Back from the Brink: Jose’s niece

Another story from Spark’s London Story Telling at the Canal Cafe Theatre: the theme for the night’s story telling was ‘Back from the Brink’

On January 1st  2002, I made a resolution to come off the anti-depressants the GP had prescribed me. I didn’t think they did much good anyway. The instructions vaguely said to stop taking them gradually, and lacking further advice, I took half for a couple of days then stopped. The withdrawal symptoms started almost immediately: a minority of people withdraw badly from paroxetine, and I was one of them: for the next 10 weeks, despite eventually taking it in liquid form so I could reduce the dose milligram by milligram, I suffered from days of utter mental fog and torment and nights that seemingly lasted for days as I experienced real-time, vivid, lucid dreams; my short term memory reduced to a few seconds, I spent the days pacing the kitchen, trying to recall how to make tea, putting frying pans on the Aga only to forget all about them; going into town and forgetting why I was there. I was unable to cross the road as the disturbances in my visual perception meant that I could not tell if cars were travelling towards me or away from me. I put the children in front of the TV and fed them on pizza. I could scarcely stand upright or balance; I begged my husband to collect the kids from school for me, and eventually even he realised the seriousness of the situation.

By April I was free and back to normal, apart from the ‘zaps’ – sudden electric shocks right through my skull at random intervals. But by then, I knew that my dearest Aunty Jose who had been like a mother to me, was ill not with her usual asthma and bronchitis, but with lung cancer. I was distraught.

Jose had been married twice: first divorced, then widowed after a short but happy marriage, with two boys, one from each marriage, whom she’d brought up alone. She was tough. I stayed with her every summer. She taught me what she knew. When I was ten she taught me to hang wallpaper. When Jose had been seven and my mother was three my grandfather was unemployed; eventually beaten down by depression and in despair, alone one day in the house with her three year old daughter, my grandmother tied the little girl to the bedrails upstairs in the bedroom while she put her head in the kitchen oven and gassed herself. The two girls shortly had a real-life wicked stepmother. My mum never really recovered: she withdrew and suffered while my aunt fought back and was beaten. She fought all her life. I didn’t know it at the time, but I fed off her strength my whole life through.

The paroxetine withdrawal was the death knell to my shaky marriage; eventually I got my husband to come to Relate with me. He asked simply for advice about how to split up. He thrust at me some estate agent’s details of houses he had already picked out: his idea was that he should remain in the house and I and the kids should leave. I begged him; the counsellor begged him; he would not budge.

The next day I rang my father to arrange to visit the following week, when I planned to tell him of the divorce. I knew he would understand. He was one of the few to have noticed the strains. As a teenager I had chanced upon my parent’s marriage certificate, so I knew that Dad had been divorced many years ago. He’d never mentioned it. But I knew he’d understand. He’d be on my side. I knew too, from cousins in Canada, that he’d had a child. I had sometimes caught her whispering a name: ‘Celia’.  I hoped too that it would at long last be a chance to talk to him about his own first marriage and my half-sibling.

The following morning, the phone rang early. My husband came into my room. ‘Your father’s dead’, he said. No word more than that, no gesture of comfort. Dad had gone to sleep and never woken up. I spent the week taking charge, arranging the funeral, organising the finances, keeping my mouth shut, not daring to add to my mother’s grief by telling her of my divorce. It was my birthday that week. I hoped and hoped and hoped that Dad had already sent me a card. But no card came. I wrote and read Dad’s eulogy: shocked at his sudden death, no one else was in a fit state.

Three weeks later I had a cataract operation, the cataract caused by an underlying inflation, a stress related condition I’d first got two weeks after marriage. I took myself to hospital on the 6.30 a.m. bus from Stroud. I was the only patient there without a companion: before the operation, alone at last for the first time since Dad’s death, I cried and cried. There was a faulty batch of anaesthetic and I could feel them cutting into my eye. But I couldn’t be bothered to tell them about it. It was of scant consequence to all else that I felt. My husband picked me up, and drove me straight to an estate agent’s where he left me to look for houses.

I could have fought to stay in the house, but could not stand the fight. We moved in September, from what was the nicest house in Stroud – seven bedrooms, views over the Severn Vale, a tin chapel, stable and coach house that I had converted into a studio, into a dilapidated little house by the railway line, untouched in fifty years, which was the best we could afford. My 8-year-old son was proud to take charge of the removal men while I went to pick his younger sister up from school. There was no one else to help. I got the house ready as best I could, in case my aunt were to come to stay if she ever needed me to nurse her at home. I dreamed of how I’d take care of her, as she’d taken care of me. Alone in the evenings after the children were in bed, I wept for my father and for my aunt and prayed for nothing other than the strength to carry on.

My aunt never came to stay: she died on November 14th, my wedding anniversary. She left: to my mother, her personal belongings; to her two sons, her flat; and to me, she gave this: her mother’s ring, the ring of a woman who killed herself in the depression of the 1930s. She had killed herself on the very day that her husband had at last found work. He’d never be out of work again, but for her it was too late: she was dead. From that ring I learned one thing: never give up, never give in to despair.

And my aunt’s other gift to me: in the midst of all I had to do and bear, in the midst of trying to settle the children, sort out the rotting house, find work, manage on a tiny income, manage without the two people who had given me all my strength, my father and my aunt, she asked me to do something: she asked me to be the one to read her eulogy.

When she died, it felt to me like there was a bit missing from the universe, some essential bit of the machinery, and that soon the whole edifice of reality would collapse. I didn’t know how things could go on. But she expected me to read her eulogy, and I did so: I stood in St Peter’s Catholic Church in Cardiff where she had married happily for the second, tragically short time, wearing my dead grandmother’s golden ring, and my dead aunt’s crucifix, and spoke. And I understood then what a gift she had given me, the one thing I needed most of all, the only thing that I needed: the gift of confidence that I could manage, that I could do this, that I could endure. She believed in me.

I stepped outside the church as the bells rang out and people I’d met years ago came up and said, ‘oh you’re Jose’s niece aren’t you. You were like a daughter to her’, people said.  ‘Yes, I’m Jose’s niece’, I said, ‘that’s who I am. I’m Jose’s niece and I’m back from the brink.’

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