Reading Dad's Journals

My beloved Dad kept journals for many years. He died in 2008. And now I have to read them…

Tag: grief

6 gifts from Dad, 6 years since he died

My dear friend Shane was a solid support for me in the years after Dad died; he’d call regularly, and listen to me as I struggled or thrived. He was very present and generous, plus unfailingly sympathetic. Then his Dad Frank died. I drove across country to the funeral, and we celebrated the times of a simple man who’d lived a good life, respected in church, happily married, and whistling to himself contentedly right until the end, eating nothing but desserts.

Shane called me about a month later and said ‘I know I was there for you when your Dad died, but I’m ringing to say I actually had no idea what it was truly like did I?’ I kinda laughed and replied ‘I feel as though I went to live on another planet; the exact same style as this one, but for people who’ve lost their fathers. I’ve just been living there alone, waiting for my friends to join me one by one… So welcome, I guess.’ We laughed a sad laugh together, and another layer of our bond was laid down- the silver lining from our losses.

Now another close friend Pete is sitting beside his father as he approaches death; I’m holding them both in my thoughts, although I’ve never met his Dad. And again I’m readying a welcome to the new planet, the slightly blue planet, the sometimes-triggering-small-child-lost planet.

Today is the sixth year since my Dad passed on, and they definitely get easier. Not easy, but easier. This morning I went for my usual neighbourhood walk, listening to music while admiring people’s gardens, and I began to think about what Dad’s taught me since he left. I’ve certainly learnt about Resilience, and that Time really does heal all wounds, but here are my top six gifts from Dad, and I hope they resonate for you, dear readers who’ve lost loved ones, or inspire you to reflect on your own:

1. Acceptance/surrender/gratitude– It’s a cliché, but it’s true. We are all dying, and grief is as much of a guarantee in life as the good fun stuff like weddings, babies, and birthdays. The struggle for acceptance of loss can be short or long, easy or strong, but at some point, Life goes on without your beloved. You laugh again, you cry less, you stop thinking about them every day. Now, I reckon I only check in with Dad once a week or so, maybe less if I’m really busy. I’ve accepted his mortality, and thus my own. To surrender to that means I pay more attention to every day, every pleasure, every sunset. It means I have an up-to-date Will, that I take good care of my health, both physical and mental, and that I’m grateful for almost every day, even the shitty ones when I have to do my tax, or go to the dentist.

2. Family– This means ‘Family of Choice’ too, not just blood. My incredible cousin Jo was the rock that I leant upon to get myself through the first month, and so too my aforementioned ‘brother’ Shane. My ‘sister’ Kat continues to connect me through our history of dancing 5Rhythms, and through our creative journeys. My ‘ex-step Mum’ Suzanne feels closer than ever as the years progress, united as we are in our love for Ben, her son and my youngest brother; long term friends here in Australia know that today is ‘Dad’s day’ for me, when I retreat a little, and pay my respects. Dad was always the one ringing around, spreading the news and the tidbits, staying connected, and thereby connecting us all. Dad taught me about phone calls to family across the globe, and about making time to visit old friends, and I have a much greater appreciation of staying in touch with my widespread ‘family’ since he left.
phoneBlog
I still miss his fortnightly phone calls, and the sound of his cheery hello down the line though.

3. Food, esp raspberries– I have vivid, multiple memories of Dad fussing about the presentation of a dish, or the laying of the table (including napkins with special ring holders). I remember his small exclamation of delight as he tasted something he was cooking, or the playful rigmarole of trying out a new restaurant. Fish, cheese, wine: Dad’s favourites. And Indian of course, which remains a strong family tradition (you can guess what we’re having this evening can’t you?). He also loved raspberries, as do I. In fact, we scattered some of his ashes around the raspberry canes growing in his garden in Victoria, and although I’ve done the research, I haven’t yet tried to grow my own, despite wanting to. But I will. Nothing joins family and friends like good food, and for that Dad, I salute you.
raspberries_fresh_raspberries_2506976

4. Being alone– I’ve always been independent, have often lived alone, and have travelled solo too. But when Dad died, I fell into a pit of loneliness from which I never thought I’d climb out. I slept with the light on in the hallway for at least 6 months, and had terrible nightmares that gave me insomnia. 3-5am is a lonely time to be awake, and no amount of Facebooking helps. In my deepest times of sadness, I met myself as a small child, lost and wandering, missing her Dad. Somehow we settled down together for a cup of make believe tea, and have been friends every since. Solitude now seems to be a privilege; contemplation and reflection are too, and every time I sit safely in my clean home or at the unpolluted beach, pondering life’s mysteries and gifts, I realize how happy I am to be alone, blessed with only temporary loneliness. Thanks Dad.
village-voices-tea-sets-5

5. History– You can’t change it. But you can change how you feel about it. And can be mindful of the new history you choose to create as you move through your present. My relationship with Dad wasn’t perfect- nor was his own relationship with himself or his other children. But losing him has given me the opportunity to focus on all the good stuff, and let go of the bad. I still know it, and lived it of course, as do my brothers, but I am responsible for how I react to it, and what I dwell on. So rest easy Dad; I’ve finally learnt to forgive us both for all our differences and clashes, even while I now struggle here sometimes with my wilful, moody fourteen year old son! Who, by the way, seems to have inherited your ‘card sharp’ tendencies, which I believe you got from your Mum… Not to mention your sense of humour and good story-telling…

Me and son Alby, July 2014

Me and son Alby, July 2014

6. Energy– When Dad died in Kauai, we had him cremated. We took turns to hold his warm, heavy, strangely-humming box of ashes as we drove to the sea. At sunset, we held a small ritual farewell, and threw some of his ashes into the ocean, so that he could keep travelling the world. We put ashes on his trees in Canada, and into the water that lapped at his garden. We three children each took some of him home to our lands: America, Norway, and Australia. He’s in the pond of the Japanese Gardens in Adelaide, and here at the beach near Byron Bay. He’s still moving, transforming, and growing. For me, he’s in the sunset colours, or beneath a beautiful piece of music. He’s in a leaping whale, a rustling tree, the grin of his grandson. He’s everywhere, in everything, yet also far beyond being tied into any one form. He echoes through the tears I cry sometimes, especially today. He giggles in the funny stories I tell, or sighs with me just as I fall asleep. He’s everywhere, in everything, an eternal energy added to every other lost parent, son, friend, and even foe.

He’s larger than he ever was; so big, he’s become a slightly blue planet, the welcoming-small-child-lost-then-found planet, home to us all, one by one.

Advertisements

Five years since The Day

It was five years ago yesterday that I parked my car outside work, and noticed that my cousin Joanna had called me three times, and my uncle, her father, had rung twice. All within the last hour. Unusual. It’s a cliché, yet true: a sad mist of foreboding crept up around my ankles. I decided to wait until I’d taught my one-hour class before returning the calls… Half way through the session, the mist reached my stomach, and I began to feel sick. I can’t remember the last ten minutes; all I wanted to do was get outside into the fresh air, and call Jo.

Of course, by the time I did, mist had filled my throat, drowning my ears, making it difficult to breathe. Jo’s terrible, simple, trembling sentence, telling me that my Dad had suffered a massive heart attack while bushwalking, was barely audible. I almost didn’t hear the whisper…’ And he died.’

I’m leaving a blank here for all the stories I could fill in, but won’t.

Or can’t.

Not yet.

Perhaps never.

Yet always remembered.

But yesterday is five years since Lawrence died, and for once I didn’t cry. I wasn’t a complete sobbing, wracked mess like the first year. I wasn’t even worse, like the second. I wasn’t calmer, like the third. I wasn’t spiritual and special like the fourth. This year I was just, kind of, ‘normal’. I did the washing, made phonecalls, taught my class, and cooked lunch and dinner. I didn’t even have a solitary walk along the beach at sunset, my favourite communion.Image

[Dad’s ashes facing his last sunset on Kauai]

Yesterday felt like a day of evolution, or maturing somehow. A realisation that a process had been underway, whether I liked it or not, and that I was nearing the next phase- the simple fact of ‘getting on with life without Dad’.

My aunt Wendy says grief is selfish, yet I will still cry for Nelson.

Here is my aunt’s full quote, as left as a comment on my last post:

“… I think grief is less to do with the people themselves whom we’ve lost, more about what we’ve lost in terms of our childhood, youth, a supportive relationship, etc. So essentially I think grief is selfish, but that’s ok – we have to be, to some extent, to survive. Grief is the price we pay for loving and being loved.”

This stopped me in my maudlin tracks. She’s a smart lady, my aunt; one of the elders whom I wish I could spend more time with and learning from as she heads into her mid-seventies. But she’s in a small Welsh seaside town, and I’m here in Australia, so Facebook and occasional emails are the main communication channels. I would describe her as a political animal: a feminist, a peace activist, a vocal advocate for the rights of the marginalised everywhere.

This blog refers a lot to my sadness at losing my Dad; while the rawness of it has eased, it remains ever-present, on my trusty clipboard of grief.

But Wendy’s comment shone a different light on my world, which is the best you can hope for when writing I think. I have indeed lost everything she mentions, plus the physical comfort of his voice at the end of the phone, or the smell of him when we hug hello at an airport somewhere in the world. And it IS incredibly selfish: it’s all about MY loneliness, MY challenges in living without his support, my sadness at his lack of influence on my child, his grandson.

But MY world is all I know. It’s all I have. It surrounds me completely. So when something in it is torn away, it hurts. And yes, I will survive, no doubt, although I did briefly come close to not wanting to.

So what about when we lose someone who is not just of our personal world? Someone who is a symbol of hope and justice for millions of people?

When I was 14 or 15, my Mum told me we had to stop eating any food from South Africa. I had to stand there embarrassed beside her in the fruit shop while she confirmed from where the grapes had been imported. And the mandarins. And the apples. Then in 1984 The Specials released ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, and the opening chant cut through my sullen teenage rebellion. Suddenly my infuriating Mum became a cool political animal after all, just like her younger sister Wendy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgcTvoWjZJU

I still love this song.

Now the great man is moving toward leaving us. He’s lived a long, challenging life, and achieved the unthinkable. He means so much, to so many, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. The collective grief we will feel on his death will be both universal and selfish; in general terms, we will have lost an inspiring advocate for equality and human rights, who has been a presence in our world since the 1960s. We will also each have a personal connection to that which resonates within us about him, ripping a tear in our unique emotional fabric. Even if it’s just the memory of forbidden seedless grapes and a ska song.

So it is with the loss of a parent. While perhaps my brothers have cried less than me, we each mourn in our own way. Communication builds a bridge between suffering humans; it may be a blog entry, a stilted conversation, or via the pages of a journal. It may unite people across oceans, and evoke support and understanding from complete strangers, such as I’ve experienced here on WordPress.

Profound communication may be achieved in the smallest of actions: our household went without certain fruit in England to let Nelson know that we supported his anti-apartheid movement. It may be a letter you write to a politician, or a march you attend, or a cake you bake. It may be in an unexpected form that reflects who you really are, and what you really think:

Image

Aunt Wendy is right: grief IS selfish. But so is Love. And one is indeed the price of the other. Thus while I may stumble at the cost, I will pay, over and over.

Dad was worth it, and so is Nelson Mandela.

Have I got time to process this breakdown before leaving for work?

I’ve been struck lately by how much time it takes to process emotions. I don’t just mean the ‘I’m annoyed at the parking inspector/check out chick/bank teller’ ones. I’m talking about the ‘my partner is having an affair/my parent just died/my teenager has been trying meth/my loved one has cancer’ ones. The BIG ones. The ones that hit you in the guts like a sledgehammer. Or squeeze your heart like a boa constrictor. The ones that make you fall down and weep, or lose your breath and sleep and appetite.

We’ve all had them, for a variety of reasons. We’ve all processed them, to a greater and lesser extent. But goodness they take a lot of energy. No wonder our shoulders hunch and spines bend as we age.

A dear friend has just suddenly lost her Dad, on top of a big year already which saw her deal with her dog being run over, buying a new house, fighting a lingering flu, and being a single parent while working full time. She sent her friends an email letting us know about her Dad, and notifying us of her need to withdraw for a while… Fair enough. I have no idea how she copes with all the pressure she’s under, and I’m too far away to really help.

When my Dad died suddenly, I think I was traumatised. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think straight, certainly couldn’t function at work, and took 4 weeks off. Only when 6 months later I realised that all my food was still tasting like sawdust, that I felt like I had a smiling mask over my numb blank face, and still couldn’t sleep with the light off, did I take myself to the doctor.

Three tests later and I was registering ‘high’ for Anxiety, Stress, and Depression. That felt like another blow; that somehow I’d ‘failed’ to cope, and that I was weaker than everyone else who’d lost their dads…

It took me another 9-12 months to get out of that, and back to ‘normal’. It was hard, scary work, and my friends were wonderfully supportive and understanding. But I also have the time. I live alone with no dependent children; I can reduce my teaching and performing work to suit me; I am not weighed down with a massive mortgage or credit card debt.

Another friend just separated from her partner of 17 years, and has majority care of their son while working four days a week. How does she find the spare hours to write in a journal, or go to the therapist, or beat pillows in a counselling session?

One of the greatest gifts I was given during my ‘official depression’ came from my fortnightly therapist, who was small and twitchy like a sparrow. She talked to me about my grief for Dad, and my options for managing it. She told me this:

“Imagine your sadness around losing your Dad is like an A4 clipboard. You can choose to hold it right up in front of your face, and not be able to see anything else around you.

Or, you can spend a lot of time and effort pushing it away, keeping it at bay, but then you will have a lot less energy for anything else you want to do.

A third option is to just tuck it under your arm, or sit it beside you in your favourite chair. This way, you know where it is, and you can keep it safe. When you need to, or when you feel like it, and you have the time and space, you can allocate it some attention. Maybe ten minutes, or an hour, or even a whole day. But then that’s it; you tuck it back under your arm or down beside you, and get back to what you were doing.”

Brilliant.

I’ve written before here about my belief we need to have a day to honour our dead that’s socially-condoned; perhaps we all need to make the time to honour our sorrow, abandonment, betrayal, fears, and shock as well? I know we’re all busy, and that the dishes won’t wash themselves (although I have been leaving mine a bit lately!), but attendance to emotional crises and their ripples is important. What do you think?Image

Different people find different affirmative ways: meditation, spirituality, faith, exercise, therapy, art. And we all know the negative ways, including denial, workaholism, and alcohol abuse.

My Dad invested hours and hours writing his thoughts for 15 years. I do the same, and credit The Artist’s Way for guiding me. I also dance 5Rhythms, which calms my soul like nothing else. I want to encourage you all to find the time, make the time, swap the time, steal the time… Whatever it takes to help you feel more at peace with your dramas, and to honour their effects on you. I know I love having my ‘clipboard of Grief’ with me, and how to give it attention when I need to.

With love, gabrielle

Four years of waiting

My father Lawrence died in October 2008, aged 73. He had kept meticulous daily diaries, plus more personal journals. Three weeks ago, a box finally arrived which contains the journals. I’m calling it The Box. His writing spans relationship breakups, childhoods, romances, world travel, family losses, and his most private thoughts and responses. I have to read them. But I’m scared shitless of what I’ll find. This Blog is going to follow and support me in this process, and document the journey. I hope to use it to feed the book I am working on about losing my Dad, and to exchange insights and comfort with others. I will also try to be funny. So I’ll be back, and look forward to your comments as we go…

%d bloggers like this: