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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

African Violet

On Mum’s window sill in her Jaffa orange kitchen sat a colourful array of African violets.  The flowers would thrive with Mum’s attentive care, just the right amount of gentle sunlight and not too much watering.  I remember calling in for a cup of tea after work and seeing the row of pretty little flowers, bright and cheerful and always in bloom.

A couple of years ago I received an African violet as a gift and sat it on my kitchen bench.  The sight of it sitting there reminded me of Mum and her pretty window sill.

I kept the African violet, moving it around from bench to packing box to table as we recently renovated our home and somehow it made it through all the dust and chaos.  However, the little flowers soon disappeared and the leaves lost most of their green hue. When the building works were finally complete the little plant sat forlornly in the corner of our new kitchen bench and I wondered if it was time to throw it away.

Mother’s Day in my house is rich with all the best parts of family life:  breakfast in bed, laughter, gifts and precious time spent together.  I love being a Mum, but despite my thankful heart, I still miss my Mum.  This Mother’s Day was no exception.

Yet something happened this year which brought Mum a little closer.  A tentative shoot emerged from the bedraggled African violet for the first time in so long, and a small purple flower raised its vibrant face to the sun, bright and bold, greeting me on Mother’s Day morning.  Despite its haphazard care, its lack of watering and being abandoned to a dusty corner, the plant bloomed right on cue, a small reminder of another time, of a small kitchen with the Jaffa coloured bench tops and the banter of mother and daughter, chatting over numerous cups of tea.  That little purple flower brought back so many memories, of the complex mother and daughter bond, of laughter and of tears, but mostly the knowledge that I had been loved.

Sometimes it’s the little things that bring the past alive for us – allowing us to reach back and embrace the ones we’ve lost.  More than anything it reminded me that despite all obstacles in its path, even the depths of grief and loss, a mother’s love endures.

 

 

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orchid

I hold my breath as our son carries the wobbly breakfast tray down the hall, as my other son approaches menacingly with his plastic gun drawn ready to ‘wake Dad up’ .  This could end badly. An array of unique gifts, chosen with enthusiasm and wrapped with haste, follow in bulging Hot Wheels gift bags.  Another stubbie holder to add to the growing collection – and another musky air freshener to instill ambience to the work truck.  There is nothing like watching kids with their Dad on Fathers Day.

But once or twice I sense a chilly shadow.   Even in the lead up, choosing just the right card, my gaze pauses on the trout fishing cards and for a moment I forget and instinctively grab one.  Dad loved the trout streams with white water cascading into the deep blue pools, the thrill of the hunt and the skill of the cast.  But then I remember that the card is no longer needed.  The years of plastic golf balls became the years of smart going out shirts, and eventually led to the days of new pyjamas and elastic waist trousers.  Yet even in the difficult later days, Dad was always thrilled with his gift. It was always something he had always wanted.

For those of us who have lost our Dads, Fathers Day can have a bittersweet flavour.  It is another of those special days which brings back the memories, the regrets and the sadness.

When we emptied our family home over six years ago and had a garage sale, a few old potplants were left unsold.  A friend noticed a floundering orchid and asked if he could take it and try to nurse it back to life.  He named it ‘Arthur’ after my Dad and over the years he has mentioned it  from time to time:  he had repotted it;  fertilised it or moved it to a new spot.  The orchid stayed much the same.  However, a few weeks ago our friend announced very proudly that Arthur had just produced its first bud.  After all these years of nurture, the orchid is finally about to flower.

I thought of Arthur over the weekend, the orchid and my Dad. On Saturday I watched my sons hanging out with their cousins, and I saw a glimpse of their grandfather in each of their expressions and gestures, in their smiles and warmth to one another. Our sons often tell people that their granddad invented traffic light systems.  They know it is possible to do impossible things because Granddad did it.  Even  though we can’t see him anymore, Dad is still around us, his influence continues and the essence of him lives on in us.  And just as the orchid has endured in the background for all of these years, silent and inactive, one day a bud appeared, and soon there will be a flower.   We may be separated for now, but love doesn’t end with death, nor does the influence of a life well lived.  I suspect it doesn’t end there either, and one day death will no longer hold us captive and keep us apart. My excitement at hearing about Arthur’s first bud reminds me of an even greater joy:  the joy we will feel on that day when we meet again.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.    Revelation 21:4

Arthur Sims

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Death— the last sleep? No the final awakening   — Walter Scott

A sight that intrigued me in Fiji was the backyard graveyard.   Right beside the backdoor of many humble abodes stood large concrete graves, often covered with colourful blankets and decorated with flowers.   Apparently this practice is no longer allowed as it prevents development taking place, but the ancestors who are buried there are treated with respect and appear to be a welcome part of the family.   There was something strangely comforting about the old graves, covered in warm rugs of vibrant purples, oranges and reds – nurtured and loved.   There was certainly no chance of their being forgotten.   I was told that the Fijians did not believe in exhuming bodies, so they were there to stay.

In more primitive cultures it seems that illness and death are handled very differently than in the affluent West.   Supportive communities support the infirm and elderly.  They are not sent away to nursing homes where strangers take charge.   Death isn’t sanitized and hidden from their gaze.   It is part of life, sad but real, and exists beside all the motions of living.

The backyard graves reminded me of the precious ashes that sit in my wine cupboard.   When nobody is around I joke with Dad and tell him to stop stealing the best Merlot from the rack.   I’ll swear I hear him laugh heartily at my hackneyed joke, and I’m quite sure that the wine stocks are disappearing faster than ever before.

Next month I will be taking the ashes on a journey to a small country town to lay Dad to rest beside Mum in niches they chose many years ago.   This, of course, is their rightful place, but I’m really going to miss having Dad in the wine cupboard.  

Last week the old family home was sold to a young family.  I’m grateful that it will once again be the place of childhood games, of galloping horses, cowboys and indians, and hide and seek.   The garden is crying out for some fresh life, and the walls longing for the energy of a young family.    It is the right thing but I’ll miss the times I’ve spent over there, tidying up and wandering around, lost in my memories.   At the old house there is a certain aura, rich with the aroma of the past.   I can see Mum so clearly, in her apron cooking dinner and sweeping the paths.   I see Dad too, reading his books and watering the gardens.   I close my eyes and we are together again.   I fear that one day, when the house is sold, these memories will fade and vanish.

I can see why the Fijians keep their family close, why they cover their graves with bright blankets and cherish their memory.   Yet I can also see how important it is to let go, to allow the spirits of those we love to rest peacefully and walk into the next life.   I’ve had to remind myself recently that my parents don’t exist in the old house, nor do they live in the boxes of ashes.   These are only the discarded tents they once inhabited.   However, the memories will remain.      I will write about them, remembering the advice they gave me, the home they made for us and all of our silly jokes.   I will place colourful blankets over their memories in my heart to keep them safe, and look forward to the time when we’ll meet again.

 For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down — when we die and leave these bodies — we will have a home in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands.  2 Corinth 5:1

 

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Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.
Arthur Schopenhauer

From the time I arrived home from hospital as a new-born baby, until the day I left home to travel the world at twenty-four, I lived in the same house.  When I returned from my travels, it remained ‘home’ even when I lived elsewhere – a place I could visit at any time for a soothing cup of tea with Mum and Dad.    My kids knew it as “Nanna’s & Poppa’s house”.   It has been the most permanent and secure place I’ve ever known.   This week we listed it for sale, now freshly painted and carpeted, and eerily empty of furniture and the sounds of  living.  Despite the emptiness, it is bursting with memories.  I wrote this piece at a recent writing course, where we were asked to remember a room from our past:

I’m greeted by the walls, naked and blemished without the adornment of paintings and photographs. I sense that the walls are holding their breath, waiting for some human warmth to tap into. Stepping inside I feel I’ve stepped into a tomb, as if the sound of my footsteps and breathing may wake the dead. I stand quietly, absorbing the silence, taking in the familiar curve of the hallway, the pretty white curtains mum loved so much, and the mud coloured brick tiles dad polished every year. I try not to notice the grey tinge of the dusty curtains and the scratches disfiguring the solid old tiles.

There is a soft hum beyond the silence. I sit tentatively on the threadbare carpet in my old bedroom, and take in the bare apricot walls and mirrored wardrobe. My mind plays tricks and I see the cosy cocoon of my childhood – Abba posters and the little chicken saying ‘now what do I do?’. My bedspread is splashed with colour and the sheets are tucked in neatly by Mum’s expert hands. In the bedside drawer are my holly hobby five-year diaries, rich with secret crushes and dreams. I want to crawl under the soft covers, protected and safe, and dream the hopeful dreams of a child.

Up the hall are the sounds of dinner cooking. The saucepans clang and the knife chops. Enticing aromas drift up the hallway and my mouth waters. What is Mum cooking up tonight? It must be nearly time to set the table.

I hear a car pull up in the driveway. Dad must be home from work, smelling of stale tobacco and too many hours in the office, but I know he’ll smile widely at me as he brings some of the adventure of the big city into our little home.

There is softness in my heart, a deep relaxation throughout my body, as I drink in the security of my family. A train rattles by, its sharp screeching interrupts my reverie and I open my eyes. The house is empty once again.

I rise to my feet and walk along the hallway to the kitchen. Where is Mum? I long to see her in her purple apron, standing by the sink, peeling potatoes, and smiling up at me.  “How was your day darling?”  As the tears spill from my eyes and drip messily down my chin I wonder why a middle-aged woman still wants her mother. The longing seems obscene, but it is crying out to be heard, like the retarded child locked away from prying eyes. I can no longer deny that she is there, and I embrace the agony and sob out loud.

After a while the tears subside, and the sharp pain turns into an aching sadness. I don’t want to leave the old house, to leave those precious memories behind in the empty silence. If I don’t stay here, keeping them alive, perhaps they will be lost forever. But it is time to go. My real life, my husband, my kids, my work, and my friends stand outside, waiting for me to come back to them. I turn from the ghosts of the past and walk toward the living. As I open the front door the hum that holds so many precious memories is silenced and the walls again hold their breath. I utter a silent prayer, and vow to carry those memories with me, of Mum, Dad and our family home which I thought would be there forever.

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I really miss visiting Mum’s nursing home.   Most Mondays, and sometimes days in between, I would take a few hours break away from the frenzy of the rat race and go and sit quietly with her.   Over time these quiet hours became an invaluable part of my week.    Mum would greet me with a radiant smile, so happy to see me, and for an hour or two we would be encased in the purity of love without agenda or selfishness.    Those hours spent with Mum were precious interludes where I could sort through the clutter in my mind, smooth out the wrinkles in my emotions and allow myself to breathe.    Mum’s presence was a tonic, allowing me to see with renewed clarity how foolish my worries were.    As I held her shaky hand and stared into her warm eyes, I’d throw my anxiety into the rubbish bin, realising the triviality of my fears.

The nurses loved to care for Mum as she smiled at each of them as special and valued friends.    It wasn’t only her daughters who received her beautiful smiles – she lavished her kindness and affection on all around her, whether doctor, nurse, cleaner or stranger.   Everyone who entered her room came out smiling.   Her love was infectious.    I will never forget the impact one little lady, severely impaired by a brain tumour, made on the world around her.

I remember how repugnant it was when Mum lost a tooth and the dentist told me the procedure to re-insert a crown would be too much for her fragile health.    The kindest thing would be for her to live without a front tooth.   Mum had always been so well-groomed and conscious of her looks, I felt I had let her down.   Yet she went on smiling just the same, her face lighting up with joy, and nobody seemed to notice her missing tooth.

Now Mum is gone and there is a void.   The trivial and mundane loom large and my moments of reflection are shrinking.    It is rare to find a smiling face, happy to see me for who I am, rather than for what I can do for them.   Some days it is rare to find a smile at all, as people rush from one appointment to the next, tense and preoccupied.   I long for quiet moments of closeness to another person who has time to sit and simply be.   It was such a privilege to have those hours where I was able to sit in the presence of pure love.

This week I walked into our old family home, empty now the tenants have moved on.    Once the home was warm, buzzing with noise and activity, messy in places, tidy in others, expanding and contracting with the rise and fall of emotions within its walls.   Now it is an empty shell, cold and silent, a shadow of its former glory.

I look beyond the shadows and remember Mum’s beautiful smile, days when fragrant casseroles bubbled on the stove, shrill laughter lit the air, and the telephone always rang.  

It is only the people we love who turn houses into homes, transform bland nursing home rooms into sanctuaries of grace, and bring meaning to our lives.

The more I live, the more I see the value of real love.    I will close my eyes and hold onto the memory of Mum’s beautiful smile.   The memory inspires me to inhabit my own home with warmth and kindness, and to smile not only at those I love, but at the lonely stranger I see on the streets.  Her smile taught me how fruitless it is to try too hard and do too much, and the wisdom in slowing down and cherishing the quiet moments with the special people in my life.   Mum showed me the profound difference one genuine loving soul can make to the world around them – one beautiful smile at a time.

Today, give a stranger one of your smiles.  It might be the only sunshine he sees all day.  ~Quoted in P.S. I Love You, compiled by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

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Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.    Matthew 5:4

I’m writing this post as a ‘note to self’ – for the days ahead when the pain and intensity of grief have worn away.   Knowing what to say to a grieving person is challenging for most of us.    Before I lost somebody close, I would freeze up and say nothing, for fear of saying the wrong thing.   Over the past few weeks I’ve observed my wonderful friends react in various ways.  I’m grateful for every kind word, and every embarrassed attempt to reach out to me, so I hope what I say doesn’t offend anyone.

Everyone reacts differently to grief, so my thoughts may differ greatly to yours.   I was at a social function a few years ago and spoke to an acquaintance who had lost her mother only days before.   I told her I was very sorry for her loss.   Her face lit up in an engaging  smile, and with glazed eyes she told me that her mother’s death had been a great blessing, and she was so happy that her mother was now in heaven ‘rejoicing with the Lord’.    Although I believe wholeheartedly in heaven, I just couldn’t fathom the elation, and complete absence of sadness.     Taken aback, I discreetly excused myself, wondering if this lady was an accomplished actress, on powerful antidepressants or was just far more spiritual than I am.   

A common phrase which has come my way since Mum died is ‘Oh, it must be such a relief!’.   I will set the record straight right here.  It is not a relief in any way, shape or form.   I have lost my Mum who I love dearly, and all I want is to see her again so, no, it isn’t a relief.   There is a sense of relief in knowing she is no longer suffering, but the sense of loss and sadness outweighs this thought, and I, rather selfishly, just wish she were still here.   

At another social function I met a woman who had recently lost her severely retarded son.  Her marriage had crumbled as she worked 24/7 looking after her son, until he passed away.   An enthusiastic lady joined us and announced loudly ‘after all you’ve been through – it must be such a relief’.    The bereaved mother’s face crumbled and she broke down, saying shakily that it was not a relief at all.   The most awkward silence I’ve ever experienced followed.   I could see where the enthusiastic woman was coming from, but her words had been like a carving knife thrust into a heart which was already torn apart.    If you are trying to find words to say, I would suggest avoiding  ‘it must be a relief’

Words that have comforted me have been phrases like ‘you are really going to miss her’‘you did all you could to look after her, she would be proud of you’‘she was a beautiful woman’ or  ‘you’re going to get through this’.   Soft, gentle, affirming words, with no advice-giving or assumption.  Even more touching than words are hugs and tears offered in silence.

I’ve learnt that every bunch of flowers, card, text message and email I received have been invaluable.    Each gesture of support built another brick in the invisible wall of strength and comfort around me, literally holding me on my feet and allowing me to walk through the most difficult days.   Each rose petal, hug and ‘I’m so sorry’ reminded me that there is still a world out there, people do care about me, and somehow life will go on.    The gesture of support doesn’t need to be expensive or impressive – just heartfelt and real.

Some  adventurous souls didn’t bother to ask me what I needed, but simply took the plunge and did what they could to help.   One dear friend who was minding my boys while I was at mum’s bedside, fed my kids and sent meals home, already on plates, for Chris and I.  When I re-heated the sausages and vegies at about 11pm one evening after a gruelling day at the nursing home,  I felt nurtured and comforted by this simple meal, cooked with love by my friend.

Another wonderful friend rang around and organised meals to be delivered each evening the week after Mum passed away.    It was such a relief not to have to shop, plan and cook meals, as I ploughed through the harrowing week of planning the funeral while trying to process the sickening sense of loss.

One kind friend who recently lost her husband to the same disease, gave me a beautiful plant with large yellow flowers, which continues to thrive in my garden.    She understood how meaningful it is to watch the buds grow into flowers, long after the bouquets have died.    Another friend gave me a pedicure voucher, where I can enjoy some pampering and rest.

A few of my gorgeous workmates organised for fruit and vegetables to be delivered to my home each week for four weeks after mum passed away.    This has been such a helpful, generous and thoughtful gift – and I’m still enjoying it.   The exhaustion and depression that accompany loss last for some time, and this beautiful array of fresh fruit and vegies has given me such a lift, and has lessened the time I’ve had to spend at the shops.

When you are in a state of shock and anguish you don’t know what you need and it is great when friends are proactive.    If you want to help someone who is grieving, simply say ‘I’ll cook you a lasagna on Wednesday night.  If you don’t want it, just pop it in the freezer’ or ‘I’d love to have your kids over for a few hours on Friday afternoon.’   If you are able to, come up with firm suggestions and the grieving person will be more likely to accept, as they don’t have to work out all the details themselves.    Don’t hang around or expect them to want to socialize or listen to your problems, but don’t ignore or abandon them either.    Short visits, kind gestures and lots of hugs, are like little rays of light in a very dark room.

So thank you to everyone who has stood by me and built so many bricks into the wall of strength and comfort around me.    Even if you were one of the many who said ‘it must be a relief’, thank you for trying to help.    Without the love of family and friends at times like these, where would we be?   When God can’t be with us in physical form, he sends us our family and friends.   I hope one day I can help you too, and that you will also excuse me if I say the wrong thing.

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The day before we went  to Jindabyne, I visited Mum.    I had almost reached the nursing home when a desire to buy her flowers overwhelmed me.   The urge was so strong, I turned my car around and drove back to the shopping centre, and bought her some delicate pink roses.    Ever since I was a child I have loved to buy Mum flowers, as they make her so happy.

As I placed the roses in a vase in her room, I explained that I was leaving to go on holidays, but would be back in a week.    A wave of sadness washed over me as I told her ‘I will be back soon, but whenever you look at these roses, remember how much I love you.’    She smiled and told me that she loved me, and I reluctantly left, blinking away the tears as pools of guilt and foreboding lapped around my heart.

When I returned from Jindabyne Mum had already begun to slip away.    As we sat beside her bed, day after night after day, the pink roses rested in the vase in the corner, wilted and dry.   Had she looked at them when she began to feel ill?   Did she remember my words?

Today my house is full of fragrant bouquets with lashings of purple, pink and white, sent by kind friends in honour of mum’s passing.    In a week or two they too will wither and die, but I know that my love for Mum, and the precious memories we share, will live on in my heart.

I’m so glad I listened to that inner voice and went back to buy those roses.   It had been my last chance.

Yesterday I stood in the chapel, trembling as I spoke these words, so painful to articulate, but too important not to say:

 Eulogy:

We loved many things about Mum.   She was a vibrant, energetic, direct, honest, passionate, and loving person.   There was nothing luke-warm about Mum.   She either loved you or hated you.   If she were a colour she would be a rich crimson or an intense purple.   Her presence would fill a room and she was full of life.  She was truly beautiful.

She had a wonderful sense of humour and a unique way of looking at people and situations.    While I was going through those awkward teenage years she enjoyed assessing my boyfriends.   When they arrived to pick me up she would greet them with her charm, whilst subtly looking them up and down.   Little did they know that she was trying to work out which animal they reminded her of.  The next morning she would hand down her verdict.    I dated a pigeon, a Rottweiler, a guinea pig and even a bullfrog.   Once I knew which animal they were it became really difficult to take them seriously.   The only guy she didn’t categorise was Chris & maybe that’s why I married him.        

Growing up, Mum often told us that difficult times ‘build your character’ and make you strong.    The final years of Mum’s life were indeed difficult times.   Just over five years ago she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour.    There is nothing positive to be said for brain tumours & Mum fought bravely as she underwent surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.   On the day the doctors gave a prognosis of 6 to 18 months she declared that she wanted to live for another five years, and that is exactly what she did.  Only 2% of people with this type of tumour live for five years.   Mum was a champion and we’re so proud of her.

However, it isn’t just the length of those five years that has inspired and amazed me.   It is the way Mum adapted to her illness, accepting the many limitations placed on her as she lost her ability to walk and to find her words.  She somehow managed to smile, laugh and love the people around her.

When I would visit her at the nursing home, her face would light up and she would say ‘hello darling’ and tell me how beautiful I am.    I soon realised that she told all the staff and volunteers at the nursing home the same thing, but it was so uplifting to hear.    She spent her days encouraging others.    She glowed with an inner light which couldn’t be extinguished – not even by the darkness of cancer.   Although she lost her ability to say many things, she never lost her ability to say ‘I love you’.

Mum never complained, and I’m sure there were many times when she was frustrated, uncomfortable and in pain.   After spending time visiting her, I would return to mainstream life to see healthy people with the world at their feet whingeing and complaining, and the irony was confronting.

It has been very difficult watching Mum suffer, but one thing I do know is her strong faith in God carried her along, and as all the trappings of life were stripped away from her, she learnt to cherish the one thing that matters most in this life – and that is love.    She received and offered pure love to her family and her friends, and rested in the love of God.

On behalf of Mum and my sisters I’d like to thank the staff and volunteers at John Paul Village.   Without their excellent care, support and kindness, I don’t think Mum would have been able to enjoy those final peaceful years.   In all the time Mum was at JPV I couldn’t find one thing to complain about, and I have been known to complain about nursing homes.

We also thank the family and friends who visited Mum, sent cards and prayed for her.   Thank you Aunty Joyce, who phoned every Monday night to see how Mum was and to pass on her love.   Thank you to Lois McDonald who continued visiting Mum throughout her long illness.   What an awesome friend she has been – we could all do with more friends like Lois.

Our challenge now is to see beyond the sadness we feel today, and to remember the example Mum set for us – to remain strong and courageous in all circumstances, and to treasure what is really important in life – faith, hope, and most of all, love.

I’m going to miss you Mum!

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