Sunday, May 15, 2005

Life and Death

My wonderful father, Ben Doyle, died on 7 May 2005. He had been treated for cancer in the last six months, but towards the end his heart gave out and he passed away quickly.

I was so lucky to see him the evening before he died, as I had come over for the weekend to celebrate my nephew Connor’s birthday. So I got to kiss him goodnight only hours before he passed away.Nothing prepares you for hearing the words that somebody close to you has died, but I was amazed to discover how many reserves of courage we all have inside us.

My mother was a superstar. She bore the loss of her husband of 51 years with grace and dignity, and gave me even more to feel proud of. Friends and the wider family came out of nowhere to support us, feed us, comfort us while we cried and share with us when we laughed (and we did, even in the midst of the sorrow).

Over 250 people came to pay tribute to Daddy on the two days of the funeral. As we sat in the front pew of the church on the Tuesday night a seemingly never-ending line of people filed past us, each shaking every family member’s hand, or hugging us if we knew them well. Many didn’t know what to say. Some were crying themselves. But all looked us in the eye, touched our hands and told us in words or in gestures that they shared our sorrow.

Now I understand why it is important to pay your respects like that. In the past I never quite knew whether to approach a family where, for example, I only knew one person. But we had groups of people I had never met before, explaining who they were (colleagues of my brother, co-workers of my mum, people who played bowls with my dad) and every single person meant so much to each of us. The family drew a lot of strength from these people who came to mourn with us.

Similarly, others who could not be with us in person sent messages in many ways. Some called on the phone. Neighbours stopped us on the street. Sympathy cards and mass cards came by hand or by post by the dozen – we received over 150 cards from all over the world. We got emails and even text messages. Every one of the words we heard or read gave us strength and comfort.

Some people didn’t know what to say; we got a lot of standard lines like “I am sorry for your troubles” and “our thoughts and prayers are with you” and “my condolences” and simply “I don’t know what to say”. One neighbour, an old sparring partner of my dad’s, stopped me on the street to shake my hand and offer his sympathies but couldn’t say a word to me as he was crying silently as he stood there.

None of it mattered – all that mattered was that another human being was trying to connect with us, to say that they loved our dad, to say that they were sorry for our sadness, to sympathise and to let us know we are not alone. We remember every face in that crowd of people who came to the church. We pored over every word and every picture in the cards we received. I saved every email and even text message I got. It all mattered so very much to us.

If you are ever concerned about doing the right thing in a situation like this, the right thing to do is to make contact in some way and say you are thinking of the person who has been bereaved. Don’t worry if you don’t know what to say.

Don’t worry if you don’t think you can call - you could send a card or email or even a quick text message. It’s not impersonal at all – in fact it was good have the support coming through in lots of different ways.

For example, sometimes I couldn’t bear to talk either but a quick one-line text from an old mate or work colleague just asking “How are you doing?” or “I am thinking of you” at the strangest times of day gave me a little more strength to get through. Believe me when I say you will never say the wrong thing. All that will be remembered is that you cared enough to make contact.

I wouldn’t recommend this death business to anyone. Now, more than ever, I understand how it feels to have my heart broken. But death is a part of life and I was amazed to discover I had the strength and resilience to survive it.

If you get one message from my experiences, though, it is this: go now and tell the people closest to you that you love them. I am so very fortunate to know that my father heard those words from me before he died. Of course he know I loved him, but it is really comforting for me to know that I told him, many times over, while he was still with me. He was the most wonderful Dad in the world. I miss him.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

10 Things To Do To Welcome Summer

1. Buy new shoes
Nothing says “new season” to any woman more than new shoes. Now is the time to make the shoe shop your favourite haunt, as you browse the new season’s treats, and decide what your wardrobe absolutely cannot do without.(NB handbag obsessives can replace shoes with bags if they absolutely must…)(NB2 have no idea what blokes can do. Maybe buy a new spanner set or something)

2. Spring Clean
Yes I know it might sound weird, but the lovely bright evenings and other changes to the weather bring out the spring cleaner in me. Maybe it is because what we could hide in dark corners in winter, now call out for sorting. In any event, use that new energy you have to attack one room in your house and get it the way you want it.If housework sound the same any way you dress it up, use your enthusiasm to brighten up your garden instead – give yourself an additional room to live in this summer!Check out for tips for indoors.Or follow for garden inspiration.You know you secretly want to!!!

3. Eat fruit
Forget healthy eating – eating fresh exotic fruit is a sure-fire way of feeling summery. Fresh strawberries for dessert, your favourite melon for a weekend breakfast, or a whole pineapple chopped and soaked in rum is what you need to make you feel pampered and tropical.

4. Learn how to make a good rum punch
The old Jamaican rhyme goes:

One of sour
Two of sweet
Three of strong
Four of weak

Sour is lemon or lime juice.

Sweet is (originally) sugar cane juice but we boring Europeans can substitute sugar.

Strong is rum (of course). Preferably a very good quality, and preferably not white rum. Golden or dark rum has a better flavour.

Weak is fruit juice. Better if it is fresh, and a mixture is best. Don’t wimp out and go for straight OJ.

Chill all ingredients beforehand so you don’t have to dilute everything with ice.

And top off with a sprinkle of nutmeg, and a generous dash of grenadine to make the “sunset” colour scheme we all know and love from our holidays.

A mate of mine swears by a good dash of gin to add to the kick. It works.

Finally – don’t skimp on the rum!

5. Book a holiday in the sun
It’ll make you feel better – honest! And it’s a good encouragement to get fit for your new beachwear!

6. Volunteer your time - May is environment month

7. Reclaim your local open space
Within 5 miles of our house, right in this huge city, is a lovely rare bird sanctuary with a sailing club on a lake (Welsh Harp reservoir), another with ponds you can swim in and a National Trust house (Hampstead Heath), and a protected wetland (Barnes Wetland Centre).There are hundreds of miles of bicycle paths all over London too.Other cities in the world are the same! Get out there and enjoy the open spaces your taxes pay for!

8. Celebrate someone who inspires you
Inspiration comes in many forms – and in many aspects of life. We all have people in our lives who inspire us, either with their courage or persistence, or their hard work, or just their ability to see the best in people and make others smile.Let your inspirational person know you are inspired by them! Send a card (even an e-card). Give them flowers, or take them out for coffee. Or just give them a call and tell them you think they are great.

9. Practise elegant economy
It finally hit me a few years ago that the art of living within one’s means is just that — an art. It is all about enjoying, not spending money. Like the ladies in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1853 comic novel, Cranford, I have tried to learn the art of “elegant economy”. Those ladies would walk home because, they claimed, the night air was refreshing, rather than because they could not afford a carriage. Cotton was nicer than silk, they assured each other, because it washed better, not because they could no longer afford silk.

Here’s a simple way to start: Write down everything you spend, in a little notebook or pocket diary. It works straight away: just as writing down what you eat makes you eat a bit less, writing down what you spend makes you spend a bit less. Then aim to have a few no-spend days a month. After a while, it becomes a game: how can I run my life today without writing anything down in my little blue book? How ingenious can I be?

As you claw your way out of debt, you may notice a strange thing. Money that you actually possess feels completely different from money you owe. When contemplating spending money that is sitting solidly in your account, as opposed to spending money you don’t own on a credit card, the prospect of giving up your hard-earned cash strangely seems to pall.

10. Vote
It’s a big deal for us UK-dwellers right now, with election day right upon us. But even if you are reading this after the fact, or you live in another country, take this reminder to confirm that you are still registered to vote, and at the correct address. Or register for a postal vote so you won’t have any excuse next time!People died to get us our vote. We have a responsibility to use it!