Dear Readers,I am sitting in Costa Coffee, in the same seat from which I used to write to Mum. Every day, for more than five years, I would knock up 1000 words about something or other, and send it to her. Sometimes she would read it out to Dad, who really just wanted to watch Last of the Summer Wine. Sometimes she’d email me back with a comment or some thoughts, but in the past few years the responses got fewer and fewer. The laptop was too heavy for her to lift, and she was too tired to read. But I carried on churning out those thousand words because without them I didn’t know what I was thinking, or feeling. Someone said that writing rights things, and this is true. Once Mum died, although I knew writing was good for me, I couldn’t bear it. The only thing that kept my fingers tapping away was this blog, because I knew that there were people reading it who would hold me accountable. It is not too dramatic to say that there have been times during this past year when it was only the thought that I needed to have something to write about that got me out of bed, and out of the house. So thank you for reading, and for commenting, and making me feel that I was still part of the world, even when I was lost.
On Wednesday, it was the first anniversary of Mum’s death and it seemed to me as if I was viewing the whole world from under a damp, grey woollen blanket. At work, the Christmas festivities were in full swing, and I remembered when I too would look forward to being together with my parents, and would take it for granted that those celebrations would continue forever, even when rationally I knew that they would not. And this year, we will have Christmas at the Care Home with Dad, who in spite of his dementia takes so much joy in a mouthful of turkey or a new pair of socks that it makes up for a lot.
Still. What I wouldn’t do for one more Christmas with Mum and Dad as they were, in spite of the way that I worked myself to a frazzle and there was always at least one stupid argument about nothing in particular. How I would love to see them both dozing in my living room after Christmas dinner, paper hats askew, snoring gently.
Bereavement made me vulnerable in a lot of ways that I didn’t expect. I’m never sure if I can talk rationally about Mum and Dad, or if I’m going to burst into incontinent tears. Bless the people who see a few tears as an opportunity to listen or to offer a hug, rather than being embarrassed or changing the subject. Young men have offered me their seat when I’ve been commuting, and it has been most welcome, because some days I have felt very frail. Of course, an act of kindness can bring on the tears as well, but I have found that tears allowed last a much shorter time than tears that are suppressed.
I feel as if I have joined a whole new strand of humanity, those for whom Christmas is difficult because of their loss. I remember that my own grandmother had the body of her two year-old son, dead from diptheria, in a coffin in her living room all over Christmas. I think of my friends who have lost people that they love, and I bow to their resilience and to the way that they sometimes bury their own sadness in order to make Christmas good for other people. Now I recognise the strain on some faces, because i see it when i look in the mirror. I realise how often I have taken a brusque manner or a short answer personally, without considering what the other person might be suffering. I hope that, if nothing else, this year has made me kinder, and slower to judge.
And I have been so glad to have found work. It has given my brain something to do, although for the first few weeks I would sit and look at a spreadsheet and the numbers might as well have been hieroglyphics. Brain fog is an awful reality, and there were times when I wasn’t sure, in spite of all my years of experience, if I was up to the job. Somehow, I’ve come back, and I feel as if I understand what I’m meant to be doing. More importantly, I feel part of a team, and they have gone out of their way to make sure that I’m included in everything, even though I’m part time and thirty years older than they are.
But why, you might ask, is there a squirrel hanging from a bird feeder at the top of this post? Because on the anniversary of Mum’s death, two squirrels visited the garden, and it reminded me of how Mum loved the squirrels, and called them ‘little devils’ with grudging admiration. We once went to Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh with a bag of peanuts and were practically mugged by a gang of grey squirrels who skittered out of the trees and popped out of the bushes. Look at the beauty of that extraordinary tail, with its penumbra of white fading to grey and rust red at the heart! One of the squirrels has developed a taste for suet, which is surely not good for them, while the other one performs acrobatics to get at the sunflower seeds. The only thing that seems to deter them is the great-spotted woodpecker, who is fearless and has a beak like a stiletto, but everyone else waits around, tapping their birdy feet, until the rodents are finished. The squirrels leap from the whitebeam to the hawthorn and back again, and I can almost hear Mum laughing at their antics. The bird feeders rock backwards and forwards like the swings at the park, and the squirrel sits there with a handful of pellets, looking around as if not understanding the joke, and not caring either.
They stop me short, the creatures in the garden. They pique my curiosity, and they make all my worries and sadnesses fall away. So many of the things that we worry about are not going to happen, and many of the other things are out of our control. But there are robins singing, and berries, and goldfinches chinking like windchimes. And of course, there are ‘little devils’ in the garden, breaking the bird feeders and eating prodigious quantities of food, and there is plenty of room for them, because, as Mary Oliver said ‘Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon’?
It seems to me that being wholehearted is the only way to live in this world, because trying to protect ourselves only lessens our capacity for joy. And I think the world needs our wholeheartedness, painful as it might be. In 2020 I will be 60, and I plan to make ‘wholehearted’ my word for the decade, because the hourglass of my life is starting to run down, and if I want to make a difference the time is now.
And also, did you ever see a half-hearted squirrel?