Phoning Mother

This morning, just before waking, I dreamt of my mother. It was just a fleeting connection and very mundane.  I was at the kitchen sink doing the washing up and she brought me some more dirty cutlery to add to the pile needing to be washed.  Moments later, I woke up and felt both astonished at her appearance and bereft.

Ironic that it was today, Mother’s Day that she chose to appear.  She died with breast cancer twelve years ago, and of course I miss her – even though she often exasperated me or we disagreed on things.  I realise with hindsight though that although I was aware in a general sense that she did so much for me, I took a lot for granted and never really thanked her properly.  This morning’s episode reminded me of a story I wrote in the months following her death.

 

 Answer the phone Mother – answer the phone!  

     “This call is being diverted to another number.  Please hold.”

     Not again!

            “You have reached the mail box for …”

            “Nancy … Shorne.”

     My mother’s disembodied voice.  I listen intently, absorbing the tonal nuances and waiting for what else she might say.  You never know, this time it might be something different.  The two names are spoken distinctly, as though there is no association between them.  Nancy – pause – Shorne.  Two separate words, not Nancy Shorne, with the words running into each other with a combined inflective melody.  I listen to the message, hesitating.  Should I speak?  What should I say?    I dither and the silence extends into an embarrassment.  I hang up, feeling stupid and bereft.  Unfinished business is so unsettling.

       After a few moments I collect my thoughts and pick up the phone again. 

            “Nancy … Shorne.”

            “Ummm, it’s me Mum.  Just calling to see how you are.” 

     This time I’m prepared and hang up the phone quickly.  No pause.  I feel a little flushed and unsteady though. 

     It’s strange – it’s not as if I am a kid any more, but there are times when you still want your Mum.  I was surprised when it first hit me.  I was always quite independent and confident.  I had unexpected surgery a few years ago.  When I awoke, I was overcome by post-operative melancholy, to say nothing of pain, and all I could think was ‘I want my mum!’  That was bad luck, because we were in different parts of the country.  I wept miserably, saved only by a nurse of mature years who recognised my distress and isolation and sat with me for a while. 

     I would have phoned Mother then, but only local calls were permitted from my bedside phone, and I couldn’t walk down the hall to the pay phone.  I had to wait for her to call me, just like I am waiting now.  I wonder if she knows what time it is?  Perhaps that is why she hasn’t rung.

     Phones have become such a way of life.  They are more than just communication devices.   They are statements of personality, fashion accessories, reminders, companions, and cameras..  I have a theory that in the not too distant future, our phones will be the means of Big Brother keeping track of us all, and we will use them for everything.  They will hold all our identity information and through our personal phone number it will be possible to access our tax file number, credit card info, social security number, etc.  It will happen gradually and we will all be seduced by the gadgetry before we realise what is happening – a sort of pocket sized Trojan Horse.

     Mother’s phone is just of the basic variety.  It took a while to coach her on how to leave the message.  All she wants is to be able to make and receive calls.  It does have other features, but she never uses them and she seems to have lost the instruction book now anyway.

 Once, we used to solve our problems for ourselves, and now when we are unsure what to do, we automatically reach for the phone.  Our children are loosing survival skills, and are really dependent on their phones.  I know it, but I still reach for the phone for the simplest thing.

          “Nancy … Shorne.”

     “Mum, do you know where your address book is?  I need to do the Christmas cards and I don’t know where anyone lives.  I could send email cards instead, but it is nice at least once a year to actually post something.  I suppose all I really need to do is wait until other people send their cards and then just note the addresses from the back of the envelopes.  I’ll write some notes in the cards as well.  Is there anyone you particularly want me to write to?”

       While I wait for her to call back, I could have a look through her desk.  It seems a bit intrusive though – like looking in someone’s handbag.  They are such personal spaces.  If anyone looks in either my bag or goes through my desk it feels like a real invasion of privacy but how else can I find anything?  I’m very careful and try to put everything back just as I found it.  Hopefully she won’t even realise what I’ve been doing.

       Actually, I have been looking through her recipes too, but she never seems to file anything in a logical order.  A lot of stuff she just keeps in her head and never actually writes it down.  When you do read the recipes that she has written, she leaves out the crucial bits, like in which order ingredients should be added, or how long to cook things and at what temperature.  I have to sort of guess, or else give her a quick call at some crucial moment when I’m getting a bit panicky.

           “Nancy … Shorne.”

  “Mum, how long do you cook quince paste?  How do you know when it’s ready?  This stuff that I’ve got on the stove now looks more like jam.  It’s taken so long to peel and cook and sieve and cook, and it just doesn’t look like yours at all.  What do I do now?”

       I wait for a while, just in case she has just picked up the phone and has heard my message and is going to reply.  I know that’s silly, because although you can pick up the phone and interrupt a call to a land line that is connected to an answer phone machine, calls to mobile phones go to virtual mailboxes instead and you can’t interrupt those.  I still wait for a bit, but there is only silence, so I hang up.  With some answer phones, a silence is interpreted as a completed call anyway, and the device actually hangs up on you, the caller.  Bit rude.

     Having got this far with the quinces and seen how difficult it is, I think I will just buy some from the providores in future – there are some good stalls at the Central Market – but it seems such a waste to just throw out this batch.  I’ve invested so much time in it.  Perhaps I will just keep it as jam.  Pity I never eat it.  By the time she calls me back, it might well be Quince Toffee – a new culinary delight.

       Sometimes when I phone her I don’t wait.  I dial her number and that impersonal mechanical voice starts with This call is being diverted to …” and I just hang up.  I get a bit irritated.  I don’t want to hear that strange woman’s voice.  At least it’s not an American voice, like those you hear in lifts telling you what floor the lift is travelling to.  The phone companies seem to have developed some sensitivity to the local markets.  I haven’t thought about it before but perhaps this is a new job for current times.  Qualification – well modulated voice, slow delivery, absence of regional accent.  A bit strange – there would be exposure around the country, all day every day, but totally anonymous. 

     Even one of my printers talks to me, and tells me when it has a paper jam, or if it has finished printing.  Voices everywhere.  I wonder if there is an association for recorded voices, or whatever they might be called.  There is bound to be some very important sounding technological name.  What would happen if they all went on strike one day?  What would we do with the silence?

     Speaking of silences, I wish she would call me back.  It’s a bit of a one-way street, leaving messages and not getting a call in return.  I have my mobile with me most of the time, so I am always contactable.  I miss some calls when the phone is in the bottom of my bag and no matter how frantically I scrabble around, I can’t find it in time and it stops ringing just as I locate it.  She doesn’t have a silent number, so I would know if she had called.  Her number would be displayed as a missed call.

     Dad has the phone now.  He inherited it by default, but he is even more technologically illiterate than mother was, so he often forgets to take it with him, or even to switch it on.  As for changing the recording or even reading the messages, forget it.  He has no idea.  It means that any time I want to talk to Mother, she’s there, her voice permanently preserved in virtual reality.  It’s comforting in a bizarre sort of way. 

     “You have reached the mail box for …”

            “Nancy …  Shorne”

     “Hi Mum.”

                   24 June 2004

 

Shortly after this story was written, my father erased the recording, as he pressed random buttons on the phone, trying to figure out how things worked.  My trojan horse comment was more prophetic than I realised at the time.

 

Sold the Family Home

It ended up being a brief process that was easier than I expected.  I handled the sale on behalf of the family and we elected not to bother with an agent but to make it a sale by vendor.

Front-2

This is the house that Dad built

My first preference was to auction the property, as the land size was highly desirable and the house itself was unusual.  There were not many comparable sales around so establishing a value was not easy.  Auctioneers who I approached to act on our behalf declined to do so, saying that they had to work for licensed agents for insurance reasons.  That being the case, I decided to call for expressions of interest instead, with offers over $550k to be received in writing on the designated form by a specified date.  We had already received a valuation at that price shortly after our father’s death and so that was our base price, allowing for some capital growth since that time.

Before commencing the advertising program, I engaged a conveyancer to prepare the forms that needed to be provided to a purchaser, and a blank contract as well so that I could seal the deal as soon as agreement was reached.  I designed a sign board and commissioned that, organised paper advertising (Mainstream and the local Chinese Property News) and advertised on line as well.  That just left the open inspections.

The interest invoked by the property was good and within a day we had an offer of $600k.  There was a little negotiating with different parties but 8 days after our initial open inspection, on behalf of the family I shortened the sale period and accepted an offer of $612k.  I felt that it was a very good offer and that the purchasers were so intent on buying something – if not our property then something else – that I should take it and not risk losing them.

It sounds easy but there was sadness too.  I grew up in that house.  Here were people pacing around the back yard and working out how many smaller homes they could fit on the block (they could fit three) and asking if there were any problems in chopping down the trees.  In the middle of the yard is a huge olive tree.  It has kept the family supplied with olive oil for years.  It was our playground as kids as we climbed its branches and acted out various games.  That was the first tree that everyone wanted to remove.

I made a conscious effort to dissociate myself from the emotional ties and to treat it all as an arm’s length transaction.  We still told our stories though at the open inspections – about how our father designed and built the house; why he came up with such an innovative and unusual design, the environmental features and what we remembered growing up in what was once an outer suburb.  People enjoyed the stories and appreciated being able to ask us detailed questions that perhaps an agent would not have been able to answer.

There is still another month until settlement day.  I’ll be relieved with it is all over, but there will still be a little part of me that is left in that house and up the olive tree, the ghost of childhood past.  It’s the end of an era.

Summing up a life

“How long had you known him?”  That is sometimes a question that I am asked after I have delivered a eulogy.  In most cases I have not had the pleasure of meeting the deceased.  What I have done is listened carefully to his nearest and dearest as they relate to me their memories and experiences.  They laugh and they cry and relate the various anecdotes – and I listen.  Bit by bit, the picture grows.  What was his background?  Did he have a sense of humour?  What was his philosophy on life?  In this way, I interpret the essence of the man in eulogy form.  This is part of my role as a funeral celebrant.

Sometimes I do know the dearly departed, and that is why I have been asked to officiate at the ceremony.  Those eulogies are all the more poignant as I draw on my own memories, reflecting both my experiences and those of friends and relatives.  Doing a life justice is a bitter-sweet experience, but one that is so satisfying when you know you have done it well.

There are challenges of course.  How do you write a eulogy for a child who has been snatched so young?  What about the loner about whom nobody knew very much?  Sadly there are those difficult characters, who have left a raft of bitterness and bad memories behind.  There is a story behind each of those people and the challenge is in discovering it and delivering a eulogy that meets the needs of those in attendance.

These are some of the scenarios that we will discuss in our coming workshop – how to listen, what to ask, how to divine, how to write and lastly how to deliver a eulogy that leaves the mourners feeling that they have both learnt something new, and been reminded of what they knew and loved about the deceased.  They will listen, they will laugh, they will cry and they will remember.

At some point, you may be called upon to write or contribute to a eulogy. Often this will be with very little notice and in a time of much emotion and distress. This is a time to call on interview techniques, interpersonal and writing skills.

On Sunday 21st July, I am delivering a workshop on writing eulogies at the SA Writer’s Centre.  Details are available from the Centre.   In this workshop, you will learn the techniques to deliver a eulogy that will inform, delight, transfix and celebrate. You will engagingly encapsulate the lifespan of a person with your words and capture the essence of the deceased.

On Death and Dying

In recent weeks the topic of death and dying has been much on my mind.  Not because my own demise is imminent, but because my father died a few weeks ago, and I walked by his side during his final weeks.  I sat with him during that last morning of desperate struggle as he fought to retain the ability to breathe over the asbestos driven fluid that filled his lungs and slowly drowned him.  He was conscious until the last ten minutes or so and his dying was not in any way easy.  It was dreadful for him and was confronting and distressing for me.

To not be able to alleviate the suffering of another person is something truly distressing.   I should acknowledge at this point that my father had recently celebrated his 97th birthday and realistically he did not have a lot of time left with us.  He was relatively fit, aside from that disease and still had a current driver’s licence but his failing hearing and eyesight heralded the degeneration of life quality for him.  I am not meaning to in any way sound as though I am dictating the useful end of another person’s life when I say ‘It was time’ but in reality it was and I knew that as I sat with him that last morning.

Added to previous bereavements, my family is now halved with this recent death.  Understandably my own mortality is something that occupies my thoughts.  I have witnessed suffering, anger, grieving, indignities and depression in each of those deaths, though my mother’s cancer was rapid and saved her some of the prolonged physical distress.  I have also witnessed the loss of control over one’s life and the double edged sword on not only having to rely on others to a significant degree, but the impact on those who are relied upon.  Although not specifically relevant for me in this case, in many circumstances  the caring role impacts on the carer’s family life, social life, working patterns and even finances.  Is it surprising therefore that there can also be distress and resentment on the part of the carer at having their life subpoenaed in this fashion?

To be confronted with death at a time before you are either ready or accepting is a pain that I have not personally experienced.  I have seen how soul-destroyingly hard that is for the person who is facing that end when there is still so much they wish to do, or family that they do not wish to leave.  The unfairness of it all is indescribable.   Having said that, I do not wish to linger beyond my ability to exert self-control.  I hope that I will have the inner knowledge and resources to face that prospect and to make the most of the time that is left, and to plan the manner of my departure.  I don’t wish my life to be prolonged beyond what is reasonable or comfortable, simply because medical technology is able to delay the date of my death, nor do I want to be an imposition on my nearest and dearest. 

I fully appreciate that not everyone will feel this way about their personal circumstances but the quality of life is very important to me.  When I feel that can no longer be maintained at a reasonable level, I will take steps to control my circumstances.  Thinking about this now is important, as leaving it until the situation is dire may mean that control is no longer within my grasp.

Dying is not something that we do well in our society – we are scared and removed from it and are not able to talk about or plan for our own demise.   I support the concept of voluntary euthanasia.  Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, a medical ethicist who is currently confronting his own terminal illness made an interesting comment.  

Rather than help to die, the cause of dignity would be more greatly helped if more was done to help people live more fully with the dying process.

I rarely agree with him but in this instance, I do endorse the second part of this statement – that we should help people live more fully with the dying process.  From what I have observed, death is skirted around, referred to in euphemisms, and the dying person is not encouraged to acknowledge their dying and what it means to them and their family.  That is to the detriment of all involved.

Tim Dunlop, writing for The Drum on the ABC website (11 April 2013) says that ‘Future generations won’t go quietly into that good night’.  I sincerely hope that they don’t.

The Healing Powers of a G & T

As I wrote in my previous post, Monday was the first anniversary of the death of my younger sister.  As one would expect, it was a roller coaster of a day.  I was fine until the first person said ‘And how are you?’

As I struggled to find the words that indicated I was fine, it soon became clear that I was not.  It was a bit of a wet response there for a while as a heap of bottled up emotion overwhelmed me.  It was tiring and exhausting and took me by surprise a bit.  I went up to the cemetery later than planned and it coincided with a visit by my brother-in-law and two of my sister’s colleagues.  My sister was partial to a celebratory gin and tonic, so in my backpack was a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, Tonic and several glasses.  I also took some music.

It was drizzling lightly when I arrived, but that was OK.  It was drizzling and mizzling a year ago as well.  We exchanged our greetings and admired the flowers and roses and one of them remarked that what we really needed now was a G&T.  I made her turn around and whilst they had been talking I had got myself set-up on the adjoining marble slab.  A stiff drink all round, and the mood lightened considerably.  We talked and we laughed and reminisced and admired the view and drank another, this time pouring a little on the grave as well for her benefit.  Why should she miss out on the party?  All the while, the operatic tones of Andreas Bocelli soared out across the valley.

A dear neighbour and family friend is not resting not far away, so I picked a bunch of wild flowers and rampaging freesias  (it’s that sort of cemetery) and delivered them to her grave also.  There was yet another neighbour a few plots away who had a tremendous collection of coloured pencils and used to keep me entertained for hours as a pre-schooler.  I had a chat to her as well.  All in all, it was a comforting visit.

I would not have described myself as a cemetery visitor, feeling that there was little solace in a collection of marble and tumbled headstones and faded plastic flowers.  The setting of this cemetery makes all the difference though.  It is in the Hills, and has a strong character of its own, with many unusual plantings, and different grave decorations.   It’s a companionable place and one that feels appropriate to visit.  We had a bit of a discussion about what to do with her grave, now that it has had a year to settle.  Probably it will have a surround of sandstone built with an infill of soil in order that we can plant a garden of some sort.  A bench seat will be inset at the bottom end, so that there will be somewhere to sit, besides on the adjacent marble slab.  He plot is on the side of a hill, so by the time the grave surrounds are build, the foot end will probably be raised about 60 cms to bring it up level with the head end.  The seat will be set into this elevation.

October does not sound the best of months for my family, but today is the anniversary of the death of our mother.  That was eight years ago now, so it was more a day of reflection rather than mourning.  She was always one for a coffee and cake though so when I met a friend at a beach-side cafe this morning, I had a coffee and slice of cake for mum.

It probably sounds silly, but my remaining sisters and I have been holding our breath around our father this month.  He has recently been diagnosed with asbestosis, and healthwise things have been a bit of a struggle.  There are only a few days left of the month though and in spite of the challenges, Dad is determined and stubborn.  He will be around for a while yet.

Already, a year has passed …

Sitting, and waiting seems interminable.  Living so acutely in the here and  now as we are, it is all we have ever done and all that we ever will do.  It has become our raison d’etre in a world governed by unreality.    People come and go, phones ring quietly, tears flow and desperate hands clutch.  Occasionally within this there is a shared anecdote and laughter. The waiting goes on and we have a cup of coffee.

The changes are so subtle that you don’t really notice them in that whispered room.  When the ragged breathing changes, it comes with shocked disbelief.  Not now, it can’t really be happening now. Mightn’t she hold on just a little longer?  An airborne daughter is still mid-flight.  The final breathe is whisper soft, and then there is nothing bar the sobbing. No final words of farewell – just nothing but still indelibly recorded in the collective memory.

*****

One year ago today, my sister died.  This was not an easy or kind death.  It was a drawn out process over two years, with much of it abominably cruel.  There was a good period in the middle of her illness  where she responded well to a drug trial, surviving longer than expected as one-by-one, others on the same trial did not respond so well and fell by the wayside.  At the official end of the trial, there were only two participants left including her, and the drug company agreed to keep supplying them with the drug, for as long as there were positive indicators.

The company demanded  a continuation of the 6-weekly scans, giving a level of radiation exposure that could precipitate other cancerous conditions over time.  She protested but the response was firm with the unspoken inference.  You are terminally ill anyway, so the level of scans is of no long-term consequence.  She was in a desperate fight for her life – they were concerned for the raw data and clinical observations that her condition was providing.

That good period whilst the drug was working was super-charged.  She joined a gym and pumped weights.  She returned to work and resumed also her presentation and teaching activities, travelling around the country to deliver training.  She attended seminars and on one memorable occasion as a guest speaker.  It was a conference for palliative care specialists and it featured a videoed interview with my sister on the palliative care process from the patient’s perspective but with a medical specialist’s understanding.  I haven’t seen it yet but I gather that it is hard-hitting.  She took questions from the floor and then at the end of the day, in response to an impromptu invitation, gave the closing address that brought the attendees to their feet.

Importantly, she continued her work in Forensic Medicine, focusing on the protection of those who have been subjected to sexual violence.  Even while desperately ill, she insisted on appearing in court as an expert witness, knowing that without her evidence a perpetrator could walk free.  It was the last time that she left the hospital under her own steam.

We have established a scholarship fund under her name, with the recipient to be a mature-aged female medical student entering third year at the University through which my sister undertook her training.  I took part in the interview process to select the first recipient and this Friday we have a Memorial Dinner for colleagues and friends, at which the recipient will be introduced and will receive her presentation.  The legacy lives on.

As sisters of course, we didn’t always have an easy relationship.  She was a few years younger than me, and we were chalk and cheese.  I was the adventurer and risk-taker and learnt from my mistakes – eventually.  She was the considered one, conservative in her outlook who chose her battles carefully.  She was emotionally fragile and very quick tempered, and I was resilient and rolled with the punches.  She was also the bright one and needless to say, the comparisons made by others rankled and were hurtful in our growing-up years.  I kept my distance as much as possible and went my own way.

Ours was a tenuous relationship that fortunately improved over time, and the advent of children had a bit to do with that.  Hers came first and then my son, and she insisted at the last minute on flying interstate to be with me during the birth so that I did not have to be on my own. She gave me lots of support in relation to my son.  When our mother died, she seemed to draw closer to me as well.  She had always been mum’s girl, and missed her dreadfully.  Of course we all did, but my sister was especially devastated.

It’s weird what you find out about people after they die, but it was so clear that my sister had a whole different life to that which was known and understood by the family.  Her reach and influence in the area of women’s health and well being was far greater than we realised, as was evidenced by the number of people who attended her funeral and the number and diversity of speakers.  We knew in general, but still listened in amazement to those who spoke of the differences that she had made to the lives of others.

One patient was so enthralled by my sister that she became a stalker, primarily of her but peripherally of other family members as well – anything to build up the knowledge base about my sister.  The patient suffers mental problems that  probably mean that she will never work or live independently, but with my sister’s mentoring she acquired the confidence and managed to commence a degree in politics at a local university.  This woman pops up everywhere, and I know that when I visit the grave today, there will be a bunch of flowers already there from the patient.  One lesson that I have learnt is that we don’t ‘own’ other people, not even our immediate relatives.  Everyone else retains their own part of them.

The first anniversary is always difficult.  This morning, which the day was still fresh I picked a posy of soft roses and lavender from my garden.  I might add a couple of sprigs of Rosemary for Remembrance, and shortly I will take them to my sister for a bit of a chat.  She has a beautiful plot in the hills, overlooking the valley and so peaceful.  It is a haphazard cemetery where people have planted their favourite flowers and creatively built their own headstones and grave enclosures.  She would be happy with that.

Final Words

Aside

Working tonight on the text for a funeral ceremony that I will deliver on Friday.  Just a small family group, perhaps about eight people, unless some old army mates manage to come.  It is always a challenge to sum up a life in a few pages and to capture the essence of a person such that the mourners feel that you have done justice to their friend or relative.  Makes you consider also the measure of a life – is it what one has achieved, what one has amassed, or who one leaves behind?

Makes me wonder what I will be remembered for.  Sometimes, putting the wording together is like pulling hens’ teeth although it always works out in the end.  I will probably get up early in the morning to edit what I have written and to put the finishing touches.  I am a morning person and so write with more clarity and purpose at that time.  He was an Elvis fan, so I will finish off with ‘Return to Sender’.