|Hand in hand (Photo credit: Images by John 'K')|
(This has turned out to be a longer post than I had anticipated, but it just seemed to keep on flowing! I hope it's not too long, and I hope you enjoy it... Thanks, Mel x)
I was sitting outside working on my laptop the other day, and I was visited by Berber (pronounced Bear Bear) one of the village locals who have been kindly looking out for me over recent weeks. He speaks no english (fine for me as my French is pretty good) and uses a broad local Charentais dialect. His family has been in the commune for countless generations, and they've dedicated their lives to tending the fields, planting and harvesting the crops, and organising the regular communal gatherings. He is well past retirement age and, as with so many of the locals, still works day and night on his beloved land.
In recent times, I have regularly returned home to find a gift on my table just by the kitchen door - a bucketful of freshly cut daffodils, bags of fresh cherries picked from neighbouring trees, lettuces from the garden, and plants for my garden wrapped in newspaper to keep the roots moist until they can be dug in to the ground.
The locals, of course, know what has happened, and on this particular day, Berber turned up as he often does and shuffled up to sit at the table where I was working. He doesn't speak very much, and often leaves long silences between the gruff sounding and often clumsy words he uses. It's clear he struggles to say what he means, and often resorts to grunts, harumphs, and typical Charantais shrugging of the shoulders peppered with the odd knowing "bah, eh oui!" which is a great substitute for many words.
But this particular morning he sat down and asked me how I was getting on. Whether I'd found any work and how we are both doing settling in to the changes. I carried on typing and explained that I'm throwing out new seeds everyday in to the field of employment, and that one day something must surely take root and bring the results I need. I kept the smile on my face, and the strength in my voice that I've learned to perfect over so many tough times. But he must have noticed something. He stared at me with his deep brown soulful eyes, and wriggled in his seat, pulling himself up taller and clearing his throat. It clearly took a great deal to find the words, but eventually he simply said "Je (ne) te laisserai pas tomber" which means "I will not let you fall"
I lost my composure at that point, and my mask of courage slipped. Despite myself, I felt my eyes welling up and tears of gratitude started trickling down my cheeks. I had no words. I just became aware of tiny cracks appearing in the brittle shield of strength that had been protecting my heart from pain. Berber said no more, asked no more questions, just nodded, got up from his seat, squeezed my shoulder and quietly wished me"bonne journee" or "good day".
Since then I've thought about the power that a hand of friendship can have - and questioned whether, perhaps, on previous occasions I've been so concerned about staying strong (typical British 'stiff upper lip' and all that) that I've overlooked support that could have been available to me all along?
I've talked before about having had a few 'challenges' in my life (and realised how I've come to dislike the glib over-use of that word to describe problems or even traumas - under the 'keep positive' mantra of well-meaning but sometimes deluded modern-day motivators) so now is probably a good time to explain a few of them.
For me, it seems, change has been a constant in my life since my earliest memories. Not for me the slow, gentle undulating waves of change to which one can gently acclimatise, but instead a mighty tsunami that arrives without warning and washes away everything in it's path in just a blink of an eye.
The first was the death of my father when I was just 4 years old.
I absolutely adored and worshipped my 'Daddy' in the way, I suppose, that only a daughter can. To me he was my hero, my saviour, and I knew that however much love and adoration I gave him, he returned it 10-fold. My mum was pregnant with my little sister at the time, so dad had taken it upon himself to be the 'clown' and 'entertainer' to me as mum was understandably less energetic than usual! He would frequently return home from work with 'treats' for me - small things, sometimes a paper airplane, other times bubble gum that he and I would hide with behind the sofa, pretending to hide from mum because she didn't approve of any kind of gum (all part of the game, of course!)
He'd often scoop me up above his head and put me on his shoulders, and tell me "Boo" (my nickname) "just look at the world - it's all there waiting for you!" and I truly believed I could do anything. We were all very excited about my sister's imminent arrival, and would sit for hours discussing names and what games we were going to share with her. I remember his beautiful and easy smile, one that spread right across his face and around his eyes that couldn't fail to touch everyone else who was around him. And I was so very very proud of my Daddy.
That day, he'd decided to return to his office in the evening to finish off some work. It was way after I'd gone up to bed, and I remember hearing the door shut behind him, shouting out "see you soon!" and the familiar noise of the car engine as it raced off down the lane. I snuggled deeper in to my covers and settled down to a comfortable sleep. That was the very last time I'd know that feeling.
He died that evening in his office - a mixture of the prescription drugs he was taking to shake off a cold, together with the glass of wine he'd had at home with my mum had, apparently left him slightly drowsy. The heater in his office was new and, unbeknown to anyone, was leaking lethal carbon monoxide fumes in to the air. My Daddy's lifeless body, slumped across his desk with pen still in hand, was discovered by his brother when he arrived for work the next morning.
I wasn't told about his death until after my sister was born, 10 days later. I can only now begin to imagine the torment my dear mother must have endured through this time - she was only 32 years old and facing life as a widow and about to give birth. All I remember from my point of view was that I was to go and stay with my best friend in the village 'until after the baby arrives'. And I really don't remember much else. Until I was home. I'd met my gorgeous new little sister, and then mum sat me gently next to her in her bed to tell me the news.
And from that moment on I knew that life would never be the same. The funeral had been and gone, I had a new sister to 'look after' (for that was how I saw my role at that point - because Daddy was no longer there to fulfill it) and a new school to start. We went down to Sussex for a few months to stay with Nan and Grand, my mum's parents, and I remember developing scarletina, eczema, and all manner of other minor ailments for which I was given gallons of potions and mixtures to combat. I remember playing in the park with my Nan, I remember long walks along the seafront, I remember sitting on a huge model elephant on the pier.... but I do not remember crying.
The next tsunami was to hit 12 years later.
Towards the end of 1980, not long before my 16th birthday, I had developed a nasty bout of pneumonia. Weeks and weeks at home meant that I had missed a great deal of schooling for my all important O Levels the following summer. By the beginning of the New Year I had recovered sufficiently to return to school, and we all trotted along to the doctors to get a certificate proving that I had missed a chunk of last term through illness. It was to be sent in to the examining board in the hope they would view my papers with compassion when the time came.
It was a Monday, 12th January 1981, and after the doctor had signed the certificate, mum asked him if he wouldn't mind just taking a look at something for her? So she laid down on the couch and the doctor bent over her. He touched her and then looked at my sister and me and asked us to go in to the waiting room. He didn't need to say anything. There was something in his eyes that turned my blood to ice and I felt the familiar feeling of dread rising up through my body.
My heart was pumping as my little sister and I went through to the waiting room, and I just couldn't keep the words inside me. I turned to Abigail, and said as gently as I could "Mummy's got cancer". I didn't understand where this "knowing" came from, I just knew with every nerve cell and fibre of my being that it was true.
We both waited anxiously, and watched for the doctor's door to open. Like my dad, mum had this most incredible energy about her - people have often said that she lit up a room. And as she came out of the surgery, she was still wearing her biggest smile, and gave a jolly laugh and nod to the doctor as she closed the door behind her. But I knew.
We all got to the car, and strapped ourselves in - I was in the front seat next to mum, who was still wearing her famous "come along gals!" sort of smile I was so familiar with. I waited a few moments until we were out of the car park, then I turned to her and asked gently "Are you going to tell us then?" She faced my questioning stare, her smile not quite as convincing as she countered "Tell you what darling?" And I had to say it. "You've got cancer, haven't you?"
And with that, with those 5 small words, the truth was out and I knew that life, once again, would never be the same.
The three of us spent that evening at our dining room table, talking, crying, hugging and trying to understand what it all meant. It turned out that she had found a lump in her breast a few months earlier, but had been told by a so-called friend that it was nothing she should be worried about, so she had ignored it (and that's another story for another time). Now it had spread and she'd been told by the doctor that they had to operate immediately to find out just how bad it was.
I asked her if I could feel what it was like and as she gently guided my hand to her right breast I was horrified to realise that the entire area was solid. Cold, rigid and hard - and I felt the anger and indignation exploding inside of me - how could her boyfriend not have noticed? Why didn't anyone do anything about it? I swallowed it down as I knew mum needed our support not more questions, but I vowed that from that moment I would never let something like this happen to anyone else again.
She went in to hospital just over a week later, cheerily telling people she was going in for a hysterectomy. Why? Well, she explained to us that she wanted to keep strong within herself and know that all was well, and that this way would help her so that she didn't have to explain. So we went along with it, and were forbidden to tell friends or family what was really happening. Now, I realise, this was just about the worst thing any of us could have done, as we had to keep up the pretence that everything was ok, while struggling with the turmoil and fear of the truth. But Abigail and I stayed true to her wishes, and during the first few days I only told one very close friend what was really happening - but still I felt guilty. It came out later on, though, as it became clear just how far the cancer had spread, and mum simply couldn't hide it anymore.
It didn't last very long. Abigail and I visited her no more than 4 times in hospital. By Wednesday 4th February, we were told she was too ill for us to see her - she died at 21.50 on Friday 6th February less than a month after we had first discovered she was ill.
I didn't go to her funeral. Mum always said she didn't want a funeral - too much fuss, too much sadness and such a waste of flowers she used to tell me. So, again, I followed her wishes and opted instead to go to school that morning - utter craziness as I look back on those times, but I honestly thought I was doing the best thing, and that she'd have been proud.
We went to live with our guardians - Eddie, an old friend of the family, his wife Gilly and their young child - and another one on the way. And we did our best to fit in, to be 'good girls' and to help out and stay happy - we were conscious to not become a burden, and although our entire existence had changed, we did a pretty good job.
The next tsunami happened on Sunday 9th January 1983.
We were still living on the south coast with our guardian, and just a couple of weeks earlier we'd celebrated my 18th birthday with a huge party at the house. I was in my second year of A Levels and things were pretty good. Abby and I had arrived home late from a weekend visit with our paternal grandparents in Lincolnshire. We had made the 5 hour coach ride down from Peterborough, and then a taxi from the coach station at Eastbourne. We'd been laughing together the entire journey, and giggling at some of the things Granny and Grandpa had been saying and doing over the weekend. It was past midnight by the time we got home and everyone was already in bed and the house was in darkness. So we said good night to each other and crept quietly to our bedrooms. Mine was right at the top of the house, and right above the bedroom of my guardians. I reached behind the door to turn the light on, and went in to my room.
I couldn't believe my eyes. There, strewn across the floor and my bed, were my mother's clothes...! I stared in disbelief as shock and the horror wrapped their icy arms around me. I reasoned that there was nothing I could do at that point, so I carefully picked up the clothes, folded them up, and got myself ready for bed. Once again, that now familiar feeling of dread was gnawing away at the pit of my stomach. My heart was pounding, my head was full of unanswerable questions, and I knew for sure, that my life was once again about to change for ever.
The following morning we got up and went down for breakfast - I don't remember whether or not I told my sister what had happened, but I do remember than neither of our guardians were at the breakfast table. Their little boy came down as usual, and we busied ourselves with getting him fed and watered, as was our usual routine. Eddie came down just a minute before we were due to leave, and I asked where Gilly was. He just brushed me off saying 'she's too tired this morning' and rushed us in to the car. The music was on as usual, and nothing was said. So I took it upon myself to ask that same question I had asked my mother when she came out from the surgery "Well, are you going to tell us then?"
We were met with coldness. Not the love and concern that mum had shown when I had asked her the same question. No, this time it was a sneer. "You're going to stay with your grandmother. You're to pack your bags tonight and you're leaving tomorrow morning. You're not coming back" And that was that.
Many years have passed since then, and there are many more stories to tell - but they are for another time.
For now, suffice it to say that the most recent tsunami hit on 21st April this year when I discovered the truth about my husband. And it's the most ruthless one yet and is the one that has hit me the hardest. Because it's crashed down on every single level of my heart, body and soul. Every thing that I'd trusted, everything that I'd put my faith in has been swept away in a heartbeat.
Is it a coincidence that it happened on the day when I officially outlived my mother, and, therefore both my parents? I don't know - I'm still working on that one.
I've decided that I must have been born with a strong soul to endure such things - but I'm beginning to wonder just what lessons I'm meant to be learning that I've perhaps been too damned stubborn to learn!
This time, perhaps, I'll stop being so strong. Perhaps I'll stop believing that I have to be super human and carry the weight of responsibility on my own.
This time, perhaps I'll be able to accept the healing waves of unconditional love and support that surround me - often showing themselves in the most unexpected of ways and from the most unexpected of people.
This time, perhaps I WILL let myself fall - and learn to trust that I'll be caught, supported and carried to safety by the hands of friendship that are reaching out to me every day. I'll be the human being that I am, and perhaps in the process I can also heal the little girl who, somewhere deep inside of me is still waiting for her hero to come home.