Filling in the blanks

This morning I lay in bed with the sun streaming in through the window reading Saturday’s newspaper. On the table beside me was a fresh made latte, and on the other side of me Rigby lay happily resting close by his dad. This is pretty standard, a scene repeated in one way or another hundreds of times over the last 15 years.

The pattern extends to how I read the paper. I’m up by about 8 to collect the plastic wrapped newspaper from outside. This is Rigby’s job, and one he delights in. He quickly observes that I’m about to go out, and bounds ahead of me as I open the front door. The newspaper will be there lying in the driveway and he’ll grab it hungrily, looking back at me with his tail wagging in anticipation. Sometimes – often – he’ll drop it momentarily to go sniff at something, or wander part way down the road, before returning to grasp the newspaper again and precede me through the front door.

With coffee made and paper freshly unfurled I’ll scan the front page of the newspaper to check the headlines, and read anything of immediate interest. Then, like many a man across the globe, I’ll turn to the sports section and read it from front to back. After that I’ll read the news exhaustively, and then begin on the feature articles – the magazines I’ll get to later in the day.

Much as I enjoy this ritual there comes a time when naturally I become restless. The clock has ticked a little past 9, and my coffee is drunk. Part of my mind begins to look ahead: what am I doing today? It begins scheduling things, an easy task as I tend to follow a pattern in that regard too. Unless there is some extraordinary event ahead I’ll generally get up, pad around a bit checking email, having a light breakfast, before showering and heading off up the road on foot to the local shops.

That is ahead of me still though, as that part – a small part – of my mind ponders that I continue to read, unwilling as yet to commit to anything. I need, I know, a transition – a staging point –  into the day proper.

I felt that again this morning, and for one of the first times ‘since’ actually considered what that meant to me. You do so many things in life in a state of semi automation that it comes as a jolt sometimes to step back and observe the mechanics of it. In this case the jolt has come about because of a fundamental change in routine. What was there before is no longer, and I’m at a loss without it.

In the past, through much of the last 15 years, I would put my paper down and pick up the phone. More often than not I would call my mum. I was hardly aware of it then, but looking back now it seems very much a part of the ritual. I wonder if mum came to expect my Saturday morning calls – I suspect she did. I would call, generally, without anything particular to discuss. I might tell her of what happened during the week (though we would have spoken one or two times during it), and report what my weekend held. Like the best conversations our conversation would take off in different directions, unbound by any particular convention. She would listen to anything and everything I said, gratefully I think, and with the love I feel more now that it’s gone than I did when it was all around. We would speak like that for anything up to 30 minutes, at which point I was good to get up and enter the world again.

Naturally none of that has happened since she died in March. I’ve missed many things since then, but this less so because I had no real routine to speak of. The last 9 months have been a time of great flux and unpredictability. I’ve been without a home, my life has been boxed up and in storage, and the routines of before where on hiatus.

Now I am back in my own space again, and settling slowly into a familiar groove that I am made to feel the absence of things that were just there. No doubt I took it for granted. The thing is though, you miss most when they’re gone the very things you expected without anticipation. So it is now.

This morning then I felt a little lost. There were others I could have called, but the conversation would have been different. And wrong. I wanted that easy, familiar conversation that I still can’t quite believe is gone forever. Life is like that now. There’s the shock of mum becoming ill, of her dying, but it’s the little things that bite. Even after this time it seems strange that she is gone from us forever now, and awful when I am forced to think of it in those terms.

Perhaps I need to make a new routine. Inevitably that will occur. For now it’s like a familiar picture hanging on the wall that has had huges swathes erased from it. I’m still managing the blank spots. In time I’ll paint them in again with something new, but for now they remain empty.

Time for my shower.

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.

Passing through

This morning I had to pay mum’s old paper bill. As I’ve become accustomed to I explained that she had passed away and the service was no longer required or applicable. As on pretty much every occasion I was offered polite commiserations; and as on every other occasion I felt uncomfortable responding to them. Everyone is nice, their sympathy genuine. I appreciate it, but any response of mine seems inadequate. Rather than saying anything I now respond with a nod of the head.

It’s feels so odd to tell people that my mum is ‘deceased’ or has ‘passed-away’. They seem such mealy-mouthed phrases, acceptable cliches to denote death – but, as I’ve come to understand, so much easier to squeeze out than to express the blunt truth that mum is ‘dead’. It seems to me a ritual we fall into by conventional habit to manage an awkward situation. We skate across the surface of things with words like this, but there seems a touch of the absurd to it when I stop to think about it. They are like scripted lines, I say mum has passed away, the other responds with conventional platitudes, and I am left as I walk from the newsagents recalling the famous skit from Monty Python about the dead parrot.

Of course there is something stranger than the mere expressions of sympathy. Odd as the words are, they seem occasionally to be incredible when I utter them in relation to my own mother. Is she dead? Really? Really? Though it has been 2 months now it often seems unreal still. It’s such an enormous concept that it’s hard to grasp that the person who was ever there will never be there again – and in fact has gone, deceased, passed away.

There are times it feels very real. Over the weekend I decided to go through some of mum’s cupboards and drawers to begin the slow process of dismantling the story of her life. There were a lot of memories there. At one point I picked up a pile of old cooking magazines and sat down to go through them. I discovered that in many mum had made little notes. Perhaps in every second magazine there was a sheet of a notebook taped to the inside cover with a list of recipes she fancied alongside the corresponding page number in mum’s distinct and flowing handwriting. I sat and looked at the words, so banal really, while somewhere in the back of my mind I pondered at the time and situation mum first scribbled those lines. I felt a kind of controlled sadness, and a sense almost of waste. Mostly I carry on, but there are regular moments when I feel the grief spill over in me. At times I feel like a little boy who has lost his mother in the crowd.

At times I am different, almost blunt. The phone rings, it is someone trying to sell something. They ask for mum. She’s not here I say. Sometimes I tell them that Mrs Davis doesn’t exist. They get confused. When will she be back? They ask. She won’t be back I tell them, she’s passed away. Mostly they apologise and go away, though one then tried to sell something to me. No thanks.

Besides the grief there are times I feel guilty. I try and understand what it is I feel guilty at. Could I have done more? No, not really. I did all I could in the end, and she appreciated it, but before then… I realise finally that I feel guilty that I didn’t appreciate mum sufficiently while she was alive. And guilty that I had no real conception of what it would be like to lose her. These are not things I can change now, and are sufficiently human I think to be forgiven at some point – I’m the lose after all. It’s for this reason though I get so angry at the shenanigans related to her will. They seem so small, so petty, in perspective to mum’s death, and so disrespectful of her.

When I look back, as occasionally I do, I see people disappearing from my life like so many green bottles. Grandparents, then aunts and uncles, and now my mum. Once upon a time I was in the middle of a loving family. I felt loved, even adored, and sometimes spoilt. One by one they exit, until there are so few left. With the passing of mum I know my greatest supporter has gone, and the person who loved me best in all the world. I feel guilty at not properly acknowledging that, and miss it now that life feels so trying. Time goes on, these wounds will heal, I’ll find others to love and be loved by, but for now, sometimes, I feel isolated and more alone than I ever have before knowing that there is one less person pulling for me.

Grief is personal. We pine not for the person who has gone, but for what we have lost in their passing. It’s a process of perfectly understandable selfishness and, I guess, a process that must be passed through.

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.