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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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grief

Big hole

Liz and I arrived in Canberra at close to 6pm on Monday the 11th, after possibly the shortest trip I’ve had coming back from Singapore. It’s been a long time since I’ve slept through most of the flight and coach ride – having a bright-eyed and inquisitive toddler makes that an impossibility lately, but I also think the year’s dramas have finally caught up with me.

In amongst the waiting in queues and the teasing out of technical details relating to my mother’s passing, Liz and I managed to eat and drink very well in Singapore. We even got to do a tiny bit of sightseeing – had another gander at the SEA Aquarium (the world’s biggest, apparently), and a lovely morning at the Art Science Museum. We even took a water taxi through the Singapore river at night, and I got to soak in the ever-changing cityscape with all its gorgeous lights.

It was a fitting close to a chapter in my life that I wish with all my heart didn’t end so soon.

But then I came home to a husband who visibly relaxed as soon as I walked in the door (shoulders easing, anxiety expelled with a sigh and a smile). And I came home to a happy, taller, chattier toddler who now eats more than I do for breakfast. More on her later.

I haven’t had the time to tell you about the dramas we’ve been having with our shoddy plumbing. Our bathrooms have now become places of anxiety and foreboding rather than temporary retreats from the day’s worries. It all started during the packing for Singapore when I realised the carpet in the walk-in robe was damp. About 6 tradies later, the litany of woes read as follows:

  • leaking shower tap
  • leaking shower recesses (BOTH bathrooms)
  • no condensation tray for ducted gas heating unit in roof cavity
  • window treatment in skylight unfinished
  • hole in wall adjoining roof, letting rain in

The first two are especially painful, because now we have a fight on our hands with our insurance company. It’s also going to cost us a pretty penny to fix up two bathrooms. But the biggest lesson in all this, is how you can NEVER rely on just one or two tradesmen to give you a comprehensive idea of what’s going on in your walls… and that God gave you instincts for a reason. The first plumber didn’t even pick up the biggest cause of the leak, which was the leaking shower tap.

Long story short, we now have a gigantic hole in our wall.

Big hole in wall
After all this leaving and cleaving (good-bye Singapore house, good-bye big part of my former life), methinks this gigantic hole is rather metaphorical.

Arddun has been great. She has not fiddled with the hole once, nor felt anyway inclined to hide her toys and treats there. Instead, she tells anyone who will listen that, “It’s a BIG HOLE! Very Very Don’t Touch.”

Actually, Arddun’s been the one constant to lighten the mood around here. It’s hard to feel very sorry for ourselves for too long, when she’s bounding up to you bright and chirpy for a cuddle. She is definitely going through a growth spurt of some sort – polishes off a meal size that I’ve seen other 8-year-olds struggle with, and then asks for fruit. She is still singing all the time, but her latest party trick is to quiz, “WHO’S GOT THE POOS?” before coming up behind me or Tony to yank down our pants for a check.

Yah.

A kind of hush

It has finally hit me this morning, not quite in its entirety, that this is my last stay in the place I grew up. The flat I called home. The flat that my mother called home, my aunt called home, my grandmother called home. The flat that Shawn, for a little while, lived and grew up in when he just a wee babe, when he was just Arddun’s age. The flat in which my uncle courted my aunt. The flat my father used as home for a while. My nest for 24 years. My mecca, my centre when I returned to Singapore.

I don’t want to leave this place. I don’t want to sell it. I don’t want to rent it. I don’t want to see it languish and die. I don’t want it to lose its market value, its historical value, its sentimental value. I don’t want to lose its memories. I don’t want to give these walls away. These floors away. This unique layout away. I don’t want anyone else to say they now own my mother’s blue kitchen and her built-in robes, I don’t want anyone else to love the views I grew up in, and to call it theirs.

It is unrealistic. It isn’t how I feel every day, but it’s how today feels.

I have seller’s remorse, and the ad hasn’t even hit the papers. But every which way my heart turns, my mind races up to remind and justify. On paper, very logically, in theory… this it the right thing to do. This is the right time to sell. And maybe it might turn out to be the best thing to hold on to the flat for a little while. And maybe it would be the worst thing to do. It is 50-50. My mind tells me that this, like a bandaid, is a milestone in my life that needs to be ripped and gotten over with – the sooner, the better before even more tendrils of connections form.

But as far as bandaids go, this one is hurting very, very much.

 

Flipsides

This morning, I got reminded that in 2½ weeks, I’ll be back in Singapore.

It was a good kick up the backside (although that was hardly what the reminder was about!) because it helped me distill exactly what my priorities need to be. I need to prepare the house for my in-laws’ arrival, which includes updating my Arddun childcare notes. I need to get a bunch of appointments and decisions made. I need to put my freelance work on hold. I need to stop trying to achieve every single Tupperware sales target put in front of me.

Did I tell you? I’m a Tupperware Demonstrator now. It’s turning out to be quite a bit of fun, and I’m liking how I get to swan off to party and mingle with grown women. It is also a time suck, at least at this beginning stage. I’m learning all the time and while selling Tupperware isn’t rocket science, it’s been over a decade since I last had a sales job. The temptation is to throw myself entirely into this new business but again, I have to remind myself constantly what my priorities are. All this, while half day-dreaming about what it would be like to be a Tupperware manager just so I can name my own team. (Shortlist so far: Silicon Velle.)

There’s a more sobering side to my return, of course. I’ve had a few cloud-like thoughts wafting through the brain cavity all morning, so I’ll try and pin them down here.

I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to never forget someone. And I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to remember them. Until my cousin’s sudden death a few years ago, and then my mother’s death this year, I never knew there was a difference. But the truth is, while I will never forget my mother; while the stark fact of her death has been branded into my soul and the burnt bit is still healing, it takes a huge amount of effort for me to remember her.

And that’s because remembering takes courage. It takes time. It takes up oodles of emotional memory, and you’re left panting after. I have a photo of her sitting on the buffet in the middle of the house, and you cannot miss it. And I can have whole conversations with her while Arddun is asleep and I’m doing the housework. But once I find my mind flashing back to the past and remembering what once was… I find myself pulling the plug. Making the images vanish. Because it is just so easy to sit there and feel paralysed with sorrow. And I don’t want to be paralysed, because I need to move.

“Give me unction in my gumption, let me function function function…”

In 2½ weeks, I’ll be back in Singapore. I’ll be sleeping in my mother’s bed. I’ll be bidding the rooms good-bye. Because this time will really be the last time. I love my husband truly, madly, deeply… but my mother and this house had always been my unconscious safety net. “What if Tony got hit by a bus… what if he goes all Rod Stewart on me one day and leaves me for a 20yo twinkie…”

My love for my husband is a choice. Every day, I wake up and choose to be with him. They say you don’t get to choose your relatives – NOT TRUE. Because out of all the men in the world, I chose Tony to be my family. I chose him to be my closest peer and kin. I continue to choose him daily.

My love for my mother is biological. It isn’t a choice – it is in my veins and permeates my soul, because I am of her. I think that with all mothers and daughters, the depth of love is variable – you get out as much as what each of you put in. But the starting point of that love and bond is biological.

Severing my ties with my family home is going to be one of the hardest things I’ll have to do this second half of the year. (The first, of course, was saying goodbye to my mother.) Going back to Singapore means having to Remember. God give me strength, because I’m sorta quaking at the prospect already.

 

Birthday bash

Today’s my mum’s birthday. If she were still alive, she would have turned 56.

I was half dreading this day, because I knew I was going to feel quite mixed up about it. There’s an awful jumble of feelings that come from remembering a dead loved one’s birthday. There’s that sense of wrongness which builds up to the day, and chiefly comes from not doing the usual things. Not hunting down the perfect gift, not wrapping it. Not battling the queue at the post office to send it. Not finding the card. Not texting her in the morning. Not calling her on Skype at the day’s end to find out how she celebrated.

Not being able to jump on the plane and then sidle up to her pew on Sunday to surprise her.

Then there’s the wrongness that comes from remembering someone’s birthday when they’ve passed. She hasn’t turned 56; her body stopped at 55 years, 6 months and 17 days. So what naturally follows is that gut-wrenching, heartrending sense of loss and missing. The kind you’ve been working at mastering and suppressing for the last few months so you can function – and even be happy – without dissolving into a mooching mess.

There was a guy recorded in the bible who had been blind from birth, which means he had probably been reduced to begging because that’s what happens when you don’t have Disability Care in the days of Jesus. And the question naturally followed: why? Was he born blind because of his parents’ sin? What was the whole point of depriving a person of sight and a livelihood from the start? Or the middle, for that matter. What is the whole point of dragging a woman through a very tough childhood and marriage, only to strike her with cancer when she’s finally breathing easier? Why?

And Jesus basically said that the whole point was so that God could be given the glory. A person, blind until adulthood for the sole and magnificent purpose of Jesus walking pass to heal him. Except I sure wish He were here in the flesh today, and that he chose to heal my mother.

What was the point of giving her life, only to take it away at 55? Was it so that God may be glorified through her example in death? Or was it so that others like me could be brought more into repentance?

I remember reading someone’s blog, and the whole blog was about this family who has a daughter with a condition that would almost certainly guarantee her death by age 4. When you know you have that sort of timeline, you don’t mess about as a parent. The doctrines about sleep training, the guilt about breastfeeding vs formula, the philosophies about discipline, the race to each baby milestone completely melts away when you realise that Nothing Is That Important as making sure that child knows she is loved, and that you’re all making great memories together. That blogger’s house was a complete mess some days but as the child got sicker, all they did as a family sometimes was to eat takeaway and watch cartoons with her. It flew in the face of every good parenting handbook out there, and yet I think it was perfect and natural parenting for their sick daughter at the time.

I wish I had known about my mother’s timeline, because I wish I had understood which battles to fight and which battles to merrily concede defeat because they weren’t worth picking up the axe for in the first place. I wish I had not fussed at the fringes, but understood which were the more important things. I wish I had dropped everything and run to her sooner. Hindsight can be such a bitter thing.

There’s the alarm clock, chirping in the distance. Yet another reminder that time marches on. Oh how I miss you, my mother, my confidante, my home away from home.

Disconnect

Canberra changes at a glacial pace, compared to Singapore. In the two weeks since we returned, I’ve noticed a handful of tiny changes. The leather bench facing the indoor playground at Gungahlin now has cracks and a large hole in it. Belconnen Mall now charges extra for using your credit card to pay for parking. We have new next-door neighbours, and two-doors-down-from-us neighbours. Babar’s has changed its menu. FCUK seems to have closed down. David Jones is renovating.

Still, compared to Singapore, Canberra moves at a glacial pace.

The changes are not earth-shattering enough. There is no ripple. Time has stood still, and yet marched on without ceremony. It’s too normal, but it can’t be.

That three seconds between sleeping and waking? I spent three mornings in those limbo moments reminding myself to text my mother and let her know we’ve arrived home safe. And then the realisation hits that I can’t, because she’s dead. And also, her phone is sitting on our kitchen bench, because she is dead and I have her phone now. And then I’m truly awake, and my breathing changes for good.

There is a weight on my chest. It’s like imaginary emphysema, where all I can manage sometimes are shallow gasps because the rest of my energy is spent suppressing strong emotions and memories.

A friend recently told me how she and her family derive much comfort from symbolism. It’s like an after-death Hello. People close to me have spoken of dreams, of smells, of meaningful coincidence or synchronicity. It could be kind of animal, a number, a date, a dream.

But I struggle to dream of her. Or encounter anything symbolic or meaningful. I long to have a dream where she tells me she’s doing fabulously well. I long to have a dream of her at all. I wonder if all my daytime suppression has stupefied any sensitivity to her spirit. Because I don’t feel her near me. She seems very far away. It feels like she’s taken the world’s longest holiday cruise and is incommunicado for the rest of my lifetime. I miss her dreadfully.

Penny K and I talked about getting emotionally ambushed at times. It’s one thing when you’re preparing for Sunday worship or Mother’s group and you know you’re going to get lots of hugs and love about The Death. You steel yourself. You put armour around your heart, plate by plate. And then you venture in, and you come out the other side seemingly unscathed and upbeat. And you are, because the armour is on and you had braced yourself for each loving, emotional blow.

But it’s when you don’t expect things to hit you, that they hit hardest. A chat about pain. An old packet of tissues. A familiar turn of phrase. Dirty dishes. The trigger goes off so I’m scampering around in my mind, trying to shut down the leak. I have had moments where I am willfully suppressing memories so my mind is almost a blank, while treacherous tears are streaming down my face. The heart can definitely be divorced from the head. Your body can grieve even when your mind will not.

Today’s trigger was a song I had never heard before.

In all of this death business, I am struggling to be at peace with my God. I struggle to remain convinced that God is good ALL the time. That He is there in the hurting as a comforter, even though He might have allowed it in the first place. That He can allow it because He is God.

I want to be at peace with my God. I just don’t know how, because I am deeply wounded and it smarts and it aches, and the tears are always pricking the surface. Always. And then this song comes out from nowhere and reads like my subconscious.

God in my hoping
There in my dreaming
God in my watching
God in my waiting
God in my laughing
There in my weeping
God in my hurting
God in my healing

Be my everything
Be my everything
Be my everything
Be my everything

 

And I basically wept while driving the entire length of Northbourne Avenue, even though I had schooled my mind into a safe-driving blank. Because my body can grieve even when my mind will not.

To cap off the day

Arddun and I had a lovely today. Poor Tony had a semi-frustrating one working from home, but Arddun and I ended up having a most enjoyable afternoon out with Andrea — my cousin and Arddun’s second cousin, who is also known in these parts as “AN-DEEEE!”

Two pairs of sandals, a satisfying sushi lunch, and a decadent truffle-fries afternoon tea with Gail later, we all arrived home (sans Gail) with my aunt in tow. Maybe it was the mental break I’d gotten from today’s outing. Maybe it was how, flanked by two dear women who are connected to my mother and I by familial blood and by the blood of Jesus, I felt encouraged and emboldened.  Or maybe it was the sandals. But we took 3 little steps this evening, together.

  1. We emptied my mother’s shoe cabinet.
  2. We destroyed my mother’s pain medications. Every last pill, smashed and pounded. Liquid morphine, no more. The ghosts of past excruciation, exorcised.
  3. We put on her hats.

My mother had Cancer Hats. She had always been a bit of a hat-wearer when she played tourist, but she also received a few new hats when she started her chemotherapy and lost her hair. And so we gave them a new lease of life this evening…

Velle, Andrea and Ah-yee wearing mum's Cancer Hats

… and then passed them on to my aunt, with much love.

Two minutes before it rains

Two minutes before it rains, when the black night sky turns red and thick, and the air is pungent with humidity and expectation… When the breeze kicks up and cools your neck, and you wonder why Singapore couldn’t have whole days made of These Two Minutes…

I had a good evening, spent in the company of family and loved ones. Ended the evening writing Thank You cards. Currently blogging while greeting the new day with commiserations and laughs with a sister in Christ. I know it’s logic as old as the hills, but tonight I was reminded that thanking people is a fantastic way to count my blessings.

I sat with my family tonight, as we recapped my mother’s journey with cancer. As we recapped our collective journey with this illness that took her body and made her spirit. In many ways, this is a stormy time in our lives. The boat has been rocked, our equilibrium is lost. There is a missing member of our crew. We had dinner together, and I missed her keenly. We wrote cards, and we all missed her keenly. It’s a bizarre thing to faintly expect my mother to walk through the front door so we can tell her all about our eventful fortnight and how we all threw this wake and funeral together, and how Arddun was dancing to Janet Seidel beside her coffin.

Oh the irony.

And yet, I had a good evening. We missed her together, we remembered her together, and we remembered the people who also loved her and continue to love us. My world has been rocked and I’m in a storm. And maybe tomorrow, I’ll feel bleah and grr. But tonight, I’ve been given my Two Minutes. And the reassurance that God is good.

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