Archive for January, 2021

Swinging’ Safari on Spotify

January 31, 2021

The mountains are startling this morning. They are cut glass sharp. And they seem closer, as if inching up on one another in a duel, lances drawn.

I imagine, on days like this, that I can see climbers haul their weary way up Kili’s summit, Kibo, that I can see their dark shapes scale her Snow White head.

I imagine I can see right into Meru’s crater, it blew its top millennia again.

I imagine, as they near one another, that I’m judging this impossible face-off: which is the more beautiful?

I write listening go Swingin’ Safari, courtesy of Spotify. I can see the LPs cover in my mind’s eye. I can recall sliding the record from its sleeve, giving it a polish on my own to remove the dust and I remember putting in on the turntable and gently lowering the needle and waiting for the crackle over the scratches before Bert Kaempfert and his orchestra struck up.

And I see Dad twist his way into the room and I watch him pull mum to her feet and gather her up and together they dance – she laughs, ‘oh Jim, you are silly!’ and he smiles back at her and I am briefly, a child, embarrassed at a love which feels palpable and in that moment, exclusive.

And then, mum got sick, and the music stopped.

Then she got sick again. And again. And again. And her illness became like a record that goes round and round and because it’s been so badly scratched – because it hasn’t been kept carefully in its protective sleeve, because it’s old and tired, because it might have even been dropped – the needle jumps when it strikes a deep cut in the vinyl, there is a tortured screech and then, because the needle is trapped and can’t budge, the lyrics repeat themselves wearily, a tiresome whine. Depression is like that: a broken record; just as you get into the swing of things, just as the words and the melody are falling into place in your head, you are reminded that
things aren’t perfect after all.

And the thing about broken records is that they are impossible to fix.

You’d throw them out if you didn’t love the music so much.

A Swingin' Safari (Bert Kaempfert & His Orchestra) - GetSongBPM

Words

January 30, 2021

Some days the words spill. As if beads are being poured into my cupped hands and I can’t keep a hold of them all so that they slip away before I can thread them.

Those are good days.

Most days, though, words are like hen’s teeth. I have to hunt for them. 

I know scrolling through Instagram won’t help – but I do it anyway and then feel cross that I haven’t done more.

*****************************************************

My son says, on a Zoom call, ‘I really have no words – nothing to say’.  He looks upset. As if its his fault that conversation has run dry.  

‘I’d better let you go’, and he sounds apologetic.

I text him later, ‘nobody has any words Benj, because everybody’s life’s on hold’.

And I think that life at the moment is a pregnant pause, an unclosed parenthesis, a semicolon: we’re all waiting, what next?

*****************************************************

My mum, who frequently needs reminding who I am when I call and always needs a nudge as to where I live and where she lives, tells me that she has run out of nguvu. The words means ‘strength’ in Swahili. A language which she spoke when she lived in Africa. A place she left in 1985 when my father died. How odd, I think, that she cannot remember my name sometimes but can instinctively drop a foreign word into our conversation.

*****************************************************

I am still trying, remotely, to encourage her to read – I am her virtual bully, ‘read ma, read!’ I urge.   But it’s hard for her to find the right book (short enough? Easy enough to comprehend? Short enough words and phrases?). I’m uncertain what to do so I contact Professor Leff at the National Hospital For Neurology and Neurosurgery, in London’s Queen Square.  I harangued him often immediately after mum’s stroke, he was always so kind. He and his team have developed a clever app for people like mum, with Pure Alexia.

I’m writing about mum’s condition at the moment and wanted an accessible explanation as to why mum can still write but cannot read.  He gives me a practical exercise to illustrate his point:

‘Close your eyes, Anthea, and write your name. Now close them and read a line on a page …’

The Ship

January 19, 2021

Mum tells me today that she thinks she lives on a ship. She sounds unsure.

“Rob, is that his name? Rob who I live with”, yes, I assure her, Rob, “well Rob tells me we don’t. Live on a a ship.  But sometimes I think I do.”

Presently Mum lives in a bungalow in the west of Ireland.


‘If you’re ever unsure, Ma,’ I advise, ’next time, go outside and feel the earth beneath your feet – that’ll help ground you.”


Yes, she laughs, “I’ll do that.”


**************************


The ship theme is not new. Not new to her. Once, in Zambia, a couple of years ago with my sister, she dreamt of ships and climbing to escape. The dream morphed as her reality and she began to try to climb out of her ship in the middle of the night.

Once with me, a little over a year ago, the same thing: she dreamt she was in a ship and that I had locked her in a cabin. I only knew of her dream when I let her out of the bathroom where she had locked herself in at some point in the night when I heard her calling. She was furious with me.


“Why did you lock me in?”


“But I didn’t, Mum. I swear, I didn’t. Why would I?”


I see realisation begin to flicker in her eyes and with it a look of bewilderment and devastation dawns.


“I tried to escape,” she tells me, “but I gave up in the end and made myself a bed on the floor” and I notice a nest of towels in the corner of the room, “I must have been dreaming.”


“I am so sorry, Mum; I’m so sorry, that sounds like a horrible, frightening dream.  Let me bring you tea on the verandah.”


She settles into a chair outside and collects herself slowly. 


It is only when I bring her a mug of tea that I notice the back of her head; her white hair is coated pink with blood.


“Mum! Your head,” and I rush to examine it.


“Oh”, she says, “I must have fallen when I was trying to escape my ship,” and she smiles broadly at me.

And I hear my heart crack.  


Does she know she’s slipping out of our lives?  Away from us? Does she?


************************


When my mother was little, she travelled a lot by ship – from India to Europe, from Africa to Europe and back again. My grandmother loved those adventures and related them often to us often. It sounded impossibly exciting to travel anywhere by the ‘Boat’ my grandmother described. Mum remembered little of those trips. Except the wine at supper time on an Italian ship. She and her siblings ate early dinner with the other children aboard.


“There was always a small carafe of red wine on the table, and a carafe of water; I watched the Italian children drinking half-half. We never did though as my dad, who accompanied us to dinner, to keep an eye on us, drank the lot!”

And she laughs.


I found old ships’ menus in a scrapbook that had belonged to my grandmother recently – August 1952, on the Boat to Trieste.  They feel like treasure. Perhaps I’ll frame them for keeps.


********************


Today as I wrote, before I spoke to Mum, ships swam into my cerebral view.  I wonder if there is still some psychic link between Mum and I. We always used to exclaim as we thought alike often, ‘we must be telepathic’, it seemed like a magical closeness.  

Today I wrote:


Our anchor had come loose, slipped a knot and mum is disappearing over some far away horizon that I can’t see, because the darkening sky has slid into a black sea and blurred all my outlines. There are no sharp shapes anymore. Only shifting ones. I imagine Mum on a ship, sailing to someplace I will never reach. I rush to gather her up, to hold her fast against a rising tide so that we can both find our way back to where we were.  

Nothing Like a Dog

January 18, 2021

It hasn’t taken Jip long to realise the lucky dawn walk she had last week has become a welcome habit. If I get up, get out, I have realised, I get going. Settle to write better, feel the slow glow of achievement before 8am. Otherwise I scroll though a screen and then scowl when I realise how much time I’ve wasted. I found Jip at my bedroom door before 6 this morning, whilst it was still dark, crouched on her haunches, as if ready to spring to action. 


Sometimes I worry what would happen if I lost her.


Just get another dog, a friend says.
But any old dog won’t do, will it? It’s never ‘just another dog’. They become as friends, with distinct characteristics and foibles and habits and expression.    Jip’s the most loyal dog I have ever had. Perhaps because she’s only had me and I her since Pili died. Perhaps that’s forged a deeper alliance; a more important union. She sits under my desk as I write, her black coat gleaming for all the avocados she forages on the farm. No matter where the desk, she wiggles beneath it and settles at my feet, as a pillow. If I relocate with my laptop during the day, she relocates with me and settles fast, never apparently surprised at my nomadic wandering when the words won’t come. She is only ever agitated before breakfast. And before a walk. When her patience wears thin.


There have been so many before her … Kima, gifted to me by Ant when we first got married, who kept me company in a strange new country and who lived to a very grand old age, Caesar, her son, who was hit by a car and killed, Marmite who died of tick bite fever, Kanga who I adored and lived until she was ten, Scally her daughter who was dotty and adorable, Pili who was poisoned and now Jip. I have travelled miles with my dogs, over borders, across Africa. I cannot imagine walking without their company.  Who would I whistle up? Who would I have to warn me of something I mightn’t have seen or heard or caught the scent of – and I think of Jip last week, her hackles raised like a fin along her spine so that I knew to watch more sharply, tread more carefully? Who would I talk to? Who would I laugh with when they bounce Tiggerish through long grass? And if I didn’t walk as often, twice a day, at sun up and sun down, I wouldn’t bear witness so regularly to my permanently evolving views shaped by weather and hour and time of the year so that I’ve seen Kilimanjaro white headed one week and and bare headed  the next depending on the snowfall, so that I’ve seen the mountain moody grey and blushing at sunset. I’d have missed those things without a dog at my side, to walk with , to watch with. So that there’s time to stand and think and collect myself as I lean to scratch her head.

Who would make me get up, get out so that I get going?

Memory Loss is not a Gentle Slope

January 17, 2021

I takes courage to pick up the phone to mum.


I brace myself for recognition. Or not.


Today she is very confused. And I think of Nicci Gerrard’s words; she believes those who suffer failing memories lose their stories in steps, as they descend into the illness. Dementia is not a gradual slope. It jars. Just when you think you’re safe and the condition has arrested itself, you’re jolted back to reality as another hole is burned through what they remember and what they don’t. It feels like when you’ve misjudged a step, imagined it to be shallower than you thought and you almost buckle for the unexpected depth that you drop.

 
Today I wonder if we’ve taken a steep step down.


‘Who are you, again?’ Asks Mum


I have been here before but I have not learned – it is a hard lesson to learn, your mother not remembering your place in her history – I am still winded by her words.


I laugh, to disguise the gut punch: “I am your favourite child, ma!”


And she laughs too and I can hear relief: relief that I have unpicked a mystery for her? Relief that I am who she suspects I might be? Relief she has a daughter by my name – especially when she worried I’d dropped off the edge of her disappearing world.


‘Of course, you are’, she chuckles, ‘and where are you?’


Tanzania, I say, ‘I live on a farm on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro; it’s very lovely’.


She agrees it sounds beautiful. 


‘Have you been there … in … that country for long?’


Thirty years, I confirm, ‘a long time.’ And I know that she has already forgotten the name of this place the person that is posing as her daughter apparently lives in.


‘Gosh. And have we been in touch at all in that time?’


What do I say? Do I tell her that there are bundles, bundles, of correspondence as testimony to our being ‘in touch’ – blue airmail forms fading now, written by hand a decade before the internet was a thing. Do I tell her that she accompanied me home from England with all my babies having supported me through their delivery, spent months at a time here? Do I tell her that I have built her not one but two cottages in my various gardens, hoping she might settle, feel ‘at home’ in mine? Do I tell her about the umpteen calls, just like this one – the most recent days ago?

Yes, mum, I promise her, ‘we’ve been in touch.’

And as I drop a step, I notice a photograph of mum – of my beautiful mother a lifetime ago. I think it has faded. As if she is disappearing before my eyes. Her image doing the opposite of what it must have done years ago when it was first exposed in some far away photographic studio; she’s receding into the dark.

******************************************

Some people keep their stories secret – their battles with grief or loss or dementia or mental illness. Is that because they are private? Because they cannot find the words to articulate them as they want to? Because it doesn’t help them to ‘share’?  Some people have accused me of wearing my heart on my sleeve. But this is how I unknot the pain of all of these things, this is how I forge a path – as I cut my way through a tangle of challenges and emotions – through something that can feel dark and poorly lit. This is how I do it because so many people have done it so perfectly, so gracefully, so courageously before me and in so doing they’ve helped to clear a road pocked with holes, rocked with mines so that my own passage might be a tiny bit easier.

So I suppose I write this out to help me make sense of it all and because I hope that somebody who reads my words might feel less alone. 

Breaking Convention with Confectionary

January 16, 2021

My grandmother lived like she cooked. Or perhaps she cooked like she lived. With abandon. With no regard for the recipe – or the rules. She didn’t take the road most travelled, she deviated off on her own meandering path, battling her way past obstacles, exploring as she went. 


When I was little and at boarding school, she persuaded my mother that in a C of E school, my Roman Catholicism would suffer. Mum, more devout then than she was in later life – and more devout than Gran was so she considered her comment with some cynicism to begin until she relented because Gran persisted and so it was I managed to secure leave of school on a Saturday evening on the pretext of going to mass (And then to the theatre; Gran was far more concerned to nurture in me a love of the arts than a love of God).


I watched her during mass, beneath her mantilla. I watched her wince at things the priest said. Scowl, sometimes, and mutter under her breath During long sermons I watched her nod off.


On Sundays, before she and my grandfather returned me to incarceration (Gran did not drive, she navigated and grandad drove – a team habit that sustained long after my grandmother had begun to lose her sight and my grandfather his hearing), she took me to her Club where she encouraged my swimming and fed me curry – commenting as we ate, telling me about her years in India so that I knew there was some precious piece of my heritage on this plate.  

And then in the sleepy hours back at hers, before the drive to school, whilst my grandfather dozed in his armchair, Gran and I would whip up a storm in her kitchen. She batch cooked goodies for me to take back as tuck in a tin. Once we made lime green peppermint creams which had sweated from individual neatness to a glossy pool by the time I offered them to friends in my boarding house, so we scooped the sweetness out with small hands.


The confectionary likely ‘failed’ because Gran had bent a rule, replaced one ingredient for another, missed one out altogether, added a little extra or another to make up for it.   But the end result was still delicious. It was different, its shape a little unusual, its story more interesting, but it was still delicious.  A bit like Gran.

My mum taught me to cook. My gran taught me to cook like that. I never thought, not then, what a precious life lesson that was: tweak convention, inject a little of yourself into everything, make it up as you go along, you never know what confection you’ll conjure.

Blowing away the Cobwebs

January 14, 2021

I said to my sister, my marriage feels like it’s got a puncture. A slow hiss accompanies us everywhere. We needle one another, are scratchy from too much time on our own on the mountain.

Shall we go away, I said.

We didn’t consider that away together meant we retained exactly the same company, just in a different location.

Flying out of Mafia, as the storm subsides …

So we flew to Mafia anyway, which hangs off the end of the Zanzibar archipelago, a teardrop of an island, the last long bead in a strand of many, it takes its name from the Arabic, morfiyeh, group of islands. 

We had wanted to dive together but I got sick.

Go, go, I urged Ant so he did and came home full of his encounter with a huge turtle who nudged past him as she grazed, ‘just like a labrador’, he laughed, ‘pushing me out of the way of food!’

And we’d wanted to swim with the whale sharks that move and feed up the west coast of the island in the warm months now, enormous gentle giants, but Zeus and Poseidon had conspired to whip up the sky and stir the sea so that the wind blew and a thousand white horses galloped in strings across the ocean and watching whale sharks was out of the question.

The Whale Sharks off Mafia, courtesy of Butiama Beach

So instead we took a drive to the northern most tip of 17 mile long Mafia to a lighthouse at Ras Mkumbi which was built by the Germans more than 100 years ago. We wanted to know why it was there – to fend the Brits off? Why were the walls so thick?

The lighthouse master didn’t know, he just pocketed the price of a ticket and indicated we could climb to the top, which we did without looking down.

Don’t look down …

At the top was a young Maasai barking into his phone, he told me it was the only place he could get signal. I laughed and looked out at the sea on one side, the forest on the other, a road we’d driven in on was as a neat parting that combed through the knotted tangle of scrub and trees. 

#itsgoodtotalk

We saw the biggest baobabs. Do you think there were leopard here once, I ask Ant. But nobody knows that either.

On our way ‘home’ we stopped at Kanga Beach – why is it called Kanga, we asked? Our guide shrugged, ‘is it because there were once guineafowl (Kanga in Swahili) here?’ asked Ant.  Oh yes, agreed the guide with alacrity, that’s why. Where are they now, we persisted.  ‘They have all been eaten’, he said feigning sadness. The beach was deserted, littered with the skeletons of whole trees which lay beached on the sand and bleached pale as whale bones by sun and salt. There was not a single footprint on the shore – except for the tickling tread of crabs and birds. It stretched for miles, that beach, and the sea whipped its way up it, laced with foam for the race of the waves.  It did not look like a tropical beach that day – palm trees aside: that day it looked too wild to be a benign tropical coastline.

We came home windburned and windswept, cobwebs brushed aside.

Perhaps we just needed some air?

How to Stop the Rust

January 7, 2021

I call Mum late in the day, after a walk which takes me to the top of the farm and gets me out of the ‘office’ and my head out of itself.  When I look at the huge views up there, something in my thinking stretches too. My thoughts get sticky and bottlenecked hunched over my desk, staring at a screen.


I put her on speaker so that I can move around the kitchen and prep supper as we talk. My moving keeps the conversation going, lends fluidity. Otherwise chat sticks and falters.  That happens as a person’s memory frays; continuity is harder to keep up; you need to remember the past to remain present. 


Her camera is on so I can see her. She is still in her dressing gown. It’s 4pm where she is.


‘Are you dressed?’ I ask


She neatly sidesteps my question by distracting me with something – that on some subconscious level – she knows I’ll be more interested in:


‘I am reading a very good book’, she tells me.


Every time she tells me about whatever she is reading, she tells me she is a very slow reader.  She does it again now. And, again, I explain why: ‘you had a stroke, Mum, it broke the link between your brain and your eye’.


Each time I do, she sounds astonished, ‘Really? Gosh, I never knew that! Nobody’s told me that before; thank you for explaining why, that’s such a relief.’


There is such grace in this acceptance – of her compromised reading, of the fact nobody, apparently, bothered to explain the reason for this. 


I ask her what her book is called.


She picks it and squints at the title and battles to read.


‘Put your glasses on, Ma’, I say. And she laughs then, ‘oh yes, that might help’.


Where has this humour come from, I puzzle? 


There is a lowness about her which she cannot articulate and I cannot recognise. Her hiding from the world because things have been ‘a little too much’ smack of depression, remind me of the learned response that manifested whenever she got sick – when she’d hide in bed. Or disappear into a book curled tightly into a chair, like a comma, as if punctuating an hiatus, a life on hold.

But this chuckling at herself is new so it is hard to name this mood as something sinister and clinical. 


One day she tells me, ‘I just don’t feel like getting up in the mornings and it is so unlike me!’ She sounds outraged; ‘I have never been one to lie in bed in the mornings! All my life I have got up first thing, with the birds! All my life’, she insists.


And I think of the countless, countless mornings when we tried to cajole her up, standing by her bed in a darkened room pleading with her to get dressed, brush her hair, put a slick of lippie on. As if painting on a smile might help.


Glasses on, she articulates the title slowly.


‘Do it letter by letter, Ma’, I say as I think how strange to be coaxing mum to read across the ether on a tiny screen. The world has been turned on its head.


‘The … Warmth of the … Heart …. Prevents …. Your body from …. Roasting. Roasting?! That is a funny name for a book.’


Puzzled, I do a quick scooch around the Internet and and find it on amazon: The Warmth of the Heart prevents your body from Rusting: Ageing without growing Old.

‘Rusting Ma’, I laugh. ‘Rusting! And if you don’t get up and get moving, you’re going to rust too. Now, get up’.

And she laughs. A proper laugh that starts low down and ends in her eyes.

I know.

Because I can see her.

And Whilst you Looking Up, Look Back …

January 6, 2021

It’s a year since I saw my son.

Sometimes, when the words won’t come, I gaze at the photos that face me. Collages and frames litter my desk, balance on books, are hung on the wall opposite me. And I recall in each the adventures then, there …

On my back as a baby when he was one – giggling and bundled up in unfamiliar clothes for an English winter; driving to Cape Town when he was four. We parcelled up the two children we had then – I discovered Hat was on her way as we trundled through a dusty Caprivi Strip and I knew that it definitely wasn’t the eggs I’d for breakfast. The siblings she meet 7 months later amused themselves in the back of the car, looking at books, fighting or gnawing biltong. My son played on a beach in Namibia and I watched the sun settle into a watery western grave and pondered at how unusual; I’m used to seeing it rise from an ocean bed in the east.

And there he is in the cold high Atacama Altiplano; we were in Chile to visit Hat who was working in Santiago.

And I remember that you should not wear Converse at 4,000 mt elevation, and temperatures of -10C. I thought I might weep with the pain that pinched my toes that morning.

Chile’s Altiplano, where the skinny snowy spine of the Andes thickens a little and presents as the most extensive area of high plateau on earth outside Tibet was cold and crack dry and clear. The kids and I had been there, me with my freezing toes, since before sun-up so that when we arrive at El Tatio Geysers I could see them rise pale ghosts against a still dark sky, a thin, tall crowd of night-workers.  When the sun rose, they faded into the brilliance, their heat dissolving on the warmth of dawn.

The Altiplano is the high end of the Atacama, where Chile touches fingers with Bolivia and where the earth cracks and rocks and smoulders for the seismic activity that brews beneath. Here, for the lack of humidity, you can see for hundreds of miles so sand and snow and sky and towering peaks are sharply silhouetted and you wonder that you’re not in an overly Photoshopped gallery. But I know I’m not – as if for proof my grown up children post Insta images #nofilter.

I had expected the sand – sand that spreads as a show of spice, turmeric yellow, chilli red, cinnamon dust.  It’s a desert right. And the skies. But the snow? The ice? The take-your-breath-away elevation and freezing toes? No. So for a week I soar, then plummet, from peak to salt pan, ten wool layers (and cold toes) to cotton t’shirts and shorts.  

Up here, on another icy morning I watched my (then) 27 year old son gaze across unruffled waters as he quietly reflects upon his future. It is pin-drop silent up here, at least he can hear himself think, I thought to myself. I watch him as the Laguna Miscanti reflects a little itself: sand and snow and sky, its surface is mirror smooth.  

I look at these pictures now and am sad I haven’t seen him for so long, but grateful for the adventures, they make me smile.

There will be more, I reassure him when we speak, each stuck in our respective corners of the world, suspended in time, as if caught in amber.

Look Up!

January 5, 2021

Melie said to me once, ‘We always look down, we always seem to have our eyes downcast – do you think that’s because we need to watch our step? You know – in case of snakes?’

I think about this often when I walk, as I watch the path I tread, sometimes I see prints in the dust – a small cat, a buffalo, an elephant whose footfall leaves an indentation as wide as a dinner plate. Sometimes I see the skin sloughed from a snake, and occasionally I have seen the unmistakable pattern its slithering leaves, as if a child has drawn a pattern in soft talcy earth with a stone.

Today on my walk as I considered Melie’s words, I threw my head back to stretch a neck craned too long over a screen. I spread my arms wide as if I were about to fly and I looked up and saw a dart straight stripe across the sky drawn by a rare (these days) passing plane. It could have been marked with chalk using a ruler, it was so straight.

As I watched the wind tugged it so that it began to lose definition, loosen. And the longer I watched, so it was frayed, like a rope with age.

And whilst I watched I saw that the Erythrina had begun to lose its hot blush as it dropped crimson blossom and I saw the clouds clear from Kilimanjaro’s crown so that the mountain stared icily down.

I stood and I watched that beautiful big sky with its ribbons of tight white until they’d become quite undone and vanished altogether.

‘Look up, Mum’, Melie said, so I did. I looked up.

And see what I saw.