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Seizing The Latter Part of Life to Be Creative


1 Minute Read

‘Epic Minds’is a 35-minute dance theatre circus production about psychosis and the idea of insanity. I have created and directed this piece to complete my MA in Directing Circus and Physical Theatre at Bristol Circomedia.

I am a woman, 69 years of age, who is passionate about making engaging, thoughtful work that embraces dance, theatre and circus. I am a contemporary dancer by original training. Reaching my 60s was like being rocketed into a creative and productive phase in my life where time seems to rush by and the need to explore my dreams is urgent.  I have felt completely liberated to be anything I want to be and to ignore any of the restrictive and boring expectations society often still has of what a woman in her sixties ‘should’ be doing. It feels like the rules need no longer apply and I only wish I had come to this awakening earlier in my life!

I have noticed an emerging group of women and men like me who are seizing the latter part of their life with passion and curiosity.  I am hopeful that this group is expanding with every passing year.

I think this is partly why I was so drawn to make a piece of work about the experience of psychosis which is perhaps a vivid example of liberation, freedom, imagination and living in the moment.

The main character in ‘Epic Minds’ is played by Heather Parkin, an aerial rope artist with a head injury from a car crash who frantically tries to process the ecstatic but disturbing psychotic episodes she experiences though autobiographical writing. I have been incredibly lucky to have her writing and experience as a rich and insightful resource from which I have drawn in creating this show. The show is not specifically Heather’s story; but her long relationship with her aerial rope illuminates many of the ideas.

‘Epic Minds’ looks at the wildly liberating, surreal, sensory and disturbing world of psychosis as well as its unsustainabililty and eventual damage to the brain. It asks questions about insanity and its treatment plus attempting to look at our perception of what insanity is and how this at odds with society’s perception of sanity and what is ‘normal’.

The tension between a restricted, controlled life and the adventurous, fully in-the-moment life of someone experiencing psychosis is explored through the medium of dance, aerial rope, juggling and song.

I drew ideas and images from surrealist art, drug-inspired music such as the Beatle’s ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and artists such as Yayoi Kusama making work about their own hallucinations and psychotic experiences as well as from Heather’s own writing and experiences.

Whilst the content is serious, it is an entertaining piece, with many comedic moments when the conventional medical world clashes with the world of the ‘lunatic’ or is drawn into the world of the ‘lunatic’ which seems so much more fun than their own world.

Many people believe psychosis to be a miserable, frightening experience; but it can also be incredible and memorable with visions and ecstatic moments. Of course, it is not a state the brain can sustain and intervention of some kind is required as the brain loses volume if left for too long in this highly activated state. This is one of the reasons for making this piece as I wanted to show both sides and also to provoke spectators to think about mental health, how we label it and how we treat it, perhaps seeing so called mental health issues more as natural human responses to our lives, our experiences and events around us. Viewing mental health challenges this way might shift how we treat/medicate people struggling.

Interestingly, simply listening attentively to someone has been shown to be phenomenally powerful as an intervention.

There is still so much judgment, lack of insight and lack of compassion for people experiencing mental health issues. As a result, they often feel isolated, broken somehow and unable to talk honestly about their experience. I have experienced depression, anxiety and complex PTSD and still have times when they overwhelm me again. At times like this,  I feel closed in and unable to be honest about how I feel to most people.

Working in circus and theatre gives me a space to create work that can represent all ages and a wide spectrum of human experience in an engaging and entertaining way. I hope also that it can be a small part of the shift towards a more thoughtful and compassionate world.

Starting an MA in Creative Writing at 62


7 Minute Read

As a child I loved to read and write but where did that come from?

Our story is a familiar one. Dad came over from Ireland in the 1950s as the farm could not support him. He met and married mum and as Irish Catholics, children kept arriving. Dad worked away from home supporting us and sending money back to his mother on the farm. When he was away, in the evenings to settle us mum would sit in the armchair by the fire, we would be in our pyjamas, huddled at her feet, the latest baby in the cot by her side. It is not a romantic memory. This was a council house and the coal fire in the living room was the only heating.

But I loved these evenings. She would read to us – Dickens’ Oliver Twist one of my earliest memories, then Louise May Alcott’s Little Women. I was entranced by the stories she read aloud so when I was old enough to read myself we shared the duties. It was a natural step therefore to put pencil first then pen to paper. I wrote stories, letters, poems, plays and stored them in a box under my bed.

I was good at English and my journey through school was a joy enhanced by that one teacher that everyone has; Don Whitby was mine. He took us from To Kill A Mockingbird, to more Dickens, Hardy and poetry that was not on the syllabus – sometimes song lyrics. He was a romantic figure who had been a dancer in a popular dance group in the early 60s and we adored him. He taught us drama and we put on fabulous productions. It was another easy step for me to apply to read English, Drama and Theatre studies and there followed the best 3 years of my life at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Graduating and needing a job I could not see how pursuing the Arts was ever going to earn me a living so I took a different path, signing up as a commissioned officer in The Royal Air Force – and that’s another story! But I continued to write, stuffing notebooks with my words and dreams.

Seven years ago, it was becoming clear that Mum wasn’t going to be around much longer. She was 83, in good health but frail and so I sat with her one evening grilling her on her childhood – stories she had told us from our early years but I was now thinking like a writer – I wanted detail, information, I was doing loose research before I lost her and her amazing mind. When she died, I vowed to myself that I was going to write something based on some of her stories and created a character plotline that I have been developing ever since.

In December 2019 I found a creative writing course in Ireland. This was it for me. It was in a farmhouse on an island off the west coast. I had visions of days sat around a large wooden table with other writers, swapping our daily output, reading aloud, challenging, feeding each other words and ideas. And at night musicians, the flames of a dancing fire, a bit of whiskey; I would be wrapped in a gorgeous cashmere shawl and wearing fingerless gloves. And then lockdown. I was offered an online version of the course and for six glorious weeks spent two hours every Sunday evening with the tutor and another writer who lived in Geneva. It was a lifeline in an isolated time. I live alone so it was me and the dogs and Zoom but those Sundays were wonderful.

As lockdown eased, I started to think about how I might build more formal writing processes into my life and then in November 2021, my 17 year old niece, Maeve, was telling me about her A level English course work and I offered to read it. The subject was ‘Compare and contrast Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and their depiction of ideological power’. Reading her work was revelatory. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed deep analysis of text and then committing to research. Thanks to Maeve I started looking for academic courses. I vowed years ago, on completion of my MBA, that I would never return to academia and yet here I was aged 62, researching MAs in creative writing. I wanted a fully online programme as I was still fearful of COVID, I have a compromised immune system and had stayed safe for the best part of two years so I wanted it to stay well. I looked at many programmes at various universities and then found one. It is a fully online programme and its biggest appeal was the international nature of the participants on the course. I applied, was offered a place and started in January 2022.

I went into the course clear about my objectives: to write my novel. I find myself half way through the taught modules and each time I sit down to write the strangest thing happens. I read the task assignment, weekly activity and then start to write. Stories appear, some based on events that are familiar to me, but mainly they are tales that spring out of my fingers onto the keyboard. When the task was to write using sensory detail I found myself back in the Belizean rain forest, a young female military officer in a beautiful, lush and challenging environment. Leaf cutting ants with their smell of formic acid crossed my path as I hacked through with my machete – humming birds hovered in the open mouths of scarlet hibiscus flowers. Where did it all come from?

The greatest joy of the course work is the writers’ workshop where each week we are set a task and assigned a small group. We submit our work to each other for critique and comment so that we develop our own critical thinking skills as well as our editing ability as we write. But that’s not the best bit.

At the end of the first week our tutor suggested that we might want to set up a private group to chat outside of the formal taught elements and one of the women set up a zoom call. Since that first week, in and out of term we have met every Saturday when able, on an informal basis, for our water cooler natter. This is where the real work is taking place as we develop relationships, support each other, challenge and laugh a lot. With more easing of restrictions, a summer school was proposed by the university and those of us who were able to, eagerly signed up.

It was with great joy that I headed up to the north of England to the campus for the residential in August. I booked an Airbnb and two of the women joined me. We had only ever met virtually but it was a breeze. We went to school each day together and met up with the rest of the gang – there was a group of ten of us. They came from Singapore, France, Majorca, Northern Ireland and various parts of England. During the day we were students, we did real time writing workshops and activities, attended some terrific lectures – my favourite being – writing the taboo.  And in the evenings, meals out and more – suffice to say what goes to summer school stays at summer school!

Our last day was a Saturday so the water cooler natter was held in a room at the library and we zoomed in Macao, England and France to share our connectedness. Without a doubt, the most valuable and life affirming part of doing this MA in creative writing is meeting my fellow writers, making deep friendships, and working collaboratively to ensure that we all fulfil our potential and stretch ourselves beyond anything I certainly could possibly have imagined.

We have just received another marked assignment and the results have been mixed with some bitterly disappointed people, some mildly disgruntled (me for one) and others joyous. But in all of it there has been tremendous support, love and practical offers of help. This weekend’s water cooler natter will be an interesting one as we move forward into our next module – writing from life. Non-fiction!

My novel is put to one side as I explore another facet of writing that isn’t my natural medium but so far I have surprised myself and I look forward to seeing what this one brings.

An Ounce of Prevention


1 Minute Read

We have a saying here in England, ‘An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.’

With this in mind, I felt at my age, it was time to get to my doctor’s and have a prostate exam.

I had been putting this off for ages and ignoring constant advice from my significant other.

‘Go get it checked…it’s important that you do. You are at that age.’

I have always been at ‘that age’.

I have also been that person who, at any age, does not relish a stranger’s finger or two up my back passage…even professionally.

Still, needs must.

Therefore, with my early Monday morning appointment made, I brace myself for what is to come.

I decide that a shower is in order along with scented shower gel. On reflection I think why, after all it’s not a date…just a date with the fickle finger of fate.

I wear something casual and off I trot into the known unknown.

My name comes up on the screen at the surgery and in I go. The GP is actually a nice guy and a warm friendly smile greets me.

‘So what can I do for you.’ he asks… I tell him that I am getting up two to three times a night to pee and feel that I should have a prostate exam to settle my mind. He agrees and starts to make a few notes… I get up and start to undress explaining that I have been doing stretches so I can comfortably touch my toes and make life easier for him. Why him, it’s me that is going to be impaled on the fingers of his right hand.

He looks up from his screen in disbelief. ‘What are you doing he asks?’

‘I am getting ready for my close-up.’ I reply.

‘Please get dressed,’ he says.

‘But, aren’t you going to examine me?’

He looks puzzled…I look puzzled.

‘No, I am going to send you for blood tests…this is what we do now.’

I stand staring at him. ‘But I showered, put on clean underwear.  I even shaved, (why the hell did I say that)’ I protest.

He explains that they don’t do it that way anymore…

I had psyched my self up for what was going to be a big deal for me…and now feel my ‘date’ stood me up.

I had to take something from this.

I fire one more shot. ‘Can we at least go for a drink,’ I ask.

He ignores my question and hands me the blood test request to take to the hospital. He smiles warmly and tells me he does not drink.

I feel I have just found a pay packet with cash in but am upset by the amount of tax that was paid.

Ah well.

Ten days later, I get the thumbs up but that’s another story!!!

Our Big Cruise Adventure


1 Minute Read

Having dragged my 68-year-old ‘bestie’ Maz, a cruise virgin, on the Carnival’s latest party boat, aptly named The Mardi Gras – I was, I’ll admit, nervous about how she would take to being on the water with so many merry American cousins, all of whom seemed hell-bent on eating huge portions, drinking like Falstaffians and then collapsing onto the super-reinforced sunbeds on deck 18 (the one where no children were allowed).

She took to it like a duck.

Not that getting to that point had been easy. Two years of lockdown and uncertainty meant that our Big Cruise Adventure had been delayed repeatedly. It had started with me being on a Marketing Cruise in 2019 which sailed out of Long Beach, California and down the west coast of Mexico for seven days of fun in the sun. I’d noticed that the stream of seminars I was attending didn’t look as fun as the rowdy hoots of laughter emanating from the Piano Bar every night. It turned out that the ‘Piano Barbarians’ – aptly named – spent most of the day snoozing and boozing and then were up half the night singing along with some very entertaining pianist/vocalists in the ship’s main Piano Bar.

So I had signed us up, figuring that there was no hope if I didn’t know enough about marketing after two cruises.

Finally, with the help of Maribeth Kring, our ‘Cruise Mom’ – we had booked to sail out of Tampa and around the Gulf of Mexico in January 2022. I managed to secure a reasonably priced ticket with BA, including three nights in the Sirata Beach Hotel on the famous St Pete’s Beach reef strand.

It looked idyllic. I was packed two weeks early, flippers, mask – the lot. Got our tickets, our ESTA renewals, and paid for a pre-flight antigen test to get into the USA plus to have another test just before boarding the cruise liner.

But then there was this Covid variant called Omicron and 48 hours before departure, Maz tested positive. It was all cancelled, yet again. I didn’t even have the heart to unpack.

The next possibility was in May, so with a deep breath we signed up.

That’s how we eventually found ourselves, after queuing for hours at Gatwick and then queueing even longer at Orlando immigration for ‘aliens’, finally cracking open a bottle of chilled Californian white on the balcony of our hotel room in Cocoa Beach, overlooking the surf on one side and a very attractive pool on the other.

I hadn’t wanted to go anywhere near the ‘Magic Kingdom’ – or any of the other theme parks, so Cocoa Beach was a great alternative to the other Orlando hotels. The Beachside Hotel and suite was reasonable, friendly and they threw in a substantial continental breakfast which, being American, was a buffet large enough to feel an entire continent rather than a couple of weary travellers.

After a few hours circling the small island brimming with tropical flowers while my bottom was wedged firmly in a large inflatable tyre, I was ready to party. The ‘lazy river’ current gently nudged me around, but every time I tried to extricate myself from the inner tube, it shot me past the steps and back into the flow. I only escaped when I got so wrinkly I could slip out.

Maz, meanwhile, wanted to dip her toes in the surf. Walking a few minutes down to the beach, it looked like a scene from Baywatch, but no sign of David Hasselhof. There were red flags up, so we decided to visit Nolan’s Irish pub on 204 West Cocoa Beach Causeway for a spot of folk-singing and a bite to eat.

Their fish and chips were spectacular, and we spent two evenings ‘home from home’ enjoying great music and ambience. Scottish comedian and singer JJ ‘Hamish’ Smith had us in hysterics with his very unPC rendition of Old MacDonald’s Farm, where all the animals had special needs, including a sheepdog with Tourette’s.

Another welcome discovery was the Poke Fin café on the corner of East Cocoa Beach Causeway and North Atlantic Avenue, where the seafood and salads were fresh and tasty. Sitting there, watching all the surfers drifting in and out of Ron Jon’s palatial Surf Shop on the main boulevard, was entertainment in itself.

After more Covid antigen tests, we finally boarded The Mardi Gras.

If you’ve never been on a cruise, you are in for a treat. Always book a balcony cabin if you get sequestered into your cabin with Covid. We slept with our doors wedged open to take advantage of the fresh sea air and switched off the air-conditioning unit.

Our cruise took us to sea for three days which gave plenty of time to explore the massive liner and its many places to eat or be entertained. We joined up with the other Piano Barbarians for one memorable night with Carnival’s Number One performers, the amazing Eden Parker, who performed for six hours without a sheet of music.

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age

Then we arrived at a different port of call. First, San Juan in Puerto Rico, fantastic museum and picturesque walk through the old city. Next was Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic, where we joined an excursion to a private beach villa for lunch and a swim in the clear sea waters. Our final stop was at Grand Turks and Cacaos, where the samba band was on the pier to greet us.

At first, I felt guilty about descending on these Caribbean islands, so severely hit by natural disasters and then Covid lockdown, which killed the tourist trade on which they rely. But they seemed genuinely thrilled to see the big ships coming in to drop anchor once again, bringing badly needed dollars to their economies.

We saw a lot on the excursions, had some delicious gourmet meals as they are all-inclusive on The Mardi Gras, and enjoyed excellent entertainment every night. Still, neither of us visited the huge onboard Casinos where people sat for hours, smoking, drinking, and playing the slot machines with religious fervour.

There were big cash prizes on offer, but for me, the best prize was having a week away, soaking up the sun, relaxing without family or small grandchildren much as I love them, and being able to sleep like a log every night, rocked by the sound of the waves. We had a cabin on a lower deck which was cheaper and also closer to the ocean … perfect.

The incredible beauty of cruising is that you are transported from one adventure to the next in comfort and every new morning brings a unique experience.

Once you’ve boarded through their smooth running, speedy boarding processes, then unpacked your suitcase and hung up your clothes in the ample wardrobe or drawer space, that’s it. Your cabin becomes a ‘home from home for the time you are away, with an experienced and very obliging cabin attendant who’s just at the push of a button to help with any problems you may have.

The USA has a culture of tipping at 20% for everything. Still, on the cruise, you have the option of paying for tips upfront and never carrying money, just your ‘on-cruise’ personal card on a thong around your neck, for paying for any of the additional treats that aren’t part of the all-inclusive package deal.

The in-cabin TV keeps you informed of all the many events going on all over the ship, and some companies put a paper copy of the day’s itinerary under your door. When you meet new friends, exchange cabin numbers and then use notes or What’s App to arrange a rendezvous at one of the many gourmet restaurants, bars or coffee shops on board.

The entertainment on board is fantastic – top-notch singers, dancers and musicians go on a rota from one set to another. Most people discover their favourites and then follow them around the ship to enjoy their performances. Some are smaller-scale individual shows, for example, in the Comedy Bar, and others are full-scale productions that, combined with digital projection and special effects on a huge scale in their theatres – which seat over 2,000 people – would give some West End shows a run for their money.

Other activities to enjoy are the communal dance sessions on the main deck – sometimes line-dancing, sometimes salsa, always good fun to watch even if you don’t feel like participating.

You settle your ‘on board’ bill the night before you dock back at the final destination and leave your suitcase outside your cabin door for collection by midnight. The next morning, you wave goodbye to your ‘home from home’ cabin and your attendant, go for a leisurely breakfast and then leave by the same gangway that just one week earlier seemed like taking a yellow brick road to Oz and the unknown, but now transports you back to the real world.

Until the next cruise, that is.

AofA People – Wendy Klein – Poet, Psychotherapist


6 Minute Read

Widely published and winner of many prizes, 80-year-old Wendy Klein is a retired psychotherapist, born in New York and brought up in California. Since leaving the U.S. in 1964, she has lived in Sweden, France, Germany and England.

Her writing has been influenced by early family upheaval resulting from her mother’s death, her nomadic years as a young single mother and subsequent travel.

Despite dashing about between four daughters and fourteen grandchildren, she has published three collections: Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013) from Cinnamon Press, and Mood Indigo (2016) from Oversteps Books. She is one of AofA’s favourite poets and we have republished some of her brilliantly taboo and lush poems. She was one of our poets at the AofA poetry evening at the Poetry Society in 2019.

What is your age?

80

Where do you live?

I live in Lindfield Rural, West Sussex.

What do you do?

I write poetry and emails and share care of my youngest grandchildren, 6 and 4.

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

I hate being old. I hate everything about it: the body changes, the reduced strength and energy, the way people treat me. 80 is the worst it has been so far.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

Constipation, arthritis, widow’s hump, osteoporosis, anxiety, too many clothes I no longer wear, a garden way too big to manage, and four daughters who love me in different ways and constantly put me right. However, I do have a wonderful 3rd husband (together since 1979, married in 1983), who just about manages to put up with my worst grumpiness with love and a sense of humour.

What about sex?

Rare, but good when it happens. At our age and married this long, probably unusually good, judging from experience as a family and couples psychotherapist.

And relationships?

I have always found relationships difficult. As an only child who lost her mother as a result of an illegal abortion at 9 months old, I was brought up by my grieving maternal grandparents until I was 5 years old and my father remarried. I believe that only children are disadvantaged from the start in terms of forming relationships with their peers, and that was certainly the case for me. My father was an English teacher who hated his job, did it poorly, which meant we moved house every three years when he didn’t receive tenure. The battle to make friends began each time anew. I was always the odd one out, never felt accepted, etc. etc. It didn’t help that my grandparents expected me to grow up to be like my clever, kind mother, and I did not – felt a sense of being a constant disappointment – fight it to this day. Have a general mistrust of people in relationships despite many years of being in and out of therapy and being a jobbing therapist myself.

How free do you feel?

Not even sure what that means. Nice to have enough money and a few people with whom I can be relaxed and happy.

What are you proud of?

Having survived a terrible childhood, leaving the country of my birth with a two-year-old child and never going back there to live. Managing to be a single parent because parenting was bound to be difficult as I had received so little reliable parenting myself. I am certainly proud of my daughters, who have survived being mothered by me, and have good relationships in their lives.

What keeps you inspired?

Not sure I believe in inspiration. I get ideas from what is around me, what I am reading, people I engage with, and I write about them, and sometimes I’m pleased with what I’ve written, more often I’m not. I love sunsets, dogs, wine, gin, popcorn, rare steak (I know, I know, so un-green), etc. I think the one thing that keeps me going is being curious enough to wonder whether something interesting, even something enjoyable, might come up if I just hang on a little longer.

When are you happiest?

I am very suspicious of the word happy – rarely use it. I am at peace with myself mostly when I am alone with a good book, and if the sun is out, that’s good, too.

And where does your creativity go?

Mostly nowhere, but if it’s going, it goes into my poetry. I am failed actor, a failed dancer, but not quite a failed writer.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Not sure I have a philosophy of living – pretty basic survival. I am afflicted with a socialism of the heart, but I no longer believe in socialism as a viable way of living. I have lived collectively in two communities which have fallen apart. We are too selfish to achieve that ideal world I read about and admired when I first left the US and came to live first in Sweden, then in France and Germany. England seemed so civilised when I arrived here in 1971. And now, I am so saddened by what I see in front of me that I will never live to see a functioning left-wing Labour government. I guess I’m a disappointed idealist…

And dying?
I am not afraid of death, but I am worried about the process of dying. I support physician-assisted death. I have written a series of poems about a dear friend in California who availed herself of the California physician-assisted death plan when she was terminally ill and in horrible pain from a rare form of uterine cancer. After much surgery, chemo, etc., she was not prepared to accept palliative care, and I was with her 100% and would not want it myself. I think it is barbaric that we do not have medically assisted dying legalised in this country, so it’s always keep an overdose handy, my motto. Most of all, I fear losing my wits – I hope I know in time to take the tabs!

Are you still dreaming?
Sure, but mainly troubled dreams: bit of wish fulfilment and anxiety – nothing much fun.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?
Goodness, what’s outrageous these days! Great sex and cannabis? All part of marital bliss.

 

DOO EN DAY (conversación de duende)

The hypothesis that the endogenous group of disorders would be relatively independent of prior life stress was

not confirmed.  Women who had lost a parent in infancy or early childhood were significantly more likely to suffer

from depression in later life.

(The Camberwell Collaborative Depression Study, 1988)

 

No tengo duende

I dont have duende

He perdido duende

I have lost my duende

He perido mi madre cuando tenía ochos meses

I lost my mother when I was eight months old

No me recuerdo de ella

I dont remember her

AYEEEEEEEEEEEE

El dolor the word for pain is masculine in Spanish

ayeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Tristeza the word for sadness is masculine or feminine in Spanish

ayeeeeeeeeeeeeee

La pena the word for sorrow is feminine in Spanish

Ayeeeeeeeeeeeee

El Duende (pronounced Doo En Day) the word for ghost or spirit is masculine in Spanish

Hacer la conexión Make the connection

I cannot have it; it is not mine to have

AYEEEEEEEEEEEE

No tengo duende

Wendy Klein

June 2022

 

My Mother


1 Minute Read

Valerie Blumenthal, is a critically-acclaimed novelist and author of ten books – her first four were published by Harper Collins and a further four were published by Sceptre/Hodder & Stoughton.  Sadly, she was diagnosed with Posterior Cortical Atrophy (PCA), a rare form of Alzheimer’s affecting the visual, motor and spatial parts of the brain.  More recently, PCA has rendered her illiterate – which, to quote her, is a cruel trick to play on a writer.  Using voice recognition software, she has just published her memoirs Please Remember Me As I Was about living with PCA, which are now available to purchase on Amazon from here.

The year was 2012. My eighty-nine-year-old mother was terminally ill with Parkinson’s and dementia.

It is a mild, spring day, and my mother and I are circling around the garden at a snail’s pace. She leans heavily on a walking frame, gripping it
so tightly from the effort that the veins of her fingers protrude like claws. She had such beautiful hands once; long, elegant fingers without a blemish.

As we walk I point out various things which might be of interest to her: the red kite in the distance; buds that had burst into flower overnight; the clacking sound of a disturbed pheasant. She disregards my efforts.

“I want to go home now,” she tells me. “It’s a very long way home.”

I do not contradict her. Slowly, painfully, we re-trace our steps.

Back indoors I settle her in her usual chair, and she slumps into it, as though she has just completed a marathon. Absently, I glance at the large clock on the kitchen wall; I had bought it for her a few months previously, to enable her to read it more easily; now, however, I found that I was unable to decipher any of the digits. Only by squinting was I finally able to tell the time. It remains etched in my memory: 12:10. Had that been the beginning?

Disconcerted I made tea for us both, and switched on the television for my mother. She was staring at me in a strange manner, as though she were troubled by something.

Ignoring the television, she continued to gaze at me, frowning in that same, assessing manner. Then, in a lucid, gentle tone, she said, “Darling, I do hope you’re not getting the same illness that I’ve got”.

I was stunned. What had prompted this remark? Had I said or done anything stupid, without my realising it? She and I had always been exceptionally close; had she sensed something in my demeanour? Had the remark been prescient in some way? I shall never know.

There is so much I remember about my mother: her beauty, of course; her kindness; her humour; her wisdom; her pride in me when I became a published novelist; and – much more recently – her stoic bravery when my father, the only man she had ever loved, died. He had been a brilliant, charismatic man, of great intellect and humour.

I commented to her one day that she had not cried.

“I can’t cry. I have never been able to cry.” She tried to explain. “I was brought up to have a stiff upper lip, and not to talk about my feelings. It was a different era then.”

We played dominoes together, and snakes and ladders. I bought her a writing pad, so she could write about her feelings; but it remained untouched. I watched her condition deteriorate. One day I broached the subject of death: did she believe in anything? Was she afraid at all, I had asked her?

“Oh no darling,” she replied, with conviction, “I shall see your daddy again and everyone I love.”

It gives me such comfort to know that she had not been afraid.

It has only just struck me that I have a kind of affinity with my mother: we have both experienced dementia, and I recognise myself in her. If anything, I feel even closer than I did when she was alive. I understand her. I know what she went through. I hope I can be as stoic as she was.

In the earlier stages of her illness, I used to see her at least four times a week and I would phone her twice a day. On the other days, I had organised for a carer to come. I recall an amusing incident: I had phoned in the morning, to speak to her; the carer had passed the telephone to my mother, then left us to it. “I can’t talk now,” came my mother’s surprisingly youthful voice, sounding agitated. “I’m very busy.”

“Oh”, I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I’m sorry to disturb you; what are you doing”

“I’m selling the house,” my mother said. At this point, she was in her usual chair and was watching television.
I thought quickly: “I mustn’t disturb you then.” I paused. ”Are you by any chance watching one of those interesting property programs,” I asked. “Yes darling,” she affirmed, “it’s really interesting, I must go.” And she hung up.

A day after this little incident, my mother requested that I read to her. The book that she asked for was one of my own and had been her favourite. I made her comfortable and started to read. I stopped, almost immediately. The words were dancing before my eyes, like witches. I knew the beginning by heart and began again. I made another attempt, but the same thing happened. I could not read a word. What was happening to me? I could not read my own novel, which had once meant so much to me.

Meanwhile, my mother had fallen asleep anyway.

GHOSTS

In this soulless place of lost dreams
and fragmented memories,
these are the ghosts of my future,
from which there is no escape.
With gentle cruelty the past nudges me.
Your turn soon, it whispers.
Trembling fingers, like broken wings,
stretching out for help:
What’s wrong dear? What do you want?
The ghost does not reply. It wants too much.
Most of all it yearns for youth.
And in this sterile place of lost dreams and blank faces, the television plays on and on and on without remorse. But from a far corner of the room comes a faintest of stirs; I notice, then, the tiny, wizened, figure; a smile flickers on the edge of her lips, like a tiny beacon.
For a moment it seems as though
she is embraced by a halo of light.
Is she remembering the many times she lay in a damp, coital pleasure, and she would turn to him beside her, with illuminated eyes?
Then the light dims,
and the ghost of my future tiptoes away.

Backstroke


1 Minute Read

Gerry Herman, 66, wrote this piece when he was in his mid-40s about his father who was 71. He explained that at that point ’71 seemed much older than it does now’.

He also said The title of “Backstroke” is kind of a play on words. ‘My dad had a stroke and ended up with a damaged, non-functioning left (arm and) hand. I found that to be strangely ironic because his father, my grandfather, “back” one generation, had his left hand blown off during the war. So I put “back” and “stroke” together and came up with “Backstroke”.’

He felt now was the time to go public with it.

I was never as close to my father as I was during the week that he lay in a coma following cardiac bypass surgery. I sat by his bed in the ICU, holding his hand, stroking his forehead, my tears plopping onto the bedsheets. He was unresponsive, ashen. It looked as if he would just sleep forever.

As the minutes, hours, and days passed, air was pumped into his lungs through a breathing tube that was strapped to his mouth and down his throat, eerily distorting his face. The anguish that I experienced during my father’s stay in intensive care spiralled into an ugly depression that left me depleted and feeling lost for several months afterward.

At 71 years of age, my father was neither robustly healthy nor was he ever really sick a day in his life. He and my mother, had been married for over 50 years, retired since 1992, travelled extensively around the US and Europe, participating in elder hostels, and visiting my sister and her family in South Wales from time to time. I assumed that my father would just plod along forever the way he’d done since I was a kid, going to work, travelling with my mom, planting his backyard garden, tinkering in the basement, and sitting in front of his computer.

And then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, he was going into the hospital for open-heart surgery. Apparently, he had been experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath; an angiogram was ordered by his physician, and within twenty-four hours an emergency bypass procedure was scheduled. His coronary vessels were ninety per cent occluded. The cardiologist labelled him a “time bomb”. He said that a heart attack was imminent and surgery was necessary in order to save his life.

When I received this news, my father was already in the hospital, awaiting surgery. My mother never told me that my father was unwell. For that matter, neither did my father tell me that he was having health problems. Maybe I should have been more cognisant of the clues that had been apparent in the past few weeks – dad did seem very sluggish at Thanksgiving; he also had had several doctor’s appointments recently and had undergone a stress test. I assumed this was all normal for a 71-year-old man. In any case, I had only 24 hours to prepare myself for the next nightmarish month.

I think I was in shock the next morning as my partners at work tried to assure me that this routine procedure would not only go smoothly, it would also add years to my father’s life. Somehow, I wasn’t soothed. My imagination hounded me with images of my father’s chest being cut open and his heart exposed. I felt helpless and unable to protect my father. My heart was aching. I drove to the hospital that afternoon to see him before the surgery, scheduled for 6:00 PM. I got there at around 3:30 and met my mother and brother in the waiting area.

Here we received our first bit of bad news: the operating room had become vacant earlier in the afternoon, and in the hospital’s interest of eliminating O.R. downtime had taken my father into surgery hours ahead of schedule. No one at the hospital had notified us of this decision. We never got a chance to see him before the operation, to touch his hand or kiss him, to wish him well. His heart surgery was well underway as we sat there, angry, disappointed and scared.

In retelling this experience, it is not my intention to malign the medical profession or hospital protocol. The list of malpractice attorneys that I half-heartedly compiled still sits on my desk collecting dust. I, too, am a doctor, although by choosing dentistry as my craft, I have chosen not to deal with life and death issues on a daily basis. However, I digress. My family and I were left in the dark for an entire weekend, without any idea of the complications that occurred on that Thursday afternoon in the operating room. Although we wondered why my father was not regaining consciousness.

The surgeon met us at my father’s bedside in intensive care before he left for the weekend, briefly telling us that everything went as planned and that he would be monitoring the recovery. As my father slept and slept, in neighbouring cubicles other patients were waking up to greet their families. Meanwhile, my mother, brother, sister-in-law and I grew increasingly concerned and anxious. Then, on Monday, the weekend now just a sleepless agonizing blur, a neurologist was called in for a consultation. A brain scan was ordered.  The specialist phoned us in ICU with the results. I remember my mother’s haggard face as she handed me the telephone receiver, unable to concentrate or comprehend what she was hearing.

According to the neurologist’s review of the operating room notes and the results of the EEG, during the surgery, my father experienced a precipitous drop in blood pressure followed by a period of several minutes in which his brain did not receive enough oxygen. Simply put, dad suffered a stroke during the bypass operation. He remained comatose for ten days. When he finally regained consciousness, his left arm was badly weakened and he was unable to move his left hand. It made me furious to hear the cardiologist later label the procedure “a success”.

My father’s father had been an 18-year-old tailor in Poland when his left hand was shattered by a faulty grenade (a “hand” grenade) in World War I. As a young child, I was both fascinated and frightened by my angry, violent grandfather who always hid his left hand in the pocket of his black suit pants. In my mind’s eye, I can see him at the dinner table, struggling silently and alone with his food. (He put ketchup on everything, from his grapefruit half to his chicken soup, and ate clumsily with his only hand.)

One day I was sitting alone with him, watching television. I think he sensed that this curious nine-year-old boy held a morbid fascination of his one-handedness. More likely he was trying to scare me. But he asked me if I wanted to see it. Of course I did! Slowly he brought his left hand out of its hiding place, the deep, dark pocket of his ever-present black suit pants. It was kind of disappointing, actually, and sad. Just a faded, leathery, beige-coloured covering at the end of his arm where his hand should have been, like an old leather baseball sticking out from his sleeve. He held it out there for a couple of moments then he wordlessly put it back into his pocket.

As I watch my father now, struggling with his disability, I am a child again, cowering before my raging grandfather, mystified and bewildered by the tricks that life plays on us. But my father is not my grandfather, not even remotely so.

My grandfather was a bitter, bad-tempered man who was violent to his wife and his sons, who routinely made my little sister and I cry with his angry outbursts, and who went kicking and screaming to his grave.

My father is a gentle, sweet man who lets my mother cut his food for him because he can’t, and who, since his stroke a year and a half ago, I haven’t heard him become dispirited or complain. Not even once.

Letting go of 40 years’ worth of family memories


1 Minute Read

Over the past couple of years, I have had to share – with my partner, sister and other family members – the grim and heart-breaking task of clearing our parents’ house, selling it and saying goodbye to well over 40 years of memories. My father bought it as a plot of land, so it has only ever had our family living in it – until last summer.

Dismantling my parents’ lives and all that they had built up together over so many years has caused me actual physical pain. Despite never having lived in the house, I felt our family’s history seeping from every wall. I was incredibly protective towards it; particularly after my mother had to go into a care home, and the house was standing empty for most of the week. I hated having to leave it every time we stayed there. It felt as though I was abandoning it, and my parents with it (although my dad died 23 years ago), and I would often cry for most of the two-hour journey home. My only consolation is that our buyers are a young couple, keen to put down roots and, most likely (I’m guessing), want to start a family. The place needs another family and all the new life that brings. The last few years have been undeniably sad and tough for us all.

I cried, too, when I saw the skip on the drive for the first time. We had to hire three altogether. It took two solid weekends to clear the garage, shed, loft and airing cupboard alone, never mind any of the actual rooms. When I hired someone to help clear the house of the larger items of furniture in the final week, he had just the one day free that week. He said he had been manically busy, as had all house clearance/van hire people, because of the stamp duty holiday and easing of lockdown rules. This was also the reason why so many of the charities we tried couldn’t take our things. They were overrun with surplus items. The world and his wife, it seemed, had been having massive clear outs during lockdown.

I cried some more when I saw the boxes and boxes of brand-new, never-been-taken-from-their-wrappers Christmas decorations. Mum had obviously bought them (when?), then someone (who?) had put them away in the loft for her. She must have forgotten about them. But she was clearly ordering for a big family Christmas – the kind we used to have, when our grandparents and other family members came to stay, and when friends and neighbours dropped by. I gave some away to the kind next-door neighbours who had been keeping an eye on the place for us when we weren’t there and also to our lovely gardener who was a huge help to us in so many ways. It broke my heart to see them all. She must have spent a small fortune on them; no doubt from one of the many colourful catalogues that dropped through the letterbox on an almost daily basis; her link to the outside world (she couldn’t manage a computer, or even a mobile phone, for which, with all the clever scams about, I was heartily thankful). I suspect half the attraction for her was being able to speak to someone on the other end of the line. I hope they understood this and were patient with her.

We tried putting the bigger and better items from the house at the top of the drive for people to take (again, a lot of them were unused and still in their original packaging) and some of them went very quickly. The rest had to go back on the skip, or to charity. My sister’s friend helpfully put ads on a local ‘free’ website and we managed to pass on a lovely big armchair and matching footstool that way. (We all liked it, but none of us had room in our respective homes for it.) The woman who came to pick it up had had a stroke and was walking with a stick. She was very grateful for the chair, and for a couple of other useful items she rescued from the skip.

Someone else came by and asked if we had any houseplants. As it happened, we had ten, all bought by me in an attempt to make the place look lived-in, and I was planning on bringing them all back home with me, then decided I could probably live without most of them, so he walked away with six plants for his wife. He told me he had been living in South Africa for 12 years but decided to return home for his children’s sake. He wanted a better education and life for them and it was getting very dangerous out there, he said.

Another man came in to see what bits and pieces of crockery were going begging, saying he was getting them for his daughter, who he and his wife were now living with. Their son had been killed in a road accident on the nearby bypass just a year before and it had made them look at things in a different light. They were living in a seven-bedroom house at the time, with four cars on the drive. He said he had had 47 pairs of jeans and about a hundred Ralph Lauren shirts! After letting the family take what they wanted, he and his wife walked out of the house with just one bag of belongings each – and that was it. He looked so sad as he was telling me all this, I really wanted to hug him, but couldn’t (Covid).

Being an avid reader myself, I looked more closely at the books that summed up my parents’ lives. Typical of their generation, there was no internet and Google, of course, and so the bookshelves were filled with huge, hefty tomes of advice and information on gardening, family health, cookery, the Royal Family, travel (just how many books on France and Italy did we need?!) and sport (mostly rowing, golf and cricket, which were my dad’s interests). There were encyclopedias and atlases, bibles galore (and we’re most definitely not a religious family), and sensibly, useful books and pamphlets on making a will and what to do when someone dies.

Having come from a wartime background of ‘Make do and mend’ my parents kept their furniture for decades. There was the 1950s oak sideboard they bought when they were first married. The big, very old family bureau that I’m hoping will stay in the family, though nobody appears to have the room, is temporarily residing in my sister’s living room at her small flat. I know my mother wanted it kept in the family. A few more, smaller items of furniture we managed to share between us without any argument. Oh, yes – ahem – there’s also the very old oak dining table and chairs my grandparents bought at auction a very, very long time ago. I looked and looked and looked at it over the weeks and months we stayed in the house and finally decided I just couldn’t let it go, so I paid quite a bit of money to have it transported from the house to my own house, where it now resides in the already-rammed-full home office at the bottom of the garden, as there is no room for it anywhere else. I used to enjoy dusting and polishing its chubby, curved legs whenever I stayed with my beloved grandparents. There are so many memories of happy family meals around that table. Though who’s going to have it after I’ve gone is anybody’s guess. (Maybe I’ll have stopped caring by then. I do hope so. It’s exhausting and debilitating, carrying around all this emotional baggage.)

However, surprisingly, despite it being very trendy and sought-after in certain quarters, few people were interested in the G-Plan furniture my parents collected from the 60s and 70s. It was in excellent condition, considering its age (unlike the rest of us), but we were paid a fraction of its worth to have it taken away. It had to go. Though I found an old label for how to put one of the items together, and I’ve kept it, so there. (You see how difficult all this has been for someone like me?!)

There were LPs galore: musicals and big band sounds, James Last, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Andy Williams and Simon and Garfunkel. Plus many more. The musical history of our family.

There were countless letters and cards to wade through, postcards both used and unused, newspaper clippings, local theatre programmes and brochures for stately homes and gardens visits and, as one who likes to keep these things myself, it has made me see the utter pointlessness of doing so. Have I ever looked at any of mine again? No. Will I, in the next ten or 20 years? Unlikely. I suppose the answer would be to collate the highlights into scrapbooks but, again, who else would be interested in seeing those?

The ancient family bible, dated 1817, is so huge and so heavy. I was hoping somebody else in the family would want it, but no, it’s landed on my dining table, along with a lot more stuff I have yet to wade through, so I guess it’s mine until I can pass it on to whoever in my family would like it. That’s the problem with not having children. I don’t have anybody to pass all my toot and tat on to, aside from my niece and nephew, and I doubt very much they will welcome it with open arms when the time comes!

Something they might be interested in, though, is my maternal grandfather’s diaries. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep diaries every year – or, if he did, they’ve long gone – but I brought home the ones dating 1934 to 1941 (though not consecutive, unfortunately –whatever happened to those?) and have found them riveting reading. I’ve learned an awful lot I didn’t know about my own family and my partner, on reading them, said that he felt he knew my grandad really well, despite never having met him. There’s lots about the war, of course: rationing, hiding under the table in the kitchen when bombs were being dropped rather too close for comfort and there’s a mention of lots of planes flying overhead one night, which, it turned out, were on their way to bomb the hell out of Coventry. Family and work-related news is in there. They all enjoyed going to the local cinema, and cycled everywhere in the surrounding countryside to visit relatives and friends. The weather is mentioned quite a bit, and it’s not nearly so dull as it sounds. If only he hadn’t written most of it in pencil, though, bless him.

Don’t get me started on the photos. Boxes and boxes, suitcases, albums and bags of them galore – often duplicated, just to add to the confusion. Some of them have careful and helpful explanations and identifications on the back, but many don’t. I study their faces for clues. The houses and gardens in the background. The fashions of the day. Someone in the family has attempted to begin the family tree on my mother’s side, but I’m still no wiser as to who half the people are in the photographs. My sister, panicking at the encroaching completion deadline, threatened to hurl boxes of slides on to the skip, without going through them first, which I thought unwise, so, guess what? They are my own house now, along with the bulky projector to view them with. And I still haven’t looked at them.

There were way too many drinking glasses – who needs that many?! We weren’t a family of drinkers. Nor did we give frequent parties. I don’t know what was going on, there. The local charity shops have got very picky, these days, and will only take full sets, now, so the rest had to go into recycling.

We had a caravan in the 1970s and, yes, right at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards we found a very bright yellow melamine set of plates and mugs and bowls – the ones we used when we were away. But I’m not keen on bright yellow, and nobody else seemed to want them, so they also went to a charity shop.

There were sets of pristine, unused bedding, blankets and towels. After a bit of research and a few phone calls, we were able to take a lot of those to a local homeless shelter. Again, though, even those places were a bit sniffy about what they were prepared to take, which surprised us. And the tea-towels! I said to my partner: ‘Who the hell needs so many tea-towels?!’ When I was back in my own home, I opened the drawers under the bed, where we keep spare linens, and guess what? There were about a hundred tea-towels lurking in there. I sorted through them, kept my favourites and the rest (all unused, of course) went to charity. I do like a nice tea-towel, though – I’m drawn to them, then I put them away, because I don’t want to get them grubby. Sigh. Clearly, it runs in the family.

I have always thought having lots of storage is A Very Good Thing. Not any more. Having ample storage just means shoving lots of things away and never looking at them again and my parents’ small house was very well served with built-in cupboards in every room – sometimes more than one. All deep and all rammed to bursting.

A friend has just had her loft converted into another bedroom and bathroom, and has found she doesn’t miss the extra storage space at all. She says she prefers to have everything to hand; it makes for a much easier life and I can understand that one. It does force you to keep your belongings down and, as far as I’m concerned, this is my new Very Good Thing.

Another friend, who lives in a very small flat, pays storage rental for furniture that belonged to her parents, which she wants to keep but has no room for at the moment. She is currently looking for a larger flat.

This entire, painful, emotional exercise has been a salutary lesson in not hanging on to useless stuff we never even look at again. What is it all for?! All the old newspapers and leaflets commemorating some event or other, all carefully saved and filed neatly into plastic folders by my parents, ended up on the skip, or in the recycling bin, simply because there was no time to go through them all first. And that’s not including the boxes of papers and other items both my sister and I took to our respective homes to sort through. I have all my mother’s old diaries and address books and they, alongside 20 bursting carrier bags, are piled up on a bench in my kitchen – and have been for the past ten months – because every time I go to look through them, I start to cry. But I have mild OCD and I like my home to look good, so it’s a daily niggle for me and I know I have to get on with sorting it all out before an entire year has passed!

I really wish my parents had thought to clear out the loft, and other places, while they still could. Though, of course, nobody expects to have two strokes 12 years apart and die of the second (my dad); nor do they expect to end up physically disabled, and with dementia, in a home (my mother). The wardrobes upstairs were full of the clothes and shoes my mother ordered by phone (she couldn’t leave the house in the last few years), then never arranged to have them sent back when they didn’t fit her, or whatever – they all still had their labels on. Unable to leave the house at all, not even to go and sit in the garden, I’m not at all sure what she thought she was buying all these things for. And the cupboards downstairs were full of brand-new, expensive-looking china, more glassware, kitchen and beauty gadgets still in their boxes and a set of silver-plated cutlery with the receipt still in the box – over two hundred pounds, ouch. My theory is that, after spending most of her life being careful with money and making-do, she could finally afford to relax the purse-strings a little and spoil herself with the sorts of treats she would never have considered before. None of us knew about these things whenever we visited; nor about the unpaid cheques, bills and backlog of important paperwork, or we could have helped her with it all, of course.

The whole sorry process wasn’t helped by me being such a terrible sentimental hoarder. I wish I could have hardened my heart and just tipped the whole lot into the skip. But I couldn’t. In fact, I’m still haunted by what we chucked out and gave away and regret not keeping more, but our own house isn’t that big and is already very full. Sigh. My partner is just as bad: when it came to clearing his parents’ house, he took things to the local charity shop one day, and then went and bought them all back the next!

We had been enjoying regular takeaway Sunday roasts and other meals from the local village pub for some months, since they were able to reopen after lockdown. We wanted to support them. The first time we sat down  with our lovely lunches in front of us, wafting their appetising scent everywhere, I said to my partner: “I honestly cannot remember the last time a roast was cooked in this house.” Even my sister, who has a much better memory than me, couldn’t remember.

Then there was the garden: a riot of bloom and colour when my parents were fit and able, but sadly gradually deteriorating over the years. I was paying our regular gardener to come out every couple of weeks to keep it all in shape, and put new plants into the patio pots and in the borders, which were looking bare and unloved before. I was also keen to keep up appearances for security’s sake. To make the place look cared-for and occupied. Last year, at what turned out to be our last spring at the house, I found it particularly moving to notice all the bulbs emerging from the earth. My parents must have planted these and the garden will continue to flourish; oblivious, of course, as to who will be looking at the plants and flowers and taking care of them from here on. And so the cycle continues…

Saying goodbye to the lovely neighbours, our gardener and his wife and the dear elderly and very sprightly man who has lived in the same house in the village all his life and who very kindly took the bins out for us, and for various neighbours who couldn’t manage it themselves (and brought them back in again), was especially hard for me, although we have been invited to tea with all of them – an offer we haven’t been able to take up yet, as our trips to see Mum in the home take up the entire day, there and back. After so many years, it feels sad and strange to no longer have a base in the area. Like outcasts. Mum is unaware we have had to sell the house, and thinks it’s still ours, with all her things still in it, which makes for some very difficult conversations with her. It would be immensely distressing for her to learn the truth and I hope she never finds out. Naturally, she wants to go back there, which would have been impossible in any case, even if we had somehow been able to hang on to it.

A shout-out to my long-suffering partner, here. I don’t know many men who would have done what he did for me, over the past few years. All the driving (I don’t drive), the checking and fixing of things in the house and the uncomplaining support he gave me in so many ways, during what was easily one of the worst times of my entire life was over and above and beyond the call of duty. It continues, too, with our regular trips to see Mum in the home. He is a rare gem indeed.

I finally came off the anti-anxiety/depression/sleeping pills I had been taking to get me through all of it. I was crying every day, and barely sleeping for worrying about the place when we weren’t there. The funny, plain, ordinary, boxy little house that Dad had built had been a true haven, refuge and sanctuary for me over the years, and never more so than in the last two years of our ownership. I think he would have liked that, though I’m not so sure he would be so happy with, or approve of the way things have turned out. I hated that our last few weeks there were so stressful, fraught, panicky and emotional, and I’m still feeling wretchedly guilty, grief-stricken and regretful at what we threw into those skips, and gave away to charity and the neighbours – it haunts me every single day. Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mum. Though, as someone pointed out to me last year, I’d have most likely felt sad every time I looked at anything I’d kept. He said it’s not always healthy to be reminded. He has a point, though I have kept some things, of course. Just not everything.

And when I do think of what we had to leave behind, I find it helps me a little to imagine that at least some of those things belonging to our family are still residing in the area and, especially, in the village we loved and were very happy to call our home for so many years.

© Clare Cooper, 2022

I Was Like a Man Falling off a Ferry – I had MS


8 Minute Read

Sometimes I think Job has nothing on me. All he had to contend with was a questioning of his faith in god in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. I have been faced with much more existential dilemmas than that.

I took early retirement about seven years ago, at the age of 55, due to various ailments that I couldn’t put my finger on. Ironically, it was my finger that first clued me into what was wrong. Just the very tip of my right index finger was sore and plagued by a painful numbness, if that doesn’t sound like too much of a contradiction. I was beginning to find it difficult to type and my work as a lecturer and researcher was being affected as a result. The pain gradually extended further down my finger and then into my other hand followed by my toes and my feet and it was becoming clear that something was seriously amiss.

The next thing was the tests and the MRI scans, until eventually the GP sat me down and handed me the letter he had received from the hospital and said ‘maybe you had better read this.’ And there it was: a diagnosis of demyelination (myelin is the fatty covering on your nerves) and the strong possibility that it was Multiple Sclerosis. Bit of a hammer blow. I struggled on at work, of course, that’s what we are meant to do, isn’t it? We pretend that everything will be alright. But of course it wasn’t.

I found it more and more difficult to get upstairs and the fatigue was so bad that I made a little bed under my desk. Often students would knock and find me rubbing my eyes and coming back to life to answer their questions about essays and coursework. Within a few months the brilliant HR department at Sheffield was offering me early retirement on a full pension and even though I still did not feel as though I was disabled, I took it. As with all retirement, it is necessary to take a good run up at it and think your way into a new purpose in life. But rather than having several years to get used to the idea, I was pitched into it like a man falling off a ferry.

I had joined the army at 16 with no school qualifications, had left at 21 and become a lorry driver, before studying German as a mature student. If the army gave me nothing else then the ability to speak German and drive lorries turned out to be worth their weight in Bitcoin. After that I got a job as a lecturer in post-45 German history and it was all downhill from there. In that sense my entire adult life was consumed with either physical or intellectual labour and it has proven really difficult to break that habit.

I have largely got there now – as anyone who knows me will be able to tell you – but still I feel as though I should be writing books, if not rushing up and down the highways of Britain delivering concrete or tarmac. The initial anxiety dreams of having lost some important piece of military kit or misplacing my lorry have largely faded now and I sleep a largely untroubled sleep. My ex-wife and I used to talk about how we were both so brilliant that somebody should pay us just to be ourselves. Well, now they are. It’s called a pension. The problem is that I am not myself anymore.

It’s amazing how quickly I dropped any pretence at academic work and when I now read the research I did, I feel as though it was a different person writing it. That’s because it was, and I don’t really understand most of what I wrote or why I wrote it. Not because of any cognitive decline on my part but simply because I was so much older then and I’m younger than that now.

Since that first MS diagnosis, there have been plenty of others as well, so that it becomes difficult to disentangle all the symptoms. I have also had sepsis in my arm from a cat bite, which needed quite a nasty operation (I have pictures if you need proof). When they investigated why I was getting such serious infections they found that my blood was basically empty. It had hardly any of the things in it that it needs to do its job. Pancytopenic, they called it. When they investigated the reasons for that they found in turn that I had a very rare form of leukaemia; hairy cell leukaemia. No, I hadn’t heard of it either.

The doctor said to me ‘Oh well if you are going to have cancer then this is the type that you want. It’s not even proper leukaemia.’ I think that was meant to be reassuring. It kind of was, in a way. Anyway, a series of injections and infusions (the first of which sent me into a spiral of reaction in which I thought I was definitely goner) and a couple of weeks lying down and all was fixed. Full remission. If it comes back in another 15 years – which is possible – they will simply give me the injections and infusions again. Mind you, by then they will have probably invented something else and all will be well. I’m hoping that by then they will have also found a cure for MS.

Because that’s just what one does, isn’t it? It’s the principle of hope. One hangs on for dear life, squeezing every drop you can out of it, trying to have experiences and to fill up the empty hours you have suddenly been gifted. The empty hours are there because of illnesses. But had I not had these things and had I struggled on for a few more years until I was 67 (another 5 years of work – inconceivable – and I do sometimes wake in a cold sweat wondering whether they will make me go back to work if a cure for MS is found) then I would still be doing better than my father, (who died at 62 – the same age as me now – which seems to have some deep significance that I can’t quite explain) or my uncle – his brother – who also died in his 60s. My younger cousin has just died of the dreaded c-word as well and I have reached that age we are all familiar with when all around me people are beginning to drop off the perch. Although at the same time, I feel freer and more in control now than I ever have in my life and I have also become Zen-like in my appreciation of what is around me – to the extent that I can do nothing all day and think it good – there is still a big hole where the whole should be.

I taught German philosophy as well as history at university and I spend a lot of time – probably far too much time – looking out of the window and thinking about Heidegger and Hegel and Being and Nothingness. Although that is all great fun, and something to bore my grandchildren with, it doesn’t butter many parsnips. But life is funny like that. Camus recognised the absurd nature of our existence and the randomness of the things that befall us and I find it difficult to think of it in terms other than that. I even invented a term for it during some extended discussions at a particularly drunken conference; namely, the metaphysics of contingency.

In other words, stuff happens and then we make grand stories up about why it had to happen, how it is all part of some great plan for us both as individuals and as a species. But there is no plan, of course. Heidegger adapted Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) into sum moribundus (I die therefore I am) to explain our purpose and, as the old army song has it, we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here, and as retirement shows us, our existence is completely pointless. It’s what I call an unnecessary necessity.

Everything that has happened to me over these years has been necessary to make the person that I am now, but my existence was not necessary per se. If I had not been born the world would have carried on – indeed, my poor, mismatched shotgun parents would have gone their separate ways as they should have done – and the universe would have carried on expanding without even a blink of the eye.

I don’t know what the advantages of age actually are other than a recognition that nothing really matters and that it becomes much easier to accept the banality of life than when one was young and everything mattered so very much. ‘Life is what it is’, as they say today, but you only pass this way once so it is important to make the most of it etc.

The worst thing would be to lie on your deathbed feeling and knowing that it was all for nothing. Despite all the things that have befallen me I am neither desperate or unhappy. Sometimes life feels like the trials of Job crossed with the labours of Sisyphus and Hercules thrown in for good measure. But it has been a hell of a ride  and it’s not over yet.

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