It’s been a whole year. I don’t know if this is the right way to feel, and whether it will be replaced soon by some other horrible stage, but right now I feel a massive sense of relief and achievement. As a friend who lost his wife a few years ago said to me recently, “I didn’t think I would make it through that first year. If I was any older or frailer, I think I would’ve died.” It is incredible to realise you can actually do it and that the world hasn’t stopped. It feels like a huge victory to be able to say “I made it all the way back around the calendar!” and those moments you thought were going to break you actually haven’t done so far. I know that year two brings its own set of fresh challenges and a different kind of staleness and aches, but at least one chapter is complete, and at every point of future pain I can keep reminding myself that if I’ve managed so far, then I can keep going.
I have for the most part, faced grief like a chicken pox party. I have met with it head on as much as I could cope with, and sometimes have even chased it down when it’s been hiding from me, because I know it’s there and I know the longer the stages take to come, the worse they will be. I have taken days and sometimes weekends off just so I could go and wrestle with grief and wade through memories. Last month I even took the whole month off from the thing I love to do – my church – so I could deal with some stuff that was causing anxiety because I knew it was lurking and stealing my peace. To quote the best book on grief I have found: “The quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.” (“A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss” by Jerry Sittser).
And now, because I’m fed up of writing about deep and morbid stuff, I’m going to illustrate how, even when we want to turn and run away in a panic, it’s much better to deal with a problem head on, because walking away and closing the door on it would've made it much much worse.
Last week my sister and her family were away. They only live across the road from us which makes it easier to sort out the task I have while they’re gone: feeding the chameleon. The chameleon is kind of my fault in the first place. When they came home from living in Rwanda my sister and brother-in-law talked about getting one, because they’d looked after chameleons over there, but it was too expensive to buy the creature and the all the set up for it. However, they helped us out so much that year that we wanted to really splurge on them at Christmas, so we got it for them as a surprise. I didn’t realise that my sister, her husband, her child in utero and Noel (that’s what they called their Christmas chameleon of course) would all be coming to live at my house five months later when Richard got moved to the hospice. They lived with me for six months and saw me get back on my feet, then they moved over the road.
That means that when they go on holiday it makes sense for me to nip over and feed Noel as I’m so close and won’t be freaked out by the live insects we have to give him as they used to be in my house anyway. So I went over, the day after they left, to feed him.
Unfortunately the boxes of locusts by his cage were either empty or just had a couple of dead carcasses in them, and it was late at night so I couldn’t go to the pet shop. The next day I was out all day and couldn’t go: the day after that was a bank holiday and the pet shop was shut. So I was pretty desperate by Tuesday when I finally got to the pet shop and all the locust shelves were empty. They weren’t going to get any more in till Thursday and so I ended up buying crickets instead. Normally we don’t go for the crickets – they’re smaller and jumpier and have the possibility of ganging up on the reptile if you put too many in the enclosure at once, but I didn’t want poor Noel to wait any longer. So I got them and we took them round and fed them carefully to him one by one out of the box so we didn’t let them roam loose around the cage. And when I say we, I mean they. So far I have always managed with prodding or flicking insects in Noel's direction or opening the lid so he can get them himself, but never, so far, holding them properly in my hand.
So far, so good.
The next day we went round in a rush after a busy morning before we were travelling down to Preston to pick up the oldest child from a sleepover. We filled Noel’s water, sprayed the plants, and started feeding him the crickets. The kids were doing really well at picking them out of the box with their hindlegs and holding them in front of Noel’s face so he could shoot his long tongue out and slurp them out of their fingers and make them laugh. I held the box inside the closure in case any of the insects sprung out, but just as my 7yo was struggling to get a grip on a cricket who was crawling under the cardboard canopy away from his fingers, I turned the box round and away from the cage to try and make it easier for him.
And I watched in slow motion as the
In a box of large locusts, there are normally about twelve insects. However, in a box of crickets there are about forty. We had fed Noel only five. About ten crickets were sat stunned at the bottom of the box, which I grabbed and slammed the lid on. The other twenty five went totally nuts. I am sure I heard them scream “Freedooooom!” as they leapt about in front of the cage, crashing into one another in bewilderment at the amount of space they now had. I froze and starting shrieking “WHAT DO I DO?” The youngest two stared at me in horror as I started using a tone of voice I didn’t even know I owned, and the 11yo, who never wastes words, sprang into action, and starting slamming his bare hands onto the spasming hoard.
“YES!” I shouted “GOOD JOB! WELL DONE! GET THEM! OH, THE HOOVER! THE HOOVER! WHERE’S THE HOOVER?”
I ran to the dining room and grabbed the hoover, ran back with it, then started shrieking again; “WHERE’S THE PLUG? WHY CAN I NOT SEE A PLUG? THERE HAS TO BE A PLUG? STOP STARING AT ME! LOOK AT THE WALLS! FIND A PLUG, CHILDREN! NO, NOT YOU, YOU’RE DOING A GREAT JOB! YOU KEEP KILLING THEM! YOU TWO! WHERE’S THE PLUG?!”
I found a plug at the furthest possible point of the room then ran back to grab the nozzle from the back of the hoover so I could start sucking the little blighters up, and the whole nozzle came off in my hand. “WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH THIS HOOVER? WHY IS THE NOZZLE NOT CONNECTED? HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO USE IT? WHY IS IT DIFFERENT TO MY HOOVER? THERE’S A CRICKET ON YOUR BACK!” This last one was to the 11yo who was facing a counter attack and I darted forward, suddenly losing all my reservations, to grab the cricket off his t-shirt and get it back into the box. You know, because in the midst of the chaos I didn’t want to waste the 10p it would’ve cost for another cricket by killing the first one I’d actually handled myself.
I gave up on the nozzle and just ran the body of the hoover over the floor in front of the cage (after running back to the corner to actually switch it on at the plug). There was a moment’s calm as all the dead and twitching crickets had been sucked up into the vacuum and everybody checked their clothes and heads for more movement.
Then the 7yo lowered himself to the floor and looked under the couch. “They’re all under there,” he whispered. We looked under and there were still a dozen crickets, trembling with excitement and staring at us as, daring us to try to fit under the couch into their tiny space.
I took a deep breath, fixed the nozzle back onto the hoover and worked out how to use it, and started strategically placing children around the room. “You two get hold of the couch and pull it this way. You stand over there and watch for any coming that way. And all of you, make sure that none of them jump onto me!”
So they heaved the sofa and I dived into the space, sucking up the live crickets one by one and ignoring the strange sounds the hoover was making and calling over the top of the noise to them. “Okay, a little bit more, that’s it – there’s another one climbing up the side of the cage! GETTIT, GETTIT, GETTIT, GETTIT, GREAT! Okay, move it more, got one! Quick, there’s two more! Now move it the other way. Why won’t it move? WHAT ARE YOU DOING SITTING ON THE SOFA? WHAT DO YOU THINK WE’RE TRYING TO DO HERE? GETTUP GETTUP GETTUP!”
Eventually we had chased the sofa round the room and caught every cricket. We were still for a long time as waited for any movement. Only the shellshocked survivors in the box made little flicks against the plastic in protest at the massacre they had just witnessed. We were pretty sure we had got the rest.
There was still one task to do. I didn’t want to risk any of the crickets crawling back out of the vacuum, or to give my sister a shock when she got back, so I went to get a bin bag to empty the hoover contents into. I popped the cylinder off, put it all the way inside the binliner and sealed the top shut, popped open the bottom through the plastic, and shook hard, but nothing happened. Then I realised why the hoover had been making such a horrible noise. The flat had been left in immaculate condition by my sister (thankgoodness – it would’ve been much harder to find those crickets in a mess!) who must’ve vacuumed every room before she left, but the contents of the cylinder were now way past the ‘max’ line, and every bit of dust, hair and wriggling cricket was now all compacted together in one big circular chunk.
I made more loud illegible noises and sent a child to get a butterknife. I then dug deep with my fingers into every opening of the cylinder and pulled out as much as I could, leaning elbow deep into the bin bag to try and keep it all contained, and asking the 11yo to watch closely that nothing jumped, crawled or scrambled up my arms. I split up the 5yo and 7yo who had got bored and started wrestling behind me, and after fifteen minutes of scraping and prodding and waggling, I finally managed to excavate every particle from inside that hoover. I think the final living insects had eventually succumbed to dust inhalation because there were none left to put up a fight. We tied the bin bag tightly shut, put the hoover and the living room back together as if nothing had happened, washed our hands, threw the bag in the outside bin, got in the car, and slapped our necks and backs for imaginary insects all the way to Preston.
I think we were halfway there before one of the children quietly said “Mum, I’ve never heard you sound like that before. It was like a bomb was about to explode and you didn’t know what to do. It was quite scary.”
“Yes dear. I didn’t know I could sound like that either. But when you sit down on a couch that we’re trying to move out of the way so we can catch crickets that we’ve let loose inside someone else’s house, and I have to make myself heard over the hoover that sounds like it’s just about to break, it will make me make strange noises. Just remember that next time.”