A tribute to my parents (from the Belfast Telegraph)

Those who follow me on social media may be aware that my parents both died at the end of last month within a few days of each other. Soon after, I agreed to be interviewed by a journalist from the newspaper Mum read for many years – the Belfast Telegraph – as part of a series they are running paying tribute to local people whose deaths were attributed to Covid 19. I would like to thank Claire McNeilly for her respectful handling of this interview at a time when I was still processing what had happened. I reproduce below the article she wrote – in case it is taken down, as I wish to keep it. A link to the original on-line version may be found here.

(It did feel a little strange to discover we had made the front page of the print edition, pictured above)

 

Coronavirus: ‘Mum and dad were old but stayed home and didn’t go out… we never expected this to happen’

Daughter of Belfast couple who died within days of each other tells of her deep shock


Jackie Law on her wedding day with husband Rick and her parents Norman and Winnie Wilkinson

By Claire McNeilly

May 04 2020 09:30 PM

 

When Jackie Law visited her parents in January, she could not have imagined it would be the last time she would see them.

Norman Wilkinson (91) and his 92-year-old wife Winnie, who lived in the Four Winds area of Belfast, died within a few days of each other after contracting Covid-19.

Norman passed away on April 25 just hours after being admitted to hospital.

His wife of nearly 69 years clung to life for another five days but died last Thursday, April 30.

Both were cremated, with Winnie’s service taking place yesterday morning.

And heartbroken daughter Jackie (55), who lives in Wiltshire, was left to grieve at home.

“We couldn’t get over [to Belfast] because no one could travel so there was no funeral service as such,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.

“My dad was cremated on Thursday, while my mum’s cremation was yesterday morning.”

Mrs Law, a book reviewer, told how her older sister Elaine Stead (58), who lives in Belfast, broke the news about her dad’s death before she even knew that he had fallen ill.

“Obviously they were both quite old and they had underlying health issues but it all happened so quickly,” she said.

“They were in their house, they didn’t go out. We certainly didn’t expect this to happen.”


Norman and Winnie as a young couple

Jackie, who has three children – Robyn (23), Ben (21) and Patrick (19) – with her IT consultant husband Rick (57), said her elderly parents were respecting the lockdown restrictions and “had carers going in regularly”.

She also reflected on how the speed of their demise shocked both her and her siblings – Andrew (67), who is retired and lives in Australia with his wife Colleen, and mum-of-three Elaine, who has twin sons Gavin and Jonny (29) and a daughter Nikki (23), with husband Gary.

“They took ill suddenly at home; they became very, very sleepy,” she said.

“My sister went up the weekend before my dad died. She was very concerned.

“But, of course, with the lockdown you’re not allowed to spend time with people so it was the carers who were going in and looking after them.

“And once they realised dad wasn’t well, they called the ambulance.”

Jackie said that after the carers informed her sister “that my dad and my mum had been taken to hospital” Elaine contacted her as soon as possible to let her know what was happening.

“Dad went into hospital around 5pm on Saturday and he was dead three hours later so by the time my sister got in touch with me he had already passed away,” she said.

“She told me at that time that mum was also ill so from then onwards we were in touch regularly but there was nothing anybody could do.”

Jackie told how her parents came to be taken to hospital on the same day.

“My dad started having trouble breathing on Saturday April 25 – the day he died – and the ambulance was called,” she said.

“But after the paramedics examined dad they were concerned for mum as well so they both went in at that time.”

She added: “My dad lost consciousness in the ambulance and he died a few hours later, whereas my mum was in hospital for a few days and was being treated before she passed away.”


From right, Jackie and Rick with sons Ben and Patrick and daughter Robyn

Unfortunately, Jackie’s Belfast-based sister did not see their mother in hospital either because she was never well enough to receive visitors.

“Mum was unconscious for most of the time, even though she was in hospital getting treatment,” she said.

“My sister was talking to the doctors regularly over the telephone.

“Mum came round a couple of times but never enough to be coherent and never long enough for my sister to be called to go in and see her.”

Speaking to this newspaper just hours after her mother’s cremation, an emotional Jackie said she was “still in shock”.

“We’re in limbo; everything has sort of stopped,” she said.

“I don’t know how long the grieving process is going to take.

“With not being able to go over and not being able to hold any sort of memorial for them at this stage, it’s all a bit surreal.”

Jackie, who has lived in England since 1988, revealed that she used to write letters to her parents and she said it would be difficult not being able to continue that ritual.

“I used to write to my parents a lot,” she said.

“They didn’t have a computer; they weren’t comfortable with technology, so ever since I left Northern Ireland I’ve written them letters.”

She added: “When little things happen I’m still storing them in my head, thinking that ‘I must put that in a letter because mum will be interested’ and it’s strange to think that those letters will never get written now.”

At least, as she revealed, she still has a collection of all the letters they sent her.

“I’ve got a drawer of bits and pieces that they’ve sent me over the years,” she said.

Her last visit to Belfast in January with husband Rick will always remain a source of great comfort for Jackie.

“We spent mum’s birthday with her on January 26,” she said.

“We bought her flowers and helped celebrate with her. We all sat around and chatted as that was what she wanted to do.

“I’m just so glad we went over, given the lockdown and everything, it was probably very well timed.

“I would’ve felt terrible if I hadn’t seen them so recently.”

She also revealed how her children paid their grandparents a visit the month before, in December 2019, because “they knew they were going to be tied up with exams in January”.

When it comes to memories of her beloved mother, Jackie, a short story writer, said that she will always think about her green fingers.

“She loved her garden,” she said.

“When I think back to what she was like, I think about her in the garden.

“She loved to bring colours to her garden with flowers and she liked to keep it tidy.”

Jackie also told how her parents enjoyed their walks and she said that they “kept doing that even when they could only walk up the road and down again”.

“She loved to visit Botanic Gardens in Belfast,” she added.

“In their younger years, once my dad retired, they loved their holidays and they always spoke fondly of them.”

She added that her mum, who trained as a seamstress, “had to leave school at 14 but when she had her children she was able to work as a dressmaker from home”.

Jackie said her father worked for the Northern Ireland Electricity Service from “after he left school until he retired”.

Describing him as a “quiet man” she said he “enjoyed classical music, reading books and the theatre”, adding that he had a great fondness for chess.

“He played a lot of chess and he played the piano,” she said.

“The soundtrack to my childhood is my dad playing classical music on the piano.

“One thing I find… whenever I hear classical music I know the piece because I’ve heard my dad play it but I don’t know what it is. The house was always full of his music.”

Even in sadness, Jackie, who has been a stay-at-home mum since the birth of her first child, said her parents’ pride in their grandchildren will endure.

“They lived long lives and they took great pride in their six grandchildren,” she said.

“Mum was always talking about how pleased she was that they all got to university.

“She was one of nine children and most of them went to work in factories as soon as they left school.

“They’ve done more with their lives but that’s initially where they started out.”

Jackie added: “Mum was so proud that all six of her grandchildren got to university.”

 

Belfast Telegraph

 

 

Following the publication of this tribute I was approached by local television (UTV) and radio (The Nolan Show) requesting interviews. I chose to decline these invitations. 

 

Random Musings: The bad daughter

“When your mother asks, “Do you want a piece of advice?” it’s a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.” (Erma Bombeck)

The UK is currently basking in a mini heatwave. It is glorious. All around me women are casting aside their winter boots and snuggly jumpers in favour of linens, colour and shades. I have cast aside my cardigan. Being overweight I do not have the luxury of selecting from the new spring ranges as they are rarely made to sit well on someone of my bulk. Frustrating though this may be I dare not complain. After all, I only have myself to blame for my excess weight.

Next week I will be flying to Belfast to visit my parents. I am not looking forward to it. My mother has been unwell and I have not been across the water since the summer of 2012. I know that a visit is long overdue but I have been putting it off, mainly because of my weight.

The last time I visited I was a UK size 12. Now I am a UK size 16. It took me nine months of severe food limitation and strenuous, daily exercise to get to the size I was then. When my mother saw me she was so happy, delighted that I had become the shape that she thinks a woman should be. She congratulated me on my weight loss with more enthusiasm than she had offered when I graduated from university or gave birth to my babies. She reflected on how pleased my husband must be to have a slim wife. My husband knows me better than to comment on my weight. I am what is inside.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy being slim. It was a revelation to be able to go into clothes shops and easily buy almost any outfit. I had so much more energy, understandable as I no longer had to carry around a 30lb sack of fat wherever I went. The problem was that I could not maintain that weight. As soon as I started to eat more normally or neglected to spend two hours a day at the gym the weight crept back on, slowly but incessantly.

Yes, I now eat too much of the wrong sorts of food but in the early stages of my weight gain I was simply eating what was recommended rather than subsisting on one small meal a day. With a little self discipline I could be less fat but it takes a huge amount of effort to be slim. It takes over my life.

I feel sad that I avoid my mother. I know that she loves me but looks have always been important to her, much more so than they have ever been to me. She wants only what is best for me but as a means to this tries to mould me in her image. I resist as I have always done. She believes that I am being difficult, feels hurt that I will not agree with her point of view. It is easier to stay away.

The easy option is not always the right one. My mother is elderly and has many health problems. It is right that I, as her daughter, make the effort to visit. She is, however, also a worrier. I wonder if seeing me as I am now will trigger ongoing concerns that negate any good that my visit may do. I wonder if her well meaning comments, the inevitable but unasked for advice, will trigger my own anxiety.

In the middle of all this is my sister who, as the only sibling now living nearby, shoulders the burden of care for our parents. She is good to them in a way that I could never be. I am not a good daughter but this does not make me a bad person, just not the person that the family I grew up with wants me to be.

Families are tricky because we care so much; the hurt we can inflict cuts deeper. If I could easily lose the weight for my mother then I would do so. Perhaps this is why I have stayed away for so long. Perhaps I wished to give her that gift and have been avoiding facing up to her reaction to my failure.

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Growing up

“When I grow up I want to be…”

Do you feel grown up? Despite having clocked up many achievements over the course of my life thus far (acquired a degree, moved away from the parental home, built a career, bought a house, married, given birth to three kids) I still feel much the same inside as I did before I donned this cloak of adulthood. Perhaps I am more confident in myself, a tad cynical at times, mentally battered especially by my teenage offspring; but I still have the same questioning, insecure mind that I struggled with as a teenager.

As the years have passed I have developed as a person, learned more about our constantly evolving world, recognised that I will never know it all or be entirely right. Whilst I rail against injustices and in my own small way campaign for more awareness of issues that matter to me, I can accept the shades of grey and need for compromise. When I suffer the despondency that dogged my younger self I remember that moods pass. I have reached a point of self acceptance where the world may take me or leave me, no hard feelings either way.

But have I grown up? What exactly does that mean?

This last week I have looked in the face of a new challenge, the prospect of an event that was always going to come but which I have not yet had to face – the death of a parent.

Lest you feel the need to reach out and express condolences let me assure you that my own elderly parents remain upon this earth. The scare came from my husband’s side, involving ambulances, an emergency operation and a vigil through the night as we waited for news. Thankfully it was good.

Events such as this pull sharply into focus what is to come, if not today then in time. At an unknown point in the future the ties that bind me to my wider family will be weakened, the imperative to sustain links will be gone.

My parents have been an anchor throughout my life. At times I have found the chain that connects us frustrating and fought to lengthen it but I have benefited from the security that their love and support has provided. We now live in different countries so they are not a part of my everyday but they are undoubtedly the secure foundation on which my life has been built.

When my younger self was longing for independence, for the freedom to be myself and not the daughter my parents desired, I did not foresee that our connection, their demands and my guilt at not being as they wished would remain despite increasing age and geographical distance.

When others try to mould me I feel treated like a child. Is it possible to feel grown up without autonomy? I may rail against my parents’ expectations but wonder if, when the time comes and I am cast adrift, I will choose any change of direction.

Random Musings: Family and other pressures

My most recent read, Diary of a Diva, was deliberately chosen because it sounded very different to the types of book that I would normally pick. I wanted to stretch myself beyond the zone that I knew I would feel comfortable with. It has certainly given me plenty of food for thought, and in directions that I did not expect.

The protagonist in this non fiction book is very close to her family. She talks of daily phone calls and regular, large gatherings. Although she does not have any children of her own, indeed there was a suggestion that she has banned children from her home, she regularly shares the minutiae of her life with those she grew up with, her parents and siblings. To choose to do this is beyond my comprehension.

Within my circle of family and friends there are those who will talk regularly about anything and everything with their wider families. I know that this happens, I just do not know why. To me, my family is my husband and my three children. I feel blessed to still have living parents and siblings, in laws and other family relations, but they are each fed only occasional, edited highlights of my life. I was raised to fear ‘letting the family down’ with my behaviour. I learned young to hide what may be frowned upon, sharing detail equated to bringing shame on those I cared for.

It has been said that the most important thing that parents can teach their children is how to get along without them. I have always known beyond a measure of a doubt that I am loved by both of my parents. They have been there for me throughout my life, whatever I have chosen to do, actively supporting me in thought and deed. Since I moved out of their home though, I have never felt the need to involve them in the detail. I have no wish to answer to their whims, to be the person that they have tried to mould me to become. I will always keep in touch but I will live my life as I choose.

I may not understand why others regularly involve their parents in their lives, but that is their choice. What irritates is when they suggest that I should do as they do. I have chosen independence over codependence. I do not attempt to influence their desire to share, and resent any suggestion that I should follow suit.

None of this is an indication of past treatment or love, I do not measure love in such terms, neither do I buy into the idea that children owe their parents anything. I would like to think that my children will choose to spend some time with me when they are adults, but I accept that, should they marry and have children of their own, then their priorities will change. It is my view that their new family’s needs should always take precedence over mine.

I wonder if the old in law jokes emerged because adult children did not feel able to cut the cord. Then I wonder if needs are simply different. I am comfortable with a certain distance, but that is no reason why such a state of affairs may suit others. Just as I do not wish to be berated for my choices, so I must take care not to judge others based on my personal, core beliefs. Let us celebrate difference, live and let live.

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