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The Girl with the Daffodil Tattoo

A Welsh girl let loose in a wild world

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cancer

It’s Almost Impossible to be Unhappy in Bilbao

I cried on the plane to Bilbao again today, knowing that I won’t be back in the UK for a while now. Home isn’t perfect, but it’s so…. normal. You know what to expect. You know roughly when stuff opens, and what time it closes. You count the money without thinking about it. Your brain doesn’t get exhausted by speaking a foreign language, trying to interpret signs that are make zero sense to you.

As soon as I got back to the flat, I lay down on the sofa and had a good old cry. My mum is 100% dead, incinerated, soon to be scattered. Her house is empty. I worked really hard over the summer, emptying the garage and cupboard after cupboard, giving things of no sentimental value to charity (which is where they came from), and my sister did the final clear out of Mum’s clothes this week. Don’t ask me where she got the mental energy. I just sat there, feeling waves of sadness hit me and trying not to get in her way.

I peeled myself off the sofa as there was no food in the house, and I put on my “walking in Spain face”, which tries to be neutral, yet with a hint of “I take no shit”. I’ve been working on softening it in the year since I left Madrid, but it’s still pretty sharp.

The lift in my building arrived. There was a young couple already in there. I got in. The lift didn’t move. “Your backpack” they said, smiling. Anther person got in. They all chatted.

I went to the supermarket, got my stuff, and then waited in the queue. Someone who worked there actually bothered to tell me I was in the 5 items or less queue, smiling, while his other coworkers consoled a crying child who had mislaid it’s mother, feeding her chocolate. When I was ready to pay, the cashier leant over conspiratorially, and told me that I was really missing out by not having the store card. She called over her manager to sign me up, and I dictated to him my details, while a lady behind me remarked “I learn English my whole life and look, she’s learning Spanish and she speaks so well. Where are you from?”.

Back in the lift of my apartment, I stopped to hold a door open for the person entering behind me. She started chatting to me about how cold it was (in Britain it’s 10 degrees colder right now,  but no one likes this to be pointed out). I smiled and nodded, agreeing about the “cold”, while thinking “You know nothing Jon Snow”. As I left the lift she called after me “Happy New Year!”.

I suppose that people are generally happier and friendlier during the holidays, but Bilbao is just such a happy and friendly place in general. It’s the complete polar opposite to Madrid. I wish wish WISH I had moved to the Basque Country earlier, but I always remind myself that if I hadn’t lived in Madrid for 3 horrible years then I wouldn’t have met my lovely partner.

I’m so glad I live here now. Basque people are so lovely and kind,  so polite, so positive, so gracious and welcoming to foreigners. I hope people treat them really well when they are in the UK.

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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.

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 🙂

HELP! My friend has lost their parent/s and I don’t know what to do.

It’s been 3 weeks since I lost my Mum. She died at 61 years old. She took all the available treatment, she went on the trials; with her type of cancer (pancreatic), the average patient usually lives 9 months. She lasted 2 years and one month, and she enjoyed every minute of that, despite the symptoms and side effects (constant and intense pain, chronic diarrhea, bone weakening leading to osteoporosis and spinal fractures due to the chemo).

Since my mother was first diagnosed, and we knew that she had a 95% chance of dying within 5 years, I felt like there was a shadow looming over my life. I thought of the expense of traveling to visit her more. To say “we weren’t close'” is an understatement. I felt resentful. And petrified. What if I would have to help her in the bathroom, or the shower? I couldn’t bear the thought of it.

I made the decision to let go of the long, dark, past, which was scary. It meant that I went to her, willingly, just sitting and watching, while someone I loved suffered and smiled, to try and hide it. I stopped going out when I was at home, I socialised much less. I watched a lot of TV shows I downloaded. I cried until I couldn’t physically cry anymore. I kicked the shit out of my bed to get my anger out. I’m a voracious reader, but I just didn’t have the mental energy to pick up a novel for quite some time. My brain just wasn’t working anymore.

Supporting Friends Who Are Grieving

There’s tonnes of books on grieving, and I’ve read a selection. “Everyone grieves differently” seems to be a common theme, and there are different stages, like: anger, sadness, rage, guilt, acceptance etc. It seems like grief is the one time where you are “allowed” to go a bit mad.

Sometimes, I felt like I needed to be alone. Other times, I wanted to be around people, and laugh at a silly joke and take a break from what was happening. I mainly didn’t/don’t want to verbalise what’s been happening and how I felt/feel as I don’t like to cry in public. But sometimes I like just knowing someone else was there beside me at the cinema, or at a yoga class. Being there, being available, knowing that I’ve got stuff going on and not disowning me, was enough.

Ask your friend what they want. Maybe they don’t know! They might be bursting to talk about it, but not want to bring you down. Or they might just want to be around you and listen to what’s happening in your life. That’s where I’m at at the minute; I’m meeting up with/Skyping good friends, and listening to the fun stuff they’re doing and having a good old belly laugh.

Beware of Giving Advice

One behaviour I would steer away from is advice (she says, after having given advice for paragraph after paragraph…). People would ask how I was, and I would say  (honestly) “I’m sad”, and then… they must not know what to say or something, so they start to tell me to DO things, like exercise, or getting my nails done. I didn’t find that helpful, at all. Especially when my mum was in the final stages, as she was at home (where she wanted to be) and we were doing a lot of stuff for her.

Advice giving is also summed up really well in this blog and now graphic novel called Hyperbole and a Half. This chapter is about depression but I thought of it when hapless friends tried to find a “solution” to my sadness.

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It is what it is. I mainly just wanted people to be “there”, and to listen. I don’t think I moaned about it a lot, but sometimes it felt good to be honest and not just say “I’m fine”, when I wasn’t feeling fine at all. I asked questions about how other people were too. I wanted to hear about them as a distraction from all the stuff that was going on. I cheered for their victories, and listened to their worries. “Oh, you don’t want to hear about that. That’s nothing compared to what’s happening with you” they would say, but I wanted to hear about “normal” trials and tribulations, like dinging the car or arguing with a partner; I craved it. I would have loved to have been moaning about a parking ticket or a phone company over charging me. That would have been f-ing bliss compared to the chest collasping dread I felt when my mum was running low on morphine.

Hope that gives you some sort of insight in to how one person dealt/deals with grief and loss.

Another thing I read was that grief is a lonely road. No matter who I was talking to about it, I felt alone. Your Uncle died? Not the same. Your mother died a few years ago? Well, that was a few years ago, and it was different because… Each person’s grief is unique. There are common themes, like anger, sadness, shock, but essentially, we are alone in our emotions. That’s OK. You don’t have to make your friend feel better. That’s not in your power. But you can just *be* there. And you can give him/her a big warm hug.

How to Prepare for Your Own Parents’ Death

Emotionally,  nothing can prepare you for the death of a parent/loved one, and no amount of worrying in the present will take the sting out of future loss. Take it one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time, and second by second you will endure through those difficult moments.

Doing some things when they are (relatively) well will make the process easier. If they are able to “get their affairs in order”, i.e. write a will, collect house bills and bank statements, write instructions for someone else about house stuff (like turning on the boiler and reading the meters etc), maybe auction off some of the knick-knacks, try to “white box” the house a little, i.e. remove wallpaper, paint things cream, have the skirting boards painted, maybe have some solar panels put in (my region gives seniors a grant to do that for free), then that will make stuff easier for you, when “the time comes”.

My mother was able to do that in some ways, but not in others, as I wrote about here.  I did what I could, and I was glad that I did, because when she died, there was so so much to do, and I had so little energy, that we would have been in a deep mess if I hadn’t spent the summer cleaning out the attic and the garage etc.

One thing I wish that I had done was go through the photos with her. After she died, we found a mountain of photos, uncategorised, from before she was married and we were a born, and I saw so many people I didn’t recognise. All I wanted to do was to ask her to tell me about who was in the photos, but she was already gone.

Photos: December 3rd 2014

At the funeral, we had a handful of photos from Mum’s childhood in Northern Ireland, one or two from her time as a police officer in Hong Kong, and one of the four of us, when we (her daughters) were all in primary school. The day after the funeral, we found the mother load.

Hundreds of photos. So many photos we never knew existed.

Mum smiling with her brothers and her sister in Northern Ireland.

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Mum working as a police officer in Hong Kong.

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Mum on her wedding day.

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Mum on her honeymoon.

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Mum as the mother of young children.

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Then something happens. My mother didn’t want to be in any photos anymore. Her marriage broke down. She had to sell the house. We were all very unhappy. It was a very dark time.

I thought that when Mum died, we would find an explanation. Someone would tell us something at the funeral, or we would find a photo that told us why Mum became so isolated, so ill. I would have The Answer, and be able to avoid becoming unhappy like her, imprisoned in my own head, and completely unable to accept help, or ask for it.

I’m overwhelmed with a feeling of wanting to know about the photos; the events, the parties, the people standing with Mum. I want to ask her all about them. But I know that she wouldn’t have been able to show us her photos and tell us about who was there with her. She was closest to us, her daughters, but she was so, so, private She was a mystery wrapped in an enigma tied up with a riddle.

The Funeral: Monday 1st December 2014

Shock: a blanket that protects you from what’s right in front of you that you can’t face.

I woke up early, at 8.am I made a pot of tea, then I put on the bacon. I toasted the bread. 5 people, 10 slices of bread, 1 whole pack of bacon, defrost the other in the microwave. Cook the whole thing; might as well. In for a penny, in for a pound.

We waited for the “limo”, which is what they call the hearse for the living that follows the dead. We got in, shrouded in a nightmare. I said “I wish I’d bought my sick bag”. My sister suggested I change seat. I said “It’s not from the motion”.

The hearse was supposed to stop at a local pub, where the other cars would join the convoy. Why is it going past? Hey, stop! The others need to join.

We drove in semi silence, crying intermittently.

We arrived. The funeral director advised us to stay in the car, as it would be easier to go straight from the car to follow the coffin. I saw my friends hanging around the car park. My uncle commented on my male friend’s luscious locks. My dad offered to carry Mum’s coffin. She was the most independent person I had ever known.

We got out. I avoided eye contact with my friends. We fell in line with the coffin. As we entered the crem, I felt like when you are on a roller coaster, at the zenith, looking down. A great big “Fuck!” escaped from my mouth, blasphemy trying to kill my pain.

Standing at the front, I was rocked in wave after wave of pain. There was my mum, in that wooden box. The vicar spoke beautifully, something about believers getting to live forever. Mum wasn’t big on Christianity but she would have been happy with something so formal. I wished I was religious so that I could believe in paradise and seeing her again.

We stood. People sang. We sat. He spoke. We stood. People sang. We sat. I couldn’t sing because it was taking all my energy to stand at the appropriate times. I followed the words in the order of service instead. I hummed a bit. They said the Lord’s prayer. I looked outside, at the trees, because for me God is in nature. Amen.

The service, beautiful, formal, without a hitch, every second a living torture, ended. We went to the front. I kissed my hand, and touched the side of the coffin. “Goodbye Mum”. It was too much, I left first.

All in a line, thanking the people for coming. Familiar faces, less familiar faces. My friends were at the end. “How are you?” they said. I just cried.

First Pangs of Loss: Friday 28th November

I was in Boots, picking up some waterproof mascara for the funeral on Monday, and I overheard a girl bickering with her mother.

“Just say what you want then” she said, in an exasperated tone. Her mother mumbled something back and she said “Ok then. It’s not difficult. JEsus CHrist!”

Then it hit me. I was never going to argue with my mum ever again. I was never going to call her up to tell her my news, pre-empting it with “I know you’re not going to like this but…”.

My mum had deeply traditional views. She was educated by nuns in Northern Ireland, and although she had tried to escape their judgemental attitudes and threats of hellfire, brimstone, and general damnation, she still wasn’t a big fan of fornicating or homosexuality. Her dream for me was to marry some moderately rich, capable guy, who had a steady job and was good at filing tax rebates, like an accountant or a dentist. Financial stability was her obsession, and she would love for me to be with Mr. Collins as opposed to gambling on Mr. Darcy.

I believe that old JC (or Jesus Christ, as he’s known to the general public) was a socialist, leftie, egalitarian cool dude, who just wanted people to be nice to each other. I don’t think “homosexual” is synonymous with paedophile, and I 100% support gay rights, including adoption and marriage. I don’t believe in marriage and I don’t see a house and kids in my future. If I do have children, I want my partner to cut his hours and do his half of the child rearing. For me, marriage, with its inherent “forever” concept, was invented when women died in childbirth. I intend to live a long and healthy life, and to enjoy every moment.

So you can imagine our conflicts, our eventual stalemate. Towards the end, my mum mellowed considerably. Here’s a good example:

“So, I have something to tell you and you’re probably not going to like it but I don’t want to deceive you” I blurted, my heart pounding. I felt like I was jumping off a cliff. “After my six month trip, I’m going to Bilbao, and I’m moving in with Yoann”.

There was a prolonged pause.

“Oh.” she said. “Is that it? I thought you were already living together and just hadn’t told me”.

Oh Mother. You were always one step ahead.

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