The first moment of grief. You weren’t there. And suddenly the whole future without you was there. And we had to face it. And it was hard. And I had to say goodbye without you to give me a comforting hug afterwards.
You weren’t there to tell when I got pregnant again. Or to tell you it was a girl.
You didn’t visit me in hospital. You didn’t squeeze my hand and tell me it would be ok.
You didn’t get to see my son meet his little sister. You didn’t get to see those first little cuddles and kisses.
You weren’t there to call when I was still sick and the baby was crying and her brother got angry because she was sucking up all my time and energy. Oh, there were so many other people to call, I know. But I wanted you.
You were holding my eldest when he smiled the first time. But you’ve never seen my daughter smile, never seen the way she wrinkles her nose in glee. Or heard the way she laughs when she knows she is being cheeky.
You haven’t seen my son ride a bike. You didn’t get to visit a castle with him and his Grandad, and watch them fire cannons and shoot arrows at imaginary baddies. It would have made you smile.
You didn’t get to bake a cake and give my daughter a beater to lick and see how happy it made her. I remember you giving my son one for the first time, and you took a photo of him all grubby and happy. And it is a precious memory and always was, because even then we knew the memories were running out.
You miss so much, you miss every day. You miss the tears, and the laughter. You miss the falling over and kissing scraped hands and knees. You miss scolding kids who won’t brush their teeth, or put on shoes. You miss sibling fights, and afternoons cuddling on the couch watching TV. You miss first steps, and counting to ten, and learning to write his name, and favourite books, and drawing, and nursery rhymes, and skype, and building duplo, and having tea parties, and wiping runny noses, and doing the same puzzle over and over, and the piles of washing, and 829 family dinners. You miss all the minutiae of life. Because, of course, you are not alive.
Life goes on. It is full and rich and full of wonderful moments. But if I were to write it in a book every page would have one letter erased, the space where you are missing.
By missing you I keep you with me, safe in my heart. In that way my children will know you.
I hold my daughter and sing her the same songs you sang to me.
I stroke my son’s hair as he lies in bed.
I tidy up, and clean, and cook dinners, and wash clothes, and when I feel like my children take me for granted I think of you and know that that is ok. Children should be able to take their parents for granted.
I get out your old cookbook and we bake. I feel the words you wrote underneath my fingers. And it tastes like my childhood home and you are there.
Maybe some people buy dressing gowns all the time; perhaps they have a selection of them in their walk-in wardrobes. A summer one, a winter one, a holiday one.
I have just one. One I’ve had for a long time.
It was green and full length. One of those towelling ones. Not a nice silk one. A practical one. It has lasted me a long time. Cold Wellington student flats, our first cold English flat, our second cold English flat, our cold Australian winters, and our warm Danish apartment. Many many night wakings, up and down hallways to children. And now it was looking decidedly frayed.
Frayed is an understatement. The shoulder had a huge hole. Disgracefully big.
I bought a new one. Another practical one. Turquoise.
It is funny the things that stick in your memory. I remember buying my old dressing gown. I bought it at Farmers in Lower Hutt. I bought it with my mother.
I must have been about 16. My mother took me shopping to buy a good dressing gown that would last a long time. Thanks to surgery that required checking if my growth plates had fused already, I had had the disappointing news I was going to remain the shortest member of my family. So there wasn’t any danger we’d buy something I’d grow out of.
I think 17 years is good going for a dressing gown.
My mother would be the first to laugh and say ‘it was a just a dressing gown’. But she’d also give me one of those little side hugs, not a big cuddle, but a squeeze from next to me. Throwing her arm over my shoulders and giving my arm a rub while she did it. I do miss those.
Life has a funny way of just keeping on going. We keep going and, as is normal and natural, we collect experiences. We change in subtle ways, and big ways. My life has changed in some very big ways in the last two years. I never would have predicted being where I am today. My mother would never have predicted it.
Our lives were threaded together in complicated, beautiful ways. Now I have to manage without her. A new dressing gown feels like the fraying of one more thread. Another tie dissolved. It is sad, but it is also normal and natural and healthy.
Nobody wants to end up like Miss Havisham.
So we cut the ties and dust the cobwebs away. I keep her with me in other much more important ways. But this week, in which we mark two years since her death, when I hung that new dressing gown on its hook, it crossed my mind.
I felt it pull at my heart. I heard the thread snap.
When I was 16 or so, my mother and I crossed the road together, between the New World and Queensgate in Lower Hutt. As we started walking my mother reached out and grasped my hand. I pulled it free, with a teenage ‘Mu-um!’ I was embarrassed but an amused embarrassed, not an angry embarrassed. In retrospect I’m grateful for that. In retrospect, I wish I’d let her hold my hand.
My mother’s hands were always dry. Her skin prone to itching, especially from handling food. When my son was about a year old I fed him a kiwifruit. He was enjoying the taste. And then I saw a gesture I recognized. The threading of his fingers, palm to back of hand, scratching in the gaps between them. By the time I got him to the bathroom he was rubbing his mouth and crying. He doesn’t eat kiwifruit anymore.
Although my mother liked the taste she was always careful of handling tomatoes. So, I found it strange when my mother was drawn into really long conversations about tomatoes at the supermarket with a European woman we didn’t even know. She would approach us in the fruit and vegetable section, and wind her old wrinkled fingers through the mesh of our trolley, holding us prisoner. I would hang on the sides, bored and puzzled, listening as she complained how tasteless the tomatoes in New Zealand were. My mother would nod and agree. It is only now, living in a European country far from home myself, that I understand why my mother stayed. It wasn’t simply pity. My parents lived in Rome for four years so my mother had also enjoyed the food markets, the colours, the smells, the tastes; there was pleasure in her own recollection. More importantly, I think my mother understood that loneliness – the need to share experiences with someone else who knew. So there she stood, listening and lamenting the modern mass produced tomato.
I remember watching my mother paint her nails. Slowly and carefully, sitting at the dining table. It always meant she and my father were going out for the night, some dinner, or work function. I would watch the brush neatly flare over her nail. Painting in the jewel tones she liked to wear, deep reds and purples. I can’t recollect ever seeing it washed off, though she never left it on to get chipped. Perhaps I found it too mundane to watch. Perhaps for some reason my mother usually removed it privately. Most likely, now that their night away from me was over, I lost interest.
I held that hand one last time. I thought I had said good-bye at the hospice. But I decided to see her again, at the funeral home. She looked more peaceful, more herself, than she had lying on a hospital bed. In one hand she held a picture drawn by her oldest granddaughter. She was cold; my mother who had always hated to be cold. I held her hand, kissed her cheek, said goodbye. Letting go and walking away was hard. Is hard.
I could say some of my fondest memories are of baking with Mum. In honesty, I would struggle to recall a single memory. Rather I have an accumulation of wet Saturdays and preparation for Christmases. I can picture the room, the cake mixer, my mother’s favourite brown plastic spatula, the blue measuring cups, the way my mother would stop the mixer-bowl rotating briefly with her hand on the side of the bowl, the way she slowly and patiently drifted sugar into the pavlova mix. I can sense her standing just behind and to the side of me. I know if I just turn and look she’ll be right there and I’ll see her.
Two days after my son was born my mother was told her annual check-up had returned abnormal results. Nine days after he was born my parents rang and told me her breast cancer had returned. They still travelled to Australia to visit us, but the trip had to be shortened. For all the happiness my son’s birth occasioned it was also a terribly sad time. My parents hired a car and drove from the airport to my place. My mother walked into our house arms outstretched, fingers twitching; I couldn’t hand her first grandson to her quickly enough. A few days later, lying in my mother’s arms, my son gave her his first real smile. I’m glad I was there to see it. If I wasn’t, who else could bear witness to it now?
She returned home for treatment, including a chemotherapy that damages nerve endings in the fingers. Mum was determined to keep them working as long as possible. She took up making bead necklaces. She would type emails to friends and family to keep them informed of her treatments and prognoses. She knitted, and she knitted beautifully, using circular needles – a style she picked up in her years living in Europe. Her grandchildren and great-nieces all have beautiful baby clothes. My son wore a cardigan she knitted to her funeral. When my daughter was brought home from hospital she wore the cardigan and hat my mother knitted for my son. My mother never got to knit anything for her. Never got to know I was pregnant. Never saw her face. Never heard her name. I can’t imagine a time when these simple truths do not sadden me.
When I was 19 my parents moved to London for a few years. I visited once for an extended Christmas holiday. Mum met me at the airport and we drove through a dark northern winter morning to their home. Much to my mother’s amusement I marveled at how much it looked exactly like Coronation Street. Dad was working, so Mum and I spent a lot of time together. Just the two of us. We visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, Oxford Street, and the Tower of London. We took two day trips: Oxford (an open-air bus tour, Christ Church), and Bath (the Pump Room, the Abbey, the Fashion Museum). On our drive home from Bath we tried out the new-fangled Satnav. We followed it, though we did begin to wonder, until finally we found ourselves, at the tail-end of dusk, in very much the wrong place. Headlights illuminating a narrow dirt track between hedges. In the distance we could see a motorway.
We visited Hampton Court, my father, mother and I, one very cold January day. Once it was home to Cardinal Wolsey, and later seized by King Henry VIII. I’ve been watching the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall. I loved the book, and now I can’t remember, did my mother read it? Given we went there together it seems like I would have discussed it with her. But I can’t recall, not for sure. That day we walked through rooms trod by some of the most well-known names in English history. I vaguely remember them. I do remember the cold, and the sheer number of hand-crafted bricks. But who remembers the brick-makers, the craftsmen, the char-women? They are lost to history. What I remember most from that day is the blazing fire in the kitchen. How the three of us huddled in front of it as long as decently possible trying to chase the chill from our bones.
My mother is dead and now belongs only to memory. I can recall. I can tell my mother’s story, but only as I see it. Her voice is gone. I alone tell the story of our time together, of the everyday life we lived. I can tell my children these stories, I can tell them how we laughed as we looked across at that motorway. But I cannot conjure the sound. They will only know her by her legacy. The way she shaped the lives of her husband, my sisters and me. Some baby clothes. Her old hand-written cookbook. How ordinary the works of my mother’s hands were. But to me, she was, and always will be extraordinary.
A few weeks ago I was walking home with my children. My son stopped walking and turned, asking ‘Why are you holding my hand?’ I had to think for a moment before I realized I just hadn’t let go since the last road. Satisfied with my explanation my son continued walking. Me with one hand on my daughter’s pram, one hand in his. We walked home together.
Maybe it’s a rainy day, maybe there’s rugby on we want to watch in the background, maybe I’m just too tired to leave the house but I need to find a way to keep M busy. Often my solution is to go to the kitchen and start baking. And in M’s own words he is turning into quite a good cooker.
M’s absolute favourite kitchen activity is to whip out the cookie cutters. I often do a double batch of dough and have some in the freezer ready for another day (see, sometimes I am organised!). He still needs a bit of help, and the cookies can get a bit ripped or squished; the teddy bear biscuits in particular tend to lose limbs during the process.
He can, under guidance, tip measured ingredients into bowls for mixing. He’s learning how to crack eggs, how to grate cheese and carrots, and we even let him do some chopping with a knife. I’ve been meaning to buy him one of these knives for kids but my to-do-list is quite…long.
I love having him help me in the kitchen; I used to love helping my Mum. She was an amazing cook. Because my sister has a long list of food intolerances (way before they became fashionable) bought biscuits were a ‘treat’. Mum somehow found the time to bake goods for our lunchboxes. If Mum made pastry there was always enough left over for us to play with, and maybe even a few raisins to stud it with before baking our creations. We learnt how to avoid overmixing muffins, test a cake was done, and whip up the perfect kiwi pavlova.
It is only now that I have M helping me that I see everything that my mother was teaching us.
‘And now we roll the dough into a rectangle. That means two long sides, and two short sides.’
Click. My mother was a high school maths teacher.
Geometry, measurements and ratios. Baking is basically maths.
Teaching our children shouldn’t be about being perfect. It’s not about instruction, or testing. It should be something we just do. Because children just learn. They absorb everything. They’ll do it whether we consciously teach them or not. Every day, every minute they spend with us they are learning. It’s a scary thought. Then I console myself with the thought that I am not trying to teach my son to be perfect. I’m trying to teach him to be human. That it is ok to make mistakes. That sometimes people get grumpy. That we can apologise afterwards. That we love each other, even though he doesn’t nap, and it’s getting late, and I’m tired, and can he just go into the bathroom and brush his fucking teeth?
After I started writing this (yeah, it takes me a looong time to type one-handed with a feeding baby), I saw an article about how to cook with your kids. I clicked. I’m a good blogger I thought. I’m doing ‘research’. I kid you not, the first three or four bullet-points were all about ensuring your kitchen was safe. Make sure any electrical cords are coiled tidely. Make sure anything sharp is out of reach. Make sure you’ve got everything out and ready, and a clear space for utensils once they are dirty. What are the kids doing while you spend half an hour fretting about what to do with your kettle cord? Playing nicely? My kitchen bench is half-pantry overflow, half dirty dishes, half crumbs (wait, that’s too many halves, what would my mother say?) I’d never get anything done if I had to organise a perfect cooking space first. Besides if I don’t teach my son that knives exist and you really shouldn’t touch the pointy metal bit, who will? So for now, I’m just going to leave it dangerously within reach.
My baking certainly isn’t pinterest-perfect. I don’t buy into the ‘clean eating’ that has become so popular. Our cakes are #loadedwithgluten #fullofrefinedsugar. Partly because sugar, is sugar, is sugar. And partly because while we do OK, it’s just way too expensive to use only ground almonds and maple syrup instead. Who knows what the future will be like for my children; what food security they will have. I imagine they will have years that are ‘leaner’ than others. It’s more important to me that they learn the basics of cooking, so they are able to make a cake for a special occasion or cook a nice dinner to impress a date, than feeding them some ideal diet now.
Sometimes we have spills, and mess. Sometimes it takes M ages to individually place every potato wedge I’ve chopped on to the tray, while I fret because I know he’ll be complaining he’s hungry before they’ve cooked. Sometimes he eats way too much biscuit dough. Sometimes I get exasperated at his insistence he can do everything himself, because he can’t, because he’s three. But we keep getting the measuring cups out, and going back to the kitchen; it’s hard not to enjoy his enthusiasm.
So, I’m grateful my mother took the time to include us in the kitchen. Because even though I don’t remember the cake crumbs and fingerprints all through the icing, or the half cup worth of flour I inevitably left my mother to sweep off the floor, I remember the time, the love, the life skills. Gifts that are worth passing on to her grandchildren.
I pick my son up off the floor, no damage done but tears rack his body. He buries his head against me as he howls, and I kiss his hands and elbows ‘Oh dear.’ I say.
Have you ever heard the phrase ‘Sometimes I open my mouth and my mother comes out’?
And suddenly it is me who is bereft.
Because in the long fourteen months since my mother died I’ve wanted to hear those words so badly. In that first haze of grief. On my return to this land that is my home, that I don’t belong in. As I tried to cook meals for my son whilst retching at every smell. While finally getting to hold my daughter for the first time, attached to IVs and monitors, still shaking from shock. During all those long night feeds. When both my children need me, and I only have two arms.
Even though I have a husband who has been beside me every step of the way. Holding my children when I couldn’t. Feeding my daughter when I couldn’t. Feeding me when I couldn’t. Getting up and down in the night. Providing our son with shoulders to climb over, and our daughter a beard to pull.
Even though I have a father who has supported this crazy decision we made to move our little family to the other side of the world. Who looked after our son alone for six nights while we both stayed at the hospital.
Even though I have my sisters, the two other people I know who lost my Mum. Who’ve had to balance that with raising their own young children.
Even though I have my uncles and aunts, my in-laws, my cousins, my friends.
Even though I have so much, there is no-one left on this earth who can hold me like my mother could.
My son begins to squirm, the shock has subsided. I lower him, and as soon as his feet touch the ground he is off again. He pounces on his sister, and they smile at each other.
It has been an effort to prepare for Christmas this year. Well, Christmas usually takes a lot of work, it is just this year I have struggled to motivate myself, and feel the Christmas spirit. Not that that’s surprising. We will be having a winter Christmas, just the three of us. And it is my first Christmas since Mum died. And I’m pregnant so I can’t even drink, or eat fancy cheese. For much of the last couple of months it has felt easier to bury my hand in the sand and pretend it would just be an ordinary winter day.
Then Christmas lights started to appear, on shopping streets, and in neighbourhood windows and balconies. My son loved them. Then they had a Christmas party at his daycare, with a tree and Julemand (Santa). Sure, I’d picked up a few things thinking we’d give him some presents. I hadn’t planned to skip Christmas entirely, I just sort of hoped it would come and go of its own accord. Now it became clear that M had some idea that ‘Christmas’ existed. What exactly he thinks it is we don’t know, but what I did realise was that while he is young, Christmas will be what we make it.
So this year I’m giving him Christmas.
We’ve bought a tree and decorated it together. The first Christmas tree R and I have ever had (pot plants don’t count). Mum loved decorating the tree every year. It was bittersweet, enjoying M’s delight over the process, knowing how much Mum would have loved seeing it. M loves to switch the tree lights on in the morning, and when he gets home from vuggestue. And to pull decorations off, and put them back on again.
Last Friday I finally baked a Christmas cake. I’ve bought a leg of lamb, and sweet potato, even though I know it won’t be anything like proper kumara. I’ll make pavlova, stuffing and gravy. And just to prove I’m not doing things by halves, I’ve even made an attempt at the traditional Danish rice pudding, risalamande. M and I will make cheese straws for nibbles. Lunch will be late and M will be overtired and hungry by the time I get a roast on the table. I’ll drive R mad by playing terrible music; it’s not Christmas without Boney M.
I know this year I’ll miss Mum terribly. We all will. Although he is only little, too little to really grasp events, this last year has been tough on M too. He is going to have a great Christmas day, and then we’ll do it again next year, and the year after. Because traditions, and celebrations aren’t something that just magically happen. My parents made them happen, even when times were tough. Now it’s our turn.
I’ve wondered for a long time whether I should write this post or not. I enjoyed starting this blog, as a way to share my life with family and friends so far away. Without having a wide readership you all know how my life has changed in the last few months. And yet, it felt impossible to come back to writing without acknowledging events; that, at the end of June, my mother died. Perhaps some people will read it who didn’t know, perhaps not. But I’ve realised that the worst thing for me would be to pretend this hadn’t happened. To allow my mother to disappear quietly. My Mum is not an awkward topic. She was my Mum, and I want to talk about her, and about our loss.
Mum had cancer, for a time we thought she was in remission, but that turned out to not be the case. We knew for 23 months that there would be no remission this time. Mum would not get better, and that cancer would be the cause of her death. 23 months. Long enough for Mum to see my son grow from a spewy, cuddly newborn into a boisterous, chatty toddler. To see two more grandchildren arrive, and even both take their first steps. Two more birthdays. Two more Christmases. 23 months of intravenous chemotherapy, radiotherapy, daily chemo pills, bone strengthening drugs, surgery, scans. Mum hated the word ‘battle’. I understand why; battle implies winners and losers. When people declare they won the battle with cancer what does that say about those for whom there can be no victory? The truth is Mum worked for every day she got.
After we moved to Denmark Mum was given the go-ahead by her doctors to travel to Europe with Dad. We were so much looking forward to seeing her here, and showing her where we lived. They started in the warmer south of Europe, visiting Rome where they lived for four years. They only got as far as Nice before it became clear that Mum wasn’t going to be able to continue her travel. Flights were rebooked, but they couldn’t get flights immediately. So the three of us hopped on a plane and joined them in France. I’m pleased to say we had a fabulous time. Mum was so determined to enjoy her time with us. Dad was hard at work pushing her wheelchair over bumpy cobblestones, while Mum tried not to complain. We wandered on the promenade. Ate some lovely food. Saw the Chagall museum. My son loved the wheelchair, occasionally he got rides on Gran’s lap, but best of all was to sit in his pram behind her shouting ‘whoo, whoo’ circulating his arms like wheels.
They got home, Mum was taken straight to hospital. Not long after it became clear her life expectancy was now only months. Then months suddenly became only weeks, and I booked flights for M and I to fly home. Mum died within 36 hours of my arrival in Wellington. She had been ill a long time, but in the end her death was so sudden we were left reeling. I’d absolutely expected when I said good-bye that night to see her in the morning. The loss of that one last day with Mum, in lieu of all the years, has hit all of us hard. But I knew for a long time that however long it was, it would never be enough. I realise, now that the initial shock has dissipated, that even though we knew what was coming, it would always be a shock. That nothing can prepare you for the hard truth of that moment. We’d all grieved a thousand times already, but now we had to begin again.
The last time I spoke to Mum alone, the day before she died, we talked about our holiday in Nice, and how much we all enjoyed ourselves, despite the obvious difficulties. Mum told me that making good memories was what was important in life. I love that M still remembers her, and talks about her. It makes me smile that when he sees a wheelchair he shouts ‘like Gran. Whoo, whoo’. But I know that, at only two, those memories won’t stick around long. So it is important to me, that we talk about her, about who she was, because we are the only way he can know her now.
So here we are. Struggling to get through the day to day in a world without Mum in it. I know that in time it will get easier. It is what Mum would have wanted for us. It doesn’t mean we forget. I know I’ll miss her every day ahead. But Mum raised us well, she taught us to keep going when life was tough. She taught us how to enjoy the small moments, even when life is at its worst. The old clichés are right, the people you love the most never truly leave you. My mother is still with me in ways that are very meaningful to me. And this will give us the strength to do what seems so difficult right now. We’ll make a lifetime’s worth of good memories, even though my mother won’t be there.