Filed under: Uncategorized
Memories are messy because families are messy and even when we’re trying our best we’re complex.
I tried so hard to bury the memories of the Halls and my time in their care. Then, a few years ago I bumped into Rebecca – their daughter. We spoke briefly and bumped into each other again. Very slowly we inched towards one another and two years ago I finally met Michael and Jenny again (https://owntwofeet.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/reflections/). I began to dig up those buried memories and re-examine our past: look back over old photos, remember. I painted a past that is fairer to us all because we all care, we all love, we all feel pain. As an adult you can learn to navigate pain, to take it in your hands and reshape it, to even turn it into something beautiful and powerful because there is a place beyond the pain we all deserve to get to, beyond hurt, even beyond healing.
Inside the care home I was met with smiles and a signing-in book. I told the lady on reception I was here to see Michael Hall. She kindly asked who I was and I stumbled to find an answer. At that point an older man and a young woman approached the reception. “They’re here to see Michael too – you can go up together,” the receptionist said, so I followed them into the lift. I never answered the question about who I was.
Inside we all introduced ourselves. The man said he was a friend of Michael’s from the church and had helped care for him. The young woman always smiling was his daughter. Alone at the reception I had felt exposed, but now in the lift with them I felt safe. The man kept talking. Asking questions about how I knew Michael. I told him I had lived with the Halls, but had only seen them once in the last twenty three years. That was two years ago and Michael was already sick then.
We all walked into the room together. Michael was lying in bed looking at the TV surrounded by photographs of the family. One in black and white stood out – of Michael and Jenny when they were first married. Michael turned his head slowly to look at us. His eyes searching as he looked at me. Nothing. I was a stranger. “Maybe take off your cap,” the man said.
I remember one Sunday at the Halls’ when Michael went out for a walk before lunch. He returned with a homeless man he’d met in the grounds of the church. The man had been drinking and smelled pretty bad. He stayed for the roast lunch. Jenny (Michael’s wife) was not happy. I remember finding the whole thing quite weird and funny, but I also remember admiring Michael. I remember that feeling so clearly. Michael is a Christian, a serious Christian, but this wasn’t his Christian duty. This was simply Michael. His selflessness and kindness was not of words, but always of actions like this. To care, to give, to love: it came naturally to him. Before he left, Michael removed the homeless man’s shoes and socks and washed his feet.
Now, in the care home, I approach Michael and feel like the stranger he sees. I want to hug and kiss him like the others have just done, but instead I take his hands in mine. They’re soft. They were never soft before. Always hard and rough. These were always his primary tools. Building this. Fixing that. Constantly covered in scratches and cuts. Constantly in a state of healing.
I take out a photograph I’ve brought from home. Michael and Jenny. Rebecca, their daughter. My brother Nathan. Their nephew Sam. The two dogs, Lilly and Judy. We’re standing in the garden. Flowers to our left. The big shed behind us. I’m back there. I’m the little boy. I want Michael to be back there with me too. Remembering. Smiling. But Michael can’t find a way back anymore. His dementia has locked all the doors shut.
He strokes my hand, ‘cold’ he says and rubs them. He’s still here I think. Still caring. I look into his eyes, desperate to be remembered, but I’m not. He takes the photo but doesn’t look at the picture. Instead he turns it over and strokes the blank white back of it repeatedly. I don’t know what to do. I feel clumsy. I still want to hug him like I used to, but now I’m afraid.
In the next two hours the room fills with people that care. Michael’s mind and body may now slowly be letting go, but his life holds on. I see his life and his love as strong as ever in the faces of the people in this room. He keeps living, keeps growing, his reach extended through his wife, sons, daughter, grandchildren, foster children, friends. It’s a life of quiet greatness you won’t read about in newspapers. I came here afraid I would be swallowed by sadness, but right now that seems impossible.
I never got to tell Michael I’m sorry how we parted all those years ago. Or how thankful I am for everything he and his family did for me. But in the two hours I spent with him and everybody in that room I realise that doesn’t matter.
On the drive home I drop off Michael’s daughter Rebecca. We talk the whole way back. When she says goodbye and closes the door and I’m alone, flooded by a wave of emotion. I feel a happiness that in that moment refuses to allow sadness in, there will be time for that. I feel a deep connection to my past, a deep connection to a life almost lost that’s coming back to me. I mattered. I was loved. The Halls were my family. The Halls will forever be part of my complicated version of family.
Since I wrote this blog I got to see Michael one last time. His room and the corridor outside were full of family and friends. There was smiling and laughing threaded through the sadness. We exchanged old memories and built bridges between today and the last times we had seen each other. Before I left I held Michael’s hand one last time. For a moment he squeezed it. His brother stood on the other side of the bed and prayed for him. He was coming home, he said. It was time. I hid my face and the tears that fell down my face. It will be soon Jenny said as we hugged each other and said goodbye outside in the corridor. A few days later he was gone. The world felt emptier.
At the funeral the people spilled out of the church and onto the pathway outside. Again so many smiles in the sadness. So many lives touched. Young and old. Stories were told about Michael as a boy growing up in Guyana and about the wonderful man he became. So much quiet love he had given and here it all was in this place. That part of him that will never die. As we walked to the gave we all bought that love with us. Some crying. Some praying. All of us remembering our own moments of Michael.
At the funeral reception afterwards more stories were exchanged over food and fizzy drinks. Then the hall was dimmed and a film began to play. A collection of photos and videos featuring Michael. Such much beauty in their normality. Michael with Jenny growing up together. Their lives growing through their children and then grandchildren and all the other connected family members. Their foster children scattered throughout the pictures. More branches of their extending family. Such a rich tree of lives. Then a photograph including me as a boy appeared with Michael. A reel of my own memories flickered and he held me once again in the kitchen as I sobbed, he ran next to me on the common, he looked up at me surrounded by tools and his hands covered in grease, he tore fresh bread and passed it across the dinner table on Christmas morning and he said ‘John you know we love you’…I looked around the room at the faces staring up at the big screen, most of them now smiling…God knows we loved him too so so much.
Filed under: childhood, family, fatherhood, Memory, Uncategorized | Tags: brothers, fathers and sons, Foster care, Parenthood, relationships
This is part II – you might want to read Part I first
The two boys stack children’s furniture and other bits and bobs that are lying around the garden into clumsy modern art sculptures, and then clamber up onto the garden table. They take turns to jump off it and smash their creations to pieces. Each landing leads to bursts of laughter and shouting that has me smiling – attempting to stencil the moment in my mind forever.
The boys run past us into the bedroom and reappear dressed as Spidermen. The two of them leap about the garden firing invisible web from invisible web shooters on their wrists. Suddenly my son Dylan picks up a chair and throws it across the garden. Kai quickly picks it up and throws it into the air. They giggle and then Dylan races towards the patio window and fires more web at all of us, who are sitting on the other side.
They’ve been playing together like this since we arrived. First it was Top Trumps on the bedroom floor and now as a pair of slightly crazed mini superheroes with an equal attraction to construction and demolition.
“For this brief moment there is nothing else in the whole universe except my son and his son”
From the other side of the patio glass, I watch them play. A contented smile slips down into my stomach, making me feel gooey and warm. I’m interrupted by that part of my mind that wants to deconstruct the moment and pick away at it, looking for deeper meaning. ‘This is special,’ it is saying. ‘Can’t you see this is like a lost history playing itself out through these two little boys? You see that right?!’ But I don’t want to see past the moving picture they are painting. I don’t want to think. I just want to feel, and for this brief moment there is nothing else in the whole universe except my son and his son and colourful furniture flying through the air.
When we arrived earlier that day, five-year-old Kai was waiting on the drive. I can see him now. He is brimming with smiles and confidence. Dylan moves towards me, momentarily shy. My wife, Clea, and I take a collective deep breath. I think I shake Kai’s hand. Clea hugs him. He leads us into the house that immediately feels crowded. I struggle with the pram as new faces appear in the corridor. Garry’s wife smiles. Next to her their daughter Bethany looks uncertain. At first nobody is quite sure how to say hello and in what order. I hang back by the door and let my wife go first, like I often do in new situations. She starts the greetings and slowly my new older brother Garry makes his way towards me. I think I see an arm starting to extend for a handshake, but I slip past it and hug him. He tenses up slightly.
My new brother Garry is 45 (I am 38). This is only the third time we have ever spoken, the second time we’ve met and the first time our wives and children have met. Throughout the afternoon, Garry hardly sits down. He mainly stands in the kitchen behind the breakfast bar, periodically venturing out from time to time to check on the BBQ. Football plays continually on a big flat screen on the wall. It had settled my nerves when I first saw the TV on.
Throughout the day we wander through different topics of conversation. The standards of local schools, growing up in the rougher parts of the city, the gentrification that is swallowing up these same parts, to eat meat or not to eat meat and that documentary about chickens that has scared Clea into part-time vegetarianism. Garry’s daughter Bethany spends most of her time indoors, drawing butterflies at the table. She seems transfixed by Lyla, my baby daughter, and later wears the most beautiful look of concentration as she carefully holds her in her arms. Later still, Garry’s wife Sarah takes Lyla into her own arms, where she falls sound asleep. The boys play together most of the day and only stop to sit at the table in the corner of the garden to eat burgers and talk with each other like old friends. The normality of the day is comforting.
Conversation is easy the whole time we’re there. I’d feared we might quickly run out of words, but we never do. Still, we don’t delve too deep. I remember Garry writing in an email to me that he is not a big talker. “But I’m a good listener,” he had said when we met.
“We have different ages, different backgrounds, different stories… but are bound together”
From our first meeting it was clear we were different. Different ages, different backgrounds, different stories, but bound together by the distance we both shared from our father (when he mentions him he always says, “your dad”). As an adult I have closed this gap. Garry has not seen him since he was 14. But there are similarities between us. Films, music, sport, something in our eyes. I see traces of my dad in him. Some are physical – they flicker in his face. Others are deeper: the quietness they both have, the thinking they’ve both done in silence.
As mine and Garry’s lives start to intertwine, I can’t help but wonder what he is thinking about all of this. His poker face is almost professional, but did I see it slip as he gazed out at Kai and Dylan playing in the garden? Perhaps it’s less about us – more about them. Our two small boys and two smaller girls. That same blood running through their little bodies. Family coming together and building something new with all the normal jagged edges. We’re starting late, but not too late for them.
When we all say goodbye, I feel exhausted and elated. I’m also relieved I’ve not said anything stupid (I think). Hugs and kisses are shared all round. Garry is still not sure about the hugging part, but I make no apologies. He will just have to bear that awkwardness around his little brother. As we walk away there’s a knock at the window. On the first floor, Kai is smiling down and waving. He’s soon joined by Sarah and Bethany. All of us are waving at each other. My brother, I expect, is safely back behind the breakfast bar.
Filed under: fatherhood, Foster care, Memory, running | Tags: family, feeling, Life in care, london marathon, relationships
I’ve been running lots. In less than three weeks I’ll be running in the London marathon. Still I haven’t run enough. My body doesn’t seem to want me to. It’s always tired… slowly breaking down. My back constantly aches. My right hip constantly aches. My right leg constantly aches. Perhaps I’m not built for running, but I can’t stop. My mind wants to run. It has to run.
Rather than pushing my thoughts out of reach, running totally crushes them – grinding them and me down to a point where my mind hardly exists beyond the next step. It feels pure. It hurts, but in a way that makes you feel alive. You’re working at your limits and there is something intoxicating in that. It’s not lonely at all, but more a time of communion with yourself at this real pure base level. It creates a safe space to struggle and puts you in touch with the world. The sky looks different when I’m running. I am aware of the contours in the ground, how it feels – the hardness of concrete, the softness of grass… it’s just a sense of enhanced feeling. However, as the run gets harder and longer, the sensory experience disappears and it becomes more internal.
“I regret it and all day I’m self-conscious”
Some of my suits no longer fit. My weight has slowly drifted as the weekly miles have gone up. I have a couple of jackets that hang large and the trousers fall baggy. I have shirts that blow up like parachutes in the wind. I have bought new suits and new shirts that fit, but sometimes I’m drawn to the clothes that don’t. As soon as I leave the house I regret it and all day I’m self-conscious people can tell. The truth is, it’s hardly noticeable. Like a small stain on a lapel or a speck of blood on a shirt collar, but when you notice something like that about yourself, it screams volumes.
I cannot remember exactly why I stopped talking to my mum. A collection of causes seems like the easiest way to put it, but these all crept up on both of us. I heard their steps and did nothing. Now it’s easier not to talk. The coldness has taken over. I’ve stepped aside and let it take over that part of my life for now. It’s just easier and for too long it’s been hard. Hard to keep that relationship going. Hard to ignore all the long shadows of things that were not said, more than those that were – of things that didn’t happen, more than the things that did.
The ripple of care is always there. In childhood more devastating in its approach. Now slowly corrosive on those familial ties that were cut the closest. My mum and the brother who went into care with me are both drifting away – all of us unable to save each other. Our attempts only seem to cause more damage. Another brother who stayed with my mum clings on. It’s messy, but us two are trying to muddle through.
“There is a light that’s thrown over how much we don’t fit”
Sometimes it’s just hard to make family fit. Nobody has a monopoly on that, but for some of us who are growing or who have grown up in care, there is a light that’s thrown over how much we don’t fit. We’re dragged into that illumination early on.
There are days when I struggle to fit in anywhere, including my own head, but the more other people let me peek into their lives, the more I see how that feeling floods us all. Deep down to the seabed of our being we’re all desperate to be loved, to be wanted, to connect with each other. We want to fit in. We want to fit together. It’s just that we have to find the places and people where we can do that. It is never everywhere.
The hardest thing for me right now is that I don’t want to talk to my mum. There is no bitterness, just tiredness. I have arranged with my wife for my mum to see our children. I want them to build their own relationship together. Something without the fractures. Something new. Something free of our past. It’s important to me for them to have that, but for the two of us, I need space. The history is heavy. I don’t want to wear it as before.
My daughter is three months old. My son approaching five. They fit like gloves. Around them I often forget myself. My thoughts scatter from their usual haunts and playgrounds. I exist more simply. Sometimes stressfully, but always more simply. Right now my daughter is staring over my wife’s shoulder and I wonder at her wonder. I fall into her big blue eyes that have seen so little of this life. They are full of wonder because she has so little to anchor what she sees in the world. So much of it is new and often she just stares at the world pouring in on her and I look in and find myself tipping in, caught in the tide. There is nothing else.
Tomorrow I’ll go out and run and forget most of this, but not my mum. I can’t stop caring and that complicates us all.
Filed under: Ageing, Foster care, leaving care, Life in care, Moving on, Uncategorized | Tags: care, childhood, children in care, family, leaving care, love, relationships
I am starting to catch moments in the mirror where I don’t quite recognise my reflection. Small lines creeping around the eyes, grey hairs flickering through the dark crowd, the sharpness of it all slowly slipping loose. Age painting its familiar pattern.
I still play football on Sunday mornings, though I can’t run as fast as I used to. It feels like a death that nobody else will ever notice. Many of my happiest childhood memories involved running. Chasing and being chased on the estate. Racing in the school playground on breaks. Sprinting across football pitches to win a ball and across an athletics track to pass a baton or dip for a finish-line. I will never run like that again.
My muscles mutter and moan on Monday mornings. They threaten strikes on Tuesdays. But by Wednesday they have forgotten and it’s back to work as usual. My wife sometimes says I should stop playing, but I’m holding on.
I feel bits and pieces of what has been my life breaking away. There is only so much you can take with you as the years tick by. It is a bittersweet feeling in the context of my childhood. For a long time I felt like its prisoner. Ashamed and scarred. As time passes and people pass through your life, you can surprise yourself with the distance you travel if you head in a direction and keep on going. Being a survivor was never enough for me. I had to go beyond that. I’m still going.
People are a great help in this journey, but nobody else can do your healing for you. That took me a long time to understand. Mine has been a broken path. Almost untraceable. But I’m here and there is no shame now.
You have all left your marks on me. I found myself in the arms of somebody who said I will never leave you, I found friendships in different continents that sometimes lasted moments and other times, years. All helped me heal and grow. I remember the night we spent sitting by the beach with the bottle of port, pouring out our lives. The stories shared over games of Backgammon, on the rooftop in the breeze. The mixtape that included ‘Protection’. The letter you saved from the bin and stuck back together. Dancing our legs out in Kuala Lumpur and you letting me stay in your home. The times you carried me home. The times I carried you home. Singing to Madonna songs. Lives lived in Eversleigh Halls. Misfits finding a place to fit. Giving me a chance. Giving me a life. Sharing a life. Making a life. I still see those faces.
I have been able to take this difficult time of being a child in care and shine a new light on it. I have wandered for a long time in these memories. I wander in the new ones I made after that time. I’m not sure if all the memories are my own and if any are imposters, but I don’t ponder this for long these days. The only thing I can rely on is how I feel about my childhood, especially the time I spent in care and how this affected me. It was difficult and at times painful. I remember a strong sense of never being able to truly express myself outside of anger, though it was not always like that. I feel protective of this period. I feel protective over the memories where I see myself smiling and laughing. I also feel protective over the pain that cocooned itself deep within me, but time has passed – and as I have changed through the years and collided with the lives of others, my childhood has taken flight from much the pain and lifted me with it.
As I become more forgetful, dark spots drift across my recollections of the past – my childhood partially obscured by them. Where once I would have been glad to forget, now I am trying to hold on to the memories.
For the last thirteen years I have been writing about my care experiences. I have a cardboard box in my bedroom full with writing. Lined pads, small notebooks and scraps of paper. Memory sticks scattered around the house full of files full of more writing. Stacks of sentences all about that time in my life. I am desperately trying to keep that boy alive.
I love that little boy and I am so proud of him. I want to tell him he is going to be alright. I want to tell him he will be loved beyond his imagination and he will learn to give away his love. A love so powerful it will sometimes scare the man he will become.
I fear that by writing all this, I am using that little boy. I fear exploiting him. That fear is always there, but I keep writing because I want to give him and me a voice that was missing for a long time. I also want to celebrate him, and anyone who has been in care. Together with those that look after us, we are an exceptional family, even as our memories fade and our reflections change.