Evolution, revolution

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I love writing a blog, but sometimes the gestation of posts takes an age. An idea will come to me and then over days/weeks the words have to separate and form chains before I actually type anything. And although appearances might be deceptive I rewrite several times before I press “publish.”’ Now you’d think that would eliminate typos, wouldn’t you?  Nope. Own-editing blindness.

Anyway, I’ve been pushing words about for the past three weeks (on love and relationships after losing a child) but this is a particularly stubborn egg that is refusing to hatch, so these latest thoughts I’m just going to damn well write and post.

I’m a little over-excited at the moment. You know that sensation where everything seems to be falling into place? I have that, although there is a whisper of worry in saying it out loud – after losing Juliette, luck and happiness are not without menace. This afternoon Elodie set off for her second year at university. It’s been a tough summer in parts, but last night, Tchaikovsky did his stuff – the ballet shoes were on and Elodie pirouetted and jeté-d with a semi-cooperative Pierre in the kitchen. Afterwards they helped cook and we sang along to the one song on which the three of us agree – Wish you were here. Yes Pink Floyd, I really do.

I have love in my life. My youngest daughter is newly and happily ensconced at secondary school, while my oldest daughter is overjoyed to be returning to a subject and a place she loves. As poignant as it is to say goodbye to my dancing girl it is huge comfort to know her life away from home makes her happy. The moment today was crowned by the fact that a week shy of her 20th birthday, she finally passed her driving test.  Woo hoo!

What also happened today was that I became a student again, enrolling on my Psychology MSc course at the University of Essex. This road began when I started teaching creative writing in prison. It took me through the most wonderful year in a school, and at this juncture I imagine it will lead me to Educational Psychology. But who knows? For now I’m enjoying the journey.

Rainbow

Traveler Digital Camera

On this day twelve years ago, I woke up to a ‘normal’ day where Juliette was in hospital, like countless other mornings over the previous nineteen months of treatment. We had little warning of the nightmare that descended a few hours later.

Last week I saw an old friend who remembered an afternoon in a garden during that final summer. She described Juliette sitting on my lap playing with a tube of Smarties. Somehow the tube burst, sending a shower of sweets onto the lawn.

“Oh look, a rainbow!” M remembers me saying. She told me the other night that it had made such an impression on her, because of how relaxed a mother I seemed. I have no memory of the afternoon, nor of being anything than utterly uptight in the midst of Juliette’s treatment. I’ve looked back with regret at what I imagine to have been Juliette’s experience of my stress and unhappiness during her illness, so it’s an incredibly precious thing to have seen through another’s eyes a snapshot of Juliette’s contentment and the image of me encircling her with love.

It made me wonder whether friends and family around those of us who have lost children have any idea of how much of a gift it is to be handed these ‘forgotten’ memories, when we’ve been robbed of everything else. Thank you, my lovely friend.

Today I will be at work, while the rest of my family will be at home preparing for a barbecue to celebrate Celeste’s final day of primary school. It’s the end of an era for us and it was a deliberate choice to host a party today of all days, just as I have chosen to preoccupy myself with the routine of a job I love. Juliette arranged some thunder and lightning to start the day. I just hope she’s organised some sunshine, and perhaps even a rainbow, for later.

The changed nature of happiness

2012-Feb 2014 1852As a child, even a life experience-short teenager I held to the belief that happiness was an attainable, permanent state. I thought a husband, some children and a house in the country would tick all the joy boxes and once ticked, I would float on my feel-good cloud forever. The fact that the precise moment I had all the above was one of the most miserable of my life is not ironic, it’s almost inevitable. Expecting these elements to be the magic wand was one of the reasons it was not.

As the grey scales fell from my post-natally depressed eyes, cautiously I found joy in my three children again. I believed I had survived the worst and for a while I relaxed. We risked trying for another baby. Surviving that dark period had made me stronger, and on learning that Juliette had leukaemia a year later, I believed we could survive that too.

When Juliette died at the end of nineteen months on treatment, it was a betrayal of my belief that life was essentially good and fair. I did not expect to be happy again. I did not even want to be happy. The fabric of happiness had been ripped apart, revealed to be false, and the vast ugliness of life was all too clear.

In my darkest moments, I wanted to be wherever Juliette was. But I had other children. I could not condemn them as I was condemned, so it was duty that got me out of bed in the morning and duty that made me put one foot in front of the other. Strange, how these insoluble moods become soluble. I didn’t notice how and when this happened.

A year after her sister died, Celeste was born. She smiled, laughed, and I could not help but respond. There were moments of a tainted, guilty happiness. I channelled this into becoming the ‘perfect’ mother, believing I alone could minimise the effect of Juliette’s loss on her siblings. I took up running, completing two marathons for Juliette with a fervour that bordered on self-punishment. More than a small part of me blamed the blood in my veins for continuing to pump when hers had stopped. My daughter had suffered so much worse than burning muscles and lungs, so I pushed myself harder. This, and suppressing grief while I ‘perfectly’ mothered four children, undid me. I wrote about it in my first posts here.

It’s been five years since then, and in three weeks time I will be running my third London marathon, but this time it feels different. During countless completed miles over the past three months, I’ve had time to wonder why. My conclusion is that it’s entirely down to my changed perception of happiness.

The past two years have been an odyssey. Next month marks a year in a job I could never have imagined myself doing in my ‘old’ life, and I am grateful beyond words to have found a role working with vulnerable and often challenging secondary school students. I still do creative writing work with prisoners as well.

I’ve learned the pursuit of perfection, like the pursuit of happiness, is something of a poisoned chalice. As far as perfection goes, good enough is, well, good enough. So I’m not the perfect mother, but I look at my survivors and I am proud of the people they are becoming. I relish the sound of Pierre’s voice from Italy, putting into words his new love for a language and country. After her two years of illness, I feel unadulterated joy watching Elodie dance in her pyjamas on a brief visit home from university. I listen with pride as Raphi describes match goals saved, and thrill at Celeste’s laughter as she thrashes me yet again at snooker. It’s not an accident the charity I’ve chosen to raise money for this time is an organisation that supports children who have been affected by loss. (There’s a link to my marathon page on the right).

Oh yes, and this time I am actually enjoying the marathon training. Working four days a week, I can’t manage the five weekly runs I did last time. Sometimes I only manage three, but it doesn’t matter. Tomorrow I’ll run 22 miles before winding down the training, and I know I’ve done enough. I may record a slower time in the end, but the significance that I can even think about running another marathon is immeasurable. At least it is to me. I know Juliette would be proud.

I make memories now, not tomorrow. Like Juliette years ago in our little London garden, I take time to watch petals fall. Happiness is a work in progress – a journey of steps, some of which have been harder to take than others and more often than not, I’ve had to lay parts of the road myself. More than anything, it is my road and my journey. It’s been a humbling lesson.

Being happy

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This photograph resurfaced recently. I don’t remember exactly when it was taken, but Elodie’s T-shirt suggests it was after one of her Royal Academy of Dance summer schools. We are, from the clue of a green chair, in a Battersea Italian restaurant that was our favourite when we lived in London. We would take Elodie and Juliette there as babies, because it was at the end of our street and the waiters never minded a bowl of pasta upended by a small, chubby hand.

I guess we had taken Elodie there for old times’ sake. She looks ten at the most here, which means it was only around two years after Juliette had died. What struck me seeing this photograph again is the look on our faces.

Pure happiness.

I have no idea what is making us laugh, but Steph’s taking the picture, so that may be a clue. I look as though I haven’t slept for a week, but it’s extraordinarily reassuring and almost a shock to see us look happy, at a time that I remember as being so hard. It makes me wonder at the faultiness of memory, or my memory at least. Anyway, in this instance I’m glad for it.

I’ve just had a week’s break from work and the children have been on holiday, so we joined up with my sister, Dani, and her family on a camping trip to the Peak district. It rained as we put our tents up and mustered supper for the ten of us. It went on raining as the children played, and as Dani and I started on the Whisky Macs and the men on Jack Daniels, graduating to Baileys by way of a nice Shiraz.

It was still raining through our now compromised waterproofs the following morning as Steph and I trudged the ten minutes back from the washing up station, with sore heads and dripping pans and plates. Just as I was feeling everything was a bit grim, Steph turned to me gesturing gallically and with genuine pleasure at the rolling green hills, the grazing sheep and our playing children, filthy and laughing in the crook of the river, and asked, ‘What more could you want?’ Moments like these ratchet up my love for him. His mood is the life raft into which I can leap when mine more inevitably, sinks.

When Juliette was ill, Steph’s optimism was watertight. Sometimes I longed to see it sag a little when I languished in the water, so I was not so alone with my fears. It never did. His faith in his daughter’s recovery was unsinkable, right up until she left us.

At other times, I see Steph as the pole of a Swingball set. I’m just the bright bit of fluff on the end of some string weaving back and forth, then up and down, as life does the hitting. I’m grateful for the way he is. If he were different, I don’t believe our marriage would have survived. So far, we are beating the odds for parents like us and I try not to take that for granted.

Anyway, Elodie, who never joins us camping – (“Why would you want to be outside, cold, wet and uncomfortable when you could be inside and warm?”) – has otherwise inherited her father’s bright outlook on life. She encourages our habit of taking it in turns at supper to describe, ‘the best moment of today.’ After we’d washed the mud off our skin and shampooed the smoke from our hair she asked us each about our favourite thing from the camping trip. That moment walking with Steph was mine, amongst laughing with the sister I adore and noticing how our children bore discomfort with good humour because they were with their beloved cousins. More stained glass moments for my memory bank. I just have to keep looking for them.

Trust

rope bridgeTrust is a precious state. It’s the more credulous cousin of hope, but where breaking hope takes force, determination and time, trust can be destroyed in an instant.

Maintaining trust takes work. When leukaemia swept into our lives uninvited, I was a homeopathic pill-popping, vaccine-foreswearing, spiritual healing aficionado. Informed without ceremony that our perfect three-year-old had cancer of the blood, Steph and I were asked to trust strangers to drug her, cut her open, insert tubes, needles and poison as the best way of keeping her alive. Our trust endured as the medicine made her bald, hollowed her eyes, bloated her flesh and made her sick.

We believed the doctors who told us Juliette would be OK and we trusted them as she failed to fight even a cold without hospitalisation. It was one of these viruses that killed her. Chemotherapy kept her with us for nineteen months but ultimately, it stole her too. But we had no conscionable alternative, and to imagine we were wrong to put our faith in her treatment would make us complicit. Impossible to contemplate.

I have often thought that losing Juliette should have made me tough, suspicious and less inclined to trust. As an inoculation against further pain, surely the clever person would always imagine the worst?

I’ve had more than one incidence of broken trust recently. It hurts. In that state I blame myself for my blind credulity, and long to be a person with a gloomier (more realistic?) view of people and situations. This does not seem to be one of the lessons I’ve learned from my daughter’s death, however.

I would hate to be cynical, but I do wish sometimes that I were better able to protect myself from the pain of broken trust. I always imagine the best. I assume that others will behave honourably in response to my faith in them, and I suppose that’s because I’m hopeful. I believe in the innate goodness of people and, strange to say, in the beauty and richness of life. If that makes me stupid, well, pass the dunce’s cap.