When my mum died suddenly, shockingly, she was far too young. I’d spoken to her that morning and she’d started listing what she was cooking for a party she was throwing for a friend’s birthday. I cut her off because I had to work, saying, ‘I’ll ring you back later.’
But a couple of hours after that call in 2004, she collapsed at her home in Glasgow with a cerebral haemorrhage so catastrophic that the doctor told us she would have been brain-dead before she hit the floor.
She was 71.
When something like that happens, the shock and disbelief prevents you from grieving straightaway. I had to view her body twice before I began to accept it was true, and even then in the days and weeks afterwards I kept thinking I’d spotted her in the street. I’d rush up and overtake some stranger, only to realise they were nothing like her. I slept with a sweater of hers, inhaling her perfume.
The funeral was a haze of 500 people, all extremely distressed. We found out things we’d never known: she had bought a whole wardrobe of baby clothes for a penniless 16-year-old single mum; and once a month she’d lend her house for a few hours to a couple who were in love but both trapped in unhappy marriages, leaving lunch for them in the kitchen and clean sheets in the bedroom.
When I got back to London, I headed straight to Hampstead Heath women’s pond, and that’s where I swam out my grief. I’d discovered the pond two decades earlier, finding the gate hidden among trees with its sign saying ‘Women Only’. The pond was bottle-green and opaque, and a noticeboard gave the temperature as 14C.
I asked a fellow bather if there were lockers and she said, ‘No need. We trust each other.’
That first day, the water felt silky, a heron fished at the far end and a kingfisher flitted across my peripheral vision: it was love at first swim. The irritations of the day dissolved as I drank in the surroundings. Two ducks landed inelegantly nearby; clouds floated above; and there was silence.
I settled into a pattern of lunchtime swimming, and once I started swimming through the winter, I became friends with an ever-increasing group of women, all of them slightly eccentric in the best possible way.
So when I got home after the funeral, I knew where to go. I could leave practical worries at the ‘Women Only’ sign and just think about Mum as I swam up and down. The endorphin rush from the cold was better than any antidepressant.
I’d remember childhood holidays, funny things she’d said, peculiar outfit choices (she had a love of sequins and a shoe collection to rival Imelda Marcos).
Twice, I stayed in the water too long and gave myself mild hypothermia It became an addiction: I felt bereft if I couldn’t get there for a day.
When my dad passed away in 2013, it was an old man’s death after a gradual decline, so there was none of the shock I’d felt when Mum died. And this time I knew where I could heal. There’s a place down near the end of the pond where a tree overhangs the water and sunspots dance, and when I float there, all is right with the world.