Following my diagnosis of a metastasising malignant melanoma, I had to have the usual PET scan to see where else it may have metastasized to, The places of choice would be, liver, lungs and if really unfortunate brain and most likely in that order.
Though I throw this remark out there with gay abandon. At the time the waiting for the results was very dark and fearful.
In fact my natural optimistic personality abandoned me and was replaced with one of such pessimism, that I felt was falling into a deep dark hole of grief.
Grief for my life, my girls.
They and family and friends rallied round but I found it hard to concentrate on their encouragement and support.
I was constantly distracted and turned more and more inside myself until I was coiled like a spring.
One day my sister called by unexpectedly with my mother .
I released my spring like self in anger.
How dare they call uninvited.
Didn’t they realise that today was the day I had chosen specially to roll myself into a tight little ball and rock backwards and forwards in sadness until I could rock no more.
My sister turned away but not before I saw the tears in her eyes and my anger turned to shame. ‘I’m sorry’ I hugged her ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me. Please bring mom in’.
Relieved, my sister ran to help my mother out of the car and I went to put the kettle on and do a quick tidy noticing as I did how unkempt I had let the place become.
I got my optimistic genes from my mother.
We are so alike. We make little of the worrying things in life. Going through my divorce my sister rang my mom to say she was concerned that I was having a nervous breakdown.
‘What nonsense’ my mother seemingly exclaimed ‘Peppard women don’t have nervous breakdowns’ and she was right! I didn’t!
‘It’ll be fine! We are strong! We can get through anything’.
That’s our Mantra.
‘None of you can possibly understand what I’m going through No one can possibly know how it feels I’ve been given a life sentence how will my daughters manage without me?’ I was really letting it rip. (my sister had retired discreetly to the back garden leaving my mom and myself alone).
‘I know what you’re going through’ my mother said calmly when I paused for breath. She was dipping her biscuit into her cup of tea. ‘I understand. But you have to be brave. Being dramatic won’t help you. You have to take what comes. You have no other choice’.
She is chewing her biscuit fiercely.
I am stunned into silence for a moment
‘You can’t know what I’m going through’ I say with more of a whine now.
‘Yes I can’ my mother swallowed her biscuit and took another sip of tea.
‘Don’t you remember’?
I thought for awhile then nodded quietly.
We never talked about ‘That night’ in our family.
Being woken by the commotion. The doctors leather shoes squeaking down the hall. The grownups whispering. The talk of blood and all the while my mother coughing, coughing, coughing. An ambulance siren. Then quiet.
My dad gathered us three older ones together.
‘Your Mom is very tired. She needs to go to hospital for awhile to get her energy back.’ He was crying. I had never seen my dad cry before. I didn’t know men could cry . I thought they were made without tears.
Then came the guilt. (If she is tired, was it our fault? Were we too noisy, too exuberant, sometimes even disobedient?).
It was a lot for a seven year old child to deal with. There was no such thing as counselling for grieving children in those days. You just got on with it as best you could .
‘Back then’ My Mom Continued ‘When I was diagnosed with TB it wasn’t the treatable infection it is today. It was a killer disease, a terminal illness, a death sentence. And it wasn’t two grownup girls with good supportive men that I was leaving behind but six small children with a madman of a father. When I was taken to the sanatorium that night. I didn’t think I would ever see you again. My heart was broken. I never imagined such sadness was possible. So yes I do understand’.
Then my mother who can’t abide dramatic women pulled herself together, ‘Come on. Your life isnt over yet. Be brave. Be hopeful. Trust that all will be well. Never believe the worst news till it’s in black and white in front of you and enjoy spending time with your daughters. We should all live a bit as though our days are numbered’ She smiled and hugged me.
And suddenly I no longer felt alone. I no longer felt I had to do this by myself. The relief was enormous. Like someone had just lifted a large rock off my heart.
After a while my sister came in and I helped my mom into her coat and we walked slowly together down the path to the car. Her arm linked closely through mine, a warm soft cosy motherly arm.
‘Don’t forget I want to be cremated and my ashes strewn off the rocks in mannin’. I was embarrassed now after all the emotion. Time to joke about life again. We are more comfortable with that. She is easing herself into the seat. Struggling with the seatbelt.
She looks up at me seriously and grabs my hand ‘Somehow I think that isn’t going to happen just yet’
‘Oh blast these seatbelt things’. She can’t get the buckle in. I reach down to help her. Her hair once thick and black is now frail and white , it smells of lavender.
‘Do you remember how your Dad refused to wear a seatbelt? He said they were dangerous. That if you were turning on a pier and reversed over the edge how the hell would you get out of the car if you had one on’ We laughed together about the absurdity of his argument.
I waved till my sisters car sped around the corner and disappeared from view. Of course the fear didn’t go away completely but I felt stronger and more in control and that my mother was right. What can you do in life but get on and make the best of what you are given.
It could have been a scene from a movie.
Six small waif like figures strung out in a line among the pink rosebay willowherb and tall rushes of the lakes edge. Six water nymphs reflected in the still waters.
“Come away oh human child to the waters and the wild , with a fairy hand in hand, for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand”
Though the scene is reminiscent of Yeats ‘Stolen child‘ these children are far from fairylike. They are solid flesh and bone, wearing shorts and T-shirts and sturdy leather sandals (some of which had originally been shoes but with the toes cut of them were fashioned into sandals).
Their childish voices get louder and the camera swings towards them.
Six small beings come into the frame through the willows, marching along the reed littered sandy path in time to their own song.
‘I Yay oh CO. I Yay oh Co’,
More of a chant than a song. A chant their leader has devised to keep them in some sort of moving order.
But they are only children and now and then they break rank and the chant stumbles to a halt as one member stops to examine a butterfly just landed on a alder bush and another spots a grasshopper and gives chase and the thirds attention is caught by a dragonfly.
The leader who is not the eldest but the second eldest, rubs a dock leaf on a recent nettle sting and waits resignedly for them all to regroup. When they finally do, she starts the chant again and the little band moves forward once more.
Beyond the reeds in the middle of the lake, a glimpse can be seen of a man in a boat. Though he doesn’t seem to notice the children on the shore, one gets the feeling that he is part of the scene.
He is calmly casting a rod forwards and back.
Now the sound of the zipping of line through a reel causes the children to stop and lay down their packs. They watch him in silence as he stands, his rod bending and jerking, until eventually he reaches for the landing net.
The middle child flinches. She can’t see but knows what will happen shortly in the boat. The short swift death by a blunt object.
But the leader doesn’t wait to hear the dull thud echoing across the lake. She has already picked up the volcano kettle and they are off again.
‘I yay oh co’
‘I yay oh Co.
A short while later another stop.
This time the leader walks back a few paces to the end of the line where the youngest, a mere toddler is crying.
He is dressed only in a grubby vest and a plastic pants containing a very soggy nappy. She kneels down beside him and takes the plastic pants off and the nappy and hiding the offending objects in a bush returns to the lead and on they go again.
‘I Yay oh CO,
I Yay oh CO,
I Yay oh CO’.
The eldest who is second in command and is carrying a container of fresh water falls into step behind the toddler whose bare bottom is barely covered by the vest. But he is happy now that he is relieved of his uncomfortable burden.
After a while she finds his going too slow and passes him out and soon he is trailing far behind.
A small figure trundling stoically along. Head bobbing among the tall grasses and young alder and hazel bushes of the lake shore, he follows the well worn fishermans path without fear.
He can’t quite remember the chant and has lost a shoe but it doesn’t worry him.
He is more interested in the presence of beetles and dragonflies so close to his eye.
The chant gets softer and softer and the sound of insects takes over. The grasses close around him. He is happy. The memory of his mother, like the chant, fades further and further away.
But who are these wild children you might ask. What are they doing here on this deserted lakeshore without adult supervision? Where are their parents?
They are us of course. The Peppards, whose mother has been sent away to a sanatorium to be cured of TB. and whom we will not see again for many months, indeed for nearly a year.
We must be missing her. It must be traumatic but there are no childrens counselling in those days and anyway children’s memories are selective.
I’m sure I cried the first night she went away but I can’t remember after that and we had each other.
Children are adept at living in the present and thats what we were doing that day.
It was one of those late spring days, half sun, half cloud (probably a school day) and ideal for fishing.
The woman who normally minds us is probably on a day off. (I would like to pretend here that she had handed in her notice, that finally our trap made of a bed of nettles was the last straw! but that was not the case. She was too kindly and motherly and sympathetic to pay any serious heed to our traps)
And the father? well as I said it’s an ideal day for fishing.
This isn’t our first time here.
We know this lake and this path like the back of our hands and though we may look like a motley crew we have a purpose.
We are carrying the makings of a picnic tea to a place halfway round the lake.
A magical place with a little beach surrounded by scots pines, whose bark you can pick off and make homemade jigsaws from.
A place where you can paddle up to your knees or lie in the long summer grasses or chase grasshoppers and butterflies.
The leader (eight years old) is the first to arrive.
After kicking off her sandals and dipping her feet into the deliciously cool water she starts gathering twigs and lays them neatly in the fire base on which the volcano kettle will sit.
She will light it in a while.
Next to arrive? me! Seven years of age and arms aching from carrying the basket of brown bread sandwiches, cheese and tomatoes and smiths crisps. each packet with its little twist of salt inside.
I set the basket near the kettle and also kicking off my sandals sit on a rock and lower my hot legs in the cold water and wait for the minnow to nibble my toes.
The eldest (10 years of age) dumps the water container which falls on its side and heads off to look for a quiet spot to read her book.
Next another sister younger than me( five years old) throws down the rug she is carrying and with my little brother aged three and a half, goes paddling.
No sign of the toddler yet but no one was concerned.
We lose ourselves in our little world of minnow and stickleback and larvae.
It’s a soothing place.
Then the leader jumps into action and lights the fire, fills the volcano kettle with water and places it in position. She takes out a frying pan and greases it with a piece of butter. This done she stands on a rock and whistles loudly across the lake.
The man in the boat looks over and waves and reeling in his line carefully places his rod on the floor boards beside the four lifeless brown trout.
He lifts the oars and begins to row towards the small group on the shore counting the heads as he approaches. One head is missing! He rows a bit faster
Just as he jumps worriedly out and pulls the boat ashore, the toddler appears, he has something to show, it is hidden between his two closed fists.
Five heads crowd around the small blond curly one. He slowly opens his hands.
A tiny frog sits unafraid on my youngest brothers pudgy palm looking at us for a few seconds before hopping off into the grass.
‘Good boy, you didn’t squash it’ The leader gives him a kiss on his head and he leans dosily against her leg.