There are other truths, too.

I’ve had a hard few weeks. Unsurprisingly, for those who know me, marking 10 years since my father died wasn’t an easy milestone, and while the day itself was filled with silly fun with my 5 year old, the days which followed were like trudging through thick mud in boots two times bigger than your actual size. Difficult, slow, cumbersome, and with a constant fear of falling and exacerbating an already precarious situation into something much worse.

While I’ve written in the past about grief, I usually write from the middle of it, from the trenches of it, while the bombs are going off around me and I’m struggling to keep myself hidden from target. Ironically, I’ve come to realise that if I’m writing about it from within the walls, if you’re hearing my war reports, the danger isn’t too great.
In this case, no news is not good news. When I can’t hear myself think to write beyond the sounds of gunfire, when there’s nothing to write because the fog is too heavy? That’s when I’m going to need the artillery sent in behind me.

So here I am, out the other side, tilting my head with interest at the woman who looks so much like me, but couldn’t feel more different. And there must be something I can take out of this, by examining her. Or do I just have to sit and wait helplessly for it to take over again, and then wait for it to pass another time, in a cycle of highs and lows that I’ve come to accept is the very nature of grief itself?

Academically I can say I have been miserable. It sounds like a word for a small child, and I suppose in the loss of a parent it fits. Worse still, this year it’s triggered a realization for me that while I have built for myself an incredible family of people who love me, the ones who are supposed to be there unconditionally just… aren’t. I haven’t spoken to my mother in several months, my father is dead, my siblings are… absent. I don’t have extended family around who have taken me under their wing, I don’t have living grandparents or kindly uncles and aunts. It may seem like a strange concern for someone who is an adult and has their own kids and home. But if you’re game, take a moment to think about the people in your life who have to love you. The ones who may dislike you from time to time, who you could make it your life’s work to ruin your relationship with, but would still be family after all is said and done.

I don’t have that.

Last week, and the week before, it was the only thing I could think about, on the forefront of my mind. It pushed aside all other thoughts and plans. Tears came easy, and cold shivery hopelessness too. The truth of it was overwhelming. If this is true, that I have no family, no people who will be there no matter what… how will I ever feel better again?  I reasoned with myself, and I knew it to be true, that I would never feel free of this burden.

And then…. it lifted. Like our good old English summer, the sun re-appeared through a storm cloud like the rain had never existed in the first place, and I felt warm again. Does this mean that I was wrong? That what I thought to be true wasn’t true?
Absolutely not. I have no real family. Not the kind other people have anyway. But while last week that truth was dehibillitating, this week… *shrugs*.

That shrug isn’t self pitying or sarcastic. The tunnel vision which comes with misery and hopelessness has passed, and I can see other truths as well as that one. My amazing husband, my beautiful kids, the fact that the summer holidays are almost finished and I can soon work during daylight hours again. The truth that I work in the field I love and can be entirely flexible with it, my two best friends who I would choose over blood sisters any day of the week. I couldn’t see those truths last week, and yet the weight of them now crushes any depression over a lack of family down to a mere concern at the back of my mind, a shrug in the same way I might say ‘sure, it would be nice to have some more disposable income’ or ‘imagine how great life would be if school took over teeth brushing responsibilities.’

I feel lighter. And yet simultaneously for next time, I feel slightly better armed to go into battle too. This mantra is a weapon, of sorts. Whatever may or may not be true in my life, there are other truths too.

Letting It In, and Shutting It Out

I’m a natural talker. An open book you might say. As I recently read (and stole) from Lena Dunham “I have a tendency to overshare”. Sit down with me for five or ten minutes and you’ll probably know my kids names, my labour stories, my gynaecological issues and the latest argument I’ve had with my mother. Ply me with coffee and cake and I’ll probably give you my internet banking details and let you know where we hide the family diamonds too.

I love to talk. And in sheer yin yang synchronicity, I hate keeping stuff in. Feelings are made to be felt, or we would call them ignorings. (Sorry, I won’t do that again.) I don’t try to push them down, I never apologize for crying, (except at the dentist) and I do my best to never let a problem go unspoken about for too long.

Most of the time, this works out pretty well for me. I surround myself with people who love to talk as much as I do, and who love the amazing moment in a confrontation where you see where the other person is coming from, where you understand something you didnt realise before, and where you get a little closer to one another as a result of the conversation. Most of the time I find a little more of myself along the way too.

But some situations can’t be talked to the other side of.

About three years ago, I had an extremely hard summer. My late father would have turned 70 that June, and the roundness of the number among other things made me feel drowned in grief. Not drowning, not fighting for air, not using my last vestiges of energy to wave and shout and grab attention from someone who could save me, but drowned. Lost already, floating face down and unable to even want help let alone ask for it. I walked around on autopilot, struggling to breathe through the feelings which rose like ice cold water in my lungs and throat.

Eventually, after about 3 months, realising I was being neither wife, nor mother nor friend, nor myself, I called Someone. I am blessed to have 2 or 3 Someones, grown ups who I would still be a lost 15 year old without. But this particular Someone has dealt with their own share of tremendous grief from a young age, and built for themselves a life to be envious of despite it. This Someone is a talker too. An expert in communication, quite literally. They lecture about it, counsel others in how to manage it more effectively, champion talking as the vital ingredient to both a happy marriage and good relationships. I was sure they could help, and they did.

What was the secret I was looking for? How could I deal with the feelings of loss and anger and resentment and just sheer missing? How could I get out of bed every day with the weight of loneliness pressing down on my heart?

Don’t let yourself feel it

I think it was the only advice that could work for me at that point. When you feel it coming in, that great wave of sadness and feeling, just say… No thank you, and push it away.  Maybe it appears at first to you like the terrible advice given to everyone’s favourite Ice Queen. It certainly did to me. I felt like a failiure, like a fraud. What? Just ignore the problem completely? Push down the feelings? That’s just not me. But as time passed, I began to wonder.

Grief comes in some great costumes. Some of them are safe, and others are not. Grief can be nostalgic or funny, or it can appear as a memory you didn’t know you had which makes you smile. Often it’s tears and hugs with loved ones you still have on Earth. Once in a while it’s seeing a lost parents exact expression appear on your own child’s cheeky face. It can even be early nights and the promise of a better day tomorrow. And sometimes…sometimes it’s so overwhelmingly sad that you want to give everything else up just to not feel it any more.

Grief isn’t like other feelings. It changes. And when it’s bad and angry and violent, it can’t be talked through. No one can explain it to you. And there isn’t anyone to confront who can give you any reasons or explanations. There’s no one to feel closer to once you’ve got all your anger out, because there isn’t anyone to respond, and even if there was, there aren’t any answers to give. There’s so little to actually know, that you can’t help but feel further and further away the more you explore it. So opening yourself up to that feeling by swimming further out into those deep waters, is often a surefire way to lose yourself entirely.

This weekend my father would have turned 73, and this summer marks another round number, the 10 year anniversary of his death. This is not a time of nostalgic tears or sad smiles. These are not the calm water of memories which I’m dipping my toes into.  I can feel the violent waves swirling around my ankles, threatening my balance, sharp stings of ice cold salt spraying me from time to time, grapsing for my attention, a very real danger refusing to be ignored.

But this time I’m shouting. I’m waving and thrashing and using the little energy I can find to focus on being wife and mother and friend and myself. I’m fighting every instinct I have to talk and wallow myself deeper into the foam. I’m turning my back on my grief for now, pushing it away while it’s too dangerous to submit to. I’m walking back, towards the shore.

The Lying Game

A Jason manford comment made me think recently. (I know, it’s surprising.)

The quote was a version of the following: That when an adult asks what he thinks happens after death he says he doesn’t know but probably nothing. When a kid asks the same, he can’t help but talk about heaven and angels and fluffy clouds.

And I was so grateful to have a faith. Not because I think I’m better than anyone else, or that my answer has more validity than yours, but because I believe in absolute honesty with my son. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things he doesn’t need to know. But if you listen to their questions carefully, most children want an answer you can give in an age appropriate way. When a three year old asks where babies come from, the answer ‘Mummy’s tummy’ will normally suffice. When they point to a man sleeping rough on the street and ask why he’s asleep on the floor, your child probably won’t question you further if you tell them he doesn’t have a house. And if they do question further? Well then that’s ok too. I’m comfortable to keep giving information layer by layer until their curiosity is satisfied. I see it as a privilege actually.

But I wouldn’t know how to begin to look a child in the eyes and tell them that there is nothing else but this world. To tell them that grandpa has been buried in the ground and that’s it. If that’s really what I believed, that this world is all we have, that our actions are meaningless outside of the eighty or so years on earth we are given, I would not only be at a loss for answers to my children, but I think I’d find it pretty hard to get out of bed myself.

Why do good things happen to bad people? Why does tragedy strike the most worthy of us? Why do some people have to live with illness, or poverty, or heartbreak? The answer that the world is random, that things just occur for no discernible reason is just not good enough, even for me, let alone for an inquisitive child whose favourite word is why.

But truthfully, if I COULD look myself in the mirror and accept those facts as random and meaningless, I would try and explain those beliefs to my children too. We want to protect our kids from painful truths, so we try and sugarcoat things. I get that. But in my world, where I’m not even that comfortable with the tooth fairy, (unless everyone concerned is very clear it’s a game, and it’s all done with lots of heavy winking and tones of jest to make that really evident) I’m not interested in putting an icing glaze on the big issues.

I saw a forum conversation recently about how to explain death to a 3 year old. The answers were really helpful to the original poster, but I read the entire thread in my usual judgemental way, and was left unsettled when I finished. “We told our son that grandpa lives on the moon.” “We told our daughter that auntie Beth is a star now, and then we chose a star for them to look out for so they could wave at her.” “We told our kids that their great grandma moved to Australia, which is really far away so we won’t be able to see her any more. After all, why upset them?” “Our twins were only just three, so we just told them that grandma was feeling too poorly to see them – after a while they stopped asking.”

I don’t doubt that these answers cause less upset in the short term, and maybe by the time they realise you are lying to them, (because that’s what you’re doing, it’s not sugarcoating, it’s lying) the immediate pain of the persons passing is over, or they can deal with it in a more mature way, but what of your relationship with your kids? Their trust in you to be able to face the hard situations with them as well as the straightforward or enjoyable? It seems to me that when the real answers come out, all your kids have learned is that death and dying is something to be so afraid of that it’s better to make up a story than talk about the truth.

For me, death doesn’t need a sense of magic or fantasy. And the truth is, it’s a matter of faith pure and simple. At some point, you have obviously come to your own convictions about what happens after you die, so why not have the strength to share these with your child? I feel lucky to believe in heaven, but I would still start this important conversation with the disclaimer that “no one knows for certain what happens when a person dies but I believe…” As long as your child leaves the conversation knowing that the person who is gone isn’t in pain, isn’t sad, and isn’t scared, so they don’t have to be either, what are you worried about?

The meaning of death and dying, along with illness, sex, and any number of other words, are our responsibility to teach. They are brand new concepts to our children. They aren’t inherently scary words to be afraid of. They are whatever we want them to be. Do we want them to be a lie? Surely it’s our job to teach not only the meanings of the words, but also the emotional responses to these facts of life, in a clear and open way without relying on the quick fix of deception.

That’s how I feel today anyway. Ask me again when my boy loses his first tooth and I don wings and a sparkly pen to creep into his bedroom and retrieve it.

tooth fairy

Eight Years On

I grew up with a father who loved me more than any single thing in his life. He put me first, he loved me fiercely, and he would have done anything in the world for me. Eight years ago this week he died, and as most of you who read my blog know, it is a loss which I carry with me daily. It hits me unexpectedly, it catches me unawares, and yet sometimes it also arrives with a punctuality I almost admire; on birthdays, on anniversaries, at moments when I know he would do anything to be there. It’s a dart through my heart and yet I feel it in my throat. choking me, blurring my voice with tears until all I have are my fingers to write, or the very emotion of it will drown me entirely.

Like I said, none of this is news to those of you who read my blog. And tonight is a dark night with my grief. But he brought so much light into my life, so much kindness and joy, and that should be remembered as well. So this year, I’m going to try to push aside the crushing weight of the loneliness, and blink through the stinging ferocity of my tears, to tell you eight things about my daddy, eight little pieces of light which I’m remembering this week, on the eighth anniversary of his death.

1. My parents divorced when I was 2 years old, so I have no memories of them under the same roof. My main memories of my dad as a child are ‘weekend’ memories. Walking the journey from my house to his together on a Saturday morning, playing the number plate game and 20 questions. Being tucked in a bed that was never quite ‘my bed’ and playing silly games like a version of hide and seek where we hit each other over the head with a long green polystyrene tube when we found one another. As I got older, he played board games and card games with me tirelessly, and it’s only now when I think about how exhausting it is playing with my own son, that I think about how he never suggested he needed a rest.

2. As I got older, and craved more independence, he used lifts as a way to spend time with me. In high school, he offered to drive from Hendon to Mill Hill to pick me up every afternoon after school, driving me to Wembley and then himself back to Hendon. It must have been a nearly two hour round trip, to spend 15 minutes hearing about my day. What naivety I had, the days I turned him down so that boyfriends I barely remember could pick me up, or so as not to miss out on the bus gossip. I must have thought that time would be endless for us.

3. The year before he died, I was 18, and we talked more deeply than we had the whole of my life. He told me the reasons why he made aliyah to Israel, and how frightened the decision made him at the time. How happy he was there, how much he felt like he belonged. How he carried around in his wallet a dollar from the first pay cheque he made in Israel, a dollar I still have to this day. He gave me Zionism as a gift, packaged up with happy stories as wrapping paper and fierce belief as a ribbon around it, and told me how important it was that we had a homeland. He taught me with his actions that even though he had been forced to return to England, we should never stop striving to be there.

4. He told ‘Dad jokes’ more often than anyone I’ve ever known. Tell him something was cool? The reply was inevitably ‘has it been in the fridge?’ He would ask what my hairstyle was called, only to hear me say ” a bun” so he could reply it looked “more like a doughnut.” If I made similarly terrible puns in response, his answer would be an expression I to this day have never heard anyone else use, the weird sounding, archaic, yet grammatically correct, “very comedical”.

5. His best friend was my mother. Despite the divorce, despite a fierce custody battle, and years of ups and downs, the very last day of his life he spent on an outing with my mum. They were closer than many married couples, and I put much of my own happy marriage down to the kindness of only a handful of unhappy memories of the two of them together. There were times they understood each other better than anyone in the world, and times where they were making the effort just for me, but I never once in my life felt put in the middle by him.

6. He had magic. Instead of a toy kitchen or a workbench, we had a puppet show and hundreds of card tricks. He made up songs and remembered the nonsensical lyrics long after he remembered why we made them up to begin with. He used to write me birthday cards from all the stuffed animals I had. Not just when I was little, I still have the one for my 19th birthday, four days before he died, signed by Tom Teddy and Herbert the Hedgehog.

7. My son R reminds me so much of my dad. Whether it’s his bright blue eyes, so different from our green ones, his kindness and interest in animals, when we have little interest, or the uncanny way in which R reaches straight for a map when we arrive somewhere and peruses it throughout the afternoon, with the exact same studious expression that my father did.

8. I tell him about his Zeida in little snippets, how he sneezed so loudly that strangers often screamed, how he gave me my first bike and ran alongside me while I practiced, how he made me spaghetti every Tuesday evening, and let me have as much ketchup as I wanted on top.

I tell him how much his Zeida loved me, and how much he would have loved him too-had he been given the chance. And then I tell R not to worry, that I have enough love to give him for the both of us.

Great Loss

72 years ago, a woman got married. She stood up in front of her family and her friends, and was sworn to a man for ever and ever. A ring, simple, plain, was placed on her finger. And she never took it off.

The marriage lasted less than a year. The woman became a mother, although the man left before he had the chance to be called father. This mother, raised her son by herself, and wore her ring to protect her from the cold stare of social stigma, and perhaps, in some small way to make her feel less alone when she remembered how she had lost the man she’d thought she’d have forever.

The child grew up, and grew used to the ring on his mothers finger. Perhaps took it as a small sign of her vulnerability in a world she faced alone. Bringing up a son was no easy job, especially without a partner to lean on.

Eventually, the child became a man, and got married too. He placed a ring on a lady’s finger, but was soon alone again. A second, a third time he tried to make those vows. But it was not to be, and he was soon alone again, this time forever. But he had not left before he had the chance to be called father. And his child, his daughter, they had each other. And he loved her more than he ever learned to love any other in the world.

The woman, now a Grandmother, looked on at her son, holding her granddaughter, and knew that the ring on her finger had not been for nothing, it had been for everything.

12 years later, the grandmother died, and the father, now as good as an orphan, only had his daughter in the world. He said goodbye to his mother, and took the ring off her finger, placing it onto his own. He wore it forever, perhaps as a way to feel less alone when he remembered the woman who had faced the worst of the world for him.

And the father and his daughter had each other. And the daughter, she grew used to the ring on her fathers finger, and took it as a sign of strength that he made his own way in the world without family to guide him. Bringing up a daughter was no easy job. Especially without a marriage to lean on.

Six short years later, the man was taken from this world, and was lost to his daughter forever. She said goodbye to her father, and took the ring off his finger, placing it onto her own. She wore the ring every day, perhaps as a way to remember the man who loved her most of all, to feel less alone when she couldn’t feel him watching over her or when she realised that she’d lost the man she thought she’d have forever.

And the daughter grew up, and on her own wedding day she threaded the ring onto a chain, and placed it as a necklace over her heart, and danced at her wedding with over 65 years of history, and failed marriages, and lost love around her neck. Once the day was over, the ring was moved from chain back to finger, and there it remained. She wore it every day, while she became a mother to a child whose father never strayed more than a few hours from home and his family, while she thanked God for her marriage and her family and her life, and most of all for the chance to wear that ring on behalf of both her father and grandmother, with true happiness rather than loss.

****

I wish I could say the ring remained there forever, but tonight, I lost my grandmothers wedding ring. People who know me would tell you that I’m not very materialistic, and I don’t care much for sentimentality over objects. I own almost nothing of my late fathers, and I neither expect nor want my children to hoard my possessions zealously after I pass away.

But this ring.

This ring is my family history, and so much more besides.

The night I lost my grandmother, I cried like a child because I was a child. I hadn’t experienced the finality of death in any real way, and I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t going to be there the next morning.

The night I lost my father, I cried like a child because I was his child. I didn’t, and often still don’t know how to make my way in this world without his voice at the other end of the phone or his unwavering love to guide me.

Tonight, I am crying like a child for a third time. It’s illogical, and unresolvable, but without this object, this piece of metal, I feel like the child all over again. Lost without a talisman to protect me. Without the very last tangible link to my departed family, I feel alone.