Patchwork by post

Well, just to make a change – this is the beginnings of Canadian sister’s Christmas present. Shh! Don’t tell her. (Luckily she doesn’t read my blog so we’re safe enough.) The idea is to make a cushion cover, from the pattern below, plus a simple bag for the inner part of the cushion, and – one or two other bits – and then post the same to Canada. I shall have to get my skates on, though. To get anything bulkier than a letter to Canada by post you need to post it several decades in advance, or so it always seems:

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Somewhat blurry, but I can’t face a second battle of wills with the computer. Maybe I will take another set of photos, as the project progresses, assuming it does progress. This is the first one I’ve made and it’s a bit trial and error, geometrically/mathematically. There are two possible arrangements for the prism (or ‘little house’, if you prefer). The other one looks quite interesting.

Canadian sister is going through a really bad time at the moment. Brother-in-law is now onto his Plan B chemotherapy, Plan A having failed after a couple of years. He has also just retired so he’s at home all day, so things are now really tense. She’s talking about taking up an option for counselling. People always tell you to be strong, unfailingly cheerful etc., for the sake of the other person, who needs your support. But how noble can you manage to be when you’ve been married, childless and deeply dependent for thirty-seven years or so and when, aside from your dying husband, you are alone in a ‘foreign’ country? You would need to have had a completely different life leading up to this point. You would need to have always been a different kind of woman.

There is nothing I can do. If only I could fly over to Canada, like the Stork, scoop her up in some sort of human fishing net and trawl her back to England. I can’t even make her want to come back – later – afterwards. Maybe Canada feels like home, now. The other day it occurred to me that the family she left behind in 1980 is not really here any more. Dad is long dead, Mum would be unlikely to recognise her; English Sister is here but gone all odd and mostly incommunicado. I’m here, of course but, three years the elder and a lifetime duller and wearier, would I that much of a draw?

But I know she likes crafting, and that is her form of meditation. I know she could probably make this cushion better than me, and that she will probably look at it and say ‘her light rows are not light enough’ or ‘she needed a zinger here or there’. Canadian sister is very fond of her zingers. And I thought I would include a photocopy of the pattern, and a duplicate template (quilters’ plastic) and another set of pieces. With the job half done, I think, she might be tempted make up a matching cover, or try the alternative design or even supplement the pieces with a whole lot of Canadian ‘zingers’ and make several cushions.

Patchwork cushions. The best a sister can do.

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Kiss it better

Canadian sister and I were talking, transatlantic fashion, about how much we missed Mum. Mum’s in a home, and she does not know us. I visited her today and she asked, in a rare half sentence, where The Daughters were. I am guessing that in her mind The Daughters are not the lumpy, grey old badgers that come to visit her but spotty, insolent teenagers or pigtailed infants.

The television was on loud. People being pompous about food, drizzling this jus or that jus on this or that. We agreed that we both particularly hated cooking programmes.

Finding her propped up in the armchair, my Adopted Godmother (or Godmother Elect) and I lowered ourselves onto Mum’s squishy orthopaedic bed with our feet on the squashy blue plastic ‘in case of falls’ mattress. Every time one or other of us moved, or stood up to make Mum a cup of tea or find her a jacket, both bed and fall mattress gave a fart and a chorus of desperate sighs. It was how we felt.

Last night Canadian sister told me how she felt when she learned her husband of forty years had cancer. She said she wanted to tell Mum, straight away. She knew Mum couldn’t do anything about it but she had to tell her all the same. But she couldn’t tell her. Mum was past understanding anything anyone said. She had tiptoed off without bothering to say goodbye, it felt like.

I told her something I had not realised until I said it, that although Mum had spent most of her life annoying me in one way or another I often longed to talk to Old Mum about New Mum. If only she would come back just for one day so that I could ask her what to do, even though there is nothing at all to be done.

When you lose your parents it’s weird. It’s not like you become a grown-up, suddenly. Here you are, still a five year old inside the elderly carapace you hardly recognise in the mirror, but now you’re abandoned, cast back upon your own inadequate five year old resources. All the bad and sad stuff that has always been inside you, all that stuff that will probably get better someday all the while Mum and Dad are in the world – suddenly they aren’t in the world, in any meaningful way. And then all the bad and sad stuff starts to creep and snuffle its way out. Unchecked. Unbalanced. No one to kiss it better.

When we were children, if we fell over and cut our knees she would wash and bandage them for us. “Mummy kiss it better,” she would say, and the magic always seemed work. It occurred to us that it’s not important whether or not a parent – or anyone else – has any actual power to help you. It only matters that you can tell them. It’s just somebody being there to listen.

I suddenly remembered a time when my parents were both alive but old and, as the unmarried daughter, I seemed to have to go around everywhere with them. We went to a museum once. Admittedly it was raining and all three of us arrived at the reception desk in dripping rain-hoods, looking like drowned rats. ‘Three Seniors?’ the woman enquired with not even a trace of face-saving irony. Dad even bought me a walking stick exactly like his though I didn’t (and still don’t) need one.  How depressing I found that museum visit. How I wish I could turn back the clock and relive it now, torrential rain, walking stick, stupid receptionist and all.

Just Another Solo Sunday

Christmas Eve. I have been sitting in the dark watching forgettable TV and feeling sorry for myself. My sister phones me from Canada.

We talk about family matters for a while. Practical matters. She is distracted by her husband who, despite advanced cancer, is determined to drag the washing machine back into position after re-tiling the kitchen floor. Go and help him  – you can phone me back. But no, he’s a man and he Doesn’t Need Help.

She tells me she is going to have to entertain one of her husband’s work colleagues and family on Boxing Day. Last time they saw me I was a weepy mess, she says. It’s embarrassing.

Think yourself on the other side of it, I counsel, knowing I couldn’t do so myself. Remind yourself that it’s only a few hours and then they will be gone. How many hours can they stay?

Well, now they’ve got the two-year-old to think of, maybe five hours…

Five hours! I think.

Five hours! she says.

Maybe you can have a few excuses lined up – things that will get you out of the room for twenty minutes here and there… I’ve run out of inspiration.

We turn to the subject of my solo Christmas Day. I’ll be on my own, Mum being unexpectedly in hospital with a broken hip. Would probably have been on my own anyway, Mum having been in the home since April or thereabouts. Somehow or other I haven’t planned for it. Why didn’t I think to volunteer to muck cats out at the local sanctuary? I know the answer – the cats would be pleased to see me but the worthy women at the cat sanctuary wouldn’t. They would look at me askance as people – and particularly women – tend to do. I was born without the ability to Bond.

We talk about our other sister – how come two sisters can never have a conversation without talking about the third? She will have her family around her – her partner, her daughter and ‘the boys’, ie her son and his partner. We think/hope maybe it won’t be as jolly and wonderful as it sounds. They’ll probably get fractious and bored. The boys will probably wander off somewhere. Couldn’t cope with all those people ourselves, etc. Not that sociable.

But it would have been nice to have had the option.

If we’d been in the same country, she says, you would have been coming to us for Christmas. It would have been only natural, the two childless ones.

Yes, I say. Or we might have taken it in turns to invite? 

I am comforted, inspired even, by the thought of the succession of Canadian Christmases we might have had. I remember my one and only trip to Canada back in the ‘eighties. It was Christmas then. There were plastic reindeer galloping merrily across every front garden (or should it be yard?) and plastic Santas attempting to squeeze themselves down non-existent chimneys. Fake snow decorated every window, real snow fell ‘snow on snow’ into the garden and creatures that might have been squirrels or maybe skunks looped their way along the tops of boundary fences. It would have been nice to be there every Christmas.

It would have been nice…

A bit of a long paddle, though. She is talking about the Atlantic.

She goes on talking and I suppose I am listening and making the appropriate replies, but also I am imagining myself walking on water, skimming the Atlantic Ocean on foot, only it isn’t icy cold and mind-bogglingly, Titanic-sinkingly deep like the real Atlantic but shallow and warm. Yes, I am that woman in the Dior perfume ad – Charlize whatever – and I am slender and young and wearing a gold dress so tiny and yet so beautiful it seems part of me. Water glistens down my throat, and the sun catching it and glinting off it, and I am perfumed and mysterious and splashing my way across calm waters towards a golden sunset.

The rain it raineth on the just

I was just wondering what the worst possible personality trait to have been born with. What would be a real curse? So, internet-says-this:

  • Arrogance
  • Rudeness
  • Dishonesty
  • Moodiness
  • Conceit
  • Unreliability
  • Condescension…

The trouble with all these nasty traits is that the person who possesses them is almost certainly not the person who suffers from them. That’s other people. If you’re conceited, arrogant or condescending you’re most probably unaware of the fact. Think of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice; think of Mr Collins for that matter: Condescension and Conceit in league with one another and comfortable in their own skins.

Rather, it seems to me that the worst trait to be cursed with, from the point of view of the individual him- or herself, is a Sense of Justice. It’s the unshakeable conviction that the world must be fair – that things just have to work out right in the end. Most of us are afflicted with it and it’s so difficult to shake off.

The advice always seems to be: man up, get over it. The world isn’t fair; it never was and it never will be. Fairness/justice – that’s just something people invented so as to feel a little less scared. Who can bear to know that they are at mercy of an unfair, unjust world where just about anything could and might happen at any time?  Once again we are floating specks in a vast, impersonal universe.

I was talking to my sister yesterday – the Canadian one whose husband is gradually dying of cancer. She is tormented by this concept of fairness/unfairness as never before. They had planned their retirement together – time at last to drive off and discover the rest of Canada, time to travel the world; the new ‘retirement’ car that was already on order and now has to be cancelled; time to get stuck into all those much researched and looked-forward-to hobbies. How can all that not be going to happen now?

Having never really considered it before she finds herself tossed into that most basic of philosophical debates – the Problem of Suffering and Evil. She made the mistake of mentioning to a woman at her crafts group that she was feeling angry at God for what he had done to her and to her husband. How can he be a Loving God, she asked, and inflict such pain on the human beings he is supposed to have created?

She regretted this, rather. The woman didn’t say much at the time but went away looking troubled. Later that evening she telephoned my sister to deliver a long, long lecture on the necessity for Faith, for Prayer, and most especially for Hope. Her husband had also been quite ill in the past, she said, but she had prayed for him; she had put herself in the hands of the Lord. My sister said yes, but your husband wasn’t actually dying, was he? Dying’s different.

Why can’t we just say to someone who going through a terrible time, of course you’re angry? Anyone would be. What are you worth if you’re not even allowed to be angry and say so when life rears up drooling, like Alien, and bites you on the bum? My sister’s decided not to mention the God problem to anyone else, in case they turn out to be a tactless, deluded, insensitive do-gooder.

My only thought during this transatlantic telephone conversation was that if there is indeed a God he surely has far better things to do than torment the tiny people he created in his image and claims to love. Why would he put so much energy into creating Heaven and Earth, broad skies; towering mountain ranges; fathomless oceans – all the way out to the farthest, star-strewn reaches of the universe – only engage in such despicable, lily-livered, nit-picking tinkering and meddling? That’s the way humans behave, not gods.

It’s an age-old problem, not solvable by anyone else. Rather, it’s something each of us has to wrestle with alone, in the silence inside our heads. Life refines and changes us – we are tempered in the fire, like swords in the making; and maybe that’s the point.

stolen umbrella

The rain it raineth on the just

And also on the unjust fella:

But chiefly on the just, because

The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.

Lord Bowen (1835-1894)

Thanks, Hindsight

How is the year shaping up for you so far? Have your predictions come true, or did you have to face a curve ball or two?

I didn’t expect my brother-in-law to be dying. That’s the curve ball.

He’s younger than me. When they came over from Canada after Labor Day (always after Labor Day, when air tickets are cheaper) he spent two days painting my bathroom green. Except to him it looked yellow, because he’s colour blind. He did a really good job – not sloppy, like I would have done. Two days of sanding, masking and painting while my sister and I sat downstairs catching up on old times. She said he was tired a lot nowadays, but neither of us thought. He was waiting for a test. The test took a whole year to come round, and by then it was too late. He’s got about a year; maybe longer, with treatment.

I never thought I’d miss him in advance. I mean – he’s not my husband. And I suppose that’s what’s always been the trouble – such similar men, such spookily similar personalities – he’s always reminded me. I wasn’t nice, sometimes; I was prickly; I just daren’t let him take me over, start telling me what to think and do. I’d had twenty-two years of it. Twenty-two years of looking for the strength to leave, and more than that since, of paying the price. I escaped. Except you drag it all along with you, trailing clouds of resentment; clouds of mistrust; all men to be tarred with the same brush.

I was distracted: bound up in Mum and her problems. Mum with her dementia – and even before the dementia, that genius she’s got for sucking everybody in, bending all the attention in her direction. Being deaf will do that, of course. Everybody needs to face you; everybody has to focus on you, mime to you, repeat for you. Nowadays, when you don’t want to listen you screw up your eyes: so everybody writes you notes. When you don’t want to read the notes you screw them up and throw them on the floor. We haven’t told you, and we won’t. By the next day you’d have forgotten.

In the midst of all this it was spreading, this thing you have, and none of us knew. As always you flew over, and as always you did stuff for people. You keep a set of overalls in a cupboard at your Mum’s house. You bring your own drill and all the bits to go with it in a heavy-duty plastic case. A place for everything. You painted my bathroom green and thought it was yellow. Then you drove up North and did stuff for your Mum and your sister. You sorted us all out, like you always do. You did that stuff, flew home, and found out you were dying.

So that’s the curve ball.

My sister phones me most nights. She doesn’t know what to do. I just looked it up – we’re precisely 6,793 kilometres apart. What can I do? Only sit in that uncomfortable chair and listen. Only refer back to my own life, only repeat half-remembered stories from books I half-remember reading. What good is that?

I shall be glad to get out of this house.

Glad not to see those newly-painted walls.

Glad to be somewhere else entirely.

READING MONTAIGNE IN THE BATH

I was reading Michel de Montaigne in the bath (as you do) and thought to check back over the various pink postit-notes I had attached to him.

‘A dog one knows’ said one postit.

‘Cat in a pasty’ said another.

‘Cat and bird’ said the third.

‘A dog one knows’ is Montaigne quoting St Augustine (‘an ancient father’) who apparently said:

‘We are better off in the company of a dog we know than in that of a man whose language we do not understand’. Montaigne goes on to say ‘Therefore those of different nations do not regard one another as men.’

I agree with him (or rather St Augustine) about the dog we know; I also agree that not knowing someone’s language makes it more of a stretch to see them as real or human in the sense that you yourself are real and human. What I’m not sure about is how Montaigne is making the second the consequence of the first.

In researching Montaigne on the internet I kept coming across the famous quotation about Montaigne and his cat. You may have seen it yourself – when I play with my cat, am I amusing myself with her or is she amusing herself with me? Which reminds me of Lao Tzu asking, on waking from sleep, having had a dream in which he was a butterfly: Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?

Even before that first cat quotation I guessed that Montaigne would be a cat person – how could he not be since we were kindred spirits? – but quickly became tired of reading the same quote over and over again. Surely he must have made other moggie-mentions? I decided to postit them as I went along.

I’ve only found two so far but have such a lot of Montaigne ahead of me that I’m confident there are more to come. The first, ‘Cat and bird’, links back to my first ever post (Felix brought me a mouse) in which Felix rescues me from a dying mouse. Montaigne is interested in the connection between mind and body – not just our own mind influencing our own body, but other minds influencing bodies not even their own. He starts with a rather suspect list of examples – ostriches hatching their eggs merely by looking at them, hares and partridges turned white by the snow on the mountains and so forth – but goes on to tell this little story:

Someone in my house recently saw a cat watching a bird at the top of a tree. After they had gazed fixedly at one another for some time, the bird dropped, apparently dead, between the cat’s paws, either stupefied by its own imagination or drawn by some power of attraction of the cat.

Didn’t I tell you? Felix rescued me from a mouse.

The second, ‘Cat in pasty’, is my favourite:

I know of a gentleman too who, three or four days after having entertained a large party in his house, bragged, by way of a joke – for there was nothing in it – that he had made them eat cat in a pasty. One young lady in the company was thereupon so horrified that she was seized with a severe dysentery and fever, and nothing could be done to save her.

Which, being an example of mind over matter, prompts me to mention the other book that I happen to be reading at the moment: ‘Getting Well Again’ by Simonton, Simonton and Creighton (1978).

Carl Simonton was a cancer specialist who demonstrated a link between certain typical mind-sets and both the likelihood of getting cancer and the likelihood of dying from it. He demonstrated that a person may unconsciously be choosing to die, that even if they don’t realise it their death is solving a problem for them. He and his wife also found various ways of helping cancer patients, through relaxation and visualisation, to take control of their illness and often affect its outcome.

This is such a clearly-written and inspiring little book that if you know someone who has cancer or have recently been diagnosed with it yourself, it’s worth getting hold of a second-hand copy. As it happens, thankfully and fingers crossed, that wasn’t why I was reading it ; in spite of the usual ‘getting older’ problems – sore knees, sore eyes, sore back – I’m OK.

I was interested in finding out whether some of us might unconsciously be choosing to end our days with dementia / Alzheimer’s. I know, whoever would choose the scenario everyone’s terrified of? But then who would choose cancer? If the principle – that people’s minds have the power to destroy their bodies – applies to cancer, why wouldn’t it apply to any other illness?