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My grief rituals

As I sit here writing this, it would have been my darling mother’s 89th birthday tomorrow, and whilst it is now nearly three years since she died, as I sat looking through photos, I felt the familiar wave of grief rise up again.

Admittedly, my emotions have been on a roller coaster over the past weeks and months as the lockdown has continued and the massive disruptions have taken their toll on me, as with everybody, but more than that, I have been conscious of Mother’s Day in the UK coming into view in a week or so.

Again, maybe because of the emotional highs and lows, but I have been feeling sad that I don’t have my mother here to send her a card.

So when my very clever emotionally astute 17 year old daughter suggested to me why not write her a card anyway, it got me thinking about how important and helpful it can be to mark these occasions by doing something practical.

I immediately went online and added a Mother’s Day card to our shop for next week and plan to write a lovely card full of love and gratitude to my mother, and already the thought of that makes me smile and feel happier.

So that turned my attention to Mum’s birthday tomorrow and I decided to bake her a cake. You might laugh and think that is odd, but I love baking and was planning to experiment with a rhubarb, orange and almond cake today anyway, and again the thought that whilst it is rising (hopefully) in the oven now, it is dedicated to my beautiful mum, lifts my spirits enormously.

I think we have all struggled with our mental health in some form or another over these strange and difficult months, and I know for me it has been a daily challenge, which has been more successful on some days than others. But acknowledging them, accepting the down days and identifying things that can help you is so important. I shall certainly be baking a cake for Mum on her birthday every year now!

Happy birthday Mum 💜

Boosting your immune system

I wrote this article for my local gym’s weekly newsletter which was published today. They have been brilliant with their social media during lockdown and keeping in touch with all of their members – well done Mimi and team!

Vitamins, gut health & self-esteem by Polly Howard

We all know that it is vitally important to stay fit and healthy during these strange and for many, difficult times, as the fitter we are the less likely we are to catch coronavirus. And that’s where our immune system comes in. We need it to be in the best possible state – fully functioning at as close to 100% as possible.

Much has been spoken in the press about the benefit of vitamins for your immune system – particularly vitamin D, but also A, B and C, as well as zinc. But did you know that 50% of your immune comes from your digestive system and so therefore keeping your gut flora healthy right now is also of paramount importance. As well as trying to eat as healthily as possible and avoid inflammatory foods such as sugar, you could consider taking a good probiotic which will nourish your gut.

One of the other key factors for boosting your immune system is taking care to maintain a positive attitude. Might not sound so simple right now, but your self-esteem is linked to your immune system so really critical to your wellbeing. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by everything going on or talking down to yourself, then you are making yourself more vulnerable to illness.

Try some simple affirmations every morning or when you feel your energy getting a bit negative. These are some you might like to try:

I am doing the best I can.

I accept the situation as it is.

I am grateful for all that I have.

Lastly, don’t forget to nourish your immune with doing something joyful every day! Take regular exercise (which I am sure you are if you are reading this newsletter!), drink plenty of water and make sure you get lots of good replenishing sleep and rest.

Polly Howard is a systematic kinesiologist. Systematic kinesiology is a holistic way to help and support people to enhance and improve their emotional and physical wellbeing. It uses muscle testing to see what is out of balance in the energy system and then treat the whole body using a mental, chemical, physical, electrical approach.


24 hours in Manchester

I think I have been to Manchester before some where in my dim distant past, but last weekend Peter and I spent 24 hours there, and thoroughly enjoyed it. We were blown away by the slick service, the sophistication and the fantastic energy of the city.

We went to Manchester to see John Mayer who was playing at Manchester Arena – I have to admit that you cant help thinking about the horrific attack that took place there two and a half years ago, but as I said to somebody, you cant live your life in fear, and the atmosphere inside was certainly fearless and electric.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Leaving aside the six hours it took for me to get to Manchester, when I eventually arrived, we still just about had enough time to get our supper which Peter had booked at Dishoom. What an incredible slick operation – I haven’t experienced service like that for a long time. Despite us being over half an hour late for the booking (we did call to let them know), we were whisked to a table, drinks orders taken and fairly swiftly after that our food order.

Dishoom is contemporary Indian, and I have to say the food was as slick as the service. Our okra fries arrived with our drinks – demolished within minutes. Followed by masala prawns, lamb sheekh kebab, house-style chicken tikka and gunpowder potatoes. Did I mention the service? Super friendly, efficient with plenty of managerial presence conducting proceedings without a hitch. We were in and out within an hour, but dearly would have liked to stay and linger with another glass of wine…

A ten minute walk took us to the Arena and swiftly through (very tight) security and into our seats. A fantastic concert – two and a half hours of all of his best tracks with a super-talented band and backing singers – and of course it doesnt hurt that John Mayer is fairly easy on the eye!

Peter had found and booked us a hotel called Native Manchester. If you havent stayed in a Native before, do yourself a favour and check them out. They are studio apartments in old refurbished buildings or super-cool modern developments or even mews houses, with a great contemporary design and lots of extra details you wouldn’t expect. The one in Manchester is an old converted warehouse in the Northern Quarter and has only been open a month.

In fact, I am pretty sure we were the first to stay in our room, as it didn’t look like any of the bath/body products had yet been opened. We booked the smallest room as we were only there for one night but it was still spacious and edgy with the original girders and brick work. But wonderful design details – a little table attached to the end of the sofa, a discreet drawer under the sink in the bathroom, gorgeous lotions and potions from Bramble, set up by somebody from Cowshed. Every studio apartment has a little kitchenette which had the basics you would need to cook something simple but everything was quality, even a Sabatier knife!

We got a late check out as it was all important rugby World Cup quarter finals in the morning, so whilst Peter languished in bed watching England thrash Australia, I nipped down to the oh-so-cool lobby and fetched us some cinnamon rolls and flat whites – it all felt very New York.

Rugby over and we had a lovely wander through Manchester. Those of you who know me, know that no outing is complete without a stop for coffee, and of course this was no different and top of our list. We found a Scandinavian artisan coffee house called Takk – they actually have three outlets in Manchester, and like our whole experience of Manchester, it was slick, sophisticated and plenty of substance.

Manchester – we will be back, and cant wait!

My beautiful mother – one year on…

I know I have posted this photo before but it is the photo on my iPad that I look at a hundred times every day, so that’s why I feel like I want to post it again.

I have been sitting rereading my posts of the last few years – grief, death, love. And reflecting on the past year, in particular, as we approach the first anniversary of Mum’s death. Some people dont think about dates or marking anniversaries, but it seems to be something deep within me. It’s not something that I necessarily do consciously. I just find that my mind has often been cast back over the past couple of weeks, to this time last year, and reliving those last few week’s of mum’s life.

So this weekend I have been thinking about this weekend last year, when we realised that it was now a question of days not weeks, and that Mum did not have long left to live.  The agonising feeling that you didn’t know when she was going to die – it could be any time. Every time I left her house, I wondered if that was going to be the last time I would see her alive. Had I said everything to her that I wanted to? Had the children said their goodbyes? As she became more sleepy in that week and started to slip away, it was hard to watch and witness other people’s pain and try to hold them as well as holding myself together.

In the end of course, Mum slipped into unconsciousness a few days before she died and I remember her penultimate day being a happy one. For some reason a peace and calm surrounded her and her room and I even remember playing some of her favourite music including a bit of Nina Simone’s ‘my baby just cares for me’ and dancing round the room and singing – she would have loved that, and I hope somewhere deep down she heard me and smiled within.

Rereading my posts, I have taken comfort from realising that its true what I wrote just over a year ago, that she would be with me always, and smiling down on me, helping me with the tough decisions, that life inevitably throws at one.

And its true what they say that it just takes time, time for grief to ease, never fully go away I dont think. Certainly at the beginning of this year, I turned a big corner. I had a distinct feeling of Mum looking down on me and saying, ok, time to let go now, time to move on, a new year, a fresh start. She said, I’m ok, I’m whole again, you need to focus on your life now. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

But everybody says its the first of everything after a person dies, that is the hardest. My birthday last year was particularly hard, as she would have been the first person to ring and wish me a happy birthday. Then there was Christmas, but actually, Mum’s birthday, which was last month, was a happy occasion, marked with a lunch with Emma, at Mum’s favourite restaurant in Winchester.

I think that with each of these occasions, the anticipation has been worse than the reality and so that is what I keep reminding myself as we approach next Saturday, the first anniversary of her leaving this world.

So one year on, the grief has not completely gone, but since the beginning of the year, it has no longer been overwhelming, and mostly when I think of Mum, its with a smile and a feeling of warm shining love. It’s just now with the first anniversary looming, that I cant help but focus on the loss of her.

But I am happy to report that I have kept my promise to Mum – I think about her everyday and she is certainly forever in my heart 💜💜

The end of an era

I wrote this blog post at the end of last year but for some reason never posted it….

It was three years ago that I wrote about the sad and fascinating process of packing away a life, as Thomas was coming towards the end of his. And now it has been six months since Mum died, and we are at the very end of packing away her life. We have finally exchanged contracts on Apple Tree Cottage, the house that Mum and Tom lived in for the last 25 years, and are due to complete the sale in the next few days.

Every inch of their life has been rummaged through, picked apart, from the finances, to their clothes, to the jewellery and precious personal possessions and letters. As anyone who has been through this process will know, it can be gut-wrenching at times, bitter sweet, as happy memories abound and the reality that they are gone for ever hits you again and again.

Grief seems to come in waves, every time you think that you are beginning to move forwards and leave it behind, the next breaker crashes down.

A few weeks after Mum died, when the tears were flowing freely, a friend pointed out that there was a reason that we used to wear ‘mourning’ black for a period of time after a bereavement – so that people knew that you were fragile and needed to be treated kindly. Now this makes more sense to me.

Tomorrow, I will lock the door and leave the keys behind at Apple Tree Cottage for the last time, and that part of my life will be over. It was a part that spanned nearly half of my life. Perhaps with all of its overwhelming emotions, it will also bring some sort of closure and enable us, Emma, Daniel and me, to move on. I certainly have many lovely things to remember them by, not least the bird table that I look out on every day and know how much Mum and Tom used to enjoy watching the birds in it.

Grief: my beautiful mother

 

My beautiful mother died on Friday morning. Of course, as seems so often to happen, I wasn’t there, even though I had spent most of my waking hours there all week. But I’m ok with that, as we had so many conversations over the week, even if they were one way after she became unconscious the last couple of days. I firmly believe that she could still hear me on some level, so it was important, to keep telling her how much I loved her, and that would never change, even when she was no longer with us, I would still go on loving her. And I also told her that I knew that she would never stop loving me, even when she was no longer here. I would carry her in my heart forever, and she would always be there when I needed her, and I could feel that love when I needed some help with whatever difficult situation life would throw at me.

Grief is such a complex and difficult thing, and as I wrote in my last blog post, mine was kick-started when I was reminded of the cracking woman (as a lovely friend of mine called her) she was. The thing is that as somebody gets older and more frail, it is so easy to forget that. My daughter, Daisy, expressed this so well, and has given me permission to share it.

“It seemed inevitable that the frail elderly lady who has been getting weaker over the past weeks was going to die, but when you remember that woman was Judy Strafford, the artist, who did all those amazing paintings, made all that incredible food and wrote that beautiful book, it hits you that that was the same person, and feels completely overwhelming.”

This totally resonates for me and seems to sum up some of the conflicting emotions that constitute grief. I think one of the harder things is that feeling that you will never see them again. I know I felt that with Thomas, and nothing can take that away, except time, and allowing yourself to feel it. And perhaps the occasional gin and tonic 😍

My beautiful mother

I don’t know if everybody experiences grief in different parts of the body, but mine is firmly in the coeliac plexus (formerly known as the solar plexus!) – right there between the ribs, below the breastbone. This is the second time I’ve watched somebody dying in as many years, and whilst I am so grateful to be able to be here daily with my mother, holding her hand, looking into her eyes and telling her that I love her, it is also hard being so close.

I started to go through some of Mum’s papers last week, and what really kick-started my grief was coming across some wonderful letters and photos. One was from Charles Spencer, in response to a letter Mum must have written to him after the death of Diana and his tribute at her funeral. Another was a letter she had published in the Times in 2002 on her love of sprouts, and all the delicious ways to cook and eat them. There was a gorgeous photo of eight glamorous women, called the Lunch Bunch, which was the bridge club Mum was part of for forty years or so.

And I realised that in these past few years of caring for a sick, fading, elderly lady, I had forgotten what an incredible, vital, vibrant, creative creature my beloved Mother had been. She was all of those things and more – not least a fantastic cook producing amazing suppers night after night, and she has loved life and lived it to the full, particularly in most of her thirty five years with Thomas.

I don’t think she will be with us for much longer now, as she no longer wants to eat, except for a few mouthfuls of yogurt, that are gently fed to her by the ever-caring Liz, but her colourful, energetic and beautiful soul are what I want to remember, not the past weeks, or even months or couple of years.

Love you, Mum

May he rest in peace

 

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It was a whole year ago, that I wrote my last piece about our beloved Thomas packing away his life. Yesterday morning, his journey came to an end, and he died very peacefully at home, after a long, happy and fulfilling life. I don’t think there are many people I would presume to know if they have had or are having a fulfilling life, but Thomas was certainly one them. He was an incredible man, and at the risk of spouting many cliches, he truly was one in a million. Having watched him over the past year, he did not endure his illness, or battle his cancer, he gracefully accepted it with enormous dignity.

I have learnt many things from Thomas, but the biggest lesson I take away right now, is to try to find the delicate balance in life of acceptance. That doesn’t mean giving into something, and in Thomas’ case, his illness, but there’s also no sense in fighting a battle you can’t win, something that he intuitively always understood – but there’s a wonderful path you can walk, which brings peace and clarity, which Thomas certainly found.

Somebody said to me yesterday, that Thomas had a ‘good’ death, and I think he did – I think he had the best end that anybody could hope for – calm and peaceful, surrounded by love, and in Mum’s studio that has been his space since he became bedridden seven months ago. Right up until the beginning of the week, before he lost consciousness, he was still smiling and saying that he was fine and in no pain. When Billy saw him on Monday, and asked how he was, he replied ‘very well’, as he always did, to everyone. He was surrounded by an incredible team of doctors, nurses and carers, to whom we are all very grateful. Even the doctors said that they had never, in all their years of practise, met a man like Thomas. Who else can you think of, who would gracefully accept the indignity of being confined to bed for that length of time, without ever once complaining?

We will miss Thomas very much, none more than my darling mother. He has been her and our rock, or maybe a gently swaying tree, ever-present, ever-calm, and ever there to lend a hand. May he rest in peace – and I know he will, because Thomas couldn’t do it any other way.

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The sad and fascinating process of packing away a life

  
I’m sitting here in my usual spot, writing this blog post this afternoon. My usual spot being strapped into a seat of a BA plane winging its way back to Istanbul. Finally time to stop, rest, contemplate after what feels like a very fraught few weeks. I’ve been in the UK for the best part of the last month, with the exception of a quick trip back to Istanbul last week to recharge the batteries, and collect the children.

 

These few weeks have been much harder than I thought they would be. When I first arrived back last month, although I had only been away six weeks, Thomas’ condition had worsened considerably, and it was quite a shock. Whilst no one will ever know how much the radiotherapy helped, certainly Thomas’ right-sided weakness was and is worse, which makes getting up the stairs hard, and his general mobility poor.

The first thing I had to do was organise the wonderful carers to come in the evening to prepare their supper, in addition to the morning visit. Now, this week, we have added a lunch time carer, and next week, the palliative care team will kick in and start their visits. We were also able to organise various Zimmer frames and trolleys on wheels, all of which seem to be helpful around the house.

But there is another side too, and that is how strange it is to watch somebody dying, and preparing to die; to watch them get all the different strands of their life sorted, and ready to pack everything away in neat metaphorical boxes. It is of course tremendously sad, but at the same time incredibly fascinating to watch the process.

Of course we are all different in our approaches, and most people I guess don’t have the time to plan their deaths, but I feel privileged to be in a position to be helping Thomas put all his affairs in order.

One of my more interesting tasks was contacting the Library and Archives Canada, as Thomas has more than one hundred scrolls belonging to his great-uncle, Lord Byng of Vimy, given to him during his time as Governor-General of Canada in the 1920s, which Thomas feels should be donated to the Canadian Government.

  

There are also inevitably all the boring things like tax returns (is it really that important to make sure it’s in by the due date, given the circumstances?), wills, bank accounts.

But then there is his beloved garden. As Billy and Daisy came with me for this week, Billy was able to help Grandpa with all the physical stuff in the garden, that he is no longer able to do. It took me a while to realise that Billy was preparing the soil for the turf that was going to cover Thomas’ beloved vegetable patch – literally putting it to bed…. Final, finished, no more vegetables.

I took a stool down so that Thomas could sit and direct the proceedings and still be part of what was happening – it was both lovely to see him down in the garden with Billy, but incredibly sad that he was not the one digging away with a spade in his hand – very poignant.

    

I’m not sure when I will next be back, but it will be a few weeks, and so as I hugged Thomas goodbye this morning, I was very aware that I have no idea how he will be when I next see him. 

A gastronomic feast at Mikla restaurant in Istanbul

We were treated to another incredible gastronomic feast last week, at another of Istanbul’s finest dining spots. Mikla is on top of the Marmara Pera hotel and is a contemporary restaurant with a view, and oh what a view – spectacular.  

Sunset at Mikla

  

We were taken there by Jo and Thierry, who were visiting from Geneva – they said to book anywhere we would like, and let’s push the boat out, this was a celebration after all – Jo and I hadn’t seen each other for about ten years!

 

Mikla is owned by a Turkish Norwegian chef, so the food has always had a Scandi influence, although in the last few years, he has taken the menu back to its Anatolian roots.

And so after the huge success of the tasting menu at Gile last year, it didn’t take much persuasion before we all decided the seven course tasting menu was the way to go – and all on a Monday night – who’d have thought?

 

Zeytinyağlı & Raw Vegetables

 

 

Crispy Hamsi, Olive Oil Bread, Lemon

 
 

Dried Beef Tenderloin, “Hardaliye”, Malkara Lentil Humus, Green Tomato

 
 

Slow Cooked Grouper, Roasted Tomato, Halhali Olives, Salicornia, Tire Potato, Fig Vinaigrette

 
 

Cibes, Artichoke, Salty Yoghurt

 
 

Anatolian Raw Milk Cheese & Honey

 

The wonderful thing we have now discovered about tasting menus is that it is actually really rather nice to all have the same thing on your plate, and so therefore be able to discuss it endlessly, rather than a taster of your dining partners dish, before moving the conversation on…
 
  
Thanks Jo and Thierry!