Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Getting my blogging mojo back

Lordy, lord. MONTHS of silence, and now you can't shut the girl up.

This is mainly because as I mentioned last week, I have finally finished the rewrites on the new book, now entitled A Merry Little Christmas. I'm waiting for the final final round of rewrites, and am allegedly getting going on the new book, Midsummer Magic, but you know me... Procrastination is my middle name, so here I am instead. Plus, finally after many months I feel a little as if I've got my blogging mojo back.

There are lots of reasons, why it disappeared. The main one being, that creatively my heart and soul has been swallowed up by the Book for the last few months, but also, I think I've been in a period of deep mourning, from which I hope I am just emerging. Losing Rosemarie has affected me more then I thought it would. She was such a huge part of our family life - for years she came to us every Sunday for lunch, and in the last couple of years, we pushed her down the road in her wheelchair, and took her into our garden, so she could enjoy the fresh air, as she couldn't get out on her own. Every time I am in the garden, I see her sitting there, enjoying watching the children play, feeling the breeze on her face, and taking a much more animated interest in the doings of the guinea pigs then I ever do. I miss her more then I can say. She was slightly mad, and said the funniest things, but she was also wise and kind, and always batted in my corner. Something I will ever be grateful for, as that's a rare thing I think, in a mother in law.

The sense of mourning has been probably why I have battled so long and hard with the book. When I started writing it, this time last year, Rosemarie was starting to attend fortnightly sessions at the hospital to have blood transfusions. The staff were immensely kind and supportive, but the majority of patients could take themselves in an out of the unit and they simply weren't geared up for Rosemarie's needs. After the first disastrous attempt to use hospital transport (it arrived late, and the guy appeared never to have pushed a wheelchair before), I took her instead. I'd organise the carers to come in early and go with the children round to her flat, where I'd then get her into the wheelchair, and push her out to the car. This sounds so easy, but it was complicated by a front door which swung back quickly if not held open, and a step that was really awkward to negotiate. My worst moment was the time I nearly tipped the wheelchair in the flowerbed. Luckily no4 who had an instinctive knowledge of what to do to help, was on hand to right it for me.

Sometimes mil walked to the car. But she suffered terribly with her feet, and gave up wearing shoes, so we then had to negotiate a stony path to the car, with her yelping in pain all the way. Then, it was a question of lowering her into the car (she was very tall) helping her get enough purchase, so she didn't fall, and when we'd sat her down, swinging her legs into the car, as she couldn't do that alone. My  brother in law came up with the wheeze of putting a blanket on the car seat, and pulling her across on it, which was a great idea, but jeez it was hard work. Then I had to load the wheelchair and zimmer in, take the kids to school, and then go on to the hospital (luckily within a stones' throw of school), where I'd unload Rosemarie, put her in the wheelchair, load the zimmer and her day bag on the back, and then push her up the steepish slope to the hospital.

Once into the haemotology unit, I'd get her settled in with the nurse, and then she had to endure the longest of days, for someone of her age and in her condition. First, she'd have her blood taken. Poor Rosemarie HATED the sight of blood, so I used to hold her hand and talk loudly about the children while she was having it done. They'd then test to see if she need a transfusion. Nine times out of ten, the answer was yes. On the rare occasion that it was no, we both felt like we'd got out of jail free. On one such instance, I took Rosemarie for coffee up the road - the first time she'd been in a cafe for months, and the waitress was so kind, giving us free muffins, and really looking after Rosemarie, I still think of that kindness and smile. We had a rare moment of pleasure in the misery, and it was the last time I took her out for a coffee.

Then we'd have to wait around for the blood pack to be made up. It always took hours. And I'd have to weigh up at what point I should take Rosemarie to the loo, given it took her a while to get there, and pushing a zimmer, while being attached to a drip is no fun at all. I never asked the staff to take her. They were simply too busy, and like I said, the department just wasn't geared up for Rosemarie's needs. To while away the time when we were waiting, I used to ask Rosemarie about her life in Germany - which is where the stories from my other blog came from. I wish I'd done that earlier, but c'est la vie. I got some of them down.

Once the blood transfusion was up and running, I felt it was safe to leave her. More often then not, bil would arrive to take over, so I could either go home and catch up, or depending on the time, go and do the school run. It was always an exhausting and difficult experience, and for Rosemarie, it must have been nightmarish at times. She bore it all with her usual fortitude and equanimity, but she would be shattered by the time she got home. I did wonder if it were worth it, though the first few times, she certainly seemed less tired then before. And I guess it kept her going a bit longer then if she hadn't had it. Though I suspect she might have been doing it for our sakes, and left to her own devices, would have been just as happy to let nature take it's course.

So during last summer, precious little writing got done. I did sometimes take my notebook and write while Rosemarie slept, but it was distracting and difficult to concentrate. And of course the constant emotional rolller coaster has an impact too.

Come the autumn, it got worse. Rosemarie had been having back pains on and off, and they became so bad she couldn't get up one day. So I called the doctor and despite our desperate desire to avoid it, we had no choice but to let Rosemarie to hospital. It was a grim and ghastly experience. Spouse and I spent a long and hideous day in casualty before Rosemarie was eventually taken to the ward, where she was treated with barely concealed contempt and a roughness which made me want to kill people. HOW anyone can treat the elderly and vulnerable the way Rosemarie was treated that day and call themselves a nurse I don't know. All I do know, was that when we left, we both felt terrible leaving her that night, and it still makes me furious.

Being mil, she got back on her feet, and got herself out of there, thank god, but we were quickly approaching a crisis, and on a weekend away which had we known how things were going, we would have cancelled, we made the decision to move Rosemarie in with us. It was hard for all of us, but particularly for mil, as she had clung to her independence for so long, and I'm fairly sure would have wanted to die there. But we had no option. After a terrible weekend when we'd asked for two carers for each visit as mil couldn't manage anymore with one, we had a farcical situation with the carers putting her in bed the wrong way round one night, and I spent more time with her then at home, mil agreed to come to us. So bil came and moved her bed (carrying the mattress up the road on his head), we packed up all her stuff, and her, and she came to stay. It was a bitter sweet moment. We all knew she was never going back to the flat again, and we kept up the pretence she was staying with us, till she felt better.

And better she did feel at first. Mil had a tendency to take dips down and then rally back again. Her spirit was indomitable and her endurance astonishing. Having not been able to walk for several days, suddenly she was able to get to the loo again with help. But our loo was too low for her (we did have a raised seat) and it was narrow, and there was very little purchase. All too soon, she couldn't manage anymore, and we had to get a commode. To explain all the delays and the difficulties of getting the equipment we needed (including getting the wrong equipment) would take me the rest of my life, but one surreal moment included trying to raise the bed so the newly delivered hoist would work. As sod's law would have it, they forgot to deliver the bed raising blocks, so the hoist would fit underneath it. Spouse in his usual can do, will do anything spirit, tried to prop it up with bits of wood, but it was a disaster, so we went back to square one and got Rosemarie to bed without the help of the hoist (as it happened they'd sent the wrong sized sling anyway).

We had a month where life was like that. I had days where the result of an enema would occur the minute the district nurse/carer left (poor Rosemarie was very constipated, and I swear 90% of the time she performed the minute I was on my own), we had nights where she couldn't settle and Spouse and I were in and out raising her legs in and out of bed, a hilarious night, where she'd tried to get out of bed to go to the loo, and in my attempt to get her to the commode, she ended up on my lap, and a more poignant one, where she suggested I get into bed with her and snuggle up. In the end it was all too much. We were both exhausted, the kids who were amazing  throughout it all were struggling, and Rosemarie's needs had got beyond what I could manage alone (even with the much valued help of my amazing mother - an ex nurse - who came for two weeks and taught me how to lift and roll Rosemarie so she was comfy in bed). One night, Rosemarie looked at me and said, I don't think I should be here anymore.

So that was it. After the last attempt to give Rosemarie a transfusion had failed in October, the consultant had referred us to the Princess Alice Hospice where Rosemarie eventually died. We had a wonderful wonderful nurse who came to see us several times a week, and she arranged for Rosemarie to get into the hospice quickly. So quickly in fact, they came two hours after I called. I wasn't ready, and was heartbroken she was leaving us, on what we all knew was her last journey. The kids were desperate too, when they came home and discovered her gone. She'd always lived up the road from us, and now she seemed very far away.

Being Rosemarie, once she was there, she rallied again. So we were able to visit that weekend, and take her for a coffee in the little cafe at the hospice, and have a lovely lovely afternoon, the memory of which I will cherish for ever. In fact she rallied so much, there was a suggestion she came home again. From having wanted to keep her, I had realised once in the hospice, I couldn't possibly care for her as well as they could (my first experience of this - up until then I felt the so called professionals had let us all down). Now the thought of her coming back filled me with horror. I knew we couldn't manage, and felt lousy for not being able to. Fortunately, it was only a suggestion, and though Rosemarie lingered for another five weeks, it was never again mooted that she should come home.

Her time in the hospice was very strange. We visited daily, bil and I in the day, Spouse in the evenings, the children at the weekends, and we had some wonderful moments. The best of which was the afternoon we took Rosemarie's accordion in (it's 80years old, handmade, laden with mother of pearl), and no 1 played it for her, and one afternoon when I was with no 2 and sang Silent Night to her in German. Daily life continued as normal, but I felt I was stuck in a bubble, where I would forever be driving back and forth to Esher and nothing would ever change.

During that time, Rosemarie told me ever more about her early days in Germany, returning again and again to her childhood. I wrote it down, desperately, wishing each day for one more story. Till we came to a day when she could tell me no more. She was slipping away from us, but still gave a delighted smile when we arrived, and held my hands tightly the whole time I was there, insisting as my poor hands were so cold they had to come under the blanket.

On the Sunday before she died, no 3 and I went in the afternoon. She was cheery and pleased to see us as ever, and still at that point able to talk. I left wishing she'd go like that - a similar feeling to one I'd had just before fil died. As we left the hospice a dark cloud was forming on one side, against bright sunshine on the other. We drove home to not one but two rainbows, even spotting a third. Somehow, that gave me hope and comfort.It seemed so appropriate for Rosemarie somehow.

The next day she could barely speak, and by the Wednesday, was very weak, but still that smile, and that joy when no 4 and I went in. By the Thursday afternoon, the smile had gone, and she was in considerable pain and distress. I couldn't hear what she was saying to me, and no 4 realising that she couldn't either, just took Omi's hand and talked to her. She was only 9 years old, but she showed such a ready empathy. Children are amazing sometimes.

I must have looked rough as hell as several of the nurses asked if I was ok. I wasn't. I felt overwhelmed with it, wondering how long it was going to go on, and feeling for the first time as though I couldn't take it anymore. It was so distressing to see Rosemarie like that. I just wanted her suffering over.

And that night it finally was.Spouse and I went back in the evening, where to my relief they'd upped her pain relief, and Rosemarie was unconscious but calm. I hope she  knew we were there. A couple of hours later we got a call to say we should come soon. No 1 was at a friend's house, so I went to pick her up early. Earlier in the day, we had joked about her indestructible granny. Can I come with you to the hospice? she asked. I wasn't expecting that. She was only fifteen. Was she too young to come? But she was insistent. When at midnight we got the expected call, she was determined to come. No 4 was asleep, but the other two had been up crying, so we left them with chocolate and to comfort each other and drove in the dark to Esher.

It was so weird,  it was a mild night and the birds were SINGING. I didn't know they did that. We got out at Esher feeling sick to the pit of our stomachs. I thought maybe we would be there for the end, but as soon as we rang the bell, a nurse appeared to say that sadly Rosemarie had died peacefully a  few minutes before. We went to see her, and she did look peaceful. They brought us tea, and we all cried. Bil and sil turned up five minutes later and hugged no 1. She had wanted to come and support us, she said, and all she could do was cry. That's all we all did pretty much for the next couple of days. No 3 felt dreadful as she hadn't been able to pluck up courage to see Rosemarie the previous day, which was perfectly fine of course, and no2 who had been incredible at helping look after Rosemarie when she was with us, was also in bits. It was a very soggy house, but in a good way I think and immensely bonding for us as a family.

I hadn't meant to write any of that, but out it came anyway. Weird how the subconscious works, innit?

From October to Christmas I didn't write a thing, unsurprisingly, I guess, and it took me weeks to get going again in the New Year. It felt like drowning in sludge, but eventually I got the first draft in six weeks late. I had thought the rewrites would be a doddle, but they were even worse. I felt tangled and confused, and making sense of the manuscript was a nightmare. But somehow I've persevered, and am pleased to say my editor likes the result. I hope you will too. There is a strong thread of fictionalised truth running through the book - like any good writer I turn my pain into something useful.

I'm still sorting out in my head what the last year has meant to me, and I don't think emotionally, I'm quite out of the woods yet. What I do know, is this, it was a huge privilege to have held Rosemarie's hand while she lay dying. I still miss her every day, but I am glad she's not suffering anymore. And finally, I'm getting my blogging mojo back. About time too, I can hear her say. Get on with it girl, why don't you?

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Book Review: Are We Nearly There Yet?

I don't often do book reviews. Ok. Readers of this blog if there are any of you left, the rate I'm going at the moment, I don't even blog very often anymore...

The reason I don't do book reviews, is mainly a time thing, but Are We Nearly There Yet? by Ben Hatch was so much fun, I felt impelled to break my usual rule and write about it.

As with so many things these days, I first heard about this book via Twitter. It was garnering good reviews (not always a reason for me to go out and buy a book), but more importantly, the premise was one I found irresistible. The book's subtitle is: A Family's 8000 mile around Britain., and is the completely bonkers story of how Ben and his wife Dinah undertook to write a family friendly travel guide, travelling for five months with their two children UNDER the age of four. I told you it was bonkers.

Now as we are the family who has among other things: taken two elderly parents, a 4month old baby and a 2 year old to Germany; four children under 8 to Spain (twice), gone camping with three children 5 and under while I was 11 weeks pregnant, & driven round Europe more times then I care to mention, this was a book that couldn't fail to appeal. And lots of the places Ben and his family went, we have also visited: Ironbridge , Warwick Castle, Liverpool (we took the same Duck tour as them, but theirs sounded much funnier), and Monkey World among others, so there's a fascination in seeing the same place through someone else's eyes. There's also the shared moments of recognition, such as the moments when children won't sleep,cause mayhem, and the parents collapse in an exhausted heap at the end of the day.

I would have loved this book for that alone. For showing that it's the same for most of us. We muddle through with our kids, particularly when we're travelling, which is possibly the most stressful thing you can do with small children. But I also loved it for the unexpected emotional punch it delivers. Just before Ben and his family set off on this trip, he discovered his father was dying of cancer. His dad insisted on him going on the trip, but much of the journey is punctuated with anxious phone calls home, and the odd dash back. Having so recently attended a dying relative myself, there was much in Ben's story that made me gasp aloud in recognition. The description of his father's last day, could almost have been the one I wrote for mil, and I am not ashamed to say it made me weep. For all of us, there comes a time when we lose someone we love, for most of us, that first experience is with a parent. But at whatever stage of life they or you are at, the loss is tangible and real, and won't hurt any less because someone's had a good innings, or you know they're not suffering anymore. If you've lost your dad, or your mum, or another close family member, you've lost that person, full stop. No amount of rationalising can take the pain away.

And what I loved about the way Ben wrote this, was not only was he honest and open about the way he felt about his dad, and how he coped with his dad dying (at one point on the trip, he wasn't coping well at all, which is unsurprising in the circumstances), but he's taken it beyond the personal, to tell a story that affects us all. And then at the end of it he goes back to his family, and his journey, and their future. Just as his dad would surely have wanted him to.

This is a wonderful book: simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, it made me laugh out loud (there is an outrageous scene involving a toothbrush, which only those of a strong disposition should read),  and weep in equal measures. But above all it is tremendously life affirming. You don't have to have had a family or have suffered bereavement to enjoy it either, his wry observations about the places they visit are funny whatever your circumstances, and his description of Dinah's turtle phobia made me cry with laughter (I think Mrs Hatch deserves a MEDAL quite frankly). Ben Hatch has the knack of taking the mundane and the ordinary and elevating it to story material which will make you desperate to come back for more. I gather he's just about to go round Europe on another family trip. He's totally mad of course, but I can't wait to read the result.

A walk in the country.

I'm actually very late blogging this, but thanks to deadlines and parties etc....

In my other life, as a busy mum, I have spent many many years helping out on school visits. I have been on coach trips, and museum visits, and visited gardens and tried to prevent small children drowning when they do pond dipping. Most of the time, I've vaguely enjoyed myself but come back with a huge headache and even huger respect for teachers who have to deal with small people ALL the time. But I have to say, the majority of trips have felt more like a dutiful chore then anything else.

However, three weeks, ago, I helped out on the best school trip ever. Our very enthusiastic new head, had the bright idea of taking Year 5 on a long walk in the country, including camping in teepees on Box Hill. His reasoning being that a) it's cheap (school trips get ever more pricey)  b) given that we're surrounded by hills it seemed like a good idea to take the children up some and c) for a lot of children, this might be their first experience of going on a walk like this.

For my children who have been dragged to school every day almost as soon as they can walk, and made to go on "boring" walks in the countryside in all weathers (though funnily enough when we go to Shropshire, and climb proper hills they seem to like that more), walking holds no particular fear, though they might moan about it, so no 4 was quite intrigued by the idea. And as I love walking, and am already a huge fan of the Surrey Hills, I jumped at the chance to help out.

When the idea was first mooted, way back in April, of course we were in the middle of the wettest drought on record. And we all fondly imagined that by June, we'd be having better weather. Wrong... The day before the Walk, it rained so heavily the tepee camping had to be abandoned. We were all fully expecting the walk  to be abandoned too, but luckily new head is made of sterner stuff, so we all met in a damp and muddy car park in the middle of nowhere. I really have no idea where it was, as I was taken there, without a very good map. All I know was it was a long long way from civilsation.

It took a while to assemble the whole party together - there were 56 kids in total, and along with the requisite number of teachers, several parents came to help out. But eventually we were off, across a busy road, and into a very muddy wood. This was where it became quickly evident some kids weren't brilliantly equipped for the weather, having thin trainers, that squelched alarmingly in the mud. I spent the first half an hour with a couple of little girls who'd never done anything like this before, and were simultaneously stunned and enthralled by the mud. In the meantime there was lots of squealing and yelling as feet were getting stuck and trousers getting muddy (including my daughter, who DESPITE me sending her in waterproof trousers, took them off as soon as we arrived as they looked naff), hilariously most of the moaning and screaming seeming to come from the boys. Boys, not liking mud? Whatever is the world coming too.

My companions soon got in the swing, to the point that one of them told me it was the most amazing thing she'd ever done - I asked her again at the end if it was still amazing. She said yes, but she was very tired...

Fortunately the first part of the walk was under shelter, as it rained continuously, and when we eventually got out into the open along the North Downs Way where we should have had stunning views of Leith Hill and Dorking,  all we could see was cloud covered hills. By this time we'd been walking over an hour, and it was time for our first stop at Ranmore Common. Here we were met with an enthusiastic party led by a roving teacher and several mums who had come supplied with cake, biscuits and drinks. By now it was raining really heavily, so naturally the boys decided to have water fights with their water bottles.As you do...

Starting off again, was the only point in the whole day where I heard any moaning. The kids all had a backpack to share with a friend containing a small snack. Despite the fact that said snack was for emergencies, and they'd JUST had a snack, the lot I was with when we started again all wanted to dig into their emergency supplies. I gave up suggesting they wait till later in the end... No one was listening to me anyway. (I'd clearly make a GREAT teacher.) Another problem emerged in the shape of several of the girls becoming quite desperate for the loo. Funnily enough, none of them took up my suggestion to use the bushes, but luckily we weren't too far from Denbies (which in case you don't know it, is a vineyard in Dorking, as featured in this year's Apprentice, as half the children were quick to tell me). Well I say not too far, HT's cheery ten minutes, did turn into about twenty, but we made it in the end. Fortunately Denbies are used to walkers, and didn't seem to mind the onslaught from so many muddy children.

Then it was back up the hill to walk through the Denbies estate and restrain the boys who were starting to stick fight from accidentally hitting the vines. Having said that, I think it was a particular joy on the day to see the boys being allowed to be boys for a change - something the constraints of the National Curriculum often prevents from happening. There was much mud slinging, and play fighting, and they seemed to be having a ball (though I'd say the girls interestingly were nearer the front most of the time and moaned less when they were tired).

As we got towards lunchtime, we had a major road to cross, in the shape of the A24, opposite Box Hill. Being a very busy dual carriageway, this is not especially pedestrian friendly, but luckily there is an underground passage which takes you safely under the road. Hurrah. It was only when we approached the tunnel it became evident there was a problem. Thanks to torrential rain the day before, the River Mole had burst its banks and flooded the tunnel. And we all had to walk through it...I have to say, I thought this was quite entertaining, especially as I ended up standing in the middle of the tunnel cheering on slightly squeamish children (luckily I WAS wearing waterproof trousers, and my walking boots held out enough for me not to be too squelchy). It was slightly unfortunate that we had to have lunch at that point, as it took longer for feet to dry off, but it was a very funny moment in a thoroughly enjoyable day.

Lunch over, we set off up Box Hill, heading for the zig zag where the Olympics road race is taking place in a few weeks time. As has been the case for some months now, Box Hill is full of energetic people cycling up and down it, and they were probably somewhat bemused to be cheered on by a bunch of enthusiastic children when we reached the top and had a breather. It was still grey and miserable, but fortunately the rain held off, and we were (I thought) heading for the home straight. I roughly knew where the camp site was as eldest has been there several times for DofE training, but it was a lot further then I had thought. I like walking, and I love walking up Box Hill, but I can tell you it was a tough tough walk. And the majority of the kids did it. By the end the boys were bursting into song (mostly rude it has to be said) and in the main, apart from the odd, my feet ache, no one moaned at all.

By the time we reached High Ashurst at around 4.30 (having set off at 10 am), we'd covered roughly 8 miles of quite rugged terrain. The kids were exhausted, slightly stunned, but I think quite rightly, very proud of their achievement. I've only ever walked two miles, one boy said to me in awe. I don't think he could quite believe that he'd walked that far and was still standing.

It was a brilliant brilliant day. I really enjoyed spending it with such an enthusiastic and energetic group of kids - my friend from the beginning, who'd started so uncertain was running by the end, and having a ball. Yes, they were exhausted, and even more so the next day, when they arrived back at school, having walked a further six or seven miles, but I think it will be a trip that will stay long in their memories. It certainly will in mine. It was a fantastic achievement for a bunch of nine and ten year olds to walk so far, and without too much fuss, and I was proud to be part of it, and even prouder of them. So a big thank you to the school and especially the head for organising it. It was quite simply, the best school trip I've ever helped out on. I'm only sorry, as no 4 is leaving next year, I won't get the opportunity to do it again...