In modern parlance, the verb ‘signposting’ has become a popular way of pointing us in specific directions. For example, it is often used in large buildings such as hospitals and large shopping centres and stores, to clarify which way we should go when we get there.
I like the local roadside signposts in Devon and have learned that the traditional black and white type is being preserved rather than being replaced by more modern versions. They are pleasing to look at and are clear and concise.
This July is the second time we have reached the anniversary date of losing James whilst living in Devon. Last year, a month after we moved here, Shaun and I decided to make the 320-mile round trip to Kingston in a day. That was not one of our best decisions, involving as it did around nine hours spent in the car, due mainly to the weight of the holiday traffic.
Since then, I had tried listening to my intuition and looking for signposting guidance as to how I should approach this 28 July, the thirteenth anniversary of James’s passing.
Should I go to Kingston again?
Should I instead ask one of my friends to put flowers at the plaque by the riverside for me?
How would I feel if I decided not to go this year?
Now we live in Devon, it is far more of a pilgrimage than it was when we lived in Surrey. Quite apart from the journey itself, this year we also have our greyhound Shadow to consider, and we haven’t yet taken him that far in the car.
All these things contributed to my dilemma over recent months.
Shaun and I discussed what to do. “It’s your decision”, he told me. “I will do whatever you want to do”. I am lucky to have his steadfast support but it took me no closer to deciding.
My lovely friend Linda Sewell, who lives in West Byfleet, came to stay with us for a few days earlier this month.
“Come and stay with us!”, she suggested. “Travel in the middle of the week when the roads are quieter. I can look after Shadow and you and Shaun can go to Kingston without any extra stress”. This sat very well with me, not least because Shadow and Linda formed an instant bond.
We couldn’t have imagined that the barometer would be set to ‘heat wave’ and that our journey would be so challenging! When we set off in 28-degree heat on Tuesday afternoon, there was a massive part of me that wanted to say to Shaun, “Stop! Turn the car round and go home, I really don’t want to do this!”
But we carried on, actually making good time to Surrey and having a remarkably well behaved, if hot, dog in the back of the car. He was unsettled overnight which was hardly surprising in his new surroundings, so we started the day quite weary.
After breakfast we left for Kingston, about half an hour’s drive away. I needed the comfort of ritual and repetition and we stopped at Tesco to buy some sunflowers, which have been my choice to place at the riverside for several anniversary visits. As usual, I also tucked in a small card in which I wrote a short message to James. This always finishes ‘loved and missed always, forever in our hearts’.
When we arrived in Kingston it was good to see that the riverside looked bright and colourful in the sunshine. As always there was a knot in my stomach as Shaun parked the car. I felt a ridiculous irritation at the lack of parking spaces and the need to take the car up to the eighth floor before we found a space, even though I wasn’t driving. Feeling tense and irritable is, I have learned, a feature of my arrival in Kingston every time. I could feel my heart rate increasing as we walked along by the riverside, approaching the place where the barriers begin. I invariably feel a dread that as we approach the site, the plaque will have been removed or defaced, and it was a relief to see it there, albeit having been marked by the pigeons. There was a swing seat bedecked with flowers next to the steps, I imagine from a previous event, and it added a new dimension.
People came and went along the towpath and the prevailing atmosphere was carefree.
Shaun placed our flowers in the mooring ring below the plaque and as usual, we stood together in silence with our thoughts. I said a prayer for James and my tears flowed as I felt the immense sorrow of loss.
However much time passes, James is still gone, still missed and there remains that empty space which cannot be filled. That is sad fact.
We walked up to the bridge and looked down on the scene, both beginning to feel the sense of relief which always comes after the placing of our flowers. The area looked safe and benign, so different to how it was in 2005.
We walked back and stood watching for a little while longer. A woman went down the steps with a small child and we watched as they fed the swans.
A young couple sat on the steps eating lunch and we saw them point at the flowers and talk quietly, obviously remarking on them and the reason they were there.
There always comes a point where I feel ready to walk away from the river and the lightening of my emotional state is quite remarkable. I instantly feel hungry, yearning for something tasty to eat. It’s another of our rituals to buy lunch and eat it somewhere quiet. Afterwards, I feel the need to indulge in some retail therapy, usually buying something expensive from the Clarins counter in John Lewis, and this time I had to buy a pair of shoes too!
Eventually we made our way back to Linda’s house, the thermometer hitting 30 degrees during the afternoon, and we both dozed outside for a while. Staying with Linda and her husband Ken was like being enveloped in a hug. They are both so kind and of course in grief terms, there is nothing quite like being with people who really ‘get it’.
Linda and I talked about the need for marking anniversaries. Her son Tom was in New Zealand when he lost his life ten years ago to a tragic quad bike accident, and therefore she cannot easily visit, in the same way as other parents who have lost children far from home.
But she made an important point when she said, “We both know our sons are with us wherever we are, and the comfort from that is immense. They know they aren’t forgotten and that is the significant thing”.
When Linda stayed with us she and I lit candles in the parish church in Dulverton, not far from our home. Linda said, “Marking our boys in this way and lighting a candle for others who have lost children is a very special thing to do”. I know that Linda often does this in the cathedral at Guildford too.
We agreed that we do not need to be anywhere specific to feel our sons close to us. They are with us everywhere.
Shaun and I travelled home the following day, both feeling tired but relieved. We felt a definite sense of achievement, probably due in part to the challenge presented by travelling in the heatwave. I was reminded anew of the importance of what we achieved in Kingston and how it formed a basis for my subsequent involvement in water safety and drowning prevention strategies.
I am so relieved to be back at home in Devon and am really questioning whether I need to make the ritualistic pilgrimage in the future. Now is not the time to decide … I guess that will only happen as we approach July next year.
As always, I am grateful for and appreciative of all the kind messages, healing thoughts and prayers that are sent to all of us at this time of year. Thank you, everyone.