Harper’s Bazaar magazine asked me to write something on grief for their August issue. This is what came out – some reflections on a year of mourning, with echoes from my recent blog posts.
Sometimes I play a stupid game with our iPod. I put it on shuffle and ask Matt to send me a song. I know it’s ridiculous. I know ‘shuffle’ is a piece of apple software – an algorithm – rather than the ghostly hand of my husband reaching out to send me a sign. I know in these moments I’m a mad woman clutching for evidence of something beyond death. But it’s surprising how often something meaningful comes up. Of course it does. It’s our iPod. It’s full of music and memories. What’s a little more strange is the raft of new albums Matt bought in June last year, just days before he died. He never mentioned them. Just downloaded them and left them there for me to find. This morning I played the iPod game and the track that arrived was Bill Callahan’s ‘Riding for the Feeling’ from the Apocalypse album. It’s one that Matt bought in his last download session. I hadn’t heard it before, but the first lines, as they came through the speakers, stopped me in my tracks:
It’s never easy to say goodbye To the faces So rarely do we see another one So close and so long
It’s a really beautiful song. As I listened, it made me think of many things. I saw my son’s joyful face as he flies along on his bicycle … my husband emerging from the waves after a surf or a swim, drenched and happy … and my daughter on a swing giggling, ‘Higher, Mummy, higher.’ All of them ‘riding for the feeling’. It also made me think about goodbyes, and how hard they are. There is an intense, bittersweet longing that comes now with a farewell. I say ‘I love you’ a little more frequently, a little more easily. And thinking about goodbyes, I was reminded of a piece of writing, “The Light that Shines When Things End”, featured on one of my favourite blogs. It starts with these words: ‘I hope that in the future they invent a small golden light that follows you everywhere and when something is about to end, it shines brightly so you know it’s about to end.’ I like the idea of this light — of being able to consciously appreciate the final moments of something for the last time. But the thought of it also terrifies me. If it had shone on that last morning with Matt, I know I never would’ve been able to let him go.
Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. All this leaving is never-ending.
This week is the one-year anniversary of Matt’s death. Anniversary feels an odd word to use in this context. His death date is one of pain. There is nothing to celebrate. We have endured a year without him. We are still here. Yet somehow it feels important to acknowledge the day. I plan to greet the sun at the ocean’s edge and will be hoping for clear skies that night so that the kids might look at the star named for their Dad (by a very thoughtful friend: thank you Vanessa) through the Observatory telescope. I hope we are able to ride the big feelings the day will bring us. I know we’re still learning how to say goodbye to a face we were lucky to see, so close and so long. And I suppose whether there there is a small golden light or not, it doesn’t really matter. Bill Callahan is right: when goodbye comes, it’s never easy.
These days I am so full of feelings. It’s as if someone has turned a dial to amplify my emotions — good and bad. I feel them reverberate more deeply within myself. Moments of love and joy make me soar and tingle. Moments of pain and sorrow make my chest ache and tears pour uncontrollably. I feel my feelings more fully.
Last night I caught a ferry to Circular Quay. I saw the Vivid Sydney lights turn a city already bright and dazzling into an amplified version of itself – all colour and movement. Flickering patterns, spotlights, imagery illuminating this city on the water. I drank champagne in a bar then went to a Sufjan Stevens gig at the Opera House – a Birthday present to myself.
I woke this morning still thinking about the music – the experience of the concert. Five musicians moving about the stage, playing an array of instruments, and Sufjan Stevens’ incredible vocals. More lights and imagery beamed onto panels hanging like stained glass windows behind the musicians, and all of it illuminating a dialogue on life and death I feel as though I have been having with myself in various guises these past ten months. It was mind-bendingly, heart-soaringly good. I feel so privileged to have been there; to have experienced this moment of internal illumination. Sometimes, when the emotions are running high, it seems it doesn’t hurt to turn the dial a little louder.
We performed a vanishing act a few weeks ago, leaving the house and the cat, packing the car and driving all day under a Simpsons-esque sky until we arrived, finally, at my Dad’s house.
His place sits on a peninsula of land stretching out into the Bass Strait. It feels a million miles from our life in Sydney. In this house there are no check shirts hanging in the wardrobe with sleeves still rolled, no half-read books waiting on the other side of the bed, no clippers lying redundant in the bathroom drawer, no scrawls on the calendar in my husband’s distinctive handwriting. Instead there is a big sky overhead and grass to lie on. There are cows in the field at the end of the garden and swallows nesting in the eaves of the house. There is an ocean to paddle in and a clock that ticks beside the bed – the same clock that stood beside my grandmother’s bed in a different house – in a different country. In this home we are with loved ones and connected to our family story, stretching wider and further than just the three of us. There is comfort in that.
On Christmas Eve, I check on the kids before going to bed with a sleeping pill. My grandmother’s clock ticks beside me – too fast, like my heartbeat. Time is passing. Life is passing. I turn the light back on, frightened by the darkness and the questions that occupy my mind. How does someone just vanish? How do you wake beside them in the morning, drink coffee with them in the sunshine, talk to them on the telephone at lunchtime, then … nothing. How does someone just disappear? One moment alive. The next, gone. How do we bear this life if the people we love the most can be ripped from us at any moment? One wave … one car accident … one heart attack … one bullet. How do we bear the fragile impermanence of it all?
Sometimes it feels as though Matt wasn’t the only one to vanish. Sometimes I wonder if I vanished with him that day. Sometimes I feel invisible even to myself. Who am I? It’s a question that haunts me now, along with another often repeated refrain: Where are you?
Boxing Day arrives with a strange, fiery glow. It’s the sort of light that promises something special for those fitful enough to greet it. I slip out of the house and run down to meet the tide, the sky torn in two by storm clouds and shards of dazzling light. Half-way up the beach I am stopped in my tracks by a beam so bright it holds me captive. Back at the house I move down to the fence and let the air dry my skin. The wind moves the long grass in the fields beyond like a mother combing her fingers through a child’s hair. The swallows dart and swoop from swaying trees. When I turn back, three fat galahs breakfasting on the lawn take to the sky with indignant squawks. All around is movement. All around is chaos.
In these quiet days of contemplation, hiding from the violence rotating on the news, it’s hard not to feel adrift. Chaos is confronting. I’m learning to seek out the smallest anchors. Simple moments in the day to cling to, to counter the fragile impermanence: watching a boy in his pyjamas throw paper planes across a lawn still damp with early morning dew; sitting on a bench looking out over a perfect break; hurling a tennis ball over and over for an enthusiastic dog; lying in bed next to my children listening to them breathe; turning my face to the sun; watching clouds drift across an endless sky; listening to the high electric whine of a cicada; laughing with my sister in the way only she can make me laugh – with my belly aching and tears squeezing from my eyes. I find each anchor and cast it out, allowing it to tether me to this moment – to this life. Allowing the weight of it to hold me here when the alternative sometimes feels preferable.
This morning I read these words by Anne Lamott in her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair:
There is meaning in focus, concentration, attention. I now notice almost every single bird that flies by, as well as every single butterfly. I pay attention to most plain old butterflies, not just the ones in tiaras or argyle socks. Butterflies and birds are like one perfect teaspoon of creation.
I find my meaning now in small moments of concentration and awareness, in trying to ensure I am really present. Those early days of numb shock have faded and somehow I find my senses heightened. Close proximity to death has made me feel more alive. Odd, I know.
And yes, I also know how lucky we are. To be here in this house. To have family to nurture us. To have the option to vanish like this over the summer holidays. And it’s been good to be somewhere else – necessary even – but soon we will pack the car and drive back to Sydney. Soon I will put the key in the front door and step inside our house with all its familiar scents and furniture and books and clothes and sadness. Soon I will step back onto the streets of my old life. And soon, I hope, I might just remember the answer to that question: who am I?
Soon, I hope I might start to reappear.
… and then your son asks if he can visit the place ‘where daddy died’ and so you wag a morning off school and drive down to Tamarama while the rest of the city sleeps and you find the gulls lying upon the beach with their beaks tucked under their wings, and you kick off your shoes and walk down onto the sand amidst sculptures that have washed-up like treasures from the deep, and you watch as your boy scrambles onto the cliffs and picks a tiny yellow flower which he carries down carefully for you, and you attempt to answer the hardest questions, questions without answers, and you try not to cry as your daughter looks for her father’s footprints in the sand, and then you all return to the car and drive back through the city which is awake now and glittering in the mid-morning sunshine and you are all so quiet, lost in your thoughts and your love and your pain …
… and then you’re sitting at home, alone, surrounded by a thousand physical reminders of your old life, struggling simply to draw breath when an envelope arrives through your door and inside is a card with a sprig of freshly-pressed thyme and a piece of feathery tissue paper which you carefully unfold to reveal a poem handprinted with painstaking care, and you read the words which speak to you in ways you had forgotten words could, and even though you can’t stop the tears you know that the sheer pointlessness-of-carrying-on that you have been wrestling with has been proven false by this simple kindness from a stranger who understands, and while you don’t know this person you want to somehow thank them for their gesture and tell them that their envelope contained so much more than a card and a poem and a sprig of green from a faraway garden; you want to tell them that their envelope contained hope …
— Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XCIV
… and then, when the tears have dried, you lift your gaze and look about at the vast, transparent house you now reside in and you see how many walls there are to hang pictures upon and you think about how best to honour your husband’s ‘heritage of joy’, and you wonder if you’re even brave enough to try, but you know you must, so even though you’re terrified, and even though you know you’re not the same person you were four months ago, you open your laptop and you begin to write, one word at a time, you begin to write again.
and then …
I have been wrestling with an ugly beast. For a while it bided its time, pacing behind bars, gathering strength until finally, a few days ago, it broke free.
I’ve always thought of myself as a relatively calm, mild-mannered person, but this week my anger was unleashed. I have wanted to hurl plates, kick the cat and find a tall lonely spot to scream at the sky. No one has been safe from my rage. Not the call centre workers I am endlessly on hold to, nor the friends and loved ones dipping in and out of our pain. Not even Matt. Quite frankly, I have been angry at the world and raging at the seeming unfairness of this situation: it just wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Last week I read On Grief and Grieving by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, which details the author’s infamous ‘five stages’ model of grief. Anger is one of Kübler’s stages, and while I welcome the idea of ‘progression’, I do not find the emotion an easy companion. Anger feels like a misdirection of my energy – a negative descent into the realms of self-pity. I am horrible to be around. My broken heart is leaking venom. I am no longer the wise old lady tending her garden that I wrote about a few weeks ago, but rather a petulant, self-absorbed teenager, stomping resentfully through this new life. Or, in my lowest moments, I’m an embittered old crone sitting alone in the twilight of her life, muttering profanities at the universe. Whoever told me it would get worse before it gets better was right. Dammit.
The counsellor who teaches me about mindfulness tells me that anger is a valid emotion. Who wouldn’t be angry? She reminds me to be gentle with myself – to be self-compassionate and kind. And frankly, even while I rage and berate the unfairness of Matt’s death and its impact upon our family, there is still the small, defeated voice in my head whispering: Why not us? Why not Matt’s death? We were not so very special … and the only thing we can be certain of in this life is that death will claim us all, at some point. Perhaps it was better this way – to lose love while it was still whole and beautiful – before damage could be done – before we could hurt or disappoint each other?
Still, when the red haze descends, it fills me up. It threatens to pull me apart at the seams and it needs release. Writing helps a little. I am filling pages of my journal with scrawled words, my hand cramping around the pen. And I think that’s why I keep posting here, too. At other times the urge to flee the house is overwhelming. I put my trainers and headphones on and head outside to stimulate some serotonin. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Running was something Matt loved and so it brings its own kind of pain – not just the pain of physical exertion but an emotional response too. To feel my heart pounding in my chest and my lungs burning can serve as a reminder of how alive I am when Matt is not. So when the running fails, I sit instead. I have a secret spot, a sheltered slab of sandstone positioned beside the harbour where I can watch the sunlight playing upon the water, the ferries navigating their way between stops and the dragonflies skimming the waves. It’s hard to appreciate beauty when you long to share it with someone whom you no longer can; but it’s still beauty, and the tears always dry – eventually.
Then, unexpectedly, a moment arrives as it did yesterday morning: my children sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast, me packing my son’s lunchbox and trying to hold back the tears that had begun to flow. I’d thought I was being discrete, but the kids must have noticed my distress because, wordlessly, they left the table and came to hug me; and for just a minute we were a three, adrift on the kitchen floor, clinging to each other in a fierce bundle. It was quite a moment. Powerful not only for the fact it reminded me how amazing they are – so young and yet so full of empathy – so full of their father’s love – but also because it felt for a fleeting second or two that we were no longer a three – but a four again, wrapped in Matt’s strong arms. And let me tell you, it’s hard to sustain the anger when a moment like that comes along and melts you to your hard, bitter core.
Living on the other side of the world definitely has it’s low points and not being at the burial of my Grandmother’s ashes in Dorset today is one of them.
My sister texted me earlier. She’s in the car on the motorway, heading to the cemetery now. My Dad is driving. My lanky brother probably lounging on the back seat, choosing the music. It’s pissing it down, apparently. I texted back and asked her to throw a pebble into the sea, drink a Coke from the bottle with a straw and find a cow pat to stand in – for me. I know they’ll be playing the same game our parents used to distract us on the long journey down there as kids: first person to see the sea …
I wrote down a few childhood memories of times spent at my Grandmother’s house in Dorset, for the funeral. It feels good to remember the happy times, amongst the sadness. I only wish I could be there today to stand beside my Dad, brother and sister as they bury Gran in her final resting place. Some days 12,000 miles really is too far from home.
When I was a young girl my Grandmother lived at H. House in Chiddeock.
It was a house that fired a child’s imagination. Nestled at the top of a muddy single-track lane, perched on the side of a hill. You couldn’t see the sea from there, but I used to lie in bed imagining I could hear it, amidst the rustle of Granny’s starched white bed linen.
It was big. Full of clocks that ticked and chimed like living creatures. It smelt of furniture polish, and roast meals, and prize-winning flowers picked from the garden.
Breakfast was always in the dining room. White tablecloths and the best polished silver. Mini packets of cereal to squabble over. Who gets the top of the milk today? Toast aligned in the rack, homemade marmalade dolloped with the best jam spoons, and cups to rattle in their saucers. Gran always liked to do things properly – every morning felt like a child’s fairytale tea party.
I remember evening board games in the back drawing room – Granny’s ivory mah-jong set, musty with age and darting silverfish; the wooden solitaire block that could amuse me for hours; pick-up sticks and cards bent with age and handling.
Upstairs – spooky. A dark landing, heavy wooden furniture creaking and groaning as the house settled in for the evening. But then, at the end of a long corridor lay a mysterious, colourful room. Granny’s bedroom, with its enormous bed and bobbly blue bedspread. And a pink bathroom separated by a hanging waterfall of emerald green beads – exotic and wonderful to wrap yourself in. Coloured crystal perfume bottles and a box with endless jewels and strings of pearls – an eight-year-old’s treasure trove.
Then outside we went, for croquet on the sprawling lawn or hide and seek among the orchard trees at the back of the house; Easter egg hunts among the flower beds; wheelbarrow races and dam building in the stream that ran through the jungle of bamboo canes – damp earth smells, dark and mysterious. A greenhouse that churned out fresh tomatoes year on year, turned into jars of Gran’s delicious green-tomato chutney. My sister and I cantering madly over high-jumps built from garden canes and flower pots, our baby brother following at a distance.
But not always the house, or the gardens. Sometimes a treacherous summer walk, down the laneways, amidst the tourist traffic, to Seatown. Past the house with fossils and shells set into the concrete begging ‘touch me’. Wellington boots clumping rhythmically on tarmac until we reached the sea. Pebbles to collect. Coke from the bottle drunk with a straw and a packet of crisps. ‘Don’t ruin your lunch!’
My grandmother’s house was a place of secrets, of treasure; a box of delights, waiting to be re-opened at every visit. A place of hugs, of laughter, of warm cooking smells. A place where, even as the clocks ticked on, for a few days here and there time stood still. And we were a family.
Those days are gone now. And we are grown. My brother no longer a baby but a tall man of 32. My sister a mum to three beautiful children. My own babies growing and so many of us living on the other side of the world now. And Gran is gone too. At the ripe old age of ninety-six she went peacefully, a painless death, with her son and grandson nearby, surrounded by photos and flowers and the tears of the nurses who were touched by her courageous spirit in the six short weeks they knew her.
My Gran is nowhere now, and yet she is everywhere. She is in the memories of those days spent at that beautiful house, she is in the blue-grey of my father’s eyes, she is in the careful hands of my sister as she kneads, mixes and bakes, she is in my brother’s gentle manner, and the independent spirit of her great grandchildren as they learn and grow and thrive. And I think she is here now too, in these words that I have written, and in your faces, her friends and family, gathered to celebrate her life.
My grandmother was a kind-hearted woman, who showed us generosity and dignity and love … and how to bake the perfect cheesecake … and without whom, none us would be here today.
We love you and miss you Gran.