trying to get my head around things


Eight : For Everyone I Ever Lost 1/2

I normally write to Ma at this time of year, and I will, but January always brings with it the spectre of loss, and this year I wanted to unpack it a bit.

I used to hate with a passion the term ’sorry for your loss’. This was in the early days of grief when actually, looking back, I just needed to be angry and didn’t know where to put that.

I’d get confused between loss and lost, and lost seemed so accusatory. I’d feel stabbed every time any one made a comment however sincere, I felt blamed. Neither she, nor I had wandered off in the supermarket. In fact, I had tried to stick ever so close, especially in those last precious weeks.

It felt backward too, if anyone had lost anyone she had lost us. We were still right where we had always been and she had left. Ah the muddle of illogical grief.

But really, she wasn’t lost, she hadn’t passed (don’t EVEN get me started on the stupidity of PASSED). My Mama had died. SHE’D DIED. Why did we need to pussyfoot around this? I needed people to be completely frank about it, which nobody seemed willing to do.

As you can tell, I was angry.

Anger, it has taken me an awfully long time to learn, is often times mis-spent pain. Grief was a new type of pain that I couldn’t understand or quite let in. It takes a special kind of confusion to take the words of kindness and find exasperation; truth is nothing anyone can say can really help when someone we love dies. I still pause before I say, “I’m sorry for your loss”, to someone else, in case I can find a more personal way to express myself.

I’ve calmed down a bit since those heady, raw days. I still wish that death, and the discussion of death in a frank, yet gentle way was more prevalent in society. It would help so much in the whole grief bubble and perhaps enable us to find the right words to say.

Do you know what else I’ve learnt about grief? Or Loss (I’m trying to reclaim it), sometimes the hardest grief is when the person your are grieving isn’t lost to the earth at all, just simply lost to you. The ache of knowing they’re out there but they have no need in their world for you. Ooof. That is sometimes harder than a death could be; at least I can look back now and know mama didn’t leave willingly.

I don’t take losses well. I still have heart pangs over a necklace left in a hotel in San Fransisco – one of a kind. I’ve mourned that necklace; every now and again I think of it, and hope it’s gone on to have a whole new story, that it is LOVED. I lost that necklace nine years ago, it’s inanimate object. So can you imagine what I’m like with an actual person?

We all have people who have been in our lives and aren’t anymore. Sometimes that is our ‘fault’, sometimes theirs; sometimes nobody was at fault at all, but they’re still no longer there. Some, you never even see again, and some, you might see all the time. The pain of small talk, where once opened hearted, free flowing dialogue was, can cut just as deeply as an absence.

When I think of my people, the ones who are lost to me. No matter the story behind the separation, I’ve started to hope for them an amazing, adventure filled, technicolour life. What I am trying to realise is that every loss is a lesson. Would I have thanked myself or anyone else, for pointing that out in the first heart sad days of grief – for mum or any of the others? No. I would of wished of them a chair to the face.

Now, there seems no other way of living with the pain, shame, and regret. It all needs to have a meaning and the only meaning I can control is what I learn. Does that mean I don’t repeat the same mistakes? Well, I’m not sure, but maybe with every one I get a little smarter, so give me another eight years and lets see how we’re doing.


Something Under the Bed is Drooling

I’m really scared. It’s not that easy to admit to, it seems absurd actually. I don’t mean to sound boastful but I can probably list the moments I was scared last year, there weren’t that many of them; telling dad and A, when the doctors thought I had a secondary tumour on my sternum, before my operation, and before each new treatment. I think I had a few “oh my god, life will never be the same again” worries but generally of the tsunami of emotions I had to make head space for, fear didn’t have a front row seat.

I guess that may be surprising but I had a purpose last year and a plan. When faced with a crisis, I find it easy to blur out the bigger picture and concentrate in the day-to-day; getting things done. So last year I got very practical, which is why I have a will, an end of life plan and detailed instructions for my funeral. I found it freeing to take control, organise the very worst case scenario. I don’t mean to toot my own horn but I think I dealt with last year’s crappy hand, as well as I could.

I keep thinking about trapped animals. How strangely calm they are as the net goes over or they spring the trap. It’s only a few seconds later they start to fight, to try to free themselves. Is it belated adrenaline? Is it a delayed reaction to unforeseen, incomprehensible danger? That fearful flapping, that’s where I am at the moment.

All my posts about life now, seem to be variations on a theme. I should group them all together under the banner headline “Trying to Get My Head Around Things”. It’s slow work.

After treatment ends you just want to remember what ‘normal’ felt like, so you work on that. You go to work and you can lose yourself in normal. If you are lucky over the weeks your body even starts to feel a bit more “you” again; you’re no longer reliant on pain killers to get you through, your hair starts growing back. You are happy and grateful and free from hospital appointments and needles. It’s a fine old time.

Then, if you are me, you get tired and a bit weepy. You think that actually perhaps you’d better rest, take stock, register the year that was. You ask experts, fellow cancer folks, friends and family; everyone thinks it’s an OK thing to do. So you stop but you feel weirdly guilty, like you’re slacking off.

You plan amazing things, fabulous trips and adventures. All the things you promised yourself you’d do when you were lying in bed last year and just watching the world spin without participating. You try to remember the letter you wrote to yourself, where you hoped you’d become a better human. You try to remember that this is a process, that despite what your inner puritan thinks, you need this time. You listen to the news and feel lucky and guilty that people all over the world are going through so much worse than you went through; that they are getting on with it, when you aren’t so much. You think you are a spoilt, developed-world brat; again you try to tell that inner puritan to be quiet.

Before you know what to make of it, you are on a magical island. The island of your happy childhood memories, an island so full of familiar and comforting smells, the island that healed you the last time you were broken; the place you wanted to be for the whole of last year. You are there, you made it and it’s overwhelming. Amid the quiet and the trees there’s nowhere to hide. You aren’t writing 12 hours a day and creating masterpieces, like you anticipated. You are staring at the most beautiful view, we are talking panoramic postcards in every direction, and you are scared.

I’ve just finished reading Kate Gross’ Late Fragments: Everything I want to tell you (about this magnificent life). It’s so open and her writing about chemo is spot on. She died at the age of 36, having packed a lot into a far too short life. She is brilliant and honest. I started the book to exorcise demons, to kick myself in the bottom, to try to figure out what’s next.

You see, what this time off and my island is teaching me is that I’m a lot more scared than I would like to admit about this cancer coming back. I’m scared that I dodged the boomerang but it’s looping in a slow arch back. I’m scared because it happened to my mum. I scared because I don’t think I can be brave a second time around. It’s a paralysing fear.

I’m scared because every decision these days feels heavy, decisions echo down the years but what if you only have 2 years left or 5 or 10 and what if the decision you make is wrong. I’m scared that all that went down last year won’t matter, won’t change me. I’m scared I’ll waste what I could’ve learnt, fritter away the opportunity. It needs to mean something, I really need it to mean something.

It doesn’t seem to help, the old adage that ANYONE could be hit by a bus tomorrow, so we should all be living for the moment. It’s undoubtedly true but it doesn’t free me from my fear, it makes me scared of buses.

I want to live a full life, a life of interesting work, of friends and loved ones. I want to learn more, do more, be more. I want to be the very best version of me. It’s just I want it so badly I don’t want to mess it up.

So I’m scared and at the moment the only thing I feel I’ve learnt is that if I write about it, if I open those curtains and let the air in; it might not change anything, it might not dissolve the feelings but I can look at it more easily, face to face.