All I have to do is dream

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It’s now five months since mum died, but I’m still dreaming about her most nights. I wish that was a comfort; a form of compensation for having survived a whole summer without her. I wish I could fall asleep reassured by the thought of seeing her again. But while the dreams may be vivid and true to life, they are also upsetting and uncomfortable because she is always terminally ill in them. She doesn’t look like my mum. She looks like a cancer patient who has lost her wavy golden brown hair, whose skin is grey and gaunt. She is always wearing the same dressing gown and slippers; the syringe driver in its cotton pouch, hung on her shoulder, where her leather handbag should be. In last night’s dream, I had to say goodbye to her all over again. I woke up in shock; feeling heartbroken, as though it had only happened yesterday.

I haven’t talked or written much about the illness and the six weeks we spent visiting her in the hospice (until she was finally brought home), so maybe the dreams are a way of dealing with it subconsciously. Hopefully I will eventually be purged of the terrible memories of that time. How wonderful it would be, to remember her as the person she was before. Last week, Facebook – good old Facebook – alerted me to a photo memory they thought I might want to see. How thoughtful they are! It was the picture above, taken six years ago. I remember it clearly because it was the day after my sister’s wedding and I was on the sofa at mum’s, bemoaning my single status and my failed existence with a hangover so brutal I felt like I’d been run over by a lorry. I was about to get on the train back to London and was feeling teary when mum walked in wearing Cathy’s bridal veil, and did a little dance to cheer me up. God, I miss her.

It’s moments like that I wish I could remember more of. Perhaps I will as time goes on, that’s what people tell me. I want to remember her and feel comforted by the memories, instead of being suddenly reminded, and floored with emotion because it’s taken me by surprise. It’s like walking into M&S and being hit by a smell that takes me back to shopping with mum in Liverpool; losing her in the Per Una section because she’s on a wild goose chase to find a cardigan in a shade of purple that will match that dress. It’s turning on series two of Victoria for a bit of Sunday night escapism and suddenly feeling incomprehensibly devastated when you realise she’s not watching it and you won’t be able to ring her afterwards.

I’ve been in tears quite a lot this afternoon. Working from home alone, I’ve had these episodes of proper, gut-wrenching sobbing, the kind where you feel like you can’t breathe properly, as if you’ve been stabbed in the chest. Whenever I have a really bad day, I try and work out what’s making me so much more upset than usual i.e., hormones, hangover etc. (Generally, I can bring my grief under control. My coping mechanism is to distract myself and not ‘go’ there in my head and I’m quite good at that. Usually.) I’m putting it down to September being in full swing. To back to school blues. I used to love the start of a new season (and autumn is my favourite) but now it’s lost all of its shine. People are in fresh start mode, and I’m finding the future pretty terrifying to comprehend. We laid mum to rest in Wales a couple of weeks ago (I’ll write about that another time when I feel ready) and momentarily, I felt at peace too. But then there are days like today, when there’s no let up. When it dawns on me, that somehow, it actually feels like it’s getting harder. When I’m in so much pain I just want to scream.

 

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Postcard from the edge

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Yesterday I got back from a week away, and it hit me all over again and I couldn’t stop crying. I just wanted to talk to her. And nothing made me feel any better. My wise friend Natalie suggested writing to her, so when it got to 2am and I still couldn’t get to sleep, I put pen to paper. I thought I’d share it below.

Dear Mags,

It’s 2am and I can’t sleep and I’m thinking about how I used to tell you about my sleepless night the next morning in great detail, and you would have had an equally sleepless night and we would often have been awake at the same hour. (Insomnia, like picking from food in the fridge and being obsessively tidy is one of the more annoying traits I’ve inherited from you!) You used to encourage me to get up and do something like make a hot drink or read a few chapters of a book and it was always a comfort imagining you were doing exactly the same. Now it just feels empty, and strange… and lonely, because you’re not doing any of those things, and I won’t be able to ring you to talk about them in the morning.

We got back from our holiday (Maine/New York) first thing and instead of getting back into work, feeling supposedly rejuvenated after a break, I got into bed ‘for a lie down’ and woke up bleary eyed three hours later. I wasn’t even that tired; just unspeakably sad, and uncomfortably numb. I’ve been feeling like this all week… When we went hiking for miles and ate warm, buttery lobster rolls in the car when it started pouring with rain. When we played cards at the bar and washed down oysters with enormous glasses of fizz. When we ordered ice cream sodas, went paddling in the sea and drove from Bar Harbour to Portland singing along to cheesy rock anthems. Because we had a wonderful time, but for most of it, I felt like I was only half there.

Every time I belly laughed it was tinged with sadness. Every time I saw something beautiful, it made me uneasy. Every time I took a photograph, it felt insignificant.  A big part of the pleasure of going on holiday for me is returning home with stacks of souvenirs and silly stories; but without you, what’s the point any more? If I can’t call you when I land… When I can’t show you where I’ve been… When you can’t feel like you were there with me… When there’s no ‘home’ to come back to…

I know it’s going to take time for anything – holidays, birthdays, Christmas (which I’m already dreading) – to feel ‘normal’ again and that everything is different now, I just can’t get my head around how something joyful can now feel so unbelievably joyless. Chris planned this trip so thoughtfully while I barely lifted a finger, but I suppose I had my own (emotional) challenges to overcome. At one point I had to say to him, “you can’t fix me,” which felt like an important realisation for us both. He did (and does) everything he could to make sure we had an amazing time but the reality is, right now, nothing will feel ‘amazing’. It can’t, when the grief is so raw, when the pain is so deep. But that doesn’t mean it won’t ever again.

Oh mum, what I would give to go on one more ‘Hayes family holiday’. And that really is saying something, isn’t it? It was always so horribly stressful – the expense (when we went to Belgium and you forgot your debit card and we had £300 to last four of us for a week) the lost luggage (when our suitcase was nicked on the train back from Torquay) the rows (when your glasses broke in Lake Garda)… Every year you would shout, “that’s the last holiday we’re going on,” but it never was. If I could relive all those holidays (yes even the really awful ones) all in one go, right now, I would. That’s how much I miss you.

xxxx

Summertime sadness

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Seasons change and now summer’s here, but it loses its significance; its exuberance, when you’re missing someone. Rays of sunshine are more like flashes of thunder and lightning, violent jolts that come out of nowhere. They make my heart sink into my stomach. They remind me that I am here. And that she is not.

I felt them when I opened my balcony doors this morning and remembered I couldn’t call her. I felt them when I laid out the floral dress I’ve bought for a wedding I’m going to, that I won’t be able to show her. I felt them when I sat in the park with Chris and we decided on our holiday destination, and it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be sending her a postcard, or bringing her back something porcelain for the mantelpiece (thanks to my travels she had quite a collection of cats, birds and turtles).   

My sister left to go on holiday a few days ago and when we spoke the night before she couldn’t shake this feeling of anxiety. Cath was bound to be anxious; her and her husband were taking their two young children on a plane for the first time. But this was more than a niggle; it was all consuming, and I recognised it with such familiarity. People talk about how difficult significant ’milestones’ are when you’ve lost somebody close to you, but they don’t tell you how many unexpected milestones, or stumbling blocks you’ll physically encounter every season/month/week/day.

Catching a flight and travelling abroad might not sound like a big deal but when the last person you speak to at the airport before you board, and the first person you text when you land suddenly isn’t here anymore, it takes on a new weight, and it hurts like hell.

I know how hard that must have been for Cath and getting on a plane to New York in a few weeks time won’t be without its challenges for me. I used to love flying. It’s the only time you’re completely uncontactable and forced to do nothing but eat, drink, sleep and watch films. It was my idea of heaven, until February, when Chris and I cut our honeymoon in Thailand short on learning mum’s cancer was terminal, and jumped on a plane to be by her bedside.

The overnight flight was a blur; the only thing I remember is walking towards Cath in arrivals and trying to gauge from her facial expression whether we had arrived home too late. They say you always remember where you were when something life-changing happens. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the panoramic views from our ocean view hilltop villa when I heard the news. Not because they were beautiful – and they were –  but because as soon as I came off the phone, in the blink of an eye, like a flash of lightning, it started pouring with rain.

It was a metaphor you couldn’t make up. The honeymoon was over. A holiday, a flight home, a porcelain figurine stuffed into a suitcase… nothing would be the same again.

Lest we forget

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Today is two months since mum passed away. I imagined myself writing this blog more frequently because I thought I’d find it so cathartic. The reality, is that it’s too painful at the moment – to write about her (at any length), to talk about her (in any depth), to remember her (ultimately as she deserves us to). The result of making myself so busy that I don’t have time to think about any of it, are some nasty involuntary reactions; emotions that come quickly seeping through the surface when I’m least expecting them. In the last week alone, I have felt isolated, angry and let down. I have irrationally lashed out at my other half, Chris, and drunkenly burst into tears in a Soho restaurant; I have ignored phone calls from good friends and cancelled plans, last minute, like a big fat flake.

Enough time has elapsed for most people to have stopped asking “how are you?”. And I can’t blame them because on the surface, to the outside world, I do seem like my normal self again. I’ve started taking on more freelance work, going to meetings and film screenings and putting on a ‘professional’ front. I plan weekends away, cook nice dinners and (try to) go to the gym. But that’s only the bare bones; the days are long, and the nights are… even longer. I dream about her, without fail, every single night and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve woken myself (and Chris) up with a thud; swearing at the top of my voice, my sheets drenched in sweat. Sometimes I have to go into the lounge and watch Gilmore Girls at 4am, even though I’ve already seen all seven seasons, because it’s the only thing that makes me feel remotely calm.

I am desperate to go back to her house, our home, in Hoylake, on the Wirral, where she died, and where all her things still are, but I am equally terrified. I’m not sure how much of a sense of calm I will feel when I open the drawers to her favourite jumpers or touch the keys on her beloved piano. I can’t work out whether it will be comforting or confusing to find her dressing gown still hanging in the bathroom or her perfume by the mirror. A week before she died, I went home to London for a couple of nights before returning to mum’s, and I remember sitting on the sofa with Chris and properly weeping as it dawned on me that the end was definitely, devastatingly near. “I don’t ever want to forget her smell,” I feared. “I wish I could just bottle it and keep hold of it forever.”

Today, I am thinking about that Thursday, exactly two months ago, when she fell asleep in the morning and passed away at 11.45pm in the evening. The four of us took it in turns to lie on her bed with her, playing her favourite songs (Bowie, UB40, Beach Boys…. most music I can’t bring myself to listen to at the moment), talking to her, squeezing her hand and kissing her neck. I can still smell her skin now, when I think about her. I’m thankful for that, because I don’t want to ever forget; I just wish it didn’t hurt quite so much, right now, to remember. 

It’s better to have loved and lost…

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I used to think I knew what it meant to “lose” a parent because my father died when I was 12. It turns out, I didn’t really have a clue. The above picture (dad sitting me on his lap, his arm around my older brother) is one of the only photographs I have of us together. He was largely absent due to a bipolar disorder so debilitating he couldn’t hold down a job or a flat, let alone be a husband or father to his four children. Mum always said he was the nicest man you could ever meet, when he wasn’t unwell, but sadly I don’t recall very many of those times. The grieving process was complex and dogged my teens, my twenties… and in fact it’s only now, in my thirties, I’m beginning to understand that I didn’t “lose” a father; I never really had one to begin with.

What I did have, was a mother who was extraordinary. She wasn’t merely a parent; she was so much more than that. Her love knew no bounds and was accompanied daily by an endless supply of laughter, wisdom, strength and self-worth. She was like your best friend and your favourite teacher rolled into one. She was as comforting as a warm duvet on a cold morning; the only voice you wanted to hear on the end of a phone after a bad day. She was whip smart, wonderfully modest and hilariously cynical. In fact, I can say with certainty that she would roll her eyes at the paragraph I’ve just written. “That’s a bit over the top, isn’t it, love?”

I had all that, and yet I spent years fixated on the notion that I only had one parent when I should have had two; years feeling cheated that I had “lost” my father and was therefore hard done by. I had all that, and yet I was foolish, for not realising that some people go through a whole lifetime without experiencing love like I have.

I’m 35 now and I want to say sorry to my mum, who died last month (after a year-long battle with ovarian cancer) for not realising that, in fact, I had it all – because she gave it to me. She was everything to me, and to our family. It’s only now she’s been taken away that I can comprehend what it really means to “lose” a parent. It’s probably why I’ve found myself awkwardly apologising to other people who have lost their parents, as well. I once thought I identified with them but it’s only now I appreciate the magnitude of their grief.

A few people have said to me that when you lose a parent you join a club; until you’re a member, it’s impossible to understand the rules, the etiquette, the right things to say… and I agree. While somebody you’ve known for years might stumble over stock phrases of condolence, a near stranger will just get it.

Of course I’d rather not be in this club at all but grieving is a lonely journey; its destination unknown, and I for one could use the company.