Back from my lovely break on the coast – only four days but it made all the difference. I got to walk along the promenade, watch the waves for hours and spend valuable time with Mum.
Realised that I hadn’t had a break at all this year, apart from a weekend away in Eastbourne. Christmas saw me knocking at the pearly gates and the summer was spent clearing and selling Mum’s house.
So it was simply wonderful to get away and made me realise that part of the reason holidays are so important is that they allow you to physically put your present life on hold and live a slightly different life. Moving somewhere else, even for a short time, gives perspective, time to take stock and clear headinesses about the life one is living. Even if it’s not the life one would choose.
Several people have commented on how much lighter I feel and sound, as though some of the darkness of the last months has been washed away by the seaside.
Came across a wonderful Seamus Heaney quote, ‘ How perilous to choose not to love the life we’ve been shown.’ Ahem.
Re-entry is strange as ever. Coming back through the hurly burly of a mainline station, which I would normally take in my stride, it seemed to be teeming with people rushing around at breakneck speed. After the calm of the seaside it seemed a strange way to live. Reminded me of a time on the Paris metro on my way to work, squashed in as usual. Some farmers going to an exhibition got on, looked around in amazement and said, ‘How can you bear to do this every day?’.
Mind you I literally bumped into a woman bishop in full rig at the mainline station, she gave me a beaming smile. Don’t see many of those (women bishops, not smiles) at the seaside.
Any hotel is only as good as the staff who keep the wheels turning. The central role is the maitre d’ and the one in this hotel is extraordinary. Seating and organising upwards of a hundred people for breakfast and dinner is done so smoothly, you barely notice the shepherding.
He has the slightly world weary air of someone who has seen all of humanity process through his domain. Knights and knaves, wanderers and wizards, geezers and geishas would all get the same polite ushering.
There’s no doubt about his authority, you wouldn’t want to cross him, but you would definitely want him on your side in times of trouble. His accent is difficult to place, central European? I suspect he’s comfortable in half a dozen languages.
He notices everything, at one point there is a run on the sausages and he goes to the kitchen himself to sort it out and find a fresh tray. The server is a little lost, confused by the the endless requests. Maitre d’ tells him, ‘ Look at the mushrooms, nearly out, go to the kitchen and warn them.’ And then the pearl of wisdom, ‘Work forwards not backwards.’
Not a bad motto for life.
So the French afternoon at Mum’s nursing home went surprisingly well. French songs accompanied by industrial quantities of food (tres francais) including some delicious Brie and biscuits, croissants, brioche and sparkling juice.
Some of the other residents speak a bit of French or are francophiles. Everyone wanders round saying Bonjour, which perplexes Mum. We speak French as usual, which some of the residents find puzzling. Are we part of the entertainment or just a bit weird? Mum, coached by my sister, sings two Piaf songs at the top of her voice and is much amused. One lovely resident asks me if I speak English and is surprised that I do.
This reminds me of the time Mum and I were on holiday and two other English travellers who heard us speaking French asked in bafflingly loud English, ‘WHAT TIME IS DINNER?’ and when I said, ‘7 pm I think’ responded with’YOU SPEAK EXCELLENT ENGLISH FOR A FOREIGNER.’ I thanked them graciously.
So even if Mum didn’t quite always get what was going on, I was able to sing her snatches of Brel, Brassens, Piaf and Trenet which made her smile. And her French sister sent her a card which arrived today and we read that several times and it made her happy every single time. The benefit of having very little short term memory.
A major triumph today. No really. May not seem much, but I have walked down a steep flight of fifteen stairs and back up again, negotiated various wet surfaces and been swimming!
My right leg has been pretty crook since uni several decades ago when I smashed my kneecap playing hockey. That hit the old pain barrier. Several ops followed with a year in bed at uni, pretty dreadful pain and then a heroic French surgeon helped me to walk again and taught me several lessons in excruciating physio. Fainting from pain just meant a light slap to bring you round before continuing the exercises. It worked and meant I could walk. Knee is unstable though, I’ve broken my ankle badly twice because of it. And the moderate to severe pain that has been with me most days has not stopped me living.
Serious illness threw another ingredient into the mix; long periods immobile in bed meant that I have lost a lot of muscles in my right leg and my balance is wonky, hence the stick. And I’ve not been allowed to go swimming because of my weakened immune system until recently.
I love swimming, always have done. Clearing Mum’s house, we found endless pictures of me in swimming pools across the world. If there was a body of water, I’d swim in it. But lately things have been different. I’m allowed to swim, but I’ve been too tired and too scared. Some days I can barely make it to the kettle, never mind the pool. Doesn’t mean I don’t long to go though.
Cue well-meaning fix it advice from a variety of quarters. From the moderate bullying of ‘ been swimming yet?’ to various unhelpful other suggestions. I’ve had nightmares of someone stealing my stick while I’m in the water, or falling and breaking my leg again in the slippery changing room. Yes I know the lifeguard can help. Yes I know it would be good for me. Yes I would simply love to go. But I’m terrified. The kindest suggestion was a friend who offered to hold my stick for me while I was in the pool. Though we didn’t work out how she would get it back to me.
So all this to say that getting myself to the hotel pool, in for a fifteen minute swim and safely into the shower, albeit walking at a pace that a snail would sniff at, was my equivalent of an Olympic gold. I swam and didn’t fall.
I can already hear the chorus of well-meaning fix its asking when I’m going again. STOP with the bullying, however well-intentioned. Don’t you think I long to throw away my stick and be fighting fit again?
But probably tomorrow.
Get up at 8 which is early for me and have a cup of tea on the balcony, watching the waves. Three intrepid women are swimming. Negotiate a standing shower, which takes a bit of acrobatics as I have a seat at home. Then down to breakfast. I’m on second floor and lift not working. Many of the residents are elderly and/ or frail and a Blitz spirit takes over as we hobble down the two flights.
Breakfast in public is odd, but a chance to discreetly observe the many different workings of relationships. People who have been married for years and clearly can’t stand one another, there’s a particular way they chew their cooked breakfast. And the ones who do love each other still, one elderly man gently strokes his wife’s face when she brings him an orange juice. The newly wed and new parents are a volume all of their own. The singletons of different ages.
I find another lift to get back to my room and tell the chambermaid just to empty my bin. Will save her some work; I may be staying in luxury, but I’m a below stairs kind of person still. I remember my friend Betty, long dead, who went into service at 14. She was always unfailingly kind and polite to anyone who served her. Had a killer line in aphorisms too. She described her ex husband, whom she left in the middle of the night with her three young children when he threw the telly at her as, “the kind of man who would steal your eyeballs and spit in the sockets.”
Getting into the holiday vibe, go back to bed for an hour with a book and a cuppa.
Spend several hours with Mum today and she is in good form. She’s had a bad chest infection but the antibiotics are kicking in. She notices my stick for the first time and comments on my new skirt. It’s like having old Mum visit and all the more tender and poignant for that, because it won’t last. Speaking in French helps, even if it confuses the other residents. The food here is brilliant and we tuck into a roast lunch and then apple pie and custard. Before dementia, Mum would not have touched custard, regarding it as an evil English invention, but now she tucks into it quite happily.
I take her wheelchair into the garden sunshine and give her a sweet. She’s always been a cruncher of sweets, when we used to drive across France with a supply of Werther’s, it was a running joke. I tell her not to crunch and she laughs and crunches all the same. Does she remember our trips? An echo of past joys.
I show her some photos of the family, my brother and sister and she thinks they are her long dead brother and younger brother who is now seventy. Ouch.
Then we go downstairs for hymn singing. A collection (not sure what the right noun is) of people with varying degrees of dementia join us. We get hymn sheets and a lovely activities person leads us with her phone attached to a speaker. Mum is about half a verse behind, but seems to be enjoying herself, even though they are difficult to sing. Then a woman who wanders about all the time comes and stands very close behind the wheelchair, fascinated by our singing. She makes a stab at a tune and says, ‘lovely, lovely’ . Then starts blowing gently on Mum’s hair. Mum doesn’t notice for a bit and then mutters something rather rude, thankfully in French. Two rather tart women complain that we are singing out of tune. Another man when offered a hymn sheet says very politely he would rather kill himself thanks very much.
It’s all rather joyful in a surreal kind of way and I’m pretty sure God is pleased with our efforts.
When it comes time to leave, Mum panics and asks who is going to look after her if I go. She’s having a half memory of when I did look after her full time and it’s heart-breaking. I tell her I’ll be back in a bit and she relaxes. Distant echoes of her old self.
I take a walk along the beach and watch intrepid swimmers and feel more alive than I have in months.
Tomorrow is French afternoon at the nursing home. Stripy jumpers and lots of hon hon hon.
Down at the seaside for a few days, to have a bit of a break and see Mum. It’s a scramble getting to the station with my suitcase and stick and realise I can’t take a coffee on the train any more as I don’t have a free hand. First world problems.
It’s a couple of hours on the train and we pass through Mum’s old home station. I think of the hundreds of times I got off here, when Mum would come and pick me up and feel sad. Then the train stops in front of the local Lidl and I burst into tears. So full of memories and I never need shop there again. Don’t want to alarm the other passengers so I eat the yoghurt I brought with me and concentrate on the crossword.
I’ve booked a luxury double with balcony and it’s simply beautiful. The sea is yards away and it does my heart and soul good just to watch and hear the waves. Dinner in the hotel is one of those strange English meals, less than the sum of its parts. Then the sleep of the just.