Island Blog – The Missing

I’ve been thinking about the Missing. A lot. Like all day long and deep into the nights, nights that no longer call me from my bed about 4 times to give assistance to a dying man. In conversations with my kids and through old and resurrected conversations with my late mum (she was never late btw) I can see how the rose-tinted specs get pushed on to a widowed face.

Who would want to remember the bad times? That’s where I got to. There were plenty. Aren’t there always, in a long marriage, or even a short one, come to think of it? During the years of demise, 10 in my case, when dementia (no capital D for it) slam dunks a wild and living soul, I remembered the bad times too often. I was never sure if the behaviour was what it had always been, or was, now, compromised into something I was required to allow. I still don’t know. What we are as young, we become more so, as old. I have heard that, read it and believed it as I watched my dad demise, my mum and my granny who smiled her lovely smile as her last breath left her body.

However, notwithstanding and by the way, my husband who had been a grumpy so-and-so, at times, over the years, mellowed into the man I first met. Now, I know, perfectly well, that once the prize melts into strong arms, she is both cherished and compromised. Her own identity struggles to breathe at times and I was no different. However, at first I was IT, the Golden Girl, the Answer to All Problems, the Filler of the Black Hole in him and, latterly, I walked with that crown upon my white head. Oh, there you are, I told him, and he smiled like he knew what I was talking about. And, maybe he did.

Over time, life trashes us, or does her best to do so. The world and all her demands, chips away at our ideals and our dreams. We are lost, confused and angry and the one person who gets the gut punch is the one closest. I was always the closest. It is, was, puzzling. In a perfect scenario, that person would be unpunched for decades, but this is not how it works.

Notice that I give both Life and the World the ‘she’. I don’t do that by mistake. She’s can be manipulators, dividers, hoodwinkers. I know I was and it was survival, although I am not overly proud of such a tactic. Women come from a place of caring, of protecting, of surviving in a world that is still (for goodness sake) a man’s world. Men forage, hunt, grunt and fight for their space, oft clumsily, oft without the depth of human understanding that their women have. I have no idea who thought this was a good plan. If you believe that God made Eve from Adam’s rib, then she is already sunk, like for over 2000 years for she can never really be herself, joined as she is by history and an idealistic plan.

So, the remembering and the missing. I choose to focus on all the wonderfulness of my life with this exhausting pioneer, as did my mum. I know who he was. I have the scars. But without him, I would have been a nothing in particular and thus I am proud and glad to have known him. In the last days, when he came down for breakfast, me having washed and dressed him and scooted down ahead of his extremely slow chair lift, my arms full of bed sheets and so on, he would always coracle through in his wheelchair, all rosy-cheeked and looking like a little boy, and say Good Morning, with all the enthusiasm of one who loved every single day of his long life.

And that is the Missing.

Island Blog – Twister

03.30. I wake, come downstairs, make tea. I flick lights on. It’s cold down here. The rain makes the conservatory roof sound like it’s a floor for a troupe of small tap dancers. I stopped the oil flow for the kitchen range, ready for a Monday flue clean. I stopped smoking, something that made sense a few days ago and one that now wonders me. I turn Bon Iver, Holocene up loud. There is nobody here, now, to disturb, and the last line, ‘I can see for miles and miles and miles’ is both a taunt and an excellent description of my husband. He always saw for miles, oft missing the trudging en route to that distant dream. That was my work, Judy, Jude, Wife, Woman, Worker, married to Popz, Topz, the Admiral, Estate owner, Whale Father, Recording Engineer, Fairbs. The Dreamer.

Richard. He didn’t like his name. I thought that weird until I realised I didn’t like mine either, or didn’t relate to it. When I spoke his name he always said Uh Oh……am I in trouble? So, ok, can I call you darling? Honey? No. It was a minefield for years until he finally landed on Popz. Relief, for sure, but also a distancing for me, his wife, a shift he didn’t notice but one that estranged me. He was a complex man, warm around titles, cold around himself.

All this doesn’t stop the missing. Yes, I have the house back, my choice of music to play up loud, the chance to crunch celery anywhere I like but he’s been irritating me for decades and now I wouldn’t mind an irritation or two. What does a person do when there is no chance of that again? Move easily through the days? I never did ‘easy’. Life was never easy. Life was a twister. Life with Popz, Topz, the Admiral was a twister.

I will be glad to light the range again. Somehow the cold outside of me makes the cold inside of me colder. I guess this is grieving. A new housemate.

Island Blog – A Letter

Ten days since you died my husband. One week till your hillside funeral. All of your family think of you every minute, probably more often than even that. Memories come back, moments resurrect and stand tall, blocking our path. And yet we move on, doing normal things with an abnormal head on and a heart all flapdoodle but still beating. Mine feels like wings, as if there’s a bird trapped behind my ribcage unable to escape.

This morning I cleaned your room, now that all the hospital kit has gone. I took my palette knife and some white filler for all the many holes left in the walls, holes that remind me of hand rails and other attractive supports, no longer needed. Neither are the holes. There is a big enough one in me and in our little island home, even if I can move about more freely. The furniture is not pinned to the edges any more for easier wheelchair access. Actually, I did think you were a bit over the top in that particular demand. A wheelchair isn’t that wide, after all. Then I realised you had lost your innate spacial awareness and the evidence of that loss is scraped along doors and lintels and walls. You were pretty nippy in that chair, nonetheless, turning on a sixpence, making U turns and scoots forward when space allowed, and even lurching at great speed down the ghastly yellow ramp which is now looking for a new home.

The leaves are beginning to turn now. Conkers (we always looked for them didn’t we?) are landing on the track but I haven’t found a big one yet. You told me you always won conker battles and you also told me that you soaked them in vinegar overnight, making them like concrete. Scabious peppers the grassy banks finding the best sunshine spots. I saw 6 kittiwakes the other day, your favourite bird, flying seaward up the loch. I don’t think I have ever seen them here before. They came just for you.

The garden is looking a tad tatterlicious and the sweet peas gave up fighting the last big wind, but even broke-backed they bloom and their scent keeps wafting indoors, reminding me how much you loved them. I pick them for the house but soon they will be over for the year. Season rolls into season. You knew the sound of each one, its taste, its demands and its gifts. As one thing dies, another begins to live and that is how you saw life and death – the same circle, a never-ending story.

I am so happy that your dying was peaceful. No fight at all, no panic, no fear, just a soft leaving. And you wanted to go, you said so, to anybody who was listening. And so it is and was and ever will be when someone who cherished every second of a long adventurous life finds the living just too much. We didn’t want you to go but knew you did. We also knew that your living state was very compromised. But even at the last, your humour shone through those cloudy old eyes. Even knowing that the Great Beyond was calling you, hands held out in welcome, you whispered to me ‘ I don’t want to leave you.’

And then, you did.

Island Blog – Gone

When a someone very close is gone, all that is left is a big silence, as if the rooms stop breathing too. In this case, the ‘gone’ is a husband of 48 years, a father to five, a grandfather to 10, a brother to one and a friend to thousands. Nothing he ever did went unnoticed. His high profile life meant he touched on many others, affecting their decisions, choices and opinions. He had plenty of those and was certain he was right. Sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, his core beliefs were like solid boundary walls, impossible to scale. Nonetheless, he made us all think from the other side of what we might have believed to be fact.

I have a million memories. In equal amounts I have been furiously distant, happy to leave him inside his fortress and then right beside him, looking out across the wild expanse of life. I suspect this is marriage in all its honest and raw truth. Nothing worth its salt is consistently simple, not if it has mettle and fire in its belly and our life had plenty of both. When I think back to my rebellious youth I roll my eyes. I was heading off piste rather a lot. In fact, I am not sure I was ever on piste. Then I met him and he seemed able to play both like music, ready for nonsense and lunatic forays onto unexplored slopes and then sliding easily back onto the path well travelled. And, always, guiding me, holding my hand, yanking me back to safety, always my rock. Even when he could no longer do the things he used to be able to do, his very presence made me feel safe. I’ve no idea how I’ll brave the next bit of my life, but I do remember all he taught me and I will always be able to stop, breathe, remember and get the hell on with it.

Rest in peace, you old sea dog. I’m going to miss you for the longest time, even if I can, now, move the furniture around, go where I please, talk LOUDLY on the phone, guffaw at random, turn the tunes up at 7 am and eat celery sticks without having to go to another room for the crunching. The hole you left will probably get bigger. I have no idea who I am without you. It will be an interesting journey for sure and it begins now.

Island Blog – After Party

For a few days I am staying alone in the house we had built around 1992. Living in 2 mobile homes (that’s 3 too short) with five kids, four of whom were teenagers, 4 collies who spent all day wondering where the sheep had gone and who stole overnight that glorious opportunity to run wide, covering miles in a single burst of energy, to come in like a mothers arms on a curve of 50 plus sheep. Impotent, confined, caged and re-acting. Ditto teenagers. The younger ones never listened to me. Their eyes were on their angsty and hormonal siblings who favoured noisy dirt bikes, fire-making and climbing through caravan windows. You have to be skinny, or fit, for that manoeuvre. I never managed it, although I did manage it when I was a rebellious teen, through a well-fitted and spacey sitting room window, but when I told my kids that, they left the room, like bored. I get it now. My escape was feeble compared to theirs. In a caravan/mobile home you cannot drop a feather without someone yelling at you to keep the noise down.

Anyways, here I am. Minding the hens, the greenhouse and the tortoise (where is he?) for the weekend. Alone. I don’t think I was ever alone in this lovely house. We lived here for just 7 years, but there was always someone, a child/adult or all of us plus more, usually many more. This was a party house. I recall one Hogmanay, the pub closing, a band of street performers laughing with us all and me standing up, all 5.3 feet of me and loudly extending a welcome to the whole pub for an after party. Nobody stopped me, not even the husband. It was a fabulous fun night, still in my remembering circa 1997/8. Music, juggling lessons, magic tricks, all of it.

When I look back on the craziness of my life I love the moving pictures. There are people who were changed forever, in a good way, after meeting us, me and the Admiral. They may have gone home in someone else’s clothes but they would always have got home, or we would have sorted it for them. That’s who we were and who we are, albeit seriously compromised just now. Now that it is all carers and nurses and morphine and confusion. Although there are a zillion times I fold, cold and sad and chewing on a bare hunk of bread, there are so many more when I remind myself of who we once were and more….much more….how may young folk came to us over the decades, as marine students, as runaways, as window escapers, as just kids who wanted more than their own bedrooms with posters of Che Guevara on their ceilings. Kids who wanted to live life, scared and all, probably terrified and certainly broke, who took one step, then another, easing gently away from the safe options and landed here with us.

Now the Admiral is heading for the Elysian Fields. He may take days/weeks or months. Nobody knows the answer to that. We all want him to stay in his own home but this is not a given, not always an option. His body is strong, his mind is still here but there are times of confusion and frustration and anger and who is surprised at this? Rage, Rage, Rage against the dying of the Light. Quite Right. I would be raging too, I think. I say, I think, because I have no fear of death. I believe there is either complete peace or a wonderful floaty magical land of unicorns and light and, best of all, the meet of those long gone. Like my Dad, my Mum, My beloved Granny and even those I sort of knew in my childhood but not really. Who were they, what did they think, what did they love, what music, what art, what food, what moments? All of that. So many glorious conversations.

For now, we go day to day, night to night, and I will not pretend it is pretty. But, beyond the now, and I love to celebrate the now (usually), there is hope, and faith and a promise I can paint any colour a like. One I can make into a party of music and juggling and laughter and home.

Island Blog – Lift

First day waking away from caring duties found me tumbler, after broken sleep. For months now I have been up 3 or so times in the night to help the Admiral onto the commode and back into bed again. Sleep has to re-learn the ropes, it seems, like when you have a newborn with disregard for anything but its own needs. It takes a long time to become accustomed to the merger of day and night, for it to become the norm. You look in the mirror at a baggy-eyed face that rather too closely resembles your grandma’s, and she is 83. But with a new born, you know it will eventually pass. Not the same as a carer for a man with dementia, because dementia presents a very different agenda.

I spend the day, mostly, in bed and reading. Reading other’s stories is my lifeline just now, wandering through a forbidding Alaskan landscape or traversing borders closed to the likes of me, a woman, alone, on the run; perhaps the tale is told of a pioneer community, ‘gifted’ lost land on some faraway emptiness, woo-ed by authorities who offer hope when there is only death and starvation. This woman finds her way but not until the chapters are well on into the 20’s or 30’s and during that journey she suffers great loss, overcomes gargantuan fears and grows into the wild spirit she knows she needs to be in order to survive. Such stories captivate me, draw me in, tell me my troubles are easily turned into opportunities should I just find perspective on them.

I rise, at times, make coffee or tea, wander outside to the pub benches and listen to the twitter of goldfinches in the big old trees around me. I doze, lying languid and sated with a storyline, my ears filled with sweet music until it is time for a long warm bath. The first night there was lobster on the menu. It might be on again this night. Anticipation fills my mouth and I smile. Fruit of the sea, my sea, the sea that keeps this island afloat and in the same place, huge mountains of rock, 90% of which are deep below me, fastened to the goodly earth and teeming with life I will never see. People I know wander by in the sunlight, stop and talk. I know most people here so there is news to exchange and smiles to warm us both. But talking tires me at this time. Hearing others terrible tales of relations with dementia, past or present, is not what this rest is about. I make my excuses and go back to my room.

Refreshed and changed I order a glass of wine and pick up my book. Out here folk are beginning to arrive for drinks and a carry out meal; some are driving home from work; some walking dogs. Behind the windows of these little cottages, someone is preparing food, checking that children are clean for school the next day for the first time since March, packing school bags, filling snack boxes, nervous. I turn back to my wine glass to see a tiny fly struggling black across the ruby red surface. Carefully I cup it on the tip of my little finger, lifting it back into the air. I watch it and it marvels me. At first, wings soaked and flat against its yellow striped back, it wobbles and tips. Slowly it eases one wing out, its back legs wiping both surfaces with deft movements. Then it tips its body forward to do the same for its back, its belly and face. I see a tiny golden proboscis curl out and in, so tiny, so perfect. For some minutes it wanders over my hand, faltering as it encounters a hair the size of a tree, stops, moves around it, moves on to the next tree-hair, and all the while cleaning, tipping, proboscis darting in and out. I am entranced all the while to be watching such minute perfection, so privileged to be seeing the whole process of repair.

Then someone comes and says hallo and the little fly lifts into the sky as my own heart sinks. I wanted to see more, to inhabit this secret silent time without loud voices, without questions, without the need to counter or present but just to watch in absolute silence the genius of Nature. The way I felt is never the way I feel around people, much as I love and need them. It seems to me that communication is not always about loud voices and a news exchange, nor of advice given, helpful hints proffered, nor teetered by another’s experience of what they think I might be going through. This fly and me communication I could feel right down to my held breath and beating heart and it was more powerful than any of that. I didn’t want it to stop. I wanted to follow the fly into the sky and to know it, how it lives, where it might land next, what it might feed on, that perfectly formed creature that can effortlessly lift from the noisy world moving lightly and in silence up up and away into the blue.

Island Blog – One Day/Two Days and Rest

A sudden break, like sun coming through the clouds, a chance, a lift. One of my boys arrives, says, Go, Mama, I’ll look after dad for 2 nights.

Initially, I panic. I have not left home base since March 16th. Is the village still there? Do I have a mask? How does this thing work? For decades I have known my way around the island, its little temperamental twists and turns, its moods, its people. I know when to change gear for a steep rise and how to round the bracken that disappears the single track road when it falls away again. I know what to say to someone and when to not say anything at all. My car is as full of fuel as it was 5 months ago. Daily I apologise to Maz the Mini for my appalling neglect, patting her snouty bonnet now adorned with bird leavings. I watch them land, peck at the wing mirrors, pausing for birdish thought, eyes alert and scanning for the hawk. I know how they feel because that is how I feel now as I pack a few things, make a few calls in search of a room, my stomach doing flips, my eyes darting.

Needless to say things are a whole lot easier than I imagine. I am welcomed, Maz flies me down the road, and the village is still there and waving smiles and tipply fingers. But the coaching inn is busy, the car park full of bullish beasts decanting children and parents in shorts, chattering into the sunlit warmth. What shall we eat? Where can we sit at 2 metres apart? How do we eat with this mask on? All very weird. I order a glass of wine, find an empty picnic table and peruse the menu. I know the chef here is an excellent one and there is lobster for a special. I watch the families, finally freed to visit the island, laugh and eat from cardboard boxes, sans masks. The sky turns mackerel, folds and rolls of cloud scales as far as the eye can see. A chance of precipitance. I don’t mind. I have today and tomorrow and a son to thank for it. I’m wound up and restless but anyone who cares for another will know this inner weather. It will take a long while to come, to feel rested, restful. Living on tenterhooks for months and months leaves a legacy. Rest, they say, and I chuckle.

One day, perhaps, when this is over and my insides relocate to their rightful places. One day…..

Island Blog – A Diamond Day

This day we gather for our son’s wedding to his lady love. Well, some of us gather in person, whilst others zoom in, virtually, to bear witness to promises made and happiness shared. This day will be remembered for many years to come. Impressions will stick, spoken words and tributes will be held inside the human heart; moments will be re-lived over and over again. Even as I write, cars full of excited guests and family members traversing the land are googling directions, tweaking outfits and wondering how they look. There will be laughter inside these cars, anticipation and the odd snap of tension as a tail back tails back. The time they all aim for is 1pm on board MV Emma Jane at Dunstaffnage Marina. The sun has appeared, the sea loch is calm, the air soft and kindly. I did my famous Be-Off-Rain dance yesterday and, despite a few clouds, it looks like I haven’t lost my touch.

We cannot be there in person so we are two who will zoom. I want to hear the words, those vows, readings and speeches in real time. I want to see the well-tweaked outfits, the smiles, hear voices and laughter, see children in their wedding kit, the groom and the bride in immaculate finery, their joy complete for they have fought hard to bring this day into their life. Postponed in its original shape since March (thank you Covid) this new wedding design is smaller but none the less valuable, like a small diamond instead of a big fat garnet. The diamond twinkles more, however small; distinctive and distilled into perfection. You must look at closely at it in order to appreciate the way each tiny face catches sunlight and reflects it back like a gift.

This young pair have found each other when neither were looking. They have weathered storms within and without and held on tight. I am proud of their courage and resilience and in awe of their beauty and strength. This day brings to both of them a dream, a completion, a new beginning. Despite the changes they have had to make in order to bring us all together as witnesses, they are making it happen. They never wanted a big fat wedding anyway. What they value most is family, a few friends and their children.

To James and Emma – on this, their diamond day.

Island Blog – The Admiral and a Flag

Please excuse my absence from this page. Although I seriously doubt that my blog is a lifeline for anyone, I do feel a bit odd when I don’t scatter my thoughts across a page to then fire it off into the ether.

Things have, in truth, been a bit diplodocus of late. A urinary tract infection has the power and the subtle and silent energy to turn a flat pancake of a time into a spiralling ball with intent. It upskittled us all, not least the one with it. However, the doctor is a wise and intuitive man, working out what the demise might mean, and it seems he was right, to a degree. Nobody can stop a dementia decline and each blow will manifest itself in that decline. The old Admiral is a frail thing now, still aware and still smiling but much quieter and much more unable to work the field independently. It is very hard to watch. It’s like bereavement, only not. The one slowly disappearing is still very visible in the room. It can go on for years. I hope not. We all hope not. Once a good quality of life morphs into existence, there really is nowhere to go. But there are wee chats, albeit mostly me ‘wee chatting’, and there are laughs when I co-ordinate wrong, or misunderstand a request, guiding him cheerily in a southerly direction when it is clear to him he was headed true north.

He has humour and acceptance. We have talked about the after life. He believes in one, as do I, although neither of us give it a name. He says he doesn’t want to leave me, and I said, well you have to go first. If it was up to me to stick a flag in new territory, we’d end up in a bog with no view and the local shop 10 miles away. He chuckled.

T’is good. For now.