2024iv2, Tuesday: What's lost. What's not.

2024iv2, Tuesday: What's lost. What's not.

It was my dad's old driving gloves that brought me face to face with the fact that my mum was going to die.

We’d lost my dad in late 2014, in the fourth year after his retirement. The first year had ended with his stroke. The second and third saw hard-won recovery. And the fourth was dominated by dealing with a bladder cancer diagnosis; the summer of 2014 had him commuting daily from Chichester to Brighton for radiotherapy. That, I think, wore his already weakened system down to the point where, in September, it finally gave out. He was 71.

My mum stayed in the house they’d bought and hoped to share. In 2016 she’d sold the car that was adapted for my dad’s use. In 2019 she’d come back to Winchester, the city they’d lived in and loved through the 15 years to 2011. In 2020, Covid hit - my mum’s flat was, blessedly, in a block with lovely people and a big shared garden, relieving the isolation that she might otherwise have felt. But early in 2021 she noticed herself getting breathless. Painfully so: unable to walk more than a few hundred metres, a distance which remorselessly shrank. Other body systems were going wrong too. And in mid-2021 came the diagnosis: late-stage lung cancer. Viciously unjust for a woman who’d never smoked, barely drank, always been healthy.

Immunotherapy was tried and failed. And as 2021 wound on, it became clear that time was short. By early 2022, after a blessed respite over Christmas (and a beautiful Christmas day with all her kids and grandkids), Winchester’s lovely new hospice had found space for her. By February, I’d essentially moved to her flat (supported by my amazing family who made it possible for me to do so), working remotely as best I can and spending as much time with her (and with my brother and sister) as possible.

And that was when I found them. I’d taken the train instead of our car, knowing that my mum’s car was right there to get up to the hospice, a ten-minute drive away. Shoved something into the driver’s side door pocket. Felt leather and fabric. And drew out my dad’s old driving gloves.

I’d always found his habit of using driving gloves slightly funny, but beautifully archaic. He was a big and gentle man, with a habit of taking his hand wholly off the steering wheel softly to move the indicator stalk instead of simply twitching it with a finger. The gloves somehow accentuated the movement, making each careful turn of the car into a tiny ballet.

And my mum had kept them. She’d taken them out of the car they’d shared. And transferred them into this one. They were far too big for her. Too big even for me, really. But perhaps she couldn’t conceive of throwing them away. Or - after 49 years of marriage - of having a car in which they didn’t reside.

So I just sat there. Gloves in hand. And although I’d known, intellectually, that my mum wasn’t long for this world, that was the moment I grasped the truth of it.

No surprise that it was a while before I could turn the key in the ignition.

She’d made it to her 80th birthday in March - again shared with kids and grandkids, thank goodness. And to the laying of my dad’s tombstone, at long last. In a wheelchair, with oxygen, but there at Winchester Cathedral’s east end.

But then two years ago today, shortly before 1 in the morning, she died. We were with her. I saw her go. Felt her go. I drove back to Essex ten hours later. To home. Hugged my family. Held them tight.

And then what? I kept working. That I could do. (That I had to do.) But after a quarter of a century of writing not only for a living but for myself, those words dried up.

For those who’d been reading this stuff back in the day, from when I started the previous site early in the Plague Year, this is the reason for the long drought between mid 2022 and the end of last year. I tried to write. I just couldn’t. (Strangely, I couldn’t run either. When I went out for a run one morning in the waning days of 2023, Strava told me it was the first time I'd done so since the previous New Year’s Eve, 362 days earlier. I hadn’t realised.)

The wisest person I know had said to me that I probably couldn’t really start to process things properly till my job as my mum’s executor was done. She was right. My mum’s flat had gone on the market in August 2022, bare weeks before Liz Truss’s mad budget had helped crashed the economy still further. It took till December 2023 finally to sell it, enabling the wishes in my mum’s will to be fulfilled.

And somehow the dam burst. The words started coming. New site, new host, new URL, renewed writing. Which I hope you’re OK with.

It’s been strangely cathartic, to scribble again. To find words once more. I now realise how much I’d missed them. And appreciate still more that others seem sometimes to get something from them too. I can’t thank you enough.

This is a rare foray into the highly personal. I don’t intend for this site to be this kind of indulgence. Nothing wrong with it, but that’s not what it’s for. (Don’t ask me to define what it’s for; I couldn’t. Just… not that.)

But it feels good to explain. To mark an important day. To recall and bless my parents, both of them. Who many years ago once wrote me a birthday card which read: “We’re not sure exactly what it is you do, but we’re very proud of you.” (And they meant every word.) To honour the fact that what I do now was catalysed by losing my dad; it was barely weeks after his death that I resolved to become a lawyer, so I wouldn’t look back and regret the path not taken. And that even though my dad never saw it (shame; he’d have absolutely adored it), my mum was there to see me be called to the Bar in 2018. Perhaps, finally, to understand what it was I did. And, once more, to be proud.

It's oddly apposite, too, to write this just after Easter, according to this year's weirdly premature calendar. For non-Christians Easter may seem bizarre. As may the veneration of an instrument of torture (for that, of course, is what the cross was.)

But Easter is liberation. Good Friday is loss. Easter Saturday is the day without hope, when all was lost; the day when despair seemed to win. And then Easter Sunday is release. We're not trapped. Light dawns. Hope lives, despite all we humans do to douse it.

This seems more true than ever, two years on. Hope lives. Faith manages. And so, I think, do I.

And the gloves?

I don’t know what happened to them. I guess they were in the car when it got sold in the summer of 2022. I only realised that afterwards, and kicked myself for not rescuing them.

But things are things, no more. I don’t need them to count my blessings. There are better memorials, more intangible and yet less evanescent. These words, I hope, are among them.

(Two final things.

Firstly: Hospices are miraculous places. The care - no, the love - of everyone at the Winchester one transformed my mum's final days, and our ability to share them with her, in ways I will never be able to describe. If you've got a local hospice, find a way to help them out. Please?

Secondly: when I first wrote about my mum's diagnosis, an old acquaintance in the AML world pointed me to a short ebook he'd written after his own mother died almost a decade ago. It's called Ten things you need to know about dealing with death. It's not for everyone; what is? But it made a huge amount of sense to me. It might to you.)