Conversations about bodies I wish I’d had with my grandmother

Feet in sandI am sitting on the sand, hair in a sopping wet lump of a braid down my back, face tingling from the cold water and the thin veneer of salt that has lingered on my skin all week. The sand is warm. It is gritty between my toes. The sun too is warm on the bare skin of my upper back; I can feel it drying the swimming costume that covers my lower back. I am on holidays. I am, unsurprisingly, feeling rather content. 

Gazing towards the waves, I spot an old woman walking very carefully out of the shallows, on the arm of a middle-aged woman I assume is her daughter. The uneven surfaces and the small waves are difficult for the old woman. Perhaps she will not be able to come to the beach for much longer. 

I remember a conversation I had with my paternal grandmother years ago—I’m not sure how many, but long before she died—where she told me how much it saddened her when she realised she could no longer walk safely on the sand. When she had to give up on going to the beach. I think too of the many hours I spent on a beach as a child with her, the story—well known in our family—about the time as a young woman that my grandmother ran into the surf with her glasses on, such was her joy at being on the beach, only realising she’d done so when she came out of the water later, noticed she couldn’t see and realised she’d been able to when she went in. I think too of her feet. Of the olive skin and scrunched toes. Of her troubles with bunions. My grandmother’s feet in the sand. 

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about feet and knees for the blog of the yoga business I teach corporate yoga through. About how to look after them so they work well for longer. Remembering my grandmother’s feet, it doesn’t surprise me that she found that she lacked stability on the beach. But it saddens me. And the full meaning of that conversation with her all those years ago—although I must have guessed at the strength of her sadness at the time or perhaps I’d have forgotten the conversation—sits with me suddenly here on the beach. And I miss her. Immensely. 

I miss her because I am watching another old woman who may one day soon say something similar to her own granddaughter. And the old woman probably knows this now. I hope so much that the knowledge doesn’t mean she is frustrated or sad, I hope it means she is enjoying this time on the beach now. 

This is the difficulty of bodies. They break down, they slow down, they fall apart. They waste away. And when they do it’s painful, it’s confronting, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking. My own body has fallen apart in its own way at times. The most significant so far was in a big and lasting way, when I was just a teenager. I used to feel hardly done by about this—angry, resentful, ashamed even—but now I feel grateful. Yes. Grateful. Because this happens to everyone, in some way, eventually, and that it happened for me in my teens was shock enough at an age when I was old enough to be pushed into finding out more about this thing I get around in. Actually, this thing that is me, just as much as my mind is. 

On the beach, my own feet are covered in sand, stuck out in front of me here, off the towel. I am suddenly hugely grateful for them. I have my own issues with stability (baby-sized, perhaps, compared to so many elderly and not-so-elderly folk), and my earlier run-in with bodily dysfunction has left its mark, but even so, this body is incredible. The processes that happen under this skin, the things that keep me breathing and eating and moving around, really are amazing. 

I just wish I’d been able to talk about these things with my grandmother, that I’d known how to respond when she talked about the challenges of ageing. I wish this was a conversation more people knew how to engage in meaningfully and compassionately—about the challenges of having/being a body. Because not talking about these things means we feel isolated when things go wrong. I see it again and again in my yoga teaching work. Or perhaps I’m just projecting my own response to a lack of these kind of conversations. 

More than anything, in this moment in the sunshine on the beach, I miss my grandmother intensely and wish she could be sitting here with me on the sand now, water dripping from her hair and dribbling down her spine. Watching the waves come in.
~
The post on knees and feet I wrote can be read here.

Advertisements

Monday Project: An agent of change

Audrey was alone, but sleepy and warm. She moved her lips over her gums, getting used to their fleshiness, sans dentures. She remembered, suddenly, having watched her own grandmother do the same thing.

She pulled the blanket up under her chin, neatly folded the top sheet over it so it wouldn’t tickle her, and closed her eyes. The darkness behind her eyelids was heavy, and her bones seemed to sink deeper into the mattress. A deeper heaviness than sleep. But she wasn’t ready for this yet. She wasn’t ready for this change, and so she fought it like she had every night for the last three months.

With her eyes still closed she drew her attention around the room she was lying in — her room, she had to keep reminding herself — repeating a journey she’d made physically many times that day, and for many days before that.

On her day trips around the room, she would touch the trinkets she’d brought with her to this place when she’d moved out of her last home, trying to recall the story behind each of them. Some days she would remember; some days not. Some days seeing a particular object in this place would bring to her an image of it elsewhere — an old house, the hands of one of her children, the store in which she’d bought it. At times she was not sure how many of these trips she made in one day. She’d look back around the room, trying to match the small new memories — a fingerprint in some dust, the way the light fell on a picture of her husband — with what she saw now. But she could never be sure if those memories belonged to another day, or to half an hour ago.

When she made the trip in her mind’s eye, warding off sleep and that bone-heaviness, it was like all the day trips became one. She saw each object a thousand times. The memories — old, new, real, invented — crowded inside her head, keeping her awake for what was probably hours. She floated around the room, and through the many years of her life, until she eventually went towards sleep.

Tonight, however, the heaviness loomed. It sat at the edge of every memory, cast a shadow on every object, every photo in the room. For the first time, the room in Audrey’s mind felt small, and she found herself wanting to go elsewhere. Not to escape the heaviness, rather to find a way to let it in.

For a moment she thought of all the faces looking down at her from the frames on the walls, and how what she was about to do would change them. She hoped they were ready.

~

This is my response to this month’s Monday Project theme. There’s been a bit of delay this month, but we should have the other responses up later today, along with the new monthly theme.

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.