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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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Death

About Death, Departing, and Disco

[Note: this written on 3 September, published today]

Today has been a strange sort of day.

DISCO

I’ll start with the light and fluffy – an earworm. I woke up this morning with Take That’s version of Could It Be Magic in my head. Lord knows what I had been dreaming. It was so loud, so catchy, and so stubborn, I ended up downloading it. And then hummed it for the rest of the day.

(Never watched this MTV till now. Talk about throwback to the ’90s!)

I have never been a Take That fan and I’m not about to start… but I did bop around like I was 13 again and it might be helped in part by…

DEPARTING

We signed the contract. They signed the contract. And then we exchanged today. We have sold our first home.

I got the call from the agent after pulling into the garage, and walked into the backdoor for the first time as a tenant. We are no longer this home’s owners, not really. We’ve been thrilled by how quickly the house sold, but the excitement and relief is also tinged with sadness. God willing, we leave this place in November as scheduled so we have three full months to work up to that goodbye. I will miss this place.

DEATH

The Cuz has been dead for five years today. It feels like it should be such a milestone, so as usual I’m conflicted to the point where emotions are muted. The picture of 21-year-old us still sits on our sideboard. It faces the kitchen, in the heart of our home. When I’m feeding the kids, or preparing lunches and dinners, I see our faces. I still think about her often.

But I no longer think of her daily.

Such a brutal confession to myself and to you, reader. No one likes to admit the awful realities of beginning to not remember someone they love. I will never forget her, but I don’t always remember her. I still love her. I still miss her. I still want to tell her things. But my life is so completely different now to what it was when she parted this earth, so I don’t always imagine her understanding. I can’t always conjure a typical response.

It strikes me that the version I have and keep of her is 5 years old, and it slightly terrifies me that I’m growing older and therefore apart from her. Will I still be able to half-talk to her when I’m 40, and she’s 30? When I’m 50? When I’m 60? When will it start to feel like I’m a crone talking to a young woman, instead of girl talking to her first and closest friend? She stays the same. I have not. I am always changing, no matter how stubborn I claim to be. God sees to that.

Today, I thought about her gorgeous, shiny, white teeth. That brilliant smile. She had one canine that was turned 90 degrees, but her teeth were still straight and her smile, still dazzling. She had such razor-sharp wit, but enough girly goofiness to laugh at my jokes. She read, and read, and read. Heaven has a library for her.

I still have your knee-high boots. I haven’t worn them. I probably should one of these years, but I wouldn’t know what to match them with and they’re camel, and probably won’t match my skin tone (made all the more translucent by Canberra winters). You always had such fabulous skin.

I have a son, Celina. I have two children now. I cannot hear your reply.

I still remember the daydream we had for years and years, the one where we’d share a house and prepare to go on double-dates together. Perhaps we could share a mansion in heaven.

Say hello to my mum for me.

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If only it were that simple

“Arddun, please put on your socks and boots. We’re going out soon.”

“I can’t! I’m dead. The dinosaur bit me.”

“The dinosaur bit you?”

“Yes.” [Lies down on couch slowly]. “The dinosaur bit me. I’m dead.”

“Oh dear. Alright, when you come back to life, can you please put on your socks and boots?”

“…”

“Arddun?”

“…”

“Arddun!”

(Sits up, indignant.) “I’m still sleeping!”

“Okay, but I want you to put on your socks and boots, please. I’ll give you two minutes. After that, you have to come back to life and put on your socks and boots. Understand?”

(Goes back to “sleep”)

“Say ‘Yes Mummy’ if you understand.”

“Yes, Mummy.”

If I were to fall asleep

If I were to fall asleep
And wake up new in heaven
I want you to know that you were always loved.
You captured my heart the moment yours started.
When you laugh, I am liquid and warm.
Your happiness is my happiness.

Today, we held hands almost everywhere
And sang Chinese nursery rhymes
Badly.
We braved the first winter winds
And talked about the end of autumn.
Today, your fly-away baby hair
Stayed tame, framed your face
And I chanced a glimpse of the boy in years to come.
You both shared a dinner for the very first time
Of congee and spinach and fish
And had a competition to see who would finish first.
(Your brother won.)
We waited for Daddy, and felt joy when he walked through the door.

I held you both in my arms today
And thanked God for my time with you
And pleaded for more
Because nothing is a sure thing.

If I were to fall asleep
And wake up new in heaven
I want you to know that I love your father.
I do not wonder or wander.
Every day, I pray for travelling mercies
Every night, for a new day.
He is a man of few words when I have too many,
My anchor when I fly off the handle.
I become a better mother to you because of him.

If I were to fall asleep
And wake up new in heaven
I want you to know that I’m alright.
If I make it to heaven, when I make it to heaven
I will be giddy with relief and joy.
(Even as I miss you profoundly.
Even when I can no longer hold you close.)
I imagine that it will be nothing like I imagine.
I hope I’ll still get to see you grow.
The world will tell you that Heaven is fictitious
Simply because it cannot fathom it.
But it is there, and I will be waiting
So promise me that you’ll never lose sight of its light
And that you’ll find your way home, too.

Your minds are still young
Your memories, still short
So that even though you touched my hands, stroked my face today
Tickled my sides for a laugh
Stuck your tiny faces in my neck and breathed me in,
You may not remember me
Quite the way you do now.

But I will never forget you.
Even
If I were to fall asleep.

Farewelling Great-Grandma Joan

Dearest Kids,

You may not remember this one, but last week Wednesday, we all got on an airplane and went up to Brisbane to stay with your Nanna and Poppy, so we could farewell Nanna’s mummy, Great-Grandma Joan. She passed away on March 6, aged 87 years, 1 month and 15 days old.

It was Atticus’s first airplane ride and despite your Daddy’s nervousness about his ears, he travelled very well. Even slept most of the way over. We had a lot of turbulence while the plane was descending, which — after a lousy year for aviation — induced your Mummy to hold on to the armrest and Atticus in a death grip. Arddun, however, thought it was tremendous fun – rather like a $260 kiddy ride – and laughed and laughed the entire way down.

We had lots of evenings with family, where Arddun got reacquainted with her cousin Evie who is now able to run around with her.

Atticus, meanwhile, made some new friends on his sister’s old playmat. And sometimes, he enjoyed making friends with his Poppy, too.

I don’t know if you remember your Great-Grandma Joan, Arddun. But you certainly were remembered by her. You were her first great-grandchild, which was kind of a big deal. I remember when you first visited her. Typically, you didn’t like sitting on anyone’s lap for very long (with the possible exception of your Daddy’s and your Poppy’s), and I remember you wriggling and squirming within 30 seconds of meeting your Great-Grandma.

“She doesn’t like me,” Great-Grandma Joan thought aloud, as you pushed first her then Nanna away with your fat little hands.

“No, no…” I tried to explain. “She just wants to get on the floor so she can explore.”

Nan, Great-Grandma Joan and Arddun
Nan and Great-Grandma Joan

She sent you a little something every Christmas. And she always had your picture in her little flat, updated lovingly by your Nanna and Grand-Uncle Martin as you got older and lankier. The last time we came to visit her in her flat, she marvelled at how strong and solid your legs were.

And then Atticus came along, and she heard all about you too, Little Man. That was one of the sad things about coming to say goodbye. It was a reminder that she didn’t get to meet her first great-grandson before she went away.

Your Daddy’s early recollections of your Great-Grandma include carbonated lemonade and other sweet treats that were otherwise contraband at home. Because she was retired by then, she had the latest electronic gadgets of the time, including a VCR. (Remind me to explain what a VCR is.) Your Nanna used to call Great-Grandma Joan to tape this cartoon and the other for your Daddy and his sisters to watch. Your Nanna was one of four children. It’s hard enough having two children, but four – and especially one with disabilities. And yet your Daddy has never seen Great-Grandma lose her temper. As long as he’d known her, she was gentle, soft, and kind. He’d never heard her raise her voice.

Your Mummy remembers a woman with small soft hands and a tender heart. Your Great-Grandma came down to Canberra for our wedding, and she participated in the tea ceremony, which moved her to a tear or two. Your Mummy remembers she kept saying, “I’m very touched!” over and over again at the end of her turn, which in turn moved her. And again, she shed a tear when Mummy’s cousin, your Aunty Celina, died in that car accident before you were born. And again, she shed another when Grandma Singapore got sick with cancer. Your Mummy remembers these things, because she remembers how much empathy Great-Grandma Joan had, and how much that empathy touched her in turn. Great-Grandma Joan was the kind of grandmother your Mummy never really had before.

At the funeral, the family had put together a wonderful eulogy. An outline, if you will, of Great-Grandma Joan’s life and the ones she touched and loved. Someday, when you’re old enough, we hope you get to read a copy of it.

We were glad we went up as a family to say goodbye, and to reconnect with others. In recent years, it feels like our close extended family is shrinking slowly. Or maybe it’s because we live in Canberra by ourselves for much of the year, because sitting with extended family at day’s end after a nice barbeque and dairy-free/gluten-free dessert felt like a luxury and a special, special comfort. Watching Arddun having a great time with her cousin Evie was a thing of joy.

Four years today

Celina-and-I
Missing you.

Thought about you quite a bit today, in bits and bobs. Second thing in the morning, close to last thing tonight. Flashes of memories technicolour and sepia-toned… like your dancer’s gait, your sulk, and your laugh. Your wild, wild hair, thick and forever your bane.

(I hope God’s given you sleek, manageable hair now.)

 

Sitting with you deep into the night in your backyard, just listening while you chain-smoked and rationalised and tried to explain, and tried not to care.

Shopping with you, meeting you after school. The fact that you always had a library book in your bag, and a glare on the ready. The fact that you were always smarter and brighter and funnier and wittier, and grouchier and moodier, and infinitely more loyal.

The fact that we always fought and forgave and fought and forgave because we were blood, if not quite sisters.

Your allergy to Maggie Noodles and how you hated piano lessons.

Introducing me to Ingham’s marinated turkey – which, by the way, they no longer bring into Canberra. I know, right?

Telling you about Canberra, telling you about Tony, growing apart for a little while.

I wonder what you think of my life now, and I wonder if you miss yours in this world. Even just a tiny bit.

I wonder what you think of Arddun. Would she be the only child you would’ve grudgingly grown to love, if only because she is mine?

I miss your spark, your drama, your loyalty, your listening ear. Your brilliance, your sunshine, your aspiration, your strength.

You.

An anniversary

One year ago, I woke up to find a text from my mother, telling me that she had to cancel her flight to Canberra because she was experiencing acute pains around her diaphragm.

Unknown to both of us then, it was the beginning of the death setting in.

I’ve been dreaming about her a lot this week. She’s always alive, healthy, strong. Sometimes, she had already gone through the death and we sit and talk about present things and present times, and I’m filling her in about what we’re doing about her house, and what’s been happening since we last caught up. In my dream last night, she had just gotten out of the communal shower at a church camp while I was waiting for her in our room, so I could get my turn. She was telling someone I know about how she had survived her cancer, and how she had never experienced such pain as she did until it reached her hips and legs. In that dream, I had the foreknowledge that she was about to get her second round, and she was going to die from it – but she didn’t know that yet.

I miss her from the deepest core of my being.

The Christmas Letter

I received 3 Christmas letters this year, and it got me thinking that the Christmas letter is a dying art form that will be missed a decade down the road and will see some kind of a revival through an app, no doubt. But it also reminded me that I haven’t done any sort of Family Summary in recent years. We all gasp and groan about how quickly time flies, and every November hits us rudely that Christmas / New Year / Chinese New Year is “just around the corner”. I don’t know if it’s age or mundanity that prevents me from remembering what I did last week, let alone what I did in January this year. And yet I remember how I used to savour dates and moments as a teen – relived the special ones over and over through dear-diary entries and long phone conversations and letters to friends secretly penned during Math classes. I remembered everything in minutiae, with excruciating detail. I swore to myself that I’d never forget. And indeed some of those moments are still scorched into the lining of my brain, images vivid as when I was thirteen.

I say all this, because I don’t want to forget this year.

I first came across the concept of Brutiful from Momastery, who probably got it from a Death Metal band that apparently first coined the portmanteau. Brutiful – this exquisite, tortured mix of the brutal and the beautiful that makes you want to cry for too many reasons, and so you do.

Well, Life this year has been Brutiful.

The centrepiece, of course, has been my mother’s death – except it wasn’t just the death we survived, but the dying. My cousin Andrea had asked me very recently how I was holding up, and we both agreed that there is a distinction between Okay and Happy. I’m okay. I cannot say I’ve been happy. I am coping. I have been surviving. But I’m not quite sure about thriving.

I’ve certainly been moving as fast as I can to get the practicalities sorted – the house packed, sorted and cleared… the estate lawyered up and managed… the thank-yous written, the friends hugged and comforted. The giant upheaval of jumping into the unknown and foisting a mini-migration on my family, only to move back 3 months later and do the reverse. The logistics of shipping back 10 moving boxes into a house already full, and unpacking all over again.

The idea was to start the healing process by ripping off the bandaid quickly. I come from very pragmatic stock. But I had not been prepared for the internal injuries that come about from actually watching a beloved die.

I don’t know why it hadn’t dawned on me before, but watching any death take over a life is traumatic. I know my mother didn’t get bludgeoned to death by an axe murderer or hit by a bus before my eyes, but the moment of her death touched the very core of me and something in there shrivelled up and died with her in that moment. For months now, I’ve found every memory of my mother very painful – all the good bits, all the neutral bits, all the horrible bits. Just simultaneous excruciation for the mind and the heart that is constantly there. I cannot stop thinking about her. She is in everything I do and see and touch. But I am constantly shaking my thoughts – and sometimes, literally my head – because it hurts like nothing I’ve ever felt before.

I’ve realised that I’m still traumatised. It’s not a dramatic thing, this trauma. But I just can’t separate the moment of her dying from everything else about her. Sometimes, I can’t even breathe.

Wooden folding chair
Right: My wooden folding chair. Split down the middle and not worth the hassle with Australia’s Customs department, this was one of many childhood relics I had to leave behind. At least Arddun got to use it while she lived in Singapore.

In other news…

I managed to injure our brand new car twice in a matter of weeks at the beginning of the year. Once in January, when a random Real Estate sign on a picket flew across the road during 70kmh winds and hit my side door while I was driving, and then a few weeks later when I backed into a sign post because I couldn’t hear the reverse warning beeps over my music collection of Screaming White Females.

I had to have my root canal redone by an endodontist, and then stop treatment halfway to race back to Singapore to be with my mother, and then resume the second half of my treatment when we returned in June. And then get a tooth cap done by a family friend – and Queensland’s smiliest, chattiest dentist – when we visited Tony’s parents shortly after.

We visited Tony’s folks in Brisbane, where Arddun got to meet her cousin for the very first time. And then we went to Fiji for a family holiday, where we stayed at the Sheraton and ended up surrounded by Australians anyway.

I spent, in total, 4 months of the year in Singapore over 3 visits – three months with Tony and Arddun when we mini-migrated there in March to be with my mother before she died, two weeks with just me an Liz to sort out her estate, and a precious week where I travelled alone to be with my mother just a fortnight before she died.

Chevelle and Caroline
Celebrating my 34th birthday with mum. She had said this would be her last chance to celebrate my birthday. In so much pain, even though she was smiling.

We’ve dealt with The Big C twice in our family this year – my mother’s ovarian cancer is the obvious one, but my aunt – her sister – discovered her breast cancer this year as well. And so it’s been an exhausting year for her twice over, and us watching as she goes through her gruelling treatment without her best friend by her side. It’s also meant a lot of visits to GPs and ultrasound clinics for me, as I start the process of attaining genetic counselling. I’ve also seen the inside of my ovaries three times this year. And no, I’m not pregnant.

Incidentally…

Number of times people have asked when I’m going to get knocked up again: 54. That’s more than once a week, people.

I had extended my maternity leave, and then told work that I’d like a change of scenery so they created a new job for me, and then I accepted the job… only to quit the week I was supposed to start because we decided to drop everything to be with my mother . And they were absolutely lovely and loving about me inadvertently stuffing them around like that. Just crazy-understanding and well wishes all around.

Tony changed job scope, and then Australia changed government, so all his work eventually had to ground to caretaker mode, and now everything’s different. Because that’s life in the public service – or at least, that’s the way it is when there’s a changing of the guard.

I started selling Tupperware – partly to get out of the house and wear heels, partly to feel like I can earn some extra cash, partly because I’d like to organise my kitchen pantry with free stuff. But in the meantime, I’ve managed to reconnect with people I haven’t properly spoken to in years, and meet new people from very different walks of life. And I’m now running out of space in the guest room – my one remaining bastion of clear floor with no clutter – because it’s filled with Tupperware.

Tupperware in pantry
Organisation can be a beautiful thing, no?

The day before my third trip to Singapore, I realised the carpet in our walk-in robe was damp. About 7 tradesmen later, we learnt that our shower tap in the ensuite had been secretly leaking into our walls so it got all soggy, and then the shower recesses in both bathrooms were probably also leaking water, and then the insurance company won’t cover any of it because they don’t cover shower recess leaks even though the majority of the damage was caused by the shower taps, and… and… 10 weeks on, we have a gigantic hole in our wall, and a fight with the insurance company whose disputes department has the response time and energy of a drugged sloth.

Big hole in wall
Remember this one? Still there. Still big. Still ugly.

Arddun started dance classes for the first time, and loves it so much that we’re doing it again next year.

Arddun at dance class

Thanks to sleeping arrangements in Singapore, she’s learnt how to sleep by herself on her own bed – even if that means rolling off it in the middle of the night, and then groggily climbing back in.

Lepak on Andrea's bed
Life is pretty sweet when you’re on a Big Girl Bed.

She’s drunk orange and apple juice for the first time, and so now she’s demanding that it’s a staple in her diet even though I’m fighting it because water is so much more important. She brushes her own teeth with REAL grown-up toothpaste that requires her to spit after vigorously and randomly rummaging mouth with brush, and that has a picture of The Wiggles on the tube.

She now also loves skirts, partly because it reminds her of dance classes, but mostly because it’s the one article of clothing she can put on herself without getting it too wrong. She likes dressing herself, and is getting better at it all the time.

Arddun wearing mummy's shirt as skirt
February 2013: The Great Mummy’s Shirt-as-Skirt Experiment
Arddun wearing Tony's sock
June 2013: The Daddy’s Sock-as-Leggings fashion shoot

Arddun also got to see her Poppy and Nanna a whopping THREE TIMES this year – once in Singapore for Grandma’s homecoming, once in Brisbane, and once when they came over to stay in Canberra so I could fly to Singapore with Liz to settle the Singapore estate.

Reading with Poppy in pergola
Reading with her beloved Poppy. The red swing was hers and Little Kitty’s very favourite means of passing the time.
Arddun with Nanna
Arddun still yells for “Nina” when she gets in trouble with Mummy and Daddy.

As for our holiday season this year, we took a quiet day trip to Malua Bay, and Arddun got to spend some time “at the sandpit”. We had to teach her that this giant sandpit is better known as A Beach. Her very first time at one!

Arddun holding Daddy's hand at the beach
Beautiful day for sandcastles, Daddy.

We also spent a day at Camp Challenge – Arddun’s very first Australian church camp, and our first time in a decade.

Arddun at Kids worship
Singing “My God is So BIG!” at Kids Worship.

And then we had dinner at Tony’s colleague’s home this evening, where Arddun got introduced to the joys of Atari gaming without needing to shell out a roll of 20-cent coins.

Arddun looking at gaming console
Old school, maaaan.

I’ll be honest: this year SUCKED the BIG TIME. Part of the back of my throat feels perpetually contorted from swallowed tears, like I just snarfed a bag of Super Lemons. It has been exhausting. It has been stressful. Parts of it has even been hateful. I want to say there are lovely bits, because it’s true. I want to say that I’ve been surrounded by some of the best quality people Life has to offer, because that is also definitely true. But I would do this year over in a heartbeat, if it means I can spend more time with my mother.

And yet…

My cousin Shawn, who has grown to become a young man wise beyond his years (and mine), put it most eloquently and maturely when he said,

As i reflect upon the year, i’m thankful for all the pain and uncertainties in 2013, for they remind me that i’m still human and i can still continue to hope and trust in a perfect God who holds my tomorrow.

I couldn’t have said it better. And I probably should. So I’ll leave it as that for now, and bid you a Happy New Year.

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