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…my little barn owl died during the early hours of Thursday morning. I am so sad and sorry I didn’t manage to save him.
I have met, been encouraged and selflessly helped by some remarkable people in the last few days.
My vets, Penbode in Holsworthy; the lovely women I met in the waiting room there who took the trouble to phone me with the number of a friend of hers with a supply of frozen mice.
Honeybrook Farm, excellent suppliers of frozen day-old chicks, who didn’t want me to fork out a mass of money for hundreds of unwanted chicks, and suggested someone fairly local they thought could help.
That very person…who, with extraordinary generosity, sent up to me via one of his employees, a free box of chicks and an offer to help in whatever way he could.
Last but not least the Devon Barn Owl Trust.
Thank you all.
‘Harrumph! Oh yes!’ With an expansive stretch and a shove of his chair, he grins over at me.
I look up from my book, stop munching on my toast and marmalade and stare questioningly across the table ‘What?’
‘Oh nothing. Just the editorial in the New Scientist…you should read it.’ He gets up, a maddening little smile playing over his face.
‘Hey what? You can’t just walk out. It’s obviously something good otherwise you wouldn’t be goading me!’
‘Sorry! Loads of work to do. History to make, hoverflies to catch, hedges to write about and moths to think about….Gotta go. Read it.’
‘No! What is it?’
‘Read it…must dash…’
‘Okay, okay. So what do you think about engineering animals, farm livestock, so they don’t feel pain?’
‘What! So that people can be guilt free whilst keeping them in horrific conditions?’ I exclaim. I thrust my chair away from the table. I’m shocked. ‘That’s atrocious. Despicable. Oh yes, just let’s keep factory farming and inhumane systems, after all we make billions from it, so we’ll just fiddle about with nature a bit; engineer livestock not to feel pain and that should make it all alright. Of course it does. Doesn’t it? Does it? Hell no!’ I storm around the kitchen ‘What’s with man? Why do we think we have the god given right to to to to’ I stutter I’m so angry I can get my words out ‘to ….’
‘So you think that animals should continue to suffer in intensive factory systems? You don’t think it’d be better to stop the pain? You’d rather tens of millions of animals…?
I interrupt ‘No I certainly don’t. But why fix the animals and not the system. End factory farming and you end the problem.’ I dust off my hands ‘End of story!’
‘You’ll never get rid of factory farming.’
‘So that means you compound the problem? You don’t even try? You sit back on your laurels full of smug complacency that the steak, chicken, pork chop you’re tucking into is just fine because it didn’t suffer pain whilst being farmed in the most abominable conditions? No! That’s just so wrong. Immoral.’
‘So what’s your solution then?’
What is my solution? I read the editorial. It’s well written. Very well written. The editor draws on the similarity to Douglas Adam’s novel The Restaurant At the End Of The World where Arthur Dent, the main character, is horrified when a cow-like creature is wheeled to the restaurant table, introduces itself as the dish of the day and proceeds to describe the cuts of meat available from its body. The animal has been bred to want to be eaten and to be capable of saying so.
The truth is not far behind fiction, the editorial continues, as proposals are underway to genetically engineer livestock to be untroubled by pain – all too common in intensively reared farm animals. The concept treats cattle, pigs and chicken as if they were inanimate objects whose suffering is like a computer program in need of debugging.
Apparently my violent reaction is quite common too, even has a name – it’s known as the ‘yuck factor’, and it’s not an unusual response to those many advances in biotechnology and biomedicine involving cloning, genetic modification and human-animal chimeras. This distaste is often irrational and can be a potential barrier to progress. Progressive thoughts often comes from ignoring such reactions and thinking things through logically instead.
I can see the logic behind Robert’s comments yes – pain-free animals do make sense – but only in a world that has devalued animal life to a point where anything’s acceptable to aid the production of billions of tonnes of cheap meat. A world that no longer cares about the plight of animals but only of how it’s going to feed itself cheaply.
If the choice is between animals bio-engineered not to feel pain or eating less meat, I know what I think is right. But equally well, I know that most people can’t care much about the pain factory-farmed animals endure – otherwise they would not eat their meat. For many in poor nations, they have no choice. But still, surely the human race can’t sink that low?
A pause in ‘a week in Provence’ instalments for me to remember my mum. Today is her birthday.
Just after she died I was full of good intentions. I thought I would pop down to her home every now and then. Keep in contact with all the lovely staff and residents I’d become close to over the last couple of years. In fact when I was clearing out her room the week after her funeral I’d promised Alice, a sweet soul who’d arrived the same week as my mother and with whom I sheared a special bond, that I would see her on her 92nd birthday in a month’s time.
But I didn’t. I haven’t made a phone call. Haven’t even driven the road.
Once the adrenalin-numbness of those early days after her death and funeral had worn off, a small but persistent compartment in my mind has continued to run snap-shot vignettes of her life at Springhouse. Very ordinary. Very mundane. Nothing spectacular or sentimental. But every time I went to make that call or plan a visit something would stop me. I wasn’t yet able to fully accept her death.
Until today. For the first time since she died I feel tears pricking the lids of my eyes when I think of her. Actually I believe it began during Benjamin and Berengere’s wedding service. Out of the blue I heard the priest mention ‘Morna Thomson’. Through my haze of wedding nerves, emotions and spoken French I realised he was asking the congregation to remember those who had recently died and could not be there. Unexpectedly tears welled.
This morning I made that phone call to Springhouse. I spoke to Carol who was with me when Morna died. Perhaps I’ll manage to get in the car and drive there for tea this afternoon. And, with the staff and residents, remember her last year’s happy birthday.
I was expecting it to be complex. I’d talked about it at some length, both to my family and close friends. But that was before. And though I know you can’t be prepared as such, if I’m honest, I thought I would understand myself better. Except I don’t.
I’m talking about grief following my mother’s death.
I always thought that I was ‘good’ at death, ‘good’ at working through emotions. I expected something more dynamic I guess. Instead I’m experiencing deadening, a lack of emotion, a blankness that I find difficult to recognise.
After the first frantic whirl of Morna’s dying, the arrangements and organisation, the ‘holding-myself-together’, I waited for the loosening of my emotions. It didn’t come.
I thought I’d slowly, but surely, come to terms with her death; it wasn’t as if it was out of the blue. I had a notion that my memory would focus on certain things throughout my life-long relationship with her that would either make me howl with tears, cry with laughter, or make me angry.
I believed that I would feel her presence, be aware of her in my thoughts and dreams, that she would come to me somehow. But none of that happened. Instead I find I’m not allowed look at her death. My mind has put up a dividing screen, the kind they have on TV shows. When I attempt to look, the screen appears…one that’s clever enough to increase in size if I try to peer over it or around it.
I’m a person who usually needs grounding. I could very easily disappear into space if I wasn’t careful, hence my very earthy occupation of farming – nothing more grounding than stock and mud! Though recently even this has changed and I feel as if I’m descending down, down; down deep into the earth. I can’t tell you how strange this feels. I need air? I need lightness? Me, who in normal circumstances is ready to float away like thistledown?
They say that when your mother dies she gives you her mantle. She gives you everything, both positive and negative. It’s up to you to process this. I guess there’s truth in the old adage ‘she’s turned into her mother’.
My mother had a slight psychosis which was latterly overlaid by her dementia. During the last twenty odd years, through her own conflict her body became contorted and bent. Now I feel her twisted shoulder, the strange bone ache; I experience her confusion of her mind. I watch as I flounder for a word, confuse a date, become muddled. I watch myself watching myself and I feel the fear that maybe I am becoming her.
My family, I’m pretty sure, don’t see it, in fact a puzzled Robert said to me after reading this “But you coped so well, brilliantly. You’ve prepared yourself. Come to terms with it over several years. I really can’t see it. You’re waiting for something that isn’t going to happen. She’s dead and that’s it.”
And perhaps in a way he’s right. I am waiting for my more typical expressions of grief. Maybe they will never happen. Maybe these unfamiliar emotions will be the only ones I experience. But I hope, somewhere along this unknown path I meet with her and, if only for an instant, I’m able to touch our closeness again – mother and daughter.
Sadly, Princess delivered stillborn twin bull calves at midnight.
Sad for many reasons. It’s heartbreaking seeing a perfect baby calf being born dead, let alone two. It’s heartbreaking listening to a freshly-calved cow lowing softly as she licks and nudges her new calf with a rapturous expression, waiting expectantly for that slappy-wet shake of the head, that sneeze and the responding ‘merrr’ …which doesn’t come. I never get used to it.
But for Princess it’s more tragic – you see this was her last chance.
Princess was born to Severn one autumn six years ago. Out of kilter with my spring-calving pattern she was the only baby calf in the herd. As a result she was indulged and spoilt by cows and humans alike. Hence her name Princess!
It was because of Princess I changed the way and time I wean calves. Due to her October birth she was impossible to wean because the herd was outside during the summer and no field barrier would be enough to keep mother and daughter apart. In the end I left them to it. Hoping as Severn came nearer and nearer to calving that she would exercise some control on her precocious milk-hungry daughter. Amazingly she did, and in just four weeks. By the time Severn calved – with her daughter close by her side throughout the labour and birth – Princess was weaned and never attempted to suckle again. She happily took up duties as chief babysitter to her little brother while her mother went off to graze. I now try to mimic this pattern as best I can within the confines of winter housing.
But unfortunately both Severn and Princess inherited genetic fertility problems. Princess has reared two healthy calves. But she persists in calving out of sync and repeatedly returning to service. She hasn’t calved in almost two years.
On Sunday she lay down and strained, just the once, but nothing came of it. I kept a close eye on her. She began calving last night. Though she wasn’t showing signs of undue stress I was a little concerned. The sack, when it appeared, was a thick opaque white double balloon with ribbons of membrane. Then it was all over. She pushed out the twins and placenta in record time, but to no avail.
Morna Thomson (nee Yarrow)
I have been asked by friends and relatives across the UK and world unable to be at Morna’s funeral if they could have a copy of the tribute I read that day. Posting it on my blog seemed the simplest thing.
Those of you kind enough to follow my farming and wildlife postings may wish to skip this one!
Morna was born 86 years ago in London to Vera and Kenneth. Vera, my grandmother, was born in Shanghai, her father being a pioneering eye surgeon there – this eastern connection was to reappear throughout Morna’s life. Ever adventurous and brave, Vera, as a young girl and accompanied only by her younger sister was sent on the long boat journey back to the UK to be educated. Here, in her late twenties, and an accomplished violinist, she met my grandfather and fell passionately in love. She was an extraordinary, vivacious person, and no doubt had a huge impression on her daughter, Morna.
Morna’s childhood was spent at Bovingdon Grange in Hertfordshire. She has told me so much about this time I almost feel I was there with her. It was a full and happy childhood. From an early age she revelled in the hustle and bustle of a large and vibrant tribe of cousins, aunts and uncles from all sides of her family – friends and relatives were encouraged and welcomed at Bovingdon where she led a full and social life. She was, though, she assures me, a shy and gawky child. Time was to do away with both – she grew into a confidant, beautiful and elegant, woman, tall for her time and much admired.
When my mother first went to school she packed a trunk twice her size with all her most important possessions and could not be parted from it for the first year – a habit of being well prepared that never left her. She was sent to boarding school at St George’s and hated it from the start – she was dyslexic, a condition not then recognised and punished frequently for her apparent slowness. This scarred her for life. At school she was desperate to paint and explore her artistic talents but not allowed to, being forced to focus on mainstream subjects, a great shame as it was later to transpire.
After school, my mother went to a finishing family in Switzerland. Whilst there war broke out and she had to return to England. She tried nursing for Red Cross, then driving for the MTC, but only found her true vocation when given a posting in the Wrens. Remarkably, not long after joining she and four others were chosen to be the first Torpedo wrens – the first time women had worked alongside men in the forces doing equal jobs – and this was much acclaimed. It did a huge amount for her self esteem.
While doing the job of servicing torpedoes, my father, a naval captain, came across her sitting on the deck of Peter Scott’s boat swigging rum out of a bottle, surrounded by a group of captivated men! (My father’s version and one she hotly denied!). It was love at first sight. Those five pioneering Torpedo Wrens formed what they called the “Straw Club” in a rented basement flat in Brighton, and who knows what happened there! Wild parties for sure. I have photos showing that they lived life to the full…. Morna and Ian married during those heady yet precarious war years.
My father was a banker in a small, but growing merchant bank, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (now the HSBC!). After the war he was given an immediate posting to the Far East. He went out ahead, to Jahore, my mother joining him in a garret flat, with only a primus stove to cook on. Quite a shock for the English rose she was! It was boiling hot, humid – no air conditioning and life was very different to anything she had known. But my mother soon made friends, as she always did – this was one of her great gifts. After they moved to Kuala Lumpur (KL) she began to enjoy all that ex-pat life had to offer – she threw herself into it, despite the scary difference of it all. She had a great love of dogs, adopting a stray – her adored Whisky. But most of all she wanted children.
In 1950 they came back to the UK on leave, and on a visit to my father’s family in Ireland, I was conceived much to Morna’s joy. She ate thousands of unripe green apples all through her pregnancy, so everyone tells me!
They returned to the Far East, and I was born in Hong Kong. My childhood there was wonderful. To me my mother was a magical being and I adored her. I was never left as so many others were just in the care of amahs, and was encouraged to have lots of friends. Morna was an amazing story teller. She and I made fairy gardens together, and the fairies left me little gifts, tiny silver balls, silken threads of gossamer, sparkling dew drops. It was all so real to me that even when I was once seriously ill, all I could think of was ‘I wonder what have the fairies left this time’? I still vividly remember glass vials of magic coloured waters she conjured up – I was never bored. She had a wonderful imagination.
During her time in Hong Kong, she was able at long last to put her passion for painting into practice, and learnt the formal art of Chinese painting, at which it turned out she was extraordinarily talented. So talented that one of her paintings when exhibited alongside those of local artists won first prize.
Although she embraced all aspect of life abroad, she still yearned for England, and constantly told me stories of the far away land she called home. While on leave in the 50s they found a house in Benenden, this was Greenways. Morna was over the moon. It was only after the purchase they realised that they had 7 acres of woodland – woodland that was later to play a large part in Morna’s life.
We travelled – Bombay, Penang, Singapore. Always, she made friends, making the best of circumstances. Then I, her only and much loved child, was sent back to school in England. This was agony to both of us. We sobbed. Why did you send me, I asked? But it was the accepted way of doing things back then. Our letters were very poignant throughout my school years – I hated being away from her and she from me.
Then, unexpectedly, my father got a posting to the London office. I think it must have been 1966 or 7. So they came to live in Benenden for good.
Morna threw herself into her garden and the woods at Greenways, something she had craved for her whole time in the Far East. Squirrels and rabbits were her bane. Compost and leaf litter were made to perfection. She truly had green fingers. Herbaceous borders, rose pergolas, rock gardens, ponds and streams with a vegetable garden and fruit cage second to none.
Morna soon found her niche in village life. She worked with extraordinary energy: the Conservatives, the Benenden fiddle and umptytiddlyone committees, she raised money for many worthy causes. Together with my father she ran the church fete for a good many years (I can still remember their agonising…is it going to rain? Is it going to be dry? Or sunny? Will it be out? Or will it be in?) Little changes, I think.
All the while she maintained her eastern friendships and was always there for their families and her many god children. She loved to make people smile, and always had a sympathetic ear for anyone with a problem. In fact, in Benenden, she found her idyll –her dream came true.
I moved to the West Country in 75 and started to farm. My parents came to stay with us, in a caravan, and were over the moon when I presented them with their first grandchild – three others followed soon afterwards! It became the custom for us to visit Benenden over Easter, the boys have vivid memories of Easter egg hunts, counting oast houses and visiting castles! Some of you present will probably remember our unruly gaggle moving down the street?
On Christmas Eve her grandsons particularly remember her reading A Night Before Christmas– something which became a family tradition. Indeed, traditions were an important part of Morna’s life and the ways our family celebrate birthdays, Christmas and Easter have been handed down through her.
In due course, Morna and my father moved from Greenways to Oakdale, just off the Green here, where she continued her gardening, restoring a Victorian greenhouse. But when my father died in 1988, devastating her, she realised that Oakdale was too big, and sensibly decided to move to Thelveton, opposite the paper shop.
At this time her imagination became ever stronger and her mind began to pay tricks on her: she started to struggle to find reality. But to most she remained the charming and lovely person she’d always been. Audrey Bridgeland was a huge help to her, and to me, during this time. It was really down to Audrey, and Morna’s brother Ian, that it was possible for Morna to continue to be independent and part of the village scene.
After my uncle Ian died in 1997 Morna agreed the time had come to move closer to me, to sheltered housing in Devon. However, part of her stayed in Kent and in the Far East. As time went by that part grew and she lived two or more existences. Those years were confusing for both of us. For me, it was hard to accept that someone who had been so important in my life was failing, and it was difficult for her to accept that she needed my help.
But as time progressed we overcame these difficulties, and I to understand that she saw things differently from me. We grew very close once more, as we had been when I was a child. Gradually dementia set in. In some strange way it started to ease her mind, to make her at peace with herself, and to allow her to enjoy and relive her many vivid and varied memories .… perhaps on a train in the Far East, perhaps walking favourite dogs, Rusty and Max, perhaps entertaining friends or on a trip to London to catch up with family.
All the girls at her final home, Spring House, loved her for her charming behaviour, the different worlds she took them to. This Christmas she was the happiest I have seen her for a long time. Taking my hand, and with her face squiggled up with pleasure, she said “I love Christmas, I absolutely love it”. Two days later she had a fall, and began her last journey close by me. She never once failed to recognised me or respond to my voice so together we learnt to let go and how to travelled this last path.
She died peacefully and quietly, without fear.
The day before she died I was oiling her skin and singing – and guess what, she began singing with me. So can I ask you all to join me in singing Morna’s last song Morning Has Broken.