The Climb

During the month of June I have had the privilege to be a part of a group called ‘Grief in my own words’. It’s an online group run by Rachel Smith (Cancer Focus NI) with daily quotes and prompts which help us process our thoughts about our grief journey. We are encouraged to write and share our words with each other. As you can imagine, it has been an emotional month. Tears and laughter and painful honesty and many memories. I just wanted to share one piece with you from my month of writing.

Grief is like a mountain climb.

There are times when your emotional muscles are aching and sore and there seems that nothing can ease the pain.

There are times when the path levels out a bit and the steps you take seem a little easier and your breathing becomes calmer.

There are times when you get a stone in your boot – a memory, a regret, a remembered conversation that aggravates and annoys and no matter how many times you shake it out, it seems to lodge somehow and get stuck.

There are times when a blister forms. The pressure on the same place in your heart causing rawness and exposure that a plaster can’t fix.

There are times when the weather, totally beyond your control, interrupts. You have to take shelter, cocoon yourself, protect yourself and be alone.

And then there are times when the sun comes out. When everything feels ok. Warm and wonderful. And you can soak up that goodness into your skin. You can feel the closeness of him, the memory of him that soothes your soul. You can turn and look at the spectacular view – beautiful. A distant time and place of goodness, sharing, dreams, plans, laughter, bravery and happiness.

And then you turn back to the path and the climb, and the weather, and the stone in your boot, and the blister, and you keep going.

The Rhododendrons are humming

It’s 9.45pm and I’m sitting in my garden listening to a blackbird perform an evening solo and watching swifts (or swallows or housemartens) sweeping in arcs through a blue sky. The crescent moon is alight and it’s not quite dusk enough for the solar powered lights to come on.

I am enjoying so much, these sunny, still and quiet ends to my days, nearly as much as I am relishing the mornings. Stepping outside at the beginning of each day, the grass damp with dew, the sun warming up a spot for me to sit. Its heat on my skin as the first rays creep into the garden, soothes my soul. The symphony of sounds that surround me offer joy. All those birds! The hungry cries from a wren’s nest just over my shoulder. The noisy squawks of a magpie family as they flap among the sycamore branches. The chittering and chirping and chirruping announces the new day.

Another sound surprises me. The hum of a thousand bees (well, maybe 30) raiding the rhododendron pollen, ripples through the still air. It’s a busy but stress-less hum. In a happy key. A ‘whistle while you work’ kind of hum. They are all about their day’s work with heavy legs under their featherlight wings. They are so busy and focussed and yet there’s a simplicity to their activity. Eat, work, rest, although I’m not sure in which order and how often they do each.

All around the world right now the pattern of life for everyone is unusual. And uncertain. No-one is unaffected. As we take tentative steps on a path, not back to normality, but onwards to who knows what, I realise how much home has been a wonderful cocoon for me and my little family. The absence of rush has been so welcome. The simple rhythm of life: eat, work, rest (with a few Zooms thrown in) has been very easy to get used to. I’m honestly a little reluctant to let that go. Actually, a lot. Reluctant to let that simplicity slip away as the demands of schedule undoubtedly begin to loudly announce themselves. Maybe I shouldn’t let go. Maybe now its time to pursue and prioritise a better balance.

Less rush, more hum.

Pot Noodle Wednesdays

*Alert! There is no mention of Covid-19 or lockdown in this post*

Believe it or not, I can remember exactly what I was doing 40 years ago today! I was sitting in my grandparents’ back room, eating a pot noodle, having had school orchestra practice and before heading off with my sister to youth group. Frances and I made our way round to Nana and Grandad’s every Wednesday after school. I’m not sure why we had pot noodles. (Who would have thought they’d been around that long?)

Nana and Grandad lived in a two up, two down terrace in Alfred Road, overlooking the cemetery at the back of the High Street. My memories of time spent there are very happy. Of chives and dahlias growing in the back garden. Of scoring holes in the brick wall with a nail. Of old Aggie who lived on the other side of the street and watched the world go by from behind her curtains. We visited my grandparents a lot during the school holidays when Mum and Dad were working and I mostly remember that the sun shone. Didn’t it always back then?

We always used the back door to get in. Down the alley at the side of the house and into the tiny kitchen which led to the back room. This room was also small, with just enough room for a table and two chairs, a couple of armchairs beside the fire and a heavy wooden sideboard on which sat a clock with a mesmerising tick and a reassuring chime.

The stairs led off this back room, but you had to open a door to access them. It was like stepping into a wardrobe to go upstairs. We didn’t go up there too often, but when we did I admired Nana’s tortoiseshell backed mirror and the height of the bed with its heavy eiderdown. Upstairs is where Mum and her twin were born. Where they slept inside a chest of drawers. Two tiny babies.

Nana and Grandad led a beautifully simple life. No TV. No computer. Just the radio. Grandad sat and listened, his fingers intertwined as he leant forward with his elbows on his knees and his eyes down, sometimes holding his walking stick and tapping it on the floor.

I remember the comfortable sounds of cricket matches coming through the air waves.

I remember laundry drying on a wooden airer folded box-like around the flames of the gas fire.

I remember the softness of the maroon, velvet cloth which covered the table. It had a twisted tassel fringe that attracted your fingers constantly.

I remember the sliding door of the bathroom with thin cotton curtains at the frosted window panes. And the crunchy Izal toilet paper. And the smell of Lifebuoy soap.

My grandparents, Thomas and Emily, were quiet, humble and generous. They didn’t have an awful lot, but from stories I’ve heard, they were always happy to share with those who needed it. Even prisoners of war!

In these times, on the whole, we have far too much and probably hold onto it too tightly. I know I’m guilty of this. On this Wednesday, I have a pot noodle and think long and hard about how I can help others a whole heap more.

Mirror Man

Today unusually I find myself a) on my own and b) not at home. What to do? Eat and drink and read and write. I’ve found a corner table in a very busy cafe. The food is great and the tea hot. All good.

The girls at the table next to me are chatting constantly, totally oblivious to me. In contrast, a man (of a couple) near me, keeps looking at me. Is there balsamic dressing dribbling down my chin? Or salad in my teeth? He looks at me and then conveniently looks at the mirrors on the wall behind me. Not even a picture – and he can’t see himself! So……. Now he’s distracted by his phone and I can take another bite in peace.

There is happy chatter all around me. Maybe conversations about Christmas just past or the new year that’s just arrived with a great ta-da! There are a lot of calories being consumed around me. It must still be the early transition stages of ‘being good’. We’ll all be good one day I’m sure.

I can never really put my finger on what it is about a new year that gives a feeling of hope. How can a new number, slightly larger than the last one, make a difference? Nothing magical happened when Jools Holland counted down to midnight on Tuesday and the pipers played Auld Lang Syne.

Or did it?

Maybe the hope is the magic. Hope that grows out of last year’s journey and strengthens our heart for the year ahead. Hope for some changes. New ventures. Adventures. Hope that the ‘same old’ will continue to be comfortingly so. That I’ll grow some more on the inside.

The ‘me’ that ended 2019 is definitely different to the one of 2018. That ‘me’ was reeling, shocked, numb and devastated. A bit like a rabbit in the headlights, dodging the juggernauts.

Now I feel like I’ve moved to the hard shoulder. I can nibble a bit at the grass through the barrier. I can see some safe places over there. The traffic is still thundering past, shaking my whiskers and giving me a fright from time to time. I can still see where I’ve come from and can’t quite believe I made it in one piece to be honest, and that sends chills through me.

This time last year, if mirror man had watched me sitting here all alone I probably would have cried – and not cared. Now I meet his gaze and wonder if he’d like some of my bacon and avocado flatbread stack. I don’t think he does.

Wellies and wheelbarrows

In the days after Tony died, it felt like my phone continually pinged with texts, messages and emails. Thoughts, love, concern sent from all over the world. It was wonderfully comforting, if a little overwhelming, and I found a few safe sentences in reply that I tended to repeat. One of them was that we were heart-broken.

We were.

Totally.

Yesterday I listened to a song and the lyrics spoke of ‘every heart that is broken’ and I had one of those ‘grief ambush’ moments. When you’re least expecting a reminder or a memory and you are blind-sided by it.

I cried.

I have found myself crying a lot recently. Just because I am sad. Sad and heart-broken. I feel it when I wake up in the morning like a heavy blanket. And it lingers. And grows. And then spills out in tears. Am I crying for myself? Yes. My children? Yes. Am I crying for Tony? Yes. Am I crying for what was, what might have been, what may be, what won’t be? Yes. All of the above. Is there comfort in my crying? No, not really.

But I do hope. I hope that there will be mornings when I wake up and there is a blanket of joy that feels lighter. And I hope for healing.

So, what about the wellies and wheelbarrows then? There is a connection, I promise. Back in the spring as I began to get out into the garden again, I had a real sense that this was a place where healing could happen for me. BBC2 Gardeners’ World on Friday past was all about the healing potential of gardening. It’s even an NHS prescription in some parts of the UK. (I was right!!) There is a communion between our physical, emotional, spiritual selves and nature. A communion that gently soothes our inside brokenness. Where our tears and the rain or the dew on the grass, mingle. Where a weed removed, leaves a patch of soil exposed and ready for the growing of a new plant. Where the cutting away of the faded flower encourages a fresh flush of buds and the anticipation of colourful blooms.

I have worked away in the garden during this summer. Last year I didn’t and couldn’t have done. I didn’t have the physical or mental energy for anything other than getting through each day. I am very thankful that now I can. There is always something that needs to be done. And it is helping me.

My wellies are near to hand (because my garden is quite muddy) and I have prescribed myself time each day to step out and take a dose of nature’s healing goodness.

Changing landscape

A few weeks ago I was mowing the grass in the back garden and noticed that a little willow tree which was planted before we ever moved in, was trailing its branches on the ground. I was initially amazed by the growth, but then realised that it hadn’t actually grown at all. The trunk was completely broken and the whole tree was about to collapse. Once I’d removed it, of course it opened up a whole new space in the corner of the garden. In those short few weeks, new shoots have sprouted, plants have started to grow around the base of the trunk and branches from nearby trees are reaching into the new space. The landscape of the garden has changed.

918C82D4-DA50-4ADB-92BC-1572CC8D8C87 (Edited)

In our community recently, there have been quite a few structural changes. A couple of redundant police stations have been demolished to make way for new housing and commercial developments, vacant plots are slowly but surely growing new buildings, our neighbours are building extensions. I wonder what Tony would say about these new developments. He would be fascinated to know what was going on and who the builders were and of course he would have an expert opinion on the progress!

The physical landscape around us is always changing, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes very obviously. And so it is with our lives. From dramatic and traumatic to the barely noticeable, life takes on a new skyline. The sunrise is framed in a new way. But the sun rises all the same. We encounter new obstacles on our path which invite decisions to be made. Climb over? Skirt around? Get help? Sit and rest awhile? Sometimes this is all just overwhelming. Sometimes it is a welcome change to the predictable. Sometimes it is our own making. Sometimes it is all beyond our control. But almost without a doubt, at some point, new shoots will sprout, branches will reach into the space and the bare ground will begin to show fresh green shades of new life. For that I am very grateful.

 

DSC_0278 (Edited)

I will never forget our little willow tree. It has stood and watched us play, swing, weed, laugh and cry over the years. I am sad that it has gone, but I watch the empty space with hopeful anticipation of new things.

 

Soaking up the empty

IMG_0454I had wondered how this season would be. And so far it’s been hard.

All the other difficult days we have faced so far, have been isolated, preceded by days of dreadful anticipation and followed by days of sad processing. But this season, this Advent season is prolonged. Part of me truly wishes to go to sleep and wake up in the middle of January. At the same time, I am struggling with leaving 2018 behind. Because Tony was here in 2018. He was a part of it. He lived in it. And I don’t want to let that go. There have been years, recently, when I have just been so glad to see the end of December. Hoped for something new and better in the next year. But now? I don’t want to turn my back on this year at all. I don’t want to lose that almost tangible connection to him being here.

IMG_0458

I anticipated that this lead up to Christmas would feel very empty. I had begun to feel just that, as the rest of the world around me began to collectively become excited, happier, sillier, over-the-top, loud and bright. I have felt empty.

And then, wonderfully,  something started to happen that brought us joy like shafts of light. It began on the first day of Christmas. A friend arrived with a beautiful white bauble for our Christmas tree and a written message of love and kindness which remembered Tony. The next morning another friend called at the door announcing herself as the second day of Christmas, carrying a delicate glass angel for the tree. It wasn’t until the next day though that I realised a pattern was emerging. Another friend had come to sit in with my two and she brought with her a glittering angel encased in a glass bauble. As the next days passed, the three of us began to look expectantly around IMG_0456the step of the front door and in the post box for any surprise packages. And over the days we discovered such a variety of thoughtful gifts and messages for us and our tree. The anticipation, the discovery, the delight in receiving such kindness, somehow began to soak up the emptiness. The 12th day saw the opening of a special Christmas Eve gift from the dear friend thousands of miles away who had mobilised all the other friends to this 12 days of Christmas giving! Amazingly friends who didn’t even know what was happening have gifted us with angels for the tree or our home, adding to the wonder of it all. Oh, how loved, protected and cared for we have felt as each one has poured in something of themselves to our little family. Some hope, some smiles, some joy, some kindness. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

Missing

Now that we’re snuggling into winter clothes, lighting the wood-stove and wearing socks again, the summer break seems a dim and distant memory. For us it was a mixed-up time. We did some new things and went to some new places. We also did some of our comfortable, same-old. We stayed in the same cottage in Donegal that we’ve been to for the last few years. The cottage where Tony always found something to fix. Naturally. We visited our usual haunts – the beach, Nancy’s Yard (for the best chowder in the world) and of course the Rusty Nail pub. We had fun, laughed, sang loudly in the car and played several rounds of Rummikub and Scrabble. Without him. It was Ethan’s birthday while we were away, and although I had prepared myself for the actual day, it was the night before when I wrote Ethan’s card that the unanticipated tidal wave of sadness came. His name was missing. ‘Daddy’ was not written in the card this time.

It is this ‘missing’ which overwhelms my days now. At a gathering of friends, he is not there: to tell his stories, share his wisdom and lovingly wind everyone up. He is missing when I need to seek out his eyes for reassurance and shared knowing. He is missing when I need his words of encouragement and tenderness. And I am not complete without him.

He is missing from his place at the table and we are having to learn to be a different shape. A triangle, not a square. Unspoken, we find a new position. Who will be the first to the sofa and sit in his spot? Savouring that unexplained closeness to him. A measure of JD remains in the bottle. He’s not here to take it. I can’t bring myself to drink it. There it will always stay.
IMG_3611

A Difficult Journey

It’s been a while. I hadn’t quite realised just how long. I am in turmoil somewhat about writing again and when would ever be the right time to do so. A lot of you will know that these past months have been a very difficult journey for us. A journey we would never have chosen, but one we walk daily with our eyes fixed on Jesus, our good shepherd, as we walk through a very dark valley. Tony passed away on March 1st after a very short spell in hospital when the doctors discovered that he had cancer. It was a great shock, a shock that still hits me with great force every day.
IMG_2653

I don’t feel ready at the moment to write here about a lot of things from the past six months. I’m not even sure if I ever will, or even what I feel ready to write about now. But I have to say that without faith, family and the greatest of friends, I’m not sure how we would have got to this point in this terribly difficult journey.

From closest friends and family, people I don’t even know (some who had known Tony), people near and very far away, have come the most generous expressions of kindness. Cards, emails, visits, lasagnes, dog walks and toilet rolls. Every single gift showing love to us at a time when we have felt very, very empty.

Tony was the most generous person I have known. If he could give it to you, fix it for you, or take you to it, then he would. He always, always went beyond what was asked or expected. So to receive generosity in such an outpouring has been very humbling.

This is a short post. A post to say ‘thank you’ to all those who have generously poured in to our lives over the last six months. It is all greatly treasured.

Soul Food

These last few days have been the laziest I have had since…..well, probably last Christmas. It has truly been blissful, sitting by the fire for hours on end, reading, playing games, dozing and watching movies. I have managed to win through in the ‘I should really be doing something’ argument with myself, and put my feet up. Lucky me! We have, between the two of us, drunk an awful lot of wine (well it feels like it anyway) and eaten an awful lot of chocolate (breaking my sugar free run, for a few days anyhow).

I’m not going to use this post to reflect on the past year, or make unrealistic resolutions about the new year ahead. I’m just enjoying this moment, these few days of spending time with family and friends, eating, drinking, snoozing, walking the dog and not even thinking too much about anything.

Today, I took Lacey to our local park and discovered a mountain of top soil altering the landscape. It’s probably been there for weeks, but this is the first time I’ve been here in a while. And it’s one of my favourite places too. I find it interesting that there are some things and places that I don’t particularly miss or necessarily think about until I revisit them and then realise what a special place they are for me and how good they do my soul. The same happened yesterday, visiting Seapark, Holywood for the first time in ages. The invasion on the senses that comes by the sea. We recently visited our previous church, and the same was true. It felt like ‘coming home’, to be among friends who have shared our journey. I suppose there is comfort in the familiar. The shoreline walked a hundred times before, the muddy perimeter path with the outline of a thousand pawprints, the sanctuary of hearts well-loved and well-known. If there was a promise to myself for this new year, it would be to be more determined about revisiting the familiar, known places which feed my soul – both physical and spiritual. I wonder what are your familiar places? How do they feed your thoughts and emotions?

IMG_3799

I hope that in 2018 we can all determine to revisit those nourishing spaces.

Happy New Year!