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The Transience Of Life

4 May

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

As I write this, I am sitting on the subway (having miraculously gotten a seat with enough room to type) on my way to the memorial service for my friend Margaret, who died last week.

Her passing was a big shock to me and my husband. We knew that she had been sick, but we had no idea that her illness was life-threatening. We did not know that she had cancer.

As I prepare to honour Margaret’s memory and offer condolences to her husband, I am still reeling from the very unexpected death of my aunt just three months ago. I find it hard to believe that so recently, I was jetting to the other side of the world to comfort my mom and help scatter the ashes of a woman who had been like a second mother to me.

These events – the deaths of my aunt and my friend – have led me to think almost obsessively about the transience of life. I am very aware that at some point over the next few years, I will lose my mom, who is now the last surviving sibling in her family. In all likelihood, because I am ten years younger than my husband, someday I will be widowed – hopefully a long time from now.

And I think about how I am getting along with everyone in my life, how much they all mean to me, and how much it would devastate me if any of them were to suddenly not be here anymore. I worry about whether I am a good enough mother, wife, sister, daughter, and friend.

I find myself feeling permanently shaken by the idea that at any moment, someone I love could simply and suddenly be gone forever. Arguments and disagreements upset me a great deal more than they used to, because what if I never get a chance to make it up with the other person? What if I never get to say sorry?

Earlier today, I gave one of my best friends a directive that she is not allowed to die. Ever. Not understanding the depth of how I feel about all of this these days, she asked why.

Well, it’s because I value her friendship and although our only communication is via email and Facebook, she is an integral part of my life. And I want her and my other loved ones to be there forever.

I know it’s a simplistic wish – for people to never die – but whenever I lose someone close to me, I feel like a part of me dies with them.

The only bright part of this is that when they die, a part of them stays alive with me – a part of them that I carry with me always, no matter where I go.

My point in all of this is that life is short. There is no time for meaningless disagreements that really don’t matter, and there is no time for people to treat their loved ones in a way that makes them feel unhappy, unwanted, or unworthy.

We need to embrace the people we have, while we still have them.

And when arguments happen, as they invariably do with us humans, there is no better time to patch things up than the present.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikebaird/3036430387/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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Journey–Part 2

24 Feb

On Wednesday I started chronicling my recent trip to South Africa. I intended to put everything in one post, but as it turned out, a lot of activity was packed into my ten days there. This is an account of my last few days.

2012-02-15 14.27.52Wednesday: I have been looking forward to this day ever since I arrived. My friend Jenny picks me up and we spend the day together. Why am I so excited about this? Because Jenny and I have been friends since we were ten. We live far away from each other now, but something as paltry as distance isn’t going to change the fact that she is my best friend and always will be. We go out for coffee, then take a walk around the bird park. We watch a live bird show – part of it, anyway, before the rest of it is cancelled due to rain. After that we head indoors and have lunch together. It is a great day, one that concludes with us resolving to have a joint 50th birthday celebration in some exotic location. We have a few years to nail down the details.

Thursday: Mom and I head out early to do the shopping we were going to do on Tuesday. We buy presents for my boys and food for the memorial that is planned for tomorrow. Then Mom drops me off at a shopping mall, where I have arranged to meet up with my friends Faye and Njabulo. I used to work with Faye and I was in Toastmasters with both of them. We spend hours drinking coffee and talking. Eventually we go our own reluctant ways. I do a bit of shopping before meeting up with my cousin Philippa, who is visiting for a few days from the coastal town of Knysna that is now home to her. We have coffee, do more shopping, and then head home to have dinner with Mom.

2012-02-17 15.11.45Friday: My brother arrives at a prearranged time, and the three of us drive out to my aunt’s house. We have a small private memorial planned – just a few us of us, all family. With my brother protectively carrying the ashes, we go up the hill behind her house. My brother says a few words that bring smiles and tears to the rest of us, and then we scatter the ashes under a tree – the same tree where both of my grandparents were scattered many years ago. My aunt’s final resting place is absolutely gorgeous, and the rain has held off for this occasion. We go back to the house and share memories. This is just the kind of final farewell that my aunt would have wanted.

Saturday: My friend Caroline picks me up and we go out for brunch. I haven’t seen Caroline for about twelve years and she looks just the same. We have a great time catching up, and then she comes back to the house to have tea with me and Mom. After she leaves, Mom and I go out for lunch with my brother. It will be a long time before I see him again, so I am glad of this opportunity. When Mom and I get back to the house, my aunt and cousins come for tea. I finish my packing, and then Mom and I tearfully say goodbye to each other before my cousins drop me off at the train that will take me to the airport.

I returned to Toronto on Sunday afternoon, feeling jetlagged, exhausted, and filled with the sadness that comes from leaving behind a grieving mother. I wish I could split myself in half. I am so happy to be back here, with my husband and children. But I wish I could have spent more time with Mom. I feel like she still needs me, and I hope she knows that even though I am far away, I am always at her side.

Seeing Her For The Last Time

10 Feb

Today I saw my aunt Ann for the first time in seven years. Last time I saw her, she cooked lunch at her house. She was always a bit of a marvel in the kitchen, and the meal was delicious. We ate good food, drank good wine, and shared tears and laughter as we reminisced about my Dad, whose funeral had been held two days previously.

Today, I stood in a funeral home looking down at Ann, lying in her casket. She looked bruised and swollen, and the injuries from the accident that took her life were very much in evidence. It was hard, so hard, to see her.

After we left the funeral home, we went to Ann’s house to have tea and cake, and to talk and find comfort in being together – me, my Mom, my aunt Mary (the wife of my late Uncle Philip who was Ann and my Mom’s brother) and two of my cousins. It was strange to be in Ann’s home without Ann.

I am still not sure what it will be like, trying to adjust to a world without Ann in it. I am not sure what thoughts will be going through my mind next week when we all gather to scatter Ann’s ashes.

The only thing I am sure of is this: even though Ann’s body looks bruised and broken, she will always be beautiful to me.

May she rest in peace.

Goodbye To A Lady

2 Feb

To my beautiful Aunt Ann,

For months, I have been telling myself that I would write you a letter. The Internet never made its way to the charming old farmhouse that has been home to you for your whole life. Since I moved to Canada eleven years ago, we have kept up with each other’s lives through my Mom, the occasional phone call, my two visits home, and the odd piece of snail mail.

When I got married last year, you painted me a picture. A bright, beautiful picture of flowers. It brightens up my mantle and I think of you every time I look at it. And although I sent you a card to say thank you, I promised myself that I would write you a proper letter, full of news and anecdotes. Maybe I would put in some pictures of my boys, the great-nephews who filled you with joy even though you never met them.

Now you are gone, tragically taken from us while the letter in my head remains forever unwritten.

When Mom called in the early hours of this morning to give me the news, I could not believe it. You have always been such a big, influential part of my life, and I cannot help wondering if my world will ever be able to adjust to your absence.

You were, to me, the epitome of a lady. Stylish and elegant, you were utterly beautiful inside and out. The many wonderful qualities about you will never be forgotten: your warmth and kindness, your generosity, your patience, and of course, your second-to-none baking skills.

Memories of you are playing in my head like a slideshow.

…the countless times you helped me prepare for my piano exams, showing me with infinite patience where I was going wrong and applauding what I was doing right.

…the times I walked around your large property with you and your dogs, helping you feed the pigeons.

…the times I played checkers with Granny when she was still alive, while you tried out a sewing experiment at the other end of the table.

…the way I admired the garden that you put so much love and care into.

…the lazy summer days I whiled away on the hammock in your front yard while you happily pruned roses nearby.

…the times I ate the shortbread that only you could make just right, that you dipped into melted chocolate.

…the little “Happy Birthday” music box you had, that you would play over the phone to whoever was celebrating a birthday.

…the time you took me and two of my cousins to the lion park.

…the time you tried to firmly but lovingly talk sense into me when I made a stupid decision that would have far-reaching effects.

…your home renovation escapades that made the rest of the family alternately despair and laugh.

…the way you folded me in your warm, loving embrace when my Dad died, comforting me even while you grieved the loss of one of your best friends.

…the day, shortly after Dad’s funeral, when you and I broke the corkscrew while it was still in the cork and we ended up having to strain the wine, and we agreed that Dad was messing with us.

…your absolute delight when we welcomed my firstborn child into the world the day before your birthday.

At the beginning of this week, I was gripped with inexplicable intense anxiety that wouldn’t go away. For three days I was living with the iron first of dread, and I didn’t know why. Little did I know that my universe was bracing itself for your sudden departure.

It is surreal to think that you left your house expecting to be gone for a short time – just long enough to walk your dogs down the road and back. You probably thought you would return home, have a cup of tea and maybe a sandwich for your lunch, and spend the rest of the day relaxing in your garden with your dogs.

I wonder if you had any sense of what was to come as the car approached, starting off the chain of events that would lead to your death. I hope you went quickly, without feeling any pain.

I love you, and I always have. I am going to miss you more than words can possibly express. And I am grateful that I had the honour of being your niece, that you were such a big part of my life, and that you helped shape me into the person I am today.

I know that you will be worrying about Mom. She is devastated. You were her best friend and she will miss you so much. But we will take care of her. We will make sure she is OK.

Rest in peace, beautiful lady. Someday, I’ll see you on the other side.

Kirsten

KCJ0001

Remembering A Captain

24 Jan

A year ago today, a baby named David got his angel wings. After tirelessly staying by his side during his five-month-stay in hospital, his Mom – so brave, so beautiful inside and out, and with a heart bursting with love – held him in her arms as he winged his way into the next world.

During his time on earth, David – known to many of us as Captain Snuggles – changed many lives. He inspired people to appreciate what they had and to live their lives better. Through him, people started donating blood. Because David was here with us, because he fought so bravely, lives have been saved, continue to be saved because of the people who continue to donate blood in his honour.

What an amazing legacy for an eight-month-old baby.

To Captain Snuggles: rest in peace, smile on the people who live because of you, and touch your family with love.

To David’s mom Amy, who fought so hard for her son’s life: I send you vibes of love, strength, and peace. I wish I could be close enough to hug you, but through the bonds of friendship, I am with you tonight. May you and your family find strength in being together, and may all of you feel the loving presence of the brave Cap’n.

 

 

Remembering Dad – Seven Years On

6 Dec

I was watching The Apprentice when I got the news that my Dad had died. I should have known as soon as I looked on the phone display that something was wrong. Although it was a reasonable enough hour in my own time zone, it was three in the morning in South Africa. Be that as it may, when I answered the phone, I had no idea that I had lost a parent. Even though Dad had been gravely ill in hospital, the news came as a terrible shock.

The story of Dad’s illness and death is all too common these days. He had been sick on and off for a couple of years, but despite numerous visits to the doctor, cancer had only been diagnosed six weeks prior to his death. By then, the tumour in his bladder was too big to remove, and Dad’s only shot at survival was aggressive chemotherapy followed by surgical removal of the entire bladder. He survived the chemotherapy – only just – and he made it through the twelve-hour operation. In the end, though, his body was just too weak to survive all that it had been put through, and a few days after the surgery, he winged his way from this world to the next.

It was December 6th, 2004. Seven years ago today.

When we lose someone close to us, we are supposed to go through the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

I had heard of this theory, of course, but I had never really found it to be of any use. It suggests that these stages happen sequentially, that you cannot ever get to acceptance until you have passed through the other four stages. According to this theory, once you are in the Acceptance stage, you’re done with your grieving.

The reality is that grieving is such a personal, individual process, and everyone does it differently. Denial has definitely been a big part of my own experience, and although I am mostly over that, I still have moments of thinking, “Gone??? What do you mean, gone? That’s impossible!” By contrast, I have not spent a single moment in the Bargaining phase, although that could still be coming.

What about this one, though? Guilt. Where does that fit in with this whole stages of grieving thing? I’m sure I’m not the only one to experience it with the death of a loved one. What could I have done? Why didn’t I travel home to see him before he died? Why am I remembering every argument we ever had, when I should be focusing on the many good times we shared?

The stage of grief that I have the biggest problem with, though, is acceptance. This is supposed to be the pinnacle, the reward we can all look forward to if we can just get through all of the other stuff that comes before it. But is it really truly attainable? Yes, we can get to a point where we can lead our lives without the person we have lost, but can we ever fully accept it? Can my Mom, who was married to Dad for forty years, be reasonably expected to completely reconcile herself with the fact that her husband – her best friend, the man she lived with, travelled with, and raised children with – is no longer by her side?

Here’s the bigger question: what does acceptance really mean? It seems to me that once someone reaches that magical stage, they are expected to be OK. They are not allowed to be sad anymore because their grieving is done. And honestly, there is a part of me that doesn’t really want to reach that stage. Because doesn’t acceptance imply that you are OK with the person not being around anymore? And isn’t that a form of betrayal to them? Like you’re prepared to finally let go of what little you have left of them?

To some people, the stages of grief can be a useful roadmap, a guide to let them know what’s coming next. For me, it’s frustrating. I loop back and forth between the stages too much, and I’m ambivalent about the prize. I mean, how likely am I to strive for acceptance if it’s not what I really want?

So today, seven years after Dad left us, I don’t really know where I am with this whole grieving process.

What I do know is that Dad was many things to many people. He was a great marathoner in his youth and he fuelled my own love of running. He was an astute businessman who gave me countless tidbits of financial advice and did my taxes every year in exchange for a bag of sugar-coated almonds. He was both reader and storyteller, dramatist and comedian. He had an appreciation for the simple pleasures in life, and would take his time washing the dishes just so he could watch the sunset through the kitchen window while he was doing it. He adored his dogs and cats, and spent many Sundays polishing his car surrounded by family pets. Along with my Mom, he gave me and my brother the opportunity to grow up witnessing what a loving, supportive partnership should look like. To me and my brother, he was Dad – the best one we could have asked for. And during the brief period of time for which he shared a planet with my son George, he was the most loving, doting Granddad any kid could wish for.

I don’t know what happens to us when we die. I choose to believe that Dad is around somewhere, watching fondly over his grandsons, cheering me on when I run races, clicking his tongue impatiently when I make stupid decisions, and having a good old giggle when I get caught in the rain and wind up with a bad hair day.

Rest in peace, Dad. Someday, I’ll see you on the other side.

Making A Living Out Of Dying

26 May

A week ago, my co-worker H lost her father. He had been sick with cancer for a long time, and seeing him go through so much pain had taken its toll on H and her family. His death, as one would expect, hit the family hard. I know perfectly well what it’s like, having been through this with my own Dad several years ago.

As if losing her father was not a huge enough thing to begin with, H has been dealing with the funeral home making it abundantly clear that him dying right before a long weekend was inconvenient to them. They didn’t come right out and say that, of course (that would have been insensitive – note the dripping sarcasm). No, they just showed the sentiment through their actions and their stonewalling.

H’s father was cremated in accordance with his wishes. Sounds easy enough, no? No. Because of that pesky long weekend, the funeral home couldn’t arrange the cremation until five days after the deceased passed away. Which, OK, I can kind get because lots of people aren’t around for long weekends. Just don’t be narky about it to the grieving family.

In the meantime, the cemetery have a policy whereby they refuse to begin preparing the plot until the ashes are in their possession. Again, OK. You don’t want a hole in the ground – even a little one that will contain an urn – and then be faced with delays.

The crematorium had promised the family that they would have the ashes on Tuesday evening. The plan was to get the ashes to the cemetery, who for reasons known only to them need two full days to dig a little hole for an urn, and then have the funeral on Friday.

Despite H making repeated phonecalls to a bunch of people, the funeral home only told H this morning that they had received the ashes from the crematorium. Which meant that the cemetery did not have the ashes. Which meant that they were not willing to dig that little hole in time for a funeral on Friday.

Which means that this grieving family have not only been waiting to say goodbye to their loved one, they have been getting royally jerked around while they’ve been waiting.

To add insult to injury, the funeral home admitted that they received the ashes yesterday morning and didn’t bother to tell the family. If they had, the funeral could have happened on Friday as planned.

While this has all been going on, the funeral home guy has been – to put it mildly – a condescending, arrogant, insensitive jackass.

I feel very angry on behalf of H and her family. I think it is disgusting that a grieving family can be treated this callously at such a sad time in their lives.

If you’re going to be in the business of death, at least be kind and sensitive, and mindful of the fact that your clients are vulnerable and grieving.