BFF

It was International Friendship Day yesterday, so it was  a day for me to reflect on the importance of my friends  in my life and to be grateful for them all. I am very fortunate to have five best friends , one for each significant stage of my life. But where I am very lucky is that I am still close to my childhood and University best friends, through letters and emails, even though we do not see each other often enough. But it is true what they say, even though we rarely see each other,when we do, we pick up where we left off and still have lots to say. For example, when I went to Texas a few years ago to stay with my first best friend, we both got up early and sat drinking tea chatting away as if none of the intervening years, since we were five, had happened.

But I am delighted that best friends 4 and 5 live pretty locally so I can see much more of them. I think the secret to our friendships are not that we are similar in personalities, as in many ways we are very different, but we still share many of the same values : family matters, kindness and honesty are important to us all and we can all talk loads but listen well too.

It is not just my best friends that I am thankful for, but also the wide circle of friends that I have made along the way. In particular, I have made good friends with several of the Mums at Joshua’s special schools as we have an automatic bond through our shared parenting experience. We support each other when we are having tough times with our children and several have been kind and supportive since Mum was ill. I used to think that the monthly parent Coffee Mornings were for me to support other parents and to encourage more links and friendships, but more recently I have come to appreciate the friendships for me too, which of course is what it is all about: the most successful, long lasting friendships in my life are two -way streets, those where one party makes all the effort tend not to last I have found as resentment eventually sets in and the relationship is not sustained.

I  used to think that it was harder to make new friends when you were older, as you have so many more opportunities when you are young. But Mum proved that was not the case, as she found a ‘gang’ of ladies who she loved and socialised with, after Dad died. In the final five years of her life, she had a better social life than she had ever had with meals out, music concerts and trips to the cinema being a weekly occurrence. Prior to that, she had her three sisters as friends when she was growing up and then she had Dad and her family to keep her busy after university. But she maintained college friendships for 60 years+,and work colleagues once she retired, which is quite an achievement and her funeral showed just how many friends she had. So perhaps I learned my ‘keeping in touch’ skill from Mum. And I too have found that even in my 50s that I am still making new friends and I appreciate their value in my life.

So a day late, I say thank you to all of my special friends, both the new and the old ones.

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Running Before walking

Yesterday morning I did something that I knew rationally that I was not really ready to do and it backfired badly on me: I was thinking about my eulogy for Mum and I remembered that I had written a blog on International Woman’s Day as to what I admired about Mum. So I traced it and re-read it and figured that I could adapt it for her funeral. Then I thought that I would check how Mum had reacted to it at the time, so, and here is my mistake, at 4 am , I opened up my folder of emails from Mum in March. I found the one that I wanted easily by the date and in her modest, calm way she had simply said that it was lovely but it had made her cry. But instead of stopping there, I began to read more of her emails . They were full of love but full of progress reports on her appointments with doctors and a commentary on the swelling in her legs and ankles. Now with hindsight, I realise how ill she was, but at the time we took it in our stride, taking our lead from Mum who never liked a big fuss. I began to weep uncontrollably and 4 am is a lonely time of day, with no real distractions from your own thoughts.

It was probably part of the grieving process that I needed to go through, but it took me by surprise and I could not stem the tears or the sadness. My best friend woke at 5 and I invited myself around for a cup of tea and a chat. She advised that we both had a bit more sleep, which was good advice, and so I went back to bed for an hour and then set off to her house at 6.30 am. We drank tea in her garden and talked , which was a perfect antidote as I needed to focus on something and someone else to bring me out of my gloom. I left an hour later, in a much happier place, and both boys were still asleep when I arrived home, none the wiser.

Thereafter, I had a lazy Sunday : a morning bath, put some washing on and went to Tesco with Joshua, which was both fun and productive. I made us lunch and then really needed a nap afterwards, to re-charge my batteries. I nodded off on the settee but was rudely awoken, after not very long, by Joshua and then by Ruby, both trying to sit on me. So I abandoned that siesta plan, and started to make spaghetti bolognaise. Joshua was clearly stir crazy by this time as he was banging doors all over the house and creating mayhem generally. So we took him to Donalds, which he always loves, for his end of holiday treat. He ate his chicken and chips while waving to all of the other customers. On the way home, we went for a brief walk on the empty beach to blow the cobwebs away. We all ran to the shore and Joshua enjoyed the freedom of running whichever way he wanted and he lay down in the sand a couple of times. The long sandy beach had restorative properties for us all and as all the holidaymakers had gone home, we had it virtually to ourselves. It was a perfect end to the day, another emotional day .

Just Be There

I saw a brilliant cartoon yesterday to sum up how I would like friends and family to support me during one of my lows : it showed two cartoon characters and one asks the other if it is OK? The sad looking one says ‘not really’, so the friend asks ‘do you want to talk about it?’ and again gets the same reply , ‘Not really’. So the friend does not push it, does not leave it there, but sits back to back to its friend, just to know someone is there. When you are depressed or anxious, you cannot always talk about how bad you are feeling – I know that I get fed up of hearing the sound of my own voice on occasions, as the negative voice never shuts up in your mind, being asleep is the only respite from that voice. But there can be real comfort in knowing that someone has your back, literally in the case of this cartoon.

Friends have asked me in the past, how can I help you when you are low? That is exactly what I have asked for, just be there, quietly and show me that you care. That might be by dropping me a note or text, that does not require a response, but that simply shows that they are there and that they care. Poor mental health is a very isolating experience and so, while you do not wish to be crowded or put under any additional pressure, it is helpful to not feel alone, even if it is impossible to find the energy, or words, to respond with a text or letter back.

I have written frequently about how isolating it feels to have a child with special needs, then if you add in the isolation of having poor mental health, then many suffering parents struggle to get dressed and get out of their own door, so that becomes a vicious circle. Even when I am depressed, I have been able to force myself to get up, get Joshua off to school and get myself  to work. That has not always been easy, when going back to bed has felt like a much more appealing option, but it has, in the long run, been my salvation. It is exhausting carrying on as normal when you are suffering from poor mental health, as it takes real effort to smile and ‘be normal’ and concentration to be able to  be productive. I am able to function at work when I am low, but I need more time and reassurance from colleagues that I am doing things well enough, as I am so self-critical, full of doubts and indecisive. I have been told that my work does not suffer when I am low, but of course, I do not believe that.

So if you have a friend who is struggling with anxiety or depression, and might be pushing you away by turning down your invitations to meet for a coffee, I would urge you not to give up on them. Perhaps you could try a different approach, send them regular texts just telling them your news or any funny stories to distract them or perhaps, rather than trying to get them to come out with you, maybe turn up on their doorstep with their favourite cake, to either eat with them or potentially leave for them to eat when they are ready. While they may not be able to respond to your extended arm of friendship at the time, they will appreciate it and, in my experience, it will help them along their journey of recovery. If you back away and withdraw from them, then you are simply confirming what they already believe about themselves, which is that they are not worth knowing or being friends with, so be persistent, but be patient too, and in time, your friend will come back to you.

 

Friendship

I have already written to tell you what my parents and sister mean to me and the important roles that they play in my life, well I now want to tell you how much my friends mean to me, by telling you the things that they have done to support me, just in the last few days:

  • Last week was a difficult week in terms of juggling work, motherhood and visiting my Mum in hospital. I stayed away for two nights and got back home on Friday evening. I unpacked the car and then saw that two parcels were waiting in an outbuilding as they were too large for the postbox. One of them was addressed to me and had come from my first best friend in Texas. I ripped the packaging off to find the most beautiful, vibrant patchwork quilt that she had made for me as a gift. One side is turquoise – my favourite colour – with large orange flowers on it but the other is made up of so many different bright fabrics, some floral prints, some with bambi on from our childhood and some busy bees. It is such a work of art that I was reluctant to use it, for fear that it might get dirty or ruined, as it looks too perfect to use. I emailed immediately to thank her, and she told me that it was a ‘working quilt’ that is machine washable too and that it was to be enjoyed, like my baking she said. I was so touched by the time that she devoted to creating my present, with me in mind. She told me that she makes quilts to thank important people in her life, in the same way that I bake cakes, as my original quilt had been given away to her cancer doctor as a thank you, which of course I understand totally as I take the same approach. However a cake takes an hour or so of my time, making a patchwork quilt is a much bigger undertaking.
  • Last night I had been sad as I came away from hospital as Mum was not as well as I had hoped and I had told my best friend . She had immediately offered to come over to my Mum’s house – all of 100+ miles away – to stay with me, but I assured her that I would be OK.  She then gave me practical help for the first 45 minutes of getting to Mum’s house, offering me IT support in trying to make emails work again on Mum’s iPad. She patiently tolerated my technical incompetence and talked me through each step that I needed to do. So she kindly gave me the gift of time and, as a result, we seem to have fixed the problem together and also , it usefully distracted me from the way that I had felt on the drive home, as I had a practical task to focus on.
  • A Mum from school had shared my recent blog about school nurses on social media, saying that her ” lovely friend posts this blog everyday..” and I was touched by her kind words and her support of me, my blog and the school cause. When I thanked her, she described me as a “warrior” who has taken on battles for Joshua, myself and now for Mum, which was a lovely thing to say and gave me strength, when I was doubting my own abilities. Many Facebook friends , even if they do not know Mum ,have been asking after her on a daily basis, which is really thoughtful. Some friends asked after her when she first went to hospital three weeks ago, but there are many who continue to support and ask about her progress even now, which gives me a warm glow.
  • Yorkshire Grandma is a friend of the family and once again, she has stepped into the gap this morning. I expected to set off home early enough to be there when Joshua wakes up and to get him ready for school, as my husband needs to leave at 7.15 for work. However, even as I was driving over yesterday, Yorkshire Grandma let me know that she was available in the morning, if things did not go to plan – how well she knows me! So that meant I was able to offer to come back to hospital in the morning, without checking first about Joshua’s care, which was invaluable. These last three weeks she has been a rock that has enabled me to focus on Mum, knowing that Joshua was in safe hands and would be happy too.

So as you can see, I am blessed with very kind, thoughtful friends – as is my Mum judging by her get well soon cards and the people eager to visit her!- and they are invaluable when life takes a difficult turn, as I am not sure where I would be without their support. Thank you my friends, you know who you are xx

Perfect Afternoon Tea with Friends

I have explained before that I am fortunate enough to have five best friends, all from different stages of my life. I am in regular contact with four of them and I wrote to my high school friend this weekend in an attempt to re-connect, as we have not been in touch for some time. I exchange emails several times a week with the two best friends who now live in America, which I love. Joshua and I are going to the theatre, to see another musical, with best friend number 5 next weekend, so that will be fun and yesterday, we went out for afternoon tea with best friend number 4 and her daughter, who was also 18 this year. I had not seen either of them for some time, although we text each other regularly, so that was a treat. I love how you can be yourself with your best friends, you do not have to be on your best behaviour and they really know you well enough to know what you are thinking. The only disagreement we had yesterday was over who was going to pay for the treat.

We picked them up from their flat and walked to the hotel , where our table was booked. We had taken Joshua’s wheelchair with us but he refused to sit in it and he walked through the city arm in arm with his Dad, as I pushed an empty chair. The table was set out beautifully with mis-matched bone china cups, saucers and teapots. We were brought delicate pastries to start with, then a 3 -tiered cake stand displaying selection of sandwiches on the bottom, then  a scone with jam and cream and finally some mini desserts on the top layer. It both looked and tasted wonderful and we had lots of laughs while enjoying the treat . Joshua ate some egg sandwich and drank his orange juice. He enjoyed being with us and waving at the waitresses but this type of food was not his choice of outing, and unusually he even rejected the cake. So much so that my friend suggested that we detour on the way back to take him to Donalds for his choice of treat. At first I resisted as he had been offered plenty of food options that he had rejected, but of course I relented and so we left the hotel, four of us full to bursting and swearing that we would never eat again, and we all sat and watched him consume chicken and chips, with real gusto! I am beginning to fear that this is the only dining out that Joshua will tolerate these days! Let’s hope that it is just a phase.

It was a lovely afternoon out and we did not need to eat anything more when we got back home. Joshua went upstairs and he kept on handing me his pyjamas once I had removed his boots and splints. So I changed him into his PJs, expecting him to come back downstairs in them, but he climbed into bed, pulled the duvet up around his chin and pointed at his CD player, indicating that he wanted his bedtime audio book. Before 8pm, he was fast asleep ,so that walk across the city must have worn him out, and he stayed there all night. I too went to bed a couple of hours later, with a smile on my face.

 

Friendships

Joshua is both loving and lovable, but he has not really made real friends in the way that I understand friendship. In both his school and respite settings, he tends to interact more with the staff than with the children and he is very affectionate towards them. Yet he is now more aware of his peers, than he was as a small child, if mainly to admire a pretty girl with long straight hair! That being said, he has often had in his life, a female peer who has taken care of him. This relationship began when he went to a toddler group, and there was a girl there who would look out for him, chub his rosy cheeks and would fetch things for him. She was the first child that he ever spontaneously spoke to  : we entered toddler group after lunch, and I had not wiped his mouth after his spaghetti hoops on toast. He burst into the village hall and ran up to his confidante and said ” Look at my face!” and I wept with joy, it was an amazing moment that I will never forget.

Then at primary school, he also attracted a different, equally petite friend, and the difference in their sizes was dramatic. She would hang out with him at school and she came to our house for tea and one time we even took her to the cinema with us. But that friendship ended when Joshua left mainstream primary school to move to his first special school. There I made friends with several Mums, so Joshua met up with peers outside of school, but he did not attract a protecter there. But he did at his second, and current, special school. Again another pretty girl began to look out for him and she was especially attentive when he had seizures in class and he would thank her with one of his high 5s or a smile. At one stage, I kept hearing that Joshua had a new friend, that they would spend time sitting together at school and they were treated as a pair. However, when I saw them together, I knew that it was a one-sided friendship, that the boy was forever inviting Joshua to give him a high-5, but it was not reciprocated and Joshua would hardly engage with this child. They were both in wheelchairs together at the time, but beyond that, they had nothing more in common. In my experience, the best friendships are balanced, there is no one giver or taker, but it is equal.

Perhaps he has made friends along the way and I should not judge his relationships by my standards. I want to be able to confide in and talk to my friends, but this is not going to be what he is looking for. I enjoy reminiscing and sharing with my friends and buying them surprise gifts,  but this will be beyond Joshua. He is affectionate and generous with his hugs, but more with adult care-givers than with his peers, he must sense that such behaviour might not be welcome there. I hope in his adult life that Joshua will go on to develop friendships so that he has some support outside of his family too. My friendships are so important to me and I do not want him to miss out on the love and support that a best friend can bring to your life.

Mothers & Toddlers

Over 18 years ago, five pregnant mothers-to-be attended antenatal classes together and they became friends. The first baby of the group was born on Boxing Day 2000 and Joshua was the last to arrive in March 2001. We got together every week during our maternity leaves, first at each others ‘houses and as the babies became toddlers, we used to meet up at a local soft play area and at cafes. We went to baby Massage together. Most of us were working part time and most of us had Thursdays off and that used to be a day when we would meet up together.

Four of the five ‘babies’ started at the same nursery school ,then going  onto the same primary school and often the Mums would meet on Thursdays still, but for a coffee or lunch on a Thursday, timed around school pick up. It was a strong friendship group, which had a shared experience of a new addition to the family around the same time. We would see each other at the school gates in the mornings and again at pick up time and so we knew what was going on in each other’s lives.

When Joshua was 7 years old, we began the process to move him to a Special School and he left his childhood buddies behind as they continued in mainstream primary and then moved onto the local High School. I still see the Mums, but now much less frequently and Joshua rarely sees the other ‘babies’. Clearly Joshua has taken a different path, but last night was a great night, a reunion, as we were all three invited to an 18th birthday party in a local cafe:

As soon as we arrived, Joshua plonked himself down on a leather settee near the door. The other three ‘babies’ who were present joined him there and we re-created a photograph that we have of a row of babies on a settee. They are now all such good looking young adults and it is a great photograph to have. Joshua was sleepy or shy at first, as he sat on the settee, but he soon joined in. He loves long hair and at his party everyone kindly allowed him to mingle amongst the guests, stroking the ladies hair or even patting a few men on the head. He really enjoyed being out on a Saturday evening and once he got going, refused to even sit down, but wandered up and down the cafe waving and pointing at people. It was good to be amongst friends, where I did not feel awkward, where I felt that I needed to control him and insist on him sitting in a corner. It was such a stark contrast from the previous Saturday when we were in a hospital ward, that we all had great fun.

The timing of the party suited us well, we arrived after 5pm and we stayed for almost four hours – I had not expected him to last that long! It was early in the evening as the birthday girl was heading out with her peers to town for more drinking and dancing, as 18 years old do, with the taxi booked to bring her home at 1.30am! But what a nice idea that family and family friends could celebrate with her first, before she headed out into the night, a legal adult. On the brink of her A Levels in the summer and then a planning to study more at university, I wish her all the very best for the future and I thank her and her family for thinking to include us in the celebrations.