from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 11 April 2014

this being alive

part of a beautiful oak-carved information board at Weir Quay, on the Tamar
First hot air balloon of the year glides over Dartmoor. As I cross the moor (alas not in a balloon) the first bluebells are out amongst the primroses, and the moorland pony mares are fat with foal.

Of course Dartmoor's beautiful in the sun, but its drama and atmosphere is suited to today's cloudplay and shadows, with splinters and staves of light breaking through and picking out the shoulders of Ripon Tor, of Hameldown in the distance, of Crockentor as I drive further west. The volcanic outcrop of Brentor, small though it is, is prominent in the distance on the northwest of the moor, a mini-Glastonbury Tor, topped with another St Michael Chapel.

A weasel scuttles across the road and into a bank; and on the margins some of the trees are out – chestnut, hazel – and some, like these elegant birches, on the cusp, their magenta crowns lightly tinged with a ginger.

I'm heading, via the dentist, to see my dad where he now lives in a care home close to the Cornish border.

This is always very poignant, and even as I enjoy seeing him and know how much it means to him I have to brace myself. To have two parents with dementia is heartbreaking (my mum died of Alzheimer's two and a half years ago, and my dad has progressive vascular dementia after a stroke, which brought him down off his beloved Exmoor heights and the wooden cabin that was his part-time hideaway for a wilder life than the soft pastures of the 'lowlands' of Devon and the marital home would allow him). I sometimes fear for my daughter: with three of her four grandparents succumbing to dementia – what are the chances for her parents?

You live – I live – with a twofold awareness in the face of a loved one's dementia. On the one hand, ever-present is my distress at the loss of the dad that I knew: the erudite, eclectic, vigorous, temperamental Celt, passionate and curious about everything, knowledgeable about everything; psychic, telepathic, a dowser and a great civil engineer who worked as consultant for the building of the Tamar Bridge as well as the Severn Bridge; a musician, an artist, a silversmith; a man who would bring home wounded animals and birds that he found on the roads for us to heal – who now remembers almost nothing of his previous life, or even of this morning (in some ways this is a blessing, because the old Dad would have rather been dead than in a care home where, actually, ministered to by several genuinely caring young women who look out for him and flirt with him, too, nonetheless he's doing pretty well). 

On the other hand is the fact that this is simply how it is, and I need to adjust: he is my dad, he's an old man who has become more serene, more relaxed, more amiable and, in fact, easier to love with age and illness, and who, like me, loves to look at every flower and tree and bird and boat on or by the river. To spend two hours with one of his daughters doing just this is what makes him happy now; and what a blessing that is, too, in comparison with the fiery driven hot-tempered impatient younger man whom no one dared cross.

So, knowing what pleasure it will bring him, I take him in the car a couple of miles down to the Tamar – the border with Cornwall, Kernow, and a river with an almost-mystical significance for those of us who come from that country; for country once it was, Brythonic Celtic like Wales and Brittany; neither the Romans nor the Anglo-Saxons penetrated, though the Vikings did a good job of berserking and the Spanish in the Middle Ages lent their dark looks to some of the inhabitants of the Penzance area; my mum, probably, among them. My family comes from forever from the very far west of the land, and my father is almost misty-eyed every time he sees the Tamar, and the major hills of Bodmin Moor, Brown Willy and Roughtor, above and beyond it.

He stares at the pair of shovellers wading in the mud, notices the flight of cormorants, speaks about the collared doves. And he is still my dad, memory or no memory. At times it really hurts: so often I want to share a knotty problem with him, he who was so sharp and insightful, who cared, who could always shed light on a situation, but who simply doesn't have the cognition or memory now to follow a conceptual train of thought, or offer advice. I have to repeat everything twice, and keep it very simple.

And at times I can let go of wanting it all to be different from how it is, and spend two hours strolling in fitful spring sun and talking about the hedge of young elm trees, only just succumbing to the disease that wipes out all our elms; or noticing with him that the oak is just brimming into leaf way before the ash; and he will remember with me the ditty:

If the oak before the ash we will only have a splash;
If the ash before the oak, then we will surely have a soak.

(It was wrong last year.)

This Devon side of the Tamar was once known as the fruit-and-flower-basket of England, earlier in its spring flowers and soft fruits than anywhere other than the Scilly Isles and the West of Cornwall, with the little local branch railway line shipping them into Plymouth and then to Covent Garden in the early hours. Some of the fields bordering the lanes are still full of daffodils, and everywhere there are escapees of every imaginable cultivar, so that the whole drive down to the Tamar is lit with lemon-yellows, butter-yellows, chrome yellows, canary yellows.

We wander down past the bench where, when my parents first moved down to the care home near where I was then living once neither of them was able to look after themselves, let alone each other, my mum, who couldn't walk by then, and I would sit together while my father would stroll along looking at the tide and the craft on the water. In the wild tangle of weeds by the bench someone has planted a great shout of yellow and red tulips; looking closer, I see a tiny metal plaque: MUM – MISS YOU. It catches my breath. We are not alone in our grief, but it's easy sometimes to forget that.

There's a new big information board gone up by the river, and we read it aloud to each other. Cornwall had three traditional trades: farming, fishing, and mining (now of course number 1 is tourism). My family has all three trades in its ancestry, and the board here is about the lead and silver mines that made this area very rich not so long ago. We're standing on the site of the South Tamar Consols, and my father remembers a spate of names of mines: Wheal Betsy, Gwennap Pit, South Crofty, Geevor, Wheal Josiah... (Tin mining began in Cornwall, as on Dartmoor, in the early Bronze Age, and by-the-by my great-grandfather was official dowser for the mines as well as for other things in West Penwith.)

When I remind him, my dad can just about recall a time a few years ago when I first brought him down here, and we found some rock that neither of us recognised. It was opaque and a beautiful clear green. I read now that the rock (presumably in which silver and/or lead occur/s) is fluorite, and that makes sense. We head down for the foreshore, and poke around a bit, happy as children when we find pieces with colour in them; in this case both a kind of blue and the green.

Two hours have gone, and what have we done? Strolled about a hundred yards, talked about the huge little matter of the various species that share our planet and the bedrock beneath our feet, listened to the water, and taken great pleasure in each others' company. Worth a basket of silver ore. I am ashamed that it was such a struggle to find these two hours (plus admittedly  a more-than-two-hour drive in a very complicated and stressful week), and reminded how little it takes to make one old man happy.


  1. What a touching story, Roselle! I can relate as my father and mother in law both had Alzheimers. Can also relate to the great effort it seems to require to make time for something worthwhile, and then wishing I'd made more time more often.

  2. What a lovely declaration of love to both your parents, Roselle, all embedded in their ground of being and with a beautiful capture of the shifts that happen in all our lives! Your dad does not need to remember what happened in his life – he carries it with him, it’s become part of his present self for us to marvel at. Advice is still there and we simply have to learn to read and understand it with all our grief of loss of what there once was.
    And: There are memorable and worthwhile moments in whatever we do, wherever we are, if we do it whole-heartedly, and it is always mutual – it reminded me of so many hours I spent with my mum and dad, each of us remembering in a different way unconsciously bearable for us!
    Thank you for this!
    With love Bxx

  3. Roselle, I really identify this moving account, having had a similar relationship with my dad in the 10 years between mum's death and his own.
    Those last precious months were just as you describe; and yes, it took so little to make my old man happy. That made up for so much that was painful. You couldn't do anything different, of course, but still you are to be admired for anything you do for him – for both of you. It's not that easy, is it, at times. Bloody hard, in fact.
    Having been to Cotehele recently and been enchanted, I can see you there, deep in the valley by the Tamar.
    Safe journey north,
    Love, Miriam

  4. David, Bea, Miriam - I so much appreciate these touching responses. Thank you.

    I have to say I was ambivalent about posting it - something to do with respecting my dad's privacy - but we all know writers make everything grist to their mill. I guess I was (also) making a wider point about how, despite grief, we keep on - and it's in the little things, in the end, that joy resides.

    And writing can be a way of processing it, can't it?

    And many of us have this experience in relation to a parent: it's worth remembering that we share, collectively, in all this, and can support each other in our humanness.

    With love to you all.

  5. I remember those difficult and special times with my mum. She was too afraid to leave the care home for a while and only lost that fear in the last weeks of her life. I brought her a white pebble from Bridlington beach. She felt it over and over again; it was still cold from the sea; she smelt it. And yes, with no worries she was gentle. I was lucky that she recognised all 3 of her 'girls' to the day before she died. She'd no speech; only the most beautiful smile of recognition.
    So glad you shared your thoughts with us, once again.
    love, Marg

  6. Comments like yours are special, Marg; as are moments like the white-sea-pebble one you describe so poignantly. Thank you.

    With love - Rx


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