Small floods

  There are words enough, at last.

I have come to think of this last year, 2015, as the year I lost to grief. 

Grief appeared at strange moments. Unexpected, it bubbled up from somewhere inside and filled me up. Sometimes it leaked, and wet my eyelashes, matting them together in shiny triangles at the edges of my eyes. Sometimes it seethed then raged, like the ocean withdrawing from the shore and the tidal wave that follows. There were days when the grief burned my cheeks with its saltiness. 

This grief is old. It’s been waiting a decade or more for me to give it space. In that time, it’s trickled into spaces all through my body, looking for somewhere it can rest, leaving its mark along the way, like flood marks on a wall. It hasn’t found a home, in all that time. Nowhere to settle, just restlessness and the scars of constant movement.

When I started giving it space, I began dreaming more than I had in years. About loss, about continuing despite loss. Maybe because of it. Starting again, not from scratch, but from where I am. Something we all need to do.

The grief came to rest in my chest; the space that air from outside creates and then deflates inside my lungs. And I wonder now if this is where it wanted me to allow it to go, all this time, so I could breathe it out, let it go. Have I kept it trapped all these years, thinking all the while that it was me who was the prisoner?

Words travel on the exhale when a person speaks, but for much of last year this old grief of mine was only air and water, draughts and leaks. 

Sounds, movement, silence. 

The only words I could use to explain it were nebulous, vague. 

Shapeless. Air and water. 

Mine alone to hold and then release back into the world, to be unmade and remade, the way we all are; to become something else.

It is a very strange and somewhat distressing state of affairs to be someone who has called themselves a writer and to find that there are no words, or that there are only words that make no sense to anyone else, and to feel that you cannot really understand the words other people are using. 

The year I lost to grief wasn’t completely lost, of course. I travelled, I worked, I loved. I made changes. I made new connections with people, more fully realised the depth of many old ones. I found that these people carried for me when I couldn’t a faith in me that I would find with time. I found, too, an immense gratitude, which I’m not sure there will ever be words enough to express, for this faith in me—especially because some of that faith came from people who didn’t have much beyond a hunch to go on. 

These are words enough now for the grief though. 

There is space where the grief once flooded everything else out. Space for joy and kindness and courage and playfulness. Space for all the things I thought I’d lost, but that had, in fact, just been learning how to swim. 

Too much sitting 

I’m in another airport, with my little backpack and my handbag, and the little knots of excitement/anxiety (I’m never entirely sure which it is) in my brow and the muscles of my neck I always have when I find myself at points of departure, and a low hum of ache in my lower back and the joints where the base of my spine meet my pelvis. 

I’m stupidly early, which I almost always am (except when I miss my flight—I seem to be a person of extremes). The departure gate is slowly filling with other people who are anxious or excited or bored or just plain tired. 

I find the most boring parts of travel, perhaps paradoxically, the most interesting, the most nuanced.

I love watching how other people deal with these moments (minutes, hours). At this departure gate, many are looking at a device of some sort. A woman reads a magazine with a picture of a big pile of fruit and vegetables on the page. A man checks and rechecks his passport and boarding pass. One woman—young, maybe 19, with sandy red hair and glasses and milky skin—sits with her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands, and just looks. Looks at everything and nothing in particular. 

I love watching how I deal with these moments (minutes, hours). Do I reach for a device? Do I read? Do I check my email thirty times even though I know there will be no new ones? Or do I, like the young woman with the glasses, just look?

Do I just look at anything and everything and let my mind wander? 

The ache in my back is from all the sitting and it annoys me. The sitting and the aching. The River Liffey has left a greater impression—a quiet one—in my mind than I realised until I found my mind wandering to it. I’m not entirely sure why at this point. Something about rivers in general, I think. I am tired. I would happily look at Ireland’s green for a whole day, but I wonder if I’d change my mind about that if it had rained more while I was here. There was so much sun in Ireland for my time here. 

I miss important people in my life. A lot. But at the same time I like being on my own. I don’t know what to do with that tension. I wonder where all these people are going, beyond the destination of the flight. Home? Holiday? Work? I wonder where I am going. I wonder what on earth I’m doing, roaming around like this, vague and tired. I think about some of the ways in which this year has been incredibly difficult and strange for me and can see that somehow the wandering is helping, even if I can’t say how or why. I don’t know what’s coming next on this trip, and I’m surprisingly calm about that. 

I think about the yoga anatomy video I’ve watched in the last few days about the nuanced relationship between the different parts of our nervous system, between the parts that speed us up and the parts that slow us down. 

My flight is called. There is movement. My body is glad for it. The knots in my neck muscles relax a little. I find my boarding pass. Departure again.

A record and a rose

A man sat at the table next to me in the cafe and told the waiter he was expecting someone to join him. I was reading, so all I saw of him was his right dress shoe and pant leg, and, from the corner of my eye, his upright and watchful posture. A vague waft of his cologne. An imagined crisp white shirt.

I don’t know how long he sat there, watching, anticipating. 

Eventually, he ordered himself a coffee and a sandwich.

‘My friend isn’t coming anymore,’ he told the waiter. 

When the coffee and the sandwich came, he ate and drank slowly. His posture remained upright. As soon as he’d finished, he paid and left.

‘He had a present,’ the waiter told me. ‘A record and a rose.’

Stories and objects: a lost bracelet

Watch locketWe are talking about the frying pan I’m about to buy when the woman behind the counter notices my necklace, a locket.

That’s lovely, she says. Is there anything in it?

I open it to show her the watch inside. My parents gave it to me some years ago, I tell her.

Her face softens immediately. Oh, it’s lovely. I bet you love it. Gifts like that are special, aren’t they?

She begins to tell me about gifts, of jewellery in particular, her now deceased parents gave her. She is one of those women who have worked in a department store for twenty years or more: immaculate blonde hair, just a little too much foundation, long manicured fingernails, rings with big stones on at least two fingers on each hand, just the right amount of some age-appropriate fashionable perfume. As she talks, I notice suddenly how small she is—she comes up to my chest, at most.

She tells me the story of her falling on the way home from the train station one day and losing a beloved bracelet her parents had given her.

Half way through the story, just at the part where she injured herself falling over and walked the twenty minutes home only to discover the bracelet was gone, she starts laughing at herself failing the necessary steps to put my frying pan transaction through because she is distracted by her storytelling.

Hang on, let me put this through first, she says. I laugh too. We finish the transaction and fiddle about sticking receipts to boxes and deciding about whether I need a bag. I am about to leave when she remembers—

Wait, let me tell you the rest of my story. Please do, I say.

When she realised she had lost the bracelet—which she never usually wore to work, but this one day, of course—she called her Dad in tears. At this time her mother was in a nursing home, but her Dad still lived in their home. Her Dad listened and soothed her distress with all the appropriate words. The next day when she could walk okay again she went back to the spot she had fallen, but the bracelet, predictably, was gone.

Some time later, she went to visit her father at his home—I still get teary thinking about this now, she tells me—and at the end of her visit her father remembered suddenly, and disappeared to his bedroom. When he came back, he had a small jewellery bag. In it was a replacement bracelet. Not the same kind, nothing like it, she tells me—he probably wasn’t involved in buying the first one, even. But this one, this one was even more special than the first, and she would never wear it to work.

Oh, Dad, I say to her, touched.

I know, she says. I miss my Dad. He was the kind of man who’d be thinking about whose birthday was coming up in the next month or two, so he could be sure they’d have a gift. He loved giving gifts. She gazes out past my shoulder. But I should let you go, she says.

And I do go, but I thank her for sharing the story with me, feeling that what she shared was so much more than a story about a lost bracelet. What she showed me, a complete stranger, was grief. Not the kind we usually think of—sobbing, distressed, wild—but an everyday kind. The kind where a person is suddenly reminded of a hole that’s been left.

Walking back through the department store with my frying pan under my arm, on my way back to work, I am, for a few moments at least, a little less overwhelmed and irritated by department stores and shopping centres and crowded places where people seem to forget that other people are moving in those places too. Instead, I am aware, in a way that makes my skin tingle, of what it is that all these people might carry around with them that stops them from seeing other people, and I am reminded of this speech by David Foster Wallace about the world and people and changing our attitude to others. And this reminder, perhaps, more than the story itself, lovely though it was, is why I will remember that small blonde woman’s story, and the image I have of her elderly father holding out for her a small velvet bag containing a bracelet.

Storytelling

What has struck me over the last few days, since my Mamie’s death very early Friday morning, is how important storytelling is to the grieving process. Apart from the day she died, when I withdrew into a little shell and moped about the house by myself, I’ve spoken to one or more members of family every day. And each time we’ve told stories about Mamie.

I’ve found out things about her I didn’t know, and heard stories that cement my ideas about her. I said to my Dad the other night (Mamie was his mother) that I’m sure there are lots of things about Mamie that I was never going to know until she had died, and I’m kind of looking forward to getting to know her better — or at least in a different way — through the stories I’ll hear about her.

The storytelling is vital, I feel. Mamie was frail when she died — if we weren’t able to tell our stories about her to one another, I think we’d not be able to remember her as she was in the rest of her life. In the stories, she gets to live again.

I’ve always been fascinated by religion and spirituality. I went to Catholic schools growing up, and every year I did very well in the compulsory Religious Studies. I don’t really consider myself a religious person, but I have always loved learning about how people explain to themselves life and death and everything in between. Life after death — again not something I’m decided on — is a particularly interesting concept to me. I wonder whether these stories, these memories we have of Mamie, are her next life.

Mamie was religious. She believed in God, and Heaven, and that she was going to be with my grandfather, Da, again when she died.

Once, a few years ago, she and I started having a conversation about God. I told her I didn’t know whether I believed in a higher being or not, but that I didn’t think it mattered if I was able to be a good person. She listened. At that point in the conversation we were interrupted, but she looked at me, touched my arm, and said, “Please let’s continue this conversation when we can later, darling.” I knew, from the way she said it, that our later conversation would not involve her trying to change my mind, only wanting to know more of it.

Sadly, we never got the chance to finish that conversation. I would dearly love to talk to her about those things now, and it saddens me to think that I won’t be able to.

But that I can tell that story, and imagine how the conversation might have gone — have the conversation with her in my head — is enough. Whichever way you look at it, Mamie’s having a life after death right now.

I’ve shared my thoughts about the social function of literature here before, and I’m sure what I’m describing here fits into that idea somehow. Stories encourage compassion and empathy, and in doing so I think they can perpetuate a person or character’s voice and existence. Which reminds me, I’m due to write more about my ideas on using different narrative voices — my efforts here don’t do the subject any kind of justice.

Grief

My beloved grandmother, Mamie, died early on Friday morning.

It brings tears to my eyes to type that, and I’m sure it will for quite some time. My Mamie had class. She had a sweet tooth, and a fondness for a G&T or a whiskey. She also had a wicked sense of humour, which she retained until the end. I loved her dearly.

Fridays are usually quiet days for me, work-wise. I made yesterday a quieter Friday than usual. Mum had called me with the sad news just before I went into my usual Friday Yin Yoga class (as a student, thankfully), and I’d spent the entire class watching the waves of tears and quiet calm come and go. Yin Yoga has come to play such an important role in my life. It’s a quieter form of yoga than the Vinyasa that I mainly teach, and often practice; it’s passive, reflective, it allows you time to notice things that are sitting below the surface. The challenge of this style of yoga is to just let those things be, even if they’re not pleasant or ideal, which is really tough sometimes. Yesterday was one of those tough times for me.

The poses were more challenging physically. Every time I moved into balasana (child’s pose) the tears would come. As I sat in stillness, they ran down my face and dripped onto my mat. My nose blocked, and I had to breathe through my mouth if I wanted to breathe at all. Keeping my breath slow and even was extremely difficult. Hip stretches were almost unbearable (according to yogic teachings, we store the effects of strong emotions in our hips).

But more challenging still was my mind. It traversed a lifetime of Mamie-memories, and fixated on other members of my immediate and extended family, who I knew would be feeling grieved too. Every time a new thought arose, the lump in my throat would return, and my breathing would become shallow. In Yin Yoga, the idea is to notice your mind wandering and continue to gently bring it back to focus on your breath. For so much of that class, my mind was so far away from any kind of breath focus, and it did not want to come back. Being patient with myself, rather than being angry at my lack of focus, was extremely difficult.

After class, I realised that attempting the editing or research work I had been planning to do would be completely ridiculous. So for the rest of the day, I pottered around, catching up on some reading I needed to do, writing a few bits and pieces. And crying a whole lot more.

Mamie is not the first person close to me to die. Grief is not new to me. But this way of dealing with it — actually allowing myself to just sit and cry — is. And it feels far more natural than anything else I’ve tried. Not denying those feelings, actually expressing them, while not pleasant, is liberating. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel sad, but I feel like I’m allowed to feel sad.

My Mamie was not at all well by the time she died. She’d had dementia for quite some time, and in December last year, she’d had a stroke. She was frail, and she was ready to be free of this life. I am truly glad for her that she can be now.

My sadness is all for myself and the other people left behind. I’ve often thought this about grief: it’s so strangely selfish. Understandably so, obviously. But it’s still an odd thought. And it’s such a mixed bag of feelings. There’s just plain sad; there’s regret and guilt; there’s anger, frustration; there’s holding on for dear life; there’s fear. In the last two days I’ve felt all of these things. At times I haven’t known where the tears were coming from, I haven’t been able to attach them to a specific part of my grief. They’ve just come, almost spontaneously. And I’ve let them.

But maybe I’m wrong; maybe grief isn’t entirely selfish. Grieving for someone shows they meant something to you, it acknowledges that they’ve made an impact. And I can’t say that’s entirely selfish. Mamie was very dear to me — and indeed to many people who knew her. That saying goodbye to her is difficult shows how deep the groove she made in my heart is.

One of my favourite bloggers, Claire Bidwell Smith, writes beautifully about grief. (You can read some of her posts on the subject here.) She has known so much grief in her life. Both her parents had died by the time she was 25, and she often writes about how much she misses them.

I already miss my Mamie, and I will continue to — probably for the rest of my life.

I will miss her smile. I will miss her voice. I will miss her saying things are ‘glorious’ and calling me ‘darling’. I will miss her soft hair, which resisted grey for so long. I will miss her big old glasses, without which she could hardly see a thing. I will miss her telling me I’m in her prayers, which I always loved even though I’m not religious myself. I will miss her asking me how old I am, and being shocked each time that the number is so high. I will miss her silliness. I will miss her wicked sweet tooth. I will miss her handwriting. I will miss her hands. I will miss so many more things about her — many I’m yet to think of or realise, I’m sure.

Goodbye, dearest Mamie. You will stay in my thoughts always.

~

When I first heard the sad news, we were unsure of exactly when Mamie had died, and I was under the impression that it was sometime on Thursday evening. It was, in fact, early Friday morning. I’ve updated the beginning of this post for the sake of accuracy.

On being alone.

What leaves me more bereft than anything else is the feeling that there are stitches loose in all my joints; that I’m wobbly when I try to do things on my own, because any one of the stitches could break at any moment and I would lose a limb. I have not aged: I have been pushed back in years to a time when the unknown in the world was terrifyingly weighty.

It is heavy as it presses in around my body, like I am deep underwater and fighting to keep the barrier of my skin intact. And in that dark world of water I am alone. But, even as I wonder how much air I have left in my lungs, I am learning to sew.