I was already back in the family home in Anglesey when the great Covid-19 lockdown became a matter of when, and not if. My dad had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and it was clear that he did not have long to live. We’d taken him in, and brought him back home from an all but deserted district hospital. Confused student nurses still in their scrubs were catching trains, bags on their backs, waving goodbye to their new friends until who knew when. I remember kneeling on the floor and crying.
Although it was hard being away from my daughters in Cardiff at such a weird time for them, I knew I was in the right place. My girls are young, and they will bounce back into a bright new future, no matter how uncertain it looks right now. The only thing I could do was hold on to the present as hard as my dad was trying to. To watch, and cherish and wait. Look for fragments in each day. Moments of lucidity and connection during long quiet days. Memories that we could cling on to, when the looming aching absence became a reality.
100 days ago I laced up my trainers and set off up the steep lung bursting hill to the lighthouse at South Stack, and then up Holyhead Mountain. It was a bright, brash spring afternoon. Gorse flowers were illuminated by the sun, soft yellow firework bursts against a spiky military green backdrop. I swore frequently and jovially as I started my semi-controlled run and fall down the other side of the mountain (I’m not much of a fell runner) and raced the Irish Ferry into the port. Gasping back up the last hill to the house, I paused to look for my dad’s favourite trick of light, where faraway chimneys silhoutte against the sea like giant canoeists paddling for the shore.
From then until now, the eve of lockdown, I’ve run every day. The day my dad died. And the day of his funeral. The days I wrote speeches and delivered training courses. The days I drank too much and the days I tried much harder to be there for everyone around me. I ran and I ran. Into town. Up the mountain. Along the coast path. Through the fields. I found out that actually I didn’t need a break and my legs and lungs can get used to plenty more punishment, if I was in the mood to dish it out. And I found that my mind needed it, craved it. I don’t think I was running away from anything, I think I was running to stand still. To clear my mind enough to stay in the present. To remind me who my dad was, and what the illness was, and that they were not the same.
As I padded across the soft mud coastal path on my favourite route, I started to realise that the things in life that really made me happy were few, and simple. Sea air, sunshine, open countryside, family and friends. Enough good food to eat, hot showers and clean clothes. Ok, and a couple of beers. The rest just seemed to retreat into fluff and nonsense. I know that lots of people have had their mindsets challenged by lockdown, and by the passing of a loved one. And I know too that much of this might feel like forgotten new years resolutions in a few months time. We’ll see. I will say that not a run went by when I didn’t thank my lucky stars that I was locked down surrounded by wild, open and deserted coastline. It has been tougher for most. It allowed me to escape the smaller hard realities, and connected me to nature. And to my dad. My first memories of us together involve early morning moonlit walks along the seafront with our dog, Prince. Before school. Before work. When the milkman had not long finished his rounds, bottles still on doorsteps. Skipping stones and sinking German submarines (in the shape of errant logs and plastic bottles).
The sea has always been there, whether I’m walking or running, giving a welcome and understanding edge to the world. A blessed full stop at the end of a difficult sentence. I hugged it tighter with each run.
And now back in Cardiff. Six weeks since the funeral. I’m still running to stand still and stay present. The city parks, normally my favourite part of the city, are a poor substitute for the north Wales coast. But, they provide some sort of peace, if you can avoid the ever widening teenage huddles.
Today I’ll lace up my trainers and run for the 100th day in a row and my legs don’t feel tired at all.