You can read a feature I wrote on the ‘sandwich generation’ for Savista Magazine here.
And a piece I wrote for Peter Jones about finding love on Twitter here.
And a piece I wrote about novelist Sue Guiney’s amazing work in Cambodia for The Weekly News here.
This piece is previously unpublished.
Skips and Slips of Memory
The skip needed to be gone by Saturday, so that we could get the removal van onto the drive. Still feeling a bit battered after the car crash which I had thought was going to kill me, I rolled my sleeves up and got on with clearing my parents’ house.
It had all started the day my mother phoned and said, ‘You’re going to have to prepare yourself for the worst. I’ve got liver cancer’.
That day I’d got on the internet and looked up all I could about liver cancer. Prognosis – not good. Most sufferers don’t make it to two years after diagnosis.
Apparently, I wasn’t allowed to put any asbestos into the skip, or car batteries, tyres or oil.
‘That’s OK’, I said, ‘It’s just household stuff really’. Just memories, just my life.
My father was already ill when my mother was first diagnosed and had been housebound for some years. My brother was suffering from depression and agoraphobia. The last thing we needed as a family was for my mum – who held everything together – to be ill as well.
For some reason, I went into coping mode. I wouldn’t cry in front of them. I wouldn’t be yet another thing for them to worry about. I’d be the strong one. I’d cope and do everything that needed to be done. I’d bake cakes to try to tempt my Mum to eat. At Christmas I cooked Christmas dinner twice in one day to try to persuade my parents to eat something. Duck and all the trimmings at lunchtime; and turkey and all the trimmings in the evening. Shame I wasn’t hungry.
No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake off the guilt of being the only one in the family with my health. The only one able to have any quality of life.
There was nothing I, or anyone else, could do to help my mother. She couldn’t have surgery or radiotherapy. She had chemotherapy but it didn’t work and just made her feel worse. Eighteen months after diagnosis, she died in the local hospice.
I went back to that day as I took her clothes from her wardrobe and put them into bin bags. They still smelt so strongly of her that it stopped me breathing. Almost, I couldn’t go on. I laid aside a couple of things to take home. They didn’t fit me but I couldn’t let go of everything that smells of her.
Coping mode was cranked up another notch after she died. I took out a power of attorney over my father so that I could sort out my mother’s estate. I shopped, I cleaned, I visited all the banks and building societies where she held accounts and completed the paperwork.
Less than two years later, the nightmare started again. My father was diagnosed with a metastatic brain cancer. ‘I can’t believe I’ve got to go through all this again,’ I sobbed down the phone to my aunt.
But I had no choice. This time we were told it would be weeks – not months. There was nothing the hospital could do. My father ended up dying in the same hospice as my mother. The same building, the same nurses, the same chaplain. The same quiet despair. At least in our last conversation, I was able to tell him I loved him.
I could have done with more time to clear the house. Time to go through everything and make a considered decision about each item’s fate. But that luxury wasn’t available. We hadn’t exchanged contracts yet, another source of stress, but I knew we had to. We had to be out by Saturday.
I’d already been warned by friends that had lost both parents, that when the second parent dies you have an additional grief to bear. It’s not just the loss of that person. It’s the acceptance that you no longer have parents at all. It’s stepping up to the top of the generational ladder and realising how lonely it is up there on your own. However old you are, you can’t help feeling like an orphan.
The skip got very full. I’d ordered a medium one. I didn’t order a large one because I was worried it wouldn’t fit on the drive – or that we wouldn’t fill it up. We would have done.
Item after item went in the skip. Bin bag after bin bag.
Some things I had a real crisis of conscience about. Should I throw my grandfather’s photographic slides away? I knew the collection contained pictures of me in my ‘droopy drawers’ phase. Two years old, with my nappy hanging down below my very short 1970s style skirt. I also knew I would never find a slide projector to display them, never have time to go through them all. They went in the skip.
I hesitated to throw away my mother’s broken ornaments. But I had to make a pact with myself not to keep things that were broken. So I threw away the animals that had legs and tails stuck back on with glue and cotton wool. I didn’t understand the presence of the cotton wool when I was a child, and I still do not understand it now.
I threw away books, but only ones with broken spines. And I collected together all the medicines that were strewn around the house – testifying to two long illnesses – and put them in a bag ready to go back to the pharmacists.
Finally the skip was full and I was left only with things I simply couldn’t throw away. Boxes of Christmas cards, photos and letters, the mirror from the hallway and my mother’s collection of jugs and teapots from the kitchen. These, I carefully packed up and took back to my own house.
And then the truck came and took the skip away. It was lifted up on chains to begin its journey to the tip, where my memories would find a resting place with those of hundreds of other people.