Monthly Archives: March 2015

Not being there

IMG_0349

The text from the under 12s cricket coach arrived as I was going to bed. ‘Sorry for short notice.. would [no.2 son] like a game tomorrow in the indoor league?’ I was going away early the next morning, so I handed the aptly named Mother in the Middle the task of liaison between son and coach. This was duly done and no.2 son lined up (for a second time) as a last minute selection for an indoor cricket match with boys up to three years his senior.

I spent the following day in London and was arriving by train in Oxford at about the time the match started 150 miles north. I wondered if no.2 son would be batting or bowling first. I knew he would be displaying his jaw-jutting determined face and keeping his thoughts to himself. Throughout the evening my mind wandered to that sports hall near home.

It was nearly nine o’clock when the call came in:

“Daddy?”

“Yes, it’s me. How are you? How was it?”

“Good”

“Did you have a good time?”

“Yes. We won. I took four wickets in an over.”

“What was that?”

“We won.”

“You took how many wickets?”

Sport is important to my kids. Their sport is important to me – I write a blog about it – and I watch a great deal of it. But I cannot be there for every performance.

The 1&onlyD’s exploits are the least spectated. Fifty weeks each year she is practising for a single competition. Some weeks, during her four hours of training she will achieve a new manoeuvre. Backwards walkover on the beam, upstart on the bars, aerial on the floor – the likelihood is that the breakthrough moment won’t be witnessed by Mother in the Middle or me.

I am on the touchline for the majority of no.1 son’s Sunday morning club football matches, enjoying his poise and ability as an attacking midfielder. The higher quality football that he plays, that has helped develop his nimble footwork, comes at school, where he plays alongside lads from the local professional clubs’ academies. I have only ever seen one of those matches in its entirety and just the latter stages of his school team’s four cup finals in two years.

At no.1 son’s age, when I played sports for my school (mostly cricket, but a little football) there was usually only one parent watching. My Dad managed to manipulate his work diary so he had meetings in the locality that finished in time for a trip to the match. Or he was prepared to give up a weekend morning to watch my hesitant performances.

I’m not sure exactly what I thought about my Dad’s attendance. He was well-liked by my friends, so I wasn’t embarrassed. It was completely in keeping with his interest in my school career – I remember reading him my history essays. It was, I could tell from the absence of any other parents, unusual. A recent comment made by my Mum put it in context. My Grandfather had never been to see my Dad play any sport when he was at school. My Dad learned the value of being there from his own father’s absence.

The matches I miss and the stories about them that my children tell me, strengthen my commitment to be there when circumstances allow. I hope my children understand that and my Dad knows what a fine habit he has passed on to me.

On the night no.2 son took four wickets in an over, I had the satisfaction of being with three friends with whom I have played cricket for over 25 years. There could be no better audience to level a complaint about what their company had kept me from.

21 Comments

Filed under parenting, touchline zoo

The Eccles Cake

Eccles CakesWhen I first met her, Lilian visited her husband Bert twice a week.   It was an hour each way on the bus – an hour and a half if she was unlucky with the traffic or if there was a match on.  She told me she used to go every day when he first went into the Home three years ago, then every other day for a while, but she couldn’t keep it up.

You can go every day, she said, when they still know who you are, when they pin their whole day around your visit and you see their face at the window, watching for you coming.    A year ago, Bert’s face would still light up when he saw her, she told me, even after five children together, sixty odd years of marriage and several years of gradually advancing dementia.  Even when she started to realise that she could no longer manage to look after him in their own house and had to speak to the social workers about a care home, he still knew who she was, whilst his grip on everything else was slipping away.  When he climbed out through the bedroom window of their housing association bungalow, gave her the slip when he was supposed to be having a nap and was found three hours later wandering around the local shops with no idea of where he was or who he was, he still remembered that there was a Lilian.  When he had some trial days at a day centre to give Lilian some respite and he cried in anguish, not understanding why he was there, he still called out for Lilian.  Her face, her name, was the last thing to go.

Now, when she went to the Home on her twice weekly visits, Bert seemed to have no idea who she was.  I took her there myself to visit him a few times, over the course of a year or two.  I saw how he stared uncomprehendingly at Lilian from his milky blue eyes, showing no flicker of recognition as he passed his gaze from my face to hers and back again.  I saw how he shoved her away, snarling ‘no’ at her with primal aggression, when she proprietorially smoothed his hair from his eyes or brushed crumbs from his jumper, loving gestures welcomed for over half a century, but now seemingly unendurable to him.  I saw how he pushed his octogenarian wife to one side and tried to fondle the young nurses instead – and her sad smile as she pulled him away, telling him not to be a numpty and embarrass the poor things.

I also saw something else on our visits, something extraordinary.  I witnessed their twice weekly Eccles cake ritual.  They had always been a favourite teatime treat of his, she told me, right from when they married when she was seventeen and he was twenty two.  He didn’t eat well in the Home and was now a painfully thin shadow of the plump, jolly man he used to be.  The food wasn’t great but, more importantly, dementia had robbed him of his appetite, of any sensation of hunger or satiety or pleasure in food.  Apparently apart from Eccles cakes, that is.

So every time she did her shopping, Lilian put some Eccles cakes in her basket.  And just before she set off for the bus stop to visit Bert, she would put two in the microwave and heat them to the very brink of explosion (‘so they go burning just like them McDonald’s apple thingymebobs‘).  Then, placed one on top of the other and sealed in a small circular plastic pot (bought especially for the purpose), they would go into her bag and, if needs be, double up as a hand warmer on her long bus journey.

On arriving at the Home, she would go straight to Bert’s room.  He had a small single room: a bed, with side rails and a sensor pad next to it on the floor befitting his high falls risk; a wardrobe; a small chest of drawers (full of incontinence products); and one hard-backed chair.  First, she would remove the silver framed ten year old photograph of the two of them (him looking plumper, her looking thinner) with their children and grandchildren from his chest of drawers, drag the chest to the centre of the room and take from her bag a small white lace table cloth, draping it ceremoniously over the top.  Next, she would borrow a second chair from an adjacent room and place it at the makeshift table.  Then she would search out her husband – who was invariably to be found either sleeping in an armchair in the day room or shuffling relentlessly up and down, up and down the carpeted hallways.  Finally, the still-warm cakes would be removed from their utilitarian pot and one placed on a delicate china plate (hidden in his wardrobe between visits) in front of him.

They would then dine a deux together in silence.  He ate every last scrap of his Eccles cake, methodically and with immense concentration.  They each had a cup of tea in front of them – hers in one of the serviceable, visitors’ mugs; his in a spouted plastic beaker, like a giant toddler.   When he had finished his cake, he would look at Lilian, smile beatifically and then get up and recommence his compulsive march along the corridors, resisting any attempts for further interactions with her.  She would disassemble the tearoom she had created, washing the plate and storing it in the top of his wardrobe, putting the cloth back in her bag to be taken home and washed for next time.

A few months after my last visit with Lilian, Bert died.  It got to the point where he couldn’t swallow properly any more, she told me, so she had to stop taking the Eccles cakes.   She still went to visit him on the bus, increasing the frequency of her trips again as his health declined further and further.  When he was finally bed-bound and no longer had the strength to resist it, she liked to sit and hold his hand whilst he slept.  There were no more smiles and no more words, but a comfort in the peace and closeness.

Lilian still does her own shopping, but she no longer puts Eccles cakes in her basket.  She always preferred an eclair, she says, and besides, she couldn’t eat one without Bert.

I learned a lot from Lilian. I learned that ordinary people with seemingly ordinary lives can be extraordinary and immensely humbling.  And that heroines need not be nubile, young, kick-boxing action figures, but can be white-haired, stoical pensioners sitting patiently with a shopping bag on a bus in a grey northern city.

5 Comments

Filed under dying

Mother’s Day

Before I had children, I paid scant attention to Mother’s Day.  I loftily dismissed it as commercial claptrap and as just a way for the card companies and florists to drum up some business.  I always sent a card to my mother, but more because I thought she would feel left out if I did not than because I felt it was a meaningful thing to do.

After I had children, I changed my view somewhat, realising that there was something very lovely about being acknowledged and celebrated as somebody’s mother and I made a point of sending a (slightly less ironic) card and of ringing my mother on the day.   I even managed to laugh along when, on the first Mother’s Day after my first child was born, my husband presented me with a card and gift from our baby son.  It was unlike him to buy into Mother’s Day – he did not even send his own mother a card – so I was surprised and delighted.  Slightly less delighted, though, when I opened the present to find a bottle of washing up liquid, as an ironic recreation of his first Mother’s Day gift to his own mother in the early 1970s, a story which I had previously scoffed at.

This year, I am facing another first – my first Mother’s Day without a mother.  It is the latest in a year of first withouts, hot on the heels of the first Christmas and first birthday.   I have never been more conscious of banners in supermarkets exhorting me to treat my mum or emails from companies suggesting thoughtful purchases that my mother would love.  Even a week before the day, my Facebook page is filling up with news of treats planned for others’ mothers.

Technology, it seems, will also not accept my mother is dead.  I get email reminders that it’s been a while since I played Words with Friends with her – why not start a game?  I forget that I stored my parents’ home telephone number under my mother’s name in my iphone and that I haven’t changed it, meaning that a rare telephone call to my mobile from my father several months after her death suddenly lights up the screen with my  mother’s photograph and gives me a swift, heart stopping belief that she is actually somehow calling me from beyond the grave.

I have been asking myself, if she was still here, what would I want to say to her?  She wasn’t the sentimental sort, so it wouldn’t be anything soppy.  I’ve decided it would be a mixture of the big things and the little things.
Eight things I would choose to say to her to mark the eight months she has been gone:

1. You know the way you used to love getting places in just the very nick of time, not a minute too early?  Well, you were nearly late for your own funeral, it would have really entertained you.  As we sat in the funeral car following the hearse containing your coffin, heaped high with your favourite yellow roses, we all started to panic slightly that the driver’s stately, appropriate progress through the Scottish countryside was not going to get us to the crematorium on time.  Urgent messages started to be exchanged between the sisters in the funeral car and the sister waiting at the crematorium.  But we swept up to the entrance exactly on time, not a minute, not even a second, early.  I think you would have found it immensely satisfying.
2. my first son, your fourth grandchild, now speaks with a deep voice and has a little moustache.  He was already taller than you; now he’s nearly taller than me too.
3. Strictly was a bit rubbish this year, after all.  Ditto the second series of Broadchurch.
4. we are all getting on with each other and all of us are making a lot of effort.  We are looking after Dad and he is coping.  He has been to visit all of us and he even came out to watch the children at the swimming pool.
5. I wear the ring you left me every day.  It makes me think of that rainy day of ring shopping in County Longford, after which we sat in the pub watching Andy Murray lose at Wimbledon and of how you were so appalled at his teary reaction.  You felt it was not how a Scottish man should behave in public.
6. My daughter passed all her grammar school exams and remembered your cautionary tale about not turning over two pages at once, as you did in the 1950s,  before she went in.
7. I’m sorry that I did not realise how much you held everything together in the family until it was too late.  I wish I could tell you what a great job you did with that.  Your influence is still strong and manifests itself in the little things.  Everyone in this house knows what ‘Grandma towels’ are.
8. Thank you for the tablet and Scotch pancake recipes.  They still go down really well.

Happy Mother’s Day.

4 Comments

Filed under Loss

Foul, foul

IMG_0798The picture shows no.2 son’s right leg. He has showered after a game of under 9 football. Five bruises and scrapes are splattered across the top of his shin and knee.

His team lost 3-0 in a tight match to a slightly better side. The opposition played some fluent football and switched decisively from defence to attack when they won the ball in their own half. Another feature of their play was fouling.

When one of no.2 son’s teammates dribbled around or accelerated away from an opponent, they received a kick to their shins or a tap on the ankle. No.2 son’s game features strong and tricky running with the ball. He regularly gets tripped by defenders deceived by his speed of foot. We bought him new shinpads with ankle attachments for added protection as a Christmas present.

At this weekend’s match, the trips weren’t from defenders trying to take the ball from him. They came from players he had already taken the ball past, whose aim was to stop him. The bruises shown on the photo came from something else: knee-high challenges as no.2 son ran at their defence.

Driving home after a match, it’s fairly common for the boys to complain that the other side were ‘foulers’. I might nod, or point out that his side plays physically, too. And the point of this piece is not to brand this other team as thugs (they come from a club with a good reputation and I find it very unlikely that this approach was inculcated by the coaches).

But today I agreed when no.2 son said the other team were ‘foulers’. And I think the referee would have done so too. He whistled for almost every foul, giving a string of free kicks, as players were helped up and limped away from the challenges.

Despite the referee’s diligence, the fouls kept coming. The question I pose is what could be done to stem the flow, not just punctuate it.

Understandably, referees are not expected to punish a junior footballer for a foul, in the way an adult would be: first offence – name taken and shown the yellow card; second time – dismissal. The bureaucracy of name taking and cards isn’t appropriate for a game children play for exercise, development and fun. But the fun needs to be there for both teams.

Readers who spend time around junior sport, here are some questions about how persistent foul play by children should be handled.

Referees
How would you expect this situation to be handled? A quiet word to the boys doing the kicking of opponents’ ankles? A conversation in one of the breaks of play with the coach? A request that a particular player is given a ‘time out’? An after-match report to club or league officials?

Coaches
What do you do if you see one of your players repeatedly fouling the opposition? Do you bring the youngster off and have a quiet word? Do you address the issue with the whole team after the game or at the next training session? Do you raise it with the parents as a conduct issue?

If your players are on the receiving end, would you communicate your concern to the other coach during the match? Would you leave it until after the game and approach the other coach, or refer it to club or league officials?

Parents
It’s not our place to intervene during a match, but what would you expect of the referee and of your coach?

Junior footballers
Would you want something done during the game or afterwards? Do you accept it as part of the game or does it make you less likely to want to play?

Please share your answers and opinions.

6 Comments

Filed under injury, sport gives us..