Monthly Archives: August 2014

For Margot

Here goes.

As I keep on having a good time, relishing my return (at least for now, though today has been relentlessly steely grey and sodden, as befits an English August bank holiday Monday and may signal the start of dank reality for me), and H, our 20 year old just arrived back from her African travels, and yesterday we revelled at our very good friend, Dr M’s 50th birthday, so M makes plans for the end of her life. It therefore seems wrong to be celebrating and enjoying and happy, but I do and I am.

It is, however, a tribute to M and her openness, strength of spirit, love of life and sheer determination that I’m able to write this knowing that she herself might read it, and others who know her well almost certainly will. I appear to have resorted to clichés, for which I’m sorry but cannot improve upon, because M has been an inspiration, another cliché, but truly true. I haven’t known her the longest or deepest, I mean to stake no claim. Indeed, I have never known her without cancer. Yet her illness has not defined her (though her approach to it partly has). We met shortly after I moved to Houston two years ago. She started off as my son F’s gorgeous girlfriend’s mum and ended up as my friend. And though she’s needed help and support, it’s definitely not been all one way – she’s taken me out, provided advice and company to me, given Dutch language and cultural education (!) plus many times a temporary home to F, and decent meals for both my boys while I’ve been “out of town” (that would be holidaying, according to Mr N). And, lest anyone should forget, alongside the other two Ms, she has been an integral member of the mighty 3M tennis team, always good to partner rather than face, and ever patient with my lesser skills and foul mouth. It has to go on record that I have never once beaten her. (I acknowledge that that could just indicate that I am crap, but I assure you M is not.)

Now, she is leaving Houston to return home, which is the Netherlands, in painful circumstances. She has stopped treatment and wants to be with her family. Her goodbyes this week will be final.

When she and I said goodbye eight weeks ago, I hoped and believed we’d see each other again, but that may not happen. This, then, could be my farewell. And here’s the nub of what I was trying to articulate when I said it’s a tribute to her that I can write this: it’s shit that this is happening; shit for her, for H, for their three kids and the whole family. Even in the worst of circumstances, M says it how it is; she lets you know how she feels, what she needs, and the things for which she hopes. So when she’s combative (not just on the tennis court) and positive, you know it’s not false, she really is fighting and forceful. You know where you are with M. And her honesty has made me brave.

I don’t want this to be a eulogy, too late. I want M to know (maybe someone will tell her for me if she’s not able to read this first hand) that I think about her so often. I’m certain I’m not alone in feeling like this – dumbstruck and inadequate and helpless but still bloody caring – and of course M herself is not alone in facing terrible illness. And that’s sort of my point – though badly made so far, it’s so hard to be clear – here we all, mostly, are, going to parties, drinking, seeing new places, making new friends, meeting old friends, moaning about or enjoying the weather, wearing no slap, chucking ice cold water over each other, pretending to engage with the deep but really only engaging with the trivial and posting about it all too, me as profoundly guilty as anyone, yet all the while we know people who are sad, suffering, ill, in pain, and dying and – despite our trifles and mundanities – wish so very much they weren’t. It feels at best insensitive and at worst a betrayal to carry on as normal, but carry on as normal we [we: those of us moved by the empathetic constriction of sadness and anticipated hollowness of loss but who nevertheless will not be fundamentally, organically floored, which is no-one’s fault] do. I don’t want M, or anyone close to her, to think I don’t really give a toss because according to my Facebook status I’m annoyed about the Scottish independence debate and I’m cold today, that’s all.

This all sounds a bit self indulgent, and I know that if M were to be scanning Fb she’d be generous spirited enough to be slightly amused or diverted. Because life, in its corny old usually boring way, rolls on, and that’s the horrible, stark reality for those who have to contemplate its end before they should have to, but also, eventually, the comfort for those who have to carry on. That’s the tragedy. If only it wasn’t so, for M, and for others like her. Simply then, before it’s too late, I want M – Margot – to know I really like her, she has brought Dutch courage into my life, and she has made a difference.

Publicly positive but still just as pissed off privately

I am as guilty as the next person of posting uber positively on Facebook. For example, recently I concentrated on the excitement of swimming in the river and jumping off a bridge, with a video to illustrate. We cycled there and back, 35 miles, and I omitted to mention my sore fanny (yep, UK not US fanny), post pint nausea up the steep hill right after we left the pub and as we started for home, and my general slowness and whingeing because my cleatless trainers kept sliding off the clip-in pedals, my proper cycling shoes still being in a box on the Atlantic. It was fun, but mainly only during the swimmy bit and then again when it was all over.

I don’t think I, or most people, do this deliberately to beat the Joneses or present life through a rose-tinted hue (though both of these things can be the outcome). Life is not always peachy, and I am capable of admitting when it’s not. But for me, Fb is not the right place to get all down or to bleat. No, for that I want committed, in-the-flesh empathy and consolation, please. And there are only some people who need to know I’m needy. But patently, not everyone would agree with me.  I find rants about bad behaviour or perceived injustices are awkward to read. Those “So angry!…”-ask-me-what-about-so-I-can-say-so-publically-without-appearing-to-have-wanted-to proclamations are, frankly in my view, irritating – better just to rant in full in the first place, awks though it may be. It can be an appropriate place, though not mine, to share bad news and for people who aren’t physically close by to console or be consoled. It’s quite good for fund-raising, and it’s dreadful for public private chats and reminiscences (though oddly compelling in this regard). Some folks hardly post but when they do, it’s surprising (surely eating that slice of cake can’t have been the only thing worth showing off about in the last year?). Others are constantly status-updating, of the mundane as well as exciting, maybe too much (could be me, after all no-one thinks they themselves post boringly or too often, do they?), but that’s ok,  with me at least: there becomes a pleasantly familiar backdrop to checking what’s changed and it’s easy to scoot over the stuff that doesn’t interest you. [Mr N, on the other hand, doesn’t display such equanimity. He’s a lurker and a blocker, but not even an upfront one, doing it, as he does, on my profile. I do my best to unblock whenever I notice.]  Personally, I don’t go for the schmalz; I adore my kids, I really do, but can’t bring myself to repost if I’ll hold them in my heart forever or agree with the claptrap about them having beautiful souls, when such beauty is most apparent when they want something and a lot of the time they’re idle and good for nothing or asleep. But I love lots of people who do go for the goo and am content to be in the minority ignoring it. Fb has taken over from the birthday card and it’s helpful to be reminded to wish people happy birthday (even if you prefer to send a card) and to be wished back, though – as with the ‘like’ dilemma – there’s a certain pressure to join in with the felicitations, though, admittedly, that clearly doesn’t require any kind of debilitating psychological debate.  And, of course, Facey-b is, now, definitely a bastion of us middle-aged and older.

All of this I don’t care about. I love Facebook because a) it’s become my go-to photo album-cum-diary – a funny, colourful, pictorial and captioned record of what we’ve been up to; b) when I left England for America it felt like – and actually was – the easiest (though not only) of lifelines to and from my friends and family, and c) despite my initial cynicism, it became a way to get to know people and further connect once they became actual, really-going-out-with friends – in this context, it is the middle-agers’ equivalent of the school gate, back in the day when we took and met our little ones and made plans for the week ahead in the playground. We use it – or not – howsoever we choose, but in the space of two years it’s forged a role in my life that, even now my circumstances have changed, feels impossible to ignore. My new friends are a long way away and my old friends are just around the corner, and what I need and want from it has switched in direct line with my geographical transfer.  Fundamentally, though, it still keeps me up to date, in touch, and in public, on my terms.

We can block or unfriend or be bemused or entertained or simply ignore.  So, each to our own, let’s all carry on doing or not doing what we do on Facebook. And if, for me, that means being mainly positive in public, don’t worry about it, I can still do pissed off in private.

Forgetting Gran

One of the impalpable things that some of us leave behind when we move abroad is the immediate (and, therefore, actual) responsibility for dealing with elderlies. In my case, my mother, aka Gran, lived alone but just around our corner, and two years ago as we prepared to depart for Houston, she finally lost her mind after many months of anxious, forgetful, self-denying, delusional decline. In a very brief space of time, I – bullyingingly, bluntly and deviously, in her eyes – forced her out of her own home into a “mad house” (ironically, her words)  of a hospital assessment centre, from where she would eventually be moved (round about the same time we were winging our luxurious way in business class whilst quaffing Champagne over the Atlantic towards our sunny new life) unceremoniously into her new but not so sunny life, in a dementia care home.  The timing couldn’t have been crueller.

She didn’t  know, and never will, that H and F, her two oldest grandchildren, and I, found for her simply the perfect place – newly opened, purpose designed with cosy living spaces, snug bedrooms, and a high ratio of focussed and kind and dedicated staff, well trained at all levels to understand the terrors of these bewildered old-lady-children; staff who “enter their world” rather than expecting them to carry on coping with ours. Gran is, without doubt, in the best surroundings she could be.

But she most certainly didn’t believe that two years ago. Her rage was visceral, and it was directed at me, of course, because I was the one who physically walked her out of her house for the last time and drove her away from it forever. While the memory of the actual, awful event slid out of her grasp within days, the emotional memory – how it made her feel – was etched, in that bizarre way that dementia can work: while almost everything gets forgotten, some things stick, in a groove, in a distinctly ungroovy manner.

So there she went and off we went too, each to our oh so very different new lives. And on they (our lives) then moved.

All this time we’ve been away, doing our ex-pat thang, so too has Gran, like a mute shadow faded in the very background of our everydays, while still declining, been silently, steadily (with an unsteady gait), unceremoniously, crossly and confusedly, but all the while undeliberately and, in her mindless way, stoically, doing her thing. Being. Her rage has gone, she no longer blames or cares, exactly, and she’s calm. But she has become a foreign creature, snappy or smiling or silent or sleepy, whichever way impossible to read, some flashes of recognition (of names, of a face, of a kink of memory linked to a photo or a song or a voice) rippling occasionally out of the murky mellow softness of dreamy oblivion. We did all that stuff and here she still sits. And around her, sit we, back down to earth.

I am not the first, the last, or indeed the nicest to have had to deal with such a situation. The truth is (for me, at least) that, over the pond, there was not a huge amount of reality to deal with. Yes, there were practicalities, financial arrangements, a house to sell, blah blah, but – unable to contemplate the confusion, horror, and, dare I say it, the raw flesh of even a Skype call – emotionally and empathetically, I was let off the hook. The circumstance of distance allowed me the acceptable option to forget about her for the most part, while she carried on forgetting about her too. A bit poignant, a bit sad, but just the way it was and had to be, both of us forgetting Gran in our separate ways. But I don’t have that careless luxury any longer. Welcome back to reality, do I hear?