Smelling the Roses

5 minute read time.

I was at the gym a week or so back and a couple of other old blokes were bemoaning various wrongs. One of them asked me if I complained about everything too? It may be a right or expectation to become more reactionary as we get older, and I don’t think I will completely resist this! However, having agreed on a couple of points, I said “and we need to make time to smell the roses.”

The origins of this idiom are unclear, it is possibly an adaption of a quote from golfer Walter Hagen who said;

“You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”

The widely accepted meaning of this is to encourage us to appreciate the beauty of life, and that much of this beauty is in the small and everyday things that we easily overlook and under appreciate because of our busy lifestyles. Or because our overwhelmingly serious medical conditions blot out everything else!

And I have felt quite mentally battered by the last few weeks. Having been ready for major surgery, which I fully expected to be having this week, and now waiting on a second opinion regarding my heart, I do realise that the stress is getting to me a bit. Days are blurring together, and I am super-sensitive to the sound of my phone.

But, it is spring and, while the roses are not quite out yet, I have appreciated the increasing daylength and the freshness and tempo increase as nature rolls out of winter. Autumn and spring, the seasons of change and my favourite times of year.

In April, my youngest son and a nephew came to stay. There’s quite an age gap between them but they have a shared interest in the natural world and both work in nature conservation, and they have become good friends. We got out and about on Exmoor and the Somerset Levels. We heard bitterns booming, saw sand martins hawking across the water and, my highlight, got a brilliant view of a large pike, lurking in a pool among the reeds. A week or so later, an old friend visited, and we walked around the flank of Dunkery Beacon and heard a cuckoo, and then saw it, the first time I have ever seen one!

And the nightjars are back! In ‘High Noon, Again’, I described the starling ‘murmuration’s’ that can be experienced in Britain during the winter, a stunning natural spectacle, and one that is becoming increasingly well known and appreciated. Well, nightjars are another wonder of nature and a very different experience. Nightjars are a quite bizarre bird. They arrive from Africa in May and are incredibly brilliantly camouflaged. Chances are, you will never see one in daylight. They have huge mouths and hunt insects at night. Their call is an alien sounding churring, which vibrates across their territory. This strange sound and their nocturnal habits led to many myths forming around them, including that they drink milk from goats…

Last year, we found a brilliant nightjar location. Within sight of our house and less than a mile away. Last week, we walked there in the last hour or so of daylight. There’s a bench on the hilltop, it nestles back into a line of trees and, if you sit quietly, as night gently folds around you, you are almost invisible in the shadows. You become part of the landscape as nature goes about its nocturnal business around you.

The view is North across the water to Wales and East, up the Bristol Channel towards Bristol and Cardiff. A jet skier was booming around the bay, as unaware of us as we were aware of them. Music drifted up from Butlins. The dusk slowly settled around us. The jet skier went back to the harbour and the music faded. We sat quietly, together. I’ve known this hill for over 25 years and been here so many times before; in the dark, in the sun, in the rain, and in the snow. The bench is dedicated to someone who loved this place, and I can feel why. I began to think that, maybe, the 9th of May was just a little early in spring for the nightjars to have arrived?

And then, a churring. We looked at each other. Nightjars. Well, a male nightjar. The churring is a territorial call used by the males to attract a mate and deter other males. The sound can travel for up to a mile and you can often here more than one bird as they establish and hold their territories. We quietly walked down across the heathland, in the lambent light of a thin crescent of moon, as three or four nightjars churred at each other from different directions. On a warm spring evening, I can’t think of a better place to be.

I was smelling the roses.

The day before, I had experienced another idiom. ‘Wake up and smell the coffee.’ Literally, a wake-up call and used to alert someone to the fact that they may be missing an important point. I met with my oncology consultant and one of my ‘named’ nurses. We reviewed my most recent scans and discussed the impact of my heart valve on the proposed major cancer surgery. The team were explicit in telling me that the cancer surgery was my only chance of living for much longer than another year. The palliative options are limited, and end game bowel cancer is messy and painful; It’s not a Hollywood sad but beautiful fade out. We don’t know if the surgery is possible, and we don’t know when we will know. We wait. And it’s hard.

I have been contacted by the Hope counselling service and I have my first counselling session in early June. I think, a professional and detached person to talk with will be very helpful.

This weekend we are going to visit our middle child and his fiancée. And meet the future in-laws. Gosh, I’m at that stage in life now! And next week, I will be taking friends to listen to the nightjars. The roses will soon be out, and I will be pausing to smell the flowers along the way.

This is the end of part 4 of my journal. Apologies, I had promised ‘Hospital Bingo’ and ‘Hospital Trip Adviser,’ I will finish these for part 5.

15th May 2024

  • Thanks for bringing those places to life. I spent today in some local wetlands, teeming with new life. The sand martins had arrived there too. The swifts have arrived on my street - May is definitely well under way. This is my second year of wondering if I am seeing each seasonal event for the last time and I encounter each one with delight tinged with sadness. I hope they can find a way to complete your surgery, daunting though it is. 

  • Cracking blog and well done for remaining so positive - life goes on - and you are so right to grasp every second. I know how important it is to keep active - keep positive and keep doing the things we love.

    Counselling is so important - as you say talking to someone detached will enable you to free yourself of things you may not wish to burden your loved ones with and it is in no way embarrassing - it's great you are grasping that opportunity.

    With my Community Champions hat on - are you aware of "Macmillan Buddies". It's our scheme where we pair you off with someone for a weekly chat - you can talk about anything - rant - the price of milk - etc - but it's an idea if you just want someone to chat to who can be there for you - just check it out on the main site.

    Keep up the good work - you are an inspiration to us all and reading your work is proof that life goes on and whatever it throws at you - you can "grab it by the ba**s" and take it on.

    Looking forward to the next part - Best wishes - Brian.

  • Thank you. I have not seen a swift yet, although I have been told that they are here. May is one of my favourite months, the hedge banks are full of flowers and the birds are very active, we have our first young fledged blackbirds and, as I type this, young starlings are lined up on the fence demanding food. I do wonder if this may be my last spring, and, like you, the experience is bitter-sweet. Our oldest son (and middle of three children) is getting married in June 2025 and I would like to be there, but who knows? 

  • Thanks Brian, I was not aware of the Macmillan buddies scheme and will check it out. I do have a 'cancer' buddy, a work contact who I bumped into early on and who is having chemo for a form of leukemia and we meet up every few weeks for a walk, coffee and chat. He tells me that he finds this helpful and so do I. 

    I am sure the professional counseling will be helpful too.

    Thank you for your kind comments on my blog. Writing down my experience and thoughts is something that I find helpful.  

  • Another beautifully written blog (as I expect from you !) I've never seen or heard a Nightjar and now I know so many interesting facts about them, they're going on my bucket list.