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.

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Today, Just Take A Little Minute

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Last month I sat and chatted with my Mam about her friend’s daughter who took her own life after a month-long stay in a mental health facility. Yesterday, I got a text from a friend about a pal of hers taking his own life ahead of what should have been a joyous occasion in his life. This morning I opened the paper to read a story about this young man, Martin Strain, who took his own life half-way through a self-help course he was put on by the NHS. The distance and coldness of how his depression was dealt with was what finally pushed me to sit down and type out these thoughts.
The last man I mentioned above, Martin, had spent the last 2 years of his life “bounced from professional to professional” during a round of “telephone assessments and failed telephone contacts” and “rarely seen in person” [by a healthcare professional], said his father. He attempted suicide in 2007, had been on and off anti-depressants and despite telling health workers that he had considered suicide 6 times in 2 weeks, was judged “not to be at immediate risk of killing himself”.
One quote in particular from this article broke my heart: “[Martin] said in the call, he did not want to let down his wife and four younger siblings. He wanted to “break the cycle” of how he felt.”
The thought of how frustrated and lost he must have felt, and yet still somewhere he had the presence of mind and absolute strength of character to consciously want to climb out of the depression that threatened to overwhelm him – and eventually did – makes his story all the more tragic. He wanted to help himself. He tried for 2 years to help himself, and yet he was given a questionnaire and a few tick-the-box services and left to his own devices.
It’s not enough. I know that our health services are struggling to the point of snapping, and I appreciate endlessly the work that doctors and nurses have done for my family and friends in the past, but when mental health diagnoses and care become neglected, that’s something that we can all start opening our eyes to and helping out with. If you get sick with cancer or diabetes, chances are I won’t be the one to spot it, but if someone close to me is struggling with depression or anxiety or an overwhelming mental health challenge of any kind, I can ask questions, spot signs and offer support where the health service can’t. I can be there every day. I can pick up a phone or send a text. I can be the missing link of humanity in that split-second where somebody has a wave of feeling that nothing is worth it anymore.
I’m not trivialising depression of any kind, or saying that it can be helped without medical intervention. I’m just saying that kindness, awareness, support, love and openness are all key treatments in helping those who are carrying a weight in their heart and soul, and we all have those treatments at hand at any time.
If you’ve been out drinking with mates this weekend, don’t just leave it at that. Think about any of them who might be having a tough time at the moment: job issues or relationship issues or perhaps a less noticeable change in circumstances. Just because they were out having a rake of pints with you last night doesn’t mean they’re not wracked with worry the rest of the time. Send them a message. Plan a dinner. Arrange a midweek viewing of Jurassic Park (yes I know that’s my solution to everything, but whatever…)
Love each other. Someone’s annoyance or irritability might be coming from a place of anxiety and stress and worry. Don’t ignore it. Ask people about themselves and give people a safe, calm place where they can openly lose their inhibitions and cry and wail and release all the messed up shit that’s currently going on in their life. As Martin’s story tells us, not everyone gets that space in a professional mental health environment, so maybe we can make more of an effort to be each other’s sounding boards in times of woe.
We all have low moments. We don’t all emerge back out of them. Let’s keep an eye on each other today. You never know who you might be helping, or who might be helping you.
And if you’re feeling weighed down today, or most days, know that there are friends you can talk to. There are people who will listen openly. Not everyone, some people are not good at that stuff and that’s ok too. But you are loved and you are treasured and there are ears that will open and hearts that will open and good people who will just listen and help you to get the support that you need. I am glad you are still here to read this and that you have another day on the Earth, and will hopefully have many more.

“If you believe suicide will bring you peace, or at the very least just an end to everything you hate- you are displaying self-caring behavior. You are still able to actively seek solutions to your problems. You are willing to go to great lengths to provide what you believe will be soothing to yourself.
This strikes me as optimistic.” – Augusten Burroughs

An Ode To Hermann The German, or How Things Always Turn Out Grand In The End

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Hermann Dunkel was his name, but we called him Hermann The German. He was German, as you would imagine was the case, and for many, many years as a smallie I thought he must be the most Germanic of all the German people and was possibly even the King. Surely nothing could bind you more to your home country than having a name that rhymed with it?

Hermann was a solid and much loved fixture of our youth. He would arrive from Stuttgart with mystical objects that might as well have been carved from moon rock, such was our fascination with them. We still to this day have a Duplo set in the house that consists of a little Duplo cowboy, a horse trailer and a horse to put inside the trailer. I still, at 31 years of age, sit and wheel the trailer around the table every time I’m at my Mam and Dad’s house. I thought of him today when a Cork Facebook page posted this beautiful picture of the Gorch Fock, the boat on which Hermann first visited Cork in the early 1970s.

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The story of Hermann started with a chance meeting between him and my Mam’s younger sister somewhere around 1970, as far as Mam can recall. They met in the Grand Parade hotel in Cork City where Hermann fell wildly in love with her but her interests were leading her elsewhere. When he came back to win her heart a few months later (accompanied by a pal for backup), she had no more interest in him than the man in the moon and he was stranded in Cork; a lone sailor with a useless wingman and a broken heart. Which is where my family comes in.

My parents looked after him and his pal and took them to see the coast and countryside and he fell deeply in love with the people and places of Ireland. My Mam says that he most strongly adored the beauty of West Cork, and Sherkin Island in particular.

Hermann came back to visit many, many times after that first trip. He came back with his children and his wife, and after she died tragically he brought his second wife here. Two happy marriages in one life is a testament to his good nature and wonderful spirit.

Hermann died last year, and we were all heartbroken to lose him. I would love to have seen him back in Ireland again with my parents and spending time in his beloved Cork Harbour. My Mam sent me a copy of the note below that Hermann left with them during his first stay when they rescued him and his broken heart. I just love that this story is a neat and beautiful illustration that a lifetime of joy and a new adopted family can emerge from what initially might seem to be a broken heart in a strange country.

“Dear Kay and Pat, only in case [you] don’t see us in the evening. This as a little souvenir for all you did for me. Before I started in Germany I had never expected that it could be so ‘grand’ here. Thank you very very much.”

And thank you Hermann, and goodnight.

Hermann Note