It’s the little things that give you a surprising kick to the emotional solar plexus. I’m still sorting through boxes of stuff brought back from Mum’s house, trying to keep busy so as not to think too much about completion date tomorrow.
Each box holds things to make me smile, cry, remember. A pile of embroidered linen from my great-grandmother in France. Heavy sheets with the GB of the two families carefully embroidered as part of her bottom drawer. No washing machines of course, so a woman from the village would come every two weeks or so to do the heavy washing by hand. The weight of those sheets! They’d be boiled then rinsed and hung on the line. I have some strange linen undergarments too, haven’t quite worked out where I’d wear them, but they are too precious to throw away. My great-grandmother was someone who didn’t believe in the consumer society and would certainly disapprove of not continuing to use them.
Then some summer clothes that Mum wore but can no longer and they fit me perfectly. Smile as I remember the times she wore them, when we were in France together and that they will still have a life now.
Pencils, pens, shower gel, envelopes, moisturiser, postcards – enough of all these supplies for years to come; they’ll easily see me out anyway.
Then later I’m putting some bread in the freezer – sliced with a small piece of greaseproof paper between each slice. Means they don’t stick together and you can just take a slice as you want it. And there’s the kick in the solar plexus – Mum and I used to do this together when I’d come back from the weekly shop. A simple task that she could do and feel useful. Now that kitchen has gone and Mum and I will never do that again.
It’s the small things.
Just back from a big shop as the nephew coming to stay for a few days and he eats as only a young man can. My appetite is pretty rubbish these days; mostly I eat toast, cereal, yoghurt, soup, eggs and fruit. My love of cooking seems to have gone walkies too, I look in my cupboard and the exotica of quinoa, couscous, even rice just seems too much.
I return with meat based meals – ham, steaks, chips, veg and ice cream. We’ll fit in a meal out at the local Turkish too and a trip to the cinema. When he was about ten, we went up to town to see a film and stocked up in the local Pret first. I warned him not to show the popcorn and drinks before we got into the film.”Are we smuggling?” he asked with delight.
I love his exuberance for life, his can do, will do approach. I do feel a bit of a vampire though, feeding on his extraordinary life force.
One of the strange things about selling Mum’s house has been the systematic clearing and sorting of fifty years of memories, things of sentimental value and then stuff that needs to be recycled or taken to the dump. Photos capture us at all ages – we pause and remember what it was like to be that person, play that game in the garden, eat that picnic, wear those weird clothes.
And then there are the surprises. I came across my toddler teddy bear in a drawer, having no idea that Mum had kept him. Pandy was my first friend, he had shiny fur, bright eyes and a squeak when you pressed his tummy which delighted me for hours on end. Well the eyes have gone, as has the squeak and the fur is more like very fine sandpaper but finding him took me straight back to being a toddler and that first friendship.
The most astonishing thing is how small he is. I remember holding him as a toddler and it took some effort, he filled my whole arm. Now he’s a tiny thing – or perhaps I’m no longer a toddler and he no longer fills my world. No doubting the comfort though; it’s been a rough few weeks and he’s still my pal. Still making everything right with the world – last night I was awake with the heat and some dark thoughts and found myself reaching for Pandy much as I had done as a two year old.
Many years later I know only too well that not everything turns out for the best, but he still believes it.
Normally I’d be packing for a fortnight in France right now. A few days with the extended family eating gargantuan meals before heading off to the gite. Perfect time of year, still hot but kids back at school, tourists mostly gone. The markets with their local produce shining so radiantly, they look as though they’ve been polished. Fish so fresh it practically swims home with you. The long walks along the shore, water warmed after a couple of months of hot sun, watching the swallows swooping for mosquitoes in the evening, the daily rhythm of opening and closing the shutters.
But not this year. Too dangerous to be more than an hour’s drive from a not very good hospital. Last week’s unexpected trip to A and E underlined that. Another loss to chew on. I stop by the ever supportive GP to review my medication. In less than a year I’ve gone from someone who only took vitamins to someone who the chemist knows by name. Busy GP always finds time to chat about the peripherals of my situation, remembers the details of how hard things have been with Mum and checks that my support system is still working.
I emerge with a sheaf of prescriptions and take them to the chemist where I gratefully sit for five minutes in the cool of air-conditioning, while they make up a bag of pills and potions. Think about my relatives in France and how much I’m going to miss the trip this year. Think about their bathroom cabinets stuffed with medicines for every kind of complaint – any French woman worth her salt is practically a dispensing chemist all of her own. How the chemist in France is more important than the baker or butcher – even small villages will lose the pharmacie last of all. How they are always packed with people, asking advice about minor ailments, showing suspect mushrooms in autumn, (I remember Mum being shocked when she took a mushroom she wasn’t sure about to the chemist in the UK and he thought she was mad) dispensing both medicine and reassurance to the whole village. And how everyone would emerge with bagfuls of medication as a sign that they were taking their health seriously. Mealtimes would see an alignment of drops, tablets, bottles, each explained in great detail. I was always the odd one out with my vitamins.
So the chemist calls my name and brings me a large plastic bag filled with tablets, injections and creams. As the doors open into the sweltering heat I realise that you can take the woman out of France…
We went to visit Mum a couple of weeks ago in her care home. It’s a lovely place with wonderful staff who clearly do care and she is now too frail for me to look after, but it still tears the heart strings to see her there. We take her a lovely framed photo of her with Dad on holiday in France. ‘Ah yes that’s me, but who’s that man in the photo with me?’ A knife to the heart.
She’s just getting dressed so we go next door and when she comes in five minutes later, she’s delighted to see us all over again. We smile and laugh with her but she breaks our hearts with each visit.
So who are you if your memory has gone, if you can’t remember the man you were married to for forty years, or even what you had for lunch? Is there any ‘you’ left?
The Argentinian writer, Borges, wrote a wonderful short story ‘Funes el memorioso’ about a man who remembered everything after an accident. Remembering everything of his life in detail meant that he could never rest.
But losing your memory means you lose something that defines the youness of you. Friends, relations, holidays, meals taken together, sad and happy times. What makes me me is certainly in part a collection of memories. I like ice cream but hate broccoli. I know this area like the back of my hand. Where I was when I fell in love.
But it turns out we’re not just memory. Mum is still definitely Mum, the gleam in her eye, the way she turns her face to get the full sun when we take her into the garden, how she squeezes our hands when we leave. And while it’s infinitely painful for us, as we are aware that soon she won’t remember our names either, for her she is completely in the now. The sacrament of the present moment.
Grief is a strange companion. Leaves you alone for hours at a time and then a song comes on the radio and you find yourself weeping all over again. Or you catch sight of your family in a photo and realise that you will only see that room again in memory and dreams. We have made our final visit to Mum’s before the house is sold. As my brother said, ‘we have nowhere to run to now.’
My sitting room is full of boxes and bags – the final delivery from the family home that will need sorting and finding a place in my own home. Some of it is purely practical; we are not people who throw things away lightly, so I now have a lifetime supply of scissors, paperclips, sellotape and envelopes.
But the other stuff needs unpacking slowly, bringing both smiles and tears, acknowledging their place in our family history. The bread knife and cucumber slicer that came from my grandmother and still work like a dream. Knives that have prepared countless family meals. Plates that held toast when I was rushing out to get the school bus. Books, photographs, letters and documents.
Dealing with people becomes even harder than usual, grief makes socialising difficult. Some people get it right, which is surprising as I feel differently from one minute to the next. More often than not, people get it really wrong – telling me about their ancient losses (how on earth is that supposed to help) or trying to see the upside of the situation (really?).
A dear friend’s cat died recently; they had been together for seventeen years. Well-meaning people constantly ask him if he’s going to get another one.
So here’s the thing. Grief is a strange and unpredictable companion and no amount of your reminiscing about your own stuff or upsiding will make the situation more bearable. Just take us out for a cuppa and cake and distract us for half an hour.
On a roller coaster of emotions and exhaustion after the last week. Closing Mum’s house for the final time before we sell it to pay for her care, results of scans (good) and then a heart scare, now under control.
Gradually unpacking the stuff I brought back from Mum’s and it’s strange to see everything in a different context, my home now, not Mum’s. Shredding documents, sorting photographs, tidying away linen etc. Each moment a poignant reminder that these things belong with me now.
So I sleep as much as possible, to allow myself to process all these emotions. I watch the Olympics to distract myself and sit in the garden, catch up with friends. Watch the incredible Mo Farah fall and get up in his race and go on to win gold. Seems a metaphor for me in there somewhere.
Music helps too – listening to my favourite Bach cello number makes me cry, but that’s good too. And then Chumbawamba‘s rousing anthem Both these pieces express different bit of how I’m feeling and coping/not coping. Put them both on loudly over and over.