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Battles then and now!


by Joanne Friel

2am spasms are not the most helpful thing but I have become all too accustomed to tapping away on my iPad in the middle of the night in order to forget about the restlessness in my legs. Having MS is not much fun but if I can smile I can get past those 2am moments. This story has kept a smile on my face (or is it a grimace?)

I was born in 1959, a lady doesn't normally reveal her age but in this case it's significant to the end of the story. Diagnosed with MS in 2002, I carried on working with the careers service, tearing up and down the country to manage the takeover of new contracts, sorting out everything from constructive dismissal to car park passes.

Increasingly frustrated by not being able to run for trains and carrying laptops (even specially provided lightweight ones) and just abnormally tired, I came to the dreaded decision to seek early retirement on health grounds. After 27 years with the same organisation, in all its different guises, I left somewhat bewildered as to what would come next.

My three adult children were at the university stage and my husband was working long hours and often abroad on business. I wondered what I was going to do. I spent a year sleeping, going to endless rounds of medical appointments and seeing a specialist physiotherapist to grapple with the wires and electrode pads of FES. There were lots of cups of coffee too and lunches with my former colleagues.

But I needed a function, a purpose, something to do where I could organise my own time according to the level of power in my legs each day. It didn't take too long before I stumbled, literally, on an idea. I am a history graduate and have always loved the subject, I live in a road named after a semi famous person so I decided to look into the story of this man which then led me to become embroiled in the lives of other Victorian characters. I spent hours on the Internet, paid my subscription to Ancestry and before I knew it I was ordering birth and death certificates and generally poking about in the lives of other people long since dead.

My daughter called me a stalker and my son became particularly irritated when I kept referring to 'my dead boy', the lad who I discovered had lived in our house before meeting his untimely death in the First World War. I had to get out more, and not just into graveyards with my patient husband as my foot soldier and photographer where I couldn't physically get across the uneven, albeit hallowed, ground.

I joined the local civic society and soon found myself offering to give talks on local history topics. I sat at my computer researching and working up PowerPoint slides, then took my perching stool (or rather got other people to carry my paraphernalia for me, it's wonderful what authority a walking stick can command) and did short talks near to home.

One such talk was on the effects of the Second World War on our little town to a group of ten year olds at a local primary school. The children were amazing. They had dressed up for the day as evacuees complete with cardboard gas mask boxes. One child had even cut a yellow star to wear on his lapel. I was quite choked to see this Jewish emblem so evocatively displayed.

We settled down in class and I talked about the blitz, the home guard and the children who had been rescued from Prague and brought to our town. I told them about an elderly gentleman whom I had met, who had sheltered from the bombing with his family in the chalk caves which are also part of our local landscape. I asked the children how old they thought he was during the war. A forest of hands went up, eager to guess at the answer, "60, Miss?" was the first shot, "no, think again" I replied, "40, Miss" they came back with. After several more misses, literally, we eventually worked out that the gentleman in question would have been the same age then as they were now.

At this point I realised that maths and history didn't go together in their minds. This became ever more apparent as we moved back in time to the subject of Armistice Day. I asked them "Which day do we especially remember?" Another show of desperate hands shot up, keen to tell me "5th of November, Miss?" Eventually, someone worked out that it was actually the 11th that I was after, rather than bonfire night! On asking what time of day we stop to remember, I wasn't remotely surprised when they came back with 9 O'Clock rather than the more usual scenario of 11.

It really was a fun session and the pupils were keen to find out more. I noticed one child, wriggling away, desperate to ask me her killer question. I was poised ready to answer complex and insightful questions requiring me to use all the research I had diligently prepared; I had done my homework, nothing was going to floor me (with MS planning ahead is key, and I am not unused to being floored so to speak!). However, no amount of forethought had remotely prepared me for what came next. Pointing at my walking stick she innocently asked, "What did you do in the war, Miss?" Aargh, now you know why I state the year of my birth, either these children need a better maths teacher or more likely I need a makeover - my own parents were only children themselves in 1940.

I can laugh about it and so too can my colleagues back at the Society. Not surprisingly when I relayed the incident, I quickly earned the nickname of 'war veteran' and often get introduced as such.

I wish I didn't have MS and that I could walk and play with these children but you know if I didn't have this condition I would never have altered my career and I would never have had the privilege of sharing their World War day with them. I smile at the recollection and hope there will be many more, but perhaps I'll go to the hairdressers first next time and having just become an official HAG (Heritage Action Group member) that hairdressers appointment might be all the more urgent!

Joanne Friel (Primary Progressive MSer)


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Edited by Nigel Bartram and illustrated by Olga Hendel