Saturday, January 26, 2013

On this day...

On this day, in 1957, my parents were married.

For fifty years, January 26 was a day of celebration for our family, with a tradition of sharing a special dinner at our favourite local restaurant for something like twenty of those years.

When Dad died, that all changed, and for the last five years, January 26 has been a bittersweet day of sadness; remembering 50 years of good times, but also feeling the intensity of the loss.

Today, after five anniversaries apart, Mum and Dad will be together again on their special day. Whilst there is some consolation in the thought that Mum and Dad's five year separation is now over, I still find it hard, as the meaning of this day for them only underlines the fact that they are now both gone, and I miss them both so much.

So please excuse me if I find it hard to get excited about the nationalistic jingoism of Australia Day (or to even complain about the nationalistic jingoism, as I normally would). Today is a hard day for me, and probably will be for some years to come.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Someone pinch me, I can't stop giggling.

In the midst of everything else that's going on (which usually results in me crying a lot most days) yesterday brought some welcome light relief in the form of a very pleasant surprise.

The local shopping centre, Macquarie Centre, is having a 'back to school' promotion, where for two weeks in January they are giving away a $1000 gift card each day. Anyone who spends a total of $100 in one day anywhere in the centre can enter the draw to win. 

On Saturday, I did some shopping which came to just over that amount, so when I got home, I jumped online and entered the competition, and didn't think any more of it. (You can tell what's coming next, dear readers, can't you? :-)

Yesterday morning I received a phone call from Macquarie Centre Management to inform me that I had won Saturday's $1000 gift card. I was just a little bit excited (and almost squealed with excitement over the phone when they told me). My name is even on their website- I'm famous as a winner!

Later in the day, I had calmed myself enough to head into the Centre Management office, and collect my prize... and then off to SPEND!!!

For a long time I have resisted the temptation to acquire an iPad, but recently I have been seriously considering getting one, especially since a conversation I had after church last Sunday. So, with $1000 burning a hole in my pocket, I thought that an iPad would be a good purchase with my prize (and something substantial that I would be able to look back on and say, "I bought THAT with my prize!")

So into JB HiFi I wandered, and hovered around the iPads for a while. Should I get a regular size or a mini? A wifi only model or one with 3G? What storage size (16, 32 or 64GB)? The latest 'retina display' model, or a slightly older iPad2? And then, there would be the cover to protect it... Decisions, decisions...

So, putting on my best, "I would like to be helped" expression, and standing in the middle of the sales floor looking hopeful, I managed to attract the attention of a sales assistant called Daniel. Daniel was very pleasant, and explained and demonstrated to me in detail the difference between the iPad2 and latest retina display model. After a bit of discussion about the pros and cons of different features, he looked at me knowingly and said, "I think I have something you might be interested in". He then unlocked the cupboard under the iPad display and brought out a box. Inside the box was an iPad2 32GB with 3G capacity, marked down quite significantly, as it was an item that had been bought and returned (but certified by management that everything was in order, and the packaging had just been opened, so it couldn't be sold for full price as 'new'... and anyway, the iPad2 is no longer made in the 32GB capacity, only 16GB since the introduction of the newer model).

After a bit of further discussion, I decided to buy this bargain (and Daniel then knocked a further $20 off the price for me), and then I asked him about a case. "This is your lucky day," he chortled. "We have some cases reduced to clear, for only $8. They're out the back, so wait here, and I'll bring some in for you to choose from." He returned with a handful of different styles and colours, but I was drawn to one that was faux leather in a lovely purple colour. Daniel nodded at my purple T-shirt and  commented with a grin, "I thought you might have liked that one."

So for a total of $518, I walked away with an iPad2 worth over $700 and a case reduced to $8 from $50. It had also been a pleasant experience to deal with a sales assistant who obviously knew his technical stuff, and was able to not only respond to my questions, but also make suggestions, and kick around ideas with me (ie showing respect for me and my own technical knowledge, and knowledge of what I wanted). So if you happen to be shopping at JB HiFi at Macquarie Centre, Daniel is your man.

So yesterday was a fun day (as was today, when I got to play with my new toy and install some cool apps on it), and I am exceedingly grateful for such surprising and exciting windfalls.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Thankful for the pain

Since returning from my time in Tasmania to Mum's house in Sydney, I have been hit with fresh waves of grief and sorrow. Every morning I wake up and sob, because I miss Mum so intensely.

A little while ago, someone very rightly pointed out that my grief, and sense of loss, are so intense because my love for Mum, and the closeness of our relationship were also very strong. When my father died (just over five years ago now), a friend also pointed out that I was very fortunate that there were no great unresolved issues between us, and therefore no regrets, when he died. 

So in a way I am doubly blessed, that my relationships with both parents were so good and loving, that I am able to enjoy a 'pure' kind of grief; where the intensity of my sorrow is due solely to the fact that I miss them so much, and is not tainted with any kind of regret or ambivalence.

It's often easy to take for granted the relationships we have. Of course, my relationship with Mum and Dad was not always perfect, and we had our conflicts, especially in my teens (doesn't everyone?), and in my early twenties, when I made choices about the direction of my life that my parents didn't necessarily agree with. But, through my whole life, I never ever doubted that Mum and Dad both loved me, made huge sacrifices in their own lives for my benefit, and always did their best to be good parents (and the few mistakes they might have made were honest mistakes).

As I said, it's easy to take such things for granted, and think that the healthy, close relationship I enjoyed with my parents is 'the norm'. But when I look at some of the people I know, I realise that this is not necessarily the case. Some friends never had the opportunity to develop such a relationship, as one or both of their parents were chronically ill, or died when they were young. For others, there has been estrangement, or a less intense sense of never feeling 'good enough' to live up to parental expectations.

I feel for these friends, whom I fear will never have the opportunity to grieve with the same bitter-sweet intensity with which I am now grieving. Of course, at one level it would be much easier for me to not have to feel these intense feelings of grief and loss (and it would be cheaper on tissues too). But the intensity of the pain reflects the intensity of the love, and my life is much richer for experiencing both of these.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

And so the work begins

After my experience when Dad died, having thrown myself back into work pretty much straight away, and not allowing myself the time and space to grieve his death properly, I have determined that I'm going to make sure I don't do that again. The therapist who I have been seeing gave me some very wise advice about doing whatever it takes to make sure I am emotionally ready to work, and be 'the minister', when I finally go back home.

So with this in mind, I have planned out a very particular process for dealing with all of the things that need to be done, and attending to my own self care along the way. (I have been jokingly referring to it as my 're-entry plan'). 

Since Mum died, I have been very deliberate about focussing on only doing one thing at a time: first on planning the funeral, and then taking some 'me' time out in Tasmania, and not throwing anything away, or packing any of her stuff up, and only making the formal notifications of her death that were absolutely necessary at the time.

But now the time has come in my plan for me to start attending to the practical things of sending letters to various organisations, clubs etc that Mum had dealings with, to inform them of her death, and ask for her to be removed from their membership/contact lists, and the packing up and chucking out tasks (although I am still awaiting the arrival of the death certificate, which is rather necessary for some of these notifications).

Today I have a couple of difficult phone calls to make. One is to Greenwich Hospital, to arrange for the return of the equipment we borrowed from them, and also the practical details of the donation of Mum's motorised lift chair to the hospital. That won't be so hard.

The second phone call is to an old friend of Mum's, who is one of the 'Christmas card list' people. I received a letter from this person yesterday, following up the Christmas card letter I sent in early December, asking how Mum is going. I have to ring and let her know that Mum has died, which I expect will be as hard for her to hear as it will be for me to say.

At the moment I am procrastinating... watching repeats of cop shows on Foxtel, pottering around with Facebook, and looking up cinema times for a movie this afternoon. But I probably need to make those calls pretty soon... or maybe I'll wait till tomorrow, when I might be able to trust my emotions a bit more, to be able to talk about Mum, or even think about her, without bursting into tears.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

I miss her so much...

It's now twelve days since Mum died. Sometimes it seems like only yesterday, and at others it feels like an eternity.

All around the house are reminders of her: the cardigan she was wearing a few days before she went into hospital, draped over the back of her chair; her slippers in the bedroom; the unfinished vest she was knitting, with only the neck to finish off (but she just couldn't work out how to follow the pattern for that bit, so it was put aside. Now it will never be finished).

And of course, the reminders that she's not here: the empty towel rail in the bathroom, her empty bed and not having to sort her clothes from mine after I do the washing.

Every time I use the bathroom, I remember the many times I would sit on the chair in the corner when she was on the toilet; waiting for her recalcitrant bowels to move, and the particular way she had of folding the toilet paper before use, and tapping her hands on the hand basin when she had washed them. She once commented that it was a nice change to have someone to talk to when she was on the toilet.

I cry a lot. It sneaks up on me and then hits me, and I sob. At Mum's funeral, as I was greeting relatives and friends as they arrived, I would catch myself thinking, "I must tell Mum that so-and-so came". And then I realised... and I cried.

I miss her so much it hurts.

I should point out here that what I am experiencing is all part of the normal and healthy grief process. I know this, and I also know that the intensity of the feelings will fade with time. I don't need anyone to pat me on the head, hold my hand and tell me this. I know it. I experienced it when Dad died just over five years ago.

This is all stuff that I need to go through, and I don't need people to give me advice on how to handle it; I have my plans for that already. I write about it here and on Facebook because the act of writing helps me to process my thoughts and feelings; again an important part of the grief process.  I'm happy to share this process with those of you who read this. However, I'm aware that a number of my friends are also struggling with their own pain and grief right now, so some might find some of this a bit hard to read, and if so, I'm sorry for that. 

Friday, January 04, 2013

Eulogy for a special Mum

This is the tribute I shared today at my mother's funeral. I wasn't sure that I'd be able to keep it together, but somehow I managed it. 

We’re here today to celebrate the life of my mother, Isobel Ann Field.

It’s impossible for me to do justice to her life in the little time available (or even if I had hours), so I hope that what I can offer here will maybe spark some memories you have of Mum’s life, or maybe fill in some gaps and tell you something you didn’t know about her. I encourage you to share your own stories and memories of her life with each other over afternoon tea after the service (and toast her with some of her dreaded legless lexia).

Isobel was the youngest of eleven children born to Bessie and William Jones, on May 22nd, 1936. As with many large families in those days, life was hard, and the family was poor, especially when Isobel’s father became too ill to work, and eventually died when she was only 11 years old.

Despite that, Isobel had some fond memories of her father. Even though he was a very harsh taskmaster on the older children, especially the boys, Isobel was the baby of the family, and the favourite. She got away with much mischief, her older sisters often getting the blame for things she got up to.

She told me of times when she was very young and her father was still working, when he’d come home on pay-days, and sit her on his lap, and tell her to dive into his coat pocket. There she would find a lolly pig (a sweet which some of you may be old enough to remember), and this was a special treat for her every pay day.

Isobel did very well at school, and came top of her class at Asquith Primary School every year. Dad often commented that I got my academic prowess from Mum’s end of the gene pool, rather than his. But after Isobel’s father died, it was like a switch turned off in her brain, and she really couldn’t be bothered with school any more. So at the Home Economics Secondary School she attended (because girls didn't go to 'high schools' in those days), in most of her classes, the teacher’s opening line would be, “Miss Jones, up the front!”

Isobel also spent some time in her teen years living with her sister Phoebe and her husband on their farm in North Queensland. It was there that she learned to ride a horse, and became quite proficient at daredevil horseback stunts.

She left school at the age of 15, and started working at Woolworths, where her oldest sister, Mona (21 years her senior) also worked. Out of all of the Jones girls Isobel and Mona were probably the most alike in looks; and their Woollies co-workers often mistook them for mother and daughter rather than sisters.

One of Isobel’s jobs on the lolly counter was to weigh up the bags of mixed chocolates for sale. Her mother had a particular favourite, and so Isobel would be sure to make up a couple of bags exclusively of these particular chocolates (with a secret code mark on the bag) so that when her mother came in to buy her chocolates, Isobel could sell her these special bags, instead of a standard mixture.

Around this time, Isobel joined an amateur theatrical troupe, known as The Merrymakers, who rehearsed in the Beecroft Community Hall, and performed revue-like shows for local nursing homes and hospitals. At 5’8”, Isobel was the tallest girl in the company, and as she told me (and anyone else who would care to listen) on many occasions, she had the longest, and best legs in the company too.

It was in the Merrymakers that she met the man she would spend over half a century with, Neville Field. Their first date was the Woollies staff Christmas party. Of course, Neville was such a shy, retiring little thing when it came to the fairer sex, that Isobel had to take the initiative and ask him out... but it all took off from there.

There was a bit of culture shock on both sides, I think, as Neville, an only child, was indoctrinated into how things worked in a larger family, and Isobel was boggled by the privilege and plenty of Neville’s upbringing.

The Joneses were great practical jokers, and Neville found himself the victim of such a joke played by Isobel’s sister Lew, the first time he went to meet the family. But later on, it was Isobel’s turn- on one occasion when she went away with Neville and his parents to the Central Coast, she short-sheeted Neville’s bed, AND sewed up all the arm and leg holes of his pyjamas. Neville’s mother thought this was just outrageous, and especially scandalous that Isobel should be touching his unmentionables since they weren’t yet married, only engaged. Of course, it is usual when this particular joke is perpetrated, for the PJ arm and leg holes to be roughly hand sewn to enable them to be quickly unpicked when the joke had run its course. I’m not sure whether Isobel didn’t realise this, or was just a bit bloody-minded about doing the job properly, but she used a sewing machine, and it took quite a while before Neville was able to actually put on his PJs that night (adding to the disapproval of his mother).

But despite all this, Isobel and Neville survived all the practical joking, and got married, on 26th January, 1957. Eight years later, their life was made complete when they became the parents of the most wonderful, gorgeous, intelligent child ever born ...

... and trust me, you don’t want to know some of the things Mum told me about those eight years of waiting, about the lengths she and Dad went to in their attempts to become parents. Suffice it to say, in her later life, Mum made a particular point of never asking young couples, “Isn’t it about time you started a family?” as so many people said things like that to her when she was young and she found it dreadfully hurtful. She often said to me, “If only they knew how hard we were trying to start a family, and how painful it was when they asked that question.”

Of course, this didn’t stop her from making comments to me about such things, and on one occasion, when I was in my early 20s, she came out with, “Don’t you think you should think about settling down soon? Dad and I aren’t getting any younger you know, and we’d like to be grandparents before we’re too old to enjoy it.” As an only child, of course, I was their only hope for grandparenthood.

After I picked my chin up off the floor, my reply to her was, “well, if you want to be a grandmother, that’s easy. I can do that for you, no worries. But if you want to be a mother-in-law first... well, that might be a bit harder.” I don’t think I’d ever seen Mum lost for words before, but she certainly blathered a bit, and once she found words, said, “oh, yesyesyes, I definitely want to be a mother-in-law first!” and strangely enough, she never hassled me about procreating again.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

Having grown up in Parklands Rd Mt Colah, it was rather fitting that the place where Isobel made her home to raise her own family was also in Parklands Rd, this time in North Ryde. Neighbours were an important part of life in Parklands Rd. When Isobel and Neville were building the house, they ‘borrowed’ power from John and Kay next door, and that was the start of a lifelong friendship, and many long conversations over the side fence. I know that Mum was especially grateful for the love and friendship of Kay and John in the years since Dad died.

A strong sense of community developed among the young families. We had street parties on Christmas Eve at the Standens’, on NYE at our place and there were many games of cricket on the street, and other things that we all did together over the years. The mums in particular enjoyed a good chat in the mornings after we kids left for school. Apparently there was one day when Dad came home from his postal run in the early afternoon, and found Mum and co still chatting in their dressing gowns out the front.

Time marched on, kids grew up, and people moved out of Parklands Rd. But people also moved in. When Michelle and Justin were first looking at the house next door with the thought of buying, after being bailed up by Dad doing his ‘Neighbourhood Watch grumpy old man’ thing, they commented to each other how nice it was that the old man next door had his daughter there putting his washing on the line for him. Of course, I wasn’t anywhere near the place, and the person they’d seen was Mum, in the usual skimpy shorts and singlet top that she wore when she mowed the lawns, put the washing out, or did any work around the yard. Needless to say, many years later when Michelle and Justin shared this story with Mum and Dad, Mum was rather chuffed that they thought she was Dad’s daughter, probably a bit moreso than Dad was.

I am eternally grateful to the Listers for taking the pressure to procreate off me, by providing Mum and Dad with three delightful surrogate grandkids in Jessica, Beth and Joe. Mum loved to babysit when they were younger, and took special delight in going to watch them play sport. Is loved you guys so much, and having you in her life made her so happy- don’t ever forget that.

I could go on, outlining various things that Mum did in her life- how she worked as a cleaner, a parcel contractor, hospital switchboard operator and domestic engineer, but I want to tell you about the kind of person she was.

Mum was a very quiet and shy person, especially when she was young. She inherited her mother’s droopy eyes (as I did), which meant that if she wasn’t concentrating on smiling and looking happy, her neutral facial expression could look a bit like a frown or a scowl. This, coupled with her shyness, meant that people who didn’t know her often mistakenly thought that she was a bit aloof or standoffish. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Mum was kind and generous and a great friend to many people, and also incredibly humble about it.

When she first got sick, she received many cards and phone calls from friends, including some people she hadn’t seen for a long time, who commented on what a great friend she had been to them through the years, and she was genuinely surprised by this, and said, “I don’t know what they’re talking about, I’m nothing special.” But the reality was that she was special, and many of her friends have told me of the times they have been able to talk to Mum, to tell her things that they couldn’t share with others; knowing they could rely on her to listen, maybe give advice, but most importantly, that whatever she was told was “in the vault”. It was never shared any further.

Mum was also extremely generous. If ever there was someone who needed something, she would go out of her way to help, and supported numerous charities. On one occasion when she was visiting me in Victoria, there was a family in one of my congregations who had a granddaughter who had been chosen to sing with the Aust Children’s Choir on an overseas tour, but because of difficult family situation, her mother wasn’t able to afford the cost of the trip. Her grandparents had asked the church if we could auspice some fundraising events for their granddaughter, and when Mum heard about this, she quietly pressed a $50 note into my hand and asked me to give it to the family to help the girl (whom she had never met).

She was also very active. Her house was always spotless, and she often wondered out loud whether I had been swapped with her real child at birth, because I am such a slob around the house. My grandfather (Dad’s father), who lived with us for many years, once commented that Mum would catch the dust before it had a chance to land, and that’s how she was.

She also loved her sport. When I was young, she loved going to watch my cousin Stewart play 1st division soccer for Marconi. Dad and I kept well clear of her at the matches, because she was an embarrassment to be around as she yelled things like, “Kick it!” and made various comments (usually not positive) about the ref. She also loved her Aussie Rules football. As a teenager, every Saturday, all afternoon, I had to endure the VFL Match of the Day (as it was then called) on TV as I was doing my homework on the loungeroom floor. And of course, her joy knew no bounds, when the South Melbourne Bloods relocated to Sydney, as the Swans, which was her team for many years. It was a special gift when they won the premiership for her last year.

She wasn’t just an armchair sportswoman, and played tennis with a group of ladies from the time I was in late primary school, until her illness meant she could not longer play. That group of ladies have been very special friends to her for many years. And many of them are here today.

When Dad’s health declined, Mum cared for him with very little external support (mostly because his stubbornness wouldn’t allow it). It was a stressful time for her. When Dad died, just over five years ago, it was a very hard time for Mum emotionally, but it also freed her up from the responsibilities and stress she had in caring for him.

During the past five years Mum and I have indulged in some ‘Girls’ Own Adventures’. We went to the Boxing Day Test, took a trip to Western Australia, where I introduced her to the Monastic town of New Norcia. She loved the town, and was a bit excited to shake hands with one of the monks at a social event in the monastery whilst we were there.

The next year, we went to New Zealand, which was the first overseas trip for both of us. When I was planning our trip with my local travel agent, he asked me if Mum would need a wheelchair, being in her mid-seventies. I looked at him and said, “My mother plays tennis every week. I will need a wheelchair before she will.” She was also a bit dark that, at the age of 74, she had to pay full price for a regular passport, and was one year shy of qualifying for a ‘seniors’ passport for half price. I told her that she just needed to make sure she got her money’s worth out of it, and make a few more trips overseas.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. After months of mystery symptoms and many many tests showing nothing out of the ordinary, Mum was finally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February last year. When it was discovered that she already had secondaries in her lungs, this dealt a devastating blow, as we had hoped that surgery might provide a cure, but that also wasn’t to be.

Mum was always very pragmatic about her illness, and said many times that at her age, she had lived a long and good life, and was not afraid to die. She felt sorry for the younger people she saw who came for treatment at the chemo day infusion centre, as they should still have their whole life ahead of them, but the cancer was robbing them of that. However, pragmatism aside, I remember the day we received the news that Mum’s prognosis was terminal, Mum, Kay and I collapsed in tears in the corridor outside the oncologist’s rooms and sobbed all over each other.

In this past year, and especially the last six months the focus for Mum and me particularly, has largely been on Mum’s illness. And it has been a huge thing for us both to deal with. I have been especially grateful for the support we received from some great doctors, the Northern Sydney Home Nursing Service and the wonderful community palliative care team from Greenwich Hospital, which supported us to keep Mum at home for most of that time, and Catholic Community Services who have provided domestic assistance and other support.

I’m also personally grateful for all the love and support that I have received from friends, family and colleagues. Especially for the graciousness of my home congregations and presbytery in freeing me up to be here with Mum for the past six months.

It would be really easy to let the hugeness of Mum’s illness define how we think of her and remember her today. But that was just one year, out of 76½. So when you think of Mum, don’t think of the cancer, don't let it win - think of her generosity, her wicked sense of humour, her obsession with sport and her beloved Sydney Swans (and her excitement when they won the flag for her in 2012), her love of cheap sweet wine, and her birds in the back yard; the many Melbourne Cup lunches she hosted, her love for those around her, but most of all for a good life, well lived.

Whilst Mum was not a regular churchgoer, and probably wouldn’t have called herself a ‘Christian’ (and often boggled at the direction my life has taken in that area), she is the kind of person who was always selfless and generous and loving, and I could certainly see the light and love of God shining through her, even if she might not have been aware of it.

She’s now set free from the pain and tears and frustration of her illness, and reunited with Dad, who’s probably had a few things to say to her about all the money she’s spent, and things she’s bought in the years since he died.

Rest in peace, Mum, and thanks for the fond memories you’ve left for us.