The beginning of the end game?

I’m walking out of the meeting room feeling utterly numb.

Since her stroke, everything about my mother has been laid bare.

My mother was still a powerful matriarch, well into her 70s, a proud, fierce and independent woman.

A woman who has bought children into the world, trained and worked in a highly specialist role for the Health Service, and fought against patriarchy to have an incredibly successful political career.

She now sits in her wheelchair, barely able to hold her head up, being judged by a meeting room full of strangers.

The strangers begin to discuss her most intimate details, their words dragging like nails across a chalk board.

One speaks about pain management and how there is a clot forming in her leg. My mother is on three different schedules of morphine and yet still the pain comes.

One gives intimate briefings about her lack of bodily function.

One talks about her slow recovery and how the stroke has affected her particularly badly.

One explains how she is depressed

The whole family is here, and the strangers carry on talking like we are not in the room. It is clinical, objective and where humanity, compassion and feeling should be, there is just a big dark hole.

My mother’s head lolls to one side and she shifts uncomfortably in her chair, the studs from the harness she has to wear for lifting her in and out of bed digs into her side.

I hold her hand, a small gesture of comfort in this painful baring of all.  

A knot of anger rises in my chest. This cannot be how it ends for my mother, reduced to a discussion point in a room full of strangers, her final days spent wracked with pain.

The meeting concludes and it is apparent that my mother cannot go home, her progress too slow, her vulnerabilities too actute. We are informed that in two weeks’ time she will have to go to a nursing home; a departure lounge where the destination is death.

On the way out of the meeting room my brother informs me that he thought he had read somewhere that the average stay in a nursing home is 3 years.

We now have a number. It all feels very real now.

I walk outside into the grey, concrete car park. The rain is coming down hard, it is unbelievably dark for this time in the afternoon, and the bruised ragged clouds scurry across the sky.

It is beginning to feel like the end game.

I get into my car and notice the sandwich packets and drinks cartons strewn across the passenger seat. These are symbols of how itinerant my life has become, a transient existence where vulnerability, pain and sadness is a consistent theme.

I start the engine. The heating comes on and sends a cloud of used hospital car park tickets into the air, a stark reminder of the current reality.

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I am now at my mother’s house, my childhood home. It has been unoccupied for nearly a month now, save for sporadic overnight stays by family members.

Where there was once light and warmth and noise and the urgency of lives being lived to their fullest, there is now a cold silence.

I notice cracks in plaster, wilting plants, signs of decay.

The walls seem to echo with the ghosts of the past, the heart of the house brutally ripped out a few weeks ago.

I make my way to the spare room, the walls heavy with files and folders crammed full of the past. There are photos on the walls, my family beaming down from blue skies and sunshine memories, a reminder of what once was.

I’m in the garden.

This was where I learnt to ride a bike, to play football, to play cricket;

This is where I learnt to run, and hide.

This is where I learnt to climb,

This was once the extent of my universe, and with my parents love, a place that left me wanting for nothing else.

This is where I learnt that if you fall over, you just get back up again – you must always get back up again.

Except I’m now learning that sometimes you can’t. You just can’t.

And now the sandpit has gone and the two great apple trees have died. The swing has been dismantled and the garden has matured. There is a huge gaping, hollow sadness in my heart. My mother is not dead, but I am mourning loss.

All over the house there are painful reminders of my mother’s funny idiosyncrasies.

In the kitchen there is a Paddington bear, a testament to her love of Peru and countless afternoons watching the famous bear on television with her young sons.

There are bowls of rocks and fossils all over the house, each one telling a story of how it came to be in the house. If she hadn’t been a politician and a scientist she would have been a geologist.

And there is the garden gnome taking pride of place on the kitchen island, taking residence there ever since my mother couldn’t bear to put him outside during a particularly cold winter.

There is something reassuring about all of these icons, but equally I am struggling with their memories. Each one has something of my mother vested in them. As such they are powerful and meaningful.

I am looking out of the kitchen window, my favourite view in the house. There used to be a huge cherry tree and a honeysuckle bush here.

We used to sit in the kitchen on late spring evenings, the door open and the evening sunlight streaming through the blossom, turning the light shades of orange and pink.

The scent of the honeysuckle would pervade the house and the shrill cry of the housemartins chasing around the eaves would signal the welcome onset of summer.

These were times of life and hope. These were times with an exciting future.

And now I look around and there is nothing. Silence, save for the ticking clock.

I leave the house and lock the door. I stand in the porch and wonder how many more times I will walk around this house. I shudder at the thought of someone else living here.

I step out onto the drive and notice it has started to rain. A chilling, cold wind bites my face. The ragged clouds scurry overhead. I pull up the collar on my coat and dash for the car.

It is beginning to feel like the end game.

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The death of me, the birth of us; reflections on fatherhood

Close Encounters

Close encounters of the toddler kind; my children have been the catalyst for many changes in my life

I was generally happy after the birth of both my children. But deep underneath, once the initial euphoria, adrenalin and novelty had worn off there was something niggling away deep inside my subconscious.

As a father there are so many contradictory emotions. Part of the daily battle is to get the space to acknowledge those emotions.

For me, euphoria and sadness were emotional bedfellows for a long time after both births, but I am fairly confident that I was not suffering depression. I am fairly sure this was more about a reaction to change

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Whether you are driving a new car, starting a new job, taking an unfamiliar bus route or doing something as simple as cooking a new recipe, change can often feel uncomfortable at first.

The unfamiliar requires us to adapt to a new reality, and adaptation requires a learning phase. And learning often pushes us out of our comfort zone and causes us to feel uncomfortable.

Becoming a father was the ultimate change for me – a head first plunge into the unfamiliar, requiring a massive learning curve and huge adaptation. I was (and arguably still am) way out of my comfort zone.

This process of personal, mental and emotional growth is bound to feel painful because change hurts.

But I wanted to know WHY it was hurting; and more importantly, why these contradictory emotions of euphoria and sadness persisted. The birth of a child is a cause for celebration. Surely it should be all about the euphoria?

I was cycling to work one day. It was one of my rare mornings without children. I was enjoying the cycle ride. I was enjoying the feeling of the wind on my face, the space, the liberty. I was enjoying the exercise.

I was enjoying taking time to look at the blossom, the lush green tide of spring and the milky warmth of the May sun on my face. I was being mindful, connected and centred; for once focussing on myself and MY needs.

Then it hit me. I had a moment of utter clarity so powerful that I actually pulled on my brakes and stopped my bike.

My subconscious had been screaming out, but I had not heard it. It had been jumping up and down, clamouring for attention but I had not heard it over the noise, confusion and chaos of fatherhood. I had not checked in, I had not interrogated my emotions.

Since becoming a father I had not realised something. And there it was.

I had lost myself.

So THIS was why when I became a father and had gained something so valuable, so precious and so priceless, that I STILL had this feeling that I had also lost something.

I had lost myself.

I had lost my old lifestyle.

I had lost the old me.

I began to come to terms with this realisation. I began to come to terms with what was effectively a death; the death of my old lifestyle and the death of the old me.

As a father I was no longer able to act on a whim and moments of spontaneity. I was no longer flexible. I could no longer fulfil many of my responsibilities at work. I was no longer able to get onto a plane at a moment’s notice.

I was no longer a responsive or proactive friend. I was no longer a supportive or present son. I was a useless brother and nephew.

I was no longer playing football. I was not keeping fit. I was no longer part of a thriving social scene. I no longer had the bandwidth to stay abreast of current affairs, music, theatre or cinema……..the list goes on.

I could no longer prioritise any of this. I could no longer pursue all of these elements that had made up my pre-fatherhood life.

I was now utterly defined by the needs of my children.

As with any moment like this, the important thing was the realisation. Because once an issue or emotion is understood, it becomes easier to deal with.

By reflecting on the death of my old self, I could begin a process of mourning.

I still dislike having lost parts of my old self;

The old me who used to stay fit and healthy playing soccer three times a week;

The old me who used to cycle everywhere;

The old me who used to go running;

The old me who always had time for people;

The old me who was in touch with current affairs.

The old me who used to be so spontaneous and carefree;

The old me who used to be an excellent friend, son, husband and brother.

But I was able to mourn the passing of my old self, and eventually set time aside to focus on more positive thoughts; to begin to celebrate everything great about my new role as a father.

In truth it has taken a lot of time for my own expectations, and those of others close to me, to adjust to this new reality – the reality of fatherhood.

I feel much happier now. The niggling sadness is still there but it is no longer such a strong voice inside of me. It has been identified for what it is.

Loss.

And as a result it has become easier to rationalise, to instead look at all that is good about being a father and all the infinite variables of joy that come with the role and to be able to embrace the positive changes;

The wonder that is every new day;

The world that is viewed through the beautifully naïve eyes of a toddler;

The pure comedy that comes with listening to a child grasp a new language;

The change in my mindset to one that is more open, patient, loving and caring.

The growth of the desire to nurture that has risen like a spring sap in my soul.

To look into the beautiful eyes of my children and feel a connection so profound and so strong; to know that they are of me.

And while the old me has gone, I think there is now a new, better me. I can now embrace and positively rejoice in the fact that I AM defined by my children. This is a good place to be.

This is a place where I can both mourn the death of me, whilst celebrating the birth of us.