My Five Months of Magical Thinking

There are times when the phone rings and you know that your life is about to change. You probably won’t know how as you lift the receiver, wondering whose voice will be on the other end of the line, but when the phone rings in the early hours of the morning, the news is seldom welcome.

It was just before 630am on the 5th July this year when I answered the phone to hear my Mother’s voice. My parents are elderly, in their 80’s, and I assumed she was ringing with news of my father. Apart from the early hour, her questions, her voice, prepared me for the worst of news. Is Andrew with you? Are you at home? I was waiting for the words that my father had died or was seriously ill, what I didn’t anticipate was to be told that my sister, Fiona had suffered a heart attack and died. She was 58.

I heard a primal groan and staggered, did I stagger of did I double over? I’m no longer sure, but I know the force of my mother’s words were as physically powerful as a blow to my stomach and that Andrew had placed his arm around me, breaking my fall. I remember thinking over and over again in the those first few hours, days, maybe even weeks, that I had gone to bed on a Saturday night and slept soundly, totally oblivious to the pain and fear my sister must have felt as she called for her partner to call an ambulance. It was a remembrance coloured by guilt and recrimination. How could I have slept through and not felt some tug, some shift in my universe? How could I have slept through and not been there to support my mother or even say a final farewell to my sister?

Of course, I understand that none of that is rational and that I have no need to feel guilt, but grief is never rational. Grief removes you from the world of the everyday and sets you down on a path that is not only surreal, but also hyper-real. There have been times over the past five months when I’ve walked through life as if dazed. Quite removed from the everyday, uninterested in small talk, socialising or life beyond my immediate family. I’ve sought out the physical beauty of the world, walking the coastal paths of Newcastle, watching the surf, the ever-changing sea, cloudscapes and watching pods of dolphins. But always my sister is with me, more present in her death that ever she was in life. She walks with me, sits over coffee, glasses of wine with me, is there at my yoga class, always there as I try to make sense of the senseless.

As the months have passed, my guilt has taken on new forms. Am I doing enough to support my parents? How much could ever be enough, though? Am I feeling sad enough? Do I miss Fiona enough? Did I let hours slip by without thinking of her? It is the natural process of grief, of moving through grief and allowing myself to experience it, riding the waves. I never know how big each particular wave will be, it is like looking beyond the breakers to the seemingly flat surface of the ocean beyond. Sometimes the waves roll through to the shore quietly, smoothly. Other times, it is a rogue wave that rears up out of nowhere and sweeps you into it’s churning mess. I can feel overcome for an hour, a day or even several. I have been exhausted but unable to sleep, or unable to do anything much else but sleep. I choose to go with it. There is no sense in denying or fighting; grief is inevitable. Inevitable and yet unique for each of us who grieve.

I head into this festive season with a sense of trepidation. All my preparations are a reminder that Fiona will not be with us. I have always loved Christmas and decorate the house with a sense of joy and anticipate the pleasure of Christmas Stockings being opened in a rip and flurry of tissue paper, the yummy foods to cook, the shopping, the carols, the coming together of family. But this Christmas of 2015, will be a family coming together with a mix of emotions.

I don’t believe that ‘everything happens for a reason.’ I don’t believe that some divine deity checked their list and decided that Fiona needed to die for some purpose. On that I have always been clear. She died of undiagnosed, untreated heart disease. Fiona died because she attributed the fatigue, the occasional breathlessness  she suffered, to being stressed, middle-aged and being a busy and involved Mother and Grandmother.

So, although I don’t believe that there was a reason for her death, I do believe that we, her family, can give her death meaning. We can honour her memory by raising awareness about female heart disease, which kills 3 times more women than Breast Cancer. The research is woefully underfunded because it is still targeting male heart disease, despite female heart disease presenting and affecting women very differently.

If you are a post-menopausal woman, will be a post-menopausal woman or know anyone who fits into either category, I urge you to read this excellent article:-

afr.com/…/the-neglected-heart-why-women-fare-so-poorly-with-in-the-cardiac-stakes-20150727-gili63

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’ – Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

 

 

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Second Album Syndrome or Writing Book Two

 

Killcare Beach

Killcare Beach

You’d like to think that after writing a book that’s picked up by a literary agent, the writing of book number 2 would come easily, wouldn’t you? But second album syndrome is alive and well in my creative neck of the woods.

Having been told to start writing book two IMMEDIATELY, by my agent (pause for a moment while I let the words ‘my agent’ sink in), I did what any self-respecting writer would do; I had a creative meltdown.

It sounded a little like this.

Start a whole new book? How can I start a whole new book when I’m creatively exhausted from writing the first book?  Find all those new words? Again? How can I do that when I have (practically) no idea what the second book is actually about.? Haven’t I done enough? I don’t want to do this again, it’s way too confronting. What if it’s terrible?

Cue – the sequel.

That seemed like an easy straw to grasp, but even that proved to be very slippery to hang on to. But it was something. So, with no idea where it might take me, I wrote a Chapter One, hoping that some miraculous epiphany would occur. It didn’t. But at least I had a chapter.

In a state of mounting panic, which has yet to fully subside, I went away for 4 days at great cost to the family I left behind. My husband, who paid the bill, my 23 yo daughter who became the live-in nanny for my 6 yo daughter and of course the 6yo daughter who doesn’t think her mother should go anywhere without her.

I made the 1½ hour trip up to Killcare on NSW’s Central Coast and made myself at home in a 2 bedroom cottage with a wonderful deck overlooking the ocean. and for 4 days I thought about Book Number Two. Away from the everyday clutter and distractions of my life, I could let my thoughts roam. If I was  being filmed by a fly-on-a-wall documentary team, this is what those 4 days would like.

Me having a leisurely breakfast of yoghurt and fresh fruit on the deck with the view. Then, after a second cup of tea, a walk down to the beach for a trudge along the sand and a swim and a bit more trudging.Tthe trudging would lead me to the local cafe for a coffee and a catch up on all things internet, emails, Twitter, Facebook, the odd phone call. All necessary, no procrastinating here. Then back up to the cottage for a light lunch and some scrawling, or looking through magazines for visual prompts. It was pretty taxing, so I’d have a little nap before some more afternoon scrawling and scribbling. By which time, I was thirsty and needing a glass of wine. Then dinner at the local club and of course uninterrupted TV viewing and book reading.

It might not sound like work, but by the end of those 4 days, I had worked out a roadmap for the story and had the bones of the first 2 chapters on which to hang the flesh of a story. I can’t go away every week, or conduct my normal life like this, but removing yourself from the distractions, giving yourself permission to think, to let ideas form, to listen to your characters is invaluable. And that’s how my first book was written. In the moments when I shut my brain off and let the ideas percolate, brew and take shape. It was written in the writing myself into the story and not dictating from above, basically, by getting out of my way.

How many of the words or ideas will actually make it into the final draft of book 2, I have no idea, but it’s not important now. I have made a start and that is what matters.

My Last First Day of School

 

Heading off on Her Own

As Sydney’s gloomy, damp January drew to a close, my youngest daughter’s first day at school approached. Her excitement had been building over the last few months, with endless questions about ‘big school’. But as the day loomed ever closer, her excitement morphed into nervousness.

She had eased in her ‘super fast trainers’ and her black Mary-Janes and proudly worn her uniform at every opportunity, including to my uncle’s 75th Birthday tea. Lunches had been packed into her lunchbox and declared even yummier for being eaten from the hot-pink, insulated lunch pack.

I watched my youngest child excitedly preparing for school with a mixture of pride and sadness. I was proud that she was embracing such a huge change with confidence and eager anticipation, but I couldn’t deny the sadness I felt. This would be my  last first day of school. An end of an era. And more than that, I knew that once she started school I would lose not just the time spent with her, but the innocence of a pre-schooler.

On her first morning she marched confidently through the school gates and rounded the corner into the playground and froze. The playground was buzzing with first day excitement and energy. Friends calling to each other after the long summer break, boys snaking between groups of adults and chattering girls as they chased runaway tennis balls from their handball games. Like a champagne bottle shaken before opening, it was an explosion of noise and energy spraying out in all directions. And dotted amongst this overflowing spray were little bubbles, like my daughter, suspended in overawed stillness.

It wasn’t just the cameras that gave away the kindergarten parents, they also shared the startled looks, the badly disguised anxiousness, the searching for a familiar face of the children. But unlike their children, they hadn’t participated in a school readiness programme at pre-school. On their first day, they haven’t yet realised just how profound the change is, the adjustments that they will have to make and the letting go they will have to do. Most still think they are able to protect their child from the rough and tumble of the outside world and don’t know that very soon they will no longer be the most important, all-knowing figure in their child’s life. That role will be assumed by their teacher and, as the years progress, their peers.

The transition into school life is tricky, rarely smooth and hassle-free.Friendships will form and fracture, schoolwork, homework and the balance of extra-curricular activities all have to be juggled. It is an important preparation for the years to come when as a parent, you will experience and need to negotiate periods of loss, change and the developing independence of your children.

The First Assembly

On my daughter’s first morning, the school bell quickly rang and the morning assembly was held in a playground shaded by gum trees and frangipani. Without any ceremony, our little ones were whisked away by their teacher. Little faces looking back over shoulders for the reassurance of their parents. And I headed home with a sense of emptiness, on my last first day.

A Family Christmas

Our Family Tree

Many years ago (about 18, give or take one or two), I decided to let my daughters choose a Christmas Tree decoration each. They were almost overawed by the gorgeousness of all the baubles in the London department store. The jewel colours glinting in the downlights, the angels, santas, reindeer and elves – how to choose. That Christmas my eldest daughter chose a beautiful, but unfortunately very fragile (smash) glass church and my then youngest daughter chose an equally beautiful and fragile, but far more durable penguin.

The latest addition - a dancing mouse

 

the hot pink heart is this year's choice by my youngest

Every year since then, we have all chosen a tree decoration and now my youngest is joining in the tradition. Even though my eldest daughters are 24 and 22, they still love the Christmas decoration tradition and over the years we have amassed an amazing and eclectic range of decorations. It is the most uncoordinated tree, lacking any theme or colour -styling, except of course, for the tradition of a family Christmas.

the hand-felted little lamb arrived this year

blue & white bauble from Vietnam

Each Christmas the boxes of decorations come up from the cellar and the unwrapping of crinkly tissue paper is the opening of memories. Remembering where and when the ornament was bought, laughing at a 6 year-old’s love of a huge red heart with gold braid trim. Reminiscing about the ones that haven’t lasted the distance.

The much-loved red heart

 

What every tree needs - a Mexican bauble and a ballerina!

Adding to the shop-bought ornaments are the ones my daughters have made, including an ancient Nativity Scene made from loo rolls and felt, paper chains and tinsellsed angels.

Still going after 17 years!

this year's special project

 

For me, this is  Christmas, the drawing together of family, the sharing of memories and love.

The Meaning I give my Life

At some time in our life we are confronted by death and the reality of our own mortality. Often our first experience of death is the loss of a grandparent. It is sad, painful, sometimes confusing, but it does fit into the natural order. We, or people around us, will talk about ‘a good innings’, a ‘long life’ as a way to ease the pain of grief and the almost overwhelming sense of loss.

But the death of someone in youth or middle-aged, someone close to your own age, is entirely different. One’s own mortality is put in very stark relief. The fragility and randomness of life is undeniable.

I do not believe that ‘everything happens for a reason’. I don’t believe that a tragedy that befalls somebody is preordained or has some higher purpose. But I do believe that the meaning is what we choose to take from, or give to, the situation. The unfairness, the untimeliness of an early death is very difficult to accept. We mourn not just the death, but the life not lived.

A father not there for his daughters’ dance concerts, formals, graduations and weddings. A friend missing from drinks at the pub, the empty spot at the family dinner table. This is not how we imagine our lives to be.

And we struggle not just with the emotion, we struggle with words. It can be incredibly difficult to find the right words, any words when faced with death, with the bereaved. People have quite literally moved away from when I mention my mother-in-law’s death. I need the opposite. I need a moving towards me, a hand on my arm, a touch on my shoulder. The silence that surrounds early pregnancy and miscarriage is a defensive shield against the embarrassment of our inarticulateness. And yet, when I suffered a miscarriage, I wanted my grief and loss acknowledged.

As we struggle to make sense of death and grief, so it is with life. The meaning is in the decisions and choices we make every day. Not just the ‘big’ life altering decisions. At the end of my life, I hope to have left a legacy of love for my children, family and friends. I hope I have worked towards my goals and dreams and even achieved some of them. I want to remain active and engaged in the world around me and concerned for those less fortunate than myself. I won’t find the cure to cancer, or invent some extraordinary new device, but I can live my life the best way I know how, to continue to learn, love, desire and strive.

We live and we die. We may not choose the manner and circumstance of our dying, but we do choose how we live and in doing so, imbue our life with its meaning.

The Long Last Goodbye

Last Tuesday, my husband and I took our 4-year-old to say good-bye to her grandmother, my mother-in-law. She’d been taken to hospital the night before with double pneumonia. It was the third time in as many weeks, and this time the doctors suggested the best approach was care and comfort.  No treatment, just morphine for the pain. We were being asked to let her die.

My mother-in-law, Margaret, has been slowly slipping away from us for the last couple of years as dementia took hold and ravaged her memory and personality. The woman, whom I first met seven and half years ago, who called a spade a bloody shovel, who loved to play bridge and enjoyed an active social life, disappeared and withdrew. Margaret’s world  shrank to her room at the hostel where she was cared for.

A sensitive and moving book - for all.

It’s hard for an active toddler to visit in such a confined space, even harder when Grandma Margaret doesn’t remember who you are.. But, I believe that it is important not to shield children from the process of aging and dying.So my daughter has always been given sympathetic, gentle, but straight forward explanations about death and dying. We have used the analogy of a flower that is fresh, but then wilts and eventually dies. We have read a book called ‘Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in between”, which beautifully  explains that dying is a part of living.

But visiting Grandma Margaret in hospital was tricky. Miss E was initially quite reluctant to have any physical contact with her grandmother, which wasn’t very surprising. Grandma Margaret was propped up in a chair, in a hospital gown, an oxygen tube attached to her nostrils and sedated by morphine. Her skin was rice-papery thin, dry and bruised from cannulas and blood tests. Her breath was raspy, a rattle in her throat. Her feet tapped constantly, as if to a melody only she could hear floating around the ward. She didn’t recognise me or Miss E.

My husband and I started chatting about the King Parrots we could see outside the hospital window in the Grevillea bush, about the hibiscus, the poinsettia and the sudden flourish of spring-like weather in this first week of August. Miss E ate strawberries and hung back, until we started rubbing baby lotion into Grandma Margaret’s arms. Miss E tentatively joined in. Quite quickly her shyness was replaced by an eagerness to smother Grandma Margaret in baby lotion. Layer upon layer. As she won’t remember her grandmother as a healthy woman, I hope this moment of shared intimacy is the memory that will linger for Miss E.

My grandfather died when I was five or six and the overwhelming emotion that returns when I think about it, is confusion. My mother was gone for long periods of time as he slowly died. I don’t remember saying good-bye or even the last time I saw him and I didn’t go to his funeral.

I’m sure Miss E is confused as well. Her parents were dealing with their own grief and loss, and the confronting reality of watching a loved one slowly ebb away. Our patience was not what it should be, frayed by an emotional and physical exhaustion that is a heavy weight pressing down, squeezing in from all sides. As the week passed and death was ever-present, we spent longer and longer periods at the hospital. I was grateful for pre-school and my parents who struggled with us to  keep a routine and some sense of normality in place. But at least as adults we can talk about our feelings, write a cathartic blog post, my four-year old doesn’t even have the words yet for what she is trying to process.

Most of us probably hope to die peacefully in our sleep when we’ve had a ‘good innings’. But death is rarely that considerate. Grandma Margaret died at 2am on the Friday night, nearly four days after they stopped all fluids and treatment beyond morphine. Her breath slowed, shallowed, puffed and stopped,and in her morphine-induced sleep, she died. But she’d been in death’s tight and uncomfortable grip for some time and we never knew which of our good-byes would be our last.

I haven’t had to help any of my children through the grief of losing a grandparent before, and it’s a very challenging experience as a parent. No matter what your spiritual belief, the finality of death is difficult even for adults. Explaining to Miss E that she has seen Grandma Margaret for the last time is not easy. She’s asked if that means we’ll forget all about her and I tell her of course not. You never forget the person or the love you felt for them and from them, but she won’t be seeing her again.

Like any 4-year-old, it pops up out of the blue, in her bold, bald statement of fact. Grandma Margaret is dead, but I haven’t forgotten her.

 For Margaret – 1st December 1930 – 6th August 2011

Every Boot has its Day

Not so much walking now

Twelve years ago I bought my twelve-year-old daughter a pair of riding boots. Nubuck suede, with a thick, practical Blundstone boot type rubber sole. Not as fancy as the leather-soled R.M. Williams boot, but a good pair of riding boots.

She loved her boots and they travelled with her to the UK to visit her dad. They went tramping through wintery Somerset fields and laneways and welcomed in the year 2000 around the village bonfire. They went on school camps and excursions. But like all twelve-year olds, she grew and the boots no longer fit her.

But they did fit me. So I adopted the boots and they started a new life of standing on hockey field sidelines and gardening. They served me well on film and TV sets, even following in the footsteps of Tom Cruise on a cliff top in Malabar for Mission Impossible 2.  They’ve scrambled through bush locations and kept me warm during sunrise shots at Palm Beach and night shoots in Kings Cross. These boots have stood toe to toe with some of Australia’s best-loved actors.

Over the years, the Nubuck has been smoothed away to a crinkled, well-worn leather. For a strictly urban dwelling pair of boots, they pulled off the rural work boot look very well. But since my third daughter was born four and half years ago and my film and TV days are behind me, the boots have been in semi-retirement. They’ve been replaced by far less practical, but considerably more elegant suede and leather boots.

But yesterday, I had some gardening to do at my parents’, so I retrieved the boots from their sad corner of my wardrobe, pulled them on and raced out the door. But before the gardening bee, we were visiting a relative in hospital. As soon as I stepped out of the car, something felt not quite right, as if something was stuck on my heel. I did that little twist manoeuvre you do when you want to scrape something off your heel. Didn’t work, tried again. Didn’t work. I glanced down at my heel. Part of it was missing, just gone. Well, that’s bloody annoying, I’d thought. No spare shoes and no time to buy any.

By the time I reached the main doors of the hospital, I realised there was something very wrong. My boots  were disintegrating. Twelve years of wear had finally caught up with them and I was leaving a Hansel and Gretel-like trail of black rubber crumbs through Royal North Shore Hospital.

Soon the crumbs became chunks. I left an outline of black rubber crumbs where I’d been standing by my uncle’s bedside, like the chalk outline at a crime scene. My four and half-year old thought it was very entertaining to hold up the chunks in case anyone missed the fact my boots were shedding their sole.

By the time we left the ward, one heel had vanished and the other boot left a great chunk behind at the lifts. My eldest daughter and I were laughing hysterically. The kind of laughter you need to release the emotional pain of visiting a much-loved, but seriously ill, family member. The kind of laugh that only just disguises the tears that are welling and the very real heartache of grief.

So even as my boots fell apart they were still serving me well. And yes, I kept them on for the gardening.

The Natural Progression of Life

Ten years ago, my grandmother died. She was 98. Gran had been to the ballet on the Saturday night and died peacefully in her sleep on the Tuesday afternoon.She was my last grandparent. At her funeral  I realised that my parents were now the senior generation. The buffer between them and death was gone.

Ten years ago, my dad was 72 and my mum was 68. They were fit (despite my dad’s two double by-pass surgeries), active, busy and showing no signs of slowing. But time moves on. They have aged, slowed down, reduced their activities and travel and taken on fewer commitments. There are some tasks, like gardening, hosting the family Christmas and, quite soon, driving, which are becoming too burdensome. It’s been gradual, just the natural progression of life. You adjust, adapt, almost seamlessly.

Although there are moments when I catch my breath at how old my parents have become. A few months ago I was running late to meet my parents and uncle for dinner. I walked into the restaurant and looked past the three elderly people sitting at a corner table, too old to be my family. But the frail, slightly hunched figure was my father and next to him my mother and uncle.

Yesterday my family’s dynamic shifted.

An older relative disclosed, in a quiet and dignified manner, that they are seriously ill. It was a jolt. I understood instantly that my life had entered a new phase. The senior generation of my family is moving from being care-givers, to people in need of care. New responsibilities will fall to my siblings and I as my parents and older relatives  need more and more help. And it won’t always be easy as they try to assert their will against their aging and sick bodies. As they struggle to accept a quality of life which is becoming diminished.The sadness of watching people I love fading.

I still can’t imagine my parents not being there to hug, to laugh with, to cry with, to remember my childhood with. I can’t imagine my children not having their grandparents to fuss over them and love them the way only grandparents can. I can’t imagine not having the broad shoulders of their comfort, support and love.

I can’t imagine a life without my parents.

No, she wasn’t an accident.

I have three children. Three daughters. Not so unusual. No. They are 23 yo, 21yo and 4 yo. I was 25 when my eldest was born, 44 when my youngest was born.

I can’t see your face, I don’t need to. Your eyebrows have shot upwards, your mouth fell open and a strangled squeak that may have been the start of a ‘Are you mad?’ type comment escapes. If you were sitting opposite me, meeting me for the first time, you would quickly arrange your face into a polite look of mild surprise and stutter, ‘Well that’s quite an age gap.’ Whilst still thinking, ‘Are you completely mad?’

Well, it’s okay. I can’t see you, so feel free to remain gobsmacked. I won’t be offended.

The brave (code for nosy/inquisitive/curious) will ask of my youngest, ‘Was she an accident?’ Presumably once over the age of 40, women are no longer capable of managing their contraception. Like some form of early onset dementia.

No, I say, she was planned. (Planned as in I stopped taking the pill and hoped.)

Then I’ll be asked, ‘Oh, IVF?’ No, no, Chinese Herbs and acupuncture. Just lucky.

Some people get quite twitchy when I admit to that. It seems to confirm that I am definitely loopy. And about now, I start to feel a little twitchy myself. It’s a strange mixture of guilt and greed. Selfishness and embarrassment. So, I usually slip in quite quickly, second marriage, you know.

Ah, of course. That explains it. And the interrogation of my reproductive history switches to my take on motherhood the second time round. Which always interests me, because it seems to imply that I stopped being a mother because my older daughters had reached an age when I was redundant.

But I hadn’t stopped mothering. I was on my first time round with adult children, transitioning from being the mother of teenagers to young adults. Adults who now don’t live at home, who travel, study overseas, have lives completely independent of mine and yet still seek out my company, my advice and when needed, my comfort.

So, it’s not motherhood the second time round, it’s a continuation. But I certainly have a different perspective with my little one. I’m far more relaxed because I understand that everything is temporary. No matter how tiring, trying or revolting the phase is, they will move on. Quite possibly it will be to a phase that’s even worse, it will definitely be different. And by the time they reach approximately 17½ , they will emerge from the darkness of their teenage caves (bedrooms) and  be delightful.

The sleepless nights, nappies, endless replaying of The Wiggles DVD’s, the little hand slipping into yours is a fraction of their lives, so just enjoy them.