Tag Archives: family

Ten years

Today marks a decade since my mother was alive.

“I just can’t imagine how that feels,” people tell me. “I just can’t imagine how I’d cope.” They told me that on the day she died and they tell me that now. I don’t have the luxury of not being able to imagine. But, knowing that it was going to happen – and perhaps that is the faint positive of a long illness rather than a sudden death – I tried my best to prepare for it.

I was lucky that we essentially got to say our goodbyes. We got to make things right between us. And she was lucky that she was able to die at home, surrounded by love, and we were lucky to share that with her.

That doesn’t make everything okay. The lottery of illness is unfair and she still had a lot of living she wanted to do. And my family nowadays is small and broken and I don’t know if it can be repaired. But those of us who are still in contact with each other, we do our best.

She is with me when I try to be kind, despite my rage and hurt. She is with me when I bite my tongue and try to be patient. She is with me when I use her funny old phrases, talk to cats, or smile for a photograph. I see her in me, then.

I know that she was proud of me, despite the fact that I made a whole lot of choices she wasn’t thrilled about. I know that she believed I was fine; that, even though I was the youngest, she didn’t need to worry about me because I would always be okay. And I know that she was right about that.

Today I went to the Thai Buddhist temple and kneeled before a monk while he recited a prayer and sprinkled holy water. Even ten years on, it is not possible to avoid crying when I mark her birthday or anniversary. I wrote her a letter and then burned it. The flames took to it so quickly. I regretted that I was not fully present this time a year ago, when I went to light a candle in a church, because I was there with my ex who had just broken up with me and I could not concentrate, was struggling to process two kinds of grief at once. But I also knew she would understand. Of course she would understand. We had a bond.

I’m far away and I am carving out a life for myself in a place she’s never been to. I experiment with churches and temples and quiet spaces to myself, with candles and burning things. Today I think of us, ten years ago and before, at the beginning of this journey. There was always love. There will always be love.

Armidale, New South Wales

I spent six weeks in a country town that claimed to have a population of 25,000, although I suspected it could be fibbing. I made two friends and I had a couple glasses of wine with the next door neighbours. I was looking after a small dog that was a Jack Russell crossed with a chihuahua: ponder that for a moment. She had these spindly legs and sometimes she’d just stare at me and kind of tremble and once in a while she’d get mopey and emit a heavy sigh like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. But she was cute and she couldn’t get up on the sofa by herself so I felt like a giant elevator sometimes. Other times I’d open the sliding door and she’d race into the house, scrabbling, sort of rabbity, and we’d play chase around the dining table. I called her Pickle.

I did some writing and some editing and some audio transcription. I began to structure my days around my 4pm fix of Roseanne, and sometimes my evenings around The Golden Girls and M*A*S*H, and I wept predictably over Go Back To Where You Came From. In one episode of Roseanne, Darlene has a friend round and makes out with him on the couch, which is her first kiss, and plus she gets felt up, and I remembered this episode from when I was fourteen or whatever and how it gave hope to people like me who were being subjected to advice like “if you’d just tie your hair up and wear a little make-up (and look more feminine) then you’d be really pretty and everyone would want to go out with you” and I was all: hell no, these are not my terms and conditions. Also, like all right-minded people, I totally had a crush on Sara Gilbert.

I remembered how whenever I was watching the show my mother would invariably walk into the living-room, pause, and then go, “I can’t stand that woman.” Every time. And I would be like: Shut up, Mother! Let me watch it in peace! I already know you can’t stand her! And it occured to me now that maybe I started calling her “Mother” because Becky does that on the show when she too is exasperated. And on the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death I didn’t know what to do so I just sort of sat out on the deck with a mug of green tea and tried to be peaceful and then went back inside when I was done, but watching Roseanne and hearing my mum’s voice in my head each time the show was on was kind of nice.

I went to the pub twice. The first time, a caged hen farmer in his early twenties took a seat at our table without invitation and began to chat up a vegan. “If you ban eggs from caged hens they’ll just import them from China,” he insisted. “What would you rather have, eggs from Australia or eggs from China?” “I’m a VEGAN,” she reiterated. His bleary drunken eyes swivelled in my direction, as if I was going to back him up. “If the eggs aren’t free-range I don’t want any at all,” I explained. “Where are you from?” he asked. Oh, don’t you derail me. “Who gives a shit where I’m from, we’re talking about chickens!” He seemed confused, turned back to the vegan, got a bit table-thumpy, and eventually went away.

One day I went to the post office and then I got back into the car I’d been lent and sobbed for a few minutes because things hit you at unexpected times. I sobbed for my small family with two members missing, one due to death, the other due to an impasse to which I could see no solution. I sobbed because my refusal to engage with someone who’s hurt me, who has continually demonstrated an absence of respect for me, means that I get to be the one who’s seen as being difficult. I sobbed for a few minutes and then wiped my eyes and drove on, vaguely recalling that someone had maybe said once that I never especially look like I’ve been crying after I’ve been crying.

I located the fruit market and the supermarket and the bakery. I took some clothes out of my rucksack and put them on shelves for a change. I read A Wedding In December by Anita Shreve. (“What’s it about?” asked Holly. “GUESS,” I told her.) It made me think about school reunions, teenage expectations, and who I’d thought I would become. I got to know my surroundings: unfamiliarity dissolved as I discovered shortcuts and worked out where the streets joined up. I got in the car and drove about fifty kilometres to Australia’s second highest waterfall, singing along to mix CDs with the volume up loud, enjoying that the speed was measured in kilometres rather than miles so it looked like I was going faster than I would at home. I saw a peacock-like bird, and another bird that made noises that sounded like a spaceship, and I saw a dead kangaroo by the side of the road. And the sunsets were pretty epic in this part of the world, spreading dramatic colours across big skies that made it feel as if you were driving into a painting.

I heard these scrabbling sounds at night and I thought it was possums but then two nights before my departure I was going through a bottle of wine for no good reason (I woke up the following morning with the hangover of the soul and decided not to do that again) and I heard the noises coming from a cupboard. I opened it. “Oh, hi,” I said out loud, “you’re a really big rat.” For want of any better ideas I closed the cupboard again.

David Byrne’s voice got into my head every so often, that line from Once In A Lifetime: “And you may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?” I recalled the dramatic departure from Berlin almost a year ago, the hurt and the sadness and the bewilderment and the whole goddamn mess. And then all the countries between then and now, all the different experiences, and how unavoidably cliché it feels for the phrase “change in direction” to apply both literally and metaphorically. I thought about loneliness and how it’s ceased to be an issue, and how saying goodbye doesn’t faze me any more because I’m always moving on. I thought about the last time I had stayed in a place for a month or more: that was October, which meant I was getting two autumns in one year, in two different regions both known as New England. I counted how many places I’d slept in the last year: over sixty. Was that all? It didn’t really sound like that many to me, except it averages out to more than one a week which apparently is maybe a lot. I no longer make plans the way I used to; the only time anything is set in stone is when I book a ticket. I may be a year into this way of living but I don’t think I’m anywhere near done with it yet.


January to March
The snow at the beginning of the year increasingly struck me as artificial, like it was really icing sugar, or maybe talcum powder. I went out and got drunk a lot, but I mostly abandoned weekends and saved my adventures for midweek instead. I was opportunistic, but frustrated. I frequently woke up with the hangover of the soul; it was like I was looking for something but not finding it. The previous night would come back to me in flashes and mainly it would look like a pointless exercise. I behaved badly. I was just waiting to leave. Correction: in order to leave I was waiting for term to end so I could get my money’s worth from the Polish classes that I got at a discount on account of my low income. Still, in between the many nights full of bad ideas I managed to make a couple of zines, do a couple of readings, DJ a few times.

I went to Anglesey with La Glitch for my mum’s birthday. We rented a cottage and I lit a candle in a church on the day. Hard to tell whether I’d just gotten used to her absence, or whether I hadn’t given myself sufficient time on this trip to reflect. Four and a half years, though, that was a fuck of a long time. By now it just got reduced to brief moments when I was lying in bed hungover and I’d find myself sobbing hard for five seconds and then I’d stop.

We drank in the pub next to the cottage and an old woman with Parkinson’s disease talked to us and somehow, something about her reminded me of my mother, even though the similarities were subtle. She told us about the time she took a bunch of kids to the zoo and one of them stole a penguin. I’d heard this story before, but without the excuse he provided: My mum won’t let me have a cat, he’d explained. When I got back to Edinburgh, I printed out the Snopes discussion and sent it with a card to the pub, addressed to The Nice Woman Who Drinks Whisky And Lemonade. She wrote back.

Mostly, I felt like my mind was never where I was. Penguin had been picking up on it, she said that it was like I wasn’t really there, wasn’t really focused. I didn’t mean anything bad by it, but it left me without much to say for myself.

Term ended. I got drunk one last time in the Wayside and felt mild regret that I would miss the Bon Jovi tribute band playing at the weekend. I went round to Penguin’s and we made badges together, and the next day I left Edinburgh and flew to Brussels, feeling not a whole lot other than numb.

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What I did to say goodbye to Berlin

I visited Silver Future again, the queer bar of my dreams (at least apart from its somewhat mind-boggling anti-anti-zionist policy). On my final visit, I got drunk and cried, but I guess that was kind of inevitable. But I also managed to distract myself for a little while by crushing out on the cute bartender. I thought about my heartbroken friend visiting in June, and how she’d regularly report: I think I am actually having fun! Hey, I am finding people attractive! And then she’d follow it up with: No, no, I think that was just a false epiphany. I thought about how curious it is that we have to analyse all our symptoms. I thought about how we had drank Prosecco outside Silver Future and I had written her a two-page list of compelling reasons why she shouldn’t contact her ex.

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Five years

The days before and after my mother’s death were sunny and warm, really warm. More like summer than I was used to in Northern Ireland. The birds were singing. Listen, said my brother, they’re saying to each other: The nice lady who used to feed us has gone.

In the evenings we sat in the kitchen and drank rosé wine, for which my brother had recently developed a taste, and we told stories. I told the story of how I got a lift from Hull to Cheltenham on the back of a motorbike when I was nineteen, and my dad said, Your mother wouldn’t have approved had she known, and I said Yeah, that’s why I’m only telling this now. Which I hope didn’t sound bad.

I think some people brought food and I don’t particularly remember eating it. She died at 4:15 on the Sunday morning and in the late afternoon I watched The Castle on TV so I could distract myself for a couple of hours. There were a lot of things to do. Go to the funeral home, decide the wording for the announcement in the paper, go to the town hall and register her death, track down the hospital chaplain she’d liked and ask her to lead the funeral service, figure out what I was going to write on my card with the flowers.

I wrote something for the funeral. Miriam read it out for me because I knew I would go to pieces if I got up there and did it myself. Miriam also picked up my mum’s friend at the airport, brought me supplies from Belfast, and organised my other friends’ attendance at the funeral. After that, she went to Prague and gave me her room in Belfast so I could chill for a few days, pretend I was on some sort of holiday in happier circumstances.

I remember how warm it was. How I got drunk with Carolyn in Auntie Annie’s one night, how I sat in Botanic Gardens reading Pedro And Me and analysing whether I was going to cry and whether that was because of the book or because of my own bereavement or whether I was too numb to feel anything much about either anyway. I was always analysing. Part of me was a detached observer saying, Oh, this is an interesting way of reacting to things.

Two weeks later, I was out in the car with my dad and brother and sister. I don’t remember where we’d just been. Maybe we had gone out to lunch somewhere or maybe we had just gone for a drive, but I got them to let me out on the way home, said I would catch up with them later. As soon as the car was out of sight I took off my t-shirt: I had a vest top on underneath but I also had tattoos which even now are still a secret from my dad. I figured he didn’t particularly need to know about them since he would automatically disapprove and plus I didn’t want to hear him tell me that my mother wouldn’t have liked them. It was so hot, it was a relief to finally shed that layer. I walked to the beach, which was full of people because it was a nice day, and I turned left and climbed up on some rocks and sat there looking out to sea and thinking about my friend Andy who had died the previous day, and wondering if I should cry now while I had the opportunity or how should I react and what did all this mean. Then a couple of people started to get closer to the rocks and I didn’t want them to come near me so I climbed down and walked home and we scattered my mum’s ashes in the garden.

Saturday was the fifth anniversary of her death. The weather has been sunny and warm, really warm. The birds have been singing. I walked a lot on Saturday. I spent a lot of time with my heartbroken friend and we talked about her heartbreak. We walked to Friedrichshain and stumbled across a demonstration and then a punk street party and I had tiramisu ice cream. I wondered if I had put on enough sun lotion. We walked to Neukölln to find a church where I could light a candle for my mother, something I had never previously managed to do on her anniversary, even though I’d tried and tried. One year I’d even called a local church in advance and been assured it would be open, but when I showed up it wasn’t so I just sat in the grounds and cried for a while and then went home.

In St Clara’s there were already a dozen or so people sitting in pews. I couldn’t see anywhere to light a candle so we took a seat for a while and I looked around me and then closed my eyes and wondered when I would feel like I’d got whatever it was I’d come here for. My heartbroken friend put her arm around me and I cried on her shoulder for a while. Eventually I decided it was okay to go. The bells were starting to ring and a service would be starting soon and I didn’t want to stay for it. As we headed for the door my heartbroken friend stopped me and pointed to the room at the back that we hadn’t noticed before, the room with the candles. I put a euro into the box and lit one, stood in front of it for a moment, then walked out with her. In the entrance area she hugged me and I sobbed while she held me and the church bells grew louder and louder and sounded beautiful and then we went back outside, blinking in the sunshine.