Saturday, May 26, 2007

Seeing the Funny Side

Last week my sister Hope took my mother Esme - currently in cycle number 4 of twelve chemotherapy cycles - to the cinema.

Of all of us, Hope is the offspring who has been doing more of the practical stuff than anyone else. She is the one who accompanies Esme to the hospital every second Wednesday; she is the one who sits with her while they attach the bottle full of drugs to the PICC line in Esme's arm; indeed, she is the one who sat with her and held her hand while they inserted the PICC line - not a pleasant experience, for the patient or the witness. It's fair to say, then, that Hope is loving, solicitous and if anything over-protective of our Ma.

So there they were in the cinema foyer, waiting in a queue to buy their tickets. Now, Esme has been experiencing a vicious little side-effect called 'peripheral neuropathy'. This is when something happens to the nerve endings in the fingers which makes metal and cold things extremely painful to touch. Opening the fridge, for instance, is a nightmare (she has to use a washing up glove). That morning they had successfully negotiated the car door and got Esme to the cinema relatively unscathed. She was feeling weak, however, and couldn't stand up for long.

All of sudden, Esme realises she has left her spectacles - essential for proper viewing of the movie - in Hope's car. Hope, who has just bought an ice-cold bottle of water for herself, insists on going back to the car for them while Esme waits in the foyer. It's pouring with rain, the film is about to start, and she knows at Esme's pace they'll never make it there and back in time.

Give me the bottle, I'll hold it while you're gone, says Esme to Hope.

No! barks my sister. You mustn't touch the bottle!

Oh I'm sure it'll be OK, says my mum.

NO! You can't have the bottle! says Hope. I'll get your glasses as soon as I've got the tickets. Now, GO over there, SIT down, and DON'T TOUCH THE WATER!

Esme, who knows that she goes all funny if left to stand up for any length of time, duly does as she is told.

By this time the queue has moved on and Hope finds herself at the head of it. She looks up at the box office assistant, only to find the woman watching her, aghast. Clearly, she believes she has just witnessed a nasty case of elderly abuse and is wondering what to do about it.

She only wanted a drink of water, the woman says, accusingly.


Friday, May 18, 2007

Tanka, for Esme

I am often wordy. Too wordy, methinks. So as part of the ongoing writing practice I thought, I know, I'll enter a Tanka writing competition (as you do).

For those, like me, who thought that a Tanka was a rather large truck, it's useful to know that, like the Haiku, it is an ancient Japanese poem based on a strict syllabic structure: five lines of 31 syllables, arranged as follows: 5-7-5-7-7.

So I wrote the Tanka. Then I discovered I'd missed the closing date. So I thought, I know, I'll post it on the blog.

Hope I won.

Spring’s mixed offering:
cherry blossom and cancer
carpeting the lanes.

It shocked me to discover
you will not live forever.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Noting the Joy

Ever since the gloriously named Elsie Button, who has a 6 month old baby, left the following comment, I have been pondering:

I keep reading all these stories people have written about these bad days
with their children, and sounds like I have it all to come.

Yes, there are quite a few scary stories out there, aren't there? Probably because there are quite a few sleep-deprived, worry-driven, over-worked and under-appreciated parents out there, too.

I don't think it's just that, though. Through the discipline and joy of the regular writing practice blogging bestows, I have come across a bonus I never expected. In writing about the bad experiences, I can make sense of them, and of myself in the process, and find a powerful place for self-reflection. Something there is almost nil space for in the full-time parent's/carer's day.

But perhaps I do tend to write about the more difficult, challenging side of child-raising more often than I write about the joy. When I wondered why that is, I realised that it is much harder to write the joy. But tonight I put Madeleine McCann's face onto this blog, and tonight Elsie Button has a six-month-old baby gurgling in her sleep, and it seems very important to try. So, Elsie, for the record:

I cannot imagine any one single moment eclipsing that when Anna-mouse was put onto my chest for the first time, and she looked at me, blinking and unphased by the length of my record labour and the cord around her neck and the lights and the scores of people in the room. Welcome to the world, little one, I said. Welcome to the world!

And something wonderful came with her: a sense of achievement. At last, here was one irrefutably special thing which I had made happen. A true contribution to the world. A person. A mark. This made me feel, and continues to make me feel, ridiculously proud.

Not least because she spreads love. Anna-m spreads love and laughter and I reap the smiles in her wake. She draws abundance to her, I have noticed. She was born between two blue moons. Perhaps this is why. She has sealed multiple healings for me. She leads the way in loving forgiveness, as far as I'm concerned.

Hard to express the profundity of the satisfaction in holding her vibrant self every day. Holding her physically - oh the unadulterated sensuality of the perfect, peachy body in my arms after her bath! - and holding her metaphorically, guiding her, keeping her to as true a path as I can. When she was tiny, Elsie, I swear, her hot, soft head smelt like candy floss, or caramel, or toffees - a different sweet every night... I cried the night I gave up breast-feeding for good, struggle as it sometimes was, giving up as I was the soft pawings of her tiny fingers as she sucked; the coos and sighs.

Yes, there are bad days. But even when they outweigh the good they are as nothing to the moments of joy. To realise she has a sense of humour! A jovial, prank-playing, Irish sense of humour I could not possibly have imbued in her myself. Which brings me to a more private joy - that which I get when I watch them together, the Bim and her, from the playroom windows. The satisfaction in knowing that the huge leap of faith paid off: she has a father who will never leave. That pain, at least, I may have spared her.

And now that language is everything, oh the pleasure in literally seeing the words come, the thoughts form. And being able to shape that, throwing my own love of words into the mix.

But the best thing about this creature, this fizzing, funny, self-possessed girl born of nothing but love, is the love she engenders. In others, but in myself and the Bim most of all. She floors us with love. At mealtimes, she takes our hands, me one side of the booster seat, and the Bim the other, and holds them to her cheeks. We glance at each other and want to weep.

Once, she painted a picture, an abstract in sweeping, swirling turquoise. Asked what it was of she replied without thinking 'The sky above Mary Poppins'. That is what children do. At their best, which is what I am concerned with tonight, they shed new light on life. They illuminate it for us, and represent a kind of living hope, like the candles we light in church.

So, there. A few reflections, Elsie. An impossible task, I fear. Let me take one more stab at it: Nothing, nothing in life is quite like choosing to be there to cherish a child.

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Bad Day, for Another

Here is a little story of a winter's day in 2006.

At the time, I was too all-over-the-place and, if I'm honest, appalled at myself to write it down. Just now I read Wife in the North's desperately honest account of a truly bad day - which reminded me of my own.

Wife, I humbly dedicate this story to you, and to anyone else who has lost it, the plot, and themselves of late, in that highest pursuit of all, child-raising:

So two-and-a-half-year-old Anna-mouse had just discovered several important things.

One, that she could shout 'No!' really rather loudly, quite alot of times, and that it had a startling impact on her mother. Two, how to do that incredible body arching thing which made getting her into the buggy well nigh impossible. And, three, that the effect of doing the opposite to what was required of her was far, far more interesting than complying. Oh, and she was teething - those last, thumping great behemoths, the back molars.

Something propelled me out of the house that day. It was cold, child and I were at war, I was frantic, and hot flushing, and anxious beyond all measure at the recent, sudden, ante-upping in previously angelic child, but rather than put on C-Beebies and hide, I thought -what? That the fresh air might do us good, I suppose.

A few hundreds yards and thirty minutes of toddler-dawdling later, I decided to bite the bullet and get her back into the pram. The wind was whipping us about and I was desperate to get to wherever we were going. After what felt like decades of kneeling, weeping child thrashing her little hands into the pavement, wailing 'No, Mummy, no!', and alot of just-what-kind-of-mother-are-you glances from a number of passers-by who had clearly never in their lives had sole charge of a goldfish, let alone a tantrum-ing child, I picked Anna-mouse up and by a series of rather physical manoeuvres I vaguely remembered seeing on The House of Tiny Tearaways, buckled her into the buggy.

A couple of minutes further down the road, as I raced us maniacally into the oncoming wind, I saw a man coming towards us. As he passed me he waved his two hands in my face, pointed at Anna-mouse and said 'Gloves!'

Reader, I lost it.

PISS OFF! I heard myself yell. He was clearly surprised, though not half as suprised as I was - really quite a polite, well-mannered person in the normal run of things. He stopped dead and, fair play to him, engaged in a kind of conversation.

I'm sorry, he said, I only thought that if my hands are cold, hers must be too...


Oh, he said. Right, he said. Yes. But I hadn't finished yet. This probably rather nice man had unleased a demon and nothing was going to make it stop.


I'm sorry, he was saying. I'm sorry, he said again. And all of a sudden, as suddenly as it had come, the beast left me, and I was sorry, too.

No. No, I'm sorry, I began to babble. Again, I think he was surprised, but by God he was hanging on in there. A lesser person might have got very angry back, or walked off swearing by now.

I'm just so tired, I confessed in a very small voice, near tears. I've had a terrible day, and I really didn't need this, I said.

We continued the contest to see who could apologise more for a little while longer, then I wished him well and we continued on our separate ways. My hands shook for several hours. Anna-mouse, who had been meek throughout, was hugely cheered and clearly thrilled by the whole encounter. She behaved herself for the rest of the day.

On reflection, I thank God for that kindly stranger who allowed me to shout at him until I had emptied myself of the strains which had been building up for so long. I think that I had come to a line that day, and that man helped me not to cross it, to have a little glimpse of what was over it, turn around and come home. To my child, and to myself.

It's not nice to reach the line. I got there with one child. Wife, you have more. I salute you.

Friday, May 11, 2007

In Evidence of Love

How are you? I asked my father yesterday. I cradle the 'phone to my ear and stare absently at the bird activity going on in the garden.

I'm feeling old and creaky, he says. And if truth be told, the news about Esme has rather demoralised me.

Of course it has, I say, trying to sound practical and breezy, as if I'm taking this huge admission in my stride. After all, she is your closest contemporary.

Your ex-wife, is what I could have said. You know - your conscience, your reminder: the woman who played 'mother' to your 'father' and remembers what days were like in the 'Fifties. The one who holds safe the memories, and has kept the faith, in love and anger, all these years.

I don't say any of this. I'm simply glad that he has someone to whom he can say what he has said, and happy that the someone is me. It's all a little bittersweet, but I'm a great believer in things being better late than never.

This afternoon in Esme's flat, mid-supper-making for Anna-mouse, my mobile goes. It's him. I wonder afterwards if I told him where I was going to be today. After a couple of minutes juggling new potatoes and mobile phone I ask him, casual as can be, if he'd like a word with Esme. Yes, yes, put her on, he says.

So I do. And for the second time this year I try to appear as if I'm not listening to a conversation between my parents that I'm actually desperate to be privy to. I realise that I'm so used to the volatility of their connection that I find myself hovering at the kitchen door, straining to check the tone of the chat, just in case I need to intervene. But this is not necessary. They want to talk to each other. They need to talk to each other.

Afterwards, Esme says as much, and that she's pleased he asked to speak to her. I glance briefly at her face. It's alive, interested, slightly flushed - and not because of the drugs. It takes only a split second to decide there's no need to let on that it wasn't quite like that. Same difference, I think.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Day. Nap. Day

I like your skirt, says Granny to grand-child, soon after our arrival.

It's my turkey skirt! Anna-m says proudly.

Esme looks at me for translation.

Yes, it's your turquoise skirt, isn't it darling, I say.

We are in Esme's bedroom. It is bright, light and breezy. The view, good even on bad days, is positively zinging with Spring. The greens are new-minted, the sky balloon-blue. Anna-mouse is disappointed that we have arrived too late for Granny's ritual make-up application, which happens at the dressing-table in front of this view, after her shower each morning. When she can manage it, that is. Yesterday was a bad day; I don't think there was any make-up, though I didn't ask. She passed it alone, too weak to move anywhere but round the flat, and got dressed at 6pm. This is how I know it was bad.

This morning, though, she is frail but beautiful, and her energy is up again, ready for dispersal in short bursts. I have been experiencing bouts of doubt and confusion about chemotherapy treatment - not just Esme's but generally, for everyone, anywhere - and feel uncomfortably guilty and disloyal for feeling so. I admit to the Bim before Anna-mouse and I leave for London that I am not looking forward to the day. So it is a relief to find solace almost immediately after arriving in the ever-deepening, gentle and good relationship between Anna-mouse and her grandmother. I love watching them together. I love it when Anna-m, several days after a visit, will suddenly wail I want my Granny!

To mitigate the make-up disappointment, Esme finds Anna-m a little cloth bag, into which she allows her to put an old compact, a mirror, a tiny freebie bottle of moisturiser, and a lip pencil. I make a little shrug to myself: an actress mother, an actress grandmother with greasepaint stirred into the genes and I want to keep her away from the stage? Who do I think I'm kidding?

We move into the sitting-room, where Anna-m spends some time massaging moisturiser into her already unimaginably soft, peachy cheeks, then takes the lip pencil and gives herself something nearer to whiskers than red lips. She's delighted with herself: I have a painfully clear vision of me and the Bim attending one of her First Nights.

I make lunch for all, field telephone calls to Esme and generally run the show. After lunch, I make Esme a hot water bottle, and she wraps herself up in a blanket on the sofa - the same old woollen blanket I remember being wrapped in as a child. While she takes her nap, Anna-mouse lounges on my lap and I read her The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher . There is something poignant about the post-prandial lull, something about the three of us, three generations of female in the one room. I am especially aware of the handing down of memory and experience today: in the Beatrix Potter, which I knew so well myself, and in the moment I lift the lid of the cake tin I have brought with me, revealing a mound of fairy cakes, half with raisins, half with glace cherries.

But they're exactly like the ones I used to make! exclaims Esme, almost surprised.

Of course, I say. That's the idea.

The afternoon sees us in Waterlow Park, a small Victorian marvel of a place, with hilly paths and benches marked with the names of erstwhile park lovers. Esme has to rest on one such bench the moment we arrive. She is 'rather appalled' by her extreme weakness, and asks if it has surprised me, too. I say no, I thought it would be like this, from what people say about chemo. What I don't say is that I expected it to be even worse, and dread it becoming so. The effect is cumulative, they say, and toxicity builds. Esme knows all this - we all went over the info with fine toothcombs when we first got it: I try to tell her how amazingly well I think she is coping.

As I drove towards London this morning there was an item on Radio 4's Woman's Hour about Ann Oakley, feminist, sociologist and writer, who has written a work entitled Fracture, about her response to a very bad bonebreak to her right arm. She discusses how incredibly strong the link is between our bodies and our sense of identity, which can be unhelpful and difficult at times of illness or bodily change. This is something I have thought much about since Anna-m's birth, when my body changed in numerous, unwanted ways - and changes still, in response to the different life I am living. I think of it again, talking to Esme; how more than ever she has a body, but is not her body. Which of course begs the question, Then who or what are we? I could go on. I will, as the thoughts which have eddied all day settle, and make some sense of themselves.

Today, I can answer tangentially: today, Esme's footprint appears to be light upon the world. Her slight, elegant frame barely disturbs the air as it passes. But the impact of her spirit is immense. I see it in the act of will that got her to the park in the first place; in the act of will that makes Anna-mouse cling, wailing, to the park railings when I say it is time to go; and in my own will, now, way past midnight, which makes me pick my head up once again from the keyboard and tell myself Write, damn you! It's what you want to do. Find the words. Make it make sense. Tell the story of the day. You're not going to bed until you do.