Tag Archives: funerals

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.

Palmiers For Something That Shouldn’t Be

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Non-jam palmiers.

This morning I made palmiers for the fourth time. I seem to be getting the knack. They’re the easiest of pastries, a child could make them. I guess that’s why our French teacher taught us when we were in Form One at South Intermediate. It was a gentle path into the language. Songs, verbs, some words, no text books. A taster, if you will, as opposed to an academic meal. It was fun cooking in the classroom, even if it was just rolling out pastry, spreading it with jam, folding them up so that they look like pastry hearts. That’s what I remember them as, ‘French pastry hearts’.

When I googled that term looking for simple things to make with my young daughter I came up with ‘palmiers or elephant ears’. Maybe we knew them as palmiers at the time but I had forgotten the word. I would never forget a name like elephant ears.

When I made them for the first time since my childhood, I had hoped my daughter would share the magic and wonder of that chaotic day in French class. But she was very uncertain, as were the kids at the late-afternoon soiree where I took those palmiers. They picked them up, looked at them, asked their parents what they were, put them back. I said they were elephant ears hoping to undercut their neo-phobia but the kids (six-year olds and under) were rather distrusting. It wasn’t until everything else was gone that the foreign pastries were attempted and devoured.

My daughter, despite a highly evolved sweet-tooth, failed to join the brave ones. I couldn’t understand it, but persevered making two more batches which I ate alone while my daughter refused them, even when I cut down the options in her lunch-box. It wasn’t until there were only two left of the third batch that I managed to get her to try one. After she ate it, she hunted me down, gave me a big hug on the toilet and said they were ‘delicious’.

I made palmiers this morning not to taunt children with my nostalgia (although that may happen), but because there is a funeral at my daughter’s school and we’ve been asked to bring a plate.

My daughter is very excited about going. She thinks funerals are great fun. Her mother had to quell her excited cheering when I said that I could take her. Over the phone I heard her tell her mother that she had been to three, so this would be her fourth. At five, she remembers more funerals than Christmases.

Catering for a funeral is hard. You never really know how many hungry people will show up. It is disheartening throwing out food when you over-cater, like you have over-estimated how much people care.

We learned that lesson with the first funeral. For, the next one, four months later, we got the numbers right but people who talked too long in the sun missed out to those who had loaded up their plates, maybe noticing there was less to be had.

Both those funerals were for my parents. Four months apart. I remember so much but ate no food. I drank wine, delicious wine, slowly, continuously, happy to see people gathered, to feel relief descending, glad of beautiful weather. There was so much to do it was great that my daughter (who was 3 and then 4) was happy to run around with the other kids, fill her plate with whatever she wanted, leaving me to talk to people, to be both amongst it and absent.

Then, a few months after that, an old friend suddenly died. It was a shock and I had to go, taking my daughter with me up to Auckland as her mother was overseas. My daughter was excited. She wore the bright floral dress she wore at her grandparents’ funerals. But this was a different flavour. Dad was not going to be standing up the front of everyone talking into the microphone, welcoming them, pointing to the toilets, making calming jokes.

At the end of the service she insisted on viewing the body. This hadn’t happened with her grandparents although she had seen plenty of photos (it wasn’t deliberate, but a consequence of geography: they were cremated by the time of each service). Quite randomly, I had been given a guitar pick while working in a school hall the day before. I carried it up there in my pocket just as I used to when I played guitar. When we saw Stephen lying there in his suit, I lifted her up and she dropped the grey Jim Dunlop .73mm into his coffin.

It was 25 years since we had played in halls and pubs around the country. He looked so much older.

It was harder than looking at the bodies of my parents.

At the after-match, my girl resorted to form filling her plate in a room full of strangers, checking in with me now and then. There were no other small children but she knew the drill, was happy just to be, squeezing through the press of mourners. What she ate, I do not know. Probably any sweet treats she could recognize.

I made palmiers this morning because of the number four: a random thing to grasp onto. I did not really know the girl who died the other night, but she was in the class next to my daughter, another new entrant. She always gave me a friendly smile.

It tears at me to think of her parents and family. A funeral for a child just seems to be something that should not be.

But in two hours I will go with my daughter and sit in the hall with those from the school and community. To her, a funeral is like Christmas without presents. A party without a cake. That thought used to concern me. Shouldn’t I be providing weddings and christenings, celebrations of life?

Parents always fret, no matter what.

If there’s something that I’ve learned to adore in this run of funerals, it’s the joy of life. That it is to be cherished, every which way: that its noise belongs everywhere, in all corners of the room.

The kids have been encouraged to wear bright colours, and I shall, too. We will remember Lucy, even those who did not know her.

I may cry and my daughter will hug me. She will have a lot of fun.