Friday, June 19, 2015

The Elephant in the Room

I have written more 'draft' blog entries this year than ever before. I even wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago about my inability to finish a raft of blog entries I'd started and promptly didn't finish it.

I've never had a problem about not finishing things - specifically writing - because I'm a firm believer of practice makes perfect, so even something like the sprawling half-finished magnum opus I started work on in the late 1990s and was well over a quarter of a million words long when I got bored with it. The arrow maker tried many times to perfect his trade...

I'm everywhere and nowhere, baby.

I recently joined a Facebook group for former employees of Shenley Hospital in Hertfordshire - a place I spent a largely happy time in the early 1980s. It stirred up so many memories, brought back into focus some of the most important people I've ever had in my life and while, one day, I fully intend to talk about my time at Shenley (when I can remember it all) because it is a period of my life that I've never talked about and in many ways it was one of the most exciting and was probably 95% responsible for the person I turned out to be.

Three prominent things happened when I joined - two of them are tangible, the other was a memory. I discovered that one of my old friends from those days was a bitter and twisted middle-aged man and the other was someone who I'd never been friends with; someone who I could almost be classed as 'the enemy' of. If the water under the bridge had made a bright-faced Northerner into a curmudgeonly old git, then it flowed the other way to make an Irishman (Martin) who I genuinely feared into a lovely and supportive friend in later life. Funny that.

The memory is the most pertinent thing and because I'm a largely egocentric person the one that has been dominant. There was this guy called Harold - he was in his 60s when I was 19. He played snooker and the charge nurse on one of Shenley's long-term hospitalisation wards and trawling through all the photos and memories on the Shenley page I saw zero mention of him; but I've noticed a lot of names are conspicuously absent by the lack of photographs having been taken in those days. This isn't the issue, what was was something Harold said to my folks. It took many years for me to fully understand what he meant and a few more to make other, educated, guesses as to part of my own failings.

Harold told my parents, "Give that boy 10 things to do and he'll do them all brilliantly, but give him one thing and he won't finish it."

So, when I sat down about an hour ago to start writing this I figured I had a better chance of finishing this than the previous ones because I have eight million things whizzing round my head at the moment and the puzzle of fitting them all together into a cohesive and reasonably easy to follow essay would be more fun than writing about what a useless fuck-up I am - which does seem to be a running theme.

The aforementioned Harold was an astute fellow and delving into the depths of my muddied mind I seem to have this inkling that his wise words were uttered after one of the shortest work experiences I ever had. A man called Les was responsible for my folks getting the job as club stewards was also the chairman of the social club committee; he was also, if I recall correctly, the head of recruitment for the hospital. He was also good friends with Harold and I believe the two of them with my dad conspired to get me a job as a trainee psychiatric nurse. I spent two hours on a ward and essentially it scared the living daylights out of me and as far as I was concerned it wasn't for me. Fortunately, it was a 'suck it and see' session rather than having gone through all the rigmarole of application forms and interviews.

That job I got lasted longer than two hours, but not a lot. Let's be honest about this; on the face of it me telling you I quit after a day and a half looks and sounds like a ridiculous thing, especially given my current circumstances, but they were a dodgy company and a number of things happened during that short space of time that meant losing the job felt more like a bonus than keeping it. The thing is companies like this have such tight margins to operate on the people who suffer are the ones who have to do the job and when margins are so small if the turnover is high then so be it. This company was almost contemptuous in their treatment of all the groundstaff it employed and the unhappiness in the office was palpable. I've consigned it to the dark and empty spaces of my mind already.

One of the issues that caused me such grief with the job was the fact I discovered after the interview that I was to have another operation on my shoulder. The preparation for this upcoming event required me to have an MRI scan on the Wednesday of the week I started; this was then followed up by a consultant appointment a week later (yesterday) to tell me what needed to be done. My new boss was as suspicious as Eliot Ness and I had an awkward situation where I literally had to plead with her to believe me that the letters came after the job offer; I even offered to show her the letters. I said I'd take the time as unpaid leave, but I hadn't told them that I had an operation scheduled for August 1st and this could keep me incapacitated for up to eight weeks. The thing was they didn't like the fact I had any appointments at all and as someone said to me, if I'd been the person they really wanted it shouldn't have been a problem.

To cut a long story short, the operation will be keyhole surgery and will keep me out of action for about two weeks. I have two interviews next week for jobs and I intend to tell them the score and that I've planned on having two weeks holiday at the start of August for recuperation. The thing is while the op is a nuisance it is necessary and if nothing else my short time at the crap company got me an up-to-date DBS (CRB) check, so starting work will be much easier and therefore more desirable to a new employer.

Obviously the need for a job that is a good fit for both parties is the main aim now and one of the main reasons for my fifty-fathom depression has been my inability to function properly and if I want to piss and moan about it, I expect that something will need to be done to my right arm at some point in the future, because it does all the work and I have probably more aches and pains in it than I do in the largely useless strand of flesh hanging from my left shoulder.

So far, so good.

Actually, something else came out of joining that Facebook group. Someone who really should have been my friend all of our adult lives reconnected with me. We'd touched upon each other a couple of times in the past, but one of the beauties of Facebook is it actually makes you feel willing to continue a typed dialogue with someone; maybe it's because of their own particular paraphernalia they bring via their own pages, I don't know, but when I was a teenager in Shenley, there was someone there who I never realised was only just a wee bit older than me, but because she was a girl and hung around with lots of older boys, it never dawned on me that we were more alike than we guessed.

I think that was why Ruth and I have hit it off so well since reconnecting; because we both had similar thoughts about our experiences at Shenley and it wasn't until later life that we both realised that mistakes we made were down to youthful exuberance rather than because we were stupid people. This was over 30 years ago and suddenly you realise that life really is too short. I think Ruth has managed to shed unwanted emotional baggage from Shenley and probably throughout her life (having a fundamental understanding of mental health probably helps), whereas I, especially when I'm down tend to live in the past. Anyone who knows me well enough knows the single thing that fucks me off more than anything else in the world is ... the passage of time.

I dare say that if I opened all 11 of the draft blogs currently in states of repair or writing and worked on them all at the same time I'd flood the world with a lot of nonsense and self-pity; but, you know, there's better things to do with your time.

Except, in many ways my circumstances are not very much different from a month ago when some people were quite concerned about whether I'd throw myself under a bus or take that long warm bath of the soul. The thing I learned from 2015 is quite black, but also relevant - I'm no longer scared of dying and until I stop that and regain a healthy lust for life then I will create a vicious circle of my own doing.

Actually, let's border on territory that could consign this to the unfinished pile.

Suicide. I'm too much of a coward to kill myself, quickly.

Let me tell you about a guy called Bill M.

Bill was my boss at the second job I ever had; he was a nice, but occasionally dour Scotsman who had the honour of representing both GB and Scotland at major athletics events in the 1960s and 70s. He was an athlete - a proper long distance runner, a willowy and sinewy man who detested cigarettes. Then in 1979, his father died and at the funeral Bill, in the mid 40s by then, started smoking! I saw him recently; he looks good for a man in his late 70s. He smoked for 25 years and stopped when he got a smoking related illness. He didn't say it, but it was like he achieved what he set out to get.

I fell off the wagon. Nearly three years of not smoking disappeared in a puff. Here is a man with the lung capacity of a pint glass committing suicide.

I've stopped again, but up there in my rewired brain, it views my futile attempts at regaining some semblance of health as half-hearted at best. I could sit here and argue about the reasons for it and come up with a bunch of completely logical (to me) excuses - the black hole of despair being just one of them, but the real reason was...

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Murray.

My boy died of cancer. He was 8. It was possibly the most unfair thing I've lived through and while, in many ways, it allowed the worst of the black clouds to lift, I'm racked with guilt. It was my fault. If I'd not been a twat he might be with us now, albeit for a limited period of time. If. If. If.

It all boils down to the fact that both of us feel if we hadn't been so wrapped up in our own misery, we might have done something sooner and had better results. Yet, the cold callous part of me was relieved that it ended so quickly, because we would always have known that it was going to get much much worse at some point in the future.

I am also comforted by the fact that Murray was by far the most intelligent dog I've ever had; there was more going on in that little brain than ever should have been for a dog and we both know in our hearts that he knew something wasn't right, so he simply gave up. Like father, like son.

We're also a little better about it because the last proper week we had with him was like it always was. It was like he had been given a short reprieve and decided to make the most of it for those few days, because it was clear that when he had the second chemo he decided he couldn't do it any more - maybe he'd used up all that life to make sure our last week with him was a good one. That week was. What followed will have me sobbing for the rest of my life, but I'm getting better at pushing those feelings to one side.

This morning, when I sat down to write this, I had this clear image in my head, it would be about my dogs. I have written blogs since the late 1990s and my pets have always been touched upon but never fully detailed. They have played such a massive part in our lives, yet they are referenced less than my now dead apricot tree. Maybe it's because, not having kids and little paternal instinct towards pink things, but talking about my dogs has always felt a little like a new father claiming his baby's first solid shit is the best thing since sliced bread. Dog people will be interested, but like my forays into football and mushrooms, most of you won't.

The thing is, grief doesn't get easier the more experience you have of it. Yes, you can be numb to it at the time, but deep down it's twisting your gut with an invisible knife and making the irrational rational in a way that only losing something you love can. Our healing process has begun; we're looking for a new young man to balance the pack. I expect there will be comparisons, that's only natural, but as I said to the wife the day we lost the boy, "I never thought this lot would mean as much to me as the others." Butch, Sim, Harvey, Chester, Giff and Meg were defining animals in my life and having four dogs presented their own problems, but now they're part of me.

That's part of why it hurt; Murray, with the exception of a few chewed chair legs and a remote control, never did anything wrong in his entire life. The most he got told off for was being a noisy little git, which he knew we didn't really mean. The other three could easily have been got rid of at any point during the first couple of years we had them and yet, now, they're suddenly the most important things in the world. Because they have to be and I have to treat them that way, because...

They've been grieving just as badly as us. I've always been slightly sceptical of whether or not dogs can grieve. You see, while they have a long-term memory, that is pretty much jam-packed with important things, as a dog's short term memory lasts about four days, they adapt easily to most new situations. Except, it's now been a month and I still have at least two very sad girls.

Marley, Lexy and Ness don't really like each other. Don't get me wrong, they love each other, but they're family, and they're girls, therefore they are bitches and you would think at times that we had three strangers facing off. The boy was a calming influence on all of them and you could see quite easily that he was in charge. Now, it's like a pack of wankers, listless and unadventurous outside of their own constraints. Now he's not here it's a bit like having three elderly dogs and we never realised the influence he had on them, from his position of just behind me.

When we got Murray, we had them already. Ness, small, black, psychotic and utterly insecure; Marley, shit-eating mischief dog and Lexy, pudding impersonator and part Rottweiler, so understanding her is an art in itself. Marley hated him for four days and then forgot he was new and adopted him as hers. Ness was ambivalent towards him, but they were of similar age and they played and played and played. Lexy took one look at him and decided she was his mum. She growls at everyone - she has a limited vocabulary - but never ever growled at him. He could climb all over her and she'd lay there and love it.

Lexy, because she has problems which we'll never fully understand, shows little emotion and as much as it hurts to say, if she misses him she doesn't really show it, apart from looking sad, but that's her default facial expression, so...

Ness has been affected far more than I would have suspected. She's a mad airhead and shows little love for anyone other than me, but she's become clingy and edgy and bored. She still played with the boy right up until we lost him and she has no one she can play with now. I believe the horrible little rat has a heart and naturally it's just made her more important to me than I thought.

However, I'm getting worried about Marley. You have never seen such a dramatic change in an animal's behaviour. I think she still misses him terribly every day and watching this normally quite crazy dog sitting around crying and whining, cuddling toys, night or T shirts and never going more than 50 feet from me on a dog walk is not her. It was my big girl who inspired me to write this today. I got up and did my ablutions and when I went back into the bedroom she was curled up on the bed with Murray's only toy - a rubber chicken (it's not but it's too long a story) and the wife's night dress and I thought she'd died. This is a dog who less than 6 weeks ago you could walk up to, make a fist and say, "I'll punch you in the face" and she'd spend the next five minutes hurtling round the house, with her back arched, whooping and hollering like a demented seven-year-old told they're going to Disneyland. Now, she just looks at your hand, licks it gently and puts her head back down and sighs, so deep it's heartbreaking.

There is still misery and depression in the house; but there has been more laughter than tears. A degree of optimism - reserved but there all the same - has slipped in unnoticed, but it is not unwelcome. I have things that need doing, personally and professionally and they won't get done if I dwell on the past all the time.

Life is too short. Carpe diem.



* The Ruth I mention earlier, might be the Ruth who has commented a couple of times recently; or it might be the Ruth I know in the East Ridings, or just a random Ruth who has connected with me because things I've said have meant something. Whoever or whichever Ruth you are - thanks.

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