Parting Gift

The following post was written in response to the Creative Ink Writing Prompt on 15 Dec:

The present sat, unopened, for weeks. As if preserving its integrity would bring him back, somehow make it all un-happen. But it wouldn’t, obviously, she knew that.  They all did. But nonetheless they had formed a tacit agreement that the gift would not be touched, nor moved from its place on the living room floor, despite the tree and all its fallen needles having long since been cleared out.

And so they carried on with life, or at least some semblance of it; Matt going to school, Abi to her part time job to make some cash for uni. Philippa painted on her face and cooked them dinner each night. But she spent her days wandering the heath with Barney the dog; bare faced and aimless. She kept it together for the children, thanks to the prescription drugs she had tearfully begged her doctor for. They blurred the edges, made the pain a little less acute. But when they started to wear off reality crept back in, and she was faced once more with the abject terror of being alone, in an empty bed. And an empty life.

He had been a healthy man. An active man. And yet. Cancer could be so indiscriminate. Sometimes no amount of spinach smoothies and early morning workouts could stave it off. When it’s your time, it’s your time. That’s what he’d always said. What a tragedy that his time had come so soon. Just past the post of fifty, the milestone Philippa had dreaded for years. But not him. He was ever the optimist. And now he, and all his optimism, had gone.

Today the children were both out; Philippa couldn’t remember where although she knew they would have told her. She made a cup of coffee, her brain on autopilot, and carried it through to the living room. As much as she wanted to avoid looking at the present, her eyes were drawn to it like magnets. He had known, when he bought it, that the time he had left was short. She knew he had made peace with that in a way she couldn’t imagine herself ever doing. After twenty years of marriage, losing him was like losing the use of her limbs. They had so much still to do, so much still to see. How could she do any of it without him?

Their big plan, once both kids had left home, was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They had talked about it often, sat at the kitchen table late into the night, drinking Malbec and plotting out the route they would take. Philippa couldn’t imagine herself climbing a mountain, but with him by her side she knew she could do it. With him by her side she could do anything.

She was on the floor now, kneeling with the present on her lap. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks, splashed onto the Christmas wrapping paper. Whatever was inside would, she knew, break her heart. But it was time. For the kids’ sake she had to move past this. It was part of the process. So she steeled herself and started to peel back the layers. Inside was a head torch, a pair of hiking socks and the Dr Seuss book they had read to the kids when they were little. He had marked one of the pages with a yellow sticky note. Philippa opened it on that page and laughed aloud when she read the rhyme:

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!

As sad as she felt, the pain that had held her in its thrall since his parting loosened its grip just a little. She took a deep breath and exhaled. With his parting gift, he had set her free.

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Update from Gare du Nord

Last week I didn’t go to the Gare du Nord for what has become my weekly visit. I had a cough and wasn’t feeling myself, and as it’s so vital to bring positivity to that situation I decided to stay away. Tonight I knew for sure that was the right decision, as I felt recharged and was looking forward to going back. I had the last five sleeping bags from my fundraising effort to take down there, along with a bag of brownies, oranges and fruit that I picked up on the way to work this morning. As soon as I arrived the food was hoovered up in seconds! On Tuesdays the charity provides hot drinks but not hot food, so people were hungry. As it took some time for the drinks and donations to be handed out, I stood to one side with the sleeping bags. I got chatting to a man called Abdamune Sidiq [sic] from Sudan. He told me how last week the police took away his blankets, and since then he has got sick. This made me really angry, and even more glad that we created this petition last week to try and stop the police taking away people’s sleeping bags, even though I don’t know if it really made an impact.

Tonight, in addition to the normal donations there were 100 goodie bags for St. Nicholas (here in Belgium they celebrate Sinterklaas coming on 6 December – our office is full of chocolates!) from the students of ISB Service Learning/CAS. They were full of sweets, and it was so lovely seeing people patiently queuing up and then sharing the contents of their bags with others – I was given sweets by three people, they must have thought I needed fattening up! There was a happy atmosphere despite the cold, and some new faces too, although I didn’t see my friend Bakare, which has worried me a little. I hope he’s okay.

So all in all another positive experience, although it’s true that people are getting sick now that the temperatures have dropped, and even though we try to bring as many sleeping bags and warm clothes as we can, there is always a need for more. I’m worried for these men as winter progresses, what will they do and where will they go when it starts to snow? Surely they can’t sleep in the park then? All we can do is try to keep their spirits up, their tummies full and their bodies as warm as possible, and hope this is enough to get them through. I’m so happy that from January they will have more support from Unless, the wonderful new non-profit organisation which has raised money to rent a nearby building, where people will be able to have hot showers and get their clothes laundered. Hot food will also be available five times a week instead of the current twice a week arrangement, which is just fantastic. They are seeking donations to raise the monthly running fee of 5,000 Euros, so if anyone is feeling generous as Christmas approaches, I can personally guarantee this would be a brilliant and worthwhile cause.

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Food with Friends

On Thursday evening (aptly also Thanksgiving Day) I went down to the Gare du Nord with five more sleeping bags, five winter coats and three boxes of (homemade!!!) chocolate brownies for the community dinner. Funded by the International School of Brussels and fantastic new charity, Unless, it provided a proper sit-down dinner for around 150 people, who, for whatever reason, have found themselves in hard times without a roof over their heads. There was a delicious curry with rice and lentils, salads, fruit, cakes, brownies and tea. The students from the ISB helped the regular volunteers to serve food and spread cheer. Everyone ate together, talked together, laughed together. It was without doubt the most inspiring evenings I have ever had the privilege of being involved with.

I met some more lovely people, a new Eritrean friend called Taha with a cheeky smile, and another man from Afghanistan, who told me that he fled his home three years ago to escape the Taliban, after his brother was killed. He arrived in Brussels on Thursday after being made to leave Sweden, where he had settled, because he had originally been fingerprinted in Belgium (apparently once you’ve been fingerprinted somewhere that’s where you have to stay – can you imagine?). He showed me pictures of his friends in Sweden, told me that he had resigned himself to staying in Belgium now, even though he wanted to go back. He had tried to go to the office to sort his papers on arrival but they had told him to come back the next day. Who knows how long the process will take to be registered here, let alone to have somewhere to sleep that isn’t a park bench or a doorway?

It’s so hard to comprehend how so many people, purely by virtue of the place where they were born, end up in such difficult circumstances. But I am constantly inspired by the hopefulness and cheerfulness of the people I encounter in the face of such difficulties. It makes me realise that so many of my ‘Western’ problems are not really problems at all. I have the freedom to go where I want, when I want. I have a place to call home, documents to prove it, and a support network to help me when I struggle. And for all those things I am truly thankful.

This morning I read this article from the Irish Times about homelessness, and it brought home to me more than ever the importance of helping others wherever we can. You never know how much it means to someone if you just take the time to have a conversation, or to buy them a coffee. Though a small gesture to you, it might just be enough to help them get through the day without turning to drink, drugs, or worse. And as Christmas approaches – surely the hardest time of year for those who have fallen on hard times – it’s more important than ever not to look the other way. Because, to me, the true spirit of Thanksgiving is not just being thankful for what we have, but, in turn, offering whatever help we can to those who aren’t so fortunate.

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A snap from Thursday’s Community Dinner – volunteers and friends alike. Such a great night!

 

Q: What do Gyms and Puppies Have in Common?

A: Like puppies, gyms should be for life – not just for Christmas (or, for the purposes of this blog post, January).

Over the Christmas holidays, as I was midway through my second helping of bubble and squeak (whilst simultaneously eyeing up the chocolate log and mince pies) my mother unsubtly dropped into conversation – with a meaningful stare – that her diary for that same day the previous year documented that I had completed an 11 mile run. I lowered my fork momentarily and glared at her over the mound of food between us, feeling thoroughly hard done by – I had, after all, had to pull out of the marathon I’d been training for with nine days to go, after suffering a prolapsed disc, so it was hardly appropriate to make me feel bad about it, especially at Christmas. Honestly.

But, much as I hate to admit it, Mum was right to bring my lack of exercise up. True, I did have a nasty injury that required several months of physiotherapy (although if I’m honest I can only blame myself, seeing as it was the result of overtraining – a concept that right now seems entirely alien), but the physio ended with the summer, and even my physiotherapist told me I was ready to get back to exercising – so why didn’t I? Because I was afraid – of how much I had lost my fitness, and of how much work I would have to do to get even a fraction of it back again.

Fortunately the new year has, for me as well as thousands of others, brought with it fresh resolve. No more the upward creeping of the scales, whilst my blind eye is turned the other way. It’s time to face my fears and get my thigh gap back. It is also, I have decided, the year I manage to prove my abdominal muscles really do exist – no small goal. There shall be no excuses, just regular exercise and a predominantly healthy eating regime. If I can train up to 17 miles for a marathon I can surely claw back some of that enthusiasm now?

So, I’ve joined a gym, which is conveniently located about a minute’s walk from my front door (greatly helping with the ‘no excuses’ side of things). And so far this year (today being the 12th of January) I’ve been a whopping SEVEN times (never mind that two of those times involved the sum total of about 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise – everyone has to start somewhere, right?) But this post is not intended as a gloat-fest, I actually wanted to discuss something that has been amusing me no end since I joined, and that is ll the New Year Resolution gym goers (I realise I could well be placed into that category given my recent hiatus, but trust me, I know I’m in this for the long haul).

I’d genuinely forgotten how hilarious these people are. The other day, for example, I saw a man on the step machine who, instead of using the machine correctly and stepping as if stepping on air, was just standing on the floor and lifting each step up in turn beneath his feet. Not far away another man was using a weight machine on the lowest possible weight setting (which would barely develop muscles in an ant), and another still (this one VERY overweight after the festive season’s over-indulgence) was cycling at the most leisurely pace possible on the sit-down bike – whilst reading his book.

My favourite new-year-resolutioner of all was the girl who came to the gym in full make up and an outfit that would have been more appropriate in a bar, and proceeded to spend ten minutes pulling the bar of the rowing machine with as much gusto as a weak fart, before getting up and leaving. It really is no wonder these transitional folk don’t last beyond the first couple of months of the year – with such minimal exertion they can’t possibly see any results. Maybe they’d have more luck with a puppy…

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He’s Behind You…

I’ll admit it: I love panto. Not a sentence I would have been caught dead saying a few years ago, but now I’m getting on a bit (having reached the grand old age of 32) something’s changed. The embarrassment of youth has faded and, in its place, a newfound respect for the magic and comedy of pantomime has sprung up (rather like Jack’s beanstalk, if you’ll excuse the simile).

The thing is this: Life can be too serious. Bad things happen to good people; death, disease and poverty are rife in our society. Sometimes it’s just nice (for those of us fortunate enough to have the luxury) to be a little silly; to watch something ridiculous that makes us laugh and takes us far away from reality (on a magic carpet ride-sorry), evoking the unbridled joy and innocence of childhood.

And on that note, it’s wonderful to see the enjoyment that the children in the audience glean from a good pantomime performance. When Wishee Washee throws the sweets and a mad scramble ensues there’s a palpable sense of delight that’s hard to manufacture in these modern times of computers and smartphones.

What I’ve loved most of all about the pantomime at Windsor for the past few years has been (and here’s another sentence that I never envisaged saying) Britain’s Got Talent’s Kevin Cruise. The best supporting actor I’ve seen in years, he’s a true comedy talent and national treasure (also someone I’d quite like to be my male best friend).

In short I think it’s safe to say that panto’s a tradition that’s set to stay in my family (oh no it isn’t…). Roll on next year…

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New Beginnings

On this Christmas Eve I’m thinking about new beginnings. More specifically, the new beginnings that two of my friends are making – one, in fact, who at this very moment is on a plane from New York to Hawaii to start the next chapter in the rip-roaring adventure that is her life, and the other who is spending Christmas in Bali after losing her boyfriend to a tragic accident earlier this year and returning to Australia without him to rebuild her life.

Both these friends are brave beyond all measure. They have endured the most testing of times and yet have still stood up in the face of tragedy and adversity and said to life, you know what? You won’t beat me, because I won’t let you. Their strength of character both astounds and inspires me.

Jen, the friend en route to Hawaii, is the fellow wanderer and writer who I met in India in 2011. She forged a fantastic life for herself in NYC from nothing, but she knew in her heart it was time to move on and has ignored her misgivings and the doubts of those around her to make this change happen. She is a free spirit in the truest sense of the word and is my muse and spiritual twin (as cheesy as that sounds it’s true).

Sarah, meanwhile, has been to hell and back in recent months after the loss of her wonderful Paul, and yet has borne her loss with a huge amount of dignity, poise and humility. It was incredibly brave to return to Australia so soon after Paul’s death and resume her life there but it seems, from the outside, at least, that the sun and her wonderful friends over there are beginning to work their magic, and whilst I’m certain she will never get over the loss of her love, I’m hopeful she will find in life many other much deserved joys that will bear testament to the fact it can still be wonderful.

So here’s to new beginnings, fresh starts and adventures-may they take us where we want to go, and may they make us richer in spirit and strength than we were before.

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Spare a Thought

For those of us lucky enough to have family and friends around us, Christmas is a magical time of year; a time when work is forgotten, food is lovingly prepared and gifts of appreciation are given. It’s also a time when the weather outside doesn’t matter one bit, because everyone’s wrapped up warm and cosy beside the fire, nursing a mulled wine or glass of fizz as Christmas tunes play in the background.

But every year at precisely this time I can’t help but think of the thousands of people for whom Christmas is a miserable experience; those who have no one to care for them, no roof over their head and no food to eat. Being homeless is a dreadful thing at any time of year, but at Christmas in particular it must exacerbate the feelings of loneliness and sadness that come with being in such a terrible situation.

And it’s not just the homeless for whom Christmas is a testing time. Each year there are also thousands of people who are forced to endure the festive season after losing a loved one, or who are elderly, housebound and alone. There are thousands more still who are penniless, clinging onto the roof above their heads but unable to heat their homes or feed their children, let alone buy them expensive presents from Santa.

My purpose in mentioning all of the above is not to make those who are fortunate this Christmas feel guilty or sad, but rather to encourage them (myself included) to be grateful for what they have; to realise what a blessing it is to be healthy, happy and loved, and to spare a thought (or maybe more) for those who have comparatively little.