Friday, December 18, 2015

Darkness and Light

Christmas is fast approaching and this time next week most of us will be sharing the day with loved ones, be it friends or family. The expectation is always that it is a happy time, but in my experience it is often a time of contrasts; light and darkness, tears and laughter, joy and sorrow.Which is why my Christmas books tend not to be fluffy and sparkly, though they have elements of it. I find I can't write about the turn of the year without examining the shadows that hover in the corners of the warmth of the fire.

Make a Christmas Wish starts with a tragedy - my  heroine is killed in the most prosaic way doing her Christmas shopping. It's a shitty thing to happen at any time of the year ... but at Christmas? Somehow it makes the pain worse.

I haven't experienced that particular situation, but this time four years ago, my beloved mother in law was dying. We were given the news that she had incurable leukaemia in the May, so it wasn't a surprise, and it came on top of several years of her health failing involving many many trips to hospital. Three years earlier, she was taken ill just before Christmas. She'd had a couple of funny turns - one at a family party, and one when I found her sitting on the floor having passed out - but she seemed to have got over them. But that Christmas I went to pick her up as she was staying with us for the festive period, to find her sitting in her dressing gown in the dark, unable to move from her seat. I remember particularly how she sat staring at the shaft of light coming through the curtains and telling me how pretty it was. She had a particular genius for finding the light in the darkest of moments. I went into her kitchen and discovered complete chaos. From being able to manage on her own, suddenly it was clear that the effort of tidying up after her had become too much. It was a heartbreaking moment. Rosemarie was an independent strong woman, and from that point she lost a lot of her independence.

After calling the doctor out, I managed to get her back to our house, and she rallied a little. Displaying her usual cheerfulness, and responding with joy to all the things the children had made her. One of my daughters (who'd been there the day I found her on the floor) made her a little angel on which she'd written, Omi, I will always look after you. She was eight years old, and that made me weep. We got through Christmas Day, despite the children taking it in turns to come down with stomach bugs, and then when I went into Rosemarie on Boxing Day I discovered that she'd been sick in the night. Typically, she hadn't wanted to disturb me. Boxing Day was a total nightmare, as we spent the day tending to her needs. We were due to spend time with my family and had to put them off. On the 27th we were seeking for emergency social care cover, which understandably wasn't forthcoming, but thanks to my brother in law stepping in, we were able to get away for a couple of days. We had a happy time with my family, but it was all the while tempered with our worries about what was going on at home.

The following year things were worse. Rosemarie had a fall in the autumn, and spent time in and out of care homes and hospital till Christmas, when it was deemed she was well enough to come home (she wasn't). We were going to have  her for Christmas, but she told us she didn't feel well enough. So we decided to take Christmas to her. We only lived up the road, so I cooked the turkey and we had planned to take it round to her, but when we got there, she was in no fit state to celebrate. She was in a lot of pain and my brother in law had had to call out an emergency doctor. So we had lunch at home while my bil sat with her, and then swapped places, taking the children round to open presents as she lay in bed watching us all. At times like this, having children around is a definite bonus. It was important to us that despite the drama, they enjoyed the day too, and again, they came up trumps, showering Omi with hugs, and giving her little gifts they'd made, including a tiny doll sized pillow that she kept close to her bed ever after that.

The rest of the Christmas season passed in a horrible blur, we had to call the District Nurse out one day,  and she had two trips to Casualty ending in her being hospitalised again. Fortunately, she rallied round after that, and we had a very special year in 2009 when she was 85 and we managed to give her a wonderful party, and enticed some of her German friends and family over. That Christmas, she was well enough to come to us, and we had a lovely time. No one was ill, Rosemarie loved being there; darkness and light. That year was pure light.

However, the following spring it was clear that her health was deteroriating, and it was then that we found out about the leukaemia. She declined slowly over the summer, and by the autumn, much as she wanted to stay in her little flat, it was clear that she couldn't stay there any longer. So she came to stay with us. By then we knew that we were looking at a matter of weeks, and it had been our hope that she could die in our home. However, along with the leukaemia she had huge mobility problems, and in the end we couldnt' manage her care in the way she needed us to. So after a bad night when she turned to me and said, "I think I should be somewhere else", reluctantly we accepted that the best place for her was the hospice.

It was the end of November 2011. Christmas was fast approaching, and with it all the same chores that needed doing: present buying, card writing, getting a Christmas tree. All these things needed to be done, but at the same time, we didn't know how long we had left with her. The hospice she was in, The Princess Alice in Esher was utterly amazing. The staff were kind and thoughtful, and loved Rosemarie, who was a model patient, and even when she was feeling dreadful could always raise a smile. I realised once when I visited her, that her eyes danced across her face. They always expressed love, laughter and courage. She was really the most amazing person. And in those darkest of moments, she taught me how to be strong, how to love, and how to face the future when it seems at its bleakest.

Weirdly, a lot of the time it wasn't sad visiting Rosemarie . We had some very funny moments with her, and a particularly riotous visit when we got out her old accordian and my daughter played and we all laughed a lot. It seemed extraordinary to have these moments of deep joy in the midst of our abiding sadness, but they came these occasional flashes of beauty, and I remain grateful for those memories.

The week before she died, I took one of my children in. It was clear now we were in the very last stages, and I was praying that she would go soon and quickly, while at the same time yearning for one more day. I can't remember what we said to one another, but it was a very happy visit, and as we left the hospice a rainbow appeared, which somehow seemed fitting.

By the Wednesday, she was deteriorating rapidly, and finding it hard to talk. One of the doctors came in and with extreme gentleness, held her hand, and said softly, "That smile is still there, but a little less energy today."

The following day, the day she died, was utterly harrowing. Rosemarie could barely talk and was in great distress. I was exhausted and desparing and didn't know what to do. That time, my youngest daughter, with the simplicity of a child took her hand and just babbled nonsense at her. I came away thinking, I can't do this anymore. A selfish thought perhaps, it wasn't me dying, but I couldn't bear to see her pain. A very dark moment indeed.

Fortunately, I opted to go back in the evening with my husband. By then Rosemarie was on a morphine pump and unconscious, but she was peaceful, and not most importantly not in any pain. So our last sight of her before we left, was a comforting one.

That night we had a call at 10pm to say we should prepare ourselves. Our eldest daughter was out, so I went over to fetch her home. And then we waited for the phone to ring. At 11.45 the call came. The older three all got up, and our oldest daughter insisted on coming with us. It turned out they had discussed it and decided she should come to look after us. Just writing those words makes me well up. We left the other two weeping and comforting each other with huge bars of chocolate (which I'd bought in advance in case of such an eventuality).

The journey to the hospice was swift and silent, but I was struck by how loud the birdsong was as we got out of the car. Rosemarie would have loved that, she was always keen on wildlife. We were met at the door by the staff, "We're sorry, they said, "your mother passed away five minutes ago."

So we went into see her, lying in the room we had visited for so many weeks. Radio 3 was playing and as per our instructions, the window was open to let her soul fly out. It was a deeply sad moment, but at the same time I felt at peace knowing she finally was.

Dark and light, tears and laughter, joy and sorrow. These are always the things that will stay with me about Christmas now. And for that reason I will cherish the moments I have with my family this year, good and bad. We have to hold on to those we love. They will not be with us forever.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Make a Christmas Wish: The playlist

All my books usually have playlists, which I normally compile as I'm writing the story. However, this year due to a combination of lack of time and computer problems I was a bit late in the day sorting it out. So here it is for your delectation and delight; the songs that inspired the story, and helped it on its way...

Livvy, the main character in MACW, came to me fully formed some years ago. She jumped into my head, and all I knew about her was that she was a very angry ghost. Initially I was inspired by Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit in which a dead wife haunts her husband. But then when I was looking for a new Christmassy theme, it struck me that A Christmas Carol was also a great place to go for inspiration, so I married the two themes together and came up with Livvy, Adam and Emily's story.

If you haven't read the book yet, Livvy is knocked down at the beginning, just after she's discovered her husband, Adam is having an affair with Emily. So the first song on the playlist, has to be Wuthering Heights, by Kate Bush, which perfectly captures Livvy's distress and anger about being shut out of her old life; all she can do is look on from the sidelines.

Livvy and Adam have a son, Joe, who has Asperger's. Although Livvy is an imperfect mother at times, she loves Joe with a fierce protectiveness, and fights hard for him to get what he needs. So cheesy and all, Joe's song for his mum is You Lift Me Up by Westlife; although he can't express his emotions very well, Joe adores his mum, and all he wants for Christmas is for her to come back to him.

Run to You by Bruce Springsteen is for Adam and Emily. They know their love affair is wrong, and they don't want to hurt anyone, but they are drawn together by a force which they can't control. When Livvy dies, they are left in limbo - do they ignore their feelings, or do they carry on? And how long is a decent enough time to wait...

Wire to Wire by Razorlight is for all three of them: Livvy, Adam and Emily. Livvy and Adam's relationship ended up being a toxic one, which is what has sent Adam into Emily's arms. Yet if Livvy gets her heart's desire, and a second chance with Adam, Emily will be heartbroken. No one wins in this situation, and it's an impossible dilemma.

The Ghost in You by the Psychedelic Furs is for Livvy - who is at once apart, as no one can see her but Joe, but also very much missed, by her son,  her husband, and her mother.

Murder on the Dance Floor by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, is for the ghosts who inhabit Underworld, a nightclub for the dead underneath the local theatre. I had a blast writing their part of their story - just because they're dead, it doesn't mean they can't party!

Spirits in the Material World by the Police - I like the idea that all around us there are the spirits of those who've not passed on yet, lingering (I hope) mainly because they can't quite leave their earthly loves and lives behind.

I Put a Spell on You by  Nina Simone. I adored writing the character of Laetitia, the mysterious spirit guide who lives in Underworld, and offers to help Livvy. If you've ever seen the film, Death Becomes Her, I drew inspiration from the character of Lisle von Rhoman, who seems to offer Meryl Streep the chance of eternal life. As in a lot of magical films - you might not necessarily like what you wish for...

You Know I'm no Good by Amy Winehouse.  Livvy has to finally face up to what has happened in the past before she can move on, and this is for the moment when she discovers some very unpleasant home truths. I don't believe that Livvy is no good, but that she has been overwhelmed by a very difficult situation. What always shines through is her love of Joe.

Do you hear what I hear? by Whitney Houston and Carol of the Bells by John Williams are both lovely Christmassy songs which I thought were appropriate for the ending of my story.

And finally.... Angels by Robbie Williams. I've used this song over and over, because it's such a good one for mothers. But this time it's Joe's tune. To him, Livvy will always be an angel in heaven, and a star in the sky....

If you have Spotify and would like to listen to the playlist you can here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Having your own weather

I have mentioned this before, and I am mentioning it again, as since I have entered a perimenopausal state officially (unofficially I reckon I've been in it for several years) I have come to realise my woeful ignorance about something which affects all women eventually, and goes on for YEARS. And yet is a subject people shy away from as somehow embarrassing or awkward.

I was therefore delighted to hear  Dame Sally Davies, The Chief Medical Officer say that this is a topic which shouldn't be taboo, especially in the workplace. And pleased to hear Kathy Lette on LBC the other day, talking about this very subject. Her dry comment that, You get your own weather was particularly apposite on a day when I was fanning my face constantly. Hurrah I thought, finally, the menopause is being discussed openly.

Just think about this for a moment. Not all women have a bad time at the menopause, but many do. Symptoms include: heavy periods, incontinence issues, forgetfulness, moodswings, hot flushes, dry vaginas, loss of libido, anxiety, exhaustion, stomach problems, etc etc  And all while we try to carry on our normal lives, be it working, looking after chidlren, or most often than not dealing with elderly relatives .

 It can be exhausting and demoralising realising that even the most simple tasks sometimes feel overwhelming. And yet it's something we DON'T talk about. It's not just at work. I don't think I ever discussed the menopause with anyone properly till it started happening to me. And it starts off a bit furtively - Oh yes, I have heavy periods too, yes I'm always hot, before you realise the majority of women your own age are going through similar. Information is scarce - I have suffered heavy periods for the past ten years (I have a bulky womb apparently, but we shall let that pass) - and only discovered in the last couple that the mirena coil can help with that. Incontinence issues are really common, particularly if you have had children. I only learnt what my pelvic floor was when I was pregnant for the very first time aged 30, and though I have done exercises on and off over the years, it's not apparently enough. I think ALL women should  be taught about this at school, because ignorance, and embarrassment talking about it makes for a very miserable middle age.  Over the last year I've been seeing a fantastic women's health physio (I didn't know such people existed, but frankly they are the unsung heroines of the NHS) who taught me among other things that you can have physio on your vagina and IT HELPS. Why did I not know this earlier?  As an educated middle class woman my ignorance is staggering.

So... going back to Sally Davies. I think she's right that women should be able to talk about this openly with their bosses in the workplace. Although the reasons she gave:  the forgetfulness, woolly thinking and tiredness aren't the ones I would mention. Flooding - a sudden surge of blood when you are having your period - is commonplace for perimenopausal women and though it hasn't happened to me at work, I know many people who've experienced this. Along with the incontinence problems, these are two horrible physical things that can happen to women, which are embarrassing and humiliating. It isn't something I'd want to rush up and announce to people (luckily I work with women so that makes it a bit easier), but if there was at least an understanding that these things happen and it is no big deal, I think it would make life a lot easier for all of us.

And as for the guy who texted LBC to say all women should retire at 46 because of the menopause, all I can say is I'm glad I'm not married to you. Because the simple truth of the matter is if you have lived with a man for many years, he will be used to your bodily cycle and be aware of what is happening to you now (or should be!). I have had several frank conversations about it with men my own age, which I couldn't have imagined having a few years ago. Men do not need to be protected from this, they are living with it too.  So what's wrong with talking honestly about something we're all going through together?

I applaud Sally Davies for raising the issue, and I hope it gets debated more. Maybe then women can enter the third phase of their reproductive cycle without feeling furtive, and somehow tainted by the process. After all, it's just nature innit?