The things I did not expect

DSC_0140I expected to cry.

A lot.

All the time, in fact.

I expected crying and sleepless nights and I’d read so many things about people thinking they saw their dead parent on a street or in a café or down the back of Tesco, like a low-brow Don’t Look Now.

I expected sadness and weeping and missing and oh-so-many tears right from the get-go, but what I did not expect was the shock of waking up one morning in a new world that I had never visited before. Going to bed one night, and waking in a room freshly painted in a colour you don’t like on a street you’ve never been on in a country you’ve never heard of and your phone battery’s gone and you can’t find your bag and when you look in the mirror it’s not your face. That’s what my father’s death was to me.

In November, I visited Washington. I’d always wanted to go there. I was weak with excitement before the trip, and my regular fear of flying poked its head above the parapet but no more so than usual. I was ready, and extremely excited about heading to political mecca the week after the presidential elections. The first 3 days were spent in wall-to-wall meetings with barely a minute to breathe; I drank coffee, ate Thanksgiving lunches that stopped all my clothes from fitting within 48 hours, and I slept a precise 7 hours a night, exhausted from new faces and buzzed chats but with not a minute to spare for rest.

On day 4, I headed off across DC for a few days of solo adventuring and museum visits, and in the aftermath of the noise and bustle of the previous days, in an entirely new city, and on the cusp of it being 11 months since I had seen my Dad, something went awry in my brain.

The morning started as mornings generally do in a new place; a brief and perfunctory breakfast at a European-themed pastry place, an hour spent trying to figure out which method of public transport I could waste more time on, and then I arrived at Arlington Cemetery, the first stop on my tour.

My knowledge of Arlington stemmed largely from news reports and the X-Files. As I walked through the visitor centre, past the guards and welcome staff, I spotted the train that would take me around the grounds, each one of those 624 acres. After a short wait where a few other visitors hopped aboard, we moved off. I felt like a successful adult woman on a very lovely business trip having a little break to visit someplace I’d always wanted to see. I felt happy. I did not feel as if a bowling ball of granite sadness was about to smash me in the face. It was.

The day was warm and the sky was sharp and blue. The train pulled itself up the inclines of Arlington. At the first descent, a shot rang out and as I looked down over the lip of the hill, the family of a soldier stood around a graveside. A boy returned from war, a boy come home. The tears rolled down my face. They wouldn’t stop for hours.

More than 400,000 people lie in Arlington. After I’d gotten off the tiny toy train due to uncontrollable, mortifying sobs, I walked past what felt like most of those people. Through the Nurses Section, up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, over to the Challenger Memorial and on to the mast of the USS Maine. My tears had calmed but were relentless. By this point it had turned into the kind of crying that makes no sound; I didn’t shake or wail, I didn’t sink to the ground or do any of the things I’d seen on TV that looked like they would be par for the course when the death of your Dad finally caught up with you in a foreign country whilst entirely on your own.

The tears continued to run as I made my way out of the cemetery towards the Women’s Memorial. I asked a young security guy how long it would take me to walk to the Lincoln Memorial from where we were; “oof, about three hours I guess”, he said. Young Americans may have the world at their feet, but they haven’t used those feet very much, as the walk turned out to be a swift 20 minutes across the Potomac. I cried as I tried to listen to Wilson Philips to drown out the sadness. I cried as I climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. By the time I’d made my way up the Mall, and into the Air and Space Museum, I’d tuckered myself out, and was ready to lie on the ground and sleep. Joan Didion in her memoir on grief following the death of her husband focuses for pages on the derangement of grief and the physical symptoms: “Somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from 20 minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power and intense subjective distress.”

I’d walked 26 kilometres that day, wandering in and out of museums, traversing Washington in my keening state. On that final stretch, as the sun dropped behind Capitol Hill, my sciatic nerve in my right leg burned through my skin, my right foot numb. I felt no recognition of myself. My life had changed and my brain had finally caught up. The learning would now begin.

Earlier on in my grief, maybe after 4 months or so, I was planning to head out on a Sunday evening with pals for a birthday celebration, and I looked through a stack of one-size-fits-all birthday cards that I keep in a cupboard in the hall. They’re handy for strangers and more recent friends, the kind you make later in life. As I rifled through, trying to decide between a demure garden scene or a watercolour teddy bear, I found stuck in between them all the last birthday card signed to me by Dad. The oversized capital D of his signature. The slight scrawl and messiness. I slunk from squat to splayed legs, bawling into my cards, hysterical with sobs and bellowing air like a stranded whale.

I was thrilled. I had done it. I was grieving. This was it, right? This was the sadness, the unmentionable depth of loss that I was supposed to be feeling. After three long hours of weeping on a wooden floor, I rose triumphant. I had fucking grieved. I was on my way out of this mess, and soon my life would be back to the way it was before. I was sure I would feel normal again.

In the days leading up to his death, the thing that stands out more than anything is banality. The banality of sitting in a hospital room for 10 hours a day. We never stayed the whole night. I think we felt that if we did, it would’ve been admitting to ourselves that these may be our last hours with him and that was why we were clinging to every one. Instead, we paced ourselves: If we stayed there a lot, but not entirely, then there was less panic, less of a sense of an ending.

He was only really sick for three weeks. The word cancer was only present in one of those. In that final week, when the diagnosis began to form, we faced the full run of TV medical show moments: the questions about resuscitation, the meeting in a doctor’s office when they tell you there’s nothing else that they can do. I cried, but not ridiculously so. In my head, I was prostrate on the ground, smashing my fists against the doctor’s ankles, but in real life it was all quite sedate, I think.

After that meeting, I went to lunch with my Mother. She insisted on keeping ourselves fed as my sister was arriving from London that evening, now that the news had taken a turn for the worst. We sat in a nearby restaurant, and I remember thinking that I was so proud of my body for keeping me going through this. My mind was splintered and paralysed with anxiety, I had no concept of linear time, my abdomen was concrete, and my digestive system had stalled like an old clock.

I remember ordering soup, and when it arrived with bread I felt thankful that some carbohydrates might stop me from completely disintegrating into a heap of iron filings. My saliva had disappeared, and each mouthful of bread had to be downed with a spoonful of soup and a swig of water to force it down into my belly. The ability to live through that moment and that day and that week still baffles me. How did we not die? How did the absolute bizareness of the loss of such a person not just kill us all stone dead with him? I still struggle with it. A moment of forgetting what way is up or down, what my place is now without him, or how frame him in a discussion while holding on to my own sense of myself.

It’s been almost 18 months now. Some days, I feel a more vague sense of missing, like I have misplaced an earring or a brooch. Other days, it feels like I’m waiting on a visit from him, like he is about to arrive and I can’t quite fathom what’s taking him so long. On the worst days, it is like losing a sense. A diminishing of sight, a dulling of hearing, an inability to distinguish by touch. That’s what my father’s death is to me.

But there was no fear in him, and because of this, there is not really any fear in us either. Around the time of the diagnosis, a young doctor came to his bed to tell him that they’d need to pass Dad on to another team. The atmosphere was tense, I didn’t know how Dad would react to this. It wasn’t distressing to him, thanks to the careful delivery of the doctor, but it was a shift in an unknown direction, and there was a distinct awareness that things were becoming more serious. Dad’s reaction to the clearly upset young doctor was to thank him for being so kind as to tell him, and then instruct him to go out and have a pint as he’d had a tough day. Kindness and consideration even in the midst of the tempest. Resilience. Love. Care. That’s what my father’s death was to me, and it is in the company of those things that I grieve, thanks to him.

What my Ma thinks of Muslims

I had the loveliest conversation with my Mam yesterday; a 74-year-old devout Catholic and conservative. We started talking about Trump and the Muslim Ban and she was just horrified about the whole thing. She made the most lovely observation, that it must be so hard to stick to your faith as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab or a burqa in the West when those things make you stand out in a crowd, and that they must be very strong and proud women to keep going with it. She’d been swimming during the week, and there were two Muslim women in the pool who were covered head to toe, and the only negative thing for Mum was that they mightn’t enjoy the sauna as it would get too warm for them and she was really worried that they weren’t getting the full benefit of it.
If my Ma’s only concern about Muslims is that they’re not getting the best of their leisure club memberships, I think that the U.S. government can get their shit together and stop thinking that every Muslim is a terrorist. This is a woman who still has stories about her parents living through WWI and was born in the thick of WWII, and then witnessed the Troubles on her doorstep. She’s familiar with a terrorist threat when she sees it, it’s a pity so many of those in power aren’t, even when it comes from within their own quarters.

About those refugees and what they’re doing to you.

This could be a diatribe. It could be a long, passionate piece on how I believe in the rights of all people to free movement and the ability to seek employment and shelter wherever they choose. But it doesn’t need to be. The truth is far more simple than that.
I am an immigrant. I am an Irish woman who has lived in Belgium, Cambodia, and who now resides in the Netherlands. I have been an employee of multinational companies and have worked all over the world. It has been my right and privilege to do so.

When I lived in Dublin, I spent a lot of time in the company of asylum seekers and refugees as part of a community choir that I sang with. I will never, ever forget the day I met a woman who told me the story of a friend of hers and how her life fell apart along with the lives of hundreds of thousands of others during and after the Rwandan genocide. The woman in question was pregnant with her second child when the atrocities were occurring, and left her son and husband at home when she had to go to hospital to give birth to her daughter. There were complications with the birth, and while she was in there, her husband and son were murdered. She was alone with a newborn child, bereft at the loss of her family, and completely in shock and despair. She spent some time being moved around, until she and her child were finally settled in Ireland. At this point, her grief and distress were crippling. She couldn’t speak to new people, couldn’t face social situations, and was totally disconnected from her child. When she walked down the, street, however, as a black, African woman, she was met with judgement that she was in Ireland for the money, that everyone knew that the Africans were coming over because they got grants from the government and that they were engineering it so that they could give birth on Irish soil so that they could reap the benefits of a lax Western social system.

To come home from hospital and a difficult birth and find your family slaughtered. To be rescued from that in the dead of night and delivered to an unfamiliar safety. To try to keep up the battle every day to look after your child while you silently grieve for the son and husband who were taken from you by men wielding machetes and guns. That woman did not want money.

For all of the complaints of refugees taking jobs and causing disorder, I just want to ask one thing, and I mean it with utmost sincerity: When has a refugee or asylum seeker caused direct harm to you? No stories from the media, no examples you’ve seen on Facebook pages; when has it happened to you? When have you lost a job to a refugee? When has one outbid you on a house? When has one threatened you in the street? When have they had a direct negative impact on your life?

My friends who were and are refugees are not saints. They are flawed, regular humans who have had to live life the hard way and often end up better because of it. They feel compassion because of their struggles, they have ambition and a sense of purpose because of new chances they are given, they feel depressed, and sad, and bored, and struggle with the new culture they are in like any of us would if we were placed in a new country with massive restrictions on our behaviour.

These are human stories, and we have to keep telling them.

Bottoms up

It’s been a long time since I wore a bikini. They’re not the most practical of ensembles on a beach (too much sand, and it’s impolite to readjust one’s wedgie in front of a viewing audience) and so I usually stick to a solid one-piece, better for diving and lazing and all manner of things you’d usually do on a sunny shore. But this year, I’m heading to the scorching hot, white-and-blue terraced steppes of the Greek islands, and decided I wanted to go all out. I eat right, I pay my taxes, I ain’t never shot a man in Reno, so I’m pretty sure I get to wear a bikini in climates where it’s so hot you can’t tell where your face ends and the sun begins, even if I’m not of Taylor Swiftian proportions.

If you’re not a woman over size 10 (or about a 38 or for the Europeans), it can be hard to understand the constant see-saw of thoughts that are set in motion when you begin to contemplate showing flesh in public. I’m not an unconfident person; I can attend a party solo, have commandeered the odd set of decks in order to do an interpretive dance to Fleetwood Mac, and I don’t have any huge hang-ups about my arse, but I still can’t shake that niggling feeling of not being sample size when it comes to outdoor outings. Today, to take advantage of sale season, I started looking for some bits of string to cover up the essentials on holiday and found the following pictures:

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This is not a post about skinny shaming. It is not a post slagging off women who have prominent hip bones or thigh gaps or six-packs. All women are beautiful, unless they’re total arseholes, in which case they’re not that beautiful, but on a plainly aesthetic level all women are equal. What made me feel so unsettled was that when I saw a woman who was “normal” after all the hundreds of airbrushed, thigh-gapped women, I felt a shock and it made me feel so awful to think that somehow in that brief period of searching for something and finding only objectified perfection, I had lost a sense of diversity and reality in the presentation of the female body. When I saw these bodies, that represent most bodies and most definitely fall into the representation of my body, I felt, well, a little unnerved. Should they be showing that? What will people think if I go on a beach looking like that? Shouldn’t they – and I – cover up a bit more?

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I’m a 5′ 10″, size 14, and the sight of a woman in the same realm as me made me immediately feel like I should wrap a sarong around me and duck under the nearest sun lounger. What a crock of shit our concept of fashion campaigns is. This post is only about basic photography, it doesn’t even cover the much murkier depths of higher level advertising, where extreme thinness and unreality are the norm, but I just felt I had to post something for my pals and others who might feel the same way.

We have wobbly bits, several wobbly bits, despite exercise and healthy eating and all the things we’re “supposed” to do, and I’m fully reclaiming all those wobbly bits now. I’m sticking a little flag in them, I’m the Neil Armstrong of my very own Lunar landscape and I’m going to appreciate how fucking flawless those women look in their Curve or Plus-size or whatever other euphemistically named bikinis they’re wearing, and feel fucking thrilled that I have a body that can take me to a beach, that can dive me under the water and bring me back to the surface and roll around in warm sand like the Little fucking Mermaid when she gets her legs, although that wasn’t entirely a picnic for poor Ariel either, let’s be fair.

I hate that it made me second-guess myself, but I love that I went ahead and bought 4 of the things anyway. Thighs: Prepare yourselves. Ass: Your day is nigh. Stomach: Your tour of duty approaches. We’re off to see the world, and a grand old time we’ll have too.

Responsible reporting on domestic violence

I don’t want to be overly critical of an article that highlights domestic abuse, because, after all, it is doing a service by highlighting the abuse in the first place, but the wording involved in so many articles borders on the offensive and dangerous.

I read this article in the Irish Examiner earlier this week, and was so struck by the fact that the leading language in it made it sound like this woman had been horrifically beaten and injured by her partner because she made his dinner wrong. He didn’t assault her because he didn’t like his pork chops; he assaulted her because he is a deeply unwell and unstable person who uses violence to express his emotions. The woman involved had to take the stand in court with the aid of a walking stick. To place a jaunty and clickbait-style headline like “Cork wife assaulted over her cooking” is to fully detract attention away from the fact that domestic violence in this country is underreported and overlooked.

Disappointing dinners don’t result in domestic violence. Small annoyances don’t result in life-threatening injuries. Deeply rooted mental health issues and uncontrolled anger are what are to blame for women getting beaten black and blue. I really wish newspapers would stop belittling such horrific cases for the sake of getting a snappy headline.

The forgotten victim of a domestic dispute.

There was an incident in Ireland last week where a police officer was called to a house to attend a domestic violence incident. When he entered the house with the woman who had made the emergency call, they were both shot by the perpetrator, who was the woman’s partner. The police officer, Tony Golden, died, and the woman, Siobhan Phillips, is critically ill in hospital.

When Siobhan was shot by her partner, she was already black and blue from sustained abuse and attacks.

This case has become about the death of a police officer and the salacious details of the killer’s IRA past. The perpetrator was facing charges of paramilitary activities and was out on bail at the time of the incident, the Guardian ran the story with the headline: “ State funeral held for Irish garda shot dead by republican dissident”. The angle is all wrong here. It’s misleading and you’re capitalising on buzzwords and ignoring the fact that this was a murder committed by a man who was violent and angry and basically got away with it for his whole life until he nearly beat his partner to death, shot her and killed a man. 

It’s horrific, and so, so sad for the policeman’s family, but at the heart of this is domestic violence. I read an excellent comment earlier from a woman in another forum about how the police in Ireland (and lots of places) are not trained how to respond to domestic violence, and in this case it resulted in the death of an innocent man and near-death of an innocent woman.

The word “domestic” waters it down, makes it seem like it’s a man giving a woman a slap or shouting a bit too loudly every now and again, and gives the impression that a peacemaker can just walk in and help sort things out. It also makes it seem like it’s only the problem of the people in the household. It isn’t. It’s my problem and your problem, not only because we should care for other humans who are in trouble but also because it might be us one day or it was us at some time in the past.

1 in 5 women in Ireland who have been in a relationship have been abused by a current or former partner.

In 2014, there were 16,464 incidents of domestic violence against women disclosed during 13,655 contacts with Women’s Aid Direct Services.

There were 10,653 incidents of emotional abuse, 2,470 incidents of physical abuse and 1,746 incidents of financial abuse disclosed.

In the same year, 595 incidents of sexual abuse were disclosed to the Women’s Aid helpline, including 176 rapes. 

I’m not for one second saying that the police officer shouldn’t be mourned or that we shouldn’t be outraged, but this is about domestic violence, not terrorism or cop-killing. RIP Tony Golden and I pray for the recovery of Siobhan Phillips. 

A Little Kindness

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I had an appointment a few weeks ago with a doctor that went spectacularly badly. The doctor was impatient and awful, I was nervous and the whole thing turned into a shambles resulting in me walking out. I was mortified after, doubting whether my actions had been correct, but today I had an appointment with a different doctor for the same thing (nothing serious, I’ll be around for a while yet), and they were so incredible; patient, understanding, open to listening and willing to explain everything that I was worried about. We chatted for 40 minutes, shook hands and I left calm and confident that walking out on the last appointment was the right thing to do.
I spoke to my Dad about this, as he’s had his fair share of appointments of late, and he told me that he’d had a run of rough appointments too; impatient doctors treating him like his questions were silly. Then a few weeks ago, he went to a doctor in Cork, and was nervous about attending due to the previous bad ones. This doctor, though, patiently chatted to him about his life, put him at complete ease, and then when the examination was finished, put on my Dad’s socks and shoes before he left the surgery. My Dad was genuinely emotional at this, that the doctor treated him as an equal and took time to make sure he was comfortable.
I just wanted to share it in case anyone else is in a situation where they feel like they’re making a fuss over something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Speak out if you don’t feel ok, and if someone goes out of their way to put you at ease then tell them and thank them. We’re all human, we all get afraid, and health is a difficult thing to talk about sometimes, but never be afraid to ask for more care if you feel like you’re not getting enough. For me, thankfully, it’s not life or death, it’s just about being comfortable in an awkward situation, but for someone who’s really ill it could affect the course of their treatment. For my Dad, that really positive experience has relaxed him enormously about all future treatments and generally improved his way of coping with hospital visits.

I’m sure all doctors start off with a positive approach to patients, and I totally understand how the pressure of working in medicine could wear you down, but I just think that it’s also our duty to remain aware that if we’re not comfortable with something, we can try to go elsewhere. This post is coming from a place of positivity following on from today, and I’m now actually looking forward to future visits and getting stuff sorted, but it blows my mind that for my Dad, a doctor bending down to help him with his socks was such a rare act of kindness that it actually made him emotional. I’ll be sending a thank you card to him first thing tomorrow.