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.

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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.

The Hoarder Within…

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On the way to my doctor’s appointment this morning, I drove past a block of land for sale. Only about two or three streets away from our humble abode, it has been on sale for the last few months. Looking at it now it is overridden with weeds about a metre high, the ‘For Sale’ signage hardly visible. It suddenly reminded me of how our own minds, and sometimes lives, can become a bit unkempt and overlooked. How it sometimes becomes an effort to maintain and keep on top of our game.

Further to this analogy, my mother and her remaining living siblings, are sorting through and cleaning up my late grandfather’s deceased estate. The eldest of five children, with one brother (once my uncle) no longer with us, my mother was regaling her day to me and explaining how she had been clearing my grandfathers’ backyard. Together with her other brother, and two family friends, they spent half their weekend pulling out weeds as high, if not higher, than their own knees.

To fully appreciate such extraneous work, one needs to imagine four people over the age of sixty-five and into their early seventies, all with various ailments (including knee reconstructions and only partly successful cataract surgery). All of them bending over at the waist and/or crouched low on the ground performing labour intensive tasks. Obviously I queried if this was absolutely necessary work. The response was swift with stubborn overtones, yet it made sense. Now that it was spring in Perth, our hot summers would arrive shortly thereafter. Despite the absence of my grandfather, the practicalities of life still endured. His property was fast becoming a fire hazard.

It’s only now, a few days later, that I realise my error in how I had phrased my concern. Instead, I perhaps could have reworded it as: Is it absolutely necessary that all of you perform these tasks? Could you not delegate paid work to a professional and pay the fee out of the estate? Understandably, it would have incurred a high financial cost to them, but it would have saved them so much backbreaking work. Surely. Nonetheless, it is not my business to interfere. After all, historical data in our family line shows that the stubborn trait sometimes overrides any sort of gentle coaxing or advice given… Especially when it comes from the ‘younger’ generation.

My grandfather has left behind him a very big clean up job for family to address. A part of his ‘informal’ legacy if you like. No disrespect. In particular, his accumulation of things. Stuff. Some junk. Some not. I would like to point out here that I do not use the word ‘accumulation’ very lightly. The whole and honest truth is that my grandfather was a hoarder, just one description amongst many that could be made  about him.

According to my genetic calculations – I fall into the second generation hoarder category. Yes, alas, I too have hoarder tendencies. I am, after all, my mother’s daughter. Although I have worked hard at trying to curb it over the years, it is still scarily evident in my own collection of ‘things’. Which reminds me, I am due for another purge.

To provide a description of his ‘things’: a pantry overstocked with expired food items; boxes of cassette tapes with copied music, mostly religious; religious paraphernalia of different sorts from prayer books and cards to holy medals that had been blessed by a Roman Catholic priest at some time or other. To name but a few. Not to mention an old tin shed out the back of the property containing an assortment of boxes with my mothers’ things.

Unfortunately, my mother is also a hoarding offender from way back. When she moved house in recent weeks (right next door to us to be precise), we had been walking through her then rental from room to room with me asking: “Are you sure there isn’t anything else you can throw out?”. Man, did I feel like such a hypocrite! You know, from one hoarder to another and all that. How could I ask her such a question? Sigh… My mother had assured me at the time that she had already, believe it or not, let go of a lot of things. Although I didn’t say anything to her at the time, my facial expression might have shown the doubt I felt at her admission. Had she really thrown anything out at all? There was still so much…stuff!

Her lounge area, in her now cosy three bedroom rental, contains a few too many single and mismatched chairs. She hasn’t owned a sofa or couch for some years. Why? Apparently because it lightened the load of carting around too much stuff from one rental to another. Hmmm… The master bedroom looks like a master bedroom should. Take one look at the other two bedrooms and the same cannot be said. One room allocated by her for sewing purposes and prayer, with the other as a ‘spare’ room for junk and my eastern-states visiting sister once or twice a year. At present, both rooms are almost full with boxes of… Well, to be honest, I really don’t want to think about it.

The moral of this story? Metaphorically speaking: try clearing out the weeds in a timely manner. Do it now – before you realise that it’s too late to mow the lawn. Why? Because pulling weeds is back breaking work!

 

Silver linings

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Death has perfected the art of keeping up appearances. Sometimes sweeping in unannounced. At other times imminent. Yet even when its arrival is expected, the knock on the door can still come as a bit of a shock.

My mother-in-law has been keeping death at arms length for a period of time now. At first the diagnosis of breast cancer and the treatments that came with it. Then, many years on after the breast cancer left her body, leukaemia weaved its way into her bones. During this personal battle with leukaemia she had no support to rally round her. No solace in the form of hugs or a listening ear or two. However, this was brought about by her choice of excommunicating with her immediate family – her two sons and daughter-in-laws. She had recently separated from my father-in-law as well. She chose solitude and decided to suffer without us knowing.

It was in our silent exile that we tried on various occasions to make contact with her. Wanting to make sure she was okay. Trying to stay in touch, despite her hurtful dislodgement of us from her life. To this day we do not know what made her choose to take such a path. We have tried to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of possible reasons, some of the answers we decided for ourselves included: the state of her mental wellbeing needed medical attention, with one son believing that there was an undiagnosed mental health condition and that it had been present for many years; she was always self-medicating and going from doctor to doctor if they did not provide her with the medications she felt she needed; the disarray of her early life growing up as a young woman at the tender age of 12, having to almost take on the ‘mother’ role of her four younger siblings; her pigheadedness and dismissiveness of anyone who told her otherwise. These various jigsaw pieces were not meant to belittle, disrespect or denigrate her, but simply to address the facts we knew as they were, including personal dealings with those around her.

After the birth of our son, we had sent her a card in the post. Hoping that by announcing the arrival of her first grandchild, she might pick up the phone and become involved in our lives once more. Perhaps even take up the role that now eagerly awaited her – becoming a grandparent. However she did not respond immediately. Another twelve months or so went by before a short message was left on our answer machine, heralding the arrival of a new relationship with her. Her acceptance of her new role. Our exile had been broken by her, on her terms, in her good time; she being seemingly unaware of the impact and consequences of her silent treatment of us.

Our son is almost three and a half years old. My brother-in-law and his wife have been trying to conceive for some years now. As they ride the wave of IVF, and the hope of a new life being created, we are trying our best as first-time parents to shape our son and the beginning of his life. And in all of this, she has been through her own upheavals – moving out of her independent living unit into a hospital bed for almost six months, upon finding out that the leukaemia had returned after a much-welcomed absence; finding a nursing home to move into and call ‘home’; working through a couple of new cancer drug treatments. This time she has had support. She recognises that without her family she would not have been able to do it alone.

My husband and I are grateful for small blessings. There are so many that come to mind. The obvious one being his mother reconnecting with us and becoming a part of our lives once more. She has happily fulfilled her role as a doting grandparent, although very limited by her health. We see the silver linings here. The main one being how we hoped our son would get to know his grandmother.

Earlier this week she sat down with my husband in front of a specialist, whose eyes had filled momentarily with tears at having to give such grave news, and was advised that her cancer count was higher than it had ever been. There was nothing more that could be done for her. Sadly, death had been waiting in the wings.

There were no tears. It seemed, at first, almost no show of emotion. But knowing how her anxiety had worsened over the years, no doubt her mind was mulling over things. As I had not been present in the specialist rooms when she was given her final prognosis, she enlightened me in the hospital foyer. She was seated in her wheelchair. I looked down at her slightly shaking hands, her very thin frame. This was not the mother-in-law I remembered. The deterioration of her health was very much physically present.

We were waiting for my husband and son to walk back to our car, parked a short distance from the hospital entrance, then drive into the pick up bay out the front. I asked her if she perhaps wanted a cup of tea and to be seated somewhere to gather her thoughts. Maybe even watch her grandson run around and play. But she had refused. Her only thought on getting back to the nursing home on time to ring the bell for the nurse to bring her a nausea tablet.

Upon settling her back into the safety of her bed in the nursing home, the nurse having administered the nausea tablet shortly after her return from the hospital, we were saying our goodbyes. Our toddler was overtired and hunger would be settling in shortly. Dinner and toddler bath and bedtime was on our minds. After our hugs and kisses, I half-closed the door to her room, according to her wishes. Her parting words to me ringing in my ears well after we had walked away down the corridor and into the lift, driving back home: “Don’t forget about me…”.