By Alison April 10, 2007 21 Comments 4 Min Read

One must also accept that one has "uncreative" moments. The more honestly one can accept that, the quicker these moments will pass.  One  must  have the courage to call  a halt , to feel empty and discouraged."
Etty Hillesum. 

Sometimes I go  away. Not literally. For the most part I go no further than the garden gate. But still I am away. Away from everything that usually drives me. Away from the voices in my head forming sentences I will speak later. Away from constant shopping lists and television.  Away from  nights sat up for no reason other than it is too early to go to bed. Away.

I saw a lady die in Marks and Spencers on Saturday. Staff surrounding her as the ambulance man tried in vain to save her life. I couldn’t stop staring. I walked around the store and found myself drawn back to the spectacle of sudden, unexpected death. My eyes fixed on the gap between her neat little old lady jeans and her pop socks.  I wanted to walk away. To go fill my basket with fig scented candles and a ham and mustard sandwich. To turn away from the sheer indignity of drawing a crowd in your dying moments but I couldn’t. I stood horrified. Helpless as the men in green looked at each other in a way that said enough now, enough, let her go. And I wanted to shout. To insist they put her shoe back on or at least take her other one off. Because this neat little lady wouldn’t have liked it. She wouldn’t want to think of herself lying there, one shoe on and the other jammed under her left leg. I’m sure she wouldn’t have liked it at all.
Some things stay with you. They creep back into your mind when there should be only nothingness. I feel today as if I will worry about that womans shoes and the slightly mottled skin of her bare legs ever after. Like it will stay with me unresolved till it is my turn.

And yet it isn’t only the big things that pre-occupy me. It is the pile of newspaper cuttings in the blue spotty file I am yet to read. It is the as yet untried recipe for a watercress tart I can’t stop thinking about and it is the wonder of seeds turning into shoots and shoots turning into bold upright dancing plants that is also filling my mind. I lie in bed and wonder what is happening to my little seedlings. Whether you really can create something wonderful out of something so tiny. I’ve never really been green fingered. Never stopped to consider the teeny miracle that is planting and hoping and watching and growing and being. You take things for granted don’t you? You see gardens created by nature and you don’t give it a second thought. My beloved little chamelia blooms year after year and I never go near it, terrified of interfering with something I do not understand. And yet for the first time in seven years my daffodils are blind: they needed human interjection, to divide them and re-plant them. To give them hope for another year.

I didn’t know you see? Didn’t know my daffodils needed me.

And so this is how it happens. Life in it’s own softly spoken voice reminds us what is to be done. I become pre-occupied with things I have never thought of before. Tiny lessons I need time to learn. And so I go away. I climb into bed early and finish piles of books I’ve not had the brain space to absorb before. I switch off the noise and potter around the house in silence, noticing all at once what needs doing, what will not see me through another year. I peek in the the little green cupboard and whisper to my seedlings and make an occupation of planning my little potted back yard. Tracking down the perfect tomato plants and finding wonder in the sheer possibilities contained in the smallest seed packets. I bake and  clean  and tidy and  dream and find my way back to  my everyday.

I will not be glib. I will not say that this because I saw a lady die  when she least expected to.  That I went away because my head can’t come to terms with the gentle cruelty of not having time to say goodbye. Nor wonder for ever more whether the girl looking for her Nana in the pan department would have to deal with something too flourescent to ever come to terms with.  Whether she would have to be the one to tuck her Nana’s foot back into her tan coloured shoe. Some things are what they are and we have to take from them anything we need to re-assess our own lives. Because there is nothing else to be done. No other way to honour what we have seen.

And so I see this time out from myself as simply that: a time to escape myself and the stupid demands I am constantly making on myself emotionally. A time to re-focus. To look at life in the teeniest of detail, to dwell on  the fullness of  living the best way we know how and to plant seeds for tomorrow while acknowledging that tomorrow isn’t a God-given right.


  1. Mimi says:

    Gosh, what an awful thing to see. It must have felt so intrusive to be there, and yet so compelling too, as though by bearing witness to such a thing you are not letting her go unheeded.
    Hmmm, when I was thinking, it sounded more eloquent in my head.
    Such a lovely, thoughtful post. Thanks, Alison

  2. lazylol says:

    How sad.
    What a lovely thoughtful post though, I agree.
    Alison, you are a gem.

  3. Joanne says:

    I had a friend die unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago. It really made me think about treasuring the people in my life more – and letting them know that I do! You're right – you can plan for tomorrow, but tomorrow isn't guaranteed – for any of us. Today is all we have, for doing and loving and being…

  4. Amy says:

    That is sad, but then again it's always a very good and timely reminder that life is precious, we just don't know when we are going to go…

  5. June says:

    A truly thoughtful post, Alison. I am sorry for the poor lady who died, her family and friends, all the shoppers who were suddenly confronted with their own mortality, and for you having experienced this. Life has a way of reminding us that we need to treasure each and every moment. It hurts when anyone dies, whether a loved one or a stranger–there's a place in all of us that is touched. Bless you, Alison!

  6. Sue says:

    I don't know what to say, other than how terribly sad. I'm sure that moment will cross you mind so many times in years to come and will always bring you up with a jolt.
    Perhaps you could plant one of your little seedlings for her, and nurture it.

  7. Simone says:

    It seems all the more profound happening at Easter weekend. You write with such clarity Alison that I almost feel I witnessed it myself. When events like this happen it does make us re-evaluate our lives and see just what matters most to us. Soldier on with your planting Alison….X

  8. Aina says:

    Oh my, you have a god given talent for writing ! This is the best little post i have been reading for a long long time. I could see it all happening in front of me. And you are right, occupied with thouhts thats meaningless and instead you should have been taking care of things that really matters. I couldn`t stop thinking about that poor woman though, without her one shoe. Strange..
    Somethimes we dont take the time to think, and i mean really think. I often say to my boyfriend, listen to me, really listen to me. Or look, really look! I feel that people sometimes just exist instead of living.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and i have to say, you made me think 🙂
    Greetings from a Norwegian girl who lives in The Netherlands

  9. Alison, I understand some of what you are feeling. I work in a trauma center, reviewing cases and keeping research data. My job can be somewhat gritty (much like what you witnessed), and I find myself "going away" sometimes, also. Losing myself in beauty (both manmade and natural), talking to God, trying to lose myself in friends and family, knowing that none of us knows when we will next see the other.
    You are doing exactly what you should with the memory of what you witnessed….you are reaffirming how special the blessing of life is. I wish you the peace and happiness that follows that acknowledgment…and thank you for reminding all of us, also.
    With love, Andrea

  10. This post reminds me why I keep reading your blog. You touched me so deeply with the picture in my head of this small lady's shoe. If only I could touch people's hearts with words as you do. I have witnessed death as a hospital worker and it always stunned me for days. Treasure today and know that your words touch so many hearts here in "blogland".

  11. Sarah says:

    That was quite a post Alison. I've witnessed something similar myself and you've expressed perfectly what it feels like. Thank you.

  12. Sharon says:

    Death always hits us hard, whether we are expecting it or not. We recently lost a lovely young man, a school friend of my 16 year old twins ~ a twin himself, to a sister, just like my two are brother-and-sister twins ~ who my husband and I first "met" at the parents-to-be class. He had been in remission from leukemia but it came back and no more could be done. We all knew he had only a couple more weeks left but when he finally passed away, it hit everyone like a brick. My husband and I weren't close friends with his parents but thinking about him and the family he has left behind still makes me want to weep. Life is precious, we should all make the most of our days but life has a tendency to "get in the way" and we forget how sacred it truly is until we are confronted with the reality ~ and finality ~ of death, whether that be someone close to us or a stranger whose passing we just happen to be witness to.
    (((hugs))) to you Alison

  13. Leigh Ann says:

    What an unsettling experience. I had something similar when I saw someone get run over by a truck. You just can't stop it from entering your head. It consumes your thoughts for a while and you just have to talk it out and seek the comfort of the "normal".
    Thanks for sharing. I had been wondering if you were okay.

  14. Mari says:

    Darling Alison,
    I wonder if you know how much your beautiful words comfort, inspire, brighten and uplift so many. Reading your posts for more than a year now, I feel you to be another of my fabulous girlfriends that I am so thankful for.
    I am so sorry my friend that you had to be witness to something so sad. I am so sorry for the lady who passed, and for the family who lost her.
    You touched my heart today, as always.

  15. Sandybeach says:

    One of your very best posts, Alison.

  16. Gayla says:

    It is just a breath that separates us… alive, alive… alive still… now dead. We manage best when we forget, but we manage richer when we remember, I think. I understand and send you a big hug. We don't expect to confront mortality alongside the beans and bacon, do we. Love you, sweet sister. G.

  17. Bea says:

    Yes, these sorts of experiences do tend to prompt a lot of existential questions, and while not everyone subscribes to this view, I do think the cliche of everything happens for a reason is valid. Going further in your thinking about how that incident may be connected to things in your own current experience may help to find some peace about the whole unsettling matter. Such dramatic moments are often the greatest opportunity for understanding our lives and ourselves better, and that understanding can be very comforting in itself.

  18. Janey pike says:

    Alison you are a real woman with real feelings ad that is why i love to read your blog. Gosh I could feel that I was there iwth you. I wanted to hold your hand and squeeze it tight. Poor you for coping with that alone in the middle of all those people.
    I understand that this blog lets you get off your chest your true feelings cos I feel them too.
    Keep letting all your cyber sisters up to date because we are all there with you. I have missed your more frequent posts however I appreciate just how hard it is as a single Mum.
    Have fun.Live life, laugh often , love much.
    Hugs Janey xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  19. Kerry says:

    Reading this entry into your blog reminds me of my own similar experience. I was riding the bus home one night many years ago and while stopped in the traffic I looked down into the car next to me, which happened to be an ambulance. From the angle I was looking I could see through the privacy blinds at what was going on inside. It was two paramedics giving a very old man c.p.r., and it was magnetising to glimpse into, by sheer accidental positioning of the bus, the final (perhaps) moments of a strangers life. It was so confronting to me and so removed from me at the same time. I think about that old man and those few seconds in the traffic I spent with him often and I wonder if that will be me someday. I just realised I have never told anyone that story before….maybe it frightens me too much.

  20. Kimberly says:

    I am a nurses aide in a nursing home in the states. I like my job but its very demanding and tough. I have held the hands of the dying. I am the first person to notice death, the one that cleans the body before a last minute visit from the family or before the undertaker comes to get the body. Things like finding the person's favorite sweater becomes a big deal and an issue of pride in my line of work. You don't want the families last memory to be unpleasant and even if nobody looks at that person until the funeral you can't bear to send them away without some dignity. It's not an unusual thing to feel- I think its human to want to put that woman's shoe back on. We have dignity in life and death is just another side of it.

  21. wendy says:

    Hi Alison,
    REALLY loved this post. You have been quoted again m'dear, and i hope its okay, on one of my other blogs here:

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