It’s been a week since I last posted here; previously I hadn’t missed a day in two months, sometimes even posting a couple of times a day. I’ve had dozens of people – well, almost a dozen – contacting me to say “are you all right? I’m missing my daily fix”. OK, they don’t say the latter, but the truth is that I’d always intended this blog to fade away as the mourning faded. Post when something of significance happened, but avoid at all costs the “daily diary” monotony of “got up, went to work, felt a bit sad”. And also avoid sinking into a trough of moroseness. (That word may not exist, but it seems better than “morosity”).
Also missing from recent posts has been the photos which I have enjoyed digging out and scanning, and hopefully others have too. Here’s a nice sequence to kick us off today.
So these photos were taken on the weekend of 22-23rd October 1994. In the last photo, there are four generations: Nanny, Margaret, Juliet, Lucy – and even Alice is in there, for Juliet is six months pregnant.
Fast forward almost seventeen years, and I received a call from Margaret this morning saying we could come for lunch if we could bring another table and some chairs. We duly loaded up J’s excellent dressmaking and craftwork IKEA folding table into the Volvo and set off. At Richard and Margaret’s house in Oxford, they had the whole family to lunch, a very rare event these days simply because of the number of seats and table spaces required. But for the record there were ten of us: Richard & Margaret, J’s brother Alex, his twin brother Phil and his wife Sharon, their children Beth and Dominic, and me, Lucy and Alice. Not only was the chicken dinner delicious, all the food was hot as well. I wouldn’t have been able to manage either of those.
I’d taken down the sympathy cards at long last, and brought them with me to Oxford. I read every single one, front to back, go on, ask me the price codes. I think there’s still one or two people I haven’t thanked, although I even have a spreadsheet recording this, so there’s time yet. I know for a fact that there’s one or two people that I thought were my friends that have not said a single thing to me since J died or contacted me in any way. I’m not sure I want to continue being friends with them if and when they do eventually call, so that will be a tricky call (for them). I think I counted about 55 cards and letters.
It was an alternately sunny / rainy day, but at least it wasn’t windy. We all drove to the agreed meeting place, where we’d collected conkers as a family in the past. Everyone enthusiastically started collected conkers for all they were worth (save me).
Once the collecting frenzy was slightly slaked, we moved on. I found the spot I had in mind. Conditions were pretty much perfect – there was no wind, the air and ground was damp, there were muddy patches (Oxford Clay, geologists) among the grass and there was a good supply of dead leaves. Also very few people around. Now, in contrast to the funeral which I had planned to the last detail, I had deliberately, or unconsciously (or both) not planned anything very specific for the scattering of the ashes.
I unscrewed the lid of the plastic jar for the first time and was surprised to see that the ashes were in a sealed polythene bag, again labelled with Juliet’s full name and cremation date. Most of the others were still collecting conkers nearby, I assumed they preferred not to be involved in this. I started to scatter the ashes under and around the selected tree – which I was pleased to note was a horse chestnut (conker) tree. Margaret and Lucy followed me round and spread the ashes slightly and raked leaves over them – did I mention that I brought several small trowels and hand rakes with me? not quite so unprepared then hodders.
What I hadn’t anticipated – you think I would know by now – was the floods of tears from me the whole time I did this. I can’t explain why, it just seemed so inauspicious and unreal that Juliet once had any connection with the coarse white and grey ash. We had more or less finished when Alice suddenly realised what we were doing and was upset and angry that we had started without her. I shook out the last puffs of dust in her presence but I had cocked up bigtime. All I can say is that I wish people (not just you Alice) would concentrate on what matters and remember the purpose of the visit. I think we resolved matters, I think.
If you haven’t already spotted it, the tree appears in two of the photos so far.
We walked on. I was totally drained. I stopped to have a talk with Margaret and Sharon about other matters massively troubling me, not for this blog.
On the walk we noticed several examples of trees with accompanying memorial plaques. The trees looked healthy and well, but I would always worry about them dying or being vandalized. Juliet’s only express written wish was that her coffin not be on display in the funeral, so we achieved that, and she had also indicated without too much strong preference other desires such as poems and music. A memorial plaque was another wish “as even a ginepig [sic] can have one!“. My two interpretations of this are the memorial notice placed in our village magazine and dedications in the three piano music books I plan to donate to Katharine House hospice (still waiting for two of them to be delivered).
Back at Richard & Margaret’s, the children laid out their spoils. I sat on the sofa with a load of tissues. Felt wretched, not a word I would use often but that’s the top-of-the-list one today. After a while I went out for a short walk and chat with Sharon, which was nice, and helped. We went past the pub around the corner that I still haven’t been in after 29 years of visiting J, through a little footpath that I didn’t know existed and came out on Windmill Road. I was amazed – I thought I knew Headington, but not that little cut-through. The children had progressed from conker counting, measurements, comparisons and mazes, to actually playing conkers.
Not very successfully, it has to be said – playing conkers is harder than it looks. I had a go, and after failing to hit Alice’s conker eight times out of ten, and tapping it twice, I remembered why I last played when I was, oh nine or so. Appropriately enough, twelve-year old Dom eventually managed to crack Lucy’s conker, so he now has a “one-er”. And we wonder why they prefer iPods…? still, it was lovely that the conkers occupied them for most of the afternoon.
Last thing to record is the meeting of R & M’s new neighbour opposite, a young trainee psychologist named Flick. She and her partner and parents were engaged in cleaning and airing the house formerly occupied by a dear old chap called Joe Gartside, who died earlier this year from throat cancer – but he was in his mid-nineties. In fact I could be wrong, but I seem to remember that he was 96, exactly twice the life-span of Juliet. I don’t usually get too resentful about her illness, but the robbing of the rest of her life – and ours together – sometimes surfaces. Sorry.
So, it’s six weeks today since she died, and today has been one of the worst. I wasn’t expecting that.