Tag Archives: death

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.

Dreams of Children

The other morning my daughter came into my room saying she had just dreamed there were crocodiles under her bed. She wasn’t distressed, more surprised and curious. I cuddled her and we talked about other things and I wondered if the dream had been real or an excuse to share time in the darkness with me. Either way I didn’t mind. It reminded me of a recurring nightmare I had as a child where a wolf’s head sat on a wood pile between me and my parents. It had teeth and angry eyes, but no stomach, so why would it eat me? Terrified and intrigued, I was often too scared to get up to the toilet and repeatedly wet the bed.

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A real monster under a bed

As I’ve grown up I tend not to have nightmares, the real life fears of being a parent hold greater sway over me. That said, lately I have been sleeping badly and some pretty bizarre images have popped into my head. The most notable involved being required to keep live pieces of human flesh in my mouth for medical purposes. They didn’t taste bad, and there was no way I wanted to chew or swallow, but the spongy texture and metallic taint of haemoglobin had me on the point of gagging. I woke hoping the foreign flesh was of a blood group compatible to mine.

As I lay with my 6 year-old listening to Bad Jelly the Witch, singing out our favourite lines (“tree, tree, 1-2-3, make it very big for me”… “steekeeble-steekeeble knickers, knickers, knickers!” et. al) my girl asked if there were crocodiles in New Zealand.

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The ‘Famous in Christchurch’ Charlie

I said, “No. Well, only in zoos,” and told her about Charlie, the famous crocodile I used to visit at the New Brighton ‘Mini’ Zoo with my sisters and mother. It was pretty sad, even to a kid in the ‘70s. Stuck on the outskirts of Christchurch with a tiny concrete pool and not enough space to turn around, he (or she, as it would turn out after ‘he’ died) never seemed to move and looked depressed (if a crocodile could have a psychological condition). As ‘he’ was always in the same position we weren’t certain that he was real, but we never bashed on the glass to get a reaction as other ‘naughty’ kids did. We were always too keen to get on to the friendly otters who stuck there tiny paws through the mesh to shake hands.

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Friendly Otters

All this I told my daughter; she’s a great lover of animals, and understands that it is not their nature to be caged for our entertainment.

What I didn’t tell her was that when I was about 7 or 8 something happened that burned into more than my memory.

We were at the zoo seeing if Charlie had budged from his miserable ledge by the puddle of water. While my sisters and mother stared at the static reptile I checked out the tiny turtles in the aquarium opposite. Suddenly, my world went very peculiar. I felt warm and heard a hum inside my body which increased to a ringing bang that threw me backwards with a scream, hitting Charlie’s glass panel hard. My mother, assuming I was being stupid, slapped me across the face as I bounced back and fell onto the wet concrete. I didn’t feel the slap; it was too much like a dream. What I did feel was the two bloody burn marks on the top of my left foot. An exposed live wire had been hanging underneath the turtle’s display and I had just suffered a strong electric shock (something which would happen again, many years later, but that time I would recognize it).

The owner came in to check out the noise, apologized and laughed it off with an “oops, must fix that”. I was in too much shock (pun intended) to cry or make a fuss. The wounds scabbed-up to the size of two 5-cent pieces. I never saw a doctor (as I said, it was the ‘70s) but instead was sent to see the electrician that lived next door who assured me I was within inches of dying. The condescension impressed my 7 (or 8) year-old mind and I wore the incident with pride.

I think slightly differently of the whole thing now and at some point will tell my daughter about the shock. But she doesn’t need to know about the slap and not seeing a doctor.

It’s only 3 years since she lost her Gran E and I lost my mother.

I thought about all this as I held my girl, closing my eyes in the long darkness, resting from her constant questions as Bad Jelly attempted to eat brave little Tim and Rose. I remembered I used to have a crocodile. It had bright white teeth and a delicious soft texture. I treasured it for years, sticking my finger in its mouth, or attaching it to my nose, pretending it was gobbling me up to amuse my sisters.

It was the only present I got when I turned 6, which sounds a bit sad, but there was a reason for it.

Some weeks before my birthday, while my mother was on the phone, I climbed onto the kitchen bench beside Mum’s shiny new electric fry pan. Somewhat obsessed with Tarzan (old movies played on the telly every Saturday) I slipped the electric cord through my belt and with a “hey, Mum, watch this!” jumped to the floor, thinking the weight of the attached pan would halt my leap, leaving me swinging like Tarzan on a vine. Not a very realistic expectation but I was, like my daughter, a rather imaginative child. Of course, the big golden fry pan came with me to the floor and my mother let out a horrified scream.

I was not hurt by the floor, or falling heavy pan, but the impact snapped it’s plastic (or Bakelite) handle. It wasn’t replaced for over a decade.

Kids often do naughty things without realising it. It only became clear to me what I had done when Mum didn’t smack me, crying instead for her new appliance (things were very expensive and hard to replace back before we joined the disposable society). She played the ‘wait till your father gets home’ card.

I was terrified. Dad never did the smacking. Like most of the parenting in my family, it was always left to Mum.

After my younger sisters went to bed there was a meeting at the kitchen table where they coolly decided that my punishment would be the cancellation of my upcoming 6th birthday party. To my fearful young mind that seemed a good deal. I hated (and continue to despise) physical violence.

Maybe they thought better of that decision later on but felt unable to back down, because closer to the day Mum told me that Dad was taking me to dinner for my birthday.

I have no recollection of where we went (there were no child-friendly restaurants in the land of ‘70s Christchurch, and I was a fussy eater) but I vividly recall him taking me up the escalators to the toys on the top floor of the wonderfully art-deco Millers department store. As was his way, he said nothing about what was happening. We walked up to a wall filled with playthings and I was invited to pick something. I did not know what to choose. There were so many toys, most of them clearly worth more than Dad could afford. How do you act in a situation where reward is mixed with punishment? I was taking too long and reached for the nearest thing, a very realistic 5-inch rubber crocodile with bright-white painted teeth.

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Not actual size

My parents weren’t ogres; they were loving, fun and caring. And like people who put animals in cages, to ‘save’ them or ‘educate’ children, they strove to do their best.

I have little doubt that in years to come my daughter will have unsettling stories to tell about my efforts at parenting. You do what you think is right, don’t do other things in case they are wrong; worry yourself to death on both counts.

There are many reasons why people sleep badly. For me, it happens when I am stressed or over-worked. And while I can tick both of those boxes at the moment I put my present fractured sleep down to it being the anniversary of those days and nights when I sat with my sisters keeping our dying father company, easing his discomfort as we could, trying to will his release from torment.

There’s so much I could write about watching a loved-one succumb to self-imposed starvation but I shall not ‘hammer the mahogany’ as JK Baxter put it.

That week in a secure dementia facility wasn’t a nightmare. It felt unreal; full of fun, beauty and humour. There were no crocodiles under the bed (well, there may have been), no strange flesh in my mouth.

Things happened I’m desperate to get out of my head but they can wait.

Was the crocodile really the only thing I got when I was 6? Having just hosted my daughter’s 6th party, I find that hard to accept.

Just as I can’t believe that in the morning it will be two years since Dad died.

I’m hoping that when tomorrow passes, and my daughter is back from her mother’s, I can sleep; free of the words that fill my head. And that in years to come my daughter will think well of my choices, good and bad, and that any nightmares that snap from below will be faced with tenderness and warmth.

 

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Like my toy croc but not as pretty