Tag Archives: breavement

To What End

Stupid Death, stupid Death,

Hope it doesn’t find you

I started blogging a year ago to clear my head of recurring themes in my life. I wanted to use it like a journal, making sketches of things that take my fancy, to salve recurring fears, to beat a pathway out of the clusterhump of grief that has surrounded my existence in the last few years and stroll back into the arms of fiction.

child heads with symbols

I’m loathe to list it all that has happened, it’s all been referred to in various blogs over the year, and I have always intended to (and managed to) write about other things.

But it’s been a funny 10 days or so and some things can’t be avoided.

On Sunday morning, as I lay in the darkness, scrolling through news sites I saw an article about a woman I briefly met about 8 years ago. She’s a very distinctive ex-pat Brazilian model who has just attained a degree in psychology (something she was doing part-time when I met her at a party of Brazilian ex-pats in Auckland, all those years ago).

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Grace on the job

When I met her, I was working in television, doing a programme on Brazilian food. It’s was a great week and I ate many things I had never tried before. But that is not this story, and she wasn’t on Stuff because she had finished a degree. The point was she was familiar to people, and was dedicating her degree to her husband, who died 2 years ago.

Reading that, many parts of my life converged and I immediately wanted to leap out of bed and start writing it out of my head. I knew I would not be able to rest until I did it. But it was 6am on a cold winter morning and my 6 year-old would soon be clambering in to join me.

So I waited and she joined me within minutes, complaining of a nightmare where giants wanted to eat her. I cuddled, listened, diverted by saying it was just a bad dream and could she remember any good dreams? She smiled and said, yeah, she had one where her princess castle had turned into a rocket ship. With a TV! It was AWESOME!!!

But my self-congratulation at diversion was short-lived as she immediately changed back to her sad tone and said her snuggles had bad dreams, too. Gorilla Lilli had dreamed she/he was a baby and …and…a hyena was trying to eat him/her (Gorilla Lilli is a boy AND a girl). While Bucky (a giraffe/something hybrid) had dreamed of being chased by tigers. I kept quiet, a little shocked, letting the story continue, while she danced the two soft toys on the bed singing the song at the top of this blog.

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Bucky and Gorilla Lilli

Stunned, I said I had to get up to go to the toilet and wrote down the musical refrain.

The thing is, 10 days before that I had one of those dreams that affects your whole day. Someone I didn’t recognize had come to me, claiming to be someone I knew who had died in the Christchurch earthquake. She was so sincere, I didn’t want to contradict her. But, even in the dream, I was unsettled.

That day, I worked in a venue that was, likewise, unsettling. The weekend before an adventurous university student had stepped onto a skylight, falling through onto the hard floor 10m below. While he had not died immediately there was still a pall over the place from the stupid, accidental death. The skylight he went through had not yet been replaced, with only a bit of loose plastic keeping the rain and hail from our heads.

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The skylights

Throughout the day, workmates and members of the public quietly looked up to the flapping plastic and down to the floor at a gaffer tape X.

I so wanted to pull it off.

The next day I was working at a different venue, one where the roof, co-incidentally, had just been fixed to remedy persistent leaks. There is no other connection to the previous day. But something happened, linking the narrative in my head.

I had just put the needle in a donor’s arm and gone to the next donor (it was a busy day and we were short-staffed due to illness). When I turned to look at the donor I had just left I saw he had fainted, eyes rolled back, tongue pushed forward, looking like death. I called for help and as soon as I got to him he stared to fit, arms flapping; body flexing. I threw myself on his arm to prevent the needle from doing damage. As my colleagues put themselves on his other limbs I pulled out the needle, doing everything not to be stabbed (or stab him). He has big and there weren’t enough of us, so his arm became loose, spraying blood all around.

Of course, we exuded calm and control, not wanting to distress the other donors, and he soon came round with a smile. However, it was one of the worst faints I have seen in my 5 years as a phlebotomist, and I was wrecked for the rest of the shift.

The following day was a day off. And despite the continually foul stormy weather, I headed to the pool to aqua-jog away the stress. As I waited for the bus, a good friend called who needed to talk. She/he was distressed, facing an awfully mortal health scare, unable to talk to anyone else. I listened to their distress, knowing there was little I could say. Awaiting results from tests, I was sworn to secrecy.

The next day I crashed hard. Exhausted, tonsils swollen, black rings under my eyes, I was certain I was coming down with one of the myriad of ailments that has taken out all my colleagues over the previous month. But with rest, and the news that my friend’s results were clear (plus a bottle of beautifully medicinal cider each day of the weekend) my body rallied and I was not taken by any lurgy.

Nevertheless, on the Monday night after work I fell asleep as soon as my daughter was in bed, waking to the noise of a strange sit-com featuring Sarah Michelle Geller and Robin Williams. It was set in an ad agency and they were trying to re-brand Australia to some densely comic Australians. It was pretty funny. I hadn’t heard of the show and was surprised to see Robin Williams doing TV.

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The Crazy Ones

The next day, as I aqua-jogged in the pool, rehabbing the ankle and Achilles I had surgery on over summer I thought about the challenging 3 days of the previous week. How each illustrated how close we are to not being here. How my friend’s scare was by far the worst. How 2 years ago, as I watched my parents struggle for life (and the release of death) over a few short months, a mix of 6 old colleagues/friends/acquaintances from various past lives had all chosen suicide. How could such a cluster happen? And why…

Though they seemed randomly connected (all male, all around my age), I know that we are built to inject meaning into seemingly-related events.

The next-to-last was the closest, a former bandmate from my formative years. The day before his funeral a colleague had picked up a guitar pick from the floor of the hall where we were working, saying to me, ‘you’re a musician, you must have a use for this.’ I took it with me to Auckland, and when my (then) 4 year-old daughter insisted on viewing Stephen in his coffin, I gave her the guitar pick to place with him.

Later, at his wake, while my daughter played and ate food, I uncovered the final stanza of this inexplicable group. A friend’s partner had lost her fashion-shoot photographer to suicide in the months before. As he said his name I knew that I would know him. What I didn’t know was that Craig had married the Brazilian model I had met at that party in Auckland. Small world. Strange life.

When I got out of the pool last Tuesday after thinking about that strange year, I checked my phone, succumbing to dumb addiction. That’s when I saw that Robin Williams had died.

I felt sad, yet unsurprised. Not because of the co-incidences. More because I had been thinking of that year of loss of those I had known. How it sat in such a strange cluster. Which thankfully ended. Why? Why?!

When I came back to bed and my daughter on Sunday morning, I asked about the Stupid Death song… had she made it up? No, she said, it’s from Horrible Histories! I was so relieved.

Craig was a wild-card, a crack-up, full of life. Stephen was clever and caring; sharing so much beauty with the world.

There’s a Chinese saying I am fond of, ‘no co-incidence, no story’.

I don’t believe that gaffer tape X was marking where the student fell. It was for something else, surely.

People chose death for different reasons. Everyone who expressed pain and loss (or anger) when the beloved Mork left us looked to different, personal explanations.

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Rocket-ship Castle (TV not included)

When, later on Sunday, my daughter went to stay with her mother for the next 2 weeks, I knew what I had to write. As soon as she went I started bashing it out but it was too bleak, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to show this face to the world, it would serve no good. But why did I feel this need, to what end?

Instead I went to the couch and dozed to the bland noise of silence. I awoke feeling awful. The only thing I could do was write or exercise, and as I still could not face this topic, I marched off to the beach to stretch-out my slowly recovering Achilles.

At the top of the path down to the sand, full of anxiety and impotent distress, I found this new piece of graffito.

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At Bay

I think I laughed.

I had something difficult to write. It’s taken a bit. But some things can’t be avoided.

A Close Shave

I’ve just shaved for the first time in a long, long time. In fact, if I work it out, it’s more than 20 months since I’ve scraped a razor across my face. I didn’t have a thick 20 month-long beard to remove as I trimmed it every week to keep a short stubble: whenever it went beyond a week I would start to pull at (and out) the lengthening hairs whenever lost in thought.

But today, the last day of the year, I feel an overwhelming need to cut off the long hair I have been growing for over a year, and attacking the constant beard seems a less drastic (or mad) option.

I have never liked shaving. It’s an unrelenting chore that by its nature causes rashes and bleeds at the very time you need to be most presentable (just before a date or work).

I know it’s over 20 months since I was last clean-shaven (I despise that phrase which implies that the natural expression of an adult male is somehow ‘dirty’) as I last shaved on the day of my father’s funeral. It wasn’t an easy shave, either, as I had not shaved since my mother’s funeral 4 months before that so there was no razor in my travel kit.

My ‘clean’ face was achieved with the help of a very blunt and pink Lady Shave that my sister had brought with her from Australia. It was a horrible task but, given what was going on at the time, somehow necessary as I was MC-ing the funeral and didn’t want to offend anyone with my choice of personal grooming. That said, more than one relative asked me why I had shaved as apparently I “suited a beard,” looking “like George Clooney” to some elder relatives and/or “like Keith Urban” to the teenage daughter of my sister’s friend.

Such flattery went down well and only encouraged my desire not to bow to the pressure in Western society for men to have faces like pre-pubescent boys.

While it may seem that facial hair is ‘all-the-rage’ with a story on the internet yesterday stating that beards were ‘cool’ again the actual stats indicate that only about 9% of men in Western society are game enough to sport facial hair. Razor companies rely on this consistent statistic (and pressure). No politician can succeed in the West with a beard while the opposite is true in many non-Western cultures, and the moustache has been relegated to the realms of irony or a tidy one-month ghetto of fund-raising.

Am I being reactionary, shaving mine off as soon as they are deemed acceptable? Nope. It’s about me and personal choice. Yes, it’s a substitute for shaving my head, but it’s much more than that.

I shaved because I wanted to blog about my weekend in Christchurch, how my body is still sore and my mind full of experience and reflection, and shaving is always a good way to wipe away the sludge and get motivated. But the physical process of doing something so mundane and unremarkable took me back to that sunny day in April 2012 when I last shaved.

You see, my father never went past a day or two without shaving. As children growing up in Christchurch my sisters and I often begged him to grow a beard or moustache, just once, just for fun. Why couldn’t he? It was only temporary and could easily be removed. He never did.

I don’t say this with sadness but I was never close to my father.

It was hardly a unique situation, most people say the same. But we had a greater distance as Dad was an Englishman born in another age – the Roaring 20s – when George V was on the throne, Hitler was a no-body and every mature man in the West had either a beard (Windsor or less regal) or a moustache (Charlie Chaplin, handlebar or fine).

His father, who died in 1946, had fought in WW1, and I imagine he kept his thoughts and emotions even closer still. Dad said that on a full moon my grandfather would be silent for a week. I can only imagine why.

Dad died 66 years after his father following a long, awful illness that took him 1hour before Good Friday last year. It wasn’t a peaceful end so it was a great relief to see his body at rest. As I helped lift his withered (but still unexpectedly heavy) body into his coffin his stubble grazed across my soft inner arm: he had not been shaved in over a week.

Being Easter weekend, we had to keep him in his coffin for over a day before he could be cremated. In that time we dressed him with clothes, photos and significant objects to keep him warm and amused, talking to him just as we did when he was lost in the Alzheimer’s he hid for so long by always making a joke. I gave him a Best Bets and $10 for a flutter (while his father was a great gambler, Dad stuck to the gee-gees). Twice, I polished the coffin with the soft wax provided to bring up the beautiful grain but I did not once think to shave him.

Yes, his stubble appeared to get longer but it is a myth that our hair and nails continue to grow after death. It is an illusion caused by our skin shrinking.

Today is the last day of the year, the final day I can say that my father died last year.

I did not intend to write this today any more than I intended to shave.

I am just thankful that, unlike my distant English grandfather, I was never forced into the trenches to cower from, and kill, strangers: that, unlike my remote father, I did not have to face the results of such trauma while a silly dictator with a ridiculous moustache sent his minions to drop bombs in my father’s garden.

And that this morning, I chose to shave my face and not my head.