Not too sure if I like this growing old malarky

Dad has lived on his own 10 years. On February 14 2011 he’s 94.

Which is bloody marvellous if you think about it. For those ten years he’s only had one leg. Luckily he has a wheelchair too, which helps, otherwise getting about would be a little tricky.

Every week – I’ve missed a handful – I’ve tootled over to Burnley to see him.  I used to see him and mum, but she left us 10 years ago in a fug of dementia and cancer.

That’s when dad became just dad, no longer part of the always-there 55-plus-years partnership  that was  “mum and dad”. I’d never have thought dad would still be there for so long, living in his wheelchair-converted home on his own.

dad at the age of two with his brother Wilfred

Dad, right, at the age of two with his brother Wilfred

But he has a character made of iron. A man born during the first world war and in the RAF in the second was not going to back down faced with losing a leg and a wife in the space of 18 months.

So it’s been for ten years, that I’ll go to see him on a Saturday, bearing the hugely important gifts of fish, chips and pies.  my sister goes on a Sunday. Up to a couple of months ago things were hunky dory-ish.

Dad’s Saturday afternoon routine was to endlessly watch snooker; tune in Radio Lancashire; check he had a tape; record the Burnley match; tap on his laptop (yes… at the age of 93) and update his excel document on Burnley’s fixtures and goal difference. “Because Burnley Football Club know I’m doing it and will want it you see.”

His stories we’d all heard many times before; about football, Harry Potts, working in breweries … every Saturday there was an anecdote with a finger-jabbing determination.

My biggest problem has been avoiding my big toe being run over as he went en route for more vinegar.

Don’t get me wrong.  Dad is the most frustrating man I know. We’ve had a love-hate relationship all my life.

But as Ive got older in parallel with his aging, I’ve learnt to soften when his  grumpiness has come out. His frustration at not being able to get out and about as he’d like; his constant, constant conviction that he could drive if someone let him; that he would still be able to give any Burnley centre half a good run for their money even in his wheelchair. Which may be true.

I’ve even joked with him that given a chance he might be capable of getting his leg over. Singular. We’ve chuckled.

But a couple of months ago the subtelty of the clock ticking away the years began to make its mark. It’s been a long horrid winter for all of us; punctuated with a Christmas that certainly in our family we’ll remember for a long time as the whole family got together for the first time in 25 years. For dad. As my sister said, inviting us all, he’s becoming more and more frail.

To see a little old man’s tiny tiny frame tucked up in bed, in the dark, on a Saturday afternoon,  as I’ve arrived in recent weeks bearing the best a Lancashire chippie can offer  has been, if anything, humbling.

I tried to cheer up dad by popping my hat on his head yesterday

I tried to cheer up dad by popping my hat on his head 

He spoke to me yesterday about not seeing people he knew; his friends no longer with us; staring at the same four walls for hours at a time; being confused when  he wakes up that he struggles to remember snippets of his life (and what a long life). And a little frightened to be honest.

Imagine you as you are now. Perhaps watching footie – Blackburn and WBA are on as I write. Going out with friends tonight. Deciding whether to walk to the corner shop for a paper and some tinnies. Texting a mate: You coming round? What’s for tea. Curry or a roast. Walking round the block with the dog.

Then put yourself in a room. It’s dark. You’re tired, no friends to ring, no walks round the block, not being bothered to read. Can’t even be enthused to switch on the laptop. Or the television. Things are, well, getting a bit too much effort.

It’s very sad. I’m not too sure if I like this growing old malarky.

For mum. The memories remain, despite dementia tangling yours

Just about an hour before my mum died, she stretched her arm up from the bed and gently touched my face.

There was a fleeting look of recognition. She wanted to reach out and touch me. She knew who I was.

I’ll never forget that moment. It was the sun shining fleetingly through a crack in a cloud, only to be swamped by greynesss just seconds later.

Mum – Sally – had been suffering from vascular dementia for some time. When she lost her battle nine years ago this month she was fighting cancer too; but for many months she had lived in a cocoon, trapped by her own perceptions of who people were, where she was, and how she could get by each day.

Mum on her last birthday; her 78th

For me, the rest of my family and particularly my dad, we were mourning mum even though she was still around.

She thought my dad was her dad – simply because most of the people around her called him that.

I once walked up the hall of the care home she was staying and I could hear a woman crying out a name. I was taken aback when I got to mum’s room and I realised it was her. She was shouting out for her sister who had been dead many years. She didn’t even know I was in the room. Or rather, she knew someone was there, but not me.

My mum was a sensitive soul; she had once trained as a nurse; she did voluntary work for the Red Cross. In her early 40s she began a new career and when she retired she was a senior manager in the business.

But the first signs of dementia were imperceptible … I know them now, retrospectively. She couldn’t remember how to make a cup of tea. And once she said she’d make  some scrambled egg and I found her in the kitchen furiously whipping an egg to within an inch of it’s life in a cold bowl, dumbfounded as to why it wasn’t scrambling.

So we watched as the “mumness” of mum left her, slowly ebbed away. We could see it but mum was oblivious. Her reality was her own normality; ours was the living grief of seeing her disappear.

I had to train myself how to behave when I was with her. At first it was devastating to hear her say some of the things she did, which were often contradictory, disjointed and often repetitive.

But once I learnt to live within her reality when I was with her, and not impose my own, then acceptance of the situation became a little easier for me.

I have no idea where mum suddenly found that gap in her own dementia cloud, that shaft of recognition in her last moments.

All I know is I’m grateful for it.

I wrote the above piece as a personal aspect to go with a newspaper story about Hoylake Cottage, a Wirral centre which offers both residential and day care for people suffering from dementia.

It was only as I was driving back to the office that I realised it was nine years to the day that my mum had died in a care home in Burnley (November 4 2001). That’s when she had touched my face; the  day I held her hand as she breathed her final moments.

At Hoylake we’d talked about how difficult it was for people who hadn’t had dementia touch their lives, to understand what it meant. For our family, it was a mourning process for mum, visits punctuated by sighs, starting and ending with anxious, deep, deep breaths. Perhaps mum had wanted me to go to Hoylake on that particular day; to then be touched and try and help, in my own little way, to express the pain to others.


Mum in her early 20s; wearing her Land Army uniform

Dementia may not be a heartstring-tugging subject, but it sure as hell is a heartrending one when you’re involved in it.

Today I spoke to my sister and she shared her own memories of that terrible not-knowing, the all-encompassing unknown, the shifting sands of sense which had afflicted such a lovely lady, our mum.

These are my sister Sue’s memories …

There were the days when she couldn’t decide which Sue I was, but the most devastating day for me was when dad nearly died in hospital and she said you {me}would be upset because he was your dad. When I said he was mine too she  said ‘Oh I didn’t know that’.
There was some humour
The day she stood in our kitchen and turned round and round and said: I want the toilet and I know it is here somewhere.
And little incidents that made me smile
The lost mince pies that I found three years later in the top cupboard of the wardrobe
The lost knickers that I found with the dusters
The yoghurt sandwich, put away with the cups
The day we went out together and she put elastic bands round her shoes to hold them on becaue they were loose, and she said she always did that
But there was  terrible sadness like when I took her out for new clothes and she was wearing dad’s vest and underpants. A woman who always loved nice underwear.

But mum always was happy, never really aggressive, and alway loved to have a laugh even at her own mistakes (like the toilet incident and the knickers incident).

The week before she died, I went to see her and she was perfectly mum. We had a long conversation about all sorts and she told me that people thought she was losing her mind, but she wouldn’t accept it. (I’ve forgotten her exact words but she implied she was fooling everybody).

That day I told my neighbours who worked for the hospice that mum seemed alot better and said how she behaved. They took one look at each other and said: Sue, I don’t think it will be long.

She died three days later.

Oh mum. We’re missing you.

We started to miss you when you were still with us. God bless.

Hot-footing it to raise cash for Clatterbridge Cancer Research


Saturday.  It started off a cold October day in 2010, but in a few hours it will be hot, hot hot.

Or rather, I will be hot, hot hot. As of course, I always am.

But the bottom line is, today I have feet, including a particularly attractive big toe. Tomorrow, who knows.

Heel and Toes ... the stars of the show this evening.

Heel and Toes … the stars of the show this evening.

This evening (Oct 16th) at about 9pm-ish, after two hours of training and psyching up – which no doubt will mainly consist of conversations along the line of “what the hell am I doing?” – I will be walking over hot coals.

Call me mad if you like. I’d prefer to call it barking mad.

All with the aim of raising cash for Clatterbridge Cancer Research in  Wirral.

On the grand scale of things it’s not a life-changing action; I’m not setting new Olympic records; I’m not rescuing Chilean miners from the depths; I’m not flying to the moon; I’m not brokering a Middle East peace agreement. Mind you, no-one else is either.

But for me it is a little step forward in my life, a  noticeable derring-do-devilish action which 18 months ago, no six months, if even maybe four, I wouldn’t even have considered. Or rather dared to consider.

Over a year ago I wanted to challenge myself to 50 things this year; 50 mini-accomplishments to celebrate my 50th birthday (it’s nearing, oh yes it is). But that wasn’t to happen as I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome which left me wiped out.

When you have CFS it’s not like feeling “tired”. It’s feeling exhausted.  Consistently. But it wasn’t “in my mind” even though some people no doubt thought it was. Essentially my body clock was arse over tit; I couldn’t sleep; I was exhausted.

I needed much more adrenalin than “normal” people just to get me through the day; but the adrenalin itself caused the mischief. The chemicals in the adrenalin didn’t leave me. Instead they lingered. Like unwelcome guests at a party, they wouldn’t bugger off.

Imagine the ebb and flow of a tide. The tide comes in, and out it goes again, leaving behind flotsam and jetsam. Apply that to adrenalin – of which I needed loads just to even get up in the morning. When it should have withdrawn (ie after I stopped doing whatever I was doing) it didn’t. Or if it did, it left behind chemical flotsam and jetsam that I had to clamber over,  hobble around, negotiate for days on end.

For me that flotsam included leg pain, lack of concentration, a complete inability to structure thought processes, a constant ‘pins and needles’ feeling in my face  like I was having a bath in dandelion and burdock. I rarely crossed a road or drove a car for three months because I couldn’t work out how.

I couldn’t remember words  when talking to people.  Or I’d use the wrong words. Luckily my t’other half adjusted to my strange Stanley Unwin CFS-speak. (Google him …. I am nearly 50 you know.) T’other half has got so good at it he’s going to publish a CFS Dixie Mary. Oh, sorry. Dictionary.

So 50 things to celebrate my 50th birthday went the way of most of my plans for this year. I had as much chance of succeeding as Owen Coyle has of organising a Festival of Fun  in Burnley town centre.

But I’m on the up … sort of. Touch wood. Or perhaps torch bloody wood.

So. Along came firewalking for a cancer charity.

I’ll do that I thought. I’ll do that for my 50th, for charity, for fun, to put a marker down that I’ve turned a corner without bumping into anything on the way.

But I’m also doing it for everyone whose lives have been blighted by the horrid disease which is cancer. I have family and workmates who are being treated, or who have come through the treatment and are feeling positive again.

But more than anything I’m doing it as a 50th birthday present to a very dear friend who  lost his life last year because of cancer. A friend, about six weeks older than me, who I really miss. While I was struggling to string a sentence together, he was fighting for his life.

A much-missed friend

I’m still around to celebrate being 50, he isn’t; although we sometimes joked about being old fogeys and remembering the 70s and punk music. Today I’d say Gareth, do you know that 30 years ago Message in a Bottle was Number 1? And we might laugh as it feels like yesterday.

But cancer took him away and to mark his 50th, and mine, it would be great if I could help raise only a little bit of money to fund cancer research. So that someone else, if not Gareth, will have the chance to be teased on their 50th birthday about their taste in music and the punk trousers they once wore; or even be given the chance to see their soon-to-be-born first grandchild.

As a birthday present I once gave Gareth a box of scotch bonnet chillis. Tonight I’ll be giving him some hot, hot coals. I hope he appreciates the theme.

Burnley FC … why I became a Clarets girl

The story of a Burnley fan … Part 1

One day in the summer of 1974 I was hanging around on a street corner with my friends, discussing whether David Essex was more fanciable than Les from Mud, as you do, when my dad came out of the house and shouted me over.

I thought bloody hell, what have I done now.

Look, he said. I’ve got you a season ticket to come and see Burnley with me. I was gobsmacked. What the hell gave him the idea I would want to do that?

I was devastated that dad hadn’t even asked me. I mean, I DID THINGS on a Saturday afternoon. I went into town and hung around the Wimpy bar in Burnley town centre; walked up and down streets; sat in friends’ bedrooms; drank coffee; giggled about boys; avoided homework; watched Play Away.

Why on earth would I want to go to football matches? My life was full. It didn’t need football. I wasn’t interested.

So my season ticket remained untouched until September 14 1974 when I decided to go. After all, Burnley were playing the champions Leeds United. If my memory serves me right I think  Ted Heath the prime minister was there opening the new Bob Lord stand. If I was ever going to go that was the day. Besides, dad had been pursuading me.

Isn’t it funny how snap decisions can change the template of your life; can take you in a direction as straight as a Roman road for years and years.

Dad had supported Burnley all his life; born in the town, he’d moved away as a young boy but would cycle over from Sheffield to watch matches. He’d lived in Nottingham and the North East but would still travel to the games whenever he could.

I’ve even created an urban myth around my own existence, which is that dad had a twinkle in his eye when it was pretty apparent that Burnley would win  the league in 1960. A fellow Burnley fan and journalist colleague  is just a few weeks older than me. A couple of years ago we spent a Saturday afternoon drunk-texting each other to work out which Burnley victory early in 1960 our respective fathers had decided to celebrate. We concluded it may have been a Bolton game. That theory is  absolute bollocks, if you pardon the pun, but it amuses me.

I was born in the North East and can remember having a claret and blue teddy bear   but at the time I didn’t know why. Dad had begun to work for Burnley Football Club and had to travel down to Lancashire regularly. Eventually we moved from the north east to Burnley, at the behest of the infamous Bob Lord, so dad would be nearer to work.

Dad was even friends with club hero Harry Potts and I remember being taken to Harry Potts’ mum’s house for tea and cake more than once.

But despite dad’s strong connection with the Clarets, I had not been interested in supporting them.

That is, until  September 14 1974. I walked up some steps inside the Cricket Field Stand at Turf Moor and for the first time had that magical moment … which still happens … of seeing a football pitch rise into view in front of me, green as an emerald, as expectant as the buzz around me.

I was hooked. And the game hadn’t even kicked off.

To be continued …

(This post has also appeared on the Burnley fans’ forum No Nay Never)

Not so much Who Do You think You Are, as Where Do You Think He Went

Let me tell you a little about my dad.

The other week I went for a meal with my sister,  brother-in-law, niece, dad  and a couple of cousins about four times removed from California.

An ordinary meal with extended family. Perhaps. But it was a little more poignant than that.

It was the search for a dad, for dad, that had brought us together.

A family gathering

My dad was born in 1917 on February 14th. The 1st World War was raging; it was a year before women over the age of 30 were given the vote; just the day before, Mata Hari had been arrested on suspicion of spying; when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the Russian throne dad was just over one month old.

It never ceases to fascinate me that dad was born when all these sepia, consigned-to-history-books events took place.

But there he is, at 93, the umbilical cord between me – us – and events almost a century ago.

Dad weighed just 2lb when he was born at Victoria Hospital in Burnley. A doctor called MacGregor suggested dad be incubated in a warm drawer to try and keep him alive. He was fed using the tube from inside a fountain pen. Obviously it worked … and dad has forever borne the middle name MacGregor in lasting thanks to that canny medical man.

When dad was about five his dad – Wilfred – left home, never to return. Dad often recalls going into a shop on Manchester Road in Burnley as a little boy, urged on by his own mother, to pull on his dad’s coat-tails and ask for a little money.

But other than that, for practically 90 years, dad – my dad – has never known what happened to his dad.

So step in my sister. The Miss Marple of the genealogy world. Perhaps she’d prefer Jessica Fletcher. I’ll let you know if I survive after this paragraph is published.

To cut to the chase, my sister recorded the memories of my great aunt, who lived to the age of 99 and from that moment she caught the family history bug. She set herself a challenge to track down dad’s dad.

I won’t bore you with the fine detail, but eventually my sister pieced together a family jigsaw which had seen our grandfather bought up with a surname which wasn’t his own; it was his mother’s from a previous marriage.

A woman’s decision to revert to a former marital surname when she was left alone when her husband – our grandfather’s father – left home, confused my sister’s family search. A surname which my dad, his sons, grandson and great-grandson still bear.

A political pamphlet hidden in some of dad’s belongings led to the breakthrough of tracking down dad’s ancestry. Written by JR Widdup, it was a socialist mantra written in Burnley in the late 19th century. My sister explained her discoveries, and requested information, at the time in 2004. She had  discovered that JR Widdup – a strident socialist in the late 19th century – was the father of our  grandfather Wilfred Widdup. But there was still no sign of him.

It is very odd but once I knew my true family surname  – Widdup –  I felt as if I’d come home somehow. You may think that’s an odd thing to say, but Marriott had been my maiden name but I had never felt comfortable with it.

Me and dad

It transpired dad’s family had a strong connection to Barnoldswick and the beautiful St Mary le Ghyll Church is the resting place of many of our ancestors. Weddings, christenings and funerals; the church cradles the shadows of long-lost emotions of my forebears in its historic walls. I was moved by those shadows when I visited and had a little weep.

Up until very recently dad knew nothing of this family background. Now he is just as likely to say ‘I should have been a Widdup you know’ as he is to comment on Burnley’s chances of getting back in the Premiership.

Once my sister ‘cracked’ the mystery of my grandfather’s background she was able to trace back the history of the Widdups some way and is even now known as an expert on them.

But still no sign of Wilfred.

My sister also traced back my grandfather’s maternal side – the lady who changed her name to a former marital name. My dad’s grandma. Even she lost touch with her son Wilfred when he moved away, which for years led the family to believe that some tragedy had befallen him, as mother and son were very close.

Her own father Thomas had worked on the railways and was killed at a now-defunct Burnley train station, leaving his widow to bring up her young family.  Thomas’ own siblings had already moved away from Burnley with their minister father to a new church in Yorkshire.

It was one of their descendents we met in a pub in Burnley the other week. Herb, dad’s 3rd cousin removed.  My sister had found him via the network of genealogists that refer and cross-refer to each other when fellow researchers ask questions and seek information. You help me, and I’ll try and help you, seems to be their informal philosophy.

Since then their internet friendship has developed into a real one, with the family connection coming back together all those years after Thomas lost touch with his own family when they moved away to another town.

So there we were in a pub. Nothing but steak and kidney pie and a few generations several times removed between us.

Dad was so chuffed. Not least because there was one portion of chicken dinner still left in the kitchens. He looked at me and my sister and said ‘ah, there’s my daughters’. He looked at Herb and his wife and said ‘ah, who’d have thought’.

On the back of a menu card Herb – our American cousin – drew up our relationship in the form of a family tree.

All those lives crunched onto a a scrap of paper

People once living, breathing, walking and talking, confined to the syllables of their names, attached to each other by a horizontal blue ink line, each hanging off it in their designated time and space, like a family hangman game.

I remember thinking one day I’ll be one of those, waiting for someone like my sister to come along and press-stud me to my own horizontal line, my dates below me in brackets, framing the start and end of a lifetime of experiences. Attached to cousins four or five times removed I’ve never met, or even known of their existence. I hope they laugh at my jokes.

So far Wilfred has escaped detection. It’s not so much Who Do You think You Are, as Where Do You Think He Went.

The closest physical proof to his very existence is my dad. Scuttling around in his wheelchair, the family bridge between a long-gone generation and mine.

Dad still doesn’t know what happened to his dad. But a whole backstory of family history has opened up. It’s fascinating stuff.

Dad was tired at the end of the night, as you would be after chicken dinner AND vanilla ice cream at the age of 93. But thanks to my sister, we’d all shared in reaching out and touching part of his family history and he was happy for that.

But whether sister/Jessica/Miss Marple/the geneaology network will finally come up trumps in the search for a dad for dad only time will tell.

Sadly though, in dad’s case, we don’t know how much of that he has.