A very dear friend came to lunch today and was feeling a bit Mondayish. She’d had a problem at work and just felt grumpy, but brought us a delicious lunch and her usual interesting conversation. She wasn’t quite as upbeat as usual but that was fine. But she apologised for not being more lively and again when she had to leave to go back to work.
It’s a tendency I’ve noticed with some other friends and casual visitors recently, the all singing all dancing visit. So it’s not enough to bring delicious food and gossip from the outside world, brilliant reading or salted caramel chocolates. You also have to be entertaining and fun. No room for droopy drawers when visiting the sick.
But I want you to be droopy drawers or even wail if that’s where you’re at today. Being ill doesn’t mean you have to treat me with kid gloves, I won’t collapse if you’re not on top form. I’d rather you were yourself, with all the untidiness that involves.
My normal has gone walkabout so you being yourself makes me feel I inhabit the normal world and that’s what I crave most of all at the moment. So be happy or be sad, tearful or walking on air, it’s fine by me.
Just remember to bring the salted caramels.
Violent mood swings, irritability, grumpiness at the stupid things people say, tearful one minute, joyful the next, wanting to spend hours in bed, general sulkiness at the world, deeply pessimistic and optimistic on the turn of a coin. Sound familiar? I’m becoming a teenager again – yikes.
It took me a while to realise that this sudden change in temperament (I’m sure my friends would testify to my generally calm character – ahem) was happening. Yesterday I had all the emotional seasons in the space of an hour – summer delight at the sunshine and friendship, deep autumnal sadness at my situation (complete with awkward tears on a train), freezing winter pessimism that anything would ever be fine again and joyful spring potential at a bank of daffodils.
As ever realising something is happening, acknowledging and sitting with the feelings is half way to understanding and coming out the other side. Being a teenager I felt that every passing cloud or feeling was the real me because I was still unsure of my identity. Many years on I’ve come to know that feelings don’t define me, they’re feelings. They pass like the clouds.
It’s taken me back to being a teenager – being on the cusp of independent life, so confused, energetic and full of life. Youth is not wasted on the young at all – it’s essential to get you through the great transformation to the next stage. I came through it to a wonderfully fulfilled and happy life.
Just wondering where this transformation is leading me. But first I have to turn up the music really loud.
Sitting in the sunshine this morning, taking up a pair of trousers. Suddenly my grandmother, dead these forty years, is sitting by my side. ‘Don’t forget to tack, not just pin that hem.’ Grandpa was a tailor and Nan a seamstress. As a young child, she’d get me to thread her needles as my eyesight was better, now I need glasses to thread my own.
Grandpa had fought in the trenches of the First World War and he slept on the floor for the first three months after he got back; he’d lost the knack of sleeping in comfort. He taught me to add up with matchsticks, gave me a lifelong love of radio as he always had it on and showed me what real reverence for God was by the way he genuflected and prayed in church.
Nan was just fun, full of stories and laughter, showing me how to cook chicken with dumplings (they were rocks but Grandpa manfully chewed his way through them), teaching me to be a useful fourth hand at whist as a nine year old. And she taught me how to sew. Pin cushions to start with, then how to turn a hem properly – measure, pin, measure, tack, sew with tiny overstitches.
It’s a pleasure to have her with me as I finish the trousers. And it makes me wonder what people will remember of me in forty years.
Last night I was wide awake at 2am. New medication has given me an unpleasant itchy skin. Not just the sort that means you want to rub your nose when the dentist is working on a filling. This is a series of waves of red hot itching that must be scratched.
Reminds me of the time I did some grape picking with friends and was bitten by vine flies. Had to wear oven gloves for a week to stop myself from tearing my skin with the unbearable itching.
Lotions and potions make no difference. It was difficult to get to sleep and at 2 I was woken by another wave of itching. A cool shower helped a bit, then a cup of tea, a chapter of Dorothy Sayers to distract me. Now it’s 3am and no sign of sleep. Back into the kitchen for another drink.
I’ve had insomnia before, when worried about work, or finances or after heartbreak. But this is a different quality of sleeplessness, I feel as though I’m the only person alive in the city. Me and the itching that can’t be scratched. It’s a dark, lonely place and reading or listening to radio or hot drinks can’t make me forget that I’m desperate to scratch.
Then suddenly a light comes on in the block of flats opposite mine. A parent getting up to feed a baby? Or someone looking after a friend who’s ill? Or another insomniac perhaps (I’m hoping they’re not the itchy kind). Suddenly I don’t feel quite so lonely. I finish my tea and go back to bed and eventually drift off.
But I left the light on in the kitchen.
It’s not until the emergency klaxon goes off that you really understand how vital friendship is. When I became seriously ill I was surprised to find that I wanted my oldest friends around me – people I’ve known for twenty or thirty years. It was great to see the others of course, but I felt that the old set knew me and I knew them inside out. Bad times and good. And it set me thinking about what sort of help one does need. Here are some examples of the heroic support I’ve had.
Practical– G who simply wrote a card offering to cook, clean, wash or do anything practical I needed. B who took away a load of washing and ironed it. L who understands the power of dark chocolate to lift me from the darkness. Numerous pals who are on the end of the phone when I need to whine, chat or simply share a joke. S, F and M who cooked me delicious food and filled the freezer with extras.
Medical – D who gave me the benefit of her extensive knowledge of what’s up with me, so I had an inkling of what questions to ask. J, M and R who came with me to endless appointments as moral support. My GP who has been extraordinary in her support and navigating through various forms.
Spiritual – Moral and spiritual support are essential, you can’t do this bit of the path on your own. Many of my friends have been praying for me, I’m on the prayer list for the sick in lots of parishes. Priest friends have turned up to pray with me and just be there. You need people who can look you in the eye and not be afraid of the possibility that you are not going to be here much longer. Many friends, religious or not, have been a listening spiritual ear.
Brain food – One of the many worries I had in hospital was running out of reading matter. It was great to have friends bring me in what they thought I would like. I have developed an addiction to detective stories (nice to have the problem resolved) and am working my way through Ian Rankin, Ben Aaronovitch and Dorothy Sayers. D and F, film buddies who made me feel normal life could resume.
And good conversation that doesn’t always include the illness.
Today’s a one foot in front of the other kind of day. It feels as though my identity is being taken over by my illness. Yesterday I spent much of the day at the hospital having invasive and unpleasant procedures and ended up feeling battered, physically and emotionally. This is not a moan about the NHS, I have had exemplary care and great kindness from consultants, medics and nurses.
There are just some days when it feels as though I am my illness, rather than a person who happens to be seriously ill. An endless stream of tablets, appointments, injections, forms etc. When meditation, prayer, reading, going out for fresh air, just don’t help. I’m gloomy and despondent. Not about the illness but being the illness.
So how to regain my identity, so that being seriously ill is just a part of who I am as well as someone who likes reading detective novels, loves to cook, go for long walks (or short hobbles at the moment) and just stare out of the window? Well staring out of the window today was a start – there was a man walking down the street with a hawk on his arm. He comes regularly to scare away the pigeons and it made me smile to see a hawk in the city.
Sitting with the dark feelings helps begin the process of regaining who I really am. Though never a comfortable place, I know that it’s the only way to emerge into the light. After a while a chink of light emerges, just a tiny awareness of the difference between the illness and my real meness. Stay with it and the chink eventually opens up until I find myself again.
It’s happened pretty quickly today – the gloom and despondency were very dark, but acknowledging the feelings and just going with them for a couple of hours meant that I then felt ok to have a shower, go and do a big shop and rejoin the normal world.
Oh and a large slab of Hotel Chocolat dark chocolate brought by a friend helped too.
I heard Edith Piaf’s Non je ne regrette rien on the radio this morning and it made me cry. Partly because it’s always moving to hear her voice but also it was one of her last live performances when she could barely stand, but she could certainly still sing. The song has bizarrely become an anthem for triumphing over life’s difficulties, although the last line reveals that she has no regrets because she’s fallen in love again.
Piaf (sparrow in French) was given the name by her agent because she was tiny and such a bundle of energy. She holds a special place in French culture. After a terribly neglected childhood she died very young after a lifetime of drugs, drink and dreadful relationships (though she did manage to spot potential in her relationships with Yves Montand and Georges Moustaki ) She would have turned a hundred in 2015.
What’s fascinating about her is how she connected with her audience, as in this live performance of Padam Padam when a ripple of applause goes through the crowd and she simply holds up her hand for silence. She felt most alive and herself when on stage, even shortly before her death, when she looks as though she might collapse at any moment, and then she opens her mouth and the astonishingly powerful voice emerges. The energy of La Foule, the optimism of falling in love with La Vie en Rose, her love of Paris with Sous le ciel de Paris.
But not just power, emotion. 100,000 people followed her coffin in Paris, some stars (you can spot Marlene Dietrich and Yves Montand) but mostly ordinary people as far as the eye can see, wanting to witness what she meant to them. The ability to externalise her pain in song so that you know that she understands, lives, sings what it means to be broken-hearted, abandoned, without hope.
The pain we all hold on the inside is the raw emotion for her songs- which is why they touch us so deeply. If you’ve ever been in love, had your heart broken, or simply been unable to cope with what life throws at you, Piaf has been there before you and holds your hand and heart in song.