Loss

There has been too much death this past year. As I write this, 111,264 people have died from Covid-19 in the UK alone. Whilst grieving for lost family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, or fearing for the loss of our loved ones, we have been forced to face our own mortality. For most of us, there is a realisation that life is a precious and fragile gift. We do not know how long we have. We must make the most of every moment, appreciate even the mundane or simple stuff. Striving for success or wealth or recognition is maybe not as important as we once thought. Some of us have been made to reconsider how we live our lives, whether we are in the place or the relationship or the job we want to be in. Others of us have reconnected with nature, the environment and community. We’ve remembered what we are here for, that we are part of the world and every living thing in it, not separate or special.

The virus, and the terror at possibly losing someone close, has made me think about how much I love my family and their importance to me. It has brought back memories from my childhood – occasions spent with my brother, Mum, Dad, cousins, Nanna and Grandad. Watching the film, The Dig, made me sob at the soft Suffolk accents, like those of my grandparents. Living in Wales, I rarely hear ‘silly Suffolk’ now. The sad news of Captain Tom’s death particularly made me remember special times with my Grandad, and his death over thirty years ago. Happy memories and upsetting memories.

My Grandad was a gentle man. A little ‘hen-pecked’, as they used to say, by my Nanna’s sharp tongue. He was an animal lover. His father had kept a donkey and cart. He grew up helping to care for the donkey and often talked of how he missed it. After he retired from working in a factory, he became a pigman. I loved the smell of him when he returned home from tending his pigs but Nanna used to shout, “Jack, get your overalls off!” at the back door. When I visited, he liked me to ‘do his hair’. I would stand behind his upright armchair and rub Brylcreem through the few grey strands around the side of his head with my fingers, brush the hair until it looked glossy with his special wooden, handle-free hairbrush, polish his bald pate with a little of the cream on a handkerchief, then take a long hard sniff of the warm, scented skin on the top of his head.

Sometimes, we would sing. He taught me the old songs – Roll Out the Barrel, Knees up Mother Brown, Show Me the Way to Go Home, The Pub with No Beer and, my absolute favourite, My Old Man’s a Dustman. Sometimes, he would tell me stories from when he was a boy, out delivering in the cart with his Dad, vegetables from their garden for the local people. Or other times, stories from the war when his factory started making munitions and he had a reserved occupation due to the skills he had operating complicated machinery. Nanna worked there too. He became an Air Raid Warden and was kept busy because my grandparents lived near Ipswich Airport (sadly now replaced with a housing estate) and there were plenty of US air bases in Suffolk which were often bombed. I had two favourite stories, one funny, one terrifying. The funny one was the time when my Grandad and Nanna were cycling home from the factory when the air raid siren went off. Nanna let out a scream, jumped off her bike, threw it towards Grandad then belted off down the road to the house. For some reason, she thought she could run faster than she could pedal! The terrifying story was when the air raid siren went whilst Grandad was gardening. He called to Nanna to come to their Anderson shelter and she got to the backdoor with baby Uncle Jack in her arms, as a German plane swooped in from the direction of the airport. Grandad said he must have released his bombs, as he could hear an explosion over the rooftops, then miscalculated as he turned his plane. He flew so low, the wings nearly touched the house and managed to steer upwards just in time to avoid a collision. Nanna said she could see the pilot’s frightened face looking at her from the cockpit as she comforted her bawling baby.

In my late teens, Grandad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. For some while, there had been signs that something wasn’t quite right. We noticed a slight tremor in Grandad’s hands, a tapping of teacup on saucer, the sweet brown liquid escaping, a telling off from Nanna for spillages. Grandad became slower. He shuffled in his slippers over the carpet. Sometimes, he got stuck, frozen and rigid rising from his chair. Once diagnosed, Grandad quickly worsened. His speech slurred or he stammered or he whispered breathily. He began to be stuck more often. He started being vacant, staring into space and seeing things that were not there, people and conversations from his past. Sometimes he would join in and talk about things that had happened years before as if he were in that moment. Grandad lost himself. Then came the dizziness and falls. When home from university, I visited Grandad to find him black and blue. We still sang together though and he remembered all the words.

At the end of my first year at university, enjoying a restful summer holiday in my parent’s sunny back garden, we got a phone call. Grandad had fallen down the stairs. He was in intensive care and things did not look good. Mum, Dad and me rushed to the hospital. We arrived to find Grandad in a coma. Apparently, he had died in the emergency room but been brought back to life by the doctors. I understood that was their job, but looking at my Grandad, face blackened with bruises, tubed up, heart and vital organs monitored in that white antiseptic room, I wondered why. Why had they brought him back to this? Why hadn’t they let him go in quiet dignity? His body was broken and suffering. His mind was wandering and confused and now retreated deep into himself. Seeing him lying there, I wanted to shout out in angry misery but I choked down the enormous painful lump in my throat. Mum and Nanna needed me.

The hospital staff said they were not sure Grandad would make it through the night, so Nanna could stay in a special flat for relatives if she wanted to. It would save her having to rush back if anything changed. I agreed to keep her company. She looked so small, her face pale and afraid. It hit me then how much she loved him, although she had often appeared cross with him. Dad offered to bring us the things we needed for the night. The flat had a kitchen area, a bed and a small shower room off. The staff had made me a put-up bed on the floor. Nanna fussed with her nightdress and toiletries then sat down on the only chair. She looked spent. I made us tea. We didn’t feel like food. Nanna talked anxiously about whether Grandad would be all right. I didn’t know what to say but tried to reassure. I felt sick with anxiety and was glad when Nanna suggested we got to bed. I lay awake with worry. Nanna managed to sleep, I supposed it was her age. Soon she was snoring and I resigned myself to a restless night. For a while, I wept silently for my Grandad, for his sweet-smelling head and gentle singing. Then, in the way that tragedy can often become comedy, Nanna began to break wind, probably due to the stress of the day. Suddenly, I found myself giggling as each fart erupted. I think it was some sort of hysteria. I bit my lips and dug my nails into my palms to stop myself.

Grandad made it through the night. The rest of the summer was spent visiting the hospital with Mum. We sat with Grandad. Day by day, his situation was unchanging. The staff said we must talk to him, and keep chatting amongst ourselves too, as he could hear everything. It was difficult, thinking of things to say when we were bereft. Sometimes, to fill the silences, we put the radio or TV on. The nurses came in and out doing their checks and care routines. We ate dreadful canteen food with little appetite, washing it down with cups of tea. With nothing to say, I began to sing to Grandad, sitting on the edge of the bed, holding his hand. Roll Out the Barrel, Show Me the Way to Go Home and My Old Man’s a Dustman. With that one, I noticed a flicker of the eyelids. I looked at Mum. She hadn’t noticed. Not wanting to raise her hopes, I said nothing but sang it again. A small miracle! Grandad’s lips began to move. He was mouthing the words. I leant near his face and kept singing. I could hear his breathy whispering – ‘He wears cor-blimey trousers’. Tears trickled down my face, “Mum, get the nurse.”

After that, the whole family sang with Grandad every day. He slowly woke up. One morning when we visited, he was sitting up in bed. It was a shock. He was awake but a shadow of himself. A ghost of Grandad. An empty shell. He did not know us. He looked around blankly. He didn’t really speak again. A few words. But Grandad never came back. In many ways, the following weeks were worse. He moved to a ward. He remained in bed. He was fed, bathed, given drinks through a straw. He developed bed sores and a nasty case of thrush in his mouth. Everyone was celebratory – he was getting better – but I was relieved when I had to return to university. Guiltily, I wished I had never woken him with a song.

A couple of weeks after I left, I got a phone call at my bedsit. Grandad was dead. It was terribly sad. It was also a huge relief. For me, Grandad died when he fell down the stairs. His prolonged stay in hospital had not been living at all. I went home for the funeral and cremation. Poor Nanna, alone after fifty-three years of marriage. We buried his ashes in a garden of remembrance. I bought a small statue of a pig to put next to the small plaque to remember him by. Grandad loved his pigs.

We wait

Time passes in fits and starts at the moment. As the lock down continues, with no easing here in Wales, hours can disappear without notice yet weeks and months seem to stretch on interminably. There is a paralysis of inspiration, focus and motivation; nothing much beyond normal routine is achieved, activities are cancelled, future prospects and plans are on hold, loved ones are missed, anxiety is buried beneath layers of mundanity.

We wait.

Nature does not wait, however, and time continues in the passing of spring into early summer. The swallows have returned and built a nest in the barn, flitting and swooping above the paddocks, finding pure joy in the hunting and catching of winged insects for their hatchlings. The hedgerows are vibrant with wildflowers, white, blue, purple, yellow and pink; bees darting among the petals, legs laden with pollen. The air is filled with amorous sounds of life; the buzz and hum of mini beasts, the chattering conversations of birds, the throaty calls of frogs, busy in their mating rituals. Less welcome, the local farmers are industrious, cutting silage and spreading muck on the fields during the dry spell. Tractors roar up and down narrow lanes all day and late into the night. The pungent perfume of manure sends us scampering inside with our lunchtime sandwiches.

Staying active in the garden, observing and enjoying small moments of this normality, keeps us grounded and content. Vegetable seedlings need planting, weeds must be cleared, brambles and bracken cut back. A poorly chicken needs care. Wood preservative is ordered ready for treating the stables, barn doors and fencing. There are jobs to do. Physical work to keep us healthy in body and mind.

There is family too. The bliss of being together with nowhere else to be. The pleasure in gathering for good food cooked with love. Sourdough bread is a success; warm, crusty and flavour-full, now yeast has become like gold dust. Pride at how well the young people are coping, with university closed, projects and dissertations to complete in difficult circumstances, unable to enjoy a night out with friends. There is zoom and social media but it is a long period of uncertainty and missing out. They are doing remarkably well.

And there is community. A group of willing and able volunteers in the nearest village. We post leaflets through doors, offer help for those alone and isolated; shopping, collecting prescriptions, posting mail. A support network, building links and hopefully lasting friendships. A chance to give something back for those of us who know how lucky we are. More people are walking; unable to go further afield in their cars, they explore the footpaths of the local countryside. We see new faces, shout welcomes over the hedge, have little chats. This gives us mixed feelings; selfishly we have enjoyed the peaceful isolation, and wonder if we will continue to have walkers once this is over.

Life is quiet and simple. We think about how it will be when lock down ends; what will we have learnt, what will remain and what will the new normal be?

We wait.

All my life I’ve tried

I am full of songs at the moment. I need to write and sing out my pain, my anger, my doubts and my joy. Here is one I currently have in my heart.

 

When I hear what you’ve been saying about me,

I don’t recognise myself.

It seems that when you look at me,

you’re really seeing someone else.

Maybe I am deluded,

maybe I am fooling myself.

But I don’t like this person you describe,

I want to be somebody else.

 

All my life I’ve tried to be

the kind of person who can see

through the eyes of others

but I know I’ve often failed at that.

 

When I hear what you’ve been thinking about me,

I don’t recognise myself.

It seems that when you listen to me,

you’re really hearing something else.

Maybe I am deluded,

maybe I am fooling myself.

But I don’t like this person you describe,

I want to be somebody else.

 

All my life I’ve tried to hear

both sides of stories, make things clear

through the ears of others

but I know I’ve often failed at that.

 

When I hear what you’ve been spreading about me,

I don’t recognise myself.

It seems that when you speak of me,

you’re really saying something else.

Maybe I am deluded,

maybe I am fooling myself.

But I don’t like this person you describe,

I want to be somebody else.

 

All my life I’ve tried to share

words of kindness, words of care

through the mouths of others

but I know I’ve often failed at that.

 

When I hear what you’ve been doing without me,

I don’t recognise you now.

It seems that when you need me most,

you’re really pretending you don’t.

Maybe I am deluded,

maybe I am fooling myself.

But I don’t like this person you describe,

I want to be somebody else.

 

All my life I’ve tried to feel

the pain and love that makes us real

through the hearts of others

but I know I’ve often failed at that.

 

I know I’ve often failed at that.

I know I’ve often failed at that.

I know I’ve often failed at that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tough times for a tortoise

Tortoises are awkward animals. Every job they undertake is hard work. Eating is effortful – with no hands to hold the food, necks stretch, mouths grasp and pull. Sometimes the delicious item slips away. Walking is effortful – dragging a heavy shell around, managing uneven ground. Sometimes the weight causes a tricky balancing act with the inevitable toppling over, then there is a scrabbling, useless flailing of legs in a hard-won attempt to get right way up again. Love making is effortful – the arduous manoeuvrings, scrape of claws on shell, crunch of carapaces and anguished cry. Sometimes the other half just wanders off. Life appears tough for a tortoise.

Living with a tortoise for forty-three years has given me some insight and surprises. My grandfather bought me one for my seventh birthday. Named after a popular road safety squirrel of the time, I chose probably the most inappropriate name ever given a tortoise – Tufty. He was beautiful – his shell a shiny, patterned olive green and mottled brown. At that age, I did not think about the terrible journey he had undertaken – snatched from the wild, crushed in a crate with hundreds of his fellows, packed onto a container ship. Shamefully, I think of it now and wish he could be returned to roam the dry, grassy slopes of his home country, sun warming his burnished back. Instead, he has had forty-three years of living in damp, rainy Britain.

thTufty the Road Safety Squirrel © ROSPA

At the end of every November, Tufty has to go to bed in a cupboard box, stuffed with paper bedding, insulated in another plastic box filled with polystyrene wotsits, for his annual hibernation. Every February, there is immense relief when he wakes up, fit and well. For Tufty is a resilient little creature. He is awkward but he is tough, reliable and lovable. He has character. He comes when called and likes human and other animal company. He particularly enjoys chasing other pets around the garden – dogs, cats and even ducks – who never seem to understand quite what he is; a moving rock, how is that possible? He never gives up if he wants something, even climbing out of his run to escape. Tufty may lumber around carrying his heavy home but he can move when he wants to, especially on a hot day. His pleasure in munching on a dandelion or buttercup flower is a joy to behold.

SONY DSC

Despite my guilt at having a pet who was torn from his homeland in traumatic circumstances, I am glad I have Tufty. He has been a constant since I was a small child and he holds an important place in the cycle of my life. Quiet, steadfast, patient and determined, Tufty has kept me company and provides a symbol for simple, sensible, contented living.

Sometimes

I’ve been writing (and singing) more songs. Still haven’t figured out how to post recordings of them on here but, at least I’m thinking about it. This one is about how life sometimes gets you down, and you wonder if you can cope, but then you think of the hopeful stuff and feel a bit better.

Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning,

I wish that I could go straight back to sleep.

The world is too big for me, I ache with the pain I see.

I think of the wars, the fear, the hate, the need.

I think of the waste, the mess, the greed.

My chest presses in at the thought of getting out of bed.

I don’t want to smile or share what’s in my head.

My legs weigh heavy and I struggle for breath.

Then I glance at the window where the sky hangs in silver hues.

Bird song rings in the air so true.

My soul brightens up with life anew.

I think of the love, the compassion, the empathy.

I think of friendship, partnership, humanity.

My heart swells so large that I worry it will burst my chest.

I smile at the happy thoughts within my head.

My voice sings out as I jump up from bed.

Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning, 

l wish that I could go straight back to sleep.

The world is too big for me, I ache with the pain I see.

Time for change

Here are two recent entries in my notebook. Funny how quickly our lives can turn around.

Saturday 23rd November

I’m appalled at how little writing I’ve done this year. This notebook is less than half full, my novel untouched for months (and months), my thoughts embroiled with work. And now this promotion to a management role. Have I made the right decision taking on more work? I know there will be lots to do and big changes to be made. My mind will be preoccupied and distracted. What will this mean for my writing? Will I ever find time to put pen to paper, to think it matters enough? My writing plays second, third, fourth fiddle to everything else in my life – family, job, household chores. Why can’t I prioritise it and find the space for it? How do others manage it? One friend says I’m not selfish enough. Is that what it takes – selfishness? Perhaps on some level it does require a certain selfish attitude. It requires me to think that my writing is more important than anything else at that moment. And that is an exceptionally hard thing to do.

 

Tuesday 10th December

Ha! I wrote that piece just a couple of weeks ago and the change in my situation has been dramatic. Sitting in this empty café, overlooking a dreary, blustery grey sea, the voice of a young Michael Jackson chirping in my ear about Santa coming to town, I’m wondering what on earth happened. I’m shell-shocked, a turmoil of thoughts and emotions in my heart and head. An occasional anxious panic grips my chest and sets my pulse aflutter. Within two weeks of promotion, I am jobless again. Me being me, I’m questioning whether I made a mistake in resigning. If I hurtled headlong into something, whether I considered it for long enough. But deep in the pit of my roiling stomach, I know. This is for the best. This is the right decision. I know that I could not have continued working for an organisation whose professional values did not really match my own, despite what outward appearances suggested. But, what now? I have no real idea. Some time for relaxation and reflection. Everything happens for a reason; I truly believe that. I rushed into a job when my home education days ended. The void was huge and I was afraid. I panicked. I have always found it easier to think about and help other people rather than face myself, so perhaps the job was a way of running away – from the idea of writing, of being creative, of doing something for me. I don’t know. One thing I’m certain of, I’m going to enjoy Christmas.

Just about had enough of you

Singing is my sanity. It relieves stresses and worries. It fills my heart with joy. Recently, plans to finish my book have taken a back seat as I adjust to a new life of working and studying, after years as a home educating Mum. One thing that remains constant is singing – in my choir, in my job, at home and everywhere possible. I have even written a couple of songs, though I’m not a musician and it’s all done by ear. Here are the lyrics to one of them. If I feel brave, I may record and share it (if I can work out how!)

 

Just about had enough of you

 

Refrain:

I’ve just about had enough of you to last me a very long time

I’ve just about had enough of you to last me the rest of my life.

 

When I saw you that first night, my heart filled with joy

I thought I had found a love true

We shared much in common, you seemed to be kind

But you soon ended up being cruel

 

Refrain

 

We married on a Tuesday; the rain pattered down

My mother was weeping for me

I ignored the warnings, the worries, the frowns

Your love notes were all I could see

 

Refrain

 

I sat on a hospital bed in the dawn

A patchwork of bruises and cuts

The doctor asked questions, the nurses looked sad

But I shrugged off their cautions and tuts

 

Refrain

 

I cradled our baby and rocked her to sleep

Counting the hours that passed

Another night alone, while you messed around

I prayed that this one was your last

 

Refrain

 

We huddled in a corner, the children and me

I covered their ears with my hands

Your hatred and cursing swept over our heads

Like waves crashing over the sands

 

Refrain

 

I stared in the mirror at my ugly fat lip

The blood trickled down from my nose

The children were sobbing and clinging to me

I sighed at the life that I chose

 

Refrain

 

Early one Sunday while you lay in bed

In a black out from drinking all night

I left with the children and a small hold all bag

Disappeared in the grey morning light

 

Refrain

 

Here

To sit on a World War II gun battery,

crumbling tumble-down shelter to shaggy sheep,

symbol of war, hate and death.

To watch the early summer sun sinking

behind bold distant hills,

spilling fiery colour across clouds.

To listen to the last birdsong of evening,

eerie calls of pheasant hiding in wavy grass,

maniacal cries of horned beasts.

To see that blazing ball of flame

drip amber, pink and gold upon the settled sea.

To experience a moment of peace

removed from this world of madness, fear and sorrow.

Life-affirming minutes;

we exist now, at this time,

we are here.

Growing

There is something special about growing your own food. Gently planting a seed in rich, damp compost, waiting patiently for signs of green shoots pushing up through dark earth, planting out seedlings in neat rows of raked soil, watching the plants grow tall and vigorous, picking fresh vegetables for the evening meal, from garden to pot in minutes, is a kind of magic.

Sometimes, there are frustrations. Seeds rot in the ground, slugs feast on tender blooms, caterpillars attack glossy leaves, backs twinge, muscles ache, nails break and hands become dirt-ingrained, but it is satisfying work, good for body and mind. The clean air breathed in under wide skies, the smell of warm earth, the feel of fingers dug deep in crumbly dirt, the calming buzz of insects and soulful song of birds, the sense of well-being and pride growing brings. It is a connection with the land, a sustaining of life, something fundamental, something ancient.

Many of us have lost that connection, the opportunity to support ourselves, even in a small way, with home-grown food. If there were more gardens and growing spaces in our cities, towns and communities, we would be healthier and happier. Our diets are better, our appreciation of food far greater, when we grow it ourselves. Growing vegetables means being outside, exercising our bodies and working with purpose. The effort is rewarded with vegetables that taste wonderful, like nothing we can buy in supermarkets. Serving up Sunday lunch with three types of vegetables from your own garden is a feeling that is hard to beat.