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.
You know when you open Facebook and those memories pop up? Well, yesterday that happened to me, and my heart skipped a beat. Pure deja vu, and overwhelming sadness. This is what it said….
â€œHad a lovely chat with Thomas on FaceTime yesterday, so I could see him sitting up in his hospital bed, to which he is now confined, in Mum’s old studio, so he is surrounded by paintings, and looks out onto his beloved garden! He has lots of care and support and still the same old Thomas – strong, stoical and spirited. He has been setting specific time goals to aim for the next thing he wants to be around for – previously it was Christmas, then Mum’s birthday, and now, in the best Thomas spirit, it’s the EU referendum!!!! It did make me smile – I am so happy some things don’t change 😍😍😍â€œ
It is with a heavy heart that I now write about my dear Mother, who has been bedridden since the beginning of March, as her body has weakened significantly, and her appetite is reducing daily. She spends most of her time asleep, and her waking time gazing out of the window at her beloved garden, just as Thomas started to do two years ago.
Mum is of course being looked after beautifully by her (our 😍😍) wonderful carer, Liz, who ensures that she is always comfortable and brings the all important smile to her face.
But I canâ€™t lie, it is very hard being faced with somebody you love dying, and in the same place, same bed, same room. The funny thing was that before even reading â€˜my facebook memoryâ€™ last night, every time I have walked in and seen Mum over the last week, I have been struck by these feelings of overwhelming sadnessÂ that here we are in the same situation again.
We have had many conversations about dying over the past weeks, and you may think this is something intensely personal, and not to be shared. But I think it is a conversation we should be having more often. It is bloody scary, and of course none more so than for the person dying.
One of my motherâ€™s fears is that she will be forgotten. I reminded her that she once told me that she thought about her beloved Mother every day, and had never forgotten her, and I assured her that I will do the same and I will keep her in my heart forever 💜
Last week was certainly a week for winter warmers, if ever there was one, and I, for one, loved every moment.
Whilst our temperatures here in the South of England plummeted to a freezing -6C for several days, the snow fell and our already beautiful countryside looked even more magical. This was indeed an unexpected pleasure, as having had magnificent snowfalls in Istanbul over the past four years, it is not such a regular occurrence in Hampshire.
But back to the winter warmers – this sort of weather definitely calls for warm and hearty fare, usually meaty as far as we are concerned, and gave us all the inspiration we needed for some delicious suppers all week.
Sunday: was a traditional roast rib of beef, as Waitrose had one last rib going cheap (always an eye on a bargain), which we decided to roast using the untraditional reverse sear method, taking inspiration from Jess Pryles and her Hard Core Carnivore book. That means, instead of the usual sear in a pan to brown all over, and then whack in the oven for a short time, you cook it in the oven at a low temperature first, and when it has reached the right colour of pink for your taste, achieved by using a meat thermometer, you rest the meat for a while before searing in a hot pan, which gives it a gorgeous colour as well as wonderful caramelisation. The result was a beautiful even pink throughout with no grey bits around the edges where the meat has cooked a little more. We had this with roast potatoes and roast purple sprouts doused in walnut oil. A triumph, as Thomas would have said.
Monday: Cold rib of beef, of course! With sweet potatoes and horseradish creme fraiche.
Tuesday: A warming and divine Bengali chicken curry from Peter’s new cook book, Indian Kitchen by Maunika Gowardhan. I was full of cold and requested a warming curry from Peter, and he certainly delivered!
Wednesday: was the remains of the rib of beef made into a very warming and hearty ragu, which we had with fresh tagliatelle and a winter salad of red cabbage, little gem, goat cheese,broccoli and walnuts.
Thursday: we managed to nip out to Waitrose for a quick stock up before we became completely snowed in, and bought some beautiful fresh Cornish hake – might not sound hearty, but with the addition of chunks of chorizo, and crunchy cubes of potato, it certainly worked for us!
Friday: after several days of being confined to our cottage, with heating and fire blazing, we decided to break out and head to the local pub with some lovely friends and neighbours, and had a gorgeous homemade steak and ale pie in a rich gravy with light crispy pastry.
Saturday was homemade pizza – well, the kids were home from school, what more can I say? Topped with yet more chorizo, and local Laverstoke Farm buffalo mozzarella. Perhaps our least hearty meal of the week.
Sunday – we rounded the week off with a magnificent venison chilli – local venison cooked with several different types chilli, using a fantastic recipe again from Hard Core Carnivore. This was superb – rich, unctuous, with lots of flavour from the sweet chilli, but never overpowering. We ate this spooned in soft tacos with dollops of creme fraiche. This probably wins the vote of most hearty dish of the week.
Usually we try not to drink alcohol during the week, but sometimes you have to throw reason to the wind, and these suppers cried out for full-bodied rich red wines, from a Barolo, to Rioja, to a Southern Italian Primitivo. I have loved our winter week full of snow and hearty food, but I think my waist line will appreciate the spring weather when it arrives!
So the festivities are over, the tinsel is packed away for another year, the kids are back at school, and I, like millions of others out there, stood on the scales last Monday morning and got the fright of my life. Initially I was too shocked to move off the scales, but this was swiftly followed by disbelief as I got on and off the scales checking that it was true.
When I have been over-eating, or rather eating too many of the wrong things over a period of time, then I definitely find that part of the weight gain is due to bloating and fluid retention, as my system is inflamed from the amount of food thrown at it – in my case, far too many profiteroles, slices of Yule log, cheese, crisps, croissants, etc, so I figure if I can reduce the inflammation, then I can shed the first kilos quite easily.
But it was more than that, I realised I had had enough of feeling bloated, sluggish and even unwell, and with all the newspapers and online media full of every health tip under the sun and every different diet to try, I realised it was time for me to start being a bit kinder to my body.
For most of us, our biggest enemies are probably what I call the bad carbs – so the usual culprits that include anything with sugar, plus crisps, croissants, which are my personal downfall, and i know that if I just cut those out, then I will lose those extra kilos fairly quickly.
However, as it was not just about losing weight, I decided to kick start the healthy eating plan by also giving up dairy, fructose and red meat, so as to better give my system a bit of a breather.
My biggest discovery, and the one element of fun in this whole process, has been the food diary app, MyNetDiary. I absolutely LOVE it – it definitely appeals to my OCD tendencies. I cant help laughing when I say, or type, that, because it is something that Peter has been using for several years now, and boy, have I given him a hard time about it – weighing every nut that he consumes!
So now, it is my turn. I am having to eat my words (and sadly not much else), as I pedantically weigh every oat flake, houmous lick and oil dribble. But it is fun – i know, maybe not everybodyâ€™s idea of fun – I adore scanning all of the bar codes and adding all of the data (again, sad), and it sort of gives it all a focus. The scary bit is that it actually makes you realise how many calories you consume and what and where they are hidden. That handful of nuts I am used to chucking in my mouth, whenever the urge takes me, is practically 150 calories right there and then.
And the more activity I can add, the more calories it gives me to eat, so guess what, it definitely encourages me to fit an extra walk in where I can.
So far so good – day ten and hopefully it goes without saying that I feel much better already – slowly getting rid of the bad stuff from my body, as well as shedding two kilos of unwanted extra baggage.
Sunday morning treat – sugar free pancakes with low-fructose fruit and maple syrup
New year, new resolution. So far so good. But its more than that;Â I feel a sense of excitement about what this year is going to bring. Itâ€™s been more than six months now since weâ€™ve all been moved back to the UK in our lovely little cottage in Ovington; lock, stock and barrel. Weâ€™ve rather come back in dribs and drabs because it was 2016 that Billy, Daisy, Dave and I came back, but now weâ€™re all back, the whole family – Peter and TC, our Turkish stray cat are also here – and so there really is a sense of new beginnings.
So on a personal level, I really want to restart my blog, which Iâ€™m ashamed to say I havenâ€™t written now for more than a year since Thomas died – but it was kind of difficult to get back on to it again. For me, writing is about the heart and soul, so I needed to process those emotions around losing Thomas, before being able to start again on a new tack.
I still miss him and think about him every day, and often â€˜seeâ€™ him when Iâ€™m out and about – walking by the river, or someone driving a little white van, or shopping in Waitrose, which he loved! But I really found that our little trip down to his river on the first anniversary of his death, helped me enormously. I dont think â€˜closureâ€™ should ever be under-rated, as I have always found some sort of acknowledgement of the end of something in which you have made a significant emotional investment – whether painful or happy – to be hugely beneficial.
Our ceremony was as simple as a walk next to the river, surrounded by my loving family, meandering past Thomasâ€™ hut which was his hub when he was the river keeper on his stretch of the Itchen. We visited the tree that was planted to remember him, and it was a way to feel close to a very special and dear man.
ItÂ 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,Â happy andÂ fulfilling life. IÂ don’t think there are many people I would presume to know if they have had or areÂ having a fulfilling life, but Thomas was certainly one them. He was an incredible man, and at theÂ 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 ofÂ 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 wonderfulÂ 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.
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.
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?
ZeytinyaÄŸlÄ± & Raw Vegetables
Crispy Hamsi, Olive Oil Bread, Lemon
Dried Beef Tenderloin, “Hardaliye”, Malkara Lentil Humus, Green Tomato
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…
Back in Istanbul after a long summer in the UK, and for the first time since moving here, I was actually looking forward to coming back ‘home’. In this case, home is where our things and belongings are, where my bed is, and where my husband is 😉
It was great to be able to spend the whole summer in the UK, for the most part within spitting distance of my parents, and to be able to be involved in their daily lives, and help out where I could. We were so lucky to be lent cottages in beautiful surroundings so we could enjoy the best of the Hampshire countryside.
But I have to be honest, it was not the most relaxing summer, and I felt a fair weight of responsibility in looking after them and getting carers organised, and bullying the NHS to get on with Tom’s treatment, resulting eventually in a week’s radiotherapy course in August.
As I said, it was a long summer, and so whilst it was with some trepidation that I left Mum and Thomas to fend for themselves for a few weeks, until I next go back, there was also a lightness in my step, as I boarded the plane back to Istanbul a couple of weeks ago.
After 11 weeks away, it was wonderful to see the dazzling Bosphorus again, to feel the warmth of the sun on our faces; and of course to reconnect with all our furry friends, both kedi (cats), and kÃ¶pek (dogs), and make acquaintance with the new cats that have taken up residence with us, mostly outside, but occasionally inside, if they are wily enough.
And then back to school for Billy and Daisy, their last year at MEFIS, and at school in Istanbul, new classes to get used to, with several new faces.
It’s a strange adjustment coming back again, as an expat, after an extended period away, as there are holes, that people you have grown fond of over the previous year, have left, and then of course there is the influx of new people.
But it is always lovely catching up with old friends again, and having our first book club meeting.
However, I quickly came to dread that inevitable question, ‘How was your summer?’ As I dug around searching for the best way to describe it, I found that I stumbled and stuttered about it being ok, I mumbled something about my parents not being well, and ended up with some awkward condolences all round.
It’s a bit like that question asked to a woman who does not work in a paid job, ‘what do you do all day?’, to which of course the only answer is ‘why, of course, lie around with my feet up eating chocolate!’
So I decided I had or come up with an answer for this question also: how was my summer? I spent good, quality time with my family – and I did.
I don’t usually write when I’m struggling with my emotions, as I don’t feel inspired to be creative, but today I am using my blog as a way to share my feelings and express my sadness, as I am hoping it might help to tap it all out on my iPad as I sit here on the flight back to Istanbul.
It’s been a very very tough few weeks – starting with Mum being so ill, and being carted off to hospital in an ambulance – she was crying as the ambulance took her away, and I tried to hold back my tears, as I didn’t want her to see them and be more frightened than she already was. But I was terrified, and as soon as the ambulance had gone, I sobbed, along with Emma and Daisy, as I thought I had lost my Mother; that I might not see her again.
The funny thing was that I had this very strong feeling that I needed to come back between Easter and our flight booked at the end of June. When we returned to Istanbul after Easter, I was worried that both Mum and Thomas looked so much more frail and tired than when we had seen them at Christmas, and so when we got an email, suggesting Daisy came to a pre-assessment day at Bedales, I knew that was the excuse I needed to book a flight home.
Thank goodness for that, because as the weeks in April progressed, Mum became more ill and Thomas more wobbly, so that by the time Daisy and I arrived two weeks ago, Mum had been diagnosed with Giant Cell Arteritis, and prescribed huge douses of steroids. Unfortunately the massive impact of those steroids on Mums immune system resulted in shingles, making her very ill, and hence off to hospital.
However, with the help of the intravenous antiviral medicine for the shingles, Mum started to make good progress – she is still not well, though, and has terrible headaches, and has been left rather confused from the weeks of illness.
But all the time, as Mum was recovering in hospital, we had Thomas’ hospital appointment hanging over us. He had been experiencing increased right side weakness since Christmas, but in his infinite wisdom(!), had chosen not to share this information, as he didn’t want to worry Mum, what with her being so unwell most of the time. By the time he started losing his balance after Easter, he made a doctors appointment, who of course referred him to the hospital. However, during the time that I was there, Thomas became less steady on his feet, and so it was not a surprise to find his aesophageal cancer had spread to his brain – in fact, as I went to the hospital appointment with him, and therefore saw the brain scan, there are two tumours on the left side of his brain which have caused significant swelling, and hence the right-sided weakness.
Maybe not a surprise, but nonetheless a massive shock, a terrible shock – the unimaginable happening – we are going to lose our beloved Thomas to the cancer. We are not sure what the prognosis is until he has his oncology appointment, but our minds all rushed ahead with terrible thoughts – would he be around for Christmas this year? Where would we have his funeral? What about his ashes? How will Mum survive without him?
He of course is being his most amazing self – stoical, pragmatic, realistic and taking it in stride – after all, as he said, he is 78, he’s had a good innings, in fact a fantastic life. He and Mum have had 35 wonderful years together – how many people find true love for 35 years?
Thomas has been such an important and integral part of my life, coming into it when I was 15 so with me for most of my life – always there, always Thomas.
Mum came home from hospital on Friday – they wanted to keep her in another few days for the IV treatment, but having broken the most terrible news to her, we couldn’t leave her in the hospital on her own so brought her home, so that she and Thomas could at least be together, in their sadness and worry, interspersed with wonderful moments of reminiscing about the beautiful life they have had together.
I feel terrible leaving everybody today, as I know I am needed to help them get through the next days, but I am going back to Istanbul for a short time to regroup with my little family and hopefully to gather the strength I am going to need to get through the coming weeks and months.
As I sad my final goodbyes before leaving last night, Thomas took me aside, and pointed out a good spot he had earmarked for the marquee for the party he will not be at – you have to smile!