Like many others, I am sure, I watched Paul McCartney’s set at this year’s Glastonbury Festival with a mixture of awe and nostalgia. He’s eighty years old! I was already in bed when he went out on stage… In all honesty, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love The Beatles. They rose to fame in my early childhood, and as they were of a similar age to my own brothers, I suppose I have always thought of them as sort of extra siblings, in a way. Very distant, highly talented and rich ones, of course. But as I grew older, I became more and more in love with their music – bad timing on my part as my interest peaked at the exact moment the band were in the process of splitting up… oh well.
My brother Johnny, fourteen years my senior, was a fan, and he was my gateway to Beatlemania. He owned a few of their records in the early 60s (in fact he saw them live at the Ipswich Regent), and I used to sneak into his bedroom and play them when he was at work (I wasn’t really supposed to). I did this so often that I still know all the words and the backing vocals to every track on With The Beatles. I can’t listen to Sgt Pepper without recalling his delight at hearing that album for the first time, and how we pored over the cover when he brought it home. In fact The Beatles and John are synonymous in my mind.
Paul headlining at Glasto was just the latest in a series of recent stimuli which have made me spend more and more time thinking about my early years. Oddly enough, it started with an episode of a dog training programme on television, when one of the families the man helped lived very near to my old home in Ipswich, and they walked the dog in a park I knew well. It got me thinking, and I began to wonder if I could write a semi-autobiographical novel. But to do that, I had to spend time going back and remembering what it was like to be me, then.
And therein lies danger. Because you see, it wasn’t very nice, being me, then. At the time, and in fact for many years, I lived with the grief, normalised it, I accepted it as part of my experience. I assumed that it was grief that was what made me unhappy, and that all the other ‘stuff’, that was, well, that was my own fault. Only very recently have I begun to recognise that what happened to me was, in fact, trauma. Perhaps because the story is so familiar to me, I had become immune to its awfulness and only by actually thinking long and hard about it from a distance have I been able to see it for what it is.
Both my parents were in poor health, and so having a Mum and Dad who were older than my peers’, and not particularly well, was normal for me. But in fact both their deaths were relatively sudden and premature. Dad died when I was nine, going on ten, after a stroke, at the age of 53. He was actually carried off by hypostatic pneumonia, but I didn’t learn that until later when I was at Nursing School and one of my Nurse Tutors, who had cared for him on the ward, told me. He was only in hospital for a short while – I don’t remember how long exactly. But I was there in the room at home when he had the stroke, and I remember very clearly how terrified I was.
Fast forward five years, and I was with Mum when she died, suddenly, at home. In my arms, in fact. She had a respiratory arrest caused by her COPD and died before help could come. She was 54. I remember looking in the mirror later that evening, after the ambulance and the GP had gone, and seeing my face almost green with shock. But after the first few days and weeks, life had to carry on, and in 1972, nobody thought much about grief counselling or anything remotely like that.
I have written here before about how after a short time, it was assumed I would get back to ‘normal’, carry on with school work, as well as be expected to do the housework and cook meals at home. But nothing was normal anymore. It was as if a bomb had gone off in my life at a crucial time, and I reacted in a completely understandable way, especially for a teenager. I was by turns compliant, rebellious, sulky, dishonest, angry, tearful and depressed. And instead of getting help and understanding, for the most part, I was left to manage the crisis alone. Or criticised. The damage that was done in those years is the basis of my mental health problems now, and I still need to forgive my younger self for things that weren’t – I can see when I think rationally – my fault.
And it would be easy for me instead to blame the adults who were around me then, and some I do still hold some resentment for, but only for being unkind when it was obvious I needed kindness. I did so for years, in fact, being at the same time furious with them and myself. But to be fair, few people could have understood my emotional needs then, and in any case, such help was not available. And blaming doesn’t change anything.
But depression and anxiety don’t come from the rational part of the brain, and so all the clear thinking I’ve been doing, all the sensible reworking of my memories, the unpacking and reordering only goes so far. I am trying to forgive myself, and often, there are days on end when I succeed. Then something happens: I do something I feel ashamed of, I make a mistake, somebody says or does something that touches that sensitive part of me, and I’m back to square one. So, it’s a work in progress, this self-forgiveness, this ‘letting it be’. It will happen, and in the meantime, I will continue to try.
And listen to The Beatles.
A small postscript: our beloved Baz had to be eased on his way last week. He was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe, due to some kind of blockage in his airway. Given his age, and his fear of the vet, we decided not to pursue invasive investigations which would not have altered the outcome and only made his last few weeks more stressful. It was painful, but also rather beautiful to see him at rest at last. He was the goodest boy.