Sunday, 22 January 2012


22nd January 2012 Sunday

I pack most of my suitcase before it gets dark.

We leave for Heathrow tomorrow morning. It’s hard to believe this journey is finally beginning. We booked this family holiday a year ago to accompany my cousin on his pilgrimage to scatter his brother’s ashes at the site of our grandfather’s grave at Knysna in South Africa. Where he also took the ashes of his parents - each time.

I didn’t know then that it would turn into another kind of journey - for my father. The perfect place as well to take ‘a rest pause’ as my mother used to say, and feel into the loss of him. And find a way to celebrate him - our family together - in the heat and the dust of the continent which nourished his soul.

And now it’s not too late to paint my toenails red.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Flying Sparks

21st January 2012 Saturday

I feel panicky and stressed in town doing last minute chores and shopping - deodorant, suncream, toothpaste, something to read, collecting the trousers I had shortened, taking books back to the library, posting letters.....

When I meet our friends in a cafe for coffee, their dear faces calm me and I remember I had a life before my father died - but it had a different shape then....Iots of tears around the table when I tell them the story of his burial - touching their big open hearts......

While I make lunch - carrot and coriander quiche left over from ‘The Wake’, and the last bits of salad in the fridge - my husband lays the table and puts away yesterday’s washing up. I feel his loneliness, his loss of how to make a contribution now, like a ripping tear in my side - which I bat away and let getting-on-with-the-packing take precedence. He picks up his walking boots and heads out into the wind and spitting rain. I start the ironing.

I know what’s happening - I have a gap in my life now, a yawning, aching space that was filled up with my father. And I’m afraid that the smouldering volcano of my husband’s brain disability, bubbling underground, will rush in and drown me. So even when he holds me close I keep a little distance in my heart - on the look out for flying sparks.

And I forgot about cutting the mustard.....

Friday, 20 January 2012

Cutting The Mustard

20th January 2012 Friday

No good words tonight - I have run dry.

The wind is rattling my window, my husband is asleep and the bath has gone cold. I have been writing most of today - letters and emails - but my head is full of the stuff I haven’t done - like deciding what to pack for South Africa.

I find a blog I wrote last January about a visit to my father. When I ask how he is, he says,

‘I’m dogged by that things-left-undone-feeling.’

I re-assure him there is plenty of time.

But you know me,’ he says, ‘I don’t like to let the grass grow under my feet’.

Which is why I think he decided to leave. If you are a man of action, watching the grass grow doesn’t cut the mustard. And I know if he was here and he read that he would say,

What’s the origin of that expression?’

And he wouldn’t rest till one of us had looked it up on Google and printed it out and he’d told the next person who came to see him what ‘cutting the mustard’ means.

I will look it up tomorrow. And let you know.

Thursday, 19 January 2012


19th January 2012 Thursday

I wake up with a hot dry cough lodged in my chest. And an ocean of something which isn’t only sadness sloshing about in the whole of me. A dear friend describes it for me when she says the death of your father changes your inner landscape - the usual reference points removed. I feel cut adrift even though I didn’t realise I was tethered.

This morning more phone calls and emails and letters about my father come in - each one precious and filling out the bright canvas that was his life. One friend says he was ‘an endless encourager.’

Unseasonal asparagus and boiled eggs for lunch and then my husband and I collect our new glasses and sunglasses from the opticians. And a fat wad of South African rand from the bank. This time next week we will be in another continent. In the hot dry landscape of summer - untethered.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

We Buried him Today

18th January 2012 Wednesday

We buried my father today deep in red Devon clay.

Our six strong men and true lowered the coffin down on wide white silken bands.

We held on to each other to stop ourselves slithering in the claggy mud and each dropped a handful of earth and a yellow petalled flower onto the woven wicker and brass below.

They sang for him then, his Zambian friends, his favourite hymn in Chiila. And his old friend, the ex-president, white handkerchief in one hand, leaned on his stick and spoke softly, words of love and honour and gratitude for the big life of my father.

So now it’s over but tonight I can’t find words for this staining feeling, a thin reed call pulled from a place I hardly recognise, a primitive, clamouring, shameful wail which says,

‘What about me?’ What will I do without my daddy?’

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Wake Soup and Photos

17th January 2012 Tuesday

There was a hard frost in the night. I thought the roses at the grave would have frozen but my brother-in-law phones me at noon to say they have survived.

I stay in the kitchen all day cooking for the wake tomorrow - soup and quiches and cake.

Tonight I trawl through all our photo albums - three book shelves of them - and hoik out random pictures of my father over the last thirty years - and what I notice is how animated he is in them - usually deep in conversation, his finger raised in the air or listening to someone or growing something or building something - with my mother, with us, with his grandchildren, with his friends. Always with people - extending his love.

My favourite photo though is the one of him taken in 1999 in Chipapa village with a small African boy sitting on his lap. They both look totally at home.

I must go and wrap the chocolate brownies in foil now and make a list of things not to forget to take tomorrow. Like the saucepan of Squash and Cocnut soup outside the back door.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Mad Cows and Roses

16th January 2012 Monday

8.30 am - I sit with my husband in the Endoscopy department at the hospital. The lovely male staff nurse is explaining the procedure he will have to go through. When he talks about the possibility of cauterising a polyp with a snare I interrupt him and translate it for my husband.

The staff nurse looks put out and says,

Are you a nurse then?’

We tell him about the semantic dementia.

You should have said and I would have taken it into account’.

I thought it was in his notes,’ I say.

One of the questions on the consent form is about CJD. The staff nurse recounts the story of Mad Cow Disease in this country. My husband says he’s never heard of it.

Later, when my husband is in the theatre this man comes to find me and says,

When I talked to your husband about his work he was completely fluent’.

And he used to know all about CJD,’ I say.

‘He seems like a lovely man,’ he says.

He is,’ I say.

I’m sorry you’ve lost that part of him,’ he says, and I look down at the magazine I’m reading so he doesn’t see my tears.

By the time I arrive at the cemetery the sun is already low on the horizon, the sky glazed with orange and red behind the sillhouette of the trees. I’ve come to clean up my mother’s gave - to welcome my father on Wednesday. I wash the grass cuttings off the oak cross, wish I’d brought some oil to feed it with, polish the brass plaque with my mother’s name on, but it doesn’t shine, and arrange a bunch of roses and tulips the colours of the sunset in the pincushion flower holder set in the plinth. They flop and swivel and look a mess but my fingers are frozen and it’s dark so I drive away and trust they will survive the night.

And I realise it so doesn’t matter if they don’t.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

His African Heart

15th January 2012 Sunday

The tributes for my father have started to come - flooding in....

‘No-one who came in contact with your father was ever the same again.....

‘We loved that man....

‘He was a great pioneer and a fearless fighter for the things he believed in....

‘I am writing from Zambia....I was happy to see that his role in the Independence struggle was recognised on the TV news last night...’

I wish he was here to read them all.

Today the wind is biting cold through my coat. I push my trolley round the aisles in Sainsbury’s with my list of things to buy for the lunch after the burial next week - we are calling it ‘The Wake’. It was going to be a family only occasion but it seems that some Zambian friends will come too to honour him in the African way.

It only seems right really - everyone knew his heart always belonged to Africa.

Saturday, 14 January 2012


14th January 2012 Saturday

The tears come today - at any time, anywhere....... sitting with dear friends in a cafe for breakfast, the windows all steamed up.......

talking to an old school friend on the phone - we grew up together in Zambia - our fathers worked together.....

finding a card from my father with the face of Boticelli’s Venus on the front - he wrote it a year ago on 12 01 2011.....he says - ‘I have read your recent blogs and see clearly your gift for writing was given to you for a purpose....’

opening a beautiful card from a dear friend - she quotes Thomas Campbell

‘To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.....’

seeing in my diary that I had written ‘visit Pa 4pm’...........

sitting on the sofa with my husband, playing a game of scrabble and suddenly it hits me like the optician’s puff of air in my eyeball ......I will never hear my father’s voice again.....I know it's true but I can't quite believe it - like when my husband says, 'What does parental mean?'........

Crying when you have a cold makes it much worse - now my ears are blocked too - everything muffled - like being stuck in a glass box.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Day After

13th January 2012 Friday

While my husband goes to the funeral parlour to see my father’s body, my sisters, my niece, my brother and I all crowd into the florist's and look at pictures of wreaths and flower arrangements to place on top of a wicker coffin. We choose red and burgundy and white - gerbera daisies and carnations and just one lily - lillies push the price up beyond reason.

We choose the words to engrave on the brass plaque for the oak cross which will join the one marking my mother’s grave. Now it will be theirs.

We have lunch in The Boston Tea Party cafe and toast my father in ginger beer and sparkling water.

We walk along soft sinking sand at Sidmouth. The sun lights up the rock pools and we tell each other the stories of my father’s escapades in Sidmouth, and even though the air is very cold we eat ice creams in his honour.

Tonight I’m empty tired - missing my father. I feel like I’ve lost an ally - he got it skew whiff sometimes but he guessed how shitty it is with my husband now and just kept beaming his love on us. And sending me sweet cards with quotes in them in his sloping handwriting. Like this one in a card with a kingfisher on the front,

‘Whatsoever things are true and beautiful, think of these things...’

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Shooting Star

12th January 2012 Thursday

It was the last time. My father died this morning. Every time I remember he isn’t here now it’s like touching a bruise in my heart.

Last night when my sister and I left him, I cried a bit in the car park. But then she saw a shooting star above us - falling in the dark through all the other stars. The Bushmen say it’s a sign of a soul passing to another realm.

I’m glad he’s there now. Where he chose to be - in the Light.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Ole Blue Eyes

11th January 2012 Wednesday

When my sister and I leave him tonight my father gives us his little wave - cupping his fingers towards his palm - twice. He smiles his lopsided smile and his eyes follow us.

One or both of us have been with him all the time. We call him “Ole Blue Eyes - like Frank Sinatra”, and he laughs. Then he coughs and it rattles in his chest. Sometimes he’s in another world or a nightmare and he plucks at the sheet and pulls it over his head. Or he picks up my arm, his grip is strong, and raises it to his face or pushes it against the bed. When we ask him if he’s hot or cold he says No. Yesterday he couldn’t speak at all. He puts his hand on his chin and says very clearly,

It’s better to be misunderstood.....Since I had a stroke.....

He winces when the carer hauls him a bit further up the bed.

Are you in pain?



In my back.

We put another pillow behind him and he sighs and sleeps briefly. He has a strange sweet and sour smell.

The carer wipes inside his mouth with a lemon flavoured glycerine stick.

When the rattle in his chest gets louder and more clacky I ask them to call the doctor. He comes with a nurse when it’s already dark outside. She will put a tube in his chest which will drip feed him morphine and something else to dry up his cough. He isn't eating or drinking.The doctor says it’s unlikely he will recover

I’m so grateful for today when my father was funny and a bit weird and he played with my hand - even though he thought it was something else - and when his blue eyes looked into mine I felt he knew me.

Tomorrow the morphine may take away his sparkle but at least it can’t take away the memory of this day.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Phone Call in the Night

10th January 2012 Tuesday

I’ve been half expecting it - the phone call in the night. But it comes from my sister at lunchtime when I’m clearing away my soup bowl. The doctor just called her - our father has had another stroke.

We sit on either side of his bed. He’s propped up on lots of pillows, all skew whiff - his head lolling to the right, his mouth a gaping black cave, his eyes closed. His hands are very hot. We open the windows. Every now and again one of us squeezes a drop of water onto his tongue from a small pink sponge on a stick. He coughs and swallows and opens his eyes a little.

I lean close and say “Hello, Pa.” He looks at me and I think he tries to smile but his lips won’t move properly. They are very dry and chapped. He closes his eyes again. My sister and I eat a few of his Elizabeth Shaw Mint Chocolates that someone gave him for Christmas and talk across the bed and hold his hand and stroke his bumpy head and watch him breathing and sleeping - his right hand clutching and grasping the air as if it was a cup.

And I remember how it was with my mother on the night she died.

Much later they call the district nurse to check his catheter and my sister and I drive home to our husbands. And then start making the phone calls.

I keep wondering if I should go back and sit with him through the night. Will I regret it if I don't? When I call the home they say he is the same but I can come in if I want to at any time. I make a mug of cocoa and remember how much he used to like hot chocolate. I realise he won’t taste it again. Probably. Because you can never know when the last time is the last time.

The phone call may come in the night but I will see my father tomorrow.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Word Perfect

9th January 2012 Monday

Feel weary and grumpy tonight - maybe because we started a diet. I’m stuffed full of spiced up vegetables and prawns but I still have a ‘what else can I eat?’ hole inside. And I know the answer isn’t chocolate.....

This afternoon I take my father a bunch of daffodils but he’s deeply asleep and only opens his eyes when I kiss him goodbye and he doesn’t register it’s me. My big sister visited him this morning bringing a Zambian friend from Oxford. She said they said The Lord’s Prayer together and he was word perfect. The senior carer - the man he really likes - the one who went on Amazon and bought my father’s autobiography - because he says it makes a difference if you know who they really are - these old people he cares for - who weren’t always old - shows me my father’s care plan and it seems he fell out of bed at six o’clock this morning but didn’t hurt himself. And he was sick on the table at lunch.

It’s good they write everything down so you can track the history of what happened - the white bones of decline - the facts. But not what it means. Each of us makes up a different story about that.

The moon took my breath away this evening, a huge proud plate, hanging low in the sky marbled with silver clouds - in full perfect bloom. The thing about the moon is that it always slinks back just when you think it has disappeared forever.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Monochrome Pewter and Pearl

8th January 2012 Sunday

I end this first week of a new year lying on sloping Sidmouth beach all wrapped up in coat and scarf, a bumpy mattress of pebbles under my back and shards of silver sun on my face. The sea, the waves, the sky, the clouds, the sand, the stones are all monochrome pewter and pearl lit up by a flash bulb sun streaming a wide path across the water. And just for a minute or two I’m spellbound - I forget I’m me and only hear the gulls and the scrunch of boots on pebbles, a dog barking, the smell of wet seaweed by my ear and the whole empty sky above me going on forever. And I realise this is a rare moment for me - not talking or walking or listening or worrying - just being monochrome quiet and feeling the earth below me and cold then warm air on my face. I feel like a rescued whale, basking, knowing the sea is full of krill..

Then my husband says he needs to pee so we skid and slide across the pebbles to Jacob’s Ladder and go in search of fish and chips for lunch.

Friday, 6 January 2012

It's Dark in This Cave

6th January 2012 Friday

My husband leaves the house early to go to London on the train. Like he used to - but not to see clients this time. I ask him where he’s meeting his friends. He can’t remember the name of the place or the tube stop but says he knows how to get there anyway. I have to trust he won’t get lost. He grew up in London so the Tube map must be lodged in his cells somewhere.

I have the whole day to myself. Our lovely carpenter arrives to measure up for floor to ceiling shelves in my husband’s office to display all his weird and wonderful clay creatures. The shelves will replace the four filing cabinets which are echoey empty now. Not suitable storage for heavy products of the imagination.....

I melt fat squares of dark chocolate, stir them into a mess of roasted hazelnuts, sticky cherries and broken digestives - an edible birthday present for a dear friend.....

I drape wet sheets over the radiators.... clean up pussy cat sick on the bedroom carpet....print off the Easyjet tickets for the holiday I booked for us yesterday - a week in March in Portugal.....pack away the Christmas baubles....remember to take flowers- early daffodils - next door as a thank you for looking after the pussy cat when we were away....

And tonight I cry in the car driving back from my seeing my father. His cheeks are sunken. His false teeth are so loose they fall into his mouth. One of the Paracetamol tablets gets lodged under his plate. These are some of the things he says, his eyes closed as if he’s dreaming -

I wonder how Britain will cope.....

It’s dark in this cave but there is brightness outside....

Getting tired walking along this path.....

Eating off this table....chin on the table....

They are very satisfactory these cardigans...

I can’t find him anywhere, can’t reach him at all - this man who was my father.

I know there is a nearly full moon tonight but it’s hiding somewhere - lost in the black weeping sky.

Thursday, 5 January 2012


5th January 2012 Thursday

Too cold for salad so I chop and slice lunch - old veggies in the fridge, new veggies from the wind swept market this morning - leeks and carrots, ginger and garlic, mushrooms and savoy cabbage - pile them all into a pan and pour over boiling Marigold Bouillion. We end up with a crunchy Chinese soup - flavoured with soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and piquant red chillis growing in a pot on the kitchen window sill. I still can’t get warm but talking about our coming trip to South Africa with my sister stokes my childhood memories - white, burning hot beaches, salt spray and rowing boats.

My stomach always lurches when I turn into the drive of my father’s residential home. How will he be this afternoon? My sister says he has been sleepy and confused the last few days. When I open his door he is awake in the chair, the TV on. He is still in his dressing gown and pyjama top but not bottoms - his legs covered in his new Christmas purple fleece blanket. He asks me to turn the TV off. I tell him about our trip to London and our walk in Hyde Park and how people used to make speeches on soap boxes to anyone who would listen. I remind him that he was a student protestor in the mass rally in Trafalgar Square in the 1930s.

What was I protesting about?’ he asks.

I want to say, ‘everything’. All his life he protested and tried to change what he thought was wrong. In the 1930s it was against weapons. This morning it was about getting dressed. Still battling - but the stakes aren’t high enough now. And he can’t remember who’s in charge anyway. I suspect he has a feeling it isn’t him.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

A Fresh Wind

4th January 2012 Wednesday

The house is full of wind tonight - swishing in through the cat flap, whipping through gaps in the sash window frames, screeching down the chimneys.The bathroom tiles are icy under my feet but I’m glad to be home after our sojourn in London with my husband’s little family, my sweet niece and her boyfriend and two dear friends who know and love us like well worn gloves.

And I fell in love with the Victoria and Albert Museum - not just the exquisite jewellery collection and the ceramics exhibition but the cafe too - a room decorated and painted to within an inch of its life - its pillars and tiles and giant chandeliers made me feel like I was in Paris or Vienna. Every crumb of moist orange cake, deep frosted carrot cake, cranberry and cinnamon scone that we shared was as memorable as the entwined Rodin statues and the diamond encrusted necklaces displayed in the galleries.

All of it a fresh wind blowing me into the start of 2012 - imagining I can live with loss and uncertainty, and not let them be the only colours in my palette.