Sunday, 6 July 2014


I woke thinking of friends of mine caught up in one of life's storms.

From a close family, what pain for all when a much loved parent develops something such as Alzheimers. At first, looking the same externally as they always did. But inside, that process of slipping silently away has begun, even before we know that something is wrong they are leaving us. 'Good days' and 'bad days' shift balance until the person left is but a shell of the one we knew so well.  So familiar, so loved by all around them. And in the beginning, they themselves can be very aggravated by forgetting things, snapping at people they care for and experiencing a myriad of feelings of confusion and upset by changes within them that they can not control. However, in time, their consciousness can fade yet further until, the ones around them, they are left grieving for the person they once knew. A shell of their loved one still in front of them but treasured memories once shared now gone. To watch a loved one lose their unique character, their personality, their humour and all the love they once gave to others fade away. Only those left caring for them remain to remember how things used to be (and what a mental burden that is to be carried by the carer)...

'Eventually' it will become obvious that a balance needs to be found between being 'carer' and 'caring for oneself'. A painful step back is needed to find some space from the capacity of this illness to draw in the carer's love, patience and understanding - draining emotional well-being and all the carer's energy without respite. The carer has a duty to themselves as much as to the one they care for. Yet, that step back that is required, that move can only be made when the time is right and each of us can only make that decision for ourselves. Around the person who is the carer, their family and friends also find this period to be a very difficult time - they can support the carer (and yes, they must try to give all the support to the carer that they can) but also, they must not lose sight of the need for balance in their own lives. Such a difficult stage to balance, there are so many challenges to be met by everyone. Nevertheless, as mere human beings, we can so often look back and then be amazed to realise just what we were capable of, so much more than we thought we could be. We CAN manage to navigate our way through life's storms. But each challenge must be faced one day at a time - we can move forward and eventually find our way back out the dark days, back in to the light. Having been a carer to parents, to family and friends myself, in life's difficult times I have found the Serenity Prayer to be a great support. 

A tide's lowest ebb is when it turns and with us too, it is so often when we think we can't hang in there a moment longer. Then we find, from our own remarkable efforts - we find that we finally do turn a corner and a way forward becomes clear. We are capable of so much more than we could ever imagine. Some would wish to protect us, so no tear was ever shed but tears are part of life and learning and  through these times, sad and happy tears - we learn and we grow as people.

Sharing personal experiences, of life's most challenging times, that process can be of use to others currently caught up in the same sort of 'storms' that we have navigated. Myself, generally at ease in expressing myself, at the time I was a carer I found there were many months I had nothing I wanted to say. I didn't want to feel any feelings, let alone express them - but still, I remember that time well.  Therefore, thinking of my friend and what I went through, I wrote this poem today. 

I know how hard it is to watch a loved one fade away and my poem reflects that. But also, now many years later, having passed through that storm (and being so very happy in my life today) I hope that there may be something in what I have shared, no matter how small - just something which makes a difference to anyone who reads this. We can all say to a loved one "you NEED to step back" but, it IS so hard and ultimately, only they can do what they can do. We sail the seas of life together but only each of us can navigate our own way through. Until then, the love of family, of friends  - we can only offer our help to those who are struggling. We can't take away another's pain (much as we would wish to, we can't protect them from all the tears that need to fall) but we can offer out our hand to steady and to guide them. We can offer to them a heart that is full of love. And when words aren't enough for that moment - we can use hugs to convey the love that we feel. 


You were my anchor, my safe port in any storm,
The one who gave me life, kept me safe when I was born.
My sun, my moon, my stars, you built the world I knew.
For all the tears I cry, I know I still “love you”.

Now left to chase your shadow, your sunshine once so bright,
Tho' you can look the same, Alzhemiers hides your light.
A quiet empty stare, at times my sole reward,
And anger you never had - “oh why dear Lord?”

“Why did this have to happen?” How could this ever be?
Child-parent carrying this burden, from which I can’t break free.
Chasing shadows, chasing shadows, like clouds across the sea.
Anchored by our life of love, as you once carried me…

In these times that life's a blur, when love's put to the test,
Safe harbours are ahead, and there I'll take my rest.
Lessons learnt in life, these will serve me well,
But when this chapter closes, only time will tell, 

The strength we require is in each of us

Saturday, 5 April 2014

A Flower of Scotland, R.I.P. Margo MacDonald

Across my life are memories of Margo MacDonald. As a very young child with my family, grouped around to watch our black and white TV, I remember the excitement when this amazing woman won her seat in the most strongly contested area of Govan. On the other side of Scotland, Govan was well away from our comfortable house in the Edinburgh suburbs. Yet, from a family who had worked in fishing and mining - we could well relate to the changes happening in Govan ship building. Back then was a time where it did seem that 'IF ONLY' Scotland's people would come together then they could work to change their world for the better. Yes, this was the time before the devastation that Thatcher's years of rule would subject Scotland to. And back then, my family had a very strong interest in politics. However, we did NOT follow a political party blindly, (because family before us had followed the same party). No! Debate was very strong in our household. Indeed,  how often I heard the remark that it didn't matter if all opinions were in agreement so much as it mattered that people actually had an opinion. It was important that people cared, cared enough to be aware of the facts so that they could try their best to do what they could to make a difference. Opinions needed to be formed through decisions made in light of the available evidence. Being widely read was a fundamental starting point and in a disagreement - it was no good to just say "that's rubbish" you had to explain why you thought another's position was wrong and solutions to problems needed to be put forward. Perhaps then, it was no wonder that I got in to student politics. Wanting to hear 'all sides' -  I went to meetings with different political parties and listened to the arguments, for and against. And it was in that period of learning that I first heard Margo MacDonald speak in person, Margo and the equally brilliant speaker, her husband Jim Sillars.

Yesterday, talking of his wife's passing, Jim Sillar's said "the brightest light in the Scottish political firmament has gone out" and indeed, it feels like this today. As shock of grief subdues in to that weary feeling of loss, it seems so personally cruel that Margo has gone just a few short months before Scotland holds its Referendum. I feel that my country could so benefit now from having her voice to speak out in debate as she has done over so many years. But note in my writing here, I am not coming down on one side or the other. I am simply expressing my thoughts that Margo has indeed been such a powerful and enduring light in Scottish politics that we greatly miss her contribution now.

Such an inspirational speaker, I heard Margo (and Jim) talk in various political and business situations. Both so powerfully articulate. But no, I did not agree with Margo on every matter. Yet, I was always interested to hear her position for I had the upmost respect for her. A person I heard on the radio, saw on TV, read in the newspapers - so many, many years passed with no thought that I might ever meet her in person but one day our paths did cross. A meeting with her which would have a lasting influence - and on a personal note I can say - Margo you are sorely missed...

One very ordinary morning I was walking to work when I saw someone struggling with a load of bags as they tried to get out of a taxi. The driver had got out on to the pavement to offer his assistance but this woman was proudly waving him away that she could manage (but there were a lot of files in bags and she seemed to be having some difficulties with her mobility). Passing by so near, I stepped forward and gave my biggest smile. In a disarming voice I commented along the lines of "Ach, another woman like my mum! One who can manage just fine - but maybe you'd take the arm of a stranger?". My friendly greeting made her look up and she laughed (I think it was a laugh at herself as much as what I had said). But then I did a double take and it was me laughing as I exclaimed "Wow! It's Margo MacDonald."

I recall she said something about me having the advantage over her because she didn't know who I was and I'd just smiled. "Ah, I'm someone of no importance" (offering again my arm to lean on she'd stepped on to the pavement). But "No" she insisted "EVERYONE is of importance to me." I had shook my head again smiling, I didn't think it was worth trying to recall my name but I certainly had great respect for what she was doing. And suddenly, right there in the street I was talking about her campaign. Her debate on Assisted Suicide so that those with terminal illness could have the right to die with dignity.

I went on to say that, having seen terminal illness first hand (as a carer) - what she was doing was of great personal importance to me. I talked about how strongly I felt that the law needed to be changed to be clear on this matter. I passionately believed, from all I had seen, that people should have the right, A FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOM TO DIE IN THE MANNER THAT THEY CHOOSE TO AND SO RETAIN THEIR DIGNITY RIGHT UP TO THE END OF THEIR LIFE. I had been deeply touched by Margo's situation and by what she was doing! Yes, I explained it had upset me to learn she was battling Parkinsons, I had a heartfelt wish that she could be in good health for many years to come. However, I saw something to be taken from all this and, for me, it seemed to be the same lesson I had observed when my mum had battled cancer. After, I had looked back on that time I realised, in that period between diagnosis and death - my mum had been given and taken her opportunity to say a very loving and powerful, long and lasting goodbye. My mum had chosen to avoid drugs which could have confused her (although they would have dulled the pain) because she had seen her remaining time as so precious, such an important opportunity to take that she had wanted to do all that she could to get things 'tidied up and sorted out before she left'. I had commented to Margo that, when I had reflected on the news of her battle with Parkinsons - yes, it was so very sad. Yet, I could flip round that terrible situation to make good come from it through a change in the law and a legacy which could benefit all who followed. Already I knew Margo was taking this opportunity, taking the time she had left to facilitate debate and realise change.  So widely known in Scotland and 'loved by many' - wasn't Margo just the right person, at the right time and in the right place to bring the end of life debate right out there in to public view? Suddenly aware that, through the surprise of our impromptu meeting - I might not be expressing myself as well as I could, I knew that everything I wanted to say really all boiled down in to two words. I just wanted to say THANK YOU!  I so greatly appreciated her courage, her bravery in tackling the debate and her staying power in not turning away from all this for an easier route.

There on the pavement, on what had been a very ordinary day, suddenly this extraordinary woman was reaching out and warmly hugging me. And in that moment there was a bond forged through the pain and inevitable pathway of terminal illness. Standing back to give me a big smile she had asked would I come in and talk over coffee. But then, realising the time I had to make my apologies to go. I had explained if I didn't leave right there and then that I would be late for work. Margo had asked where I worked and I'd named the organisation before going on my way. Nevertheless, some hours later, it was still a surprise when I was contacted at work. Margo wanted to know "when would be a suitable time for me to pop in to the parliament for a blether" - she wanted to talk some more...

I met Margo a few times after that first meeting and then the last time we met it was at a work event. I had no advance knowledge before our last meeting that I was going to see her (we had both been invited to the same function). But as ever when I arrived, there was Margo - robustly leading a debate. With a huddle of interested folk around her, she was like a Queen Bee holding court, as ever, what she was saying was being listened to with rapt attention. That day as on others I saw Margo doing great work and at this particular function she was promoting the importance of sport and exercise in building up positive habits for a healthy lifestyle and she was strongly making the case that there was a need for society to work towards improved health for all (she could make an economic case for this - that preventative treatment was better than cure but she also of the opinion - it was just the right thing to do!). Margo looked great, smiling away, chatting to everyone, arguing her case for more money to be put in to sport so that there was access to sport for all, no matter what their income. Everything appeared good with Margo yet I noticed a subtle gesture as her hand moved involuntarily to place pressure on her hip. There was no fuss, certainly no complaint from her but it was obvious to me that she was experiencing a great deal of pain. Hers was the sort of discreet gesture that I had seen my mother do the same when battling cancer. Always a smile to be shared, a friendly supportive word to be given - yet the challenges of ailing health were causing difficulty. Quietly and very discreetly, I spoke to Margo (and by this time she knew a lot about me and what I had experienced). Margo listened to my delicately put concern that she was maybe a bit tired could take a break. She gave me an intense look for a moment and then her face lit up with the biggest SMILE. A twinkle in her eye, Margo gave me a huge and knowing wink "it's a long game and I'm not done yet".   With that, Margo moved on again, taking the opportunity to get her photo taken so she might raise the profile of the campaign to benefit others. The photos taken in these next few minutes, they followed on with this last picture of us both below. A snap which turned out to be the last photo I have of one of the most remarkable women I have ever met.

Party politics colours debate - and latterly in her lengthy career, Margo stood as an independent. She stood for what she believed in and what she believed was that she could give a voice to the poor. Margo spoke up for the ones often forgotten by society, the people most in need of someone in a public position to campaign and work away on their behalf. Margo cared enough to try her best to level out the discrepancies that exist in society between the haves and have nots. Margo was a champion of the common people and in the public eye, she seemed (to me) to always be just the same totally down to earth Margo. In public or tirelessly behind the scenes, Margo worked so hard to make a difference. Perhaps, 'IF' anything was slightly different outwith the public eye it would only be that her private sense of FUN, her infectious sense of mischief  and her wickedly good humour was slightly (only slightly) toned down in public. For, even in public, how many a debate benefited from her sharp wit, brilliant word play and disarmingly quick one liners.

An independent, Margo was like a one woman army! Whatever campaign she backed it went on to benefit greatly from her support for Margo so warmly engaged with the public and shaped opinion. In Scottish life, Margo was a tremendously influential character, in and outside of the parliament. Surely, who in my country is not aware of the charismatic politician "Margo" who has worked so hard over so many years for Scotland and our people. For me, Margo's passing marks the end of an era - although she, no doubt, would be the first to say that "the game's not done yet". Life in Scotland goes on, yes of course. But Margo's legacy remains with us all and I like so many will miss her greatly. At national gatherings we so often sing "Flower of Scotland" and the words strike a chord with me in the line "oh Flower of Scotland, when will we see, your likes again?" The light that shone through Margo has gone out but her legacy lives on.

 MARGO WAS A STATESWOMAN FOR SCOTLAND, a political leader who worked tirelessly with everyone and anyone to transcend party politics and act as a promoter of good for all.

When I  think back on Margo I see a woman who you could call a 'Flower of Scotland' in that she was strong and proud and stood up ready to fight for what she believed in. She was a beautiful lady, inside and out with the greatest compassion for others. Thank you Margo for what I saw you do for the people of Scotland. Such a warm person, you retained a great sense of FUN and personal strength, able to share a ready smile with others, even in declining health. You were and always will remain to be such a great inspiration to so very many. 

R.I.P. Margo MacDonald  (19.04.43 - 4.04.14)
My thoughts go out to Margo's family and friends.