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Life, death and lies

28 May

Big Milk “Are you sad because you didn’t get to see grandma when she died?”

Me “No, I was with her when she died darling, and it was very peaceful”. 

Big Milk  “What happens when someone gets died?”

Me “They get very sleepy and quiet and eventually they take their last breath and  fall asleep and don’t wake up. ”

Big Milk ” And then their body disappears and they go to heaven?”

Me. “Umm, no their body doesn’t disappear exactly.”

Big Milk “Well where does it go then? Does your body fall through the bed and then melt into the carpet?”

Me “No, umm, well yes it does kind of disappear, like eventually.  (not even a lie my friends- bodies decompose and that’s kinda like disappearing right?)

Big Milk  “So you waited for a bit and then Grandma slowly disappeared and then the bed was empty. Was there any smoke?”

Me  “Well, hmmm, not really like that darling,  I left before anything happened to her body. Her spirit had gone to heaven  and she wasn’t really there anymore, plus I’d already said goodbye”.

Big Milk  “What’s a spirit mummy?  Did grandma turn all white like a Scooby ghost?”

Me  “Ok, ahem, lights off baby. We’ll talk about this more tomorrow”

This explaining death thing isn’t easy for an agnostic.  You swear you’re not going to lie, gloss over things with euphemisms or “easy lies” because they’re handy and comforting. You’re supposed to “tell them how it is”, not hide the true nature of nature. I had my own smug, self-assured commentary down –  “Some people believe X, others Y, this is what I believe, you must decide for yourself”.   But the truth is, it’s never that easy.  The heaven lie came out early.  I was tired and it’s just such a nice idea, isn’t it?  Fluffy clouds, everyone decked out in persil whites, angels with 24 carat halos and harps that play themselves   You can’t quite bring yourself to tell them the truth – it’s a bit too, well, real.  In any case, you’re still struggling with it all yourself, and you don’t want to land the burden of accepting mortality on them just yet.

So it seems I’ll be trotting out some fanciful niceties for some time to come; in any case, my hole is already half way dug. But i reckon, his grandma’s just died, if he needs a bit of heaven in his life than let him have it.  I could do with a few candy floss clouds myself.

personal liability

15 Apr

It’s no secret that I hate the blame culture in this country. You know the one. I got fat because you told me burgers tasted good during the ad break in Coronation Street and I was hungry.  I am £10,000 in debt because you sent me a credit application in the post and told me the special offer wouldn’t last forever and I had to act now. Yada yada.  Often I don’t think we take enough personal responsibility for things.

Everywhere it seems we’re trying to pass the buck. I slipped on the road because the pavement was a bit wonky, yes I’d had a few pints, but it was a hazard waiting to happen. In any case it’s easy cash and I’m a lazy bastard.

If you’ve got “No win, no fee” in your strapline, mine’s not a number worth ringing.  I’d rather eat my tongue and hobble like Quasimodo for a while, than help drive the UK into being a horribly litigious country like the US. Where noone will put their neck on the line to help others because of what might happen to them if they make a mistake. Where people watch their back and hide their hands in their pockets while another suffers a few doors down.

BUT at what point does personal responsibility end and our freedom to make mistakes begin?

I witnessed a very awkward exchange in the cafe at our local hospital a few days ago.  A lady was with her mother at a table across from me and she started to stare at a couple of doctors sitting to her right. As she peered forward to read the female doctor’s name badge, deliberately and provocatively, she addressed the lady by name. “I thought I recognised you – you’re the doctor who misdiagnosed my mother”.

Now, I understand the pain of watching your mother get poorly, feeling powerless, desparate, and the frustration when mistakes are made. There have been mistakes in my mother’s treatment, stuff that’s delayed things – but so far I’ve rolled with it. We don’t live in a perfect world. People are fallable, situations occur, and as long as people are doing their best, can we really expect and demand perfection all of the time?

I’m not talking about incompetence, situations where due care and attention are not made, but if a doctor makes a genuine mistake when making decisions they feel are right at the time, that are well thought through, rationalised and considered, what then?

I know I have the luxury of looking in at this woman’s life and making these judgements, and I could be wrong. Perhaps the doctor did make an unforgiveable mistake, quickly and brashly, a snap judgement reached over another caramel latte with extra shot.

“What’s going on” this lady’s mother said to her after her daughter’s heated stare down with the lady doctor. “Oh nothing for you to worry about mum” she answered with a forced smile. The sad thing was that her mum did look worried. She’d probably moved on with the mistake, keen to get on with her life and to make the best of it, and all her well-meaning daughter had achieved was to make her feel even more uncomfortable.

I just hope with all my mother’s time in hospital, I don’t have to eat my words.

Enforced clarity

8 Apr

Even amongst all the shit it’s possible to have good days.  In fact, shit like Cancer focuses the mind. Never have I seen so much, and done so little (remember my post where I flirted briefly with beginner Buddhism?). Well now I’m living it.

My mother has always been a busy person. A talented and able person.  People would marvel at just what she could do, how much she could take on, and how well she would do it. To them she was a creative powerhouse. Of course to herself she’d never quite done enough. Sound familiar? Well my life was pretty much spent the same way. Running around in the pursuit of something, forever chasing my tail, with each obstacle taking on a seemingly insurmountable form.

Now of course my mum is still all of the things she was, but her illness has forced her to to slow down and take notice.  (Years of telling her it was her time, to sit back and be selfish, and it’ taken a terminal bloody illnesss to make her do it.) Cancer has stopped her in her tracks, and as shit as that is, as devastating and heart breaking, there is also something rather sweet. For the first time (ever?) she is taking a good look around her, drinking it all in, and what she is savouring is frequently surprising, and at times delicious.

Normal life has a habit of taking over, the meaningless usurping the meaningful in a cloud of impenetrable smog.  Perhaps it’s not so much that rays of light can still exist in an otherwise stormy sky, so much as it is the rain itself that makes the luminescent rainbow a possibility.

It really is a shame that it takes something so shit to enforce that kind of clarity. But rather that, than never to feel it at all.

Saying nothing is never an option

18 Mar

My darling friend, Vick, originally published this post on her blog at the beginning of February, but I now feel comfortable enough to post it here.

So you don’t know what to say?….say SOMETHING
Can’t find the right words?…..try the WRONG ones
Can’t solve it?… don’t TRY to
For saying nothing is never an option.

You worry that your words will sound trite, smug, empty
That nothing you could ever say could take the pain away
So best not to say anything at all.
But saying nothing is never an option.

The truth is, I am falling
And you can’t stop me
At a hundred miles an hour.
And I am scared
And you CAN’T change that.
But you can say SOMETHING

Because I am lonely, frightened
Wondering if I have the strength.
And behind those few words
You will tell me I am not alone,
That me and the ones I love matter.
And that I do, and will, and can
Get through this.

Saying nothing is never an option
Because saying something, anything, is what matters.

How well do you really know someone?

7 Mar

We spend our lives listening to our parent’s potted histories, groan at having to hear them over and over – once, twice, three times – sometimes late at night, often with high emotion.

We internalise these stories without question; it’s only when we go to recount them back to an unconnected party that we start to see them for what they are. Glimpses only. Snapshots. A biographical history – selective, biased, incomplete.

We may know intimately our loved one’s character traits, their struggles, passions, desires. We may learn to predict their behaviour, know how to cosset them against harm, support them in their personal struggles, marvel at their hard-fought triumphs, but do we ever really consider the person they were before we met them? They are “our mum” or “our dad”. We give only a fleeting thought to the experiences that shaped them into who they are today, take foregranted who they might have been to someone else.

My dad had a few anecdotes he told time and again. Like the time he blew his falling out money from the navy on a suite of rooms at Manchester’s most expensive hotel, while his equals slummed it in student halls throughout fresher’s week. Or the first year he spent bording in a madam’s house, looked after like a son, fed cooked breakfast every morning as debauchery went on around him. Snapshots of a life lived to the full, a man with a cheeky glint in his eye.

The thing with anecdotes is that they’re just that. Improved over time, polished, made more funny, more enchanting, more impressive. If we start to ask questions, we soon begin to realise how much more there is to know, that what we know is merely a scratch on the surface of a life lived.

It was only when my father lost his sight and hearing, became isolated, more reflective, when we used to sit for hours talking because there was little else he could do, that I really got to know him. Started to fill in the gaps, build the flesh around the anecdotal bones, get to really know him as he was in life, from beginning to end.

My mum has her own stories, funny, poignant, some tragic, many filled with enormous strength and achievement. We are incredibly close, like sisters, and yet, I’m beginning to realise that for as much as I do know, there is still so much that I don’t. Have never thought to ask, question, or clarify. Or I have listened but never really heard.

I’m looking forward to finding out even more not just about a mother, but a sister, daughter, friend.

Keep stepping

23 Feb

I’ve talked before about how amazed I’ve been at the strength and courage I’ve seen in the people around me recently. Their ability to stare fear, trauma, horror in the face, turn away and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep stepping forward.

Well fear has turned to face me, and I’m staring him down. Maybe it’s all false bravado. Perhaps I’m protected by a wall made of egg shells. Weak, soon to shatter. But at the moment I’m sucking it up.

You know, if you’d asked me a few months ago I would have laughed at you and told you that this would have been too much. One of the people I love most in this world taken away from me? Pah – it would be the end for me. But I’m still standing, and do you know why? Because the one I love so dearly, the one who has brought me up, nurtured me, taught me everything I know, prepared me for this life, that person has made me strong. Just like her.

So I have found myself surrounded by truly amazing women defiantly facing fear, loss, pain and standing their ground. Screaming, swearing, faltering – but standing nonetheless. Lori, Kristin, Roz, @Cheepcheepcheep, Jen, Stephy, Penny, Sarah (there are more). And do you know what? I think I might just be like you.

This post is for my mother – the one I look up to, the one who amazes me the most, the one who has shown me by example how to just keep stepping. The one who has made me, and will make me, STRONG.


If I was in your position…..

18 Feb

I’ve had some bad news recently, and I’m not reacting in a way that I would have expected. I’m not in bed crying a thousand tears. I’m not screaming and shrieking and thrashing about with hysteria. I’m not beating up on my husband or my kids through anger and frustration. In fact, I’m not feeling much at all.

An emptiness. A sadness in the pit of my stomach. A muted sense of panic. But not the screaming I would have expected.

It’s not that I don’t care. In fact the news is so unimagineably awful that barriers have shot up. A coat of armour erected to protect me. Every so often a chink in that armour shifts to let light in, and what I see is so unspeakable, so devastating, that the hole closes up within seconds. Solid and inpenetrable once more.

Would I expect someone else to react the same? Feel exactly the same things, do and say everything in parallel? Should their actions be different would that show weakness or more honesty? A greater love or a lack of heroicism? Of course not. A million things collide to make us who we are, circumstances and moments unique. No reaction is right or wrong, justified or indefensible.

So why do some people jump to pass judgement? “If so and so happened to me I would….”, “If I were in his shoes I would never….”

I’m not talking about me. I have been utterly floored by the support I have received, but I see this kind of thing around me all that time. A readiness to judge, to offer an exact account of what someone would do in any given situation. A situation they’ve never experienced.

The truth is, we don’t know how we will react until we are there.

We may have lived with ourselves for tens of years, know ourselves inside out, bottom up. We learn to pre-empt how we are likely to feel, think, act in certain situations. And that’s useful. It allows us to plan, make decisions, survive. But we are talking about situations not too far from the norm. Situations for which we have some kind of blue print. Learned through experience.

But when something comes along without precedent, so extra-ordinary, unanticipated, how could we ever possibly know for certain what we would do?

Can we expect our moral code, our modus operandi to be upheld even when we are tested to the absolute extreme?

I thought I would fall apart. I suspect I still might. But one thing’s for sure, I could never say for certain.

Lori, still in my thoughts.

Spare a thought for those worse off

14 Feb

When I was growing up and doing my fair share of teenage wallowing, people would often say to me “Look at so and so, they’re so much worse off than you”. And yes, they were, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I invariably still felt just as down, sad, panicked about whatever my worry of the moment was, however trivial (and of course they almost always were). I just felt guilty as well.

This kind of thing is of course grossly exaggerated in the twitter-cum-bloggosphere. It’s a space for extreme dichotomies. A lot of crap gets talked about – what so and so had for dinner, how Mr X’s bunion is particularly painful tonight, why Miss Y is feeling fat and down in the dumps. Juxtaposed against this frivilous, self-indulgent chit chat are people blogging about mind-blowingly traggic events. Suicide, domestic violence, poorly children. And yet, I’m not saying this with any kind of criticism. I’ve done, and I do both regularly, and I strongly believe that both are valid.

Some people responded to my post The arrival of my beautiful boys by telling me (albeit in a roundabout kind of way) to buck my ideas up and think about those that don’t get to hold their children at the end of it all. From the pit of my stomach I can understand the cruel contrast and can see why some would find my mindless wanderings offensive. But the notion that this somehow invalidates my feelings doesn’t rub with me. Should you never discuss your hopes, fears, sadness in case it offends someone worse off? Is it always an offense to wallow in self pity unless it is objectively, rationally justified? Because there is always, and will always be, millions out there that are worse off than us. Living in sin in our comfortable third world.

It’s really a nonsense. I’m not talking about knowingly offending someone in pain or fear. I’m not talking about refusing to spare a thought for the millions out there in life-threatening situations. You know well that I give this kind of thing a lot of thought, but experiences are not validated through comparison. We don’t win the right to feel them in some kind of tit for tat emotional tug of war. They are real, raw, profound, no matter how small or large, significant or self-absorbed they might seem to someone else.

Even now, amidst all this, I still stand by that.

Walk on by

31 Jan

If you give me half a chance I’ll watch a documentary about death, illness, sadness, pain. Leave the remote out for a few minutes and I’ll sneak in a particularly harrowing Horizon episode. I’m drawn to them, which isn’t really such a great thing considering I have a propensity for low mood. But I reckon it’s life, and worth 60 mins or so of my time.

My husband is the opposite. He’d rather gauge his eyes out than watch or read anything sad. He’d gladly sit through 20 episodes of In the Night Garden, than emotionally commit to an hour of Silent Witness.

It’s true, I find the human condition fascinating. I read/watch these things because they stimulate my thoughts and remind me of what it is to be human. They feed my questioning mind. Yet it’s more than that. A sense of responsibility. If I switch over I am belittling that person’s feelings. I am walking past them begging on the street, turning up my jacket collar and hanging my head to avoid eye contact, telling myself I don’t need that depressing shit today.

I often wonder how many people read the opening lines of some of my posts, groan, click on that little red cross and go back to picking their nose and guffawing at the sneezing panda. Sometimes I feel a bit embarrassed of my ludicrous deep thinking. There she goes again, being all morose and turning everything over to deep philosophical thinking. Big fat yawn.

But the thing is, I can turn over and watch something else, buy a different newspaper, unsubscribe to a blog because I find it too depressing. But they can’t. They’re living it, breathing it, fighting it. I can turn away, switch off, zone out. I can do all those things, but I choose not to. I choose to listen because I think that each one tells a story worth listening to, and even if it doesn’t impart any particular nuggets of wisdom, or answer any new questions, it really is just a small, fleeting piece of my time.

That moment : Part two

17 Jan

This post is a “kind of” answer to That moment.

If we don’t know what might happen to us, if we are frightened by the “what ifs”, if we are constantly looking over our shoulder for that speeding car, what then? It’s pretty bleak isn’t it?   There will be those of us that think about these things, and those of us that will run a hundred miles an hour to get away from it. I’m pretty sure the latter will have groaned, clicked close and returned to the singing puppy by now.

“If you spend your whole life waiting for the storm, you’ll never enjoy the sunshine. – Morris West”.

For me, this is the only real answer. I’ve spoken before about being rather than doing, or being rather than thinking in this instance. The age-old anecdote “Why worry about it, it may never happen” but put in a rather less irritating way, and not by a smart-arse builder. I remember taking out a book from the library once on “Finding happiness” by the Dalai Lama (yes I probably had too much time on my hands, new mother and all that) and naiively expecting some kind of 5-step guide to eternal optimism. At the time I was pretty disappointed that all he seemed to have up his sleeve was an appreciation for pretty flowers.

However, in hindsight Mr Lama was quite right of course. If we allow our imaginations to run wild, to consider all the things that might happen to us, to twist and turn around a maze that has no middle, what is the point in that? Where would all that energy get us in the end?  All we can do is enjoy the here and now, for soon the now becomes the then and the here becomes the over there, and the soon becomes the….hmmm, well you get what I mean anyway.

And if it does happen, if the worst thing you could possibly think of comes along and sits on your lap, will you fall apart? Choke? Vomit?  Someone once said to me after I’d been depressing them to death about my fear of my own mortality  “So what if you die, what would be so bad about that?” It was a very strange kind of question – and surprisingly difficult to answer. I stuttered about trying to formulate a response “Umm, well it’s the unknown, the not knowing where I’d be”. “But you’re dead”. “Ummm, it’s the thought of not being here anymore, and I can’t get my head around that”. But you wouldn’t have to get your head around it, you’d be dead”.  And so on.

“It all happens for a reason. If it’s been put on you, then that means you can carry it” (Tony Gaskins)

I love this idea, I find it really reassuring. It re-establishes some kind of order, gives me back some control. There is a purpose behind events, you are “chosen” because that is your journey. Nothing is random, unpredictable, devastating like the speeding car. Your challenge is taking you by the hand and asking you to lead it, because you are the one with all the answers.  Somewhere within you you have all the power, the resilence, the foresight.

I suppose that’s a pretty humungous dose of spirituality right there, in fact I’m starting to sound a bit like sodding Billy Graham, really scary for an atheist who usually prejudices against religious types (my friend Simone will have a field day).  But you see, the thing is I’ve seen first hand the strength of the human soul. There is something there so great, so wonderful, so determined – that “that moment” could never ultimately have the upper hand. We will always survive, always win, always learn, always pick ourselves up and move on.

That is not the same as forgetting. It is not the same as no longer feeling the pain. But it is living, moving on, and I’ve seen enough of it in the past few weeks to know that in my heart, if the speeding car comes, I will be ready.