On Dreams, and Taking my Dead Dad to Queensland

I wanted to talk about my dad, and got sideswiped by my mum last week. It happens some times, I guess. Parents can be like that…even if they have dementia, or are, as in my dad’s case, dead.

Here’s something they don’t tell you when you’re young—when you’re young enough to think that you’ll be young forever, and young enough to think that your parents are terribly, terribly old (in the decades before they actually reach that fated state)—nobody tells you that your parents will be with you, in some form or another, for your whole life. Or, as far as I can tell, longer than they’re actually necessarily here.

(To my kids…I’m sorry!)

They stay in memory. They stay with who you are, in myriad little decisions, little thoughts each day. They’re there in your self-talk, in the way you speak to others, in the way you see yourself even. It can be good or bad…sometimes both…

I still have, strictly speaking, both my parents. My mum, as I wrote last week, is in an aged care facility where they take excellent care of her. My dad—as he has always been—is a little more complicated.

My dad died five years ago. He died quite suddenly, a matter of only a few days after he’d been unwell on a Friday, and we’d made the transition in our minds to “Dad is elderly now”, and began to think about how we’d handle the next few years. “The next few years” ended on a Tuesday morning, and that was that. There was a funeral, and a cremation, and some weeks after Christmas the funeral home presented me with a white paper carry-bag containing the photo I’d given them of Dad, and the presentation they’d made of it, a candle, and a rather heavy plastic box that apparently contains his ashes.

Much happened in our family in the weeks and months after Dad’s death. Most of it good, much of it pivotal. I’m not the most organised person (or, at least, I had a lot to organise at that time), and the white paper carry-bag stayed on my bedroom floor with a few bits of other paperwork. And then the paperwork got dealt with, but Dad stayed there. And then, after a while, he migrated to the back of the cupboard, and he’s been there ever since.

It’s not much of an ending, really. And I guess this is really the key behind my (lack of) decision: I wasn’t ready for an ending.

Dad hadn’t been ready for an ending, either. Dad had dreams—big ones, that had sustained him for twenty years or more. In a way I think it was the loss of his dream that eventually killed him.

Dad was going to move to Queensland.

To be slightly more accurate, Dad was going to marry a lady called Helen and move to Queensland with her. He met Helen soon after he moved to Western Australia, some time in the 1990s. They were friends on and off, she had boyfriends on and off (none of them were my father), and, from what I can tell, a sad and quite complicated life. She didn’t want to marry my dad, annor did she want to move to Queensland, but Dad was an optimistic soul*, and kept the dream of Helen and Queensland alive for many years, and these dreams are the ones that sustained him.

I wanted Dad to move back to Tasmania, to be closer to family in his latter years, and he came to visit a couple of times, which we all enjoyed. He was restless though, unable to settle, because of Helen, because of his dream, because of Queensland.

He came to visit last one August, he’d stay for six weeks, he said, then go back home to Western Australia. He had plans. Helen. Dreams. Queensland. He had to get things sorted, get ready to go.

It was down here in Hobart where everything changed, in the yellow fluorescent-lit basement of JB Hifi. He ran into an old acquaintance from Western Australia, simply by chance, an old flame of Helen’s, apparently, who told him the worst news possible: Helen had died some years before. She wasn’t ever going to marry my dad. She wasn’t ever going to move to Queensland.

Three months after this my dad was dead too. Heart failure. I’m pretty sure it was the death of his dream that killed him.

Now, some astute readers will be saying by now, “How come, if he was so convinced he was going to marry this woman, he could not know of her death? And not her recent death, her TWO YEARS AGO death?” to which I would reply, “he was a VERY optimistic soul”**.

Dreams are, more than I’d ever realised, life-giving. Similarly, the loss of a dream can be quite literally a death to the soul.

I’ve had a few of my own dreams die these past few years. A few big ones I’ve allowed to die a natural death, and in their place new dreams are slowly rising again, perhaps healthier ones, or more true ones. And also, in these past few years, I’ve seen childhood dreams, long dead, miraculously rise into fulfilment and hope.

The lesson for me, I guess, is we need to keep a loose hold on all our dreams, both the living ones and the dead. We need to be free enough to dream, comfortable enough to allow our dreams to die, and have enough faith to understand that sometimes the dead are, miraculously, resurrected.

My dad is very dead, and—aside from in a theological sense—I’m not expecting a physical resurrection of him any time soon. But Queensland remains, and a little part of my dad’s dream lives within me, in the part of me that loved him. And so, in a couple of week’s time I’m going to pull the white paper carry bag that contains Dad’s remains out of the back of the cupboard where it’s been buried, and my husband and I will pack him in our suitcase and take him on our interstate holiday.

We’ll stay the weekend, enjoy the sunshine, find some nice beaches, find somewhere nice, somewhere that Dad would have liked—it’ll have to be near the water, he always loved the water—and we’ll fulfil Dad’s dream for him, and leave him in Queensland.

Parents stay with you, long after they’ve died, it seems. I don’t know what I think about how much the dead can see or experience of life back here on earth, but I do believe that when we meet God face to face all that is broken and wronged within us is made whole again, and that the Dad that I’ll see, eventually, in Heaven, will have a very strong grasp again on reality.

I hope he likes Queensland.

 

*some would say more “lost touch with reality” rather than simply “optimistic”, but who am I to judge?

** some would say more “lost touch with reality” rather than simply “VERY optimistic”, but who am I to judge?

 

The Cushion: a story of dementia and grief

This is a piece of narrative non-fiction. A true story, a telling of an incident that happened this week. My mother moved into a nursing home in July last year, after it became obvious that she was no longer fit or suited to living alone. For the most part she is happy. The place she lives is lovely, the staff incredibly kind. But the mix of emotions–for both of us–is a complicated one, and not easily expressed in the big, brightly-coloured building-block words we often use for our feelings. This narrative is the closest I’ve come so far to express something of the journey that this past year has been…

 

…”You know the one, on my armchair. A creamy colour. Can you bring it in to me?”

We’ve had this conversation three times in as many days now. I remember. She doesn’t.

“Yes, Mum. You asked me that yesterday.” I don’t say, “and the day before as well.” There’s no point. I don’t want to upset her. “I’ll have a look for it,” (the first lie always feels the most sour) “and bring it to you as soon as I can.”

The cushion is gone, the creamy one on the armchair. The armchair is gone, and the funny wooden box next to it that held an assortment of half-completed crossword puzzles, dog-eared coffee-stained knitting patterns, scraps of wool, and cat hair. The coffee cups have gone, all bar one or two. The clothes horse, the towels, the hundred pairs of near-threadbare underpants with their vain attempts at elastic that hung to dry there. All gone, either to the second-hand shop or the council tip. The cushion in question was ripped and lumpy, and ended up in a bag of rubbish with the kitty litter and some old food from the freezer.

“I need a cushion, you see. That one’s quite a comfortable one. Could you bring it by on Friday, do you think?”

The second lie, the tongue’s back broken by the first, is easier. “That’s fine, Mum. I’ll see what I can do.”

*

The pain is not an obvious one. It doesn’t jump up at you, demand to be noticed, but slides quietly in with every passing hour, until your body and mind ache with the weight of memory. A lifetime’s worth of residual fear, unexpressed grief, lies I’ve believed about myself in the past—long vanquished—whose ghosts arise again: “You’ve done a bad thing. You’re a BAD DAUGHTER. You threw out all your mother’s things and rented her unit to strangers and put her in a home!”

I did throw out her things. I threw out her cushion. I threw out her armchair and her table and everything on it. I emptied her cupboards and cleaned them out, and rented her empty unit to a family who needed a new home. I told her all these things, too, multiple times, and she said, “yes, you’ve done a good thing,” and “thank you”. Not that she remembers that any more, when she asks for her cushion. I’m scared to my bones in wonder of what else she’ll ask for that’s gone.

*

I could go to a homewares shop and buy her a new cushion, but I know the stuff they carry these days—textures and big prints and fur—and it’s not her. So I go to the op-shops, the same ones I took her stuff to all those months ago, and I poke through baskets of cushions left there by other mothers, other daughters who have discarded old and unwanted things. I got to five shops, six maybe, analysing each selection’s offering in terms of its size, comfort, and similarity to the one that was lost. I find one eventually, for $2.50, take it home and write her name on the label.

The phone rings. It’s her. I don’t answer it. The guilt of my cushion-discarding transgression overwhelms every other emotion I have today, and in this place I can’t be the daughter she needs.

I don’t go to see her that afternoon, or the next. The cushion sits jauntily on an occasional chair in our lounge-room, one that used to be hers. I let the cushion sit there for days—could leave it there forever until she forgets that she ever had a cushion, an armchair, a unit, or a daughter even—could leave it there until the next lie becomes the truth, “this is one we had at home and we don’t use”.

*

I visit her on Friday, three days after I bought the cushion. I don’t give it to her directly, just leave it in her room and go sit with her and have a cup of tea with her in the communal lounge.

“I brought you a cushion Mum”, I say, and mumble the lie about one from home and something about how I couldn’t find the other one. She doesn’t mind.

We talk about her knitting, and what’s on the news, and about how lovely the staff are there, and I answer the same questions three times in ten minutes about what the kids are up to, and what grades they’re at in school. She doesn’t question anything I say, or confront me on what I’ve done with all her stuff. My mum is happy to have a cushion, and most of all happy to have a daughter and a visit and a cup of tea. I leave her with a kiss and a smile and a promise to come back next week. She doesn’t blame me. She doesn’t even remember. The guilt—like the armchair, the mess of crossword puzzles and old wool scraps, like the old cushion—is no longer mine to carry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flotsam and jetsam

I spent the day yesterday sorting through the last (okay, nearly the last) of the flotsam and jetsam washed up in canvas shopping bags into a corner of our lounge room by the tide of our renovations. I chucked a lot of stuff, and that was good. I found homes for a lot of stuff, and that was good too. There’s more to do (and a garage-sale-to-be-had waiting for me in the garage), and I’m very tired, but it’s good.

But I miss my dad.

Our new carpet is fantastic. It warms the house like never before, it’s made me clean out piles of stuff that I’d otherwise leave in place for…for…a lot longer. It’s made me re-look at everything we have and simplify simplify simplify. Our new kitchen windows I love, and have helped me look at our shabby little place with a whole new potential. Our new kitchen comes in four weeks. Once that’s done I need to go to the travel agents and finalise our trip to the US. I’m amazed, truly amazed at the weirdness this year is bringing.

But I miss my dad.

Dad and I didn’t always get along. Most people didn’t get along with Dad that well all the time. Dad was a dreamer, a visionary; he knew what he wanted and he set about making it happen, in his own way. I understand that. I’m a dreamer too, and a visionary. I guess this is the reason I fell in love with a run-down house, because I once saw how beautiful it could become. And now it is.

But I miss my dad.

The thing is though, the important thing, we wouldn’t be doing any of this stuff if he were still alive. We inherited money from him. We are truly blessed in that regard. Dad’s death is making some dreams come true for us.

But every time the phone rings on a Sunday I think it’s him still. He always rang on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes I didn’t bother ringing back if I missed his call, because he prattled on so much about his dreams and visions, things I knew full well would never happen. It’s not like we got along fabulously all my adult life.

But he doesn’t call any more. Not even on a Sunday. His ashes, all that’s left of his mortal body, are in a big plastic box in a paper shopping bag that the funeral home gave me. It’s incredibly, surprisingly heavy. They sit (ironically) in the fireplace in my bedroom, along with the last of the canvas shopping bags of flotsam and jetsam of the new carpet’s tide. I’m not ready to get rid of them just yet, to scatter them or to inter them anywhere. Nothing feels right, not really.

You know what I would do, if this were a story and not real life, if none of it mattered? I’d open that box and l’d take a little bit of those ashes out each time, and I’d scatter them with each new development we’re doing with Dad’s money, as a thank you. I’d lay some under the carpet. I’d put some on the top and vacuum it up with our new vacuum cleaner. I’d sprinkle some on the kitchen floor before the new cupboards go down. I’d bury some in the new patch of land we’re buying next door to ours. And then I’d take the rest overseas with me, not enough to make any government make a fuss, and I’d drop small pieces of ash wherever we go: a little in a cigarette-disposal-ash-tray thingy outside an airport; a little on a lake, a little in a park. A little near a tree, a little near some water. A little in a garbage can in Edmonton, which is the northern-most city in Canada. He never went to the US or Canada. He always expected me to go though. I think he’d like that. And a little leftover for me, to add to the clutter and junk that I’m trying to rid my live of.  Just a little to keep, to remember.

It’s a bit late to lift the carpet now, but the rest…I still miss my dad. But this, this…

If you see me in the US or Canada, lurking strangely near a garbage can, or checking as I open a ziplock bag near a rose bush, don’t be alarmed. Stop and say hi. And be aware if I cry more than I ought to about throwing out some old lunch scraps, it may be because I miss my dad.

Have you ever had to deal with a loved one’s ashes? What did you do? Have you ever considered taking them overseas? Is that just a little too weird do you think? How do YOU remember, or say thank you, to someone who’s no longer here?

So tired of waking up tired

Just. Still. So. Tired.

All the time. Tired. Sick of it, really. Not used to feeling this way. I get the feeling that, more than anything else, it’s my body’s reaction to grief, to change, to serious upheaval. I’ve heard that bodies can do that kind of thing, even when the mind thinks it’s okay. I’ve thought I was okay. I’m sad sometimes, but not waking up overwhelmed with grief and tears any more. Just tired.

Sometimes it lifts, and those are the times I notice, and I notice when it comes over me again. It occurred to me that, especially now, there are things that energise me and things that make me tired. It’s probably always been this way, but more noticeable now.

I took the kids to the beach today. That energised me. I love the sound of the waves. I love the water.

Going home to piles of housework still waiting to be done made me tired.

Exhausted, I walked up to the supermarket. Time on my own energised me. Time in the mornings with half my brain still waiting for the kids to get up makes me tired.

Honest talk with adult friends energises me. Small talk makes me tired. Facebook, on the other hand, energises me.

Writing energises me. Work (admin) makes me VERY tired.

Spending time in my kids’ rooms (which I cleaned from top to bottom the other day) energises me. Spending time in my lounge room, which the kids have completely trashed, makes me tired. It’s school holidays. That’s a part of it. Still makes me tired.

Paul Simon energises me. Paul Kelly makes me tired.

Funny thing that, eh? A bit of self-knowledge goes a long way. I have the day to myself on Wednesday…you’ll find me in my kids’ bedroom, writing on Facebook, listening to Paul Simon…please leave me there as long as you can!

What about you? Have you ever figured out what activities energise you, and which make you tired? How do you find the balance of energising and tiring activities?

 

Up, and down. A meditation on grieving.

Sometimes I think that the reason I eat porridge in the mornings, even when it’s hot, is because it cements the grief back down in the pit of my stomach where it belongs, and not up banging around in my face.

I’m old enough to know now that squashing things down is unhealthy, and that things need to be let out. I’m old enough to remember the understanding that after I’ve cried I feel better.

The grief isn’t close enough to my eyes to come though, not today, nor is it buried deep enough to forget. It’s stuck there in the back of my throat, unable to find its way either up or down.

I read an email just now from a friend that I miss and it made me cry. Up, and down.  Now I shall eat porridge.

The last goodbye

Today is Dad’s funeral. I feel heart-sick and soul-lost, even though I know where, and with whom, I am.

I went to visit him yesterday at the funeral home, with a stained-glass windowed room and a cd playing pretty, flowery, instrumental music that I didn’t think I’d ever appreciate as much as I did. I processed my feelings in the only way I knew how: I wrote. This is it.

He doesn’t look like Dad any more, although looking at old photos that I do remember and seeing a face I don’t remember, I wonder if he ever did look like my dad. I don’t know.

He’s not there, anyhow.

I don’t know why I’m crying. Maybe it’s because he looks so old and small and frail and broken and used. Seventy eight years that body did him. That’s more than most cars get. More than fridges and washing machines. Not that they had them seventy eight years ago, not when Dad was a baby.

His lips look wrong, and he’s fuller in the face than he was even a week ago, when I last saw him alive. I think that’s probably fluid or some such thing. I don’t think it’s the undertaker’s fault.

It doesn’t look like Dad. He looks like the wax models we saw at Madame Tussauds in Hollywood, some of them just not quite, in the subtlest way, who they should be.

He’s not Dad. He’s not there any more.

God his nose is big.

The top of his head is blotchy and freckled and age-spotted from years of sun and baldness, and funnily enough that’s the thing that’s most familiar to me, that head he rubbed so much. They shaved him smooth on the face. It looks kind of weird too, even though he’s never had a  beard, and once when I was little he threatened to grow one and I screamed and cried because I knew that my daddy with a beard wouldn’t be my daddy any more, and he didn’t.

And now he isn’t. So many times this week I’ve questioned how well I really knew him. I don’t know. Maybe I never will. What I do know is this: I don’t want to wipe those tears and pack up these feelings and walk out like this has never happened. I don’t want to say goodbye. I feel like I’ve been still waiting for a chance to say a proper “hello”.

Hello Dad.

I hope you’re well now. You’d be pleased to know they’ve got your neck straight now, and I polished your shoes before I gave them to the funeral home. I can’t remember if I gave them your belt, but you’re not going anywhere so your trousers won’t fall down.

Your coffin is nice, it’s a dark wood with nice silver handles. Well, I can tell by the corner that it’s laminate, and the handles are probably plastic, but it looks nice, and it still cost the earth. We didn’t go for the cheapest one there because it was a bit ugly really, and you deserved better than ugly. We chose you some nice flowers for tomorrow too, some blue things, and some lilies. Your lid will be on then, but I’ll know you’re in there.

I bought myself some new shoes for tomorrow too, red ones. They’re really nice. You’d like them. And Christmas was nice, but I missed you. I bought you a calendar, and some new socks – good ones. I opened a pair of the nicest colour and gave them to the funeral home with your other things. I hope you like them.

Well, that’s that I guess. I guess I’ll see you in Heaven, but I can’t think about that right now.

I’ll see you tomorrow, for the funeral.

Thanks for being my dad and all. You did all right. Thanks for teaching me how to follow my dreams.

I’m going to get a coffee.

Love always,

Megan xxx

USA trip Nov 2012 041

Four Things that are 100% True

Here’s the truth: it’s been a big week. I do apologise for not blogging on Friday when I’m trying to be consistent in these things, but there’s no denying it: between sickness and health and estrangements and reconciliations and house moves and some other really quite big things, it’s been a big week.

And…I did it. It. The thing I blogged about a little while back, my Small Dream. Alongside sickness and health and estrangements and reconciliations and big weeks. It went well. Actually, I loved it. I didn’t want to leave and then I cried on the way home and if I could put my whole life and sickness-and-health-and-estrangements-and-reconciliations-and-house-moves aside and just stay there for the next two weeks I would.

It wasn’t easy by a long shot, and to tell you the truth this week I’ve had to deal with some of the deepest truths of who I am and how I’ve seen myself and, more importantly, why I’ve held those beliefs about myself for so many years. There have been tears. You don’t do change without it. You don’t do life-stage changes and moving forward into new one without some grief about the past and the things you’ve lost, or the opportunities you didn’t know you had until they were gone. You need sometimes to face the truth, hard though it may be, and give it the time and space it needs.

Here’s another truth: sometimes the time and space grief needs is shorter than we allocate it and we don’t know how to let it go. Ouch.

Here’s a hard truth: sometimes I can get so caught up in myself and my own pain that the small things become big things, and the real fears give way to worry about whether my fears are justified or not and whether I’m just being too intense andamInavelgazingagain,andwhatdoessoandsothinkandyouknowIneverwasthatgreat…

Oh SHUT UP WOMAN!

This is why we tell fart jokes. This is why we take walks and smell flowers and watch Dr Who and dance like maniacs to One Direction in the kitchen Image

(come on, you know you want to!) This is why we believe – or need to – in something bigger than ourselves. It’s because living is, after all, quite fun. Because, when all is said and done, we all think we’re too fat or too skinny, too intense or too shallow, too fearsome or too foolhardy and too…too anything for anyone to really love us if they knew. It’s truth, right? And it’s because we know it, and because we know all about our own failings and insecurities that we’re free to love those around us in spite of theirs.

You know it’s true. I actually don’t care about the way you flip your hair or stare at the ground (and if you don’t understand that you’ve obviously not been dancing like a maniac to One Direction in your kitchen lately – or you don’t have an 8 year old), but I do want you to know one thing that’s true: whether you know it or not, you are beautiful.

And that’s God’s honest truth.