion of pregnancy, and the difficulty I found in being what everyone needed me to be in difficult times. I recognised also the tremendous power grief has over a person. I’ve seen what it looks like and how difficult it can be to claw your way back to normality. As a very young child I watched my mother cope with debilitating grief and Claire has expressed this really effectively in the novel.

Despite the horribleness that everyone seems to have endured at some point, there is a life-line of sweetness brought to the reader through the delights of the natural world and the seasons running through everything. The descriptions of food are totally delicious! Life stops and starts and bumps; it hurts, it shocks, it confuses. But life goes on and it’s not all bad, especially when there are biscuits.

I’m not really a fan of star-rating for books but, just in case Pea is reading, I would like to give this novel eleventy hundred.
And do I recommend it? You betcha!

The Night Rainbow.


NIghtRainbowPaperback


(Also available in paperback in August)

Substitute

When you died, grief hung around the house in your image.
It sat in the bedroom in a chair that wasn’t there, and waited in every darkness. It wanted to introduce itself to me, but it was so heavy with trauma, fear and the unknown that we were awkward together. I flicked on lights and told it it wasn’t there.

Over time, the images were less cruel and less frequent, but grief still begged to be noticed. It stopped me in the kitchen, and held me poised with one hand on the handle of a rumbling kettle as it boiled. It took advantage of the noises of running water, flushing toilets, spinning machines; keeping me suspended in another realm whenever sounds of the outside world were held off by white noise.

It followed me to the bathroom, to my moments of solitude, and crept into bed with me at night to wait for the insomnia that always came. It seeped into my computer and chose the saddest songs, wound its way into my throat and pushed at my chest.
Like a lover, it became jealous of my family, and played with my face – dragging down my jawline to make me ugly, capturing my gaze and distracting my eyes away from my children. It punched me in the chest, poked me in the eye, bruised me, made me cry. It took control of my voicebox and made me talk about you, held my hands and made me write about you. It was a bully and yet it wanted to be my friend.

I didn’t send grief away. “I notice you,” I said. “I don’t hate you.”
I treated it with respect. I gave it time, I gave it words; I gave it music and let it enter me. We became companions, grief and I.

Now grief is quieter. It is never happy but it is settled here. It has a place and it behaves better because it is satisfied we know each other now. It believes me when I say I will take it everywhere with me and keep it safe. Sometimes it sits above me and tickles my head or closes my eyes. It points things out or sends me a memory. It doesn’t want me to be always afraid or always in pain – I know now – it came to replace you. And that is why it is so insecure: it is such a poor substitute, but substitute it is.



Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 72. It is also Fathers’ Day.
Grief and I had some time alone in the garage today and now we are sharing a glass of wine while grief writes this.

Beating Dave With a Banana

Or: Being a ‘What if…?’
“Because it is egotistical, controlling, over-inflated, self-important & meddles & ruins all things good, I think I’ll call my anxiety Dave,” I tweeted this morning.
And then I remembered Jo had recommended that I eat bananas. (Thanks, Jo, if you read this!) So I fetched a banana and wondered why it would do me good. I looked it up on the Internet and found out about the benefits of bananas to our mental health.
I have a mental health problem: I suffer from anxiety.

Anxiety is a rotten thing.

For me it’s also a constant thing.

I live in a permanently anxious state. It’s in my blood, it’s part of who I am. It’s somehow linked to my furtive imagination, and sometimes that can work in my favour and be a benefit (and, I hope, perhaps to those around me too on occasion), but sometimes it works against me. I come from anxious, imaginative parents so it’s bound to have rubbed off or been passed down or both. Most of the time it’s bearable and I wouldn’t recognise myself if I woke up one morning and wasn’t repeatedly taking the real into an unreal place anymore. Being a ‘What if…?’ person is the best part of me. (Well, it’s the part I like best anyway!) Everyday things can be turned into adventures. News stories can be turned into fictional stories. There’s a feeling that nothing is impossible. When I see that positive side of us ‘What if…?’ people in others I realise that the world needs quiet imaginative people having sometimes crazy, sometimes useful creative ideas.

But I have times when it can be more extreme. And ‘What if…?’ isn’t very helpful. In fact it’s downright disruptive. I am on edge all the time and far too easily startled. I hate surprises and sudden noises. If I have more than a split second to think about doing something I take the possibilities further than they need to go so that I am imagining myself in a situation where I am unable to cope or incapable of being myself or presenting myself normally. Put simply: I imagine deaths, accidents, public embarrassment, failure; I imagine anything that could go wrong but also things that couldn’t possibly go wrong. I might find myself feeling increasingly overwhelmed by an impending social situation, for example – something that is, to others, normal and everyday. I can actually freeze for a whole day if I know I have something vaguely socially demanding to do in the evening. Or I can lie awake all night practising in my mind how I will get everything done if I have a lot to do the next day. I believe a lot of people do this but perhaps not to a point where they become unable to function properly. If I have guests I will be so busy worrying whether everyone has everything they need and if the towel needs changing in the loo that I become unable to make conversation – and I will have worried myself stupid that exactly that would happen! But I can’t stop it because I find myself physically as well as mentally overwhelmed. And that’s the other problem: anxiety comes with a whole host of physical complaints. Headaches, sleepiness, shakes, skin problems, stomach pains and digestive problems, hot flushes, caffeine intolerance, weak muscles… The urge to crawl away and sleep in a dark corner comes over me as an answer to all my problems regularly.

For most of my life I haven’t talked about this because I didn’t even admit it to myself. When I started to notice at some point in my childhood that I seemed to need more time out than other kids I didn’t want it discussed, I just wanted to be left alone. As a teenager, dominated by hormones, I fought against the anxiety and tried to block the imagined disasters for a while and tried to be more outgoing, more active, but I look back now and realise my trying-to-be-normal behaviour was just daft and out-of-character. My life seemed to be full of much nervous garbling and much exhaustion. So worried was I by my own silences I thought I had to fill them by speaking tosh.

Still in denial – and possibly rather afraid of the outcome of any self-analysis – I struggled to maintain what I perceived as normality by watching others. I copied patterns of behaviour that didn’t necessarily feel comfortable for me but that’s what we humans do, isn’t it: try to fit in with majority behaviour? The fact that I would often find myself pacing up and down the sitting room crying and biting my fingers until they bled didn’t suggest to me that I was becoming a little like a caged animal by denying myself my instinctive behaviour, no – strangely, I would just move on and pretend it hadn’t happened and carry on looking to others for clues.

But it was when I started to get the more frightening ‘What if…?’ disaster feelings every day about three years ago, that I started to worry about myself and wonder if it would ever stop. I compared myself with people who wrote about their food intolerances, depression, bipolarism, and saw similarities, but not enough to feel that any of those were what I was struggling through. Why was I so frightened all the time? Something told me this wasn’t about needing medication, major life-style changes or forcing myself out of this. I began to feel that this was more to do with understanding and accepting something rather than fighting. But understanding what?
Starting writing helped. It helped a lot and it has continued to help. Throw a lot of ‘What if…?’ situations into a short story and Hey Presto! my imagination’s had a little outing and it’s happy and bothers me with less with the madness, and I’m happy because I’ve created something and have given myself a present. Separating the real from the imagined like that is therapeutic, I’ve found. But what also helped was taking writing courses that included life-writing. Hesitant and embarrassed at first, I was convinced I had to nothing to say, nothing that anyone else would be interested in, but a wealth of strong emotions and memories came tumbling out. There was a lot of guilt in there: guilt for not appreciating my father while he was still alive, there was an enormous sense of loss that I hadn’t dealt with, but there was a surprising amount of childlike vulnerability that I didn’t recognise and wasn’t sure if I liked it.

And then recently I discovered the connection between grief and anxiety. My anxiety had become slowly worse just after my father had died. (It seems crazy now – that I hadn’t made this connection but I suppose when you are not only denying that you have a problem but that you are worthy of any analysis you are not looking for solutions.)
I had anxiety. Of course! It was okay to accept that, and in doing so to begin to manage my life a little bit better around it. So now I know that when I am being irrational by imagining the worst too often it is because I have suffered a great loss in my life.

But all this has opened up some very very old wounds indeed and made me understand something about myself that I had been blocking for nearly forty years…

Thirty-nine years ago, when I was three years old, my 13-month-old sister, Beatrice, died.

I rarely talk about the death of my baby sister. I don’t like to “use” her (for want of a better word) or my family. I don’t feel like I own the monopoly on the pain that her death left. My parents, of course, were totally devastated when she died and I always felt that the greatest portion of the pain belonged to them. I also felt that my sisters have suffered in their own very different and individual ways because of what happened to our family, and I couldn’t take my own loss and discuss it separately. It’s been a bit of a taboo, I suppose. But the life-writing, the feelings after my father’s death, reading about anxiety, and the sudden increase in fear and the childlike feelings that were emerging made me remember dreams I had when I was four: I kept dreaming that my new baby sister was going to get hurt. Bad, bad things had happened and could happen again, I must have thought. This must have given way to the extreme and terrifying dreams. Too young to realise or explain my fears I suppose I absorbed them and turned them into dreams and now they are part of who I am: anxious.

Today had Debilitating Anxiety written all over it from the start. I’m not sure what the trigger was (perhaps concern about my Open University degree) but I knew it wasn’t just regular anxiety – it was Dave. I began to blow everything out of proportion. So, I ate the banana. I organised my thoughts. I gave myself permission to write.

There’s a still a young, vulnerable part of me who needs to express those emotions she bottled up for so long, but I’m feeling less anxious already just because I’m accepting everything.

And because I ate a banana, I expect

🙂

Window


She opened the bedroom window, almost absent-mindedly, to dilute the noise in her head. She often found she had opened the window without considering it. It was an instinctive thing. Sometimes her skin tingled with itchy heat, sometimes the air inside felt too thick to breathe and sometimes she simply felt so inquisitive she knew she just had to peer into the treetop views that she felt so much less in touch with throughout cold autumn rainy times.
She took two nostrils of cool breeze and then ducked her head back in again quickly to avoid the light droplets of rain that were falling with increasing persistence. Then she stood at the windowsill with her legs twisted so that her feet were positioned on the wrong sides, exhaled deeply, and listened.
The wind purred with the gentle noises it was tumbling together: The distant ocean, the air whooshing though the rows of half-bare trees, the fickle tickle of bramble leaves still clinging determinedly within the hedges, a helicopter so far away that its blades seemed to scribble at the air like a pencil on a hard surface under a single sheet of paper. Someone, somewhere was sawing something – lopping off a tree branch or cutting slates to fit a kitchen floor, or maybe even building a birdhouse – she liked that idea and dwelled on the positivity of it.
Birdcalls came in piccolo spurts and sea-saw violin bowings and oboe parps like a modern uneven symphony, while the jackdaws chacka-chackered percussively and the rain pattered below her on the plastic conservatory roof like impatient fingernails. Road traffic engines growled higher and lower, changing gear on the hill, coming closer – almost too close – before fading away again.

She saw that she had missed the designated countrywide silence for 11th November, and wondered if that made her a bad person. She had read Wilfred Owen’s famously ghastly war poem many times in the last few years and winced in horror at the ‘froth-corrupted lungs’, she had heard news of deaths from war on television almost daily and taken a moment to think of awfulness, sacrifice, and loss, and wondered at the futility, the people who benefitted, the people who were left with nothing. Regularly war bothered her. Loss bothered her. The shortness of life bothered her. And the wasting of lives all over the world bothered her. Of course she wasn’t a bad person; she took moments out of every day to consider, and to care.
She knew when sadness washed over her to go with it, to take time, not to force it to either come or go. She had seen terrible suffering, felt loss and understood pain.
Moments came and went. Remembrance came and went. Sadness came and went.

She was distracted by a tractor struggling noisily uphill in front of her. She thought of the nagging hunger in her stomach, the lonely dog downstairs, and the washing to be done.

A little sadness was carried with her daily, unforced. It was always there.

Oh look – she’d left the window open again.

The Birthday That Should Have Been

Celebrating the birthday of a wise man

Three years ago on 16 June 2008, my father quietly marked his 67th birthday.

I ordered him a ‘blue’ (purple!) rose called Rhapsody in Blue, which didn’t turn up on time for his birthday, but luckily I found one of the same name in a garden centre. So when the original one turned up, I kept it for myself. It was comforting to have matching roses.

Dad didn’t get another birthday.

This month he should be celebrating his 70th birthday with his family. With his wife, three daughters and seven grandchildren – one of whom he never got to meet. Our older sister would definitely have made it home from Australia for this birthday.

His illness and treatment were thrown upon him and us in a whirlwind. One day he was on a walking holiday, the next he was burning up with a skin rash. A few weeks later he was told he had aggressive leukaemia, and started aggressive chemotherapy almost immediately.

In a photo I took on his final birthday, he looks desperately detached. He had started his treatment and we were still hopeful but he was already on a journey that he would be taking alone and it showed in his eyes.
Mum was at his side constantly – through every appointment, every phone call, and every course of treatment, every sleepless night, every bout of desperation. There were tests and tests and tests. And there was fear. So much fear. I saw them, or we spoke on the phone, every single day. I felt a need to touch base regularly and carried Dad’s pain with me all the time. But he was the only one with the illness.

I don’t tell people how awful it was. I protect them from the details. To tell people what he went though; what we went through, would be like making them see it through our eyes and I don’t want to do that to people. You hear of counsellors getting ‘burn out’ from having to listen to too much awfulness. You may have heard or read this quote by Czech writer, Milan Kundera:

‘For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.’

I hope I never have to witness anyone suffer that much again. To say it was violent would not be an over-statement.

The other reason is that there were 66 years before that, that have been over-shadowed somewhat by his 9 final excruciating months of life. And that’s a shame.

You see he was something special, something you couldn’t pin down. You would be proved wrong if you tried to put him in any box or label him. He was extremely well-educated (and continued to educate himself throughout his life) and knowledgeable, yet he was humble and down-to-earth. He had good job prospects but refused to apply for promotion, had middle-class and working-class tastes, dressed like a gardener; liked expensive wine, but cheap biscuits, loved jazz and football and films with subtitles, but also watched Ugly Betty, Eastenders, and lots of crap TV. He loved cricket and would line up pots and tins in the kitchen until he found the right implements for tapping along to Booker T and the MG’s Test Match theme tune. He had a good ear and taught himself guitar and a little Gaelic when he went to Scotland. He believed in being able to form an educated opinion about things and not speculating or generalising. So he would watch and listen to what we watched and listened to as teenagers before he told us it was crap!

He worked his arse off as a teacher, always insisted on working in comprehensive schools, with ordinary people and didn’t want be a headteacher or deputy head because he didn’t like power, paperwork or school uniform rules. He wanted to teach, to help, to encourage. He worked late and he always brought lots of work home. (The teasing that teachers get about their long holidays didn’t apply to him)

People drove him mad but he still tried to see the good in everyone. He had Green and socialist values and mourned the demise of British industry. He had no desires for money, possessions or luxury, preferring to marvel (or tut) at the world around him. He had some imaginative (and shocking!) expressions for people with no sense of society or community.

I once said that if he and Mum could win the lottery, they would be able to go on holiday and have work done to their house and he could retire.
He said, ‘If I won the lottery, I’d give all the money to people who needed it. What do I want with a load of money?’
He was very cross at the greed and unfairness of humans.

He was a big and protective man to my 5’2” mother, yet he was a feminist who cleaned, cooked and went shopping (shopping in local stores wherever possible).
He had one of those ‘open’, constantly evolving brains. He had values and ideals but could never be accused of getting set in his ways, as he was responsive and receptive to the new and the different.
I don’t know if this is connected but he had a remarkably adaptable way of altering the way he delivered a conversation depending on whom he was talking to. He would look for a level, some common ground. He didn’t put people down or patronize or confuse – even if others’ ignorance or dogma meant that they misunderstood, insulted or even belittled him. He would be more likely to go home and swear about their ignorance later with a few choice expressions.

He wasn’t perfect. He had a terrible temper, would ignore people if he was tired, and despite being really musical, he really did dance like a dad! But I’m struggling to find anything else significantly amiss. People that don’t judge others are near perfect.

So while I am devastated I am also proud and happy. Proud to have had such a good, genuine, brainy man as my father. Proud of his values and – so importantly – that he lived by them. Proud of his natural ‘feel’ for life, music, language, the arts, politics, people and nature and downright ordinary gutsy British culture.
What he thought, he thought because he’d thought about it!

He should be here now. He should be seeing that I’ve matured, I’ve inherited some of his ideals and I do my absolute level best not to judge people. I’ve shaken off the silly frivolous obsession with appearances that I used to have and am ‘wising up’. Goodness, kindness and making the most of the jot of time we have on this planet – with consideration – are now my priorities. I am happier with who I am now even if I look like a lumpy scarecrow most days! He should witness this. It’s not fair. We could be putting the world to rights together.
Every time I hear or read anyone spouting angry, judgemental, narrow-minded clap-trap I pity them and their lack of human wisdom, and wish Dad was still here to think up one of his rude names for them.

Do you believe in ‘meant to be’? Fate? Providence? Things happening for a reason?
I don’t.
I do not believe my father was ‘meant’ to die yet, ‘meant’ to suffer so atrociously. I believe he should be here with his remaining family of all females who are staring at the big black hole he left.

He was meant to be here on 16 June, celebrating his 70th birthday, blowing out 70 candles (Mum would have counted and made sure of it), chasing his grandchildren around with a camera, making daft puns, dozing off in front of the TV and then waking up and demanding a cup of tea. He was a big-hearted – at times moody git, who would have made a very fine grumpy-old man.
He is missed at my kitchen table and I will never stop grieving. But I celebrate his life and his legacy and the bit of him that I carry in my heart.

Happy 70th Birthday Dad



Rhapsody in Blue
My ‘Dad’ rose


In his memory

The Chris Wood Sponsorship:

http://www.exeter.ox.ac.uk/currentstudents/finance/student-support
(A grant set up by Mum for language students at Dad’s old college)



Chris Wood
(16 June 1941 – 11 January 2009)
Dad

http://www.thisisannouncements.co.uk/5415457?s_source=clsw_tiwk

A comment from Jo (Carey) Belchamber, one of his ex-pupils:

Oddly enough, I was talking to a student about your Dad about an hour before I read this. You forgot to mention his sense of the ridiculous, his gurning, his passionate teaching (although you did talk about… his passionate temper!) and his awful ties! He really was an amazing teacher Rachel, and I think one of the reasons that I have been thinking about him recently is that you remind me so much of him now.

I Find You There

      I do not find you at your grave,
      Although I stand and read your name.
      You’ve gone but still I search for you
      Where are you now your life is through?

      My hands on the arms of your favourite chair,
      Yes, I think you might be there
      My heart it aches with love for you
      You own a part – you’re in there too

      A happy photo smiles at me
      This is where I want you to be.
      A line in a song and I see your face
      And remember a walk in your favourite place.

      The love you left will never die
      Your life lives on in your family’s eyes.
      I’ll always miss your company
      But you live on in them and me.

      There is no end to the love that is you
      In others your life lives on, and through
      Your life you left enough
      That we might see and hold and touch.

      I rest my head now we’re apart
      And remember that which was dear to your heart
      Your values, dreams and chosen words
      Can still be felt and still be heard.

      I take a moment in my mind
      To think about the happier times,
      The thoughts and loves that we both shared
      Forever I will find you there.

Written on Wednesday 16th February 2011 – The morning of my Father-in-Law’s death, while thinking of my husband, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law’s loss, my mother’s, my own and my sisters’ loss and my brother-in-law (who has also just lost his father) and his family’s loss –

I want this to be relevant to others feeling similar losses so although written with specific personal thoughts and people in mind, have kept it simple, open and accessible and have naturally been influenced by other bereavement poems.

In front of me is a picture of my own father who died two years ago.

In loving memory of Dave Carter, Chris Wood, Roy Johnson
and the many others who are sadly missed

In honour of a very special man

No time for Friday flash stories at the moment. I’m having ideas but family must come first and that’s fine (for now!)

But today my head is full of thoughts of my dad and I wanted to write something down.

2 years ago this week I was preparing for Christmas (in fact I was halfway though constructing a big, pink wooden castle for our youngest daughter) when Dad phoned me from the Royal Marsden in Surrey to say that he was coming home to die. The next few weeks were terribly sad, busy and unreal. He deteriorated very fast and we lost him on January 11th 2009, aged 67.

Now the sounds, smells and sights of Christmas preparations remind me of that terrible time. Even the cold weather and the return to big winter coats and boots take me back to Winter 2008/09.


This morning I felt like crying when I realised it was the 17th – the date of that awful phone call and I was looking out of the window into the garden when I saw a bird I had never seen before. Dad was a huge fan of British birds and I wished I could phone him and ask him what it was. Instead I looked it up on the Internet and discovered it was a redwing. Two redwings hung around our garden all day today and gave me immense pleasure. I would love to tell Dad.


Dad was interested in music – all kinds of music. He would watch Top of the Pops with us when we were young. He also liked Jazz, Baroque, Beethoven symphonies, The Beatles, Paul Simon, you name it – he would give it a chance. He taught himself the guitar to about grade 5 level and played pretty well. He was a great linguist and the way he messed about with the English language would have you in stitches. He was also a fluent French speaker and gave up many years of his life to teach others. Mum was so proud of him that she set up an award in his name at his old college – Exeter College, Oxford University to help other budding linguists.
Dad was also a brilliant artist. He drew and painted well and loved photography.
Somehow, through genes and nurturing and her grandfather’s love this creativity has taken new life in our eldest daughter. She is fifteen and studying for grade 7 guitar and today painted a beautiful picture for her guitar teacher.

It’s a superb, lively painting and I’m so proud. Dad would have been extremely proud too.

I love you, Dad and miss you always. You gave the best bear hugs.

Venn and the Art of Paper Bandages

When it is all over.
When the cards and flowers cease, when the concern is no longer manifest, when the customary obligations tumble back into your path and the time has come to stop drinking yourself into a stupor every night. When you are stalked by a dark shadow-ghost, when you close your eyes at night and cannot think, blink or dream away the agonising picture memories of suffering and death. When you wake bruised with tiredness and remember that nothing is the same. When crime and horror films do not entertain but trouble and scratch at your weakened heart, when suddenly every phone call might herald bad news. You know that you are in your own circle.

It always comes back to Venn Diagrams. In a roomful of people at a wedding, a funeral, a birthday, everyone has something or someone in common. Linking arms, embracing, nodding in understanding and recognising similar characteristics creates overlapping relationships, unions. Intersections.

But the salient part belongs only to ourselves, and in our own circle we remain detached in our own cognizance.

The terror of an ugly death and loss of a parent left me bubble-like, floating, bumping, bobbing. I shared many experiences and sights, was involved with group discussions, linked to many by common characteristics and a common cause yet always looked at everything through my eyes, at my father dying, feeling my loss. I began to want less and less to participate.

After eight months I shrank the intersections, rubbed out the unions and retreated from the Venn Diagram. I tried to close my circle, but a great ugly gash remained. Scarred and scared, I was tired of sharing. I wanted solitude. I wanted peace.
The Autumn heard my plea and sent me to a sun-warmed garden step with a notebook and pen to witness blue skies, September sun and busy blackbirds. I found good. I found minute by minute simplicity and I found words. I sat still and enjoyed warmth, softly falling leaves and creaking trees. I wrote for no other reason than I needed to. Pages and pages of colours, shadows, smells and sounds. Mounded damp pages from my tears and from the bathroom where ideas sprang pay homage to nature frantically toiling around me while I merely existed and observed.

A year on, I wander the house with my soft-cover notebooks. I place one beside me each night and reach for it in the morning. I have found comfort and security in the healing properties of ink and tree pulp. I am not yet mended but I am patching myself with paper, righting myself with words and beginning to relearn the art of finding joy and success in recognising those with similar attributes and forming unions and intersections again.

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