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The Girl with the Daffodil Tattoo

A Welsh girl let loose in a wild world

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My Mum’s Cancer and Me

Saint Tomas’ Day, 2014

It was two weeks after my mother’s funeral, and the first time I had gone out. Saint Tomas’ day is a day on the Basque Catholic calendar in which people go out for all day drinking with their friends. The bars are packed, the people are happy. Everyone’s out with their cuadrilla, their tight knit group of friends that they’ve known each other for so long, their other family. Basque’s seem to love deep, long term friendships, and not meeting new people, and never mixing their groups of friends together.

I was so mentally broken at this point I struggled to put a sentence together in Spanish. I felt like someone had hit me in the head with an axe and it was still there.

My boyfriend went inside, leaving me to chat to two of his friends. One of them started to interrogate me about why I wasn’t learning Basque. I was shocked. I could barely form a response. How could I think about learning Basque when my short term memory was fucked, I didn’t have a job, I was in debt because I hadn’t been working while I’d been caring for my mum?

Later, much later, I realised that this guy is so petrified of being called Spanish, so sad that he can’t speak Basque properly, that he likes to verbally attack immigrants whose mother’s have just died to make himself look good in front of his Euskaldun friends. Machismo en el matriarcado.

I didn’t know this group of people well. Some knew my mother had died, like the guy who interrogated me as to why I don’t spend thousand of euros trying to learn a very difficult language at the worst point in my life when I was in complete agony, others didn’t.

“How are you?” said one girl. For a Basque person, this was massively friendly. They don’t usually talk to new people, that’s a bit like being someone slightly unhinged who tries to start a conversation with you on the tube in London.

“Not very good. My mum just died.”

She let out a nervous snort. I knew she didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to lie but I also didn’t like to make people feel uncomfortable with the smouldering ruins of my life. I hadn’t just lost my mother, I had lost other family members too (we were not on speaking terms), as well as the place where I grew up. I had lost my country. I had lost the force that I had rebelled against for the past 26 years of my life. I had also lost that safety net that is one’s parents house. That place you dread moving back to, but if it’s that or the street, you would take it and be grateful.

Beliefs

I have a curious feeling that “modern” psychology is not really new, but old wisdom (previously found in religion) polished and presented as new.

Losing my mum has been the spiritual/psychological equivalent of being run over by a bus. I admire the religious types I’ve come across, who tell me that death is like “going home” and how we’ll see each other again, or how she’s “still with me” or helping “from the other side”. Those are all comforting concepts and I can see how they help people get through tough times.

Although I was raised as a Christian, I don’t currently share those beliefs. I (metaphorically) feel like Eve. I have eaten the apple. I now know (that religion is a scam to control the population), and I can’t “unknow”.

I think it’s (obviously) better to be a happy fool than a miserable know it all, yet I can’t help but open the door to knowledge. I read study after study about happiness, and believers tend to be happy. Why do I rebel against common sense?

I suppose I’m like those kids in primary school who whisper so loudly to you (an adult) “I KNOOOOOW” at Christmas, desperate for you to become aware that *they* are no longer taken in anymore by the old Santa Clause ruse.

Why is that? People who believe irrational things, like that the world is basically a good place, or that things are going to improve, are generally happy and productive. Faith can, and does, move mountains.

My mother was basically agnostic, having rebelled against her strict Catholic schooling. Towards the end of her life, she loved to watch programs related to the afterlife, where mediums seemingly give audience members messages from dead loved ones, or film crews spend the night in “haunted” buildings. I suppose that was her brain’s way of coping with the fear of death.

Religion, from an evolutionary perspective, allows us to live in groups. All of the rules basically boil down to “thou shall not impregnate thy neighbour’s wife”, so we can form societies and successfully pass on our genes to the next generation. But I still wish I believed in it.

One More Fight and Learning to Make Decisions

Something I didn’t expect about losing my mother is a feeling of wanting “just one more fight”.

We spent much of my adult life arguing. Mum wanted what she thought was best for me. I wanted to do things differently. “Play it safe” she advised me. “Marry an accountant”.

I’ve come to realise that many decisions I’ve made in my life I’ve made exactly because they are the exact diametric opposite of what she would have chosen for me, such as: piercings, tattoos, studying an arts subject at university, travelling around the world alone, self-funding being a volunteer, adopting a cat.

I won’t be studying this masters (Feminismo y género) because it’s something she would have disapproved of, but that’s a definite bonus. I think about dedicating my dissertation to her:

For Mum.
I know you’re probably right, but I have to try anyway.

Now that she’s gone, do I need to find a new way of making decisions? Firstly, I don’t know if she is “gone”. My religious/spiritual friends tell me that people they’ve lost continue with them in a certain way, which seems like what grief therapists refer to when they talk about “relationships continuing”. I find it comforting to think that the essencial *essence* of Mum, the kind and humourous part, will stay with me.

But as part of being an adult, I feel it’s important to make decisions based on your own internal compass, not to (dis)please others. Not sure how one learns to do that, but I have an inkling. Here’s my thought process about choosing my masters:
1) I want to do a masters.
2) a) Should I study something related to my current carreer (which I don’t really like) or branch out into a different subject?
Branch out.
b) Should I study in the US, the UK, or Spain?
Spain (cheapest)
c) Should I study in English or in Spanish?
Study what you love, in Spanish.

All of those questions I weighed up, mulled over, and researched, for probably about 5 years, although not consecutively. My final year of uni, I felt like I wanted to continue studying but I didn’t know what. I looked in to a few masters (like teaching, or law) but decided against them because I didn’t want to be tied to living in one country/region or saddled with  a bank loan. Then I forgot about studying as I grappled with learning Spanish.

So, deciding to do this masters is probably the first adult decision I’ve made in my life, instead of things just happening to/around me. I’m excited, but also nervous. Will I be able to cope being in Spanish all day? Will I run out of money? Will my classmates like me? Will people try to practise English on me all the time? It’s out of my hands. But I’ve made the decision.

Don’t give up giving up

I bought my first pack of cigarrettes when I was 13, when I bought my first bag of weed. “If I feel myself getting addicted, I’ll stop”, I said, with the hubris of youth. 12 years later, and I was still chained to nicotine, trapped in the idea that it was easier to continue smoking than to stop.

Out of 3 siblings, I am the only smoker. My father and his sister were chain smokers, and Dad always said: “Never ever start smoking”. When he realised I smoked, he tried to give me money to stop, but ofcourse that enabled my partying, and I continued smoking like a chimney.

The day my mother told me her cancer had come back(May 9th, 2014), I immediately started smoking again, trying desperately to handle the stress. I smoked more than ever, until I felt physical nausea, which made me lie down, until I felt better, so I could have another cigarrette.

My Mum always said “five a day”. Five cigarrettes a day won’t do you any harm. You have to die of something, don’t you?

She smoked until the final weeks of her life. “I feel so stupid now”, she told me, bedbound and morphined up. “I’ve brought all this on myself. I wish I had never smoked”. I tried to comfort her. I told her how addictive nicotine is, and how it wasn’t her fault. How no one blamed her.

I will never forget my mother’s black eyes twisting in pain in the last months of her life, and how she never, ever complained. Despite the pain, despite the degradation of her symptoms, all she wanted was one day more, one minute more, one breath more.

I would give anything to have one more argument with her. If she hadn’t smoked, would we have had another precious day together?

Mum,

I love you and I miss you and I think about you every day. It’s been 12 months since my last cigarrette, 8 months since your death, and I wish that it would bring you back to me.

Deciding not to have children

I’m 27 years old, and it started recently. People keep on speaking as if I’m going to have children.

I adopt a cat. There’s a phone interview. It is impressed upon me that cats are not a danger to babies.

I go to the doctor with a cold. He suggests I change my pill to a “softer” one “just in case” I decide to have a baby.

I have a hangover. My housemate suggests that I might be pregnant.

My cousins had their children (one each) when they were over 35. “Just hurry up and do it” they tell me and my sisters. “There’s nothing that compares to it. And if you have one late (like us) then you will only be able to have one. Do it young and you’ll have more energy.”

All very sensible.

At the moment, I just don’t want to have children. Money, time, energy, and (most importantly) selfishness.
Here’s a list of specific reasons why I don’t want to have children:
>I want to be a writer, which means…
>I need/want to get a PhD
I would love to get a PhD and work as a professor at a university (in person or online)
>I want to travel
I’d love to live in a mobile home and travel the world, working online, proofreading, editing, teaching.
>I don’t live near my relatives
If something bad happens, like a death, divorce, or illness, I don’t have anyone to help me with childcare
>My partner hates children
>My mother told me (before she died) that “children aren’t everything”. She sacrificed everything for us. I’m not capable of that.
>I don’t want to be incontinent after childbirth
>I despise going to the gynaecologist
>Patriarchy
In our society, child rearing is pushed on to women. That’s why women are almost automatically awarded custody of children in divorces, and why women are passed over for promotions and high powered/paying jobs.

Music, Death, Life, and Lindy

A few months before my Mum died, I put some music on Spotify, and my mum said: “Ah great, I love jazz”. She told me about how as a student in Belfast, she used to go to jazz events in a hotel in the city by herself because her friends weren’t into the music but she was. I’d known her my whole life, lived with her for 18 years, and I never knew that she liked that type of music. I suppose that she was a private person, and I was a difficult teenager (which she always refuted, but I know I was a complete twat), but still. I felt grateful then that she was dying of cancer, and that we still had a few precious moments left together when she was (relatively) well.

In the last few weeks of her life, when she was bed bound, we put on playlist after playlist of jazz music (she also loved Abba and the Bee Gees, but those didn’t really seem appropriate). “Which music shall we ruin now?” we joked, knowing that this music would be forever linked in our minds to watching our mother get weaker and weaker, eyes glassy with morphine, smiling when she heard our voices.

She’s been gone two months now, and I miss her like crazy. I’m incapable of going to weddings (I’ve declined 3 invitations thus far, and will probably not be going to another two) because I just can’t bear the thought of her not being there to watch me tie the knot, disapproving of everything  but also quietly, fiercely proud of the woman I’ve become.

My boyfriend and I enrolled in a Lindy Hop class in January. We dance to the swing music, which we both love, and I think about my mum. I feel close to her then, and I know that I’m doing something that she never did but would have enjoyed before she got sick. I don’t dance perfectly, but I dance for her.

Strength

A friend just lost their grandma to a long term illness, and they’ve said to me “How have you been so strong through all this? I don’t know what I would do if this was my Mum, and not my grandparent! Christ.”

For me, when it comes to psychological pain, it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing, measuring, even competing. Just because one person’s pain has a “worse” cause, doesn’t mean it’s more or less pain. Pain is pain. If someone has a big cut on their arm and someone else has a cut on their leg, it hurts. End of.

I told my friend that I use a thin veneer to hide the pain of losing my mother from the general public, but that’s not strictly true. Sometimes I don’t feel sad, and other times I suddenly do, and it’s hard to predict when I will feel a spasm of grief or not. I kind of do feel like, on a psychological level, I’ve broken a bone, and it’s very painful at times, but I have to remember it will heal. No matter how bad I feel, no matter how much I feel like I’m trapped in the bottom of a deep well, I won’t feel like this forever.

The truth is, Mum would want me to stop making so much of a fuss about her passing away. She would say “Shhh. Stop crying darlinks, you’re not dead. How about some eggs dippings?”.

So, I plod along, putting one foot after the other, hoping that these deep, dark, scary feelings will pass. And they do.

I’ve learned that nothing is ever as bad as you imagine it to be, and that when the time comes, you will find the strength inside yourself that you never knew you had, and do what needs to be done.

Things I learned in 2014

2014 has been a difficult year for me and my family. In May, my mum’s cancer markers were up, and in June, we were given confirmation by the oncologist that she had 6 months to live. She passed away in November, at 61 years old,  and I am still reeling from the loss, but I am doing my best to be positive and live my life, because that is what my mum would have wanted.

Here are some things I have learned in 2014.

1) It is impossible to die from emotional pain.

When you watch someone you love die, you might feel like the pain is so unbearable that you might die too. But you will survive.

2) People are basically good and kind.

Most people are nice. I was completely surprised by the amount of kind messages people I hadn’t spoken to in a long time sent me after reading my blog, even those whom I didn’t part on the best of terms with.

3) I shouldn’t drink that much.

There are a lot of people who can have a few beers and be “happy drunk”. Unfortunately, at the moment, I am not one of them.

4) Anger must be released in controlled explosions.

It’s OK to be angry, and it’s OK to be sad, but it’s not OK to take that out on other people. My partner has invited me to join him at the boxing gym this month, and I think I need it. The training may be beyond my physical abilities, but I need to get out my anger and what better thing to do than pulverise a punch bag?

5) Sports massages are wonderful!

Psychological pain can cause physical pain. Watching my mother deteriorate made my shoulders tense up to such an extent that some days I could barely turn my head. Then I found a wonderful sports massage therapist.

6) Life is short. Enjoy every day!

No matter what’s happening in your life, there are always small things you can enjoy every day. A nice hot shower, a walk in the park, laughing with friends, pictures of cats…

7) Be grateful for what you have.

A clean safe home. Running water. A hot shower. Clean clothes. Enough food to eat. Contraception. Health care. The dentist. A library card. The internet. So many people don’t have access to these simple things.

8) I really actually enjoy seeing pictures of people’s babies on my newsfeed.

I might be one of those rare people that loves seeing pictures of people’s growing families on their newsfeed. More baby pictures please! Picks me right up when I’m feeling down 🙂

Getting back to “normal”

I arrived back in the Basque country two weeks ago, and it has been a bitter sweet home coming. Many things I’ve done for the first time after Mum’s death have brought me to tears, like catching the flight to Bilbao, or going swimming.

It’s been nice to be back and pottering about, reconnecting with friends, attending French class again, and enjoying this beautiful city. I have been paying rent to live here for the past 6 months but, when I have been here, I’ve been walking around like a zombie, or too stressed and depressed to wander far from the house.

I’ve been finding it helpful to think about things as “doing them for Mum”. Mum loved jazz, so last weekend, when I went to a Lindy Hop dance event, I listened to the music, and I danced for her.  Mum also loved going to charity shops and antiques fairs, so I’ve done a bit of a wander around those sorts of events.

I had been calling her at least once a day when I was at home (and not with her), and the urge to call her is strong. My brain still sees something she would like, and thinks “Must tell her about that”, even though she is gone.

Sometimes, I’m eating dinner, and I just think, out of the blue “God. I wish she was alive again”.

 

 

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