Quite a lot of different threads came together over a few days last weekend, I'd like to tell you about them and about the effect they had on me.
First, I have been doing some reminiscence work with people in the early to middle stages of dementia. It's sobering to realise that this can happen to any of us, that it can be frightening and bewildering. The sessions are always uplifting, though, and we waved flags and sang the National Anthem (as we were reminiscing about the royal family) and it mattered not one jot whether I was a monarchist or a republican, we were sharing a few moments of positive human contact and that was enough.
I was then looking for some poems to perform as I was asked to fill in at the last minute at Bilston Voices. Immediately after looking at 'No Matter How Old...', the poem I wrote about how much I miss my Dad who died in 1977, I learned that a friend was facing the loss of her father; I decided to perform that poem and dedicate it to her. The following day I was talking to a friend (in the pub) about his mixed feelings at the recent death of his mother's long term partner, with whom he did not see eye to eye. We talked through his emotions and then got onto the subject of his aspirations, and he was describing how he couldn't really move forwards with what he passionately wanted to do because of this distraction and that distraction. I tried to explain to him, in the way you do with friends in the pub, that "you can't wait until all your ducks are lined up (mate) 'cos they might never be all lined up. When these distractions are out of the way there might be others that you can't even imagine, and then you'll never get to do the thing you really want to do because you'll always be waiting until you have a clear run. Life doesn't give you a clear run (you know what I mean?)" I think I may actually have been giving myself a good talking-to as well. Some nice people we know were playing some music in the corner of the pub, and one of them has been battling with lung cancer. I learned later in the evening that he now has a brain tumour. He is a fantastic, talented, sound, lovely bloke, probably in his forties(ish). Tragic, upsetting, sobering. He laughed and smiled his way through the evening, and the music was great.
Next we went walking on Brown Clee Hill and I was struck by an urgent need to expand on how lucky we were. Ken and I discussed, as we enjoyed bluebells and yellow gorse, tiny white flowers scattered in the grass, butterflies, bees, beetles, trees and birds and birdsong and a breeze to cool the baking heat, how wonderful it was to be able to be there. Not just to have the means to travel to such a beautiful place but to have the physical strength to walk up the hill, eyesight to see the beauty, hearing, smell, cognitive powers to recognise, identify, analyse, the power of speech to have this discussion, someone to love dearly with whom to share the experience. How infinitely lucky, how blessed!
When we got to a pool where we always stop and sit on a bench there was someone there, an elderly couple, so we sat under a tree and examined what we found, small bones, an oak apple, animal and insect signs. Every visit to the countryside is an adventure for us and small things that many people might not even see we pore over in wonderment. When we were ready to move on we walked near to the bench and got into conversation with the older couple. They pointed to a recently planted sapling and small bush, guarded by fencing. "You see that little arrangement there", said the man, "that's where we buried our daughter's ashes". She had died of cancer, aged 42. They told us at length about how they'd visited the hill with their children for many years, how Christmas for them, when the children were young, meant opening their presents then wrapping up in warm clothing and walking up Clee Hill, wishing a Merry Christmas to the other walkers, going home to cook and eat a family Christmas dinner. How immensely sad to have all of those memories of being on the hill with that daughter, then visiting her ashes. How wonderful to have chosen this beautiful spot as her resting place. We were moved to tears as we discussed the conversation on our climb.
The following morning I learned that my friend's father had died, then I met a neighbour who explained that he'd just got back from Zimbabwe as his father had died suddenly and he'd had to go home. I said it must be hard to be so far from his family, "Oh yes..." he said, and the way he said it needed no further comment. Later that day I learned that the father of my niece's husband had also died unexpectedly.
All of these encounters, conversations, pieces of news, thoughts, feelings, experiences seemed to gel together into one. I joked, a few days later, that the universe was sending me a message. I don't really think that's so, but I do know that this intense few days made me re-evaluate life, and that I've felt profoundly different in my attitude and demeanour. I smile a great deal more. I feel more at ease. I cut myself a lot more slack, and do the same for others. I chase negative thoughts and feelings away briskly and purposefully as they have no place in my head or my heart or my soul.
I hope that this is not a temporary effect and I try every day to renew my sense of realisation that the old cliche that life is short is a cliche because it's true, that every day can be your last but that's not a reason to be gloomy but to celebrate that we are alive now.
I am reminded of the Flaming Lips song Do You Realise (which will be played one day, sooner or later, at my funeral, along with James's Sit Down).
"Everyone you know, some day, will die, but instead of saying all of
your goodbyes, let them know you realise that life goes fast, it's hard
to make the good things last, you realise the sun doesn't go down, it's
just an illusion caused by the world spinning round".
I apologise if you find any of this post preachy or sentimental or twee in any way but if you do, cut me some slack. Life's too short to be negative.
Smile, shrug, let it go, enjoy.