We are driving along a country lane amidst the rolling hills of North Yorkshire when yet another breathtaking vista comes into view. Girls, look! Wow! It’s so beautiful. Isn’t it beautiful?! Wow! It’s amazing! A few moments of silence as my carsick passengers breathe deeply and hope that the crest of the next hill will conjure up the view of our accommodation for the weekend: a bunk barn with no mobile signal. The bunk barn does not avail itself, and we dip down into a valley and climb another hill, swooping round another winding road, Wow! Girls, look…I am going to be such an annoying over-enthusiastic parent aren’t?! Muffled sniggers/sighs from my passengers ensue.
That was 10 years ago, driving some friends to the location of my hen do which, though rather basic (rusty BBQ, bunk-bed dorm rooms, paper-thin walls…), was cheap as chips and did the job as a springboard for exploring the countryside and enjoying the hospitality of its local brewery and watering holes. A decade later, and though I am no card-holding member of Extinction Rebellion, I still cannot fail to be astounded by the utter beauty of nature- and yes, I have become that annoying over-enthusiastic parent. If you follow my Insta stories, you will know that I am partial to sharing a view of the sunrise from my bathroom sink from time to time, and that wading in the freezing North Sea was a highlight on recent visit home.
Yesterday marked the start of summer term for my two boys. I remember that transition from my days at school, when jumpers and tights could be shelved in favour of aertex shirts and socks. Suddenly the playing fields that had been out of bounds for two-thirds of the year were given their first mow, and long lines of sodden grass stretched the length of the field like the uniformed rows of a vineyard. In a few weeks, these lines of grass would dry out in the strengthening seasonal sun and could be molded into mini mazes, or thrown as summer grassballs during break times and lunch hours that at last could be enjoyed outside instead of huddled around the corridor radiators and hot drinks machine.
We have become lazy this year in our habits of getting to school on time, and the car has become the default. We only live a mile or so from the school gates, and when my youngest was born I regularly walked with my son and the pushchair. By way of reintroducing this good habit, my refrain for some time has been, Once Easter is over we are walking to school every day. So yesterday I prepped the kids, informing them of our new departure time, poo-pooing any moans and groans of, But it’s just SO far! But it’s foggy. It’s gonna be cold! I did however take pity on my eldest and said he could put his winter trousers back on instead of his new summer shorts, even though the cobbled patch where he tore the knee open is a shocking attempt at haberdashery from me. And surprise, surprise, we had a lovely old walk, even if it was at a three-year old’s snail pace, made slower by the compulsion to climb every wall and stop for several al-fresco wees. Walking is such a good way of actually having a decent conversation compared to the chauffeur-driving snippets of conversation we normally share. Yesterday, we got excited about our upcoming family holiday to Spain, and went through all possible scenarios of counting it down in school days, real days, and weeks- taking into calculations any upcoming bank holidays which must be discarded.
When the eldest was safely in school, me and the three-year old turned about heel and began the march home. And this is where my ten-year old prophecy became reality, as I could not help being bowled-over by the simple beauty of the bourgeoning new life that this time of year brings. At every garden wall, in every crack of pavement, at every corner, there was something of beauty to see. Tiny little weeds growing delicate purple flower the size of a little finger; unapologetic peonies bursting open and throwing themselves onto the path; arm-fulls of cherry blossom overhanging each pavement and raining down their petals like the confetti of a thousand weddings. I soon whipped out my phone and started taking pictures. Anyone who has experience of small children will know that the sight of a mobile gadget is like catnip to them, and very soon my son’s refrain of, Mam, I do it! had transformed him into 3ft David Bailey. Soon he too was telling me, It’s so beautiful, Mam. Mam, it’s very pretty. Good on you, son, I thought.
Not so long ago, this shift in season brought with it a chill from years gone by; an ache from deep emotional wounds. My sister, Mary, died in the spring; today in fact, and we buried her a fortnight later. The first spring after her death teased me and taunted me with rememberances of the year gone by. You’ve been here before. Everything looks the same. But it’s not. It was like the shift in warmer air brought with it the creeping recollection of the shift in life without her; like holding up a cracked mirror and hoping against hope to see a perfect reflection stare back at you. Grief can personify itself like that. It becomes cruel and has the ability to torment. Things are out of kilter and intrusive thoughts more potent. Back then, I just needed to get today over with. Then I needed to get the anniversary of her funeral over with. And then life could even itself out again.
As the years went by, this cruel juxtaposition of new life vs the starkness of death eased away. I still remembered her when I saw the greenness returning, sharing in the excitement of early spring: all things DIY, optimistic arrangements for BBQs, incredulity at springtime temperature records. But the physical and suffocating weight of loss that accompanied the season began to wane. Where once I could only think about the May we put my sister in the ground, I began to recall that May we spent a scorching few days in Rome; that May we signed a contract for a new flat; that May we saw our firstborn at his 12- week scan. In short, the cliché, Time is a great healer, began to ring true.
In the early years after her death I remember a conversation I had with someone about grief. It was perhaps around the time that I had lost someone else to suicide, my gorgeous little 21-year old Scot, D, who I had met only months after Mary died. We spent a summer together working in an American summer camp, travelling together afterwards. At 4’11” she was a pocket-rocket. Sadly 3 years after we lost Mary, D made the same drastic decision and died as a consequence. Naturally, this brought up so many feelings about my sister’s loss that I found it impossible not to be affected. When talking this over, this friend said to me something along the lines of, You’ve got to move on/You can’t let yourself be affected by this. It hurt but I appreciated their sentiment- it was meant out of care for me. And certainly, I had no intention of being defined by my sister’s or anyone else’s death. I realise that may sound blunt, but even in the midst of my grief, I knew I didn’t want to BE grief all of my lifelong days. However, as someone who has been through grief, and watched others go through it, I would say that suggesting someone in other words, get over it, is probably best not said out loud. Grief is living. Grief is missing. And although I may not suffer the way I used to, I still miss my sister every day of my life and remember her today and always. And that’s fine.
And as if the Time cliché couldn’t be any more apt, I find myself making changes that didn’t seem likely even 6 months ago. Having left my full-time job 6 months after my most recent bereavement (that of another sister, Monica), I really could not imagine plunging back into that life again. Yet in recent weeks I have rediscovered a desire to get back to my profession, and somehow found myself standing up and teaching some Blake to a load of kids I have never met before.
Friends from the profession have given me sideway glances with the unspoken, Are you sure? in their eyes. Yes, I am sure. I just needed some time.