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  1. Last month I forgot my mother’s birthday. I was writing on my computer, glanced down at the bottom right corner of the screen, and saw the date. It was my mother’s birthday, or it would have been. My mother died twenty-three years ago. At first, after her death, I used the date of her birthday as a time to remember her. Using the date of her death for this was too much, too morbid and too negative. Her birthday was in January, in the cold winter after Christmas, and was always celebrated quietly. When she was alive, I would arrange to post a card and present to her, in time for it. After her death, I would take time, on what would have been her birthday, to remember something about her. I would remember some story or anecdote about her, good or bad. It was my way of remembering her, of keeping her memory alive. My mother had been ill for a long time with cancer and I had told myself I was prepared, I knew what was happening. Shortly after her diagnosis, she’d had surgery and radiotherapy for it. I wasn’t able to see her, at that time, and didn’t physically see her until two months afterwards. When I did visit my parents I was shocked at how tired and worn she looked. She was sat in the house’s conservatory, reading a magazine, when I arrived, and she looked so old and frail, sitting there in that armchair. Everyone had told me how well she had done since her surgery, how well she had recovered and how she had returned to health, but looking at her, that day, I knew she was ill, I could see it. I kept quiet though, everyone, including her, were being so positive, and how could I rob them of that? I kept it to myself, but I knew my mother was dying. She declined slowly over the following six years, her health failing her, as my father failed to cope looking after her. I lived two hundred and fifty miles away from them, and I was the only healthcare professional in my family, so my role fell to providing advice at the end of the telephone. I told myself to prepare, to be ready for when she would die. To prepare myself for my family’s reactions, to be the strong one because I had seen this coming. She died in a hospice, were she was comfortable and well cared for. I had seen her two days before and said goodbye to her, it was clear then to everyone she was dying. I received a call, from my brother, that Tuesday morning, that she had died. She had died in one of the few moments when no one was sitting next to her bed, in a quiet moment when she was left alone. I was prepared for this news, I wasn’t shocked, I was expecting this. I called my partner and told him. The next day, I was due in work and I was prepared. I had accepted the fact my mother was dying, her death was just the final part of that. So I went into work. I spent the first hour or so of my shift just wandering around the ward, but I wasn’t connected to why I was there. Mid-morning, I went into the ward’s office, where my manager was. She looked up at me and in surprise asked me what was wrong. “My mother died yesterday,” I replied. “What the hell are you doing here?” she said. "I don't know," I said and burst into tears. She sent me home, telling me not to come back to work until after the funeral. She was right. Grief is a strange and messy thing. I thought I was prepared for it but I wasn’t, how could I be because I didn’t know where it would take me. I didn’t cry at her funeral, sat there in the front pew next to my partner, but I did cry when I was set off by stupid, little things. The sight of her favourite flowers in a shop, the memory of her suddenly leaping into my mind, the sound of a piece of music that she had loved. The strange, physical things that made me remember her. I had thought I was prepared because intellectually I knew the course of grief, I had studied it, I knew the theory and evidence behind the stages of grieving. But I didn’t know them emotionally, I hadn’t lived them. Losing a parent is never easy, I found it especially hard because I was only in my early-thirties. I was at the age when people were beginning to expect their parents to retire as they entered “old age”. But my parents were in their early forties when I was born. When I entered my thirties, my parents were entering the end of their lives. I felt cut off from my peers, they couldn’t relate to what was happening to me, their parents were alive and well, were I was living through this too soon in my life. Fortunately, my partner knew exactly what I was facing, he’d lost his mother when he was sixteen. He knew about feeling too young for what was happening. But as time passed, that grief faded, as all emotions do. Marking what would have been her birthday became less and less urgent, and at some point I forgot to do it. I can’t remember when I did last mark my mother’s birthday, I stopped doing it so long ago, but I didn’t forget my mother. She had been such a large and dominating part of my life for so long. She had shown me and taught me so many different things, most of which she never meant to. She had been a woman of very strong opinions, opinions that were not to be questioned, and faced with this I had learnt how to argue. My mother, unwittingly, had taught me to argue, because if I wanted to do what I wanted, as a child and adolescent, then I had to win my arguments. The first time I won an argument against her I was fourteen, and it was a glorious moment. I had learnt how to use logic to defeat a steadfast opinion. It is a skill I have used many, many times since. Watching my mother, as a child, learning why she held her opinions, showed me how to watch and understand other people, a skill I am so grateful to have because it aids me so much as a writer. So many things still remind me of her, and I have a partner who I can share these with, even if it’s just a short memory, and he does the same about his mother. We keep those women alive in our memories. That day, as I looked at the date on my computer’s screen, it occurred to me that if she was still alive, it would have been so easy to buy her a birthday present. I could have gone onto Amazon, found the gift I wanted, bought it, and had them gift wrap it and deliver it straight to her. So much more easy. But my mother died before e-commerce became such an easy part of our lives. So much has changed in our world in the relatively short time since her death, would she even recognise our world? Would she even like our world? When I realised what the date was, I texted my partner and told him. He replied, “Blimey, how old would she have been?” “94,” I texted back. Drew
  2. Last week I saw my own heart beating. I have seen a human heart beating before, but not my own. Many years ago I did a post-registration nursing course and part of that involved watching certain operations performed. I was watching a spinal operation. The surgeons accessed the patient’s spine via their ribs and deflating their lung. I looked over one of the surgeons’ shoulder and down into the patient’s open chest. There I saw that person’s heart actually beating, its rhythmic, synchronised beating. The heart was so beautiful, a rich purple colour. Its movement was smooth but also strong, as it pumped blood, it contracted and expanded so noticeably. As I looked down into that patient’s chest, I saw the very spark of that person’s life. Their heart beating and driving the life that filled their body. It’s an image I have never forgotten. Last week, I had an echocardiogram, an ultra sound scan of my heart. These scans have revolutionised diagnosing heart conditions, and there is heart disease in my family. I have never had one before but I know how they work, I used to perform leg assessments on patients, using an ultra sound probe. I expected to lay back on an examination couch while a technician pressed an ultra sound probe back and forth across my chest, staring at their little monitor which I couldn’t see. My first surprise was that there was a second monitor, on the examination room’s wall, were I could plainly see my scan. As the woman performed my echocardiogram, I could see its images on that second monitor too. On the screen, I watched the actual beats of my heart, the padam-padam of it pumping my blood. I watched the blood rush into my right atrium, and moments later be pulled into my right ventricle. I saw that being repeated in my left atrium and ventricle. I saw my mitral valve, the valve between my left atrium and left ventricle, snap open and closed, like a stage trap door. I watched the outer muscles of my heart’s myocardium work, compressing and relaxing, compressing and relaxing, with their smooth but strong movements. I saw the blood pushed out of my heart, through a surprisingly wide artery, in a remarkably fast and strong wave. I watched my own life, beating away, on an oblong, flat screen monitor, in real time. Up there on the monitor, was the image of my very life, the thing that keeps me alive. This was the spark of life, my spark of life, my heart beating. It was fascinating and I couldn’t take my eyes off that monitor. I was watching my own heart beating, watching the very thing that is keeping me alive. The woman performing my scan explained each stage of it, what part of my heart she was scanning and what would be involved, always making sure I was comfortable. She was very attentive and caring, not just performing her task with no care about me except that she got the results that she needed to. Unlike so many other technicians I’ve met. To my shame, I cannot remember her name. She did introduce herself but I was far too focused on watching my scan, on that big monitor. At the end of the scan, she told me she was a nurse too. I left the hospital with a feeling of being alive, of new life breathed into me. I had seen my own heart beating and strangely it had energized me. I wasn’t firing on all cylinders, I didn’t skip along the pavement outside the hospital or rush along the street, it was an extremely cold day. But I have found I have more energy and impetuses to do those things I want to do, I am writing more again. I saw my own heart beating, saw my own life in front of me, on a flat screen monitor, and in return I got back so much. Drew
  3. The first time I saw it she was visiting me and took out her purse to pay for a purchase. There it was, inside her purse, a picture of me. An old and unflattering picture of me. It was a passport photograph, taken years ago. My hair was in a style I’d not had for years, short and flat. I was staring fixedly into the camera, no smile on my face, the harsh light making my skin seem pale and unhealthy. I wondered why she had chosen that one, but I said nothing. It wasn’t an easy question to ask. I have many pictures of her. Ones from her youth, as a bright and happy young woman, her hair short and dark, dressed in pale or white summer dresses with wide belts and full skirts. Pictures of her in motherhood, her clothes changing over the years, showing her own slow change in tastes. Pictures of her taken only in the last few years, her as the rosy-cheeked, white-haired grandmother that she grew into. (I have no pictures of her at the end, a tired and ill old woman, but I don’t want to remember her like that.) I didn't keep any pictures in my wallet. Even if I did they would become lost in the chaos of paper, cards, loose coins and my different IDs and all the other things tucked away in there. For me pictures are placed in frames and hung on walls so that everyone can see them, enjoyed at a glance. That’s what I did with my favorite pictures of her. Not hidden away in the dark and clutter of my wallet. (I have heard people say that they carry pictures of their loved ones, their partners or children, with them so they can see them whenever they want to. I carry around my memories of her with me, as bright as any photographs.) I always wondered why she chose a picture of me to carry around. I am not her only child; I have an older brother and sister. Maybe that was the reason. I was her youngest child, the last one to leave the nest. After I had gone she was no longer a mother, the role she had had for over forty years. Maybe there is a special bond between a mother and her youngest child, I don’t know, and if there ever was I am ashamed to admit I never noticed. Why that picture, of all the ones she had of me, such a harsh and unemotional one, to carry with her? (It is too late now to ask these questions.) At the end, as she lay there in that bed being cared for by nurses who it had only taken her a few days to grow close to, I was unable to ask any but the simplest of questions. I had thought, at the end, I would be able to ask her all those questions I had been yearning to know the answers to, ones over which I had puzzled and wondered for years, not least about that picture. When the time came, all I could ask were the basic questions, "Are you comfortable?" and "Is there anything you want?" The profound forgotten and replaced by the important. As a child I had questioned and questioned her, why this and how that, almost challenging everything she said. As an adolescent I had distanced myself from her and her rules as I was fighting to be myself, whatever that meant. What did she know? Only as an adult, when I had become a professional in my own right, we were finally able to reach an understanding and peace with each other. I was still her son but now we could talk as equals. At the end I was the one she requested of, the one she asked to look after her husband, my father. After it was all ended, the funeral and cremation and final spreading of her ashes, did someone find found that picture of me? As my sister-in-law and my sister were clearing out her handbag, the final act of tidying a life away, tidying away her now unneeded things, did they find her purse? As they emptied it did they find that picture of me and what did they make of it? These questions are unimportant; I will forget them and never seek an answer. Instead, I will hold on to those memories I have of her, memories that live outside of pictures. For Joan Margaret Payne 12/1/30 to 2/5/01 (I originally wrote this in the week between my mother’s death and her funeral. It was my way of working out how I was feeling. I have rewritten it in the subsequent years, but the emotions here still remained intact.)
  4. This is a slim volume, just one short story, The Part-Time Job, and an essay, Murder Most Fowl, but it’s a perfect quick read as an eBook. The Part-Time Job is a story about revenge and murder. The unnamed narrator was bullied at school by Keith Manston-Green and at twelve vowed to kill him. The rest of the story is how he achieves this. As a motive for murder this might seem petty and trivial but to anyone whose school days were blighted by bullying will identify with this narrator’s actions, though may not agree with them. But this is a very pedestrian plot, the narrator achieves his goal in a rather obvious way. What lifts this story is the unexpected and dark twist at the end. If you stay reading to the end, then you are rewarded with a very dark and satisfying ending. Murder Most Fowl is an essay about why James wrote mystery crime novels, and this is a real gem. She doesn’t write about how she writes, where she finds her plots and inspiration. Instead she writes about why she writes in mystery/crime genre and what she hopes to achieve doing that. It also gives an interesting reading list of her favourite authors, what she enjoyed from their books. PD James was an amazingly talented author, whose novels were always more than just about the puzzle of who the murder is. Her novels also explored different and interesting themes, underneath her murder plots. Like so many great authors, after her death there seemed a rush to publish the remainder of her unpublished work, the short stories and essays that had been published in magazines and newspapers, but were never published in book form. This slight volume is a product of this. James was always a great writer, even here, but this book is more for the PD James fan, it isn’t a place to first discover her work, there are several of her novels that are better for that, but this book is still an interesting read. Find it here on Amazon
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