Four

If someone had looked me in the eye more than five years ago and said, “You will go through a difficult time after the birth of your first child and feel a sense of loss of self and your identity” – or words to that effect – I would have scoffed at them. I would have raised my eyebrows and questioned such a negative futuristic vision of personal experience. Disbelief and disdain. In my eyes, motherhood is supposed to be a happy and momentous occasion; not riddled with issues such as depression (how green was I?). Now, on the anniversary week of my first-born and only child turning four years of age (the Saturday just gone), I look back at where I’ve been and how far I’ve travelled in this life and I can honestly say that I’m better off for the learning curve that postnatal depression has provided. The personal insight has been invaluable and I realise that I wouldn’t change a thing. And so it is that I mentally pat myself on the back and celebrate this milestone – my son turning four years old. I’ve come a long way.

Milestones can be found everywhere in our lives. From the moment we celebrate reaching our 21st birthday, getting our first car, landing our first job, having our first child and so on. There are so many firsts and they all deserve a mention and, for some, deserve equal celebration. When it comes to depression and anxiety, it really is no different. Each day is a milestone, each week and month that you manage to get yourself out of bed and insist that your mind also “get up and at ’em” is in equal measure something that should be celebrated; to give yourself a ‘pat on the back’ and a good talking to in the bathroom mirror for being able to ‘raise yourself up’ to everyday living.

These days, as my son screams around the house on his little four-wheeler “car”, I manage to remember at times not to yell at him or have a negative outlook on some of the things he does. After all, yes he is only four, but I celebrate this because there was once a time where everything seemed too hard and I wasn’t coping; trying to operate as a functional human being with a brain that was riddled with the heavy weight of depression. I can fully appreciate that my son’s brain is still developing and he has a lot of things about life to learn. Having said that we are at the stage of his development where he has learnt the art of fibbing. He’s also learnt to suddenly push all of my buttons – all at once! Such is the life of a toddler…and I’ve become accustomed to his now daily worship of the word “No”. He uses it so often that it is painstaking to hear anyone else use the word, including myself! (But that’s another blog post…).

There are still days where I find myself mentally struggling with the prospect of facing the day ahead. Most often than not, those days that I struggle are due to not getting enough sleep. Sometimes it’s simply because I haven’t honoured myself in pursuing some ‘me-time’ or downtime away from my child. Even if it’s just reading a chapter of a book (reading is one of my favourite things to do, but is considered a luxury these days) or taking some time out to catch up with a good friend for a coffee. But those off days are far and in between now. I celebrate that fact too.

In the early days of my parenting journey, my perspective was skewed by negative thoughts fuelled by broken sleep and a hormonal tidal wave that I had absolutely no control over. Sadness enveloped me tirelessly each and every day. I look back at how I used to be and think to myself how blessed I was to have the support of my family – in particular, my husband and my dear, dear mother. I still have their support now. However, I am on the mend and able to identify the ‘signs’ – not enough sleep, not eating properly and so on. I may not always do the right thing by myself, but I know to look out and after myself. I am coping much better and better equipped to ‘manage’ my depression and anxiety symptoms, as they flit in and out of my every day life.

Is there something you can celebrate? It doesn’t have to be earth shattering or worthy of a fireworks display necessarily. It can be absolutely anything under the sun. From little things, big things grow.

Satellite

Purple was my mother-in-law’s favourite colour. Whenever I see the colour purple, I think of her and immediately my memories draw upon our time with her when she was alive and still relatively well. My mind can cast itself back to the time when she was hospitalised on a few occasions, but was still mobile, her legs still functioning with ease, and I can see our son sitting on the bed with her colouring in. She had at one time picked up the purple pencil and asked him, “And did you know that purple is Nanny’s favourite colour?”. Her grandson had simply nodded in the way toddlers absentmindedly do when they are busy with a task. My husband and I had looked at one another and smiled at their close proximity. As a grandmother, she revelled in being able to simply sit and watch him. At times, when she was able to sit close enough to him, such as on the hospital bed colouring in pictures, she would lovingly stroke his little head and say, “You beautiful little boy. Do you know Nanna loves you very, very much?”. Thinking back to those days makes my heart ache. Her love for our son, her only grandson, was clearly evident.

It was her wish that whenever our son queried his Nanna’s whereabouts, that we point out the moon and stars and say, “Wave to Nanna. She’s up there with the moon and stars.” And our son has somewhat accepted this as fact, in only the way a toddler can without judgement and too much questioning. But there’s no doubting that his little brain is trying to process that Nanna has gone away and that we don’t visit her in the nursing home anymore; that there are no phone calls to her, where he can tell her about his day.

I was hurriedly applying the final touches of my makeup the other morning, trying to quickly get myself ready to take my son to kindergarten, when he suddenly appeared in the open bathroom doorway and stated, “Mama, we need to get a satellite”. I wasn’t really paying him much attention at first because I was rushing and focussing on what I was doing. But I still gently asked the question, looking over my shoulder at him briefly, “And why is that love?” What a cutie, I thought to myself. Where did he get such a big word from?

He had been quietly watching the morning cartoons and I had no doubt that one of them was “Ready, Jet, Go!”. The main character being Jet, a young boy from a planet called Fortron 7 (ever heard of it?). It follows his adventures with several of his Earth friends, who also happen to be his neighbours. I vaguely recall thinking that a storyline with satellites orbiting the Earth must have been the latest episode. I had quickly glanced at my watch to see how much time we had left before we absolutely had to run out the door. My son answered me with, “We need a satellite so that we can talk to our friends in space”.

“Well love,” I was pretending to give such a purchase some serious consideration, “A satellite is pretty big and costs a lot of money. We also don’t have the room for one”.

Watching his little face, I could see that he wasn’t turned off by such practicalities. “Um…okay. But we still need to get one”. His tone was adamant now.

“But why do we need to get one love?” I had finished what I was doing and turned around to give him my full attention, “Who are you going to talk to?”

At this point, he had only slightly rolled his eyes, as if exasperated that he had had to explain the plain obvious to me.

“So that we can talk to Nanna of course!”.

His response totally threw me and I could suddenly feel the pinprick of tears in my eyes. With my vision beginning to blur, I managed to satisfy his request for a satellite by saying, “Well…let’s talk to Daddy about it when he comes home from work then”. He seemed happy with this and skipped off back to his cartoon watching. I, on the other hand, had to compose myself and quickly gather our things together, including my son’s school bag before madly rushing us out the front door. After dropping him off to his kindy for the day, I felt slightly heavy with the sudden well of emotions from my son’s innocent request.

Eulogy

It was somewhere around late afternoon to early evening on Wednesday, 8th March 2017, that my mother-in-law found the eternal peace she had been seeking for some time. When queried, the doctor who had looked after her in life – and who would now be responsible for writing up his final report and paperwork in her death – had stated that she had probably passed on in her sleep peacefully; that she had not felt any pain. It was the best way for her to go.

stock-photo-beautiful-candles-with-flowers-on-wooden-background-193299911

Thinking back to the day, at the approximate time that she would have passed away, my husband and I were sitting down at our local recreation centre watching our son during his weekly swimming lessons. The day had started like any other – the morning chaos of getting Master Almost Four to kindy on time; making lunches; getting out of the house in a flurry of our usual haste. Then onto my usual schedule of running errands, grocery shopping and housework. My hubby had visited his mother after his lunchbreak and had spoken face-to-face with his mothers’ visiting sister. His Aunty had been seated bedside and chatting with his mother, keeping her company for a while. This allowed my hubby the time to ring his mother’s second sister located interstate, so that she too could also have a quick chat with his mother. It was just after the swimming lessons that my husband had received the phone call from the nursing home and received the sad news of his mothers’ passing.

In the aftermath of hearing of her death, my husband and I had sat in the lounge area of the nursing home where she had resided for the past two years. We had organised for my own mother to watch our son, so that we could rush to the nursing home. After visiting my mother-in-law for one last time, where we kissed her now cold cheeks and whispered our last goodbyes, we had sat there in the evening light of dusk, looking out to the street below from the top storey window. Hubby had been trying to reach his brother in order to alert him to the fact that their mother had now passed. But he couldn’t be reached. Although his brother’s phone was operational, it would keep ringing out and then going to voicemail. So we had sat there for a time, waiting for his brother to return the call.

During our silent reveries, I was suddenly overcome with more than just the emotions that grief can bring. I felt a sudden gratitude that my husband and I had managed to obtain some of my mother-in-law’s personal story before she died. Looking back on my earliest notes about her life, I noted the date was sometime around June or July 2016 when we had first started asking about her life story. It was only after I had checked with my husband, that we had broached the topic of her funeral and if she had wanted to make a contribution to her eulogy. Does such a request seem strange? Maybe. Are you reading this and thinking you cannot believe how organised we were? Or perhaps wondering how could we ask such a question of her? Such morbidity!?

It has now been a month since her death from terminal Myeloma, a form of Leaukemia, and life goes on as they say. And so it was that I found myself continuing with the mundanity that only everyday life can bring – I was lying down in the dentist chair for my six-monthly check up, scale and clean. Woohoo! I thought to myself excitedly (NOT!). I enjoy chatting to my dentist; not so much getting my teeth worked on.

In particular, I was catching up briefly with the hygienist before she started cleaning my teeth. She had asked after my husband. How was the mother going? I remember she was ill. So I filled her in on the fact that she was now no longer with us. When she expressed her condolences, she had spoken of the head dentist who owned the business and another staff member. How the two of them had also lost loved ones since the end of the previous year. One of those people had been a father of three very young children who were only aged 2 years, 4 years and 6 years respectively. (How my heart ached for the family and friends left behind to deal with the aftermath of continuing a life without their beloved in it. I cannot imagine how confusing it must be for the little ones left behind without a father).

When I mentioned my gratitude for having had the chance to ask my mother-in-law about her life story, my hygienist suddenly exclaimed out loud, “Wow! You guys are really organised to be discussing her eulogy with her too”. I had cringed inwardly at first. I suddenly felt that I had to justify myself and that’s when I realised that I knew why I had broached the eulogy with my husband and his mother almost a year ago – I had wanted to honour his mother the only way I knew how. I’d wanted to give her the chance of having the last say. After all, when my mother-in-law first moved into the nursing home, we had tried to get my mother-in-law interested in continuing her life within the confinement of her new surrounds, her new ‘home’. Her anxiety was worsening every day, so we offered different options like suggesting different reading books/magazines; listening to audio stories; watching her favourite television shows and/or listening to her favourite radio stations and music. Alas, we tried to get her to put her anxious mind to rest by taking an interest in activities and/or hobbies, but to no avail. Whenever we visited her, we encouraged her to talk to us and let us know if there was anything she wanted to talk about. Was there anything concerning her? Was there anything we could do for her?

I had been wracking my mind for some time about what we could do for her. This was in the time we had with her before she was diagnosed as terminal; before her cancer treatments stopped working. I really wanted to honour her memory and it was when my husband had asked me gently if I would be alright to take on the task of reading his mother’s eulogy at her funeral, whenever that time presented itself, that he didn’t think he would be emotionally up to it… I did not hesitate in answering in the positive. Of course, I would be more than happy to do this for him, and for his mother. That’s when I knew that drafting her eulogy would be the only way to really ‘help’ his mother in getting through the unnumbered days that she had left with us.

We were tentative in our approach when we asked her about taking notes throughout the next few months to draft up a eulogy that she could contribute to if she wanted. But there was nothing to be anxious about. She had accepted happily, without a second thought, and put our fears to rest. She had loved the idea and then asked me to make sure that I brought a notebook with me whenever we visited. That didn’t mean to say that the words flowed easily from her heart, mind and mouth though. She would start and stop at times. There were some visits where she didn’t feel like talking at all or was too tired to think about anything. But we eventually built up her story notes over a series of months leading up to her final terminal diagnosis. It was after this final issue on life that she had been given by her specialist where she would suddenly think up of things on a whim that she’d wanted us to include in her eulogy. l would often find myself fumbling around in my handbag, looking hurriedly for the notebook and then try to quickly write it all down before the moment was lost.

And so it was on the day of the funeral service that I read the eulogy and fulfilled my promise to my husband’s request and the request of his mother in passing on the messages she had me write down in earnest, so as not to be forgotten. In the final drafted version, there were several parts to it. Her two remaining sisters adding their contributions to her life story. I feel enriched for the experience; satisfied that I was able to finally honour her life, by honouring her story – both in her words and ours. Through the eulogy, my mother-in-law was able to impart her final messages of love and hope to those loved ones left behind. It was a touching service and it also felt right that we had honoured her memory in such a way that she too was able to take a part.

Never underestimate the simplicity of asking another about their life story. After all, once they are gone, we continue on with our lives holding onto the precious memories and remembering the stories about the life they lived. A eulogy is a form of storytelling.