Sam, Thomas and I have just returned from a week's holiday on a farm in Cornwall. It was a big step for all of us. Dunc and I had booked it in January, in a moment of being unusually organised. When he died in April this year, I quickly realised that the holiday was looming and had no idea what to do. We were supposed to be going in July, to the same small cottage that we had stayed in previously. I knew that I couldn't do that, but felt very strongly that the boys should not lose the holiday about which they were so excited, in addition to losing their daddy. Following conversations with Dunc's sister, Sam's fabulous Head Teacher, and the lovely folk at the farm, we rearranged our visit for last week, staying in a larger cottage with Dunc's sister for company and support.
It felt very strange while I was packing for the holiday. I was confident that once we got to Cornwall, we would have an enjoyable time. I am learning that the boys are very good at getting involved in activities and distracting me from my deeper thoughts. However, it was also very sad to be packing for a holiday that Dunc and I had been planning with great anticipation, and which the boys and I would now be taking without him.
There were practical hurdles to overcome too because there were situations involved in holidaying with two small children where Dunc and I had developed very defined roles. For example: I packed the luggage; Dunc packed the car (having carried the heaviest bags down the stairs); I did the driving; Dunc read the map (whilst casually lobbing sandwiches/magazines/sucky sweets and the occasional admonishment at the boys in the back); Dunc made the sandcastles (for which you should read 'complex systems involving diverted streams and intricate buildings, created only by people who have a degree in mechanical engineering'); I took the photos.
This year, I managed to heave the massive suitcase down the stairs myself, adding only a couple of small bruises to my shins in the process (and next time, I'll pack it downstairs!). I did a fair job of driving and navigating, apart from a small oversight, when we ended up retracing our tracks for about 10 miles before realising the mistake. The photos I took on the beach suggest that the sand structure was sound, if a little less aesthetically pleasing than in previous years. I'm very much hoping that Dunc would have given me 10/10 for effort in each discipline at least (and it did feel regularly like I was participating in some crazy test of skill and endurance!).
The biggest test turned out to be our trip to the coast to scatter some of Dunc's ashes. It had dawned on me during the summer that Cornwall was the obvious place to take a portion of them, as Dunc had proposed to me there and because we had planned to retire there. I wasn't entirely sure that I was ready to take this step, but I felt that there was nothing to be gained by keeping them on top of the wardrobe for a year (and a trip to Cornwall can only really be an annual event when it involves a five hour car journey each way with two young children in tow!).
I wanted to find a place that the boys would remember visiting with Dunc. I concluded that the natural choice was Tintagel, as we went twice during our holiday last year, and have lots of lovely photos of our visits. However, climbing the steep steps and footpaths there with two small children and a particularly heavy rucksack was a rather different proposition to the one we faced last year, when Dunc had ably carried Thomas most of the way! In fact, the ascent last week was relatively manageable. The descent was a different matter, when I realised that I needed to hold the rail to get down the steep steps, but also the hand of both boys! I found a logical solution and we made it down safely, but not before realising that I do need to seriously consider the potential problems that being a lone adult with two small children could cause on our adventures in the great outdoors.
The weather in Cornwall last week was pretty variable and the day we had allocated for our visit to Tintagel was extremely windy. Everyone who knew about my plan to scatter Dunc's ashes had made mention of the importance of wind direction. In fact, it played a major part. It wasn't so much a scattering of ashes, more a 'make a nest in the long grass and place them carefully, leaving the wind to do the scattering for us'. If I'd ploughed ahead with the scattering plan, I think the ashes would have made it back inland a lot quicker than we did! Instead, I am happy that we have left that portion of them in a beautiful place, overlooking the sea, of which we have some lovely memories of visiting together as a family. It felt right. I didn't feel upset, just a little emotional maybe. It was another step along our new path: taking care of another task that I hadn't imagined I would need to do anytime soon; trying to follow what I think would have been Dunc's wishes, and making it as simple as possible for all of us who remain to process and understand.
The journey home was much harder. After all, the last five months have been long and often extremely difficult. The week away had been a lovely change. We had concentrated on having fun together, not on completing endless paperwork; and on enjoying each other's company, not on hiding from people who don't know what to say to us. We were anonymous and it felt quite liberating. My smiles were mostly real, not forced, half-hearted efforts. And then, we had to leave our little Cornish haven and return to face reality - the difficult daily morning routine with two angry boys; steering them through tired bath-times; the empty half of our king-sized bed; the forthcoming family events, bonfire night (which was always previously my favourite night of the year), my birthday and, finally, Christmas. My spirits were low.
As we motored up the M5, however, we narrowly avoided a major accident which happened about one hundred metres in front of us. It was enough to shake me up, to make me thank my lucky stars that we were all still in one piece, and to remind me that, while we might not have chosen the path that we are currently taking, we should still be very grateful for everything that we have and for the wonderful people who are walking it with us. We finally reached home, the boys whooped with joy upon being reunited with their toys and I faced the mountainous pile of washing that only a holiday can create. The week away was timely - I took the opportunity to reflect while we were there and now feel (slightly!) rejuvenated and a little more prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead as we take the next steps along our new path.
Dunc, Sam and Thomas at Tintagel, August 2012.