The End

Every day and night for the last few weeks, death has been on my mind. It’s what I’ve thought about as I try to get to sleep, and it’s been present each morning: today, from 4am. I’m not particularly comfortable writing about this topic, but by 5.30 I figured I’d get up and try to make sense of my current state of mind.

I think it’s been creeping up on me ahead of my 50th birthday this coming October. I’m unable to bury my head in the sand, about anything really. I’m a doer. I always look to move forward via taking action. And so rather than push these unsurprisingly unwelcome thoughts and fears out of my mind, I’m trying to just sit with them, poke them a little if you will, in the hope that I’ll work through some of the noise. It’s not that I’m feeling morose the entire time, more that I’d like to reach a place close to acceptance so that I can park these thoughts. It’s not even about a fear of my own mortality. It has more to do with being left behind, and most definitely about leaving others behind.

I can’t remember how I discovered it, but I’ve been listening to the incredibly moving podcast You, Me and the Big C: all 31 episodes in the space of a couple of weeks. It’s been created by three women who met on social media as they sought support over their cancer diagnoses: Rachael Bland, Deborah James and Lauren Mahon talk bravely and honestly about living with cancer. Rachael sadly died in September and her husband Steve has taken up the baton. I like to walk and listen, and in the last two weeks I’ve mostly reached twenty thousand steps per day to their now-familiar voices. I’ve laughed. I’ve cried. I’ve made a pact with myself to try my very best to seize every day.

Then on Monday I saw 4 familiar faces in the international press, 3 of whom were murdered in the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday terrorist attack. A family who had shown the boys and me great kindness in the early weeks of our move overseas. A boy who was in my son’s class, who had come to his 8th birthday party the week before we repatriated a year later. It’s impossible to fathom, and I cannot stop thinking about the sole survivor: what he has already been through, and what is to come.

I’ve just started reading Wave, written by Sonali Deraniyagala who lost her two young sons, her husband and both her parents in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Next on my list is With The End In Mind by Dr Kathryn Mannix, who worked in palliative care for over 30 years. Kathryn featured on this episode of the podcast and I’m hoping her positive perspective will enable me to move forward.

In the meantime I’m going to continue with the positive psychology mindset from The Art Of Being Brilliant. I had the good fortune of listening to one of the co-authors at an event recently and he really was Brilliant. Focussing on having a positive impact on the lives of others is a really helpful strategy. I’m enjoying Random Acts of Kindness at the moment. My current favourite is to place a pound in peculiar places for others to find. I often leave one atop a pack of nappies in the supermarket. It always makes me smile when I walk away. What I really want to figure out is this: how do you pay for a coffee for the stranger queuing behind you? Anyone know?

To do, or not to do: that is the question

I actively try to avoid wishing time away, especially in relation to my boys growing up. As my husband remarked some months ago, post-family-movie-time, what if this is as good as it gets? They’re such good company, mostly. They’ve never really fought, but instead forged a close bond from the very beginning: our family unit is strong and self-sufficient and wonderful.

But I cannot wait for 14th June to roll around, for this is the date when boy one will sit his final GCSE exam. I seem to seesaw between willing this period to be over, because of its effect on the harmony in our home, and wishing for more time, so that he has longer to prepare.

I am finding this particular stage rather tricky: one strong-willed, hormonal activist forcing a strong-willed, hormonal teenager to spend hours and hours doing something he really doesn’t want to do in order to get an outcome commensurate with his ability, thus paving the way for an options-filled future.

Obviously, the aim is for him to leave school in just over two short months, having earned the right to enjoy a long, relaxing summer safe in the knowledge that he gave it his best. (We’ve always put the emphasis on effort levels: how can you ask any more of them than their best? Which is all well and good if they agree with you on what their ‘best’ is).

His favourite subjects are maths and computer science. He enjoys physics, chemistry and biology. He quite likes Spanish. He’s lukewarm about history. He tolerates business studies. He detests English. In his favourite subjects he is self-motivated and increasingly self-taught, such is his enjoyment of the subject matter: going by his grades and tutor feedback, it’s working. This bodes well, these being the subjects he will study at A Level.

Trying to chivvy him up to study English, on the other hand, is grueling. The set texts are tedious, the technical aspect of the language, tiresome. There is a ridiculous amount of information to learn by rote (and not just for this particular subject). It feels like a test of memory capacity and recall, when surely the whole point is being able to understand, analyse, compare, contrast, communicate. I can’t help but think that the new curriculum and, whilst we’re at it, the new grading system, are a bit bonkers.

There is so much pressure on the Y11s, and school are keen to impress upon us that they also need a reasonable amount of downtime, doing the things they enjoy. Absolutely. As with much of parenting, it’s not easy to strike the right balance: too relaxed, too anxious, too confident, too nervous, peaking too soon, leaving things too late, not studying enough, burning out.

I want to take away the stress. I want his life to be easy and calm and fun. I want him back. But I also don’t. Because that’s not how life works. All that good stuff is interspersed with hard work and pain and disappointment. Just as it should be. So, as much as I want peace and harmony restored (as soon as possible please) I also accept that a vital part of my job as a parent is to help my children develop skills they would rather not need: in this case, choosing long term goals over short term discomfort, building a strong work ethic, and accepting a need to ‘lean in’.

I’ve tried to impress upon him the power of acceptance. More often than not, the struggle is in the indecision rather than the actual action. Make the decision as quickly as possible, be absolutely fine with that decision, and move on to getting the shit done. Don’t waste precious time, energy and psychic weight entering into a protracted internal debate about whether to do, or not to do, especially when you already know what is required to achieve your desired outcome.

In an episode of the incomparable Life Coach School podcast, Brooke Castillo describes this as ‘hearing your own no and deciding not to suffer’. This can be applied to all manner of things: exercise, eating, alcohol, spending money, ending a relationship. And yes, revision.

I’m having to practice acceptance too. There’s no getting away from the fact that life is a bit stressful at the moment, but as that familiar parenting adage goes, ‘this too shall pass’: just as apt now as when they were teething, or not sleeping through the night. I know that as a family we have a solid foundation, and that peace and tranquility will return. Until we go through it all again in two years’ time with boy two, just as boy one is finishing his A Levels.

March hares

To complete our March 50k virtual running challenge we opted for a change of scene. Rather than running around the residential streets of our ‘hood, we parked outside Winchester and ran the beautiful, well-trodden, reasonably flat path into the city centre and back: 7k in total: we needed eight to reach our target distance, but I figured I’d cross that bridge near the end of the route.

We set off at a gentle pace winding our way alongside the River Itchen, out past St Catherine’s Hill, through the Cathedral grounds and onto the High Street (this introduced an element of slalom as we dodged the dilly-dallying shoppers browsing the market stalls). Then past King Alfred’s statue and through the park alongside the river to re-join the outward route. It was getting to be quite hard work for Tom whose legs started to feel tired. It was a beautifully mild spring day, and 40 minutes of running had us both and hot and bothered. By the time we passed St Catherine’s for the second time, just as I was considering how to tell Tom about our 1k shortfall and the subsequent need, as we were tantalisingly close to the car, to double back for half a km then rerun the same half a km, he asked through laboured breathing “so when we get to the car that’s 8k?”.

He took it well and I gave him the option of running that final kilometre the next day (31st) instead but no, he chose to grit his teeth and push on. When I know he’s at the edge of his running comfort zone I always give him a choice about whether to carry on, whilst also reassuring him that I absolutely know he can. I also make it clear that I would never ask him to do more than I thought he was capable of: I think it’s really important for him to feel he has some control, and it’s empowering for him to choose to keep going. If I can tell he’s really had enough we’ll stop and pat ourselves on the back.

Once he realised we had a little more to do, at about 7.5k he said he’d like to run 8.4k, to beat his previous longest distance of 8.3k. I don’t generally lie to my children, but I knew he had a little more fuel in the tank and having a touch of OCD I decided that 9k would be a fabulous goal. I didn’t tell him this because I could tell he was digging deep and just wanted it to be over. On the first half of our extra km I’d sneaked a peek of a track off to the right: a long straight, with a slight downhill slope and some white gates in the far distance. I figured it would make a perfect end to our run with a visual “finish line”, and take us to 9k. As we approached this path on the way back to the car I said “right,  I reckon if we run down there to those white gates in the distance we’ll have reached our 50km March goal, but if you want we can just run back to the car, which would also do it”. The determination and resilience he’s been unwittingly building since we started running six weeks ago paid off. Without so much as a wince he said “let’s do it”. During the last few hundred yards we picked up the pace and then as my Garmin buzzed the end of that split, just after the gates, I turned to Tom, who still thought we were doing 8.4k, and said “you’ve just run 9k”. A sweaty, breath-catching hug followed as smiling passers-by moved to the edge of the path to give our wobbly bodies some space.

Those last couple of kilometres were tough and I know that Tom gave his all. Recently as a family we had watched a motivational speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger, my husband’s bodybuilding hero. In it, Arnie talks about Muhammad Ali’s famous sit ups quote . I used that quote to coach Tom through the last third of our run, telling him that this is the bit that will grow his resilience, his fitness, his mental game, his ‘I can’ attitude. I told him that six weeks ago a 3k was tough, but it now feels like a warm up. A month ago a 5k was as challenging as this 9k, but he wouldn’t think twice about whether he can just go out and run 5k now. I couldn’t be more proud of him: 13 years old and making the transition from being pretty sedentary to a determined and dedicated runner. Incidentally, that last split was our fastest, by twenty seconds.

Now, I used to be a proponent of the “no pain no gain/go hard or go home” mindset, but not any more. Doing what you can on any given day is good enough. However, you can’t get away from the fact that it’s largely in the struggle where the real growth happens.

“I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting. When I feel pain, that’s when I start counting, because that’s when it really counts.”

Muhammad Ali