Monday, November 16, 2015

Back to Life Back to Reality

September was the longest month of my year. Yes I know it's only 30 days but it felt like 3 months. The bottom of my world fell out on the 2nd of September when my mom passed away. Nothing can explain how that feels. But what also caught me off guard, was the tidal wave of love and support that engulfed me. I was overwhelmed by all the love that I felt from near and far as the phone calls, messages and visits began. My Facebook wall lit up and although I hardly grasped what was said at the time, I have gone back and re-read those messages and feel so grateful for every one of them. There were many lovely messages, but these two really stood out for me: 

"I haven't written anything in a while, but after reading my friend Lisa's blog post If Tomorrow Never Comes, I had to write what I felt. This is in memory of a lovely lady and dedicated to all who have lost loved ones to soon...
Tonight I cried
I cried for things lost
For things taken
For memories gone
For futures broken
I cried for the person left behind
For the person moving on
For the soul left damaged
And the heart less strong
For the lessons not learned
For the pain now to carry
For the child now grown
For those left to tarry
It was more than a tear
But less than a keen
It was for sorrow unspoken
For a life yet to be"

My 16 year old niece wrote this:"Gramma, you have been at every birthday party, every Christmas and every celebration. It is now our time to celebrate your life. You gave me your sarcasm and the love for chocolate that every Bayne member has. Your ever present tootie fruities will be missed. I will miss you, even if you draw funny ducks. You told me that you love me, that you will always be watching over me. I love you Gramma." 

Never underestimate the impact of a quickly-typed message or a kind word to someone grieving, even on one-dimensional Facebook. 

After my mom died I went home and told my children. Lettuce and Bacon didn't really grasp the gravity of the situation but Tomato understood. She wailed and sobbed and was inconsolable. She said she'd never see Mema again and she would never go to her house and she named everything she could think of that she would never be able to do again and the two of us just cried. I remembered that I had seen in my mom's handbag, a small, open packet of speckled chocolate eggs which she always had on hand to give to the kids each time she saw them. I thought that might cheer them up, so I told Tomato that Mema had left her something. When I got the packet out, she broke down and hugged the packet, it was heartbreaking. After I shared out the remaining sweets, Tomato neatly folded the packet into a little square and put it in her "treasure" box as the last thing to remind her of Mema. I was finished.

That night we quietly gathered as a family to have dinner and grieve. I talked and cried on the phone to my brother and sister overseas, who obviously weren't able to attend the dinner in South Africa. Being far away, they didn't get to see what we saw, and had to experience my mom's decline on the phone for the two weeks leading up to her death. But they were feeling the same hurt. The hurt from the loss of the most pivotal person in their lives, the person they both called every day, my sister on her way to work and my brother on his way home. That night for the first time in months, I slept without waking. I was emotionally drained and physically exhausted.

With death comes a plethora of new items added to an already cumbersome "to-do" list. As my mom's children in South Africa, it fell to my brother and I to organise the undertaker, funeral, church, minister, eats etc, all while still in shock. One thing I can say about my family is that we are fantastic in any crisis. We make things happen. We are all "do-ers". My mom taught us to be independent and boy she certainly over-achieved in that department! I'm not convinced that this strategy is beneficial to us emotionally as we do first and feel later, but boy stuff gets done! 

My friends arrived with their children that night to to prepare dinner for all of us. One friend had lost her mom a few years before and the other her son only 11 months earlier (see her story RIP Kyle Du Preez Lowry here). It should have been a sad evening, but they managed to take my mind off the sadness. The next day more friends arrived. The support was incredible. 

With all the sudden activity, after 2 weeks of 3x daily hospital visits, I needed to be alone. I left early to fetch the children from school and went to my mom's house on the way. The sadness engulfed me. I was with her stuff but she wasn't there and I couldn't feel her. I went into her bedroom and lay on her bed. Although she hadn't slept there for weeks, I felt her there, I smelled her smell and I hugged her pillow while I cried and cried and cried. Everyone was arriving the following day, the pace of my life was about to accelerate. My mom's unit was rented so we would have to pack her things and vacate quickly. There was no time. I needed time, but it was a luxury not afforded to me. This was the last chance I'd get "to be alone with her," in this place where we often were alone, having tea and solving the world's problems or laughing or arguing or planning or eating sweet treats that she had made. Everything reminded me of her. I cried for my children who had lost one of the few people who loved them unconditionally, I cried for my family who were feeling like me and I cried for me, for everything that I had lost when she took her last breath in my arms. Logically I know that she had lived a long life, but it wasn't long enough for me. I wasn't ready, but I had to get up and face the world again, children needed fetching, lunches needed making, work needed to be completed. There was nobody waving me goodbye as I left this time. I whispered "totsiens Ouma" as my kids jokingly used to shout in unison every time we left, pretending to practise their Afrikaans. There was silence. Nobody shouted back "totsiens Ouma se kinders." I had to wipe my glasses when I got to the school.

The mayhem that followed made my children think that a death in the family = a full blown party! My cousin flew in from Cape Town, my sister, her husband and two children from California and my brother came from Perth. As soon as the cousins arrived, the playing began. Tomato, Bacon and Lettuce were spoiled by all the visitors and the never-ending food and sweet treats (that are usually limited in our house), kept flowing in. Friends and family were in and out, bringing flowers and food and drinks and snacks. My BLT really had a ball, there was no time for sadness. In the quieter moments there were tears, but there was a lot of laughing too. It was so amazing to have everyone together again, but as the words of one of my mom's favourite songs go "There's one less place at our table, there's one more tear in my eye. Joseph Mummy we'll never forget you, it's tough but we're going to get by." There was always an empty seat as a reminder. At one time my sister and I were arranging to meet my mom's friend for tea and I suddenly said "Ooooh we mustn't forget to invite Mummy, she'd love to see.....!" and then I burst into tears as I realised my mistake. Everything became past tense. "my mom used to say...., my mom was....., my mom couldn't
Where the "skirt incident" took place
There was lots to arrange, so many people to see, but no time to think, no time to process. The funeral service was held on Tuesday 8 September at the church which my mom and dad joined when they first got married and moved into the area. The church that holds many childhood memories - it was the best of times, it was the worst of times: weddings (mine included), funerals (including my dad's), christenings, confirmations, nativity scenes, carols by candlelight and midnight mass Christmas services that we always attended with my mom. The late night Christmas services were always a fun event because, as long as I can remember, our family tradition was to have our Christmas meal on the evening of the 24th, with plenty of champagne, turkey, gammon, trifle and... mom's homemade pickled onions. 

Nobody wanted to sit next to my brother in church after he had consumed those onions! 3-4 hours post consumption seemed to be "the perfect storm" in his digestive tract, if you get my drift. And the pews are made of solid wood, no cushions like the catholic church, so the put-putting could become audible, especially during the singing (not as noise-cancelling as one would expect), and the pungent aroma could engulf an unsuspecting parishioner sitting too close. Then there was the time that one of the older church ladies who was sitting up front ready to assist with communion, had her skirt wedged securely in her belt. With her sitting on a raised stage, we could see things that should really be left to the imagination. Mom was not impressed with our snorting as this lovely old lady (who had taught me Sunday School many moons before) moved around the church, with her dress hitched up around her waist, passing around the mock wine and bread. But I glimpsed a faint naughty smile on my mom's lips, even though she of course denied it, it really was funny! Then the shock of me insisting on wearing my Santa hat during the entire service ("it's a darn nice hat!" vs "Lisa! that is not for church!") and I wore it at every Christmas service for years. All these memories in this one place, but now we were there to say goodbye to the person who brought us there for the first time..... She was always there for the firsts of many things. 

The Flowers were beautiful
How do I say goodbye in 20 minutes to the woman who brought me into this world, who held me and loved me, nurtured and taught me pretty much everything I know. She was there for my first word, my first step, my first suitcase, my first lunch box, my first uniform, my first teacher, my first book, my first play, my first everything. She roller skated with us, she played tennis with us, she swam with us ("don't get my hair wet!"). My mom made every one of my birthday cakes, sewed all my play costumes and shlepped me all over the place. How do I say goodbye? 

To break the ice, just as the service began, my nephew, while attempting to switch off his cell phone, hit the Siri button, and Siri loudly announced "Siri is not available, connect to the Internet." He was mortified! I chuckled. My sister had told her daughter, my little niece that if she ever saw me crying, she should give me a hug, so during the whole service, she kept checking on me and when she saw a tear, I had a tiny body squeezing me hard and patting my arm! That just made me cry more. Soon the service was over and as we followed the coffin out of the church, it felt surreal. This was the end of the road. My own pre-recorded voice came over the speakers as I sang Josh Groban's "To Where You Are." I was holding Bacon's hand and she whispered "who's that singing?" to which I replied "it's me" and she whispered back "but why aren't your lips moving!" 
These are a few of Mom's Favourite Things

My sister-in-law had set up a table of my mom's favourite things. It was really lovely. Including her favourite cherry liqueurs, tootie-fruities and chocolate crunchies as well as a "tree" with all her sayings on it. So many people took the time out to come and pay their respects. I cannot begin to express my gratitude. Mom hated an empty church at a funeral, she always said she wanted a full church, and she got her wish. Friends and family supported us, gave us their condolences, mingled, had some food and then it was over. The ceremony was over and now we were expected to carry on without her. And although we didn't want to, we had to. Life is for the living. Life goes on. Dammit.

Ice cream cake
Construction site cake
It has now been 2½ months since mom died. I still can't believe it. I still want to phone her, I still miss her every single day. Some days I miss her by myself and other days I tell my family how much I'm missing her (spread the grief and make them sad too, why should I suffer alone?) and then some days I go to visit her friend to get my "mom" fix. But no matter what I do and no matter how sad I make everyone else, she's still gone and she's not coming back. Her special tea cup in my cupboard taunts me. I don't want it but I can't throw it away. Lettuce's 4th birthday party just wasn't the same, she'd have loved his cakes..... or would she? Maybe she would have said it was a mess haha maybe she wouldn't have liked it at all! Maybe she would have said ice cream cake is not real cake or she would have told me that he didn't need two cakes, that I was spoiling him. But he would have been so proud to show her, with his beaming little face, that she would have told him that she loved it. He loved Mema and she loved him. They had a special bond. All three of my BLT came to me during that day and said that we couldn't have a party without Mema, it isn't the same without Mema here, she's always here for our birthdays and little Lettuce, so excited for his day whispering "I wish Mema was here." The whole thing is just so sad.

To all those friends and family out there who haven't stopped calling, texting and visiting, to the moms at school who give me hugs and ask how I'm doing - thank you. The pain doesn't end after the funeral, in fact, the low constant pain that remains in the pit of your stomach, only really begins when the house becomes quiet and things go back to "normal." We are now dipping our toes into this life that is our "new normal." Mema is not here, but she is. We can't just pop in for a visit like we used to, we have to look for clues, like feathers. There are signs of her everywhere. My friend and her mom told me that a feather had floated into the church and landed on their hymn sheet right in front of them during the service. This same friend decided then and there to move to another province, she said she just felt something while she was there.

Whenever my children see feathers they say "hi Mema." In fact my kids see her all the time. One morning I was standing making breakfast when Lettuce said "Mema is standing right next to you!" I was a bit stunned so asked what she was doing and he said "she's come to wash the dishes!" which is exactly what she liked to do, she couldn't stand anything not washed immediately after use. Tomato and Bacon both chimed in "hi Mema" and then they told me that she was putting her bag down and when I asked where, they all pointed to the same place and it wasn't where she usually put her bag. I got all teary. Another night, while cuddling with Lettuce, he told me that Mema was with him and I told him I was happy about that. He then said sleepily "Silly mommy, Mema's not in heaven like you said, she's right here with us!" On another day while making puzzles with Tomato, I said "Mema was BAD at puzzles, she used to squash pieces in that didn't fit." Tomato was horrified! "Mommy!!!! She's right here, she can hear you!" 

While watching the world cup rugby I didn't want an opposition kick to go into the goals so I kept saying "miss, miss" as I watched the screen. The player missed the kick, so Tomato leaned over and whispered to me "I asked Mema to make him miss hee hee." The kids take it in their stride, although sometimes one of them will come to me and say things like "I miss Mema's hugs." One day Lettuce was over-tired and he was crying and eventually he just blurted out "I WANT MEMA, I MISS MEMA, MEEEMA, MEEEMA!!!" Well that got us all going as he cried himself to sleep shouting MEEMA MEEMA!

Early in the morning on the day that my mom died, I visited my oldest friend. We first sat next to each other in grade one. She is very talented and I always get a private viewing, to see what art piece she is working on, when I visit. She showed me a piece that I loved but she explained that she lacked the motivation to complete it, she said nothing inspired her, it just didn't feel right. A few weeks later we met at a coffee shop, as we do from time to time, and she said she had something in her car for me and that I knew what it was. Well, I had no idea! I walked with her to her car and she opened her boot and took out the art piece that she had shown me before, but it was finished and handed it to me! I was confused. She said that as soon as I left her house, she was inspired to work on the picture. She worked the whole morning and finished it just before she got the message that my mom had gone. She told me that she believes my mom inspired her and helped her finish it. She said the colours and style are completely different to what she usually does. I was speechless. There in the underground parking I hugged her and went into "the ugly cry." Onlookers must have thought I was bonkers. I went home and immediately put it up in my dining room so that I can "see" my mom all day. I am blessed to have amazing, talented, intuitive and supportive friends.
Mom's Picture
So life, with all it's happy and sad and fun and scary and lovely and horrible and thrilling moments, goes on whether we like it or not. People are getting married and having children and living their lives and the cycle of life continues. But my mom isn't here any more. Having lost my dad 23 years ago, I know the pain will become less raw than it is now. I know that slowly I will forget the horrific scenes that are emblazoned in my mind of her final days and hours. I want time to pass quickly to blur the bad memories, but I also want it to slow down. Because with the loss of the searing, raw pain, also comes the loss of the vivid, chrystal clear memories that I have of spending so much time with my mom. Sometimes I struggle to remember my dad's voice, his mannerisms and I think my memory has glossed over many unpleasant things and narrowed down my recollection to some great stories and blurred the rest. Right now my mom is vivid in my mind. I can remember every little thing about her, I can almost conjure her presence. With time, I know that will fade. There is nothing nice about death. As my mom would often say: "The problem with death is that it is so final."

Treasure your loved ones each and every day. Make good memories or bad memories, but make memories that last because none of us know how much time we have here.