Not intentionally training for the Olympic non-sleeping record but last night was wide awake three to seven. Went through the usual ritual of getting up and having a banana and a glass of milk, before going back to bed with my current book.
About 5.30, feeling tired and hoping for sleep, I turned the light out. And thought of all the friends who have been so supportive in the last months in big ways and small. My freezer is bursting with meals, I have a constant supply of flowers and cards. Texts, emails and calls every day to take my metaphorical temperature. I have friends to laugh with and shoulders to cry on and I’m well aware not everyone is so fortunate. The general kindness and concern is overwhelming and I’m profoundly grateful.
And then I got to thinking about the friends who have fallen off the radar. One or two made initial contact and then disappeared. The others just haven’t been in touch at all. It has been strange and sad and I have tried, sporadically, to get in touch with them, but it hasn’t worked. I lie there puzzled; these are kind people I would have expected to walk with me along this difficult bit of the path. Then suddenly I connect the dots. All of them, without exception, have lost someone very close to them. I know they care about me, but I guess it’s just too hard to face losing someone else. I think of them fondly and realise they may need my permission not to get in touch – which I very freely give.
6.30 the washing machine from the flat upstairs, directly above my bed, kicks into life. I consider knocking on their door and then realise that it must be a sartorial emergency before work. I drift off hoping that’s all they have to worry about.
Last night I went to dinner with some very old friends of more than twenty years standing. My first proper night out since leaving hospital in January. Got dressed up, which I realised I hadn’t done properly either for months, tend to go for warmth and comfort these days. Caught the bus and walked to their house, it took me a good twenty minutes rather than the usual ten, but it was thrilling to be out on the town.
And dinner was great, wonderful food, relaxed conversation, friends catching up. Covering all topics from gossip to flamenco dancing classes (love the idea but think the stick might get in the way), Brexit (we’re all lovers of Europe and fluent speakers of several other languages), whether the Night Manager was a satisfactory last episode, the larks they were having with their dog sitting, current favourite reading. Just the usual relaxed time you have with people who’ve seen your innards in good times and bad.
Getting older means we also do a review of current aches and pains, hot topic of the moment being sleep or the lack of it, for different reasons.
And then the person to my right, who I hadn’t seen for a couple of years, but married to a close friend and aware of my current situation, absentmindedly turned to me and asked, “And what are you up to these days?” A typical kindly enquiry of someone you haven’t seen for a while. The question hung on the air. Suddenly I wasn’t just out at a delightful supper with good friends. It was as though the room froze and we were all statues, like that game you play as children when the music stops. The others were chatting about something else. Just the two of us caught in this strange web.
He looked horrified as he realised what he’d said and I smiled and said, ‘oh just the usual.’
Only there isn’t any usual now.
The evening continued, but the spell of the old, normal me was broken. But those couple of hours beforehand were a delight. Just me and pals shooting the breeze at full throttle.
The Easter vigil Mass last night was packed with several hundred people. All of us sitting in the darkness, with an unlit candle, waiting for the Easter light of the Resurrection. The Easter candle is lit and the “Lumen Christi” sung. One by one our candles are lit and the church gradually flickers into light.
The candles are in a cardboard candle holder and stay lit through all the readings, so there’s always a chance that someone will set their holder alight and we all keep an eye on the elderly and the children. It takes me back to the feast days in France as a child when we’d process to statues or the big crucifix outside the village. In those days there was no artificial light in the village and it was very moving to walk in procession singing the old hymns in the absolute darkness of the countryside, with only our candles to light the way. The hymns were printed on the outside, but the paper was very thin and as children we always tried to accidentally set them alight, so as to have to hurl them to the ground and stamp them out.
The Easter readings start with Genesis and the creation. The two young boys sitting in front of me listen enraptured, hearing the story for the first time. Then we blow the candles out after the Gloria, although a young lad in my row refuses to and continues playing, lifting the candle high above his head at any Alleluia. I’m irritated at first and then joyful at his innocent delight in the light and the irritation around him from the adults turns to smiles as he lifts it aloft again.
And for me the hope of Easter is in that tiny light flickering in the darkness.
The Easter services have been more than usually poignant this year and I have spent much of them in tears. I want to rewind my life to not so long ago when I had my health, work that I loved, daily contact with my Mum (who has now had to go into a nursing home as I’m not well enough to look after her and as she is deaf we can only communicate once a week by Skype), a family home (which is now being cleared and sold to pay for her care) – to list but the major losses.
Someone stops me as I’m going into church for the Good Friday service to tell me how well I’m looking (ask, don’t tell). She asks after my Mum and I say sadly I can’t look after her anymore and she is in a nursing home. She astonishes my by saying, “that must be a relief”. I consider decking her, but decide it wouldn’t be a good look on the steps of the church. So I tell her instead that it is dreadfully sad, particularly this week which we would always have spent together. She looks taken aback at my honesty, but I’ve no patience for cliches.
The Easter services are always moving and cathartic, this year they are unbearable. Many people come up to me after the service to ask how I am. I can tell the ones who are also struggling themselves with whatever crosses they have to bear as they don’t try and look on the bright side, but just stay in the moment with me. We don’t really need to talk, there’s a common empathy of pain. I come home to a hot cross bun and feel grateful for the many flowers and cards I’ve had from good friends. Not to mention the daily texts to check on my well being.
But can I not just rewind?
So this afternoon I went for a nap….and woke up three hours later from the best sleep in months. That deep sleep when you take ages to float to the surface from the very depths of your being. And it made me wonder why I slept so well.
But firstly it reminded me of other sleeps so deep that they are held in the memory, like jewels. The siestas of unbelievably hot summers in France when the only thing to do is sleep and the whole village drifts off into the arms of Morpheus. The landlady who would come out for a coffee on the terrace after lunch and then ask if we were going for ‘une normal ou une monumentale’? We’d always go for the latter. This same landlady who had gone hungry during the war and once showed me the garage that was completely filled with supplies. She’d take a tin of sardines from one side and replace it on the other.
Often we’d be woken by the children racing home from school, their chatter echoing through the medieval village. Gradually the village itself would wake, stretching in the late afternoon sun, preparing for the aperitif and socialising of the evening in the cooler air.
Or the impatient siestas of childhood, still in France, when we’d sleep for a bit but not be allowed up till the clock hit four. An eternity to a seven year old. Then it was time for the gouter – a chunk of buttered baguette with slabs of chocolate inside and a glass of milk that we’d collected from the farm the night before. Then off out with a flock of cousins to play in the fields or go for a swim.
I used to take my sleep for granted, joking that if only it were an Olympic sport, I’d be on the podium. I sleep badly now and this afternoon was a precious gift.
I find normality where I can these days. Boiler needs a service and I managed to persuade them to give me a 9am to 1pm waiting slot, with the emphasis on waiting. I know if I nip out for the paper (who am I kidding, my nipping days are long gone) the little red card regretting that they missed me will be on the doormat. So I don’t go out and they don’t come of course.
Can they imagine what it takes for me to be showered, dressed and breakfasted for 9am these days? I doubt it. Roaring through the to do list and emails though. Second cup of coffee and looking at the bright sunshine outside. Thirty minutes to go until the window closes.
Give them a ring and when I eventually get through, they have difficulty contacting the engineer. Lunchtime now, what are the chances he’s got his feet up in a nearby cafe? Another call, the engineer is ‘on his way’. Via Ulan Bator probably. Although I have nothing else on today, except a trip to the library and possibly a coffee and sandwich with a friend, I play the role of a busy person on the phone, with people to see and places to go. Recover my old identity briefly.
Fifteen minutes after the window closes, I leave to find the gasman on the doorstep smoking a cigarette. He insists the waiting slot was open until 2pm, giving him time for a cigarette, lunch and a quick snooze in his van. I have an urgent appointment with a chicken and roast vegetable sandwich and send him away.
It comes to something when hours of fruitless waiting can raise a smile.
Sleep no longer comes easily these days, another loss of something I took for granted. Three or four nights a week I’m awake between two and five. Though a couple of days ago I woke, looked at the clock with the usual dread and saw it was 7.30. Luxury.
An hour at night when most other people are asleep stretches out in another dimension where time doesn’t obey the normal rules and moves in slow motion. So what to do? I lie there for a while trying to relax and go back to sleep. Look at the clock again. 2.15. Try again, thinking lovely thoughts and visiting my favourite places. 2.30.
Get up and have a banana and a glass of milk. Look out to see if any other lights on, but all is quiet and dark. There’s a velvety quality to the stillness of the night that I would relish if I didn’t need and long to be asleep.
Back to bed and read for a while. 3.30. Try again but nothing doing. Decide to just lie there and rest, trying to turn off the to do list now whirring in my brain.
4. Get up again for a wander around. Go into the kitchen and am overwhelmed by the smell of hyacinths. I stand there just drinking in the smell, intoxicated. Who knew they smelt so much more powerfully in the middle of the night? Was it worth losing three hours of sleep for? Despite myself, I can’t help smiling and drift off to sleep.