This weekend my husband and I were indulged in a rare childfree one. We lazed, we ate, we meandered, we met friends, we swam, we slept in… It was absolutely heavenly to have the opportunity to move, to arrive, to be in my own timeframe, which by default is quite slow and languid. And, by the time the kids returned home on Sunday evening, I felt deeply sated, purring inside like a pussycat.
On waking however on Monday morning, the first thing I noticed was a sense of destructive-ness. My thoughts were negative, combative, and my heart ready to pounce. It felt strange, after such magnificent levels of nourishment over the previous 48 hours, to wake feeling so vexed. But my hunch was that the space that we had received, to sink into being over those couple of days, was an enabler. It was a chance for ‘stuff’ to float up to the surface and reveal itself. And I sensed my destructive mind-set was a window into a whole bag of feelings lurking beneath that I needed to sit with for a while and that’s how I decided to move forward, or at least try to with summer-holiday-kids in tow, during my day.
This time of year has become a hard one. A year ago last Friday, as I tootled up the road to collect our son from his last day in his first year at school, I received a phone call, THE phone call, from the CNS at my mum’s hospital. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the start of our son’s school year, just nine months beforehand, and that afternoon the nurse called me to let me know my mum was terminal. I sank like lead as I waited in the playground for pick up to then pick myself up ten minutes later as our son excitedly ran out of the classroom. My mind was rushing; How can I get down to see her over the next six weeks now the kids have broken up? How can I help? What can I do? Who can help us look after the kids????
Adrenaline started to kick in furiously there and then. I visited my mum the following day. She took me around the house asking what items I wanted. She was surprisingly bright with a lightness to her and it felt extremely odd, awkward. I guess we were both in shock but I also suspect she was feeling a sense of relief. She knew the end was in sight and part of her had wanted this for a long, long time, before the cancer had started to devour her organs. I came away forging plans in my head; how I could get down to see her each week, who could look after the kids…. I felt urgency and with it, the pressing urge to help.
Ten days later I received a phone call from my sister. My grandmother’s health suddenly was beginning to rapidly deteriorate. My beautiful grandmother, who at a sterling 92 years of age, was still independently living at home, wearing her red lipstick with hair religiously coiffured and silk-scarf around her neck. Her oxygen levels were astonishingly low and they expected her to pass within days.
It was too much to take in. Waiting for both my mother and grandmother to pass at the same time. They were each difficult women and it made trying to care for them, in the weeks that followed, feel like treading a path of broken glass in bare feet. My grandmother, stoic to the core, exceeded all medical expectations and went on for further eight weeks. Bed-ridden during that time, she suffered greatly as her independence was robbed from her. She refused visitors and tore through my aunt’s and uncle’s hearts, her remaining two children alongside my mother, as she wrote them out of her will. She gave me permission to see her on two occasions. The first, like a dragon, she yelled and raged as I entered her room and went to hold her hand, screaming at me to GO! Her anger was so fierce and I was so shaken, I left. The second, she took me in. I stroked her forehead, her cheeks, her hands and sunk into her beauty, sans red lipstick, hair and scarf. In those few precious moments, I travelled over time with her to when she was a child. There were no words. Her immensity in her fragility, in her breaking and becoming whole, at peace again, stretched infinitely across the years. It was an incredible honour to connect with her at this level and a privileged to witness. I couldn’t tell her of her beauty. She would have cried because her vanity would have doubted so much but this memory, tenderly transcending time with her, I will forever cherish.
My final weeks with my mother sadly were with less grace. She met these weeks with a great bravery. She didn’t quiver around the edges of death. She rode courageously towards it and I commend her enormously for this. Yet regrettably, her games of divide and rule continued during this time. She knew no differently. This was how she had parented myself and my siblings for as long as I remember and, in the weeks leading up to her death, this play grew more acute. She was adept at refusing to take responsibility for herself and excelled at trying to pass it onto others. So a dance unfolded, over the summer holiday, between myself, my brother and sister of trying to create the space and care for someone that at once rebuked being nurtured though craved it and tried to twist those around to do just that.
We all were aware of this jig, each to different degrees, but knowing her days were few, feeling, as if a mother with a newborn, an instinctual need to look after a dying loved-one, fuelled to the cup on adrenaline, it felt impossible, at that time to step back and see. And is why, I believe, I woke up yesterday with a destructive arghhhhhhhh at the world. I know my cells are processing the anguish of last year. The approach of and stepping into the school holidays a year later, has been like ringing a bell in my memory. Soph! Come back to this time. Come back to the race that was a hellish six weeks. Come back to the feelings that were shrieking through you. Come back to the fear, the rawness, the sadness, the pain. Come back to them and just be. Don’t run. Just be.
They were so tremendously hard to be with last year. With two small kids needing attendance. With trying to stretch our childcare favours to new limits. With being turned away and spawned by my mother too many times in those weeks. It felt too hard to face. And I didn’t know how to simultaneously hold anger and torment towards a dying person alongside the deep sadness at their suffering and passing. In the midst of the surrounding stress and worry, I didn’t feel equipped, or safe enough, to sit with both of these extremes.
There were many things my mother said at that time that seared right through me. And there were words she said, a week before she died, that pierced my heart with a heavy, crushing sadness and left me feeling deeply embittered after she died. Fretting she was alone by herself at home, on the first day she was administered morphine, and unable to reach her on the phone, I stacked up childcare between my husband and four friends, packed a suitcase and hop-footed it, unsure when I would be back. Perhaps after she died, I thought to myself. Maybe she wouldn’t have survived the night and I would find her dead that morning. On arrival she was in fact better than I had anticipated and I sensed a whiff of manipulation in the air. With time so dear, I asked if I could have a key to her house, to make the most of being able to help. Both my siblings, who lived locally, had one each and till then I had been depending on, and often chasing, my rather unreliable brother to let me in. Her reply was that she didn’t want people having a key. But, I said, I’m not people. I’m your daughter. To which turned her head and looked away.
At this moment, I felt the bridges that I had spent years in trying to build with her, literally fall away, one by one. And an answer came to me that until then I had not seen. As significantly as close as I believed her and I had become over the years, I saw where the energy had lay. I saw all of my energy of doing and the places where I thought the bridges had perhaps anchored, hadn’t anchored at all. She’d been dropping them, refuting them, all the time. The connection that I had hoped and longed for had been only an illusion and the hurt and sadness that charged like lightening through me felt too difficult, too unbearable to carry.
I visited her one last time after this a few days later. As challenging as it felt, I put my anger aside and went to say goodbye, knowing she would pass very soon. Before saying what I wanted to share, I told her my hurt of what she had said days before. I didn’t want to cause a scene, I just wished to clear any air I could. She looked away as if she knew nothing, as if she was innocent. Then I told her that I knew the depth of the sadness she had carried throughout her life and how I truly had wanted, since I was a child, for her to find peace. I wished her well in her last few days and wished her well on her journey to come. She told me she loved me and I said goodbye. There were no well wishes from her for either her grandchildren or myself. No sweet final whispers from the heart. It felt a brutally cold goodbye but, in truth, in the true nature of our relationship, I couldn’t have honestly expected a different ending.
But. There is a but! In the months that followed and the injustices that seemed to appear at every doorway, as funeral plans were made for my mother and then so soon my grandmother, as household treasures were squirreled away by different family members, as relationships turned sourer and wretched, I turned quickly for help. I didn’t want the pain that rang through every cell of my body to eat away at me. It was consuming; the TV had been on for the kids for what like felt like an eternity as I tried to cower from the immediacy of life in front of me and spent hours each day on the phone to my aunt as we wailed and thundered together. I was overwhelmed with sadness and anger, not just at my recent losses but at a grieving that arose for my own childhood, and I needed a space to be with all of these. I was fortunate to meet an incredible bereavement counsellor soon after and later to learn about Grow the Grown Ups at Embercombe. Both experiences enabled me to travel into the internal journeys I felt so desperate to unearth. And through the digging of both, I have been able to arrive at this:
My mother was extremely harsh and unkind to me on her deathbed. But I no longer feel a spinning fury inside as I think of her words. I think this instead. Her message to me was; Sophie, WAKE UP! Do not fall asleep at this point. Your work here is not done. You are the only one who carries forth children. Keep undoing our history, let the past be past. Heal old wounds and sow a new brighter future for those to come. I see this now because of the work from the last nearly twelve months and the insights I have gleaned since. I remember now, it is not for me to fall asleep, even though in some tough early years with the kids, I yearned for a slightly easier life. I remember me. Who seeks to be awake, who loves to be awake and who has a duty to our children to yes, sow these new seeds.
And so, even though my sense of destructiveness seemed to appear from nowhere yesterday morning, I know I need to listen to what sits underneath it. I know part of me is daunted by the prospect of the coming weeks ahead. A small part of me still wants to hide under the duvet in stillness with the TV on downstairs 24/7 for the kids. But I feel an inner calling that now is my time to quietly revisit last summer and invite a gentleness within myself to the haunting of such a fraught and scary few months. To take the sting out of it’s bite. To sit with the weight of my sorrow and any gruesomeness that might arise and feel my way through. And to keep embracing a growing peace with my mother and her passing. So I can wholly bid her sweetdreams and goodnight.