Christmas past

Christmas has always been very good at reminding you of the people no longer around. That was never a thing really for until about a dozen years ago. Sure, I lost my grandparents, all but one of them, when I was in my teens, and with their passing so to did a part of that Christmas lifestyle – but when you’re a kid you adjust.

When I was a kid Christmas day was lunch at one grandparents, and dinner at the other. It was huge and very exciting as a child, but as a kid you take things like that in your stride. Kids are malleable like that because they have less experience of life. Even with grandparents dying off life feels eternal, and many golden years of sunshine still ahead. We’re still in our cocoon, protected from the storms and buffeting winds of life, optimistic and much loved, and knowing. We haven’t yet felt the weight of life, and consequently are not as sentimental as we will become.

I have very strong memories of those childhood Christmas days, and fond, even loving memories of my grandparents. I mourned them greatly when they past, and can recall sobbing with uncontrolled grief when my Nan, my mum’s mum, a woman who loved me as much (I was her favourite) as much as loved her. I was 17 then, but even with her loss I still had family close about me.

Grandparents are generally the first wave of loss most people will experience. There seems a gap then, for most anyway. Then a second of deaths occur. If you’re lucky you’ve been spared the random and unexpected deaths of friends and loved one’s in between.

For me it was the deaths of my uncle and aunt, my dad’s siblings, in the early 2000’s. My uncle went first, not long turned 50, a gentle, kind and ultimately weak man who succumbed to cancer. It was such a sad death, and remains sad today. He died estranged not just from his wife, but his children too – none of whom, disgracefully, attended his funeral. In his way a lovely man, but he lived in the shadow of his brother, my father, he admired so much. He never really lived his life I think, trying to be a man he could never be.

Not long after that my aunt, my dad’s sister, died. She’d been a single woman all her life, and though she had lived in Sydney most of her adult life she had a huge part in our lives. She was a bohemian type, opinionated, intelligent and cultured. Every year she would buy me books from the time I could read, wrapped always in silver or gold glitter paper with a red ribbon binding it.

Because she had no partner, and no children, she focused a lot of attention on us. She was an interesting woman in many ways, complex and sometimes combative, but often quirky, and very affectionate. She was one of those aunts that would hug and kiss you like you were something precious.

Much happened in her life, but it’s impossible to overlook her relationship with her mother. They despised each other mutually, and often it was quite bitter on my aunt’s side, and in ways defined who she was – anything her mother was not. For whatever reason she became an alcoholic. I lived with her a little when I was in Sydney, and have some happy memories of that, but remember too the drinking, which was constant.

She was always very good and generous to us, and it was a blow when she passed away – though not a surprise. She was in her early sixties when she too died of cancer.

Neither of them had been directly involved in our Christmas celebrations, except with presents under the tree, but as an adult you have a much greater conception of death, and it leaves a mark. I remember travelling to Queensland for my uncle’s funeral, and surreal it was. A couple of years later I was there again, in the same house, clearing it out with my sister after after my aunt’s death.

At some point death will come to your parents. In my case that came prematurely, and ultimately changed everything.

My father is still alive, but we have nothing to do with each other. That’s a virtual death I guess, though I have hopes we will be reconciled (he’s moving to Melbourne in February). My sister thinks he has only a few more years left in him anyway.

Of much greater impact in my life was the death first of my stepfather Fred in 2007, and more so the death of my mum a few years ago.

When Fred died the ties began to loosen a little, though that’s only something you recognise in hindsight. We still had the extravagant and affectionate Christmas celebrations, but it was tinged with sadness, and the blended family we had become in the 17 years of their marriage began to reverse.

It all came apart when my mum died. She was the person, the glue, that held everything together. She was such a warm person that everyone (except my sister) loved her. She almost childlike in the pleasure she took from Christmas and any significant family event. Christmas with her was always a spectacle, but probably very similar to a multitude of Christmas celebrations today. Christmas is a spectacle.

It’s what you miss. The spectacle of it, the over the top but greatly anticipated ceremony of family, of gift giving, of too much wonderful food and too many bottles of bubbles. And a part of it love and immense affection. Again, it’s something you recognise really after it’s gone. You’re in the middle of it, carried along, bathed in it. Then it’s gone, and you’re on the outside.

The death of mum meant that binding force was lost, but in any case the acrimony following her death destroyed any semblance of family.

I long for days like that again, and will be focused on making it so sometime in the future. I’m happy not to pretend in the meantime. All the same, memories return to you at this time of year like they do no other. I have apps that remind you what you were doing and what you said on this day all the years in the past. Yesterday it was Christmas and I saw the photo’s again, and recalled the moments, looking into the well known and well loved features of people no longer with us.

Things I want to remember

I’ve discovered some things over the past few months that I want to record here, if only for myself. I’m bound to forget at some point, and it will be good to have this prompt to my memory.

The first observation was sparked by the death of my mum. A lot of emotions run through you, not just at the time, but in the weeks and months after as well. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to write of the transition from one mental state to another, but it is not something I can do today.

What I can write of is something I realised I have lost. Obviously the death of a loved one entails great loss, and most of that is pretty obvious. There are subtleties though you can’t comprehend until you go through it.

Grief is a selfish emotion I’ve always thought, though both perfectly understandable and necessary. We lose someone we love and while a part of us grieves for what they will never do now, the great part of us grieves for the relationship we have lost – the love, the support, the understanding, the things we’ll never get to share now they are gone, and so on.

All these I anticipated intellectually, and in fact have felt at different times in different degrees. There may never be an end to those. What I didn’t expect was something much more personal.

How do I explain it? With my mother gone I feel one less set of eyes on me. With her death I have become a little less visible.

My mum loved me greatly. I knew it and probably took it for granted. I always complained that she never understood me, but she certainly saw me. I found myself reflected in her eyes. To be seen gives weight to our existence, and in that reflection of ourselves we find a part of our identity. Perhaps that’s the greatest torture in solitary confinement – not merely the loneliness, but the utter abnegation of self that occurs when there is no-one to observe us.

I knew when mum looked at me that I was loved. No matter what I did or wherever I was I knew I was in her mind and that she hoped for me. Now she is gone though I feel something less than what I was. When we lose people we love we lose a little part of our selves. Without her gaze upon me I feel one less bearing point in my life.

The other thing is in similar vein, but from a much different source.

I’ve always said that we can learn a lot from our pets. They love unconditionally, as we have learned not to.

Like for many people I exist at the centre of my dog’s universe. He has no greater joy in life than to be with me, to be seen by me (yes, that again), and for the opportunity to express his perfect affection. Oh, and food.

I’m very good to him. He gets plenty of my time and attention. I’m always giving him a pat or stopping to crouch down to his level, I’ll ruffle his years or absently caress him with his head in my lap. Often I’ll just talk to him. He takes that as his due, but it never becomes dull for him, he never takes it for granted, and it’s always fresh and wonderful for him.

I’ve come to realise that he draws this affection from me in his expectation of it. It is a pleasure to provide him so much pleasure, something that fills my heart as much as it does his. He’s always available, ready and willing for the love which is fundamental to his meaning of life, and he doesn’t think twice about it. I respond to that by giving him exactly what he wants.

I’m not like that, I know that much. Like many people I think it too much, too often. I get embarrassed sometimes, or awkward, unwilling to commit or to show what I feel. I think that’s actually pretty common – those few who express their feelings openly and without fear always stand out.

More than anything though I’ve realised that we have the power to compel love and affection in our simple expectation and availability to it. Love comes to those who put it out there, who are ready to receive and believe it to be no more than their just reward. So, open people, don’t close off.

You too H.

A good day for a funeral

It’s a quiet Wednesday morning in Mont Albert. It’s not 9am yet, the sky is clouded over with off-white clouds, there is no breeze. Soon enough, we’re promised, the clouds will dissipate, the sun will show, and all this quiet about me will be usurped by people and noise and colour.

Today is the day of my mum’s funeral. It’s a big day in my life I suspect; it feels so anyway. Since mum died on Saturday I have been a frenzy of activity. Necessity demanded it – there was much to do – but it was fortuitous as well, and I threw myself into it.

There have been moments when the situation has got to me – when I first heard of course; and yesterday opening up some cards of condolence, and random times in between. For the most part I have been focused on what must be done. I want this day to be everything mum would want it to be. She has famously high standards, and as it happens, so do I.

And so I’ve kept busy managing myriad details, almost alone. The days have been tiring, my head buzzing, but the activity has kept at bay the creeping sadness the occasion entails. Now the day has come and for the moment I think we are in good order, everything organised, everything ready to go.

This time is mine then. Soon I’ll shower and look to the final arrangements. The post-funeral reception is here so I’ll go through the place tidying it, I’ll arrange the furniture outside, I’ll give the caterer a call to confirm all is on track. I’ll have a shave then, and dress in my suit, I’ll welcome the early arrivers here, mainly from interstate, then I’ll walk around the corner to the church where I’ll greet the mourners as they arrive for the service. Then the rest happens.

I wonder what I feel. I don’t feel that particular prick of grief for now. More a slow melancholy, an enduring stoicism: this is what has happened, this is what I must endure. It is a fact of life.

In actual fact I think there is some dread deep down. I have been so busy racing around that I fear lurking deep in me is the sorrow poised to assert itself. This day is necessary, and it’s important that we do justice to mum’s memory, but, even though I have my very critical duties, I can’t help but think all of this is for other people. It is  the occasion for others to gather and  express both their appreciation of mum’s life and share their grief at her passing. It is part of the ceremony of life.

I will stand up, say my piece, will sit there as others do the same. Later I’ll do the rounds of the crowd with a smile on my face, I’ll stand as surrogate for my mother, will receive their kind words, their happy stories, their memories, then I’ll move on to the next. I don’t mind this, and in fact I’m quite good at it, but I don’t really look forward to any of it. For me it becomes real when most have gone and all who remain are us, the inner sanctum, talking and remembering and sipping on a wine, recalling our own memories finally as we attempt to understand what has happened, and what it means.

It probably becomes more  real tomorrow, the great ceremony past, people flown back to their homes, real life – or some version of it – returning, but in this  reality, minus my mum.

It’s just on 9am now and the clouds have dispersed, the sunlight gently falls. If there is any such thing, it’s a good day for a funeral. I must begin.

Past caring

Portrait of the dead Caspar of Uchtenhagen in ...

Image via Wikipedia

This may seem like a morbid subject, but really I don’t mean it to be. I’m curious more than anything, and I guess doubly so given that it has personal relevance to me right now.

Mum went to the funeral parlour this morning to pick out a coffin and make arrangements for when the time comes. We don’t know when that will be, but mum tends to think soon – say the next 6-8 weeks (or sooner), and would be happy for it. I’m not so sure of that and try not to anticipate one way or the other, though it’s hard not to. It’s natural that it plays on your mind, that each ‘good’ day leads you to think it might not be so bad, and each ‘bad’ day (which has become ‘normal’) leads you to wonder how soon. It can be torturous if you’re not careful, which means that some distance is occasionally necessary (unfortunately impossible for mum). Anyway, I digress.

The idea today was to get it all sorted – the coffin, the music, the trimmings and small touches, and so on. I was busy elsewhere and asked my sister to take mum along. One of us needed to be there to know what’s been arranged – mum won’t be around to refer too – and since I’ve been carrying most the load it was time my sister stepped in.

And so they went along and got much of it sorted within an hour or so. I suppose it sounds a bit icky to be arranging your own funeral, but it has to be done – a fact of death I guess. Besides, who better? That’s how you get, a mix of uncertain grief and practicality. And one more thing ticked off.

Mum told me she’d picked out one of the cheapest coffins there. She’s getting cremated anyway, so there seems little point in spending big on something that’s soon to be firewood. And even if it wasn’t, what’s the value in spending many thousands of dollars on a beautifully appointed, lush coffin whose possessor won’t ever get to appreciate it? I don’t mean to sound flip, but I don’t understand. I know there are lots of families out there who are unstinting in providing for their dead loved ones, and some cultures where it is demanded. I don’t understand though. When I’m dead I leave behind a mortal body that has no further meaning or significance. Whoever I am has flown (I once thought it would be groovy to have a sky burial like they do in Tibet). That’s my opinion, and is not intended as being as spiritual as it sounds.  The point is that what happens to my body is immaterial – it has meaning only for those who are left behind. The rituals of death help people deal with loss and I understand the need for it. If it’s me though – and I’m curious to know what you think – if and when the time comes I don’t care if I’m in a coffin or covered in a shroud. Save you money, better to spend on the living than those who have no need of it anymore