Thursday, 21 April 2016

Grief is the price you pay for love

 “Grief is the price you pay for love” isn’t a bumper sticker or an annoying  Facebook gif if you’ve really experienced the visceral  pain of loss. 

The pain is real - you feel it ripping into your chest.  I guess that’s why the heart has been associated with love and loss for millennia.  

The pain was there for me from the moment Mum was diagnosed with cancer.  I knew in that instant that I would lose her.  The doctors were saying she could have five years.  In such a dire situation, everyone took this as a ‘positive’.  But, putting a number on someone’s life makes it finite.  

We kid ourselves that we are immortal, there’s a tomorrow to do the washing, a tomorrow to do the shopping or a tomorrow to travel the world.  As soon as you’re given a date when tomorrow will end, that’s when grieving for the love of life comes in. 

Knowing that you’re going to lose someone feels desperate - you can’t stop what’s happening - it’s like trying to catch a stream and seeing the water run through your fingers. You can grab at it, but nothing will stop its trajectory. 

I remember understanding what people meant by ‘living nightmare’.  I’d take my daughter to Musical Tots, but it would seem unreal.  Children would be running around laughing, bashing drums and fighting over a tambourine, Mums would be drinking coffee and marvelling about the selection of fantastic biscuits on offer and I’d try to smile and pretend to be interested when all I could do was think of Mum and the physical struggle she was undertaking to hang on to life.  I wanted to scream ‘wake me from this nightmare - stop what’s happening - stop it now!’ but instead I had to hold it in and sing ‘row row row your boat’.

People would say to me: “I can’t believe it! Not your Mum!” as if her name had been called in some hideous raffle that she was not eligible for. “She’s so fit! So full of life!”  

Mum’s positivity was legend in our family.  She’d been through so much, seen off so many demons in the early 70s when post partum psychosis had tried to rob her of her memory, her family, her children.  When her health returned, she was so grateful to have the chance of life again that she lived it to the full and she loved us without end.   

When the diagnosis came Mum was on her own.  Dad was at his art class, I was looking after Zoë and so Mum took the phone call from the doctor at home alone.  I’ll be forever guilty that I wasn’t there for her at that moment. 

Mum remained calm through the 18 month fight to stay alive. She didn’t want to scare us.  One morning as I washed her hair, she tried to prepare me for what was to come but I wouldn’t let her speak about it. No Mum, it’s not going to happen. She said: “it will be okay, you will get through it. You will be happy again.”  I know we both cried a lot that morning, but then we put it to one side and tried to just deal with the day.

In September 2013 Mum was taken to the hospice with a chest infection. It would be the last one in a series of horrible infections. The doctor in charge said Mum would ‘be gone’ by morning.  We sat with her and she woke once in the night to say goodbye.  She made us hold hands and promise ‘to love each other’.  Love was everything to Mum. She made us say it three times, then she went to sleep.  We took turns to sit with her through the ten days and nights that she hung on to life. 

When Mum died I felt her absence completely. Her breathing had been imperceptible in the last few days but she was definitely there with us until it stopped.  Dad took off her wedding ring and he gave it to me to wear.  It slipped easily on to my finger and I haven’t been able to prize it off since.  It’s literally fixed in place on the fourth finger of my left hand. 
We left Mum’s body at the hospice and came home to Eynsford.  Everything felt different.  It still felt as though we were in a dream or a film that we wanted to end. Everything felt out of balance.  Nothing looked right; not the Ford, the church, the High Street.  Nothing. 

Mum had been such a part of village life - she’d loved the village and had given so much to it.  I remember walking to the bottom of the garden and feeling that she must be there.  She couldn’t be gone completely. 

There were over 200 people at the funeral.  I remember not wanting to look at anyone apart from my family. Nik held my hand until I had to stand to say the eulogy. As I walked to the lectern and unfolded my pieces of paper, ready to speak about Mum, a shaft of sunlight suddenly poured through the church window.  

As we left the church Eva Cassidy sang ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’. 

I’ve not written about the pain of loss before, I’ve spoken about it to close friends, but always felt I couldn’t explain it fully.  Words don’t do it justice.  But, in corresponding with a writer yesterday who had also lost her Mother, we spoke about the idea of ‘things getting easier’ and agreed that they don’t.  

My thoughts are, if you’re loved someone profoundly and lost them, it’s unlikely that you will wake in ten years time with the pain anaesthetised and say “Oh I don’t love them now.  I feel okay again”. 

The writer had replied with the line: “Grief is the price you pay for love”.  

I feel Mums absence keenly with every passing season and passing milestone. Zoë’s fifth birthday, her sixth birthday, her seventh birthday, the three Christmas’s, the summer months at the caravan. 

The thought that she would have loved my daughter infinitely nearly cripples me.   

 I don't know if we will get to talk again.  The thing about Mum and me was - we LOVED to talk.  We talked and talked.  I know that I irritate people and people irritate me too, but I know that the one person who was never irritated by me and who never irritated me in return was Mum.  I don't know if I'll ever have that feeling again - that feeling of complete acceptance and love.  

I’m not sure what I think about the after-life. I like to think instead that Mum lives on in my daughter, in my nephews and in me.  When the grief is overwhelming I ask myself ‘WWMD?’ - what would mum do - and I know the answer instantly.  She’d take a deep breath, count her blessings, love again and push on.

*With profound thanks to Georgie Fuller for helping me to look grief in the face for just one day.  And thanks to those who have listened and been so kind in the last couple of years. 

Thursday, 24 March 2016

There's a gas man in my cupboard and he looks like Heston Blumenthal

There's a gas man in my cupboard and he looks like Heston Blumenthal.  He's been in there some time now. I think I scared him. I really must remember to mention before I lead them to the bedroom, that the boiler is upstairs.

There was a time when men would have found my slow walk upstairs alluring. Now they're on the brink of suggesting stairlift companies and looking worried as I beckon them yonder to the second floor.

It's true I'm not as young as I used to be (a phrase that has always seemed bloody obvious to me) and it's also true that I don't always make the most of myself. It's hard to summon the enthusiasm before the school run to do much more than to pull on my jeans and a hoodie. I usually brush my hair but this morning I confess I forgot so maybe my Doc Brown hair scared the gas man.... I'll never know because he refused to look me in the eye or allow me to take his photo to prove to my friends on Facebook that I had Heston in my airing cupboard.

Zoë knows a trick or two about men. She shared her secrets yesterday evening on the way home from her swimming lesson.
 "I know a trick how to get boys to love you"
"What's that then?" I'd replied.
"You  need to wear lots of make up, do your hair and wear a nice dress. Then they'll want to marry you."
"By the way, I can help you do yours then daddy might ask you to marry him".

I relaid the conversation to the gas man.  Then I offered him some chocolate biscuits. As I climbed the stairs with the biscuit barrel I heard him talking quietly into his phone: "this old boiler has more problems than I initially thought."

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Postpartum Psychosis and Mum

My beautiful Mum suffered from postpartum psychosis following the birth of my brother John.  If it had been 2016 then maybe Mum would have received more support but it was 1972 and people were afraid of mental illness.  No one knew the term 'chemical imbalance' and there were no posters or helplines.

Mum told me of a neighbour and good friend who, on seeing Mum walk towards her on the pavement, looked the other way and crossed the road. There were friends who did help but a lot of people  'left' Mum and Dad to it.

Mum lost touch with her reality.  Following John's birth Mum rapidly spiralled into another world; a place where she was 9 years old, a place where she didn't recognise my Dad or remember that she had a daughter at home.  

Mum's fight to regain her health and return to her family was something we all lived. My Dad was completely devoted to Mum and would visit her daily at the hospital.  Mum says she remembered a man with kind eyes and a lovely smile visiting her and she thought that he was her favourite Uncle Dick (who had passed away by then), but in fact it was the man she'd been married to for 7 years.

I remember worrying as a child if Mum wasn't happy.  The separation anxiety that began when she went into hospital when I was 2 and didn't come home for 6 months didn't leave me until I was an adult.

Mum was taken to Stone Mental hospital in Dartford where she was given ECT treatment for 12 weeks and miraculously she began to regain her memory and make connections with her real life.  She had to re-learn to drive, cook, change nappies, garden (something she loved with a passion all her life) and in a sense re-learn who she was.

Mum was the strongest and most courageous woman I've ever known.  This courage helped her when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2012.  She faced everything with a smile and fiercely protected us all from the reality of the situation.  Mum died in September 2013 but not before we were able to share her story : I Know Who I Am by Margaret Rimmer

Mum's book is available for free until the 13th March.

Postpartum psychosis is a condition that the charity Mind have worked hard to draw attention to and educate with the help of an Eastenders storyline and lots of interesting case studies.  I hope that Mum's story will help other families who are going through or who have been through the same experience.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Hey Kim - the number 59 is more important than 69! #InternationalWomensDay

“So, Mama, what is interfashional women’s day?”

“It’s international women’s day” I say, “and it’s not supposed to have anything to do with fashion so someone had better tell Kim Ker-ching-ian that…”

My daughter nodded sagely as she continued to spoon Rice Krispies into her mouth. 

“….it’s a day when women are allowed to say a few things about what it’s like to be a girl," I add.

“I like being a girl” she says as she brushes the stray Krispies from her skirt. “I like it that I can wear a skirt if I like or I can wear trousers, boys only get to wear skirts on special days like when Mr S came to school as ‘The Boy In The Dress’ on World Book Day last week”.  

While I applaud Mr S’s bravery I try hard to think of a way to explain why International Women’s Day means more to us than just fashion freedom. That’s not to say that I’m taking fashion freedom for granted, no, I’m eternally indebted to the freedom fighters of the 1960s who burned their bras and invented miniskirts.  They’ve been my fashion inspiration for the last 40 years, but the essence of what they were fighting for - gender equality - still remains elusive in 2016. 

My thoughts turn to the 59-ers.  

The number 59 isn’t just a safe prime number, it adorned badges worn by feminists in the 1970s to illustrate the fact that a woman earned 59 cents to an equally qualified male’s dollar. Not much has changed since-time. Figures out last year suggest that men in the South East earn 25% more than their female counterpart. 

So I say to my daughter: “Imagine a world where you go to work to do the same job as a boy from your class and you are paid £4 an hour and he gets £5 to do the same thing.”
“Well, that would be mad Mama and not allowed.”
I’m about to try to explain the concept of the Gender Pay Gap but stop myself: “Yes you’re right, it is mad and it shouldn’t be allowed, but it is.”
“But why does he get more than me? Is he cleverer?”
“No, he’s not, the only difference between you is he’s male and you are female. It’s not fair and that’s why days like today are important because your Mummy, your Nanny, your Great Nanny all knew that they were equal, and important and worth much more and it’s important we shout that message ever louder every year.”
“Okay, shall I ask Mrs T or Mrs N if they’ll speak to He-Who-Cannot-be-Named about it?”
(Before you think I’m suggesting her teachers have a hot line to Voldemort I should probably point out here that ‘He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named’ is code for the Prime Minister.)

“You can do if you like - and while you’re at it, can you ask them to let Kim  know that the definition of #liberated isn’t an airbrushed black and white picture of her in the nudey!”

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Oh, bop, do do do do do do do do Fa-fa-fa-fa-fashion

I love to shop. I love clothes. The combination is a fatal one. It kills my bank balance and the death of my wardrobe is imminent as it threatens to pop at the seams - the day is fast approaching when the doors will fall in on me  and the back will drop down into Narnia.

But what does my love of fashion teach Nipper? She's already saying things like "that's not very me," and her unhealthy obsession with things leopard print remains undiminished.

My love for clothes and shopping contributes to landfill and although I try really hard to be aware of what I source and from where, no doubt at some point a child has made an item of clothing that I wear. This thought sickens me.

In an attempt to re-educate myself and to prevent  Nipper catching the full blown strain of my shopaholica, today I pledge to forgo buying clothing for myself for a year. I might go for longer, but I'm starting with 365 days.

This isn't as virtuous or minimalist as it sounds. The Guardian won't be sharing this blog. I have a lot of fabric in my wardrobe. If I forgo knickers, I've got enough clothes to wear an item a day for the next 6 months without washing a thing.

If I laid my mini skirts end to end they'd reach the end of our street.

A quick inventory revealed:
76 mini skirts
15 pairs of jeans
10 pairs of trousers
10 pairs of shorts
52 dresses
23 hoodies
And 28 pairs of knickers.
I'm not going to attempt to count tops t shirts and blouses (I'm of an age where I've started to buy those too!)

I'm an economic disaster. I have invested in fabric when I would have been better off investing in oil and we all know that oil too is on its uppers, knickerless and without a pot to piss in.

Nik has suggested de-cluttering first and also suggests  I work out what is useful by labelling my clothes with the date I last wore them. I listened, then concluded there's a special kind of madness associated with 'order and reason'. Another two things I won't be investing in.

Instead I'm investing in the future joy I'm going to experience from creating new and diverse looks from my old items. Nipper and I are going to make a Look Book. We can also alter and add embellishments to some of the more tired items.

We are  looking  forward to the No Shopping For Clothes Year.

And to the lady who passed us in the street the other day and said to me "I like your costume!", I say "you ain't seen nothing yet." X

Ps. If you want to join me in the 365 day quest do let me know.... There will be dark days but together and with the help of sequins we can get through it, we might even find we like it.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

A boy for a day

"I want to be a boy for a day" she announced "but without a willy - that would get in the way."

I wanted to ask my daughter what it would get in the way of, but didn't want to restart discussions on the male appendage, discussions which had lasted for the whole week of half term after a naked German swam towards us in the hotel pool bellowing "Guten Tag!!"

"Why do you want to be a boy?" I asked.

"Because they just play, they don't argue like the girls," she replied.

I tried to imagine my petite daughter, with her fear of mud, as a boy for the day. This was a girl who could be reduced to tears by mud on the toe of her wellies. 

"You'd probably have to play football" I warned. Hmmmm I could see her processing the thought of running to and fro with other red-faced laughing boys.

"And you might even have to header the ball...." I added.

"I could do that" she answered grimacing.

"You'd have to pretend to hold guns and throw grenades and make a POW sound."

"POW? No one says 'POW' Mummy! It's  "peeeyouuu.  I can do that."

I was lost at this point and flicked quickly through the stereotypical images in my head listed under the heading of "boys".  Nerf guns. Dirty knees.  Boggies. 

She interrupted me before I could get to Smelly Farts: "If I get to be a boy for a day, I'd show my new boy friends how to play the 'fashion game'.  I'd show them how to make clothes and walk down the catwalk and we could put on events and sing and dance..."

"You could do that with your friends whatever sex they are."

"Mummy!! You're not allowed to say that!!!"

"Of course I can, we are all equal and can play whatever game we like - girls can play football and boys can design dresses."

"No Mummy!!! You don't understand, you can't say S.E.X!" She spelled the three letters out with emphasis. 

Apparently there are lots of words I can't say including the 'F' word (fart or fat, depending on the context) and "God!" (that's rude).

"If you want to be a boy for a day then you want to change sex Zoe."

Zoe stopped tying her shoe-laces and looked at me "I can't CHANGE sex Mummy - I don't know how to make it."

That was the moment I decided that the next time she announced she wanted to be a boy for a day, willy or no willy, I would just say :"Great idea - pass me the Nerf gun!"

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The School Run

“Get up! Get up! Get up!”

Muffled “URGGGGH!” from under the duvet

“Get up! Get up! Come on get up - I’ve been in to your room three times to ask you to get up and you’re still not up and dressed!” my daughter then turns on her heel and, already fully-dressed, stalks out of my bedroom. 

She’s up with the lark (or the stars if they’re still out at 6am) while I wait until the very last minute to rise like Lazarus, and every morning I make a promise to go to bed earlier tonight.

If we are to make it to school on time then we have to leave the house by 8:36:07 at the very latest.  Working together, we have calculated this exact timing with the help of  trial and error.  It’s taken two years to hone it down to the last second, but we can do it if I make it out of bed by 8:01.  Not a second later.  

On a good day: Mummy is in the shower by 8:01 and 20 seconds. Out by 8:05 washed and shampooed, dressed by 8:07, hair dried by 8:12. Downstairs and cereal in bowls by 8:15. There’s time to listen to David Walliams reading his book or Shaun Keaveney (my choice) on 6Music. 8:25 back upstairs to clean teeth and pull hair into a ponytail (trying not to pull too much out of her head) then downstairs 8:30, shoes on, coats on, alarm on, out of the door 8:32. Turn back at 8:33, unlock door, turn off alarm, run through to the kitchen, rinse out dirty water bottle from day before, refill, turn alarm back on, lock door, leave driveway by 8:36.

On a bad day: “Come on! Stop looking in the mirror and come downstairs, you’re making me late again Mummy!” 8:32 and there she is, my fantastic little girl, fully dressed, coat on, hat on, shoes on, school bag across her chest frowning up the stairs at me and jabbing her finger pointedly  at her wrist (I wouldn’t mind, but she doesn’t even wear a watch). 
"Where’s my phone? 
"Why are all my socks odd? 
"Where are my glasses?” 

“They’ll be where you left them Mummy” she shouts up the stairs.  I know where she’s picked that saying up - from the man who left the house in a smooth trajectory, wearing matching socks, forgetting nothing at the ungodly hour of 7:15 with plenty of time to calmly buy a ticket and make his train. 

8:35, I fall down the stairs wearing odd socks and a Hallowe’en hair-do, I look up to see her writing careful words in a tiny white notebook.  “You’re in the late book again” she says with a half smile. “Sorry,” I reply and then go in search of the sodding water bottle (it’s never where we left it) to half fill it so we can carry it down the road, place it in the class trug and collect it, untouched at the end of the day.  Hat, coat, shoes, alarm.

Each half term that passes, another line is added to my already heavily lined brow. What I need is a lie in….if my calculations are right I should get one in 2 years time. 

Come January 2018 “one sugar in my tea please Zoë and can you please slice the banana a little thinner on my weetabix today?” I’ll shout down the stairs to my fully dressed, fantastically organised girl. I will rise refreshed at 8:15 having enjoyed breakfast in bed.  

Until then, if you see me on the school run in odd socks you’ll know it was a bad day.

And to Zoë; I pinky-promise to go to bed earlier tonight……..