Category Archives: Life generally

Miles of marvellous memories

09-03-2015 194328It’s twenty years ago this weekend that I set off on one of the greatest adventures of my life, walking the South West Coast Path.

I was 33, Devon chief reporter for the Western Morning News and very lucky that editor Barrie Williams agreed to me doing this as a work role and writing about it every week.

It was a different era and somewhat unusual to undertake a personal challenge of this kind, but Barrie saw the potential for it gaining a following with readers, and supported the aim of raising money for the RNLI and the air ambulances for Devon and Cornwall.

Apart from my dog, I walked mostly on my own. This was before mobile phones were in everyday use, the signal was patchy as masts were still being put up, and it was pre any social media. My husband John had last minute reservations, but I talked him into letting me go, though I did have a knot in my stomach as I set off.

I had no idea what I would write about, but I was sure things would happen, as they do on any journey. Within the first week my dog Tilly had had an accident that meant she couldn’t continue and I had to call on John to deliver our other dog Toby to Barnstaple and take injured Tilly home.

It was the first of regular trips to see me on route, as John would drive down each weekend to whatever point I’d reached, bring me clean clothes and collect my dirty ones. My mum and dad would also meet me at intervals, and a number of Western Morning News readers joined me at various times – most memorably William Smith, of St Ives, 36088172_2024269717583739_5085394170709803008_nwho became a regular companion, waving the flag of St Piran as I crossed into Cornwall and accompanying me on the Cremyll ferry as I returned, in William’s words, “to England.”

I have many abiding memories, and people are certainly one of them.

So many kindnesses from the lifeboat crews and supporters who I stayed with, including sleeping in the stations, Western Morning News readers who invited me to their homes, people who gave me meals and lifts to where I was staying overnight, those who sponsored me including some children who emptied their money boxes into mine at Brixham, and everyone who walked with me, family, friends and strangers.

Other memories are of the stunning scenery, the sea a constant companion, with the ever-changing landscape capturing a unique frame of its beauty. With July 1998 turning out to be one of the wettest on record, squelching springs to mind, as does scorching, the last week through Dorset was high 20s hot every day.

Phone boxes! I spent many an hour in those phoning over my copy every Monday to the patient WMN copy-takers, sometimes taking an hour as the features were across two pages each week.

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In these days of digital press a button, tell the world in one go, it’s strange to think how important those phone boxes, copy-takers and photographers were to deliver the story.

So much has changed in twenty years. In my own life, not least that my wonderful parents who supported me hugely, have both passed away, and my husband John now requires my daily help to look after him.

I still do a lot of walking, but am more likely to be found running along the coast path these days.

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I was in Woolacombe last weekend for the North Devon AONB marathon and it was striking how much more the coast path is appreciated and used – this spectacular natural feature on our south west doorstep offers us much and is there, basically for free, to be enjoyed.

I was running along the path again today, this time closer to home at Otterton, where enterprising farmer Sam Walker at Stantyway Farm has opened up an honesty café, a wonderful peaceful spot for a coffee and piece of cake at just £1.50.

That surely beats some 1998 prices. Life, like the coast path, brings ups and downs in many different aspects, some things change irrevocably in 20 years, others stay the same.

I have miles of marvellous memories from the coast path not just from that 1998 walk, but prior to and since. Throughout our lives – whatever the path throws up – nature is there to nurture us.

The 1998 walk raised £3,200 for the RNLI and the air ambulances of Devon and Cornwall.

 

 

 

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My beautiful mother

I started this blog five years ago. Mum was always one of the first to read it and post a message of encouragement…so it seems fitting today to pay tribute to my beautiful mother.

These are my favourite pictures of her – when she was 16 and the last photo of her, taken two weeks before she died, as she was walking, with my sister and I, on the second anniversary of dad’s death.

It’s a year today since we lost her.

Her passing at a healthy, lively, active, happy 76 was sudden and unexpected – a total shock to her family and friends, the health professionals who assessed her in A&E twice, on a GP home visit, by phone, and I’m sure to mum herself.

As the person who spent most time with her during those four days, and was looking after her when she died, it was an earthquake in my life, with tremors that still continue.

Few deaths come without pain or sorrow, for those who are lost and those who loved them. I’ve reflected on both for mum, many times, in many ways. I thank the people who have listened and understood. You all know who you are.

With the heartache comes the joy of remembering, celebrating, realising how fortunate you are to be able to recall many happy memories, how lucky to have so closely known someone who brought much laughter and kindness into your life and of others.

Richard, the counsellor from Cruse, who’s helped me immensely in recent weeks to come more to terms with mum’s loss, suggested I record a quality about her each day for 40 days – in summary she brought her own spark and beauty to everything she did.

I take comfort in feeling mum’s influence and her presence still. I know for instance that she’d be wanting me now to get outdoors, walk the dogs, enjoy the sunshine…enough sitting here reflecting.

She kept a book of cuttings and verses she’d transcribed. This is one by Joyce Grenfell that she’d copied several times…

If I should go before the rest of you,

Break not a flower, nor inscribe a stone,

Nor, when I’m gone, speak in a Sunday voice,

But be the usual selves that I have known.

Weep if you must,

Parting is hell.

But life goes on,

So…sing as well!

The birds are out there singing, it’s a beautiful day. I’m going to spend it walking with my sister at Babbacombe Downs, a place with many happy memories, including mum and dad’s 50th wedding anniversary, September 2012…and, where they’ll be with us today.

I nearly overlooked to say that Mum’s book she used to write in, is titled on the cover: “Be the Reason Someone Smiles Today”. For me, she is.

Mum Dad Oddicombe Beach 1-9-12

Happy Here and Now!

I woke up this morning not wanting to let this year go.

How to contemplate the thought of a “Happy New Year” when the scars of this one are raw and painful.

However “happy” it has been at times, it’s the year in which my mum died and it’s hard to bear the thought of moving into the next one without her. To leave her behind in 2017, when collectively the world lurches, with party poppers and fireworks, into 2018.

I want to stop all the clocks. Make the hands still. More than that I want to turn back time. To run as hard and as fast as I can through the months, the weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds.

In my review of 2017 I want to go back to the moment my mum was alive and do everything differently. EVERYTHING. I want to save her.

Many times this year I have wanted to not move on – to evaporate, dissolve, to simply not “be”. Mentally slumped on the forest floor willing a carpet of leaves to blow over me, cloaking me in the blackness of a forever sleep.

Thankfully, a chink of light has pierced the dark canopy each time, brought me out of my gloom into the sun. This light is the love of family and friends, the attention seeking antics of my dogs, the solace of running, the beauty of the outdoors, my writing and my photography, the kindness of strangers, the advice of professionals, and the patience of many.

2017 has been a year when many people close to me, around me and in our community have lost loved ones, when I know other people have struggled with finding the light, finding the “happy”.

When I woke up, the thought of getting to 2018 seemed like an insurmountable wall to climb, how could I get through the end of this day, let alone it being the end of the year.

Then out walking, looking up at the vast sky, I realised it already was 2018, is 2018, in parts of the eastern southern hemisphere.

That as the champagne waits to go on ice here, someone somewhere is clearing away the corks.

That time is just a label, happy new year an annual mythological utopia, and that all I wish for myself and for all those I care about and love, is happy here and now.

Some of my favourite chink of light moments…

 

 

 

Reflecting that sh*t happens…

Life in recent years has at times felt as if large piles of manure have landed at my door.

My dad’s decline and death through vascular dementia, my long struggles with “depression” leading to me being diagnosed as having OCD and PTSD from childhood fears, my husband John’s stroke and his deteriorating health with diagnosis of early signs of dementia, and then the biggest pile of poo of all, the sudden, unexpected death of my mum.

These events, especially the traumatic way mum died, are things I can’t mentally let go of, seep away – they fill the recesses of my mind, never far below the surface, always festering, bubbling, suppurating.

I’ve been aware for some while, that the effect on my mental state is a sense of being overloaded, unable to cram more in. I’ve become more anxious, panicky, forgetful, absent-minded. Effectively there’s restricted room for more cr*p.

I thought about this, having earlier today stared down into a pile of poo in our garden.

The toilets had been backing up when flushed, water filling the shower tray and not draining properly, odd glugging noises coming from the basin.

A very nice man called Brad from Drainsolve came out to have a look and explained the problem: “It’s your septic tank love. It’s not draining away, not percolating like it should be.

“Come and have a look,” he said pointing at a thick brown sludge uncovered after digging into the inspection pit. “There’s a build up of too much solid waste for the water to soak through. If nothing’s done about it, you’ll have sewage flowing down the lane and backing up right into the house.”

Nice! I got the picture.

“What do you want to do?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be here,” he answered without pause.

Brutally honest, but fully understandable.

And it’s a sentiment I know well – carrying around a head that’s a full septic tank, where nothing flows through clearly, where my ability to resolve life’s issues sometimes feels backed up to the point of overflow – yes, sometimes I don’t want to be “here” either.

Brad left, assuring me this wasn’t the worst job he was dealing with, though possibly the second-worst, and promising to return soon with a digger.

I walked the dogs to the playing field and sat on a bench, feeling panicky and short of breath, the overflow valve on overtime.

Brad had a digger for the suppurating septic tank.

What kind of tool do you use for festering myriad mind?

I was pondering this question feeling lost in gloom and darkness as I walked on up the river.

The sky turned an amazing deep shade of blue as if to reflect my mood. And suddenly, a beautiful rainbow appeared, for a fleeting, but magical moment.

Rainbows remind me of dad and always make me happy.

They’re a reflection of how we’re feeling, in this case, that sh*t happens, but somewhere the sun’s rays are shining through the rain.

 

Life Awareness Week

I feel caught in a perfect storm of life’s difficult-to-deal-with-moments.

Every seven days it seems there’s a new awareness week for something.

This weekend marks the end of Dying Matters Week and Mental Health Awareness Week and begins the start of Dementia Awareness Week – three topics on which I have a current speciality.

Get me on Mastermind this instant and I’d answer every question. That’s how “aware” I am!

Having lost my wonderful mum less than four weeks ago in sudden, unexpected and traumatic circumstances – yes I’m going through the numbness, the “it can’t be true” questioning, the guilt of feeling in some way to blame, responsible, at fault for not doing more to prevent it, mum having died at my home, in my care.

The knowledge that professional help was sought on several occasions and that paramedics were there when mum died, because I called them, does little to stop me going over the course of events and trying to change them.

I feel physically ill, my body is doing strange things – even down to drastic bleeding from my gums a few days later. I go into physical spasms of grief, screaming aloud in my sleep, sobbing in a supermarket car park. This is not about wiping the tears away with a tissue.

I’ve been totally lost for words, unable to string a coherent reply to a question. Bad dreams, nightmares, getting up in the middle of the night, forgetfulness, I can tick those boxes, that’s if I remember and focus hard enough.

And the flashbacks and intrusive thinking, that’s all part of it.

That side of it, I was pretty accomplished at already. For 25 years I’ve suffered from bouts of depression, including at times self-harming because of the mental agony I’ve felt. My recurring anxiety, spiralling, hamster-wheeling doubt was diagnosed as OCD four years ago, with childhood traumas recognised as being part of the root cause, leading to 20 weeks of intensive therapy.

It helped me a lot, in learning how to deal with it, but it never totally goes away, so yes, I’d say I have a pretty solid awareness of mental health issues.

Dementia, is one of my identified trigger points – the scary demon in my basement. It’s something I’ve been terrified of since a child, when my lovely grandmother’s increasingly eccentric behaviour was put down to being “senile” with very few people at that time bothering to try to understand.

Thankfully, dementia awareness has increased massively since those dark days and there’s been a shift in public consciousness, research and care.

I learnt lots more first hand about this cruel disease, when my dad was diagnosed in 2011 at the age of 70 with vascular dementia, dying just over three years later. It was a journey of mixed emotions, challenges, despair, anger, grief, but also laughter, compassion, enlightenment, and love.

This Dementia Awareness Week remains hugely relevant and important to me – my dear husband John having recently been referred by his GP to the local memory clinic. The appointment is in a few weeks’ time, 20 years to the day that we got married. Happy Anniversary Darling!

It will also be a few days after the biggest event of my life, a women only marathon, which I’ve taken a lead role in organising and aim to take part in.

It’s called Women Can.

I love the positive affirmation of that simple straightforward statement.

The medals arrived yesterday, 450 of them glistening in a box. They made me think about all those women out there, going through their own journey of awareness, issues affecting their lives, but still signing up to our event and taking part, because through running, endurance running in particular, pitting yourself against that challenge, you learn that women can, men can, we all can.

It’s about getting through the tough times yourself and helping others through them also.

About being life aware.

Thanks to all the special people who are life aware, who have been, and are continuing, to be there for me.

*Special thanks to Sue, a counsellor with the bereavement charity Cruse, for her recent clarity and insight and her recommendation to visit the website of the charity Sudden Death – awareness definitely helps! For information about mental health issues go to Mind. For information about dementia research go to BRACE.

A Woman Who Could

When I conceived of the idea of the Women Can Marathon less than 12 months ago, it felt a daring, ambitious plan, not unlike running a marathon itself.

Family and friends are hugely important in helping runners get through the arduous training, comfort after the physical hard slog of putting in all those miles.

Chief of my support camp in this regard was my mum – always positive, ready to help, offer words of advice, encouragement, thrilled at every little step forward, sympathetic if the training schedule went a little awry, getting me back on track, heading towards that end goal.

Just seven days ago it felt like I’d reached the last 10km on the course – much hard physical effort behind me, a burst of energy required to push on the final six miles.

With a “head coach” like mum, I felt ready for the final part of this challenge, a drive on to the finish, mum shouting the loudest cheers and encouragement.

She fell ill last Sunday, and it was like I’d been knocked off course, stumbled. But mum remained steadfast, still behind me all the way. Despite being unwell – her main thought not her own poor health, but me completing my challenge.

“Don’t worry about me, go for it,” was essentially her message.

I pressed on as best I could, confident of her recovery, a bounce back to become main cheerleader before I reached the finish line. She was fighting my corner even from her sick bed.

You can hit a wall in a marathon and edge painfully over it, but when an earthquake erupts on the course and the road ahead explodes in front of you leaving a cataclysmic gap, then it’s impossible to keep going.

To use a military analogy, no plan can survive contact with the enemy.

Mum’s illness turned out not to be the “wall” but the earthquake. The enemy not a sniper, but an army.

She collapsed and died on Wednesday night.

I have been buried in the rubble, the fall out ever since, my marathon progress halted, no head coach to pull me out.

My own personal race support team – the rest of my family around me – we’ve all taken a massive direct hit and are reeling from it, shell-shocked.

With the dust slightly settling, I can dimly make out that the course is intact. Other members of the marathon organising team are out there working hard to clear the debris, help me forward, keep things on track.

I want to lie on the ground and abandon any personal attempt on my part to try and reach the finish line. Bail out, be written down as DNF, Did Not Finish.

But the words of all the best coaches don’t leave you. Death cannot remove the influence and guidance that coach played in your life, even when they are gone.

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The last picture of mum, taken two weeks before she died and on the second anniversary of dad’s death.

So I’ll pick myself up. I’ll press on, however, hard these last few miles are. I’ll give every bit of my energy to reach that finish line.

 

The rest of the marathon organising team I know will try and make it as easy as they can, do their best for this incredible, inspirational event. My family will rally and help each other get through.

And that’s what mum would want, because she was a woman who could, also fearless and strong to the last.

*This is the first post I’ve written that mum won’t be here to read. She read every single blog I’ve written from the start and was always the very first to “like” it, write some comment of encouragement. Mum I miss you already SO much. But I know you would say: “Come on, pull yourself together. You’ll be fine.” RIP my lovely, beautiful mother. X

 

Pax Tecum

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It’s a strange, confusing, difficult world at times…

…a world of conflict – from our own internal mental struggle to the misery and devastation humanity can wreak upon itself.

…a world of struggle – overcoming obstacles, striving to do your best against the odds

…a world of doubt, fear, judgement and anxiety – those demons that prey on our inner consciousness and can taint our wider view of society at large.

But it’s also a world of good things – of love, joy, laughter, friendship.

A world of positive energy that helps us overcome adversity, in whatever form it takes.

Today is World Alzheimer’s Day, a collective global raising of awareness about dementia and its profound impact on those living with this cruel disease and those who care for them.

It’s also the International Day of Peace.

When my dad was in advanced stages of his vascular dementia and could no longer speak, some words that helped me were the opening lines to Desiderata: Go placidly amid the noise and the haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

My grandfather, a devout Catholic, instead of saying goodbye at the end of a visit would often say: “Pax tecum”.

Whatever suffering in this world – from Alzheimer’s to xenophobia – and whatever one’s view of religion, on this International Day of Peace: “Peace be with you”. What better quality to wish for?