Monday, June 17, 2013

Are You Writing This Down?

Shortly after my mother's death, I did what she'd requested:  I wrote, and had published, an account of what we'd experienced together during her final days.

My mother was a strong believer in celebrating birthdays.  As her birthday was June 18th,  may I share these memories with you to mark the occasion?  It's what she would have wished.

Are You Writing This Down?
A Record of an Inner Journey
MOTHER LOVED to travel. What little experience I have of the world is due mainly to her unquenchable thirst for exploration and discovery. When I was a small child, and flying still an adventure, we regularly took to the skies in aircraft of such questionable disposition that each passenger was weighed at the airport to ensure a trouble-free take-off. Together, we travelled by the Orient Express to Venice, explored the Turkish coast-line by cargo boat and bumped across the desert in the airless discomfort of a local 'bus.

More recently, her travels were limited on account of Sophie, her Siamese cat. Although Sophie's love of travel equalled her own, an unsympathetic rabies law clipped their wings. Mother lived in Somerset and I in London, but in recent years she rarely travelled without me. I was the driver who planned the route. Mother, with Sophie on her lap, was the alert, appreciative and inquisitive passenger. Good friends, rather than mother and daughter, we were very close, and enjoyed a close telepathic contact. It was not, I suppose, surprising that we should have shared her final journey.

On   Friday, 10th January, mother — now living with me in London — enjoyed an hour's walk in Kew Gardens. On the Sunday we went to church and had lunch with friends. During that evening, feeling unaccountably hot and dizzy, she discovered with a shock that she was running a high temperature.

By Wednesday, mother's temperature was a hundred-and-four. For the first time I experienced the constricting grip of panic. On Thursday she voiced the question I dreaded:

"Am I . . . ", her eyes held mine, ". . . am I going to get better. . .?"

We had always been completely truthful with each other. Not knowing the answer, I found myself unable to reply.

"I can't believe this . . ." she murmured, bewildered by the way events had spun out of our control, "I can't believe what's happening . . ."

The doctor returned on Friday and suggested she be moved to hospital. I insisted — motivated by love rather than common sense — that I could cope on my own at home. However, by late afternoon mother had decided what should be done.

"You need sleep. Surely we can get a night-nurse?"

As with everything that happened during those heightened days, a night-nurse — an ideal. Irish night-nurse — was found with the minimum of effort. She arrived at nine o'clock that evening to start a twelve-hour spell of duty. I retired to bed with Sophie, not to sleep, but to rest in the knowledge that mother was in kind professional hands.

The following morning, although her temperature had come down markedly, mother was convinced that she had embarked on her last journey. It was one that I was to share. Together, we prepared for this final journey in much the same way as we had prepared for all the previous ones, the difference being that this time it was not a question of what we were taking, but of what mother was leaving behind.

Calmly and thoughtfully, with occasional flashes of humour, she remembered all those she wanted to receive gifts and carefully laid down the instructions for her cremation. Knowing how much she loved the countryside, I asked whether she would like her ashes to be scattered in Somerset.

"No . . ." she was quite definite, ". . . you have them . . . not that they'll be worth much!"

She was silent for a few moments before adding, "Scatter them under a seat ... in Kew Gardens."

Never once did she give any indication of fear as to what was happening to her. On the contrary, she stressed the absence of fear:

"It isn't frightening, you know."


"No . . . it's . . . it's marvellous . . . marvellous."

"A great adventure?"

"Yes . . . that's it... a great adventure."

"Are you writing this down?"

She displayed no anxiety for herself, but constant concern for me.

"Do get yourself some brandy . . ." she urged me at one point, ". . . you will take care of yourself, won't you . . . promise me?

Later, her voice rose up again.

"We've had a happy life, haven't we?"  "We've had a wonderful life."

"I've tried to support you."   "You've been a marvellous support."

"I'll still be helping . . . you know that. . . I'll know what's happening."

"I know you will", I told her, ". . . and we'll meet again, next time round."

There was a pause.

"In the country next time," said mother with the determination of one who had never come to terms with London traffic.

It had not been my intention to tell friends and relations of mother's death until after the event. She had other ideas and asked me to 'phone them on the Saturday.

"I'm afraid it's going to be a big shock . . . but do let them know."

I  'phoned each one. The upshot was a powerful surge of supportive prayer and thought, a support that provided her with love and sustenance to the end. She had been right in wishing them to know and I, too, benefitted from their knowledge. It was unforgettable proof of the power of absent, loving care.

As on all our previous travels, mother was anxious that I should share in minute detail everything she was experiencing — the feathers and leaves that she saw descending on my head, the small bird that frequently came to perch on the end of her bed, the many visitors, visible to her if not to me, who crowded the bedroom. Each time she carefully checked with me as to their reality.

"They're real to you," I told her, '"it's just that I can't see them."

She struggled to describe her new surroundings.

"It's not a garden . . . It's much larger . . ."

"A landscape?"

"Yes . . . with beautiful lawns . . .", her face relaxed into a warm smile, ". . . and the angels are little children . . ."

For hours I concentrated on the need to provide support, the need to listen and respond. She was fascinated by all that she was experiencing and recounted it as just another journey that she wanted to share with others.

"Are you writing this down?"

"Ribbon . . ." she whispered, "... pink ribbon . .."

"Pink ribbon?". I was puzzled.

"In ... in the top drawer."

In the top drawer of her dressing-table I located the pink velvet ribbon that she wanted to be tied around her hair.

Her lips twitched.

"I always was conceited!"

At ten o'clock she asked if the vicar could come. He came and managed to give her a fragment of the communion wafer. Contented that this had been accomplished, her head fell back.

From then it seemed that time no longer mattered, it no longer existed. I found myself sharing mother's timeless repose. There was nothing to be done, nothing that could be done, we were both in the hands of a process that was inextricably carrying us with it. Carrying both of us to a point at which mother alone would journey on and I would come back to a new and different world.

She-was to experience one more short return: "Is it over ...?"

"Not yet, love."

She slipped into a coma, and died the following morning.

She is continuing on her journey of exploration. We continue ours in the certain knowledge that she has not really left us and that one day — in the country if she gets her wish — we will embark again together on another shared journey.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

To tell you the truth . . .

I always enjoy conversations with my friend Tom.  He provokes me with interesting questions.
"Tell me," he said the other day, "what is truth?"
I gave the question the consideration it merited.
"Life as I see it," I said at last.
"Precisely!" said Tom, "It's all relative."

It struck me afterwards that, whilst putting great value on the concept of truth, we too often use the word unthinkingly.
"To tell you the truth . . . "we say, as though bestowing a rare confidence . . . and only succeed in making our listener wonder just what it was that we were recounting in the first place!

By the same token, can the subject known in schools as 'history' be said to represent the truth?  Or, as a wise man once said, is it merely 'a fable agreed upon'?

All of which leads me to an apology.
I honestly don't know whether the story I'm about to tell you is truth or fiction, myth or history.
But, as it's a wonderful story, let's go along with the national newspaper who reported it last week and share the fascinating origins of the Highland Fling.

It used to be believed that, way back in the mists of time, the Highland Fling was devised as a means of Scottish celebration.
Such a virile display of vigorous dancing was thought to achieve two aims:  it reinforced the glories of victory and, at the same time, discouraged any potential opposition.

But what if this familiar story is merely a fable agreed upon?
Last week an alternative version came to light.
According to my paper, it was not battle-jubilation but midge-frustration that drove those early Scottish warriors to skip and dance with such frantic abandon.

Midges, as is well-known, are an annual hazard in the Scottish Highlands.  The inviting, plump, pink knees of a kilted Highland Chieftain would be their perfect feeding-ground.

And what of the Scottish warriors themselves?  Would a group of proud and upstanding Scotsmen want to reveal their vulnerability?
All-conquering in warfare, would they choose to be seen as victims of the small and scurrilous midge?

Not on your life!  Far better to counter this unprovoked attack with intentional jumping and leaping  . . .   with a swirling of kilts and a tossing of tam-o-shanters . . . preferably to the strains of the bagpipes whose strident frequencies are well known to discourage insect life!

So, what is the truth of the Highland Fling . . . ?
Only the midges know . . . and the midge who bit me yesterday isn't telling!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Lessons from Africa

Every day, or so it seems, news is broken of yet another species joining the 'endangered' list.  Had I not been listening to the radio the other week I would have missed the latest inclusion.
Do you know what it is?  It's the once-essential, ubiquitous washing-line.

I hadn't realised, had you, that in past centuries the very design of our towns and cities was influenced by the need for washing-lines?  The space occupied by an outstretched, drying sheet was a contributing factor to the length of a garden.

Not surprisingly, this consideration is no longer a priority in town planning.  On the contrary, many areas ban outdoor washing-lines.  Nowadays, instead of curling up between sheets that are redolent of fresh air and new-mown grass, we opt for the ease and efficiency of the spin-dryer.  Why buy clothes-pegs when everything can be done by the click of a switch?

Not only that, if the spin-dryer breaks down we rarely think of mending it . . .  speaking for myself, I wouldn't know how to mend it.  Instead, we go online to find a new, more up-to-date model.  Built-in obsolescence, so we are told, is the engine of the economy.

All this came to mind the other day when a friend sent me some remarkable photos he'd received from Africa.
"Never let it be said," he wrote, "that poverty is synonymous with stupidity!"

On looking at the photos, and thinking about our pampered lives, I couldn't do other than agree.
In fact, I would add to that statement.  Surely, by the same reasoning, affluence could be said to cripple creativity?
Having acquired all the commodities we need, could it be that we've simultaneously limited the opportunities for using our ingenuity?

In materially-impoverished parts of Africa the opportunities are boundless.  Let me show you the photos I received and you'll see three ways in which resourceful Africans tackle their problems.

Problem number one . . . a group of young men have a truck, but what they need is a bath.
A problem?  Not at all, it's an opportunity to uncover that old sheet of blue plastic and put it to good use!

The second problem might appear more intractable.
What if you're a keen snooker player in an area where you're more likely to come across a white elephant than a snooker table?

Once again, this situation provides boundless opportunities.  Given plenty of mud, and plenty of heat, the outcome - a  carefullly-crafted, sun-baked snooker-table - affords these keen young players all that they could possibly want.

Finally, what if it's your wife's birthday and she talking wistfully about that most desirable commodity, the flush-toilet?
This is the perfect opportunity to bring together a traffic cone, a discarded loo seat, a pedal, and a flair for ingenuity . . . and . . . hey presto! . . . how's this for a perfectly functioning and serviceable appliance?
All you now need is the wrapping-paper!

We, in the well-endowed Western world may be blessed with spin-dryers, snooker tables and en suite bathrooms, but there's a great deal we can learn from our impoverished but creative African neighbours.

What if our lives change in the future . . .  what if our sources of energy diminish and washing-lines regain their popularity . . . what if the pumps at the filling stations have only limited supplies and our ability to travel is dramatically reduced . . . ?

 Should there be the need to drastically rethink our way of life . . . then let's pray that we'll rise to the occasion.

Let's pray that we'll display the courage, the wit and the ingenuity of these undaunted and imaginative Africans . . . who use ponies for pleasure . . . but bicycles when things get serious in Mozambique!