Category Archives: That’s life

Behind the flowers

Yesterday was Mother’s Day here in the UK and I didn’t see my mum (aka Gran) or even send her a card or a bunch of flowers. She’s in a care home, with dementia, and doesn’t always (ever?) know who I am, so I suppose that’s an easy reason why. But the truth is, I don’t go and see her every day, or even always every week, and though I often feel bad about this, it doesn’t make me any more attentive. There are cool miles beneath the tip of this iceberg.

I wasn’t ever a particularly attentive daughter, even in adulthood. She moved to live near us in 2002, at our suggestion. Retired, recently re-kneed, we with her three young grandchildren, it made sense. For the previous few years, we’d spent a lot of time traipsing up and down the M42, squashing weekend visits into the hectic juggle of time that is the lot of working parents of toddlers. She loved the kids and they loved her, but our times together were over-long, intense, claustrophobic, squashed, and – from my perspective – a bit dutiful and increasingly burdensome. I don’t know if she felt the same way because we never were able to talk about such intimate truths. When she moved round the corner, she became a more regular but less stifling part of our lives. She could see the kids without us, we could have her round for Sunday dinner, or pop in for half an hour. We were here for Christmasses, birthday meals out, company in the evenings, odd jobs, help with the video and computer.  It wasn’t all one way. She not only helped with the childcare, she contributed to our children’s growing up experiences with fantastical, hand sewn dressing up outfits (the Hungry Caterpillar, an amazingly fluffy layered purple tulle tutu, a mermaid’s – or, more accurately, merboy’s – slinky, scaly blue life-size tail, and more); days out, to the Tramway Museum and Heage Windmill (both local attractions I’ve still not visited myself); swimming towels and cubs’ and brownies’ uniforms badged (I am utterly useless at sewing, you might gather, just threading a needle makes me unbelievably cross); regimentally, boiled eggs and soldiers for tea; the sweety tin, gold and heart-shaped, rattling its delightful and thrilling call to treat time; stories written and told and acted out. But I still got snappy when she annoyed me (and vice versa), and I always kept my emotional distance and she hers. I worked hard to fight against her forging a needy place in my life, as I had done for as long as I can remember. I understand why our relationship was like this – it’s messy and complicated and sad and (maybe) for another blog –  but for now, for this,  it doesn’t matter, suffice to say it’s just the way it was.

And then, over  the last eight years, our mother/daughter roles have gradually reversed. It probably comes to every generation, but for us it’s been speeded up by her illness. Slowly, silently, we (Mr N and I) began parenting her. Organising her finances, managing her home, shooing away sharkish salesmen, taking her to appointments, advising her, sorting out her problems, arranging her social life. It crept on. Helping with her shopping, doing her shopping, doing her washing, cleaning her house, weeding her garden, finding lost things. Then, acknowledging her condition, getting her support, finding carers, selling her car, trying to implement strategies to keep her at home, where she wanted to be. I had a direct line to the local police station as her delusions took hold and she began to regularly call 999, made sure neighbours were in the loop, applied for Power of Attorney, spent too many hours in Derby City hospital getting her discharged after she’d called the ambulance for yet another imagined medical emergency. I didn’t always do it caringly or empathetically. When faced with a story about “youths” breaking in and throwing her shoes into a tree, leaving behind piles of clothes and moving her belongings around, my reaction was twofold; I laughed, and I tried to rationalise with her: “How come, then, that your TV and purse weren’t stolen, and there’s no sign of a break-in!!” I’d rant. It wasn’t helpful or very kind, it made her more confused and angry, but I was only able to adapt slowly. Sloughing off that chilly baggage didn’t come easily for me. It’s just the way it was.

But, I did thaw, eventually, and now I feel something like fondness when I visit her. As I said, I don’t go as often as I feel I should, but my guilt is about wanting to support her carers not about being inattentive to her – I know her emotional, physical, social and medical needs are being met and it doesn’t matter that they’re not being met by me. When I’m there, I’m a bit part. I sometimes take a crossword in and pretend to do it with her – she completed the Daily Torygraph cryptic crossword every day of her life until a few years ago (when she stopped it was one of the sure signs amongst the many less tangible ones of her decline) – and, if she’s in the mood, she’ll give me words which I affect to write down; I show her photos on my phone of the kids and, if we’re lucky, she’ll feign recognition, but more usually she’ll either ignore or not see them because she sends them shooting off the screen as she handles the phone. Last time, she needed the loo, and I stepped back while her carers led her off, discreetly changed her clothes, and brought her back. I chat as much to the other residents as I do to her, nonsense conversations which entertain me as well as them. I took her out for coffee once, with F my middle son, but she’d forgotten how to bend to get in and out of a car, and was frightened, disorientated and out of her comfort zone – she didn’t enjoy it, we didn’t feel better for it, and it didn’t help the staff who had to get her ready and reassure her when she got back. I took tulips in, for everyone’s pleasure, but with the people who look after her in mind, so we put them in a vase in their living room.

Last week, an old friend of hers, L, who now lives in the States, called me and we talked for ages. We’d been neighbours for about five years from when I was six, but L wasn’t just a good friend to Gran, she knew her well, was a confidante when she didn’t have many, and they stayed in regular touch. She told me things about her, nice things, that I didn’t know. We talked openly about tricky stuff that, then, I was too young to understand let alone express, and we marvelled at Gran’s inner strength and determination and, also, her energy for life. We reminisced fondly, admiringly.  This, then, is the best that I can do for her now.

So, flowers from me are for her carers who look after her because I can’t. For Gran, on Mother’s Day and every day hereafter, there’s just the remembering of who she once was. No faking it’s otherwise, it’s simply the way it is.





When two became three..

H just turned 21. Yes, Mr N and I have a 21 year child (who’s no longer a child). It snowed the day she was born and Mr N missed it because she was a week early and he was in Freiburg. My friend K drove me to hospital, calm on the outside but a bit wobbly in, like me, until my friend H’s mum turned out to be the midwife on duty and then I didn’t care that he wasn’t there, because she was all I needed when the super scary force that is the primaeval urge to push took over. We named her first teddy bear Shirley in her honour, a present as big as her from Grandma and Grandad, who still shares her bed. At 12 hours old, Mr N made it, wild haired, blurry eyed and in awe of a tiny scrap with a twisted foot which untwisted itself after another day. “She’s very intelligent”, said Gran.  She was less than 24 hours old when we took her home in just a vest and some booties and wrapped in a towel because we’d forgotten to bring in an outfit. We lay her on the sofa and wondered what to do next. Neither of us had ever even held a baby before. At 48 hours old, she slept all day long. We didn’t know what to expect from a newborn, but this wasn’t it so we called out the midwife mid-afternoon in a panic. Glazed in brand new parenthood as we were, I still was able to hear her amused tone behind the soothing words that she was absolutely fine. We’d been on the brink of waking her up at least five times that day, but I doubt it took us many more days to learn to NEVER wake a sleeping baby. At two weeks old, I was due to take her into work to show her off, but had to postpone the trip because I couldn’t manage to get out of the house. She slept, she woke up, I fed her, she cried, she burped, she filled her nappy, I changed it, she fell asleep again, and on it went. I couldn’t work out how to fit in an outing, and as for all the paraphernalia that seemingly had to accompany us, well, it was all too much. What on earth was I fannying around at? By the time R, our third, was born, all preciousness had dissipated – we went out on day two with a spare nappy and a packet of wipes and he spent his baby years just fitting in. When she was ten weeks old, we went camping, just the three of us, to Bakewell, only an hour away in case we had to up sticks and head home in the middle of the night (why would we?!). Gran had knitted her a white woolly sleeping bag with a big hood and she snuggled between us in baby heaven. We (one of us, I forget which) lay her on the rear shelf of the car and then opened the boot so she rolled inwards and onto the back seat, still sleeping, and we couldn’t find her for a while. It was sometimes easy to forget we had her. At three months, we put her in her own bedroom, a tiny creature in a big white cage of a cot. I imagined she was a small furry animal who could see in the dark. When she was four months old, I took her to Canada with Gran (my mum) to see Great-Gran (my gran) who thought she was a boy but was mesmerised all the same. I sobbed the whole flight home, while she slept soundly, because I knew we’d never see her again. When she was five months old, I went back to work full-time and it broke my heart. They wouldn’t have me part-time so it was all or nothing. No-one told me to wean her off breast milk beforehand, so she refused to drink from a bottle and survived on baby rice and bananas and her poo turned abruptly from sweetly smelling piccalilli mush to stinky human shit while my boobs leaked in weepy empathy as I clock-watched the days away and raced home every night.  At eight months we went camping again to Loch Lomond and she gazed in wonder at the flicking fire and moonlit lake and the shadows on our faces. When she was one I left my job and we moved house. I was conflicted, aching to leave her lovely child minder and her little cocooned world of baby relationships that I’d fantasised she’d keep up with all her life, and it was raining and we knew nobody, but I was full of joy to have her to myself. She sucked her finger not a dummy and took it all in her wobbly stride. Her first proper word was ‘shoes’, which she pronounced precisely and over and over while jabbing her finger at every pair she could see. By 14 months she fully understood the power, and we the weariness, of repetition: “cuggle mummy” was her mantra as she trotted right behind me round the house, “again, again” was her chant as Mr N flung her up in the air or splashed her in the pool or swung her round and round. And we can both still quote  from the books we read and reread and rereread together at bedtime (the priceless, tatty books that are safe in a box in the loft). We laughed (what else could we do?) at her marvellous, outrageous rage and watched in astonishment as she flopped in a mini faint as the mighty breath she took in floored her before the roar of fury could let fly. We came to dread the significant silence before the storm. At 17 months we camped again, on a blustery beach on Islay and by a river in Glencoe, where she wore (every day in my memory) a natty red and white striped shorty romper suit (that F also wears, later on in my mind’s slideshow) and made piles of stones everywhere we went. When she was 18 months, she scribbled on the coffee table. “What is that?” I demanded in mock horror. “A cat”, she replied. At 20 months, her brother F was born. I felt somehow that we’d betrayed her – how could we love another baby as much as her (we did, and a third)? how could we ruin our cosy three-ness? – but she loved him from the start and forgot he was ever not there. So then we were four, and then we were five and now she’s just six years younger than I was when I had her.

Here’s to the blinking mundane!

IMG_3223Hello! Happy New Year and all that.  My washing machine is on the blink. Literally, it’s blinking. I suspect that we will have to buy a new one very soon, but so far I’ve seen it as a challenge and one that I’ve met every time – this has been going on since the Summer with increasing difficulty, and takes some patience (not really my forte), absolutely no slamming the load in and pressing the button and running out of the door in any sort of hurry. And particularly not so this morning [20 minutes and counting trying to switch it on, now taking a break]. Luckily I’m already up and over and down the other side of the massive post-holiday washing mountain: H, oldest, has gone back to university weighed down with her whole wardrobe washed; F, in the middle, is also back at university fully laden with his laundered stuff; all the once sweaty ski wear is once again fresh; even those of us currently left at home – me, Mr N and youngest R – have a full set of clean clothes.  We’re just onto the peripherals now, towels, tea towels, stray pants and socks. All, quite honestly, thanks to my superhuman levels of equanimity in the face of the blinking machine.

We’ve just been skiing, hence the particularly onerous pile of laundry. We drove to the French Alps and back, via Nantes and la famille DW for Christmas. It was everything that a family holiday should be – expensive, sociable, stressful, knackering, bad-tempered, squashed, expensive, entertaining, argumentative, funny, unhealthy (a lot of coughing), divisive, inclusive, weepy, laughy, expensive, and a little bit scary. Oh, and did I mention that it was expensive?

Our drive east across France should’ve taken eight hours which is quite long enough. But it took us 15, through a combination of unfortunate factors.

1) We were journeying on an official “black” day on the French road calendar along with every other French, and seemingly British, family, all of us heading the same way;

2) French Easy Jet employees were on strike, thereby forcing even more people onto the roads to the mountains than had been foreseen;

3) The main motorway, the A40, was closed between three junctions, our side, because of an accident, causing standstill traffic both on it and off it on the diversion;

4) There was a heavy snow dump, on the mountain roads, just as we hit the mountain roads;

5) We had ignored many many many people’s advice to practise putting on snow chains in the calm and comfort of our own driveway.  This last element introduced the fear factor to the list of familial vacational emotions.

12 and a half hours in to our journey, and less than 20 miles from our destination, as we crawled up into the Alps, passing lines of cars at the side of the road all chaining-up, we at first considered ourselves superior – a whole, concordant conversation was had about us not being sheep and panicking just because some people were putting on their snow chains when clearly the conditions weren’t that bad and the road was wet and the snow wasn’t sticking. We drove on, higher. Next we were amused at how many of said sheep appeared to be struggling in the dark to read the instructions. We drove on, higher. Then we collectively comforted ourselves by all agreeing that we’d driven, chainless, in much worse back home. And we drove on, higher. Then we went a bit quiet as all eyes flicked between the road and heavy snow outside and the miles to go on the sat nav inside: just seven miles left. And we drove on, higher. Then we skidded. Oh shit. So we pulled over, finally giving in, opened the boot to retrieve the snow chains, and out fell a bag full of wine, beer and calvados, smashing to the ground. I busied myself removing the glass out of the tracks of future travellers while first Mr N, then F, then all of us, flustered and flitted around, trying to put the chains on the two front tyres. Until that very moment, that dark, snowy, -3º, at the side of a mountain road moment, we had not looked at the instructions which, it turned out, were contained, cutely, in three small diagrams on the front of the box with some even smaller captions, in French. The chains, for the first time out of the box, were a tangle of, well, chains. We didn’t even have gloves to hand. Mr N, raging, absolutely forbad me to ask for help. I did anyway, but no-one else in that layby right then knew what the bloody hell they were doing either. There was a black edge of hysteria in the air.  A snow plough forged by. FOLLOW IT came the cry! We threw everything and ourselves back into the car and skidded off up. We clocked another two miles and came to a small town which seemed a safer place to stop. At least if we got stranded we could knock on a few doors (Mr N’s pride permitting, of course). Long story short, we managed (F and me, in the final instance, I would like to point out) to get one chain on and decided that would have to do. It did. We navigated the final five miles safely and in relative composure, beating hearts slowing and food and wine and warmth looming once again as possibilities. We went straight to a restaurant, ordered steak and chips, and sat, all five of us, slack-jawed, shocked and silent, and slugged back the first of many vins chauds.

Anyway, we skiied with two-thirds of the S family (who’d had their own private  nightmare getting there from Sheffield which, the day they left had more snow than the Alps). E, the last third, who is scared when skiing and has never gone fast enough to fall over, made sure we had fabulous fizz and fondue on New Year’s Eve and we clinked midnight in (albeit on Middle Eastern time, being completely exhausted and having to be up and on the piste too bright and early for our lesson the next morning) and wished S a happy 50th.

So now we’re home and back to normal-ish. (Not quite Mr N though who has two more weeks off before a final last ten week stint away Down Under. He has jobs to do while I’m at work which are only slowly being ticked off in between the trumpet playing, long baths and reading in bed but I don’t really begrudge him this r&r – I mean, how can I after my two years with the tables turned? But as usual I’m digressing.) Though we did all learn to ski (and really quite competently too despite a couple of frozen-in-fear-on-an-icy-steep-slope tableaux from me and H), I’m not entirely sure we’ve completely recovered from that journey and there’s still the washing machine to tackle.

But hey, the mesmerising, the momentous and the mundane, from such things are collective memories made. So that was our 2014/2015 changeover. And here’s wishing the mesmerising, the momentous and, yes, a good dose of the blinking mundane, to everyone! X

You’ve got to laugh!

You’ve got to laugh or you’d cry!  It’s a cliché but nevertheless a mantra that I frequently live my life to and I know I’m far from alone. Funnily enough (no pun intended) I’m not a weepy person. I hardly ever cry at films or books and I’ve never cried at a schmalzy tv ad and rarely even at a sentimental Comic Relief clip that is specifically designed to make you break down and sob. I can and do feel sad about others’ misfortunes but it doesn’t usually generate any tears unless it’s one of my children who’s in misery and that’s because I’m actually feeling it as mine, and I do often wonder why people shed tears about complete strangers (I’m thinking Princess Diana here); it might actually diminish the genuine emotions of those who are truly hurting mightn’t it? And it definitely doesn’t help anything, does it? I’m of course liable to blub at my own pain (mental and physical, self-inflicted or otherwise). But always, always, like an out of control toddler, I feel the hot flush of tears welling whenever I’m really annoyed, frustrated and helpless (all these things have to happen together), however petty or trite the actual consequences are. Some might see this as coldness and cynicism and egotism but I (naturally) think I show and feel appropriate empathy and sympathy when it’s really needed, as well as a normal human level of self-centredness, rather than being mawkishly moved by bathos or pathos.  However, I mention it simply to set the scene.

We’re having a new kitchen. It’s been happening for several weeks because it’s quite a big job (we’ve lived in this house for nearly 20 years and the kitchen’s been in need of an upgrade for just about all of that time). Walls have come down, the floor up, doors knocked through, the whole room gutted, lighting stripped out, new gas pipes and boiler. You get the picture. Lots of trades have been doing their stuff, builders, electricians, gas engineers, plumbers, plasterers, tilers, carpenters, kitchen fitters, painters. But after the stunned stress of making all our choices (the layout, the material, styles and colours of the flooring, units, doors, handles, shelving, appliances, tiles, counter tops, walls, when I reached a feverish place where I no longer knew what I liked and what I didn’t), once the room was cleared out and the first smashing, dirty blow was wielded, I had nothing to organise and nothing to do but sit back, breathe in the dust, and marvel at it all happening around me. Except for the fridge. Forgive me my extravagance, but having just spent two years with one of them to hand, the only easy decision was to get an American style fridge/freezer with water and ice dispenser (for the cocktails, darlings, the cocktails), for which I did my own shopping around. Now, I’m quite good at organising and it wasn’t too difficult to make sure I got it delivered in the window after the floor had been tiled and the walls plastered but before the cabinets around it had been built, and while there was someone in the house to plumb it in for me. This happened two and a half weeks ago, all on schedule. Waited a day for all the liquids to settle down. Turned it on. It cooled down, the ice built up and the first cube was produced. Cheers! Then we noticed the leak: it was faulty! By now, all the handy people had finished their jobs, but I played on some goodwill to get one back to unplumb it ready to be exchanged. The exchange date was set for ten days ago, delivery time between 7am and 11am, organised for someone to be here while I was at work, but they sent a 7.5 tonne truck and couldn’t get up our road. Now, we do live on a road that is quite narrow at the bottom, and made narrower by parked cars, but since I’d already had one of the exact same product delivered, this should’ve been no surprise. It was though, and because we also live on top of a hill and they couldn’t be arsed to lug the thing to the door, they buggered off and it was rearranged for the next day on a smaller 3.5 tonne van. Attempt number two, and they come again with a 7.5 tonne truck. Attempt number three, two further days later, and they come again with a 7.5 tonne truck. Attempt number four, yesterday, and, hallelujah, they make it up the road with a correctly sized van. But without any trollies or dollies or straps so [large intakes of breath, eyebrows raised, hands on hips, lips pursed, and shakes of their heads] there’s absolutely no way they can get it up the steps and into the house.  (I haven’t even mentioned the twenty-one and three-quarter hours that I’ve spent hanging on hold on the phone waiting to be rescheduled once, twice, thrice, and now four times.)  At those knowing, negative head shakes, I wanted to weep.

Mature 48 year old that I am, however, I forced myself to keep some perspective. It’s just a fridge/freezer. I still have the old one plugged in keeping everything cold. Our ice cream is still frozen. This is not a tragedy or anything near it. I sent a few funny texts, and laughed with my boy.

The day before, I’d spent the afternoon with my Mum, aka Gran, at the Christmas lunch cooked and served by the lovely people who look after her at her dementia care home. I really had no conception of what to expect from this event beforehand and confess to a knot of apprehension in my belly on the way there. Gran can be prone to simply closing her eyes and disengaging when she doesn’t want to, or can’t, acknowledge the world around her. If she does choose to communicate, it can be through sharp kicks to the shins and/or shouting abuse. Sometimes, she smiles and is as interested as she could possibly be given her mental capacity. You just don’t know what you’ll get.  We sat together at a table for four, with G and K, a long-married couple, K with dementia, G without. We were served sherry, deliciously sweet and dark and festive. K was very interested in the menu and anxious for her food. As soon as the soup had been cleared away, she fretted about when the turkey and trimmings would arrive. G and I repeatedly reassured her. She repeatedly worried. Gran stared briefly at me, then closed her eyes. We pulled our crackers (I pulled mine with G, and Gran’s with myself) and wore our paper hats and read out the jokes. She didn’t open her eyes when I put her hat on or listen to the jokes. We were plied with wine. G and I told each other about ourselves and our partners’ other selves. We clinked glasses and we smiled wryly at each other and across the room at the other relatives when our eyes caught or we were distracted by some shout or improper behaviour. At some point between the soup and the main course, Gran folded her arms on the table and rested her head on them, hat askew but still on. G, K and I scraped our plates clean, cranberry sauce, bread pudding, pigs in blankets an’ all. K, sated, no longer wanted to be seated at the table. She wandered off, a carer with her, and didn’t come back. G relaxed, because he could. Gran came to, knocked back a glass of wine, wolfed down her Christmas pudding and brandy sauce, a mince pie and a mint chocolate, pronounced the coffee disgusting. and then shut her eyes again. There was music in the background, and a little bit of clapping and dancing from some of the more sprightly and in-the-mood residents. Someone came round taking snaps and I captured one of my own. I had a nice10858562_10203714608085394_6685468164001053882_n time; in fact we all did. The care and kindness shone through, warming even the bereaved, worn out, worried spouses and the shaky, achy, frail, decrepit minds and bodies of all of those living through personal tragedies every day. And how we (most of us) laughed.

Real, life-changing misfortunes or fist-clenching but trivial aggravation,  you really do have to keep laughing through or, well, you’d just cry, wouldn’t you? And that doesn’t really help anyone, does it?


Less is more

There’s been a break in my blogging lately. It’s partly down to my having landed myself a job (a paid one, that is, thank you very much) and partly down to Mr N having landed, too, home from Australia for two weeks so we’ve been busy fitting things in that can or ought only to be done as a couple. [There are lots of these things, incidentally, when you’re part of a family of five that’s not long since moved house and continent, with a country-wide web of friends and family to snatch time with, one offspring reluctantly forced back into his old school at possibly the worst point to do so in the whole of his school career (if you listen to him, anyway), another heading off to university for the first time and a third embarking on her second year away and also moving house and requiring an IKEA shopping trip. And all this on top of a new kitchen to plan, which has come with – for us two, at least – an overwhelming, sense-overloading, rabbit-in-headlights reaction to having to choose door, surface, wall and floor tile materials, styles, colours and sizes which in itself paralysed us for a full 48 hours of our precious 336 together.]

But, perhaps the main reason for the hiatus is this: I’m not a trailing spouse anymore. How, then, can I keep writing a blog which is called ‘Trials of a trailing spouse’?* R, my youngest and perhaps the most innately style conscious member of our family, is concerned on my behalf that it might become boring and irrelevant, and I think he’s got a point. When I was living in Houston, it was easy to find things to write about. In fact, they found me. But now that I’m back home, living the same life as most people, I just don’t have that skewed angle to fall back on. So, yeah, I took R to the dentist to have his chipped front tooth capped and it cost me nowt because he’s under 18 and we have the NHS, but so what? It’s only really worth commenting on in the context of a juxtaposition with the American dental experience which I’m no longer having.

And another thing:  loads of the life differences that I’m delighting in are fundamentally mundane; there has been a lot of muscle work for example – shifting furniture from room to room, heaving boxes in and out of the loft, hoofing to and from the dump (at least 19 times, honestly, and still counting), manoeuvring ladders, painting walls inside and out, cutting down trees, mowing the lawns. It’s ordinary stuff that’s out of the ordinary for me because I’ve just left a life where my house wasn’t my own to decorate or remodel or even do the gardening in. For two years I have been uncomfortably watching the fortnightly team of Mexican yard workers sweat it out cutting our grass and chopping back branches (oh, and blowing the leaves from our drive onto next door’s ready to be blown back by their men the following week in that time-honoured, job-creating way of America, land of opportunity and of the free), all part of the rental agreement, non-optional. It’s really, really nice to take ownership again, even though I bloody hate decorating and lugging the lawnmower around.

There’s more.  Many hours of my now nearly three months post-Houston period have slowly wafted by in the company of my demented mother, aka Gran, while she chooses to keep her eyes closed. Not exactly page-turning, is it? It has given me the opportunity of reacquainting myself with – and introducing our kids to – the Telegraph cryptic crossword. [I know, I know, the Tory Telegraph – me?! But pre-dementia, dyed-in-the-wool Telegraph-reading Thatcherite Gran was also a daily completer, and super fast too, of said crossword. Clutching at straws, my so far only fractionally successful plan has been to engage her again with anagrams and synonyms, whilst also giving me something to do during the vastly longer pretend-sleep absences that being in her company usually entails.]  Somewhat excitingly and slightly out of the usual order of things yesterday, however, I turned up to visit Gran just as a looping, jumbling, dodder of them – mad old ladies and one mad old man – were off to “activities” (some more consciously than others) wherein I got caught up for two hours playing word games, guessing theme tunes, exercising my upper body, singing and chanting, and as an irritating result couldn’t get “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?”** off the loop in my head for the rest of the day.  This is the stuff of life, unromantic, unchosen, repetitive, regressive and often depressing as it is, and it’s part of my little world again whether I like it or not.  Of course, it’s called responsibility, and it’s something else I’ve got to re-own. It’s not exactly fun (though it’s often funny, it truly is) but it’s real, physical, shitty life which was quite easy to ignore before. That in itself is newly enjoyable in a visceral kind of way.

It’s not that my life here is dull, or that I haven’t got opinions on England or America or anywhere else anymore, or indeed that I couldn’t go on and on writing about what I do or  feel or encounter. No, rather, it’s that my life’s back on the same slant as most of the people I know, which could well be just a bit more dull in the retelling.

So, less, then, is more, is what I’m saying here: the blog’s not necessarily over, it’s just rolling along more slowly.

* Please don’t anyone suggest I change this site, it was really quite tricksy to set up and I think I’ve got this domain name for another three years or something, so no, life’s too short for more of that malarkey.

** The theme tune to 60s/70s TV favourite “Dad’s Army”. All together now, Who do you think…

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?

Shifting and sliding on by (life, that is)

If life is a journey, we’re crossing a boundary and moving into a new place. And I don’t say that because we are, literally, moving (house, from Houston to the UK). Rather, there’s a rumbling shift in our family dynamics. It’s that time of our lives and, adding to the mood, it’s that irregular time of year. I’m all out of sorts with my days. On Tuesday this week it felt like Friday, so much so (that’s my excuse anyway) I had a 5pm poolside gin and tonic with ice and a slice. Nice.

Our school’s not yet out, but the local American ones are, so some friends are already off and away for the start of their Summer hols. For anyone still in school, it’s exam time. When he has no exams, R is allowed to be at home, so he’s been abnormally present. F finished his final IB exams and so his school career over two weeks ago and is on holiday with gorgeous girlfriend, so evenings are quieter (deadly quiet if R’s out). H doesn’t even live in the same country as us at the moment. And to cap the lack of routine, Mr N, of course, is Down Under. Still.

Much to R’s chagrin, he has benefited from no lie-ins from his exam timetable, with not one single free morning scheduled. From my perspective this is good. Normal. We have to get up. There’s a reason. R has to have breakfast, shower and be out of the door at 7.20am to get on the school bus. That means I, too, keep running/swimming/dog walking/playing tennis from the bus stop. Without this, I suspect my 5pm poolside gin and tonic would have become more than just the fake mistake one-off of Tuesday evening.

Life has just changed gear. The cliché is that it whizzes by and before you know it your babies have left home. This does seem to happen, which is why, like all clichés, it resonates. But along the way, and in-between the major milestones, there are switches  and vacillations; the changing down from third to second, sliding into the fast lane, slowing gently kind of stuff that carries us along, not the emergency stops, reverse gear, foot down 0-60 acceleration moments that stop and shock us.

For me and Mr N, we’re two-thirds of the way through our child-rearing. Now I suppose that, until (and if) we reach the point that they start to look after us, it’s probably never really going to be over while we’re alive, but legally at least, if we wanted to we could wash our hands of H and F, since they’re 20 and 18.  R (15) is our sole charge now. It didn’t just happen, it’s two years and four months since H turned 18, and seven months since F’s big day. But they were the way-markers, while now it feels more like just some flutterings-by, but flutterings that nevertheless are part of our continual repositioning as a family. Living in the house right at this moment, two not five. We’re in four different places, three different continents. Two adult children, one on an American road trip, one flying to Italy for a summer job. One part-boy-part-man, a lazy teen who can’t converse before noon or go to sleep before midnight but knows his own mind, is sharp and sensitive and funny and is old enough for study leave.  Mr N home in two weeks, didgeridoo in hand to add to the trumpets. Me, well, adjusting.

So, two down, one to go; it’s really real.

I think I’ve just nudged into cruise control.

G&T anyone?


RIP The Mighty Jagrafess

RIP MJAmongst those of us who trailed behind Mr N to Houston, our pet tortoise was not. Lots of my friends here have their dogs and cats along for the ride. Clearly they bring familiarity and continuity to dislocated lives, a sense of home really, which without them can take longer to build. Our only remaining family pet at the point of mobilisation, however, was a tortoise and we didn’t seriously consider bringing her with us. But now she’s dead and I feel sad that we haven’t seen her for two years and won’t, now, ever again. There we all were assuming she’d outlive us, or me and Mr N at the very least. So I feel the need to mark her life and her passing to assuage my (slight) guilt over leaving her behind.

She was MJ to us, though her full name was actually The Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe. (It’s a monster from Doctor Who all you time travelling tardis ignorami. And obviously not named by anyone over the age of 10.)  We’d had her for six years by the time we left, and she was really just part of the furniture. We soon abandoned the vivarium that we’d been persuaded to buy to keep her in because she dug desperately and continually at the glass sliding door, tantalised by the world outside that she was caged from. So from an early age she was always out and about round the house and garden. Mainly, when indoors, she liked to find a corner and stay there (one of the reasons, to be frank, why it seemed such a bother to lug her all the way over the Atlantic).  She didn’t answer to her name, or come when she was called, and she didn’t even really get tempted by food, she’d get round to eating it just whenever she damn well pleased, and sometimes that was not for days. But we were all kind to her, talked to her, and stroked her now and again (sometimes she seemed to like this, other times if her snoozing was disturbed she would hiss, which is the only sound she ever made) and the kids used to give her a little swim in the washing up bowl now and again which we imagined she enjoyed but it was quite difficult to tell. And if she was in one of her sociable moods, she would eat dandelion leaves or tomatoes out of your hands. On occasion we had to clip her nails (always Mr N’s job).  When it was warm she liked to find a sunny spot and stick her neck right out to absorb the heat, which was cute.

Despite the lack of a noticeable two-way relationship that is, more usually, a large part of being a pet owner except when you’ve got fish, she was definitely majestic. I don’t know whether it was the almost prehistoric nature of her reptilian features: baggy and wrinkled skin, beak-like mouth, long tongue, deep dark eyes, and that shell, so cumbersome and, well, not a great design ergonomically if you think about it (until we made a ramp, she’d sometimes fall out of the back door where there was the smallest of steps and just have to lie on her back vulnerably until one of us noticed), but magnificently patterned and fluted around the edges. Possibly it was also to do with her gait, not quite so slow as you’d imagine, and though a bit clunky, measured at the same time. She might not have had much between her ears in reality, but her manner and ancient mould made her seem determined and proud and haughty.

I’m pleased to say that she did have some true excitement in her life. In the summer she lived outside during the day. At first we’d put her in the front garden, in the guinea pig run, with the final guinea pig while it was still alive (which with hindsight – read on – was not necessarily the safest thing to do, gps being rodents too, but luckily he took no notice of her at all nor she of him), and then on her own after his death. But, squeeze-into-a-corner-just-as-far-in-as-you-can-possibly-get-even-when-you’ve-got-an-inflexible-and-solid-shell as she was, she squoze herself out of the run which was a crappy lightweight balsa wood framed thing (handiwork: Mr N) that, it turned out, she could heave up. (Mighty indeed!) We came home one day to an empty run and no sign of MJ. We gingerly looked under the car, scared we’d crushed her without seeing her on the drive. No sign. We hardly dared but did look on the road leading from our drive. No broken shell, no bloody mess, nothing. She was missing for four days, by which time we were convinced she was dead, flattened and smashed under wheels somewhere nearby. Then a neighbour found her in his garden, happily scoffing his herbs!  It wasn’t evident how she’d got out from the run (it wasn’t overturned) so she escaped again before we worked it out. The second time she made it to a different neighbour’s house (still managing to walk along quite a stretch of road), where two enormous Great Danes also lived, and she was fed dog food (her first and last taste of it) before being returned to us. She might even have had a third adventure during her life with us, when she spent some time in my Mum’s garden while we were on holiday and apparently made it all the way from her back garden to the front of the house and up the shared driveway nearly to a much busier road than ours, but as my Mum was already a bit demented by then and this would have required her to climb up a huge step way bigger than she was I never quite believed that particular episode truly happened.

So, now, sadly, on to her demise. She’s been living with A and R these last two years, in much the same lifestyle to which she had already become accustomed, although with an altogether tastier and more diversely stimulating range of flowers, herbs, vegetables and other plants to explore in their garden.  And, for a tortoise who likes dark corners, absolutely the bees’ knees in decking to get under and angled into.  So that’s been her favoured slumber spot ever since she moved in with them. And that’s where the rat attacked her! A of course doesn’t exactly know when it happened, she just saw the deep gash on her leg when she emerged. She cleaned her up and bandaged her as best she could, then a bit of internet research confirmed that rat attacks are, in fact, quite common  apparently. (Who knew? Not A and R, and not us.) Same research also confirmed the seriousness of the wound and presented a detailed case study on one tortoise who had to have its leg amputated and a false one made of resin attached. What did we want to do, how far to go with treatment? Now, my regular readers will know that I’ve gone very far in the past for a five quid guinea pig that would’ve only lived another two years at most anyway.  But amputation?  Prosthetics? I told A to get the vet’s view and that we’d take it from there, but suggested she might want to raise the delicate option of death by injection if the vet didn’t, which in my experience they don’t, not even for a guinea pig worth less than a fiver.  A, who said she never would’ve thought she could get so fond of a reptile, was actually prepared to consider the false limb route, but there turned out to be a second wound which complicated things. Down, then, she was put.

Of course I don’t really regret not flying MJ to Houston with us. Apart from it being plain ludicrous, I’m not sure she would’ve survived the journey or even whether you can bring tortoises into the US. Anyway, we’ve got rats too. And this is Texas so they’re no doubt bigger. She had a good life with us, as far as we could tell, and possibly a better life at A and R’s (so thank you A for adopting her and seeing her through to the end). I think probably A is gonna miss her more than we will at two years’ distance, but now that she’s gone and I think of our Derbyshire home without her, I can see that in her funny old way she might have made this Houston one a home from home for us immediately we arrived had she come too. Ah well. RIP, then, The Mighty Jagrafess.