Own two feet

April 4, 2017, 8:34 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

https://owntwofeet.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/returning-home-to-say-goodbye/ (PART 1)

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.  



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