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The Girl with the Daffodil Tattoo

A Welsh girl let loose in a wild world

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death

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.

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.

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 🙂

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.

Being Kept Busy: Tuesday 26th November

When someone dies, you are at your least capable, but this is when you have the most shit to do. Here’s all the stuff we needed to do, as Mum died at home.

>Get partners to post funeral clothes.

>Ask family members if they want to be contacted by email or by phone.

>Contact family members.

>Call nurse to verify death. Nurse gives you a certificate.

>Call a funeral home to take the body away and discuss date for ceremony.

>Give GP that cert so they can write another cert.

>Take that cert to the registry office (you only have 5 days to register a death, and you can’t make an appointment until you have the numbers from the GP)

>Decide what to do with body (burial, cremation…scattering? bury the ashes?)

>Choose flowers.

>Choose hymns.

>Choose order of service cards for guests.

>Chat with person who is leading service.

>Choose music.

>Talk to deceased’s solicitor

>Talk to neighbour about getting the house ready for sale.

>Check car insurance: how long is grace period? (I was a named driver on my Mum’s insurance. Turned out I could only drive the car for 7 days after she had died)

>talk to vicar about service

>Research local venues: do they have space? do they offer a buffet?

All this, while your brain feels foggy and you struggle to take a pizza out of the freezer and put it in the oven.

Still, the grief books I’ve been reading say that this time is not the “hardest” as you’re: in shock so it hasn’t hit yet, have a tonne of stuff to do to keep you’re mind off it, and people are still being nice to you.

Disbelief: Sunday 23rd November, 2 days after

I can’t believe that my mum is dead.

For the past six months, I’ve called her every day, sometimes twice a day. I’ve spent at least two weeks a month at her house.

When my mum was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my whole life changed. Things that had seemed so important before (Spanish class, getting Spanish people not to hate me with the fire of a thousand sols, going out, friends, work, weddings, being vegetarian) just sort of faded away. I just started to think “A tomar por culo”, “I don’t give a crap”. I just didn’t have the energy, about everything. I had bigger fish to fry.

I stayed in and watched box sets that I had illegally downloaded. Breaking Bad, The Following, Orange is the New Black, Girls, Once Upon a Time, Sleepy Hollow, The Wire…I was sick of hearing happy people complain about normal things, like their boss, weight, hair, or not having money. “My mum is dying” I wanted to say. Although I felt I couldn’t say that as it wasn’t fair, and would cause social awkwardness. I know that feeling, when someone starts to talk about something awful that I know nothing about, and I think “Shit, what do I say? How to I fill this ever growing silence? Say something, quick!” and then I just blurt out something ridiculous like “Have you tried this cheese?”.

I got stressed out. My shoulders cramped, I couldn’t move my neck. I started to have panic attacks. My brain stopped working. I started reading books with pictures; art books, graphic novels. Almost nothing in foreign languages anymore. My brain seemed to have lost that capacity, hopefully temporarily. I was scared.

Now she’s gone, what do I do? My whole life, my mother has been my compass. Everything she said not to do, I did, with gusto. I dyed my hair a thousand colours until it fell out. I volunteered my ass off, working for free ever since my first student loan freed me from the need to have a minimum wage job. I swore (and still do) like a sailor. I play poker, beat all the boys, and rub it in their faces. I’ve never dated someone for their wealth. I prefer trousers to skirts.

And she was still so, so proud of me. Anything I did half well was some kind of miraculous marvel of wonderment. My mum always thought the sun shone out of my rear, even/especially in the face of evidence to the contrary.

I never appreciated her until she was dying. I never forgave her and accepted her as an imperfect person who always tried to do her best, until the last years of her life. I suppose the young judge their elders harshly, until they get to that age where they are expected to do all the “adult things” and they are like “Oh. This shit is actually quite difficult and tiresome”, and they realise that actually being a child with no responsibility had it’s up side, and that having the keys to the house and the car means you have to pay the bills too.

I’ve asked my sister if she can disapprove of me and she has said that she will try but I doubt that it will be the same. You really never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

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