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Christmas Blog

So the month of December started and as I thought, it was always going to be a tough one, in as much as I had half the month to fit in the friends and family I have here in the UK before travelling to the States. I’m confident that family and friends will understand if I can’t get round to see everyone.

I had my first Christmas dinner with my regular friend at the Navigation located at Stoke Pound and a place I visit regularly. The meal was a great; turkey and all the trimmings followed by traditional Christmas Pud. Like me, this friend who I usually have afternoon tea with, was also busy fitting everything in, as she was off on holiday with her husband. The meal really was a delicious treat and great company as always.

I played bingo on the Friday which was my last game of 2018 and I won a full house and as caller, there were the usual comments about me fiddling the numbers (in jest) but as far as I was concerned, about bloody time!!! In the new year I’m going to the extremes of bingo calling and I’ll introduce all the usual catch phrases - key to the door 21, sweet 16, two fat ladies 88 (even for political correctness it just doesn’t sound right to say two rather large ladies!) and there are many more - I bet as you read this you’re thinking of a few - maybe even shouting them out! All I know is, we will have a laugh.

I had some bad news about a close friend and went to see him in hospital. He often visited me in the States and we have been friends for a long time so I re-arranged the weekend and on Saturday I had a trip to see my friend in Sutton Coldfield. We spent a long time drinking tea and eating mince pies - a lovely, festive and unusual combination but really pleasant chatting and putting the world to rights. I feel comfortable in her company and was disappointed that her daughters weren’t around to wish them Happy Christmas. On the Sunday I drove up to Leicester to visit my mate in hospital. On the way up my mind was full of memories of all the different things I’ve done with my friend and how much fun we’ve had and the sad fact that now we are both suffering. I eventually found his room and he was indeed glad to see me. I think we were both a little emotional, me struggling to walk to get to him, and he, well he was lying in bed, in a lot of pain and worrying about what life has in store. I won’t go into detail about what has happened, but for anyone who knows the devastating effect that sepsis can bring, I will leave it there. We started chatting and before we knew it a few hours had past and surprisingly we were both laughing and joking. I suppose the seriousness of what has happened, took a back seat. We talked about a friend I’d introduced my mate to in Sarasota who had been through the same operation and we both took some comfort from the fact that he went on to lead a very full and active life, which gave us both a great deal of encouragement and I think I left my mate feeling a bit brighter.

The Carousel that I attend (where a group of us, all with different ailments, get together to help the training of doctors and consultants) had our Christmas get together and there was not only plenty of merriment but loads of food! Knowing I have a weakness for food and perhaps having eaten a little more than I should have, I had a little doze while waiting for the trainees and I think there may have been a little snoring too!!! In my defence, the day can become tiring and long and I quite often think about stopping or reducing my involvement but then when we’re altogether I just see everyone making the effort to be there and think that actually I will carry on. I also know it’s really appreciated as they need volunteers with various ailments to test all the future medical folk who, in turn have helped me and will help future sufferers. I try and have a laugh which brightens not only my day but the group as well. Talking of humour and putting this so called guard up, I genuinely believe that being positive and having a laugh can make life that bit easier. Yes we all have down times which I’ve written about in my blogs, but it’s easier to smile and try to accept with some humour what’s going on with your body and mind rather than being. It is obviously hard sometimes, but it’s how I cope and admittedly I tend to keep the truth about my fears from those around me as it easier. That way there is no fuss and more importantly, no confirmation that something is wrong. I don’t know if this makes sense but it’s my coping mechanism. We all deal with things differently and as I’ve said many times, there are people worse off than me. OK this is getting deep. Enough!

A week later I received a visit from the friend I mentioned earlier and this really was a welcome break as she cooked lamb shanks with plenty of veg and believe it or not I declined the dessert of jam roly poly with custard! Oh yes - I do have will power! Besides which I happened to know there was a bag of Celebrations with my name on them waiting to be eaten and I needed to leave room!!! In the morning I went down to the park for a sausage and egg sandwich and to wish all the dog walkers a Happy Christmas. I just have one friend and her daughter to go - not to mention the little lad who is perhaps the highlight of all this festivity as Christmas for him is magical. I’d ordered a special, personalised book for him that featured a little boy with the same name and attributes written into the story of Father Christmas and his visit. I’d also bought him a dinosaur night light because boys like that stuff! It was lovely to see the three of them. My son and his girlfriend also visited which was a welcome surprise and I suppose that’s when my UK Christmas really began.

I started packing and believe me, I wasn’t going overboard this time, taking very as previously I was like a girl piling in too much of everything, so partly due to the fact my mate washes clothes daily, I only packed a couple of shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of trousers and some underpants. I travelled to Heathrow the day before my flight and finally jet off on the Wednesday; it was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!

The coach trip to Heathrow was a long one and due to the weather and a huge traffic jam, the coach driver decided to divert onto back roads so we got in about an hour later than scheduled resulting in my arrival at the so-called hotel being quite late. I say so-called as it appeared to be a converted house - honestly it was so small and at check-in I was offered a shared bathroom, to my horror and informed the receptionist that a room, with bathroom, had been booked. Once this had been confirmed I was given a room on the ground floor with its own bathroom. The room was so small that when I sat on the loo, my feet were in the room so if I’d fancied it, I could’ve watched a film whilst doing my business! And boy was the shower a joke - the toilet, shower and sink were in the same space which you couldn’t possibly classify as a wet room on account of it being so small (I felt like Gulliver in Lilliput) but, being so cheap and for one night only, it had to do.

The airport was great and I really appreciate the assisted flying as it makes life so easy getting to the aircraft, travelling on one of those annoying golf buggy type carts with horns continuously beeping and charging through all the passengers making their way on foot! I suppose this is typical of me doing things in my usual loud way! I had an aisle seat and waited to see who would be sitting next to me for the next eight hours; would it be a large person who’d have to squash into a small seating area? Or maybe it’ll be someone with bad hygiene? These thoughts were whirling round my head as I waited in anticipation … As it turned out I thought I’d died and arrived at the pearly gates as this young beauty with hair cascading down her back politely asked to take her seat. Hallelujah! I’m in Heaven – a gorgeous, captive audience for the duration of our flight!! I break the ice by offering her a fruit gum - yes a bloody fruit gum! Nice one Rog! But it was a start, and in fact she ended up devouring the whole packet! We had a great flight, chatting and even playing Trivial Pursuit on the screens in the head rests. What a delight – she was intelligent too - a law student travelling home to meet her parents for the holidays. The connecting flight to Tampa was different; I was stuck between two guys and we talked baseball, football and the joys of having Trump as president! Then at last we touched down in Tampa and as promised my mate was waiting there for me. Every time I see him I have that feeling of coming home. Christmas really started then. (again!)

The drive to Sarasota was full of laughs and talk of the forthcoming few weeks. We went over the Skyway Bridge and onto the I75 and that warm feeling gripped me as usual but even though we were smiling my mind flashed back to the happy times I’d spent here - but hey, I’m sure there’ll be a lot more of those. We eventually pulled onto his drive dumped my case in my usual bedroom. I unpacked and got myself settled in, sinking into my leather chair and sipping my cup of tea! Fantastic. I noticed my mate had bought a small but lovely Christmas tree in an effort to make me feel seasonal – I couldn’t wait to seed his reaction the matching Christmas shirts I’d bought. I presented them to him and he was shocked but not in a good way! He was disturbed at the thought we were going to wear matching shirts and claimed we’d look like those two in Dumb and Dumber! I told him we’d look festive, but he was having none of it although he did and reluctantly wear it in the end.

We had a busy time ahead of us before Christmas, starting with a quick visit to my regular bar/restaurant. It was great to see them all and in a way nothing had changed so for me it was a mix of great memories tinged with a little sadness because in the past we really did used to have a good time. How life changes eh? I’d also arranged to meet an old friend and past business partner who I hadn’t seen him for some time. He looked well and life has been good to him. I then had a trip to the beach with my housemate who was like a pack horse, carrying the chairs and umbrella – what an absolute star yet again! We settled and in a bid to keep my head out of the sun, I wore a hat not too dissimilar to Benny Hill’s back in the day; admittedly not the most attractive but needed, as direct sun is not good for me and that is one of the most important things I’ve learnt about MS. We sat there on the beach laughing and telling stories of our lives. It truly is a remarkable friendship when you consider that he grew up in New York and I’m from the UK yet we are similar in so many ways (although he might not thank me for the comparison!!) The following day I nipped to see a great friend who originates from Manchester in the UK. His whole family are dear to me. The granddaughter, who had grown so much, was showing me her acrobatics. I had hoped to see her mother, but she was away.

Christmas Eve we spent on the beach before going for drinks with a group of friends, particularly a lovely lady who was a friend and neighbour when I first went to America who I used to spend many a happy evening with watching American football. She’s such a lovely lady, baking cakes and generally being helpful when I lived in my first condo. Her claim is that she introduced me to the guy that I now stay with. We had a quick drink then because I was feeling tired made our excuses and left.

Waking up on Christmas morning was just exactly how I remembered it being here in the states; bright, sunny and warm. My mate and I exchanged gifts and had our usual eggs for breakfast. I have to point out here that my mate cooked me breakfast and make great cups of tea every single morning; he really is a diamond although he does always asks for a 5 star rating! I would offer to help but we both know I have a habit of dropping things so he takes control of everything (and I let him).

I called to wish my family back home a Happy Christmas and the five hour time difference caught them after dinner whereas we were relaxing and thinking about our Christmas dinner. My mate had bought a huge ham which lasted us a good few days considering we were the only two meat eaters as his partner and her daughter are vegetarians. The company was lovely and although our food tastes were different we had a great meal making Christmas a special day with lots of laughter. I also rang my Son in Ohio,” just up the road” as I used to say - well 1100 miles to be more precise!! He sounded happy too and next year I hope to see more of him as both he and his girlfriend are going to live in the UK.

We spent Boxing Day on the beach before having a meal with my ex-partner and her friend and as the four of us knew one another it turned out to be a great evening despite the awful restaurant we ended up in! I sat next to my ex who looked stunning and we arranged to meet again. The following day I booked a myself a pedicure and manicure; yes I know sometimes I act like a girl but my feet feel so good afterwards and believe me I’d looked forward to this for a while. My mate refused to come with me under any circumstances as he won’t allow anyone near his feet. I used to be the same but now it’s one of the first things I book. On the evening we visited friends and took along a pizza.

We tended to go to the beach in the daytime when we were on our own and in the evenings we generally watched TV and chatted or occasionally we’d go to a restaurant - some good and some not so good; we visited one in Gulf Gate that was so bad we left hungry. My mate was so vexed I treated him to a milkshake in Chick Filet, hoping to calm him down but as he was ordering we spotted two people who’d been in the same rubbish restaurant we’d just left who were equally disgusted with the food and like us had decided to come here for a food top-up as they were still hungry too. We came out, milkshakes in hand with my mate still cursing about the fact that all four of us were disgusted with our food and insisted I put a scathing review on Trip Advisor when we got home with him dictating whilst pacing up and down. I think he was so upset because on his first visit to this place he’d been blown away but now he felt let down and wanted to vent. To be honest I actually quite enjoyed the meal but am only confessing this now as he’s 5000 miles away!!!

Healthwise my slowness in the mornings meant a change in my routine. My balance was so bad first thing that I had to wait for my shower as I felt drained. My mate completely understands my condition and made sure I had rest days where we did very little and when we went to the beach my head was covered from the sun, seriously. Living with MS has become easier in as much as I now understand my limitations; I know I can’t walk distances and I’m prone to tiredness if I fill my days too much. My neuralgia was (and still is) playing up and my mouth was suffering with shooting pains and while the medication helps, the times we were having made up for the downs of the MS symptoms.

Most stores in the States have scooters to whizz around on and Costco is a fun shop to go in. I’m sure shoppers saw this mad Englishman hurtling around with no sense of direction, talking to everyone and delighting them with the English accent always which always seems to go down well especially in Victoria’s Secrets where they were all in stitches when I explain to the staff how I struggle searching for bras and pants!!

On New Year’s Day four of us had a picnic on the beach. We had a selection of cheeses, fruits and biscuits along with plenty of drink. The thought of sun, sea and sand on December 31st is the reason I moved to America in the first place and laughing and joking with friends like these will be another happy memory I’ll cherish for a long time. We watched the sun set which was a beautiful sight then we went home and saw the New Year in - no parties, no noise, just relaxing and spending time with a mate who has shown me so much kindness. Happy 2019!

New Year’s Day was spent at another friend’s house which was homely and welcoming with just lovely company which made me feel so relaxed I could have stayed much longer but didn’t want to outstay our welcome coupled with the fact my body was slowing down, my legs had started to drag and I was overcome with general weakness. So the following day we did precisely nothing, which was exactly what I needed.

When I was feeling livelier I arranged to meet up with another good friend; someone I originally met with my ex-wife on a cruise about 14 years ago. At the time she was pregnant and as beautiful then as she is today – now with her 13 year old daughter who is as lovely as her mother. It really was lovely catching up in her new condo. We reminisced and laughed, she continues to be a wonderful friend who I will meet up with again on my next visit.

While in the States I recall living with various ailments that I now know was the incubation of MS, like general weakness and being treated for shingles just to name two; dropping my Harley due to a leg spasm was perhaps a wakeup call but in truth, there were perhaps many more that I chose to ignore as my desperation to stay living in the States was so great and I suppose we all dismiss things as a coping mechanism to avoid facing the possibility of bad news … simple things like stopping to take power naps on drives and the vivid memory while living with my love of falling over for no reason. I’d also taken to having long afternoon naps with her little dog who used to love curling up with me. Silly I know, but I now know these were symptoms building up to the first relapse. It’s all very frightening when you think that even if I had known I couldn’t have done anything to stop it.

I suppose before I forget, I should mention the incident of my mate when he spotted bird watchers, armed with binoculars gathered at the rear of his property where there is a large pond and a lot of wildlife to be seen, including gators. The bird watchers had noticed a rare bird so my mate, like a child, ran and opened the patio doors and started squalling like a bird (well, his interpretation of one anyway) and then waited to see if the bird watchers had heard him. Not satisfied with their lack of response he asked me to watch the group as he repeated his squall then again excitedly asked me if the group had reacted. I had to say yes, as they had indeed turned, binoculars at the ready, to see where the noise was coming from! My mate was crying with laughter and decided he had to do it one more time - so off he ran, like a child - not the 69 year old he is, and he let out a loud squawk and yes the bird watchers reacted again but thankfully decided to pack up and drove off while the whole time my mate was making bird sounds and giggling. He needs help. Maybe you had to be there…?

A couple of days before I left to come home, I met the lady I left behind when I was ill. It was the second time I’d seen her but the first time on our own. The years seemed to disappear and just looking at her and I melted. She was in good spirit and it appeared all was well with her for which I genuinely am pleased. We enjoyed lunch and good conversation; she is one special lady. When she dropped me off I felt a genuine sadness settle over me - some may say I’m silly but for me, she will always be special and I sat thinking of the good times we shared and how she had helped me and looked after me – encouraging me to eat healthy and give up the sugary things I’ve always been partial to – which definitely helped when I look back. I remember with fondness the time she flew over to the UK to see me and meet my family … but enough, it is so easy to reminisce and begin to drift into a state of mind I am constantly fighting but suffice to say the time we had was well worth it and now I am smiling although sad. When I held her as she left, the feeling was magical. I felt at ease and I suppose I felt at home.

So it was finally time to leave, my mate complaining about the size of my case and the fact that I only actually wore around 20% of the contents! I think it was the thought of squeezing my case into the boot of an Audi TT that was bothering him and we ended up borrowing a car. I always hate the drive to Tampa as I know it’s time to leave my old home again. This trip I have seen good friends and made new friends. I had great times and I feel even closer to my mate who is without question the kindest of people. He always thinks of others and certainly took great care of me. Having this illness frustrates me as I wanted to do more, like carrying the beach chairs, helping with food, going for walks and basically doing all the things I used to. Sadly that’s all impossible but I did what I could and I hope I did manage to bring a smile to all we met and leave behind just as happy memories as the ones I am taking away.

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ROGER SOUTHALL. PROUDLY CREATED WITH WIX.COM