Weeping Willow….

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Three weeks ago, our very beloved family dog, Willow, was run over and killed by a tractor, driven by a young farmer who was in a harvest induced rush.

To say it was horrific is an understatement. It was like a scene from an Ian McEwan novel;  a day all blue-skied and perfect, a family celebrating a birthday, the last minute decision to go for a late afternoon walk and drink in the last of the sun. One moment we were singing the praises of the day, near perfect we were proclaiming, and then in a moment, there was a bend in the road, a hedgerow, the glint of a dog from the corner of my eye and the clatter of a tractor coming round the corner too fast. And boom –  the irreversible happens.

We all claim to be acutely aware of the fragility of life and how things can change on a dime, yet the truth is, moment to moment tragedies remain almost unimaginable. It’s only when something awful actually happens- and god I am acutely aware that no matter how horrible it has been there is a lot worse that can befall a person- that we are shaken out of our slumber of permanence.

My first, instinctive thought was ‘It could have been one of my children’. In fact, in my semi-fury, semi-desperation I think I screamed as much at the muted farmer.

Experiences like that are littered with what ifs, both good and bad.

‘What if I hadn’t suggested the walk?’

‘What if I had been able to find her lead?’

‘What if we had left ten minutes earlier or later?’

‘What if the younger ones had come with us, and been running on ahead?’

It is futile thinking but it circles around in your head.

My second thought, in an experience now indelibly etched in slow motion across my mind, was ‘Oh my god, how will I tell the children?’ If I am honest, part of me wanted to run from the responsibility. I felt like, I knew, that I was going to be taking an axe to their innocence. Up until now, they have – blessedly- been largely protected from death. They have seen me grieve the loss of grandparents, but they are yet, or were yet, to experience that punch in the stomach sadness when you lose someone that is an integral part of your existence.

I hope I don’t need to be their bearer of bad news too often. Watching their wide eyed faces spontaneously twist with grief makes me choke when I think of it now.

‘How do I hug them all at once?’, I thought.

‘I cant possibly console one before the other’

‘Why cant I take it all away?’.

The protective instinct that is such an innate part of being a mother was rendered completely useless in this instance. I realised very quickly that nothing I said and little I did would ultimately be of help. I couldn’t take their sadness away, package it up and send it off as I wanted too, and I couldn’t coach them through it either. They had to process the experience – their loss, their sadness, their memories – in their own way.

And what was remarkable was that after the initial universal outpouring, they all did it, and have continued to do it, in vastly different ways.

The youngest- as you might expect- dried his eyes first. He found distraction in a computer game on which he had free reign- there was no room for rules at a time like that. When he came back downstairs, still red-eyed but composed, he counselled me, ‘Mum, if you try to think about something else, then you won’t feel as sad’.

Almost immediately, and it felt almost shocking at the time, he asked if we could get another dog.

‘Exactly the same’ he said. ‘And we’ll call her Willow’

I decided that it wasn’t the time to teach him that animals weren’t like toys, that you couldn’t simply go to a shop and buy a new one. I didn’t need to, because he already knew. It was just his coping mechanism. Thinking ahead. Being hopeful.

The middle one took all the hugs he could get and when he was spent, announced he was going upstairs to write Willow a letter. Which he did. A full heart-wrenching page written by a boy who has always proclaimed to hate writing.

And the oldest, newly a teenager, sought solace in her friends, as teenagers do. She cried and cried, and then called her friends to cry some more. She then walked the house like a ghost, acutely aware of the deep bellied grief that sat, like a stone, in the pit of her stomach.

‘I still feel sad’ she said, ‘but I have run out of tears.’

On the Saturday after Willow died we buried her at the foot of the garden, on a patch we now realise gets the last of the evening sun. She was wrapped in a white sheet, curled up as though she was sleeping, and we gave her some dog biscuits, her old collar and a pair of my husband’s socks ( which she permanently used to steal). The youngest, who had obviously stored up his tears all week, was then inconsolable. I suspect a little part of him hadn’t processed the reality of it all until he saw her nestled at the bottom of a four foot deep grave. We planted a willow tree on top of the grave, a weeping Willow. It felt like the most profoundly right thing to do, not least because of its being her namesake. But I had underestimated quite how right it was.

Ever since it has provided a focal point. Immediately all the children were making plans for candle lit vigils on her birthday and the anniversary of her death. One of them suggested hanging things from the tree, to make it pretty. Another suggested that perhaps Willow’s heart would grow up into the trunk of the tree.  And that if they hugged the tree it would be like hugging Willow.

Only three days ago I found the youngest sat next to the tree, playing the guitar. ( Though it was less romantic than it sounds, because it was one of the push button electric guitars that pumps out a slightly strained solo whenever you hit a button, which of course children do, ad infinitum, ad nauseum). It did though, seem to make him happy that he could play music to his dog.

Even the cat has been seen, regularly enough to make you wonder, sat under the tree, soaking up the sun’s rays.

And almost every day, as we drive out of the house, one of them calls out ‘Bye Willow, guard the house’ as we have always done, for years and years.

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WILLOW

March 2005 – September 2013

Very loved, and absolutely not forgotten.

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Lessons from a Summer Well Spent…..

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I was tempted to blog more than once over the summer but the allure of being offline and not having to string a proper sentence together proved too great. But I am now back at my desk, in near perfect silence (I am not entirely sure how I feel about that) and figure it might be time to start oiling my altogether rusted brain (at my age, a list-free month is all it takes). So, apologies if the sentences are not yet quite strung together. It has only been two weeks since we got home, but 150 name tapes later and a single week of 6.15 am starts and the vivid blue skies of France and the endless long days are feeling like a lifetime away. The truth is, it doesn’t take long before the sun-tan gets washed down the plughole and the rigmarole of daily life feels once more like the only thing you have ever known. But I am determined to hang on like a limpet to the effects of bowing out of life. Because bowing out is exactly what I did – no phone calls, no emails, no organised activities, no clock-watching, no shoes. And god I loved every little second of it. And so did my children.  A whole month of unadulterated freedom which allowed us to live life stripped back to the essentials and gave us the time to see the wood from the trees. Without all the other stuff, the seconds feel more like minutes, and suddenly the very thing we lack at home – time – we had in spades. And though it is easy to live simply and well it is rid of all the add-ons and the demands and the responsibilities, there is surely room ( I thought to myself as I boarded the plane back to Heathrow with an unhealthy feeling of dread) to bring a few of summer’s lessons back, and parachute them into our existence? Almost like bringing home a souvenir, like one of those snow globes with the Eiffel tower in it.

 

LESSON 1-( less of a lesson, more of a realisation) Its not the mothering that’s hard but all the add ons.

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My husband has always said to me (usually after he has been left solo with the children for the weekend and has, to my mild annoyance, managed absolutely fine with them all) that looking after them isn’t that hard, as long as you aren’t trying to do anything else. And he is right. Parenting is a full time job. And if we had every waking hour to dedicate it without anything else then it would not be as hard as it so often is. Take away the washing, cooking, cleaning, bill-paying, work, school runs, swimming lessons and play-dates and all you’d have to grapple with would the odd tantrum, a lost shoe and a dose of sibling rivalry. Much more do-able. In the summer I had time to play mastermind with the middle one, kick a football at the little one & watch the eldest’s synchronised swimming without my mind (or half my body) being elsewhere. And I still had time to read my own books, cook leisurely meals and siesta in a hammock. Days that during normal life don’t have enough hours in them seem to stretch like a rubber band on holiday. So, you may ask, where is the lesson? It reads more like a grim truth. But the lesson here is simply to give ourselves and our kids a break. We can’t and we don’t mother in a vacuum, we mother in amongst everything else. And so next time I am feeling frazzled and strung out and like my kids are asking too much of me, I figure it might be helpful to remember – for all our sake and before I bite their heads off- that it isn’t them getting in my way, it’s life.

 

Lesson 2- The More the Merrier

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This was my number one lesson of the holidays (so should have come first but didn’t) and will now apply to every blissfully unscheduled afternoon and weekend henceforth. We spent a lot of time this summer with whole gangs of children, and without any doubt, those were our happiest & crucially easiest times. Several weeks with cousins, day after day with friends to stay, and a wonderful little interlude visiting old friends north of Toulouse with three families wholly outnumbered by their children. The maths was simple- the more children there were, the happier they were, and the more time the parents had to sit, read, sunbathe and drink red wine whilst putting the world to rest. Far from becoming the bun fight that you’d expect, throw a load of children together and you get a whirlwind of creative play, and hours of it. Forget crowding around televisions or jostling for turns on computer games- which basically seems to be the default mode for two children or less. There were water polo matches with team mates that spanned from three to fifteen, full knight battles that took them to previously unexplored parts of the garden for a whole afternoon, the creation of a group music video orchestrated by our thirteen year old and a proper pyjama disco (marred only slightly by tantrums over the songs). One minute they were story telling, the next minute they were making parachutes, and the next it was full synchronised dancing routines in the pool. I managed to make my way through six novels (and far too many bottles of wine), and didn’t have to stay up absurdly late to do so pester free. For the cost of a few extra mouths to feed, you literally buy yourself hours of time.

Lesson 3- The Golden Hour

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‘Children don’t need a lot, but what they need, they need intensely’, or so says Penelope Leach. The longer I have children the more I see the adage that quality not quantity applies to everything we do with them. For many summers now, we have fallen into a rhythm where we have a leisurely morning and then very specifically do something together after breakfast. When they were little we would often start with a craft project, or build a cubby house in the garden, or go on a walk and make up silly stories, or bring back stones to paint. It was all pretty simple, but the key was to do something together when everyone had the energy, and when I – in particular- was undistracted by anything else. Quite apart from anything, it meant that the mornings were lovely, and felt fruitful. If I am honest, a little part of me also felt relieved that (assuming I had kept my cool when the paint pot got spilled all over the stone terrace turning it a permanent shade of blue) I could tick the good mother box on that particular day. And there was an added, unexpected bonus. The kids were then quite happy to go and make their own fun. On some days, the effect would only last until the afternoon, when I might then be accosted to rate their dive-bombs, or to play pirates on the lilo. But sometimes, the effect would last all day. Having given them an hour or two of unadulterated attention, they were quite happy to fend for themselves. And the most brilliant part of this particular little lesson, is that it is fully transportable back to normal life- afternoons, weekends, half term holidays. Give them an hour and they will give you three.

 

Lesson 4- Get up before the kids

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Waking up before your own children sounds completely counter-intuitive, especially if you are like me and feel that even a lifetime of shut-eye might not make up for the crippling sleep deprivation that comes with the early years. But actually it proved to be accidental genius. There is a small caveat that this lesson can not possibly apply to anyone with tiny children or babies, who rise – like a rooster- with the first light. So if that’s you, skip this entirely. But for anyone else, pre-empting the kids and giving yourself anything from fifteen minutes to an hour to get ahead of them is completely sanity inducing. On holiday, it meant that I could lie in bed, have a cup of tea, read my book and look out at the brilliant blue sky behind an old lime tree for at least half an hour before anyone asked me for anything. It was bliss. At home, I have kept this going – which means waking up at the very painful time of 6.15 which still only buys me fifteen minutes- and the effect is huge. I am one step ahead of everyone else, and the impact seems to last all day. It doesn’t feel pretty when the alarm goes off, and more than once I have been sorely tempted to hit the snooze button until half past, but if there was ever a way to multiply time, I think beating them out of bed is it.

 

Lesson 5- Take more holidays

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In an article that made the rounds of the internet back in February 2012, the second of the top five regrets of the dying was ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’. Quite apart from the necessary respite from the treadmill of life, getting away- and it can be as simple as taking off to a windswept campsite or as high end as a villa in some exotic location- means that everyone in the family has a bit more time and a bit more energy to be together. My absolute best memories growing up were when it was just my dad, my mum, my sister and I, usually cramped in the cabin of a little boat or squeezed into a tent, with little more than time for each other. And it is the bank of family memories-which after a holiday seem always to be in mad technicolour- that sustains you most when you get back to the job of life.

 

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