Just over a week ago I was mentally congratulating myself on having got through the winter with no more than a few sniffles.


As spring sunshine turned skies blue and my neighbours socialised in their gardens, I was wrapped in my quilt, the light filtered through the half closed shutters, my temperature risen and my head pounding.

It’s amazing how quickly things fall apart. I can easily understand how people are reduced to eating sardines out of the can; leaving the washing up; allowing laundry, cleaning, everything to slip. Illness, physical or mental throws us off balance, upsets our routines, our systems; reveals the chaos that lies just beneath the surface.

I had to work on Saturday and again on Sunday morning. It’s all a bit of a blur, but I was very glad to get home and into bed. There I stayed for two and a half days with some breaks lying on the sofa or letting MasterB in and out.

At least it provided some precious reading time when I wasn’t sleeping. I read Helen Macdonald’s sublime and extraordinary H is for Hawk which won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction last year. After her father died, she decided to train a goshawk. Continue reading

Raising the Bar

The elders of my family set very high standards that I fear I am unlikely to match.

Aunt received the news we did not want on Wednesday; she has oesophageal cancer.

Is she cast down; feeling sorry for herself; weeping copiously?

Not she.

I think she has hardly been off the ‘phone in forty-eight hours. I’d almost say she’s enjoying herself. Well, I have said it; she’s enjoying herself.

Two months short of her ninety-second birthday she’s taken control; said no to chemotherapy or any other invasive treatment; made clear to all concerned that she wants to be in her own home; to be nursed in her own home, if that proves necessary; to die in her own home when it happens. Continue reading

Being Mortal

I seem to be spending a lot of my time thinking about death at the moment. It is probably the influence of several things:

Aunt had a suspected heart attack a few weeks ago; Aunt in Belfast died last Monday; there was the walk to remember Mike who died of pncreatic cancer; yesterday was Remembrance Sunday; it would be Mother’s 95th birthday 26th November; after hearing him interviewed by Will Self at Conway Hall last week, I bought a copy of Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End.

Celia rang me as I was hurrying off to work this morning to say Gawande was on Radio 4’s Start the Week. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I have checked that it is available to listen to on the BBC On Demand online. Continue reading

Of Early Mornings, Kitsch Boats and Transient Friendships

It was our free day today. I opted to go on a boat trip to see Mount Athos. Naturally I didn’t read all the available information and was somewhat taken aback by the appearance of the boat. I have never seen, let alone been on, a boat as kitsch.

I am going to make you wait for another post to see the pictures, but it featured pirate statues, gold dolphins, two lion statues, rigging and no sails, toy cannons, and a pretend castle. That’s probably the half of it, but my horrified yet fascinated gaze edited out the rest, and I could not bring myself to photograph some of its excesses.

The boat was a big clue as to the tone of the day. A day off where I had to get up earlier than for any of our walking days.

Don’t get excited about my photos of Mount Athos; I’m not. We had to stay a respectful five hundred feet from the coast, but I suspect the commentary, in German, Russian and English, and generally in that order, reached some of the monks at their labours or devotions. Continue reading

Death, Here Is Thy Sting

On Sunday there’s a memorial service for Caroline. She died just before Christmas last year and I still keep expecting to see her in Marks and Spencer somewhere near the veg counter.
It’s been a year of deaths.
My dear friend Maria lost her mother recently. Afterwards she wrote to me: “The funeral was very much like her. We all felt it matched her life perfectly. So we were all comforted by it.
And the funeral brought to us all her friends and all our friends and, thus, we were, and are, surrounded and supported by their love and by the different aspects of her personality they unfold before us.
I feel grateful to have had her as a mother and as a lifelong honest, generous and loyal companion.”
A good funeral then, but I can’t read Maria’s words without welling up. That awful disorientating period of adjusting has begun. There is no way back.
My friend Celia also lost her mother. For some weeks we had the dying mothers conversation, and Celia’s Mother was the one identified as being on the road with no return, with Mother merely frail in second place. Then Mother suddenly accelerated, sped into the fast lane and died first. Celia was, by chance, one of the last people I spoke to in London before heading East for those final days. Continue reading

All Souls Day

Mother’s name was said aloud in two churches today. Two candles were lit in her memory.
I wasn’t there. None of Mother’s close family attended. Not because we didn’t want to, but distance and other commitments, problems with transport, all mitigated against.
One of Mother’s closest friends attended the service where her funeral took place. I hope he said her name loudly, that it rang remembered around the chapel that she never attended except in death. He was unable to be at the funeral, so it was right he was there today.
I do not know why the knowledge that her name was said out loud in front of others feels so powerful, but it does. I don’t ‘get’ Hallowe’en. I do ‘get’ All Souls day. Continue reading

Probate and Holes in the Memory

I am nearly sorted with the probate forms. Just waiting for a couple of bits of info from the pension service and that should be that.
So I thought I should start to get everything together ready to send off. I have a file with all the papers I have received since Mother died. The death certificate was not in it.
Now I know I have a death certificate. Actually, I have two. I signed them and paid for them when I went to register Mother’s death. I have had to show them to the solicitor and to the bank. But my mind was a total blank as to where they were.
I did find them eventually. Neatly inside another folder. One I had used at the beginning before I realised how much paper was coming my way.
I can look back at the visit to the bank but it seems like another person, another world. The spaces in my memory of those first two months are like the work of industrious moths. The very fact that now, four months on, I am able to fill in the forms with some sense of coherence tells me how much better I am coping. Continue reading

Floating Thoughts of My Parents

I guess it is fairly inevitable that when I come to das Boot thoughts of Mother’s final days accompany me. They move from background to foreground without warning, but they are always, always there.
Why the slight movement of the galley curtain in this evening’s breeze should bring the moments just after I heard she had died into sharp focus I do not know. But suddenly I am there again, looking out of the window at the boat moored across from me. My coffee at hand. An event anticipated, expected, sometimes almost desired when we thought of what Mother’s future might be. And the stillness of it, the nothingness and the enormity wash over me once more.
I was teaching full time when my father died. I got the news as I was going to bed. The next morning one of my my main concerns was that I had exercise books of several classes at home as I had marked them the previous evening. I suppose it was displacement. My head of department told me not to worry, my pupils could work on file paper for the time being. She was right. Continue reading