Wendy's life

This blog has been created as a celebration of the life of Wendy Margaret Cronin (born 16 October 1944 and died 10 October 2007). The blog owner (me) is Steve McRobb (aka Macro) - I was Wendy's partner and then husband for almost 30 years. To add comments or a post, you must be an invited friend or family member - email me if you knew Wendy and would like to join.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The art of grief: ten years of memorial walks

I suppose all bloggers must wonder who, if anyone, is reading their output. I wonder sometimes if I am writing this blog just for myself, as a tribute to a woman I loved, or perhaps mainly for Wendy's inner circle, who must already know pretty much everything I think to write. If that's the case, the blog is really here just to act as a record and a reminder. Necessarily selective and incomplete, but I hope I capture some essence of events you may recall with different detail and emphasis.  If I am reaching a wider circle who knew Wendy, but maybe not well, then I hope this adds to your understanding of the woman you remember. If I am also writing for an audience of strangers, who never knew Wendy, then perhaps I can hope to portray some of the character of a woman that, if you had known her, you might have liked and admired, as so many of her friends and colleagues did. And, incidentally, share with you a story of love, loss and survival.
This year was the 10th anniversary of Wendy's death. Once again, the date has made me reflect on the non-existent future that we imagined we had, right up until that fateful diagnosis in July 2007. What would Wendy and I be doing today, if she had lived? Actually, I think my life would probably not be that different on the surface. We'd both be retired (I was still working when she died), spending our time on hobbies and family and travel. She would have welcomed Sam's growing little family, and most especially her great-granddaughter Wynter. She'd have loved to see that new little life emerge and grow. She'd have really enjoyed visiting Celia, the granddaughter with whom she always had such a close bond, now grown up and at University. 
It's not difficult to believe that she might have shared the interest in bird watching that I only began to develop in earnest after she died (when she was no longer there to tell me what I'd seen, I had to learn to identify the birds myself). We might have moved house, and might as a result now be making a new garden - she'd have loved that, too. I'm sure we'd be travelling whenever we could, and she'd be as keen as ever to see more of the world, to meet new people in foreign cultures, and to make her characteristically faltering attempts to communicate with them in their own language. We would probably have added a few more mountains and long distance footpaths to our tally. She might still be working on her piano playing - I wonder if by now she would have mastered the tricky bit in Für Elise? And I wonder if by now she would have finally learned to swim, properly, with confidence and out of her depth? She'd certainly still be complaining to me about the time I spend in my study, typing away at my computer, or editing my photos, or recording my songs.
But this was always an imaginary future, and it was simply not to be. Instead, my life in this alternate reality, this afterlife, continues along roughly the same course as before. Except that I now pass my life with Angela, my new love. And without Wendy, my dead love. When someone leaves the world, the world continues along its path with the same thundering momentum. We might pause and turn aside for a time while we come to terms with our personal loss and learn to manage the pain, but the pace of events beyond our inner lives never slows. And, though we never realise it at the time - maybe we cannot realise it for the sake of our sanity - all our futures are imaginary. A future only becomes real at the instant that it transmutes into the present, and then just as swiftly it recedes into the past.
One completely new aspect of my life is that I mark - we mark, Wendy's family and friends - each anniversary of her death with a pair of memorial walks. The inspiration for this was the mountain walk I took by myself just after Wendy had died, on what would otherwise have been her birthday weekend, during which we would have climbed her birthday mountain together. So these memorial walks are an echo in this reality of the birthday walks we might have taken together in that imaginary future, had her death not made this present my reality instead of that one. 
(By the way, I said in an earlier post that Wendy had begun to call these annual mountains her MOT; she insisted that if a year came when she failed, I'd trade her in for a newer model. Ten years on, I'm beginning to wonder if they have become my annual MOT.)
Anyway, during that first walk, in between tears and pangs of grief, I decided to make this a regular annual event - really a continuation of the walks Wendy and I had done together for so many years - and that I would invite friends and family to join me on the future walks. 
The 'mountains' (not all really deserve to be called mountains) we've climbed on these memorial walks is now quite extensive. Each has its Wendy link:
  • Hellvellyn (my first solo memorial walk). Wendy and I attempted this once in about 1982 on a walking holiday in the Lakes. We tried to go up Striding Edge in thick mist, and returned to Patterdale defeated. On this first memorial walk I toasted her with malt whisky, and left her photo in the summit cairn.
  • Scafell Pike. Wendy never climbed this, though we set off to attempt it once in 1989. She blamed me for putting "an unnecessary mountain" (Glaramara) in the way en route. Out of about 10 of us, only Gary and I made the final summit. Later I learned that Wendy particularly wanted this one, because it would have given her Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike all within 12 months. On this first anniversary walk, I made that up to her as far as I could. And also left a little bit of her on the mountain: I carried her ashes with me on the ascent and we scattered them over the summit cairn before we left.
  • Snowdon. We climbed Snowdon a number of times, but our first attempt, with the kids in about 1980, was a wipe out after I led us into a slate quarry soon after the Gladstone monument - trying and failing to follow the Watkin path. My map reading has improved a bit since then. On the memorial walk, Ben and I took the 'interesting' route up Crib Goch and met the main party on the summit.
  • Ingleborough Hill. Another summit we climbed a number of times, starting with Leicester University Expedition Club outings in the late 1970s, and continuing into the 1980s with camping trips with the kids. One night, we were camped in the Hill Inn field and there was a dreadful storm. Down the slope from us, a young couple from Lancashire had a huge argument when she learned he'd only brought one sleeping bag and expected her to share it with him. She said that wasn't how her mum had brought her up, and stormed off (appropriately) to get a single room in the pub, while he went off to the bar to drown his disappointment. Later he came back drunk and still angry, and tried to leave but got his car stuck in the mud: we could hear him revving the engine and spinning the wheels to no effect. Finally he gave up and slept alone in his tent. Later in the night, one of our tent poles buckled and the rain got into the lower end of the tent. Duncan (aged about 9 or 10) complained his sleeping bag was in a puddle, and Wendy said "well, crawl uphill until you're on a dry bit." We really didn't want to go out in the night to sort the tent out, and there wasn't much else we could do anyway.
  • Kinder Scout. Another peak Wendy and I climbed many times, starting when the kids were little. With Edale just a day out from Melton, this was our closest real mountain. Usually we went up Grindsbrook and came down Jacob's Ladder, with its famous, and very pushy, sandwich-eating sheep.
  • Beacon Hill. Not really a mountain, but Leicestershire's highest. A popular walk for us on autumn and winter Sunday mornings, alternating over many years with Bradgate Park and Swithland Woods.
  • Burrough Hill. Another non-mountain, but our local hill and the default choice for a summer's day family walk, especially when Tim and Anita came to visit with the grandkids, or when the wind was up and Duncan fancied flying his kites. 
  • Pen y Fan. The last mountain Wendy and I climbed together, on her last birthday weekend in 2006.
  • Worcestershire Beacon. The last hill Wendy climbed, in April 2007. She'd been immobilised by back pain since February (actually her fatal cancer, though we didn't know it then) and was going "stir crazy." We went to Malvern because it was the furthest, prettiest place she thought she could reach by train. We arrived on Friday afternoon, and by the time we got to our B&B Wendy was exhausted and went straight to bed. On Saturday morning she struggled slowly up the Beacon (it took her hours) and was so pleased and proud of herself at the top. I took a selfie of the two of us on my phone, and later found she'd captioned it "Mr and Mrs Smug go to Malvern."
  • Arthur's Seat. I don't have a clear memory of climbing Arthur's Seat with Wendy, but we used to go to Edinburgh at festival time, starting when Tim and Duncan were in Melton Youth Theatre and had shows on at the fringe. She said it was her favourite city anywhere, and we went for many more years. At first we camped in the Municipal campsite at Cramond (since gone), then in various  B&Bs around the city. Once we stayed in the North Queensferry Hotel right by the far end of the Forth rail bridge. Always we ate in good restaurants - Mexican, Lebanese or Scottish seafood as it might be. The memorial walk this year was the best attended since Scafell Pike 8 years earlier, maybe a confirmation of her judgement on Edinburgh.
  • Hatterall Hill. Wendy and I crossed this ridge in (I think) 1988 on our first section of the Offa's Dyke path. We had set off with the aim of completing the whole 167 miles, but got so wet coming off this ridge, over Hay Bluff and down to Hay on Wye, that we gave up the walk for that year. We picked the path up again the following summer and made it all the way to Prestatyn that year. For various reasons (see below), this was the first memorial mountain walk I did solo since the very first one, 10 years earlier.
The first year I organised a mountain memorial walk (Scafell Pike), I realised that some of Wendy's friends might want to take part but not be interested in a real mountain, especially if this involved travelling somewhere remote for the weekend. So the 'softies' or Hambleton walk was born. This also continues every year, usually one weekend before or after the mountain version.
Every year there are memorable details to savour afterwards. This year, the mountain party was small - only seven of us were able to make it. But five, in two separate cars, got stuck the wrong side of roadworks and had to find a hotel in Hereford for the night, while Angela and I, in our capacious camping barn in Llanthony, wondered where they had got to and what had happened to them. We finally all met in Hay on Wye on Saturday morning, but it was such a wet, blustery day there was no appetite for a mountain. Instead, we browsed the bookshops and teashops of Hay. Afterwards we went to the Llanthony Priory Hotel for a meal and plenty of drinks, and all agreed this was a thoroughly Wendy way to spend the weekend. Not just "bugger the view" but "bugger the mountain." I climbed the mountain on my own on Sunday after everyone but Angela had gone home.
This year's Hambleton walk was equally memorable in a very different way. For the first time in ages, all of Wendy's nuclear family was together, and Sam also brought his little family including Dexter and little Wynnie. Four generations of Wendy's family celebrating her memory and Wynnie not a year old, but already taking part in her great-grandmother's memorial walk - not bad for a little 'un! 
One final thought, and the reason for the first part of the title of this post. A couple of years ago, while visiting Tim and Anita in Whitstable, I happened on a Hamish Fulton exhibition at the Turner Gallery in Margate. What a pleasure to discover that in choosing an activity to memorialise Wendy's life, I'd inadvertantly hit on an art form whose existence I'd not even noticed before. I like that these annual events are in some sense a work of art, and I think Wendy would have liked that, too. Or maybe she'd have seen it as just a little bit pretentious...


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