Sunday, 20 February 2011

Apparently, I've changed.

Today, on my way home from visiting my nephew’s new baby, I popped in to my brother’s place as my niece hasn’t been well and I wanted to say a quick hello and see how she was.
My brother seemed slightly chattier than previously - he actually spoke more than two words to me. In fact, he even asked how I was. I was so shocked that he’d asked, I didn’t know how to reply to begin with but I recovered sufficiently to say I was fine.
During the course of the conversation with my sister-in-law, I casually mentioned that I’d intended calling in at their local pub for a carvery but couldn’t recall exactly where it was so we’d probably go to one nearer home. It wasn’t an issue really – I was just making conversation. My brother then went into great detail when describing its precise location. I had no idea what some of the roads were called and struggled to get my bearings but eventually I understood. Rather than say, "thanks but no thanks but we’ve already decided to go to one on the way home rather than back tracking on ourselves", I just thanked him. As we were about to leave he mentioned a minor incident with one of the children from several years ago. I had no idea what he was referring to. He insisted, “You must remember.” I was completely blank. He said I’d mentioned it several times over the years – again I had no recollection.
He found it all very amusing saying, “There’s something wrong with you – you can’t remember where roads are and now you can’t even remember this. Something definitely wrong. You’ve changed. You’ve really changed. I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”
I was gobsmacked. I’ve never lived in the town where he lives. I lived in the next town as a child and returned for a few weeks in my twenties. The only time I visit that town is to visit family – and that’s not often. And when I do, I go to their homes and then go home. I couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal.
But what got to me were his comments that I’ve changed and that there’s something wrong with me for failing to remember insignificant, inconsequential events from years ago. As if they matter.
I wanted to shout at him, “Of course I’ve bloody changed. Of course I don’t remember stupid things that don’t matter. You seem surprised that I’ve changed and quite oblivious to why that might be. It’s because my son, your nephew, the boy whose coffin you carried less than two years ago, is dead and I am broken because of it. So please excuse me if I can’t recall a bit of torn wallpaper or the location of a pub that I’ve only visited once. It’s because those things don’t matter. But if you could just be bothered to remember that I had a son. If you could just once manage to say his name – just once – I wouldn’t forget that. Ever! But instead, all you can do is carry on pretending that it’s all rather amusing that I’ve changed and that you can’t, for the life of you, think why that might be.”
I didn’t say any of that though. Instead, we left and came home. And most unreasonably, I snapped at my daughter.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Moving forward ...

Tonight I went with a friend and my youngest daughter to a Slimming World class.
I’d like to lose another stone and maybe another half after that but no more. The stone will finally bring me down to a healthy BMI - and the extra half a stone will give me a little leeway. I’ve never, ever had a healthy BMI. Even when I started secondary school, I was a couple of stones heavier than I am now!
Anyway, my reasons for going to this class are to shift the last bit of excess weight but, more importantly, to support my daughter in her quest to lose some. She has gained a lot since Al died. Ironically, as I know to my own cost, comfort eating brings little comfort in the longer term. She now wants to lose weight and has a gorgeous prom dress as her goal.
It was odd to enter a slimming class to have people say that I didn’t need to be there. I’m still very much of the mindset that I’m still more than double my current weight and I’m always a little surprised when I catch sight of myself in a shop window. I know the numbers – how much I currently weight/how much I’ve lost – but my head just can’t equate those numbers with the way I look. I still feel excessively overweight. I still hold my trousers up in front of me and am surprised when they fit me.
Just before Al died, he was taking me for daily walks – I’d recently had surgery that hadn’t gone well and so had left me in a very poor state of health. I couldn’t even manage a walk round the block without Al to lean on when I got tired. As an incentive to get me moving a little more, I’d signed up for the Race 4 Life. He used to joke, “Come on Mum – a bit more. We want you fit so you can do that Race 4 life – never mind walking it, we want to cheer you when you run over the finish line.”
Sadly, three weeks before the race, he died.

I did it anyway. With his photo pinned to my back and a good friend next to me, it took us just under an hour to walk the 5km. I was in no fit state to run it. I was still pretty weak so just finishing was no mean feat. I felt a massive sense of achievement as I crossed the finish line. It was very emotional – he would have been so proud. I’d felt pretty rough in the weeks leading up to the race and hadn’t wanted to do it but knowing how much he had wanted it, was enough to spur me on.
Last year we were unable to do the Race 4 Life so we did a moonlight half marathon instead. Because it started at midnight it was dark so running was not allowed. Anyway, we managed to complete the 13.2 miles in just under 4 hours. Again, I felt some satisfaction knowing that he would have been so proud of me.
This year, the hope/intention, is to do a fun run. This will actually involve running. Al ran everywhere. That’s what kept him so lean. The one we plan to enter is only 2 miles but considering that I’m currently incapable of running more than 100 yards without feeling as if I’m going to pass out, two miles is more than enough to start with. I guess losing the last bit of excess weight will help that along.
And next week I start a Zumba class. It sounds like fun – but very hard work. The information leaflet states, “bring a bottle of water and a towel” so it’s hardly likely to be the equivalent of a gentle stroll in the park.
I think he’d approve. He was very much into keeping himself trim and healthy – mainly because he loved being the centre of attention with the girls. During the summer, he never lost an opportunity to lose his shirt and show off his six-pack.
I think he’d be thrilled with my weight loss and increased fitness. I suspect this is also what partially motivates my daughter. Besides the fact that she wants to look amazing in her prom dress, she knows how highly Al valued physical fitness and she wants to be a little like him. Losing some excess weight is part of that for her.
It feels like I’m moving forward a little. Acknowledging that leaves me with mixed emotions. I don’t want to leave him behind. I have to take him with me. And I do. There’s not a day passes when I don’t miss him - when I don’t wonder if he’d approve of what I’m doing. Of course, generally, he didn’t approve any anything I did – simply on principle, he objected to whatever I did. From the meals I served, to the home decor choices, to my resolute, immoveable rules re his being in on time. He disagreed with the boundaries I set. But that was just tough. I set them for a reason and he was just beginning to appreciate them. We could converse as two adults instead of me having to be the parent all the time. Sometimes, he was very grown up – other times he was still a kid. And that was as it should be.
I wonder what kind of a man he would have made. A vain one no doubt. I like to think we would have grown even closer. I think we would. I think he would have been as proud of me as I was of him.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Final arrangements

I finally bit the bullet and decided it was time to get the plaque for Al’s grave. So, a few months ago, when my ex-husband called for his Sunday chat with our daughter I told him of my plans and asked if he would like to share the decisions re the wording and the cost. I explained that I was more than happy to do it all myself but, if he wanted to share with me, I was equally happy to do that. He agreed and said that was something he wanted. Bearing in mind his zero contribution to the funeral costs, I made it clear that his money wasn’t necessary – we could still decide together on the wording - but if he wanted to make a financial contribution, the money must come from him and him alone. I felt that this was a job for Al’s parents and no one else. He assured me that would happen. Frankly, I’d rather he’d left it to me but Al loved his dad and he would want him to play a part in making that decision.
I told him the costs. They were in no way prohibitive. The rules of the burial ground are precise. We are strictly limited to a small rectangle of slate or stone and then each letter carved will cost £2.
His immediate reaction was, “Well we don’t want too many letters then.” I bit my tongue and ignored it.
I’d had time to mull over the wording and he wanted to know my thoughts so I told him.
Alexander Richard Cameron-Young
26 November 1991 ~ 30 May 2009
Beautiful Boy
I said that those were just my initial thoughts and therefore open to discussion but I wanted something that made it Al’s, and Al’s alone. Each time I’d read an epitaph it seemed so apt, but they all seemed so hackneyed and I wanted something that was individual and summed Al up. I felt that my wording did this but asked what he thought. I wondered if it needed a fourth line – Always in our hearts/Gone but never forgotten/Loved and missed etc. He said he’d mull it over and get back to me.
A week or so later, I asked if he’d had any thoughts. He said, “Yes - we’ve discussed it and we feel that we’d prefer to lose his middle name and his dates could be numbers rather than words. And we aren’t too keen on Beautiful Boy but we can’t think of anything else so it will be OK. "
Excuse me?  
**we've** discussed it?
I bristled at the first ‘we’ as I knew this meant him and his wife. This was the woman who my boy hated with a passion – the woman who made my lad’s life so miserable that he self-harmed. When I closed the lid on his coffin, those scars on my boy’s arms were the last thing I saw. It was never, ever her decision to make. I bit my tongue and chose not to respond – mainly because I didn’t trust myself to respond in any kind of coherent manner. Clearly he thought it perfectly reasonable to involve this woman in deciding what should be written on my son’s grave. I remember thinking, “ It might end up over my dead body, but I’ll be damned before I see it over my son’s.”
Oblivious to my stomach churning, he repeated it. They felt that there was no need for Al’s middle name and the letters in the date should be replaced by numbers. Oh and they didn’t think that Beautiful Boy was quite right. I interrupted saying that he was a beautiful boy so I thought it was apt. He said they couldn’t think of anything else that was as short so it would do.
I realised that the changes suggested were simply made to reduce the number of digits - it was no more than a cost-cutting exercise. He would never ever buy another birthday or Christmas present for Al. He would never take him for a pint at his local pub. He would never have to spend anything on Al ever again but he was penny pinching over the plaque for his grave. He ended the conversation with, “But you can have whatever you want.”
He hasn’t mentioned it since then. Not once. I guess he’s worried that I’ll raise the subject of shared costs. I won’t. When my son’s plaque is placed on his grave, I shall do it alone – without his father’s involvement. I tried to involve him and felt that my son’s memory was just insulted – by the man my boy adored above all others.
He made so few visits to see the children after he settled with his current wife and her children. Al was incredibly hurt by what he saw as his dad’s rejection of him. He craved his dad’s love and affection and never stopped yearning for it. And that love wasn’t even valued. It was barely even acknowledged.
And now - it's just so sad.
I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife. Well, when I try to think about it, I can’t see how it could be possible. But I have mixed feelings about whether I want it to be. Do I yearn for the chance to see my boy again? Yes – more than anything.
But if there is an afterlife – if he can see ...  it tears me apart to think of how must he feel to know that his dad was more concerned about saving a few quid than bothering about what should mark his final resting place. For that reason, I hope there is no afterlife. At least Al would be spared knowing that.
And I still haven’t made those final arrangements. But I will.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Finally ... I dreamed of my boy

Last night I dreamed of Al. It was the first time in over a year – something I’ve been yearning for. The other dreams were nightmares - dark and painful visions of him lying in a dark, damp coffin with him pleading for me to make him warm.
This dream was different. I was in a small church with my youngest. I think it was somewhere in Scotland. In some ways, I appear to be the typical Church of England member - I don’t ‘do’ church unless it’s for weddings, funerals or christenings. Of course, the main difference between me and other, real, genuine C of E members is that I don’t believe so I’ve no idea why I was in a church when I had no particular reason to be in one.
I was sat in the back row next to the aisle, which was on my right, and the entrance door was near the front to my left. A window ran the length of the wall to my left so the entrance area was clearly visible. All the seats, six in each row, were full. I was aware that my youngest, who was sitting way over to my right with a small group of girls, seemed to be enjoying herself as she sang a hymn. I liked that she was having fun and was glad that she could enjoy her religious experience – just because I can’t get my head around the possibility of a God existing, doesn’t mean she should be prevented from doing so.
One of the girls whispered something to her and she giggled. I fixed her eyes with mine, frowned, and shook my head to let her know that was inappropriate in a church. She mouthed, ‘Sorry’, tried to look suitably chastened, and with a smile on her face, continued singing. She knew I wasn’t really cross – just that she’d had a reminder of how to behave.
Then, through the glass to my left, he was there. Wearing a cap, and winking and poking his tongue out at me. I gave him the same stare that I’d given his sister seconds earlier but, knowing there was nothing I could do as it would disturb the service, he was taking full advantage and teasing me. I mouthed, “HAT OFF.” He grinned, winked again, and swivelled it round so that the peak was at the back and a tuft of fringe protruded through the gap in the back of the cap.
Again, I conveyed as much as I could with a look. The one that says, ‘OK we both know I am powerless to stop you right now. Yes, I get it that the joke’s on me. OK it is mildly amusing. But now will you just sit quietly and take that hat off before someone notices.’ His eyes caught someone looking at him, the hat came off, and his grin was replaced with a sheepish expression just before he winked at me again. Then he ambled out of view. There was nothing unusual about our exchange - we teased each other a lot when he was still around.
I woke almost immediately and felt calm. It hit me that I hadn’t realised he was dead and that there had been no panic or desperation when I saw him. Part of me wondered why I hadn’t realised and grabbed that much needed hug when I had the chance. But I’m glad it was as it was. During those brief moments, I enjoyed his company and it felt real and natural. I was happy and content.
Of course, as I type this today, I am crying. I miss him. I miss those little exchanges. It hurts so much. But it’s OK too. That old saying, 'it’s better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all’ has never been truer for me, than it is today.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

An otherwise unremarkable day

As she got in the car after school yesterday, my daughter remarked that she probably needed new glasses as she was struggling to see the whiteboard. It’s been almost two years since the last sight test so, as we were already in the car, we popped into town to book it.
Trying to arrange an appointment in the near future when we could both attend was proving difficult so I asked if she could be seen without me being present. After establishing that she is currently 14, the receptionist said that wasn’t possible as “it’s against the law for us to see her without an adult.” I knew that was complete and utter tosh and said that it might be company policy but it certainly wasn’t against the law. I explained that she would be considered competent to make her own informed decisions about any medical care and therefore has a right to do so. I pointed out that I work with young people and this principle is central to my work and therefore I know what I’m talking about. I was about to explain how this is enshrined in law when I realised that the young woman in front of me would simply parrot that it couldn’t be done.
I concluded that there was no point in labouring the point so just agreed to arrange the appointment for a couple of weeks hence instead - a minor irritation in an otherwise unremarkable day.
Appointment arranged and we stood to leave. As we did so, she said, “Maybe another time you can get someone older to come with you – bring your big brother next time.” We were floored! I knew that the look of horror on my daughter’s face was mirrored on mine. I didn’t know what to say, or how to react. So many thoughts tumbled through my mind simultaneously.
The receptionist’s bright smile was slowly replaced by a puzzled expression. She clearly knew something was wrong but had no idea what it was. It wasn’t her fault – she couldn’t have known and I felt for her as the silence became increasingly tangible and then oppressive but I couldn’t seem to formulate a sentence. Instead, my head swivelled back and forth between looking at my daughter, who was equally unsure of how to respond, and the young woman in front of me. After what seemed like hours, but was probably only a few seconds, I managed to stammer, “I’m sorry – you weren’t to know – her brother died a couple of years ago.” I felt my voice break a little as I said ‘died’ but I somehow managed to regain some control.
She apologised immediately and I slipped into my ‘smoothing’ role. With a smile on my face, “It’s OK – you weren’t to know. . . No really, it’s fine. Thanks very much. We’ll see you next Monday. . .  No really – it wasn’t your fault.”
As we left the shop, I wondered how she knew about a brother. Within a week of his death, I’d made a list of all organisations that had him listed (dentist, Dr, optician, Connexions etc) and had contacted them to explain that he had died and requested that he be removed from their records. I had done this because I knew I was numb and so could manage it easily then. And I wanted to avoid the reminder letters that would invariably arrive when I was no longer cocooned in shock and numbness.
This morning I checked that list. That optician was on there and I’d ticked (and dated) it when I’d contacted them.  I decided to call again. I explained why I was calling and asked them to check my boy’s records. The young man on the line told me, “Ooh we’ve got him down as live here ... Er I mean he’s still down as a live customer ... er I mean a current customer. I’ll remove him. Well I can’t remove him completely. I’ll mark him as deceased.”
It wasn’t his fault. I knew that. He was flustered and stammering as he dug the hole deeper and deeper. I reassured him and said it was OK. The record was altered and we said goodbye. Again he apologised. Again I said it was OK. 

It wasn’t though.
Another otherwise unremarkable day.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Drinking to numb the pain

Last night I was at a party having fun. I looked good. I felt confident and relaxed and was enjoying being surrounded by lots of familiar faces.
Over the course of the evening, I drank three glasses of Rose. The last time I had a glass of anything was a small Baileys on Christmas Day so I can hardly be described as a hardened drinker. Three glasses is a huge amount for me and although I topped up each glass with iced water, I was a little tipsy.
They had karaoke. Lots of people decided to participate. Not me of course – it would take at least couple of bottles of wine to persuade me to sing publicly – and I’d pass out long before I managed that. But I was happy to sit and enjoy the singers basking in their moment of fame.
Unfortunately, one singer chose a Queen song – the very song I chose for Al’s funeral. I sat rooted to the spot – wanting to leave yet not wanting to draw any attention to myself. A friend guessed immediately, leaned over, and squeezed my arm. A small gesture that conveyed so much. It was comforting to feel her empathy.
I was aware that I was shaking and foolishly, got myself a brandy and knocked it back. I’ve never had a drink to ease any pain before and it shocked me. It won’t happen again. Lord only knows what I was thinking. I was already half cut so having a drink to steady myself was a rather strange idea. 
The whole incident made me think of Al though. And I could picture him dancing and bouncing around laughing to that song – and singing just as badly as the person who was on stage – Al was completely tone deaf and had no sense of rhythm when singing but that never bothered him at all. If we teased him for singing out of time and/or out of tune, he just sang louder.
I wish I could hear him singing right now.