Dear Readers, when I first moved to East Finchley I decided to take on Halloween as a project. I carved pumpkins. I bought bags of palm-oil free sweets. I found some chocolate money that was so convincing that one small boy broke down in tears when he discovered it wasn’t real. Nothing really prepared me for the onslaught, though. In year one, I had to run to the greengrocers twice to stock up on supplies because so many children had visited. In year two, I thought I was prepared but gave up counting after 45 separate groups had rung the doorbell. By this stage I was sitting on a chair in the hall because I didn’t have time to get to the sofa before there was another party of witches or warlocks at the door.
But this year I am battening down the hatches. It’s not that I’ve turned into a grinch, but after the year that I’ve had, I feel a much closer connection with Samhain, the night when the veil that separates our world from that of our beloved dead is at its thinnest. In some traditions, people set places at the table for those who have gone, and this feels so right to me that I might even do it. At the very least, I want to make some time for contemplation and remembrance. As the sun sets, I spend some time just watching the garden.
The pace of the year has speeded up perceptibly. We are regularly visited by a young squirrel who is much less skittish than usual, though no less acrobatic.
The starlings fly in in huge numbers – when I arrive home after work, I sometimes see a couple of dozen sitting on the television aerials, whistling and chattering to one another, and no doubt complaining that the feeders are empty.
Some chaffinches have appeared, and some goldfinches, though whether they are local birds or Scandinavian visitors I have no idea. I love the mothy fluttering of the chaffinches, and the dapper black and white wing patterns on the goldfinches.
Mum loved birds. The last time that she visited me at Christmas, a great-spotted woodpecker turned up, and I tried to help her to see it through the binoculars. Her whole body swayed backwards and forwards as she tried to focus – she had peripheral neuropathy in her feet, which meant that she found balance difficult. To this day I’m not sure if she saw the bird or not, though she said that she had. But then Mum was like that, never wanting to be a nuisance or to take up too much of somebody else’s time.
I thought that I knew about grief, but I had no idea. Some days, I feel as if I am carrying a rucksack of bricks. Sometimes, I have brain fog and can look at a spreadsheet and see nothing but hieroglyphics. Last week, a lovely young woman that I’ve been working with on a project mentioned that she was looking forward to spending Christmas with her mother, and it hit me that I would never, ever sit and open Christmas presents with mum again. I would never watch her dozing in an armchair with her paper hat askew. I would never see her take a plate of blinis and smoked salmon and capers and sour cream and meticulously arrange every forkful so that it held a little bit of each.
Time moves inexorably on. The leaves turn, the chaffinches are back, the mediocre Christmas lights are already up on East Finchley High Road, waiting for some celebrity to come along and turn them on in a few weeks. When I was at the Royal Academy this week, I noticed that the Christmas lights on Bond Street are peacock-themed this year, and for a split second I wondered how I could get Mum from my house to see them, until I remembered.
Outside the light is fading, and there’s the excited hubbub of children’s voices. Nothing that has happened to me this year is outside of the normal. Elderly parents become ill and eventually pass away. It is the natural order of things. I have a job now, and my life is becoming more my own, after all those years of worrying. On the outside, you’d think I was doing fine, and so I am, mostly. But there are days when I could smash every piece of crockery in the kitchen with a hammer. It feels as if there isn’t any act large enough or dramatic enough to encompass how I feel, and so I soldier on, putting one foot in front of the other even when I don’t care one tiny bit where the road is going.
It seems to me that grief is a strange switchback of a process, with meanders and chicanes. It is not linear or logical. I can be distraught at 11 o’clock and elated by 11.30. I know that what helps me sometimes is not the cure on another occasion. Sometimes I want to wrap myself up in a blanket and watch Masterchef. Sometimes, I want to make carrot pancakes with hummous and crunchy vegetables for dinner. Always, I want to see what the plants and animals are up to, and this is my most consistent, most reliable cure.
Last week, I was putting the rubbish out, in tears, in the dark, when I felt a shadowy movement, and there, on the wall, was the fox. He walked past me and would have wandered into the house if I hadn’t discouraged him, so he sat down, had a quick scratch, and waited. I had nothing in the house but dried cat food, so I threw him a handful, and, as I sat on the step three feet away from him, he crunched through most of it, before disappearing under the door to the garden and going on his way. Such confidence! And I’m pleased to announce that his eyes have cleared up since the photo below, taken a few weeks ago.
For once, I didn’t reach for my camera. Seeing the fox took me out of me head, and my sorrow, and plonked me back into my body, and into the here and now. It occurred to me how much Mum would have loved the fox, and I felt as if I was seeing him for her. She lives on in me, both literally in my genetic make-up but also in the things that she bequeathed: my talent with knitting needles, my love of reading and writing, my skill with a white sauce. She is there in my gestures and my turn of phrase. She is both utterly, irreparably gone, and as close to me as the shape of my eyes. And as the streetlights flicker on, I know that this loss will become woven into my life, part of a larger, continuing story. I just need to be patient, and let the grief do what it needs to do.