Just five more minutes

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When Juliette first died, I indulged in desperate fantasies where I could hold her again even if only for five minutes. I promised everything in my power for the chance to bury my face in her hair, to smell her, feel her weight on my lap, wrap my arms around her and tell her I loved her one last time. From an inner core of madness I went on making my promises, stuffing the dam until the certain knowledge I would never see her again, drowned me.

Southern Britain stopped moving two days ago. We’d had hurricane-strength winds which had blown several trees down in our village, cutting off two access roads. Fallen trees meant no trains were running in or out of Essex, and this was the day we expected Elodie home for her first brief visit from university in over a month.

I know it’s not logical, but Elodie’s absence has had for my doom-primed subconscious a shadow of Juliette’s. Now with the uncertainty of Elodie’s presence I remembered my crazed longing for my other daughter. I couldn’t let myself look forward to seeing Elodie. Besides, Steph, the rational, shook a grim head all day at the news from the rail company website.

Then a text… Elodie had boarded the first train that ran out of her university town that evening and was en route to London. At that point there were no trains from there to Essex. Over the next two hours we refreshed the website, and saw at last that a sporadic service had resumed. Elodie could come home.

She arrived to a house lit by candles – our power had been knocked out earlier in the day – and ran silently to hug me. I’d improvised a huge meal in the gloom. Steph, Pierre, Raphi, Celeste and I became cartoons, hysterical pastiches of ourselves at being ‘complete’ again. Little was clear in the half-light – nothing felt real. Then it seemed before we could touch her, she had gone again. It was as though we had dreamed her.

Another snatching of precious smoke happened that same storm day. My oldest female friend, Gabi, moved with her family to Australia six years ago. In a belated brainwave, we Skyped for the first time – she in her shorts and me in warm tights, me pointing the iPad camera at the garden and its wind-toppled fence panels and she angling the lens so I could see her sleeping, five-year-old son who I have never met. We grinned at each other’s expressions, our jokes sharp and intense through the distance, and yet utterly familiar. I felt as though I had spent a half hour in her company. She and her family populate my dreams, like Juliette does, and Elodie has begun to – the people I love, who aren’t with me.

I only wish death was undone so simply, with a train journey, or the flick of a camera switch.

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En coup de foudre

Lightning_strike_jan_2007We have something to celebrate. I hesitate now to take anything for granted but after three and a half months, I am starting to relax about Elodie and the condition she developed nearly three years ago.

M.E. (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) is a pernicious illness that robs its victims of energy, fun and eventually of confidence. Elodie has always been a dancer, tapping out steps, weaving her arms through the air while talking, eating her breakfast or brushing her teeth. From a little girl, dance was her emotional language of choice.

M.E. rendered her mute.

In the grip of the disease, Elodie had no energy for dance classes. She had scant energy even to stand or walk. Her world shrank to the four walls of her bedroom as others failed to understand that no amount of rest would alleviate her tiredness. Her joints ached, her periods stopped, she suffered hot flushes and a racing heartbeat. She could not sleep, then would sleep for 16 hours, only to wake exhausted.

I tried to be supportive but a little voice whined, ‘We’ve already done this. We’ve been the mother of a sick child and it didn’t end well. This is not fair.’  I reasoned with myself – after all M.E. is not leukaemia –  but Elodie’s mood as her illness progressed worried me. In desperation sometimes I pushed her to do more than she was able, because I wanted the old Elodie back. I got cross, unreasonably frustrated with her for being ill. It was not a great time in any of our lives. And then something happened.

At the beginning of July, Elodie began the Lightning Process. The LP is is a three-day course, the details of which I choose to remain vague, because it worked.

Collecting her after the first day, we drive a pretty route home and at the top of a hill, Elodie asks me to stop the car.

‘Come on, let’s run!’

She outstrips me, but this amazes me slightly less than the fact that Elodie is no impulsive free spirit. She’s a planner, a meticulous planner and lover of order – in other words, not a person to run a crazy race like the one we’re now running. She reaches the bottom of the hill, turns and sticks out her tongue with a grin.

Over the next couple of days, her face regains colour. She holds herself differently, speaks with new energy. And she laughs. On the fourth day, I’m at work when she texts me a photo of herself back from a run – not a short, exhausted walk to the bus stop with the worry she would not manage the day, but a proper, mile-long run.

We wait for her A Level results and she tries not to worry that her illness during exams might have stopped her doing well enough for her chosen university. Our wifi is down on the morning results are released, so for the best phone signal we find the highest part of the village. We sit on a bench in the churchyard, metres from Juliette’s grave, when we learn that Elodie got the grades she needed.

A month before her course begins Elodie takes a physically demanding job in a restaurant five miles away, to which she sometimes has to cycle. Three weeks ago, she started university.

I’m crying as I type this, because it’s reminded me again of this miracle from the blue. It was truly a blot of lightning. I don’t care how it works – only that it has. Even if this is a temporary remission from symptoms, Elodie now knows she has it within her to be better, to be well, and that is very powerful.

Elodie deserves to be well. My daughter has suffered more than most 19-year olds should ever have to bear. She’s dancing again, and I don’t just mean classes. I mean the foot-stretching, arm-weaving, body-curving expression of all that is deep inside.

I am so proud of her beauty and strength.

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Resonance

ripples-in-waterI haven’t written here for a long time, but there are some good reasons for that. First, the sad.

At the end of August, Steph’s lovely father died. I tell people his death was ‘out of the blue’ because it was. Yet he was 86 and I hear how absurd our shock sounds.

My father-in-law was a vibrant, vital force, a man of quirks and favourite anecdotes with a hearty laugh that positively brimmed with love for his family. I’ve felt selfish in grieving for him – he wasn’t my father – but I loved him and expected him to be in all of our lives for many more years. I feel we’ve been robbed.

That all close deaths resonate and evoke memories of hers seems to be part of the legacy of losing Juliette. I hate it. I reason with myself, but it’s as though that chasm of grief spies a chink of weakness at the surface and exploits the chance to pour forth the pain I’ve taught myself not to feel. I miss my father-in-law. Knowing him enriched my life. I can’t bear to think of Steph motherless, and now fatherless, but the way I have felt is not in proportion. I’m frustrated to feel so in the grip of emotions that aren’t entirely logical.

Listen to me. When, exactly, are emotions logical?  Is it logical to love with an intensity that almost hurts, a tiny, screaming dictator, who vetoes sleep and causes you physical pain? Actually, Juliette was a fabulous baby, an amazing little girl. She didn’t scream, probably because she got what she wanted. Juliette twinkled with a wisdom that made everyone who met her want her to be happy. No fool, my daughter.

Losing her changed other aspects of me. In the early years of disordered grief, this knowledge of how fragile life can be, made me feel reckless at times. A sort of ‘what’s the point? Everything could be over tomorrow,’ never filled me, but lurked at the edge of decisions I made, still make. We have only one life to live and no guaranteed tariff. Juliette lived for each day. She seized every opportunity for love, for fun and to try something new. I can’t bear how this sentiment sounds clichéd but as I have learned, so many clichés around death appear true. I feel an obligation to live because Juliette could not.

Had she not died, I would never have started to write or rather, I would not have had the courage to share what I wrote. Telling my daughter’s story was imperative and in this context, what others thought of my writing was meaningless. Nor would I have had the self-belief and determination to run a marathon – I’m no athlete but I’ve just signed up for my third London next year. And it’s certain I would never have taken myself into a men’s prison to do creative writing classes. I am not, or at least never used to be that woman who believed she had something to offer. Rather the reverse. Now I have work in a school that rewards me in ways I could never have imagined. I thank Juliette for all this. It took me years to stop feeling angry but now, living intensely is a way for me to express my gratitude that she chose me to be her Mummy. I was blessed. I am blessed.