Day 118: bunk

Sleepy, sunny, early Sunday. I stretch, yawn, and reach over to give the younger a squeeze.

She turns over and gives me a dark look and a little shove.

“Oh, fine,” I mumble and flip back over onto my other side.

“Morning!” drifts a sleepy voice from the top bunk.

“Morning, sweets! Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah, I dreamed that I found ten dollars on the ground and I went into a bakery and I bought a chocolate croissant and then I ate it.”

“Ooh, that’s a good dream.”

There is silence for a moment.

Then the younger says slowly, “Mom. You ate my croissant.”

I sigh. “Seriously? First of all that was yesterday morning and second of all you said I could eat it.”

“I did not say you could eat it!”

“You did. And third of all there was, like, one bite of croissant left. And I said, ‘can I eat this last piece of croissant?’ and you said, ‘yes.’”

“I did not say ‘yes’!”

The disembodied voice from the top bunk chimes in. “I heard you tell her she could eat it.”

“You did not.” She looks at me. “You’re buying me a croissant.”

“Ummm. No. No, I’m not buying you a croissant.

“But I want my croissant and you ate it!”

“OK. Look. I don’t have croissant. But I have baguette in the freezer that I could warm up in the oven and we could have baguette with butter and jam for breakfast.”

“Ooh, I want baguette with butter and jam,” declares the younger, immediately appeased. “Can you make it, Mom?”

I sigh and stretch luxuriantly in bed. “You know what I love?” I say to no-one in particular. “I love just lying here on a sunny Sunday morning and listening to the birds singing. Just shhhh and listen for a minute. Isn’t it lovely?

About four seconds pass. “Mom, can you make the baguette now?”

“No! We’re listening to the birds singing. Shhhh, listen.” A bird trills outside. “Isn’t that a lovely sound?”

“I hate it,” declares the younger.

“Oh come on!” I protest. “You hate the sound of the birds singing? You do not!”

“Yes I do,” insists the younger, doggedly.

“She does,” adds the disembodied voice from the top bunk. “She hates nature. She’s a polluter and a litterer.”

Now I’m laughing, partly because, at bottom, I strongly identify with the younger’s stated commitment to breakfast and hostility to nature and indeed almost think of it as, for better and worse, an inherited family trait from my father’s side.

“Loves Viennoiseries. Hates nature.”

That would be a good sum up of my Dad’s feelings on the subject. I mean the verb “hate” is inaccurate. Rather it was that my Dad felt that nature was best taken in from a distance, preferably while seated comfortably in a café and with an espresso or, possibly, a Campari and soda, close at hand, depending on the time of day. He very much enjoyed an after dinner stroll, but hiking? No. Camping? Please.

I don’t hate nature. But almost always, when In Nature, I experience nature-appreciation-anxiety, which I think, if it is not already, should be a real psychological disorder added to the next edition of the DSM. [1]

But listening to birdsong drift through the windows while lying in bed? That, I can handle. In fact, that’s exactly my kind of nature appreciation. Especially when chased by strong coffee and warm baguette.



[1] What are the symptoms of this disorder? They include: 1. Excessive worry that one is not Fully Appreciating the Awesomeness of Nature. 2. Feelings of guilt that one is Wishing It Could be Over. 3. Negative evaluations of one’s worth due to Inability to Be in the Moment. 4. Panic regarding possible Insufficiency of Provisions. 5. Obsessive rumination over the logistics of Toileting In Nature. 6. Disproportionate vigilance in anticipation of being imminently bitten, stung, or otherwise attacked by Obviously Hostile Environment. I could go on but these are the fundamental diagnostic criteria.



Day 113: all out of tears

There was a moment, a week or two after my Dad died, when numbness gave way to something like rage; I wanted to hurt, to smash, to scream. I have a strong visual memory of the moment. I am in the conservatory next to a side table on which stands some decorative pottery. My mum is standing a foot or two away from me. I am screaming in pain and frustration. “I want to smash all of this,” I am shouting, “I want to break everything.” I see as I say this that the worry in my Mum’s eyes is mingled with something like fear, and she says my name in an anguished tone. I don’t remember her exact words but she murmurs something like, “what’s happening to you?” and she looks scared. She, I can understand now, was expressing her own fear and sense of helplessness at seeing her child in such pain; but at the time as I registered that dismay in her voice I felt suddenly monstrous, as though my rage was too big for either of us, too ugly to be expressed.

This memory came to mind this morning as I witnessed my own son’s anguish and rage.

“My head hurts, my head hurts,” he wailed, as he dug his fists into his eyes.

“Sweets, please don’t press your eyes like that, it’s going to make your head feel worse,” I say gently.

He screams in pain and frustration. “I want to hurt someone,” he says. He says his sister’s name. “I want to hurt her. I hate her.”

“I know you’re feeling really angry,” I say. “You can’t hurt her.”

“I want to run away,” he says. “I want to run away to Dad’s house and never come back here.”

He starts to sob and sob. “I know you’re feeling really really sad and angry,” I said. “Can you tell me why?”

“I don’t want to tell you,” he repeats over and over.

“Please tell me sweetheart,” I say, “please please tell me. I can’t help unless you tell me. You won’t hurt my feelings, you can tell me anything.”

Finally he splutters out through his sobs, “I want you and Dad to get back together and I know that you never will.”

“Oh sweetheart,” I say, and I hold him tight. “I know, I know,” I say. “I’m so sorry sweetheart. I’m so, so sorry.”

“I don’t ever wanna be here,” he says. “Even if you never come back to live at Dad’s house, I don’t wanna ever be here again, I just wanna be at Dad’s house, that’s the only place I feel comfortable.”

I feel my chest grow tighter and tighter and all I can do is call him sweetheart and tell him in a big tumble of words how much I love him, and how sorry I am that he is in so much pain, and that of course he is, how could he not be, and that I am glad he is telling me, and that it hurts his Dad and me too, and that we are all sad, but that it is hardest for him and his sister, we know, and that it’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair.

“I want you to drive me to Dad’s house now,” he says.

“I’m not going to do that,” I say.

“Why are you so mean?” he yells. “You are so mean. You want me to be sad. I feel like I’m going to die.”

He is almost hysterical now. He is still lying in my arms on the floor. “I want to hurt myself,” he says, “I want to punch myself.” He starts to try to punch himself in the face but I catch his hand firmly and he resists and struggles, “stop holding me!” he spits at me.

“No,” I say, trying to keep the fear and panic out of my voice. “No, I’m not going to let you hurt yourself.”

From the other room comes the younger’s voice, plaintive, insistent, “Mom? You said you said I could brush your hair, can you bring the brush and the hairspray?”

I explain that I can’t right now, that her brother is very sad, that he needs me right now. She continues to call me.

“Shut up!” yells the elder at his sister.“Shut up.

“Shhh,” I say. “It’s OK. It’s OK.”

I hold him and keep holding him. I rock him like the baby he once was. Slowly, slowly, the sobbing subsides. He lies in my arms limp and exhausted. He is all out of tears.


Day 110: Alright, love

This is not a post about being sad! I am still sad, but this is about something different, though perhaps subtly so: it is about tears.

Are there certain stimuli that invariably make you cry? Fill in the blank: “As sloths are to Kristen Bell, —— are to me.”

Here are my top four instant eye-wetters:

  • Musical boxes that play ballet music with a ballerina that twirls round and around
  • David Lean’s Dr Zhivago
  • (Ever since I gave birth to the elder), Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”
  • Someone (doesn’t much matter who; what matters more is the tone) addressing me in a sincerely sympathetic tone as “sweetheart,” “love,” “honey,” or similar endearment.

So, let me tell you, the last week has been quite a week for my poor nerves!

First of all, the other morning the younger dug out this old musical box that someone gave her. It’s red velvet lined jewelry box with a little ballerina who goes around and around, and when you wind the key, it plays the theme from Dr. Zhivago. 

“Do you guys find that music really sad, or is it just me?” I asked.

“It’s just you, Mom,” said the elder.

I sighed and resigned myself to several sustained minutes during which “Lara’s theme” played in increasingly halting tinny notes, all the more poignant as the pace gradually slowed.

The week was just getting started.

Secondly, Em called me “sweetheart” not once but twice in one week. Once in a text, once on facebook. Result: instantaneous tears.

Thirdly, I had to teach “Frost at Midnight” yesterday. Now, at my advanced age, I have by now lectured on this poem many times, and so I’ve developed a strategy:

1) Never read out loud the whole thing in lecture. I did it once and learned the hard way that my voice will crack in the final stanza.

2) Talk fast and blink faster.

3) Have plenty of silly Coleridge anecdotes in your back-pocket.


I get my sentimentalism from my Dad, I’m pretty sure.

I have a lot of memories of watching television with my Dad. My Dad, despite having a strong aversion to American culture on principle (no, not because he was a Muslim; because he was a socialist), adored American television. Bonanza; Cagney & Lacey; The A-Team: he loved them all. But, strangest of all, it somehow became a Sunday morning ritual when I was in my teens that he and I would watch The Waltons on Channel Four together.

It was a little ironic. These were rough years during which my father and I argued a lot. But we came together to watch a television show that was a sentimental celebration of familial love, as epitomized, above all, by the final scene of every episode in which the family members bade each other goodnight.

Mum was completely baffled by our devotion to the show.

“Ugh …. It’s so… sentimental,” she would say, looking at us lying on the sofa with undisguised disgust.

My brother, as I recall, was also duly appalled by the show’s irredeemable naffness.

But we were undeterred. My Dad and I were committed, deeply committed, to lying on the sofa late on a Sunday morning and watching The Waltons week in week out.

The episode would frequently end with my Dad wiping his eyes and shaking his head sheepishly; and when I would roll my eyes, he would say, referring to John-Boy Walton and his latest trials and heartaches: “I just …. I just really like that boy.”

The night my Dad died, after my brother and I had been performing CPR for what felt like an eternity but was probably only a few minutes, and I had called the ambulance and called them again and called them again, and explained that I thought my Dad was dying, and they still didn’t come, I finally ran out into the street; I didn’t know what else to do.

I was wearing my knickers and a T-shirt (I still remember that shirt; it had leaf prints on it; my Mum had bought it for me at the annual fair for International Social Service, where she worked, and I wore it to sleep in); my legs and feet were bare. It was September and after midnight. The streets were quiet and deserted.

I stood on the corner of Dalmeny Road and Tufnell Park Road for just a few seconds looking in vain for the ambulance. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere I saw a man, a stranger, walking towards me. Suddenly realizing that I was alone, half naked, on the street corner, I instinctively shrank bank in fear. He stopped immediately in his tracks and raised his hands as if to say, “I’ll back away if you want”; it was a gesture of openness and kindness.

“Are you alright, love?” he asked, and then seeing my fear, he added, with such tenderness, “I’m not gonna hurt you, love, are you alright?”

Then, and only then, I started to cry.