There’s a wonderful poem by a British poet called Stevie Smith called “Not Waving, But Drowning”*, about a man swimming out of his depth and his friends on the shore thinking he was mucking around. The feelings of the man in question are too horrific to think about, but imagine for a moment the feelings those friends they must have gone through, waving to him as he panicked, laughing to each other about how daft their friend is, then realising one by one that they had it wrong. We can all imagine the blood running cold, the hole in the pit of the abdomen which seems to have some kind of gravitational pull for the rest of the body.
That feeling of realisation – specifically realisation of something negative – is something we’ve all experienced. Forgetting someone’s birthday gets you a little hit of it. Remembering you promised to do something or [in the olden days] actually physically be somewhere [remember that??], it’s all part of the same realisation. When the brain catches up, the body stays still and cold and heavy. On varying levels of seriousness, in my mind it’s the “oh…bollocks” [Please feel free to insert your own geographic or linguistic alternative here] moment.
Okay, let’s park that for a moment.
This time of year is always a weird one for me. My mum died nearly seven years ago, and it’s this time of year when the empty space she left in my world is felt most keenly. Actually, perhaps not ‘felt’ the most, but certainly brought to mind the most.
My work anniversary lands on March 8th, and I know it’s then because it was meant to be the 1st but I moved it back a week so I could go back home to go with Mum to a hospital appointment. Then her birthday is (was?) March 13th, and Mother’s Day [sorry to my arch pedant father for not calling it the “correct” title of ‘Mothering Sunday’ but I do not give enough of a shit x] is usually around the same time, then my birthday on March 20th [very nice thanks, my second in lockdown yet I had a lovely time and felt very spoilt], and then my wedding anniversary is April 5th and that’s the day she had her first round of chemo and then after that we’re on to May 4th and that’s the day she died, and the reason I remember that date so clearly is because it’s my wife’s birthday on May the 5th.
I can’t help connecting those dates, any more than you could. Take a moment and say your mum’s birthday out loud. We both know that if someone happened to say that date, your brain would automatically, without you asking it to do anything, pop up and go “that’s my mum’s birthday”.
[While we’re on that, isn’t it funny that you simply cannot help saying that very phrase out loud if someone else happens to mention that they have their birthday on that day? “Really?” you exclaim excitedly, “That’s my mum’s birthday!”. And they always say “really?!” and somehow from that moment on you’ve got a little connection with that person that you didn’t have before.]
So for around 8-10 weeks of every year, there’s a constant little reminder round the corner. Those are the dates and every day they will always be connected to a time in 2014 when my Mum went from a bit ill to very ill to very not here any more in the space of 3 or 4 months.
Okay, let me guide you back to the waves.
When my mum died, a friend of mine who runs another healthcare agency [hi Ed!] called me to “offer his condolences” [what an odd phrase we all use there. It’s the only time, just like the only time we talk about “legal tender” is when we end up with a Scottish tenner], and in our conversation he said that in his experience grief was like swimming in the surf. As you go out from the beach you jump or dive through each wave, but occasionally the waves are too close together and before you’ve got your feet or your breath you’re hit by another, and suddenly you’re under the surf and the bubbles are in your face and BANG you’re panicked and your heart rate shoots up and you just get your breath before the next one and so on.
But if you keep going, the further you go the smaller the surf becomes, until bit by bit you feel calmer and more able to ride the waves as they come. And sometimes a big one will hit you, but you have time to adjust after and so it’s not as overwhelming.
It was almost a “by the way” story, but I found it incredibly helpful in enabling me to believe that what I was in the middle of would get easier. No, wait, that’s not right. Not getting easier, but me getting more used to it and thus better at understanding it and riding the wave. It’s been so helpful that I’ve also shared it with friends who have lost someone [through death or also through break-up – the grief that comes from the end of a relationship is just as real and just as powerful as any other].
I’m talking about grief here, but honestly I think this is true for most things we’re going through. Churchill said:
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
And whilst that may seem a little glib, there’s damn good advice in there too. This too shall pass, and if you keep going out the waves will calm.
But here’s the hack for you.
Because I’ve learnt that at this time of year there are some chunky looking waves building on the horizon, I’ve also learnt to tell people I care about, and who care about me, that they’re coming. Not to excuse any behaviour, but because talking about the waves actually makes them a bit smaller when they arrive.
The people around you, who care about you, would want you to talk to them about your struggles, just as you would listen with love and care and consideration if they were to talk to you. It’s not always easy, but then nor is getting smashed by waves.
As for me, well I’m doing okay thanks. Surrounded by the right kind of people.
Definitely not drowning, but waving.
[*If you want to hear Stevie Smith talking about the poem and then reciting it (and I encourage you to do so), then you can find a recording here. It’s also in Loyle Carner’s recent album which shares its title with her poem, and if you like poetic, socially conscious hip hop then I also encourage you to check that out too, here on Spotify (and available on your music streaming choice too I’m sure) as I seem to be in the encouraging mood.]