Learning Something about Anniversaries


 It’s my birthday tomorrow. Yes, thank you. I appreciate it.

To be honest, birthdays don’t tend to put me up or down too much these days. It’s nice to have it remembered and to be greeted. I pretty much have everything I want so I’m never hanging to have some great wish or desire fulfilled. So, yeah, happy birthday to me, for when it comes. Fifty-nine, though. How on earth did that happen?

The purpose of this post is not to mull over birthdays. It’s to try to set down a thought or two about those other kind of anniversaries. The less welcome ones.

On Wednesday, it was a year since my elder brother, Michael, died. In that year I have missed him very much. You possibly know how that goes. There seem to be waves of loss. Sometimes it is a dull thing that drains some colour from the world. Sometimes it is a vibrant thing that colours everything. And sometimes you forget that he has gone and you think to phone him up and see how his solar panels are performing or how the birds in the back garden are. Those last ones are almost the worst.

Then along came the anniversary.

There have been anniversaries before. Mum and Dad, Una and Penelope, my wife’s beloved sisters, and I felt I had some measure of them and how they go. They are sad days, tempered by perhaps meeting other members of the bereaved cohort for a small ceremony and maybe a cup of tea. Days when we remember a little more keenly and hug each other a little tighter, in the memory of the beloved person who has gone before us.

So I had known what to expect from this anniversary. Hugs, tea, memories shared. Or should I say, I thought I knew. None of these things that I thought I knew prepared me for what it actually turned out to be.

I loved Mum, Dad, Penelope, and Una dearly and I miss them always and hold them close in my heart. Their anniversaries are sad, special days. But Michael’s anniversary came in differently for me. How was it, really? It was like a storm, on the horizon. A storm of loss, bewilderment, anger, and sadness. And it loomed in the days before the anniversary and it became a little bit consuming.

Michael was my brother. He was always there, ever since I was a stupid baby, right up to when I was a nearly fifty-eight-year-old husband and father. He was one of the very few solid foundations I felt I had in my life. No argument could shake him. No challenge could make him less steadfast. He was a guide wire and a safety net. If I should ever fall, he would catch me and pull me back up before I hit the ground.

And here’s what I learned. The days around the time he died were somehow strangely anesthetised by shock and horror and the need to make arrangements and do things and say things and turn up at places and talk and sympathise and accept sympathy. A year later, there was none of that. There was only the awful loss, writ large in my mind.

Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t throw myself to the floor or offer any histrionics to the world; I carried on as always. I was just so damned sad and lonely. I hadn’t expected any of that. I hadn’t invited it in. It was just there waiting for me.

The day itself was not so bad. The lovely, tiny ceremony in the summer drizzle at the beautiful place by the lake. The seeing of people who shared the loss. The tea in the back garden. All these little things made the day better and somehow easier to bear. It was those days before, in the lead up to the anniversary of the loss, it was those that hit surprisingly hard.

And, in learning this, I learn a little empathy, or at least I hope I do. When Una and Penelope’s anniversaries come around again, I will know a little more about what it is to mourn a sibling that is departed. I hope I will be a little more aware of just what is going on and a little more supportive as we go through it together.

Fifty-nine tomorrow and every day is still very much a school day.

And not all of the lessons are easily learned.

Getting to the Bottom of the Squeak

I had hardly noticed. 

I do that sometimes. I noodle along, not quite seeing or hearing what is right there under my nose. But there was a car journey looming and Trish drew my attention to it.

“I’m sorry but I can’t go on this drive in… that, with ‘that’...”

I got the first that. The first that was the car. She can’t go in the car. Okay. But what was the second ‘that’? The one in the inverted commas. What on earth was ‘that’? I asked her, it seemed the best way.

“What is ‘that’?”

“The awful squeak in the car.”

“Oh, that.”

I had heard it, I guess, but it was just another of the grunts and squeaks that go to make up my everyday thought processes. I took the car for a drive. Now that I had been made aware of it, the squeak was dreadful, all-consuming, horrific. There was no way we could embark on a long drive with that hellish intermittent noise as an accompaniment. I had to get to the bottom of it.

It’s hard to go looking for a squeak that only happens when you’re driving but I gave it my best shot. The squeak was clearly coming from the passenger-side door. It had a ‘rubber on rubber’ quality that meant it was probably the gasket on the side window, or the wing mirror, or the rubber seal around the bonnet, which did look suspiciously askew. I set to work. I pulled and tweaked and oiled and WD40’ed every blessed thing in sight and, after every series of interventions, I drove the car again and still it squeaked. And it was right there. I could practically see this darned squeak. I could practically smell it.

(Did I mention that there will be a moral to this little story? No? Sorry about that. I did intend to forewarn you because I hate it when a moral turns up, unbidden, right at the end. So, moral coming, right at the end, you have been warned.)

The long and the short of it is that I couldn’t stop the squeak. Worse still, I couldn’t even identify where it was coming from exactly. I mean, as I’ve already said, and I apologise for repeating myself, but it was right there.

Suddenly, it was Thursday and the drive was on Sunday. Five hours of Trish and me in the car with the squeak. Untenable. I gave in and rang Dave. Dave fixes my car and keeps it right and roadworthy. He competes in Iron Man competitions all over the place and is the sweetest guy I ever met who could kill me instantly with one slap. It wasn’t that I minded phoning up Dave. It was just that this was a puny, obviously-superficial squeak and my spray can of WD40 and I should have been man enough to sort it out all by ourselves, without having to seek professional help.

Dave was busy so I got Mike on the phone. Mike explained how they were fully booked out for the remainder of that week but would look at it next week. I would normally - always - accept that but I was in some trouble here. I explained the circumstances of the upcoming long drive. I also explained that it was the most obvious, superficial, of squeaks and that real men like Mike and Dave would find and solve it in mere seconds, whereas an imposter fool like myself seemed incapable of doing so. I finally explained that, if Dave couldn’t help me with this, he could perhaps help me with trying to find a new wife as the current one would possibly give up completely after the upcoming vehicular incarceration with both the squeak and me.

Mike said he would have a look.

Mike and Dave found the squeak and they fixed it. Thank you, Mike and Dave, Dave and Mike (I don’t want to risk annoying anyone with my naming-order).

But here’s the thing.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t superficial. It wasn’t something that yours truly could ever have hoped to fix.

It was something called a Bushing, deep in the heart of the machinery around the wheel. I thought Bushing was something you did as a teenager with a bottle of scrumpy but it is also this, apparently. For all the good I was doing, I might as well have been piddling on my wing mirror as spraying it with copious dollops of WD40.

We completed our drive in squeak-free bliss and it was glorious and fine and terribly-terribly sad, all at the same time. For such is the nature of these drives, of which there seem to more and more every year.

And so to the moral of the piece. The one I warned you about earlier. Now that I’ve come to it, I’m not entirely sure what it is. I just know it’s there and it’s worth considering. Let me give it a go.

I think the squeak can be seen as a kind of a metaphor for ourselves and our general wellness. It’s certainly something I’m guilty of. Knowing, in my heart, that the glitch I feel, in my heart or in my head, is a silly superficial thing. Spray something on it and move on. But sometimes, just sometimes, you have to acknowledge that the source of the squeak lies just a little further in, a little deeper down.

Unlike the car squeak, though, it doesn’t always need someone to come and put you up on a hydraulic lift and take you apart, in order to repair you.

Sometimes you just need to know that the hurt lies little deeper than your wing mirror and adjust accordingly.

Sometimes, just knowing that can be adjustment enough.

Falling for All the Cats


Sometimes, if I’m being a bit fanciful, I like to think there are little bits of genuine magic here and there in the world. I’m not a witch or a believer in much of anything, it’s not anything like that. It’s just, sometimes, something will seem so unworldly or amazing that one can at least dream that it might be supernatural.

Cats.

Cats are one such thing.

For a solid fifty-seven years of my life, cats meant not a jot to me. They sidled around the periphery of my consciousness, tails raised in the air, and I didn’t trouble them and they didn’t trouble me. Don’t’ get me wrong, I had a couple of run-ins, good and bad, which are recorded elsewhere in these pages. But mostly, by-and-large, our paths didn’t cross and that was fine with both of us.

Until that darned cat had its babies in my garage. That story is well-documented in the aforementioned pages and I’m not going to rehash it now. The point is that the darned cat became a solid part of our lives and, although she now lives in comparative luxury in the garage, and gets fed many times a day, she does not wish to be in the house and she eschews all attempts at petting (unless it’s from Patricia, who has built a remarkable bond with her).

The darned cat, who is called ‘Puddy,’ is the one who has worked this charm, this debatable piece of real magic in the world. Here’s what she’s managed to do. She had made me interested in her but, more than that, she has made me interested in all of the cats everywhere. After nigh on fifty-seven years as a committed dog person, I seem to have veered wildly over to the cat side. What can this be, if not a little cat magic?

I think it’s been going on a while but it really came into my consciousness when I was on holiday in Spain a few weeks ago. Every time an inevitable moggy came lurking around a dinner table, I was all, ‘Oh, look at him! Isn’t he marvellous?’ and getting hissed-at and threatened at every doomed approach I made to them.

Back home and I now see how all the cats of my town engage me similarly, as do all the cats on Facebook and Twitter. A cat from an adjoining neighbourhood has recently wandered off, according to social media updates, and I scour the hedges and peer over the garden walls in the hope of finding him and bringing him safely home.

I mean, who the fuck am I?

Reading back, I find that I’m being just a little bit disingenuous. I’m painting a picture of how I’m simply fascinated with the wide world of cats and that is the beginning and the end of it. But it’s not. Although it is true that the cat universe seems to have sucked me deep inside, there is another aspect to it all.

I am not just fascinated by all the cats; I am fascinated by our own cat.

Like I said, our own adopted neighbourhood cat, who is also adopted by at least two other families in the neighbourhood, won’t let me pet her or even touch her. But, like a teasing first date, she does everything else. She follows me up the road when I walk home from work, she rolls all over my feet and purrs when I’m seating outside. She even inveigles herself in between my shins while I’m trying to fill her bowl with breakfast. She dozes in the sunshine on the front doorstep and perches on the windowsill and watches telly with us. She plays boldly with all her toys, plainly trying to assassinate each and every one, and she skitters away into the hedge whenever the toys do something unexpected or something deemed to be excessive.

And I love having her around. She has brought me out into my back yard as I have never been before, as we sit and watch the deepening gloom together. I love the ‘cattiness’ of her. The unsolvable mixture of endless guile and incredible stupidity. Every ‘catty’ move she makes or behaviour she exhibits warrants a dash to the Internet to see what it means and whether it is ‘Cat Canon’. And, every time, it is. I can confirm, with delight, that our cat is a ‘catty-cat’ with all the catty attributes one could hope for. She yawns, she arches her back, she turns into a zombie when she gets a couple of birds in her sights, she ‘loafs’, she ‘makes biscuits’ in her daytime bed. All of these things are new and endearing to an old dog-person like me.

I still like dogs, sure I do. It’s just that… well… I don’t know.

What is it about cats? A cat is a model of poise and elegance of movement and a cat that is lucky enough to live her life well presents an enviable balance of sloth, found comfort, and limited adventure. More, though, even if a cat doesn’t share human emotions, it has a great talent for presenting as very sad when it is in sad circumstances, very pissed-off when we feel it has reason to be so, and, crucially, very happy when it is in an apparently happy place. The struggle to keep one’s cat in a constant happy place perhaps reflects our own failed struggle to keep ourselves in that same happy place. If we can’t always manage it for ourselves, we can at least try hard to do it for the cat.

And so, though the cat is clearly self-centred and evidently manipulative, we can take pleasure from giving pussy the quality of life we cannot give to ourselves and thus live a little vicariously through her.

I have to go. One of the neighbours who also feeds our cat is gone away for the weekend so a little extra kibble is required by our beautiful outside lodger. I don’t want to keep her waiting by the bowl. Why should I?

If she’s happy, I’m a little happier myself.