Saturday 30 July 2016

Preparing to inter mum's remains

The next phase in the process of saying farewell to mum involves placing her ashes in a final resting place. To that end I got in touch with the rectory at the parish of St Peter's in Watsons Bay, where my grandmother - my mother's mother-in-law - was interred back in the nineties after she died. It was a bit difficult getting in touch with St Peter's at first because their office is only occasionally staffed, but I at least had the phone number from the funeral directors as I had spoken to them about using St Peter's on a number of occasions when we were arranging mum's funeral.

Once I got in touch with the parish office we started to discuss how to inter mum, and to this end they sent me an email outlining the different options in terms of the location of the requisite niche, and how to complete details for the plaque that goes on its outside.

In the meantime I drove up to the cemetery where mum's remains had been cremated and picked up her ashes. I did that yesterday during the day when the traffic was not so bad, and it only took me an hour or so to do. The people there were very formal and a bit cold, but I suppose when it comes to doing something as weighty as handing over a container of human remains you have to be thorough. They needed my drivers license to start with and they also asked me what I planned to do with the ashes - since I was not using their facilities to put them to their final place of rest - and so I told them what our plans were.

My brother had agreed to pay for the interment since it had been his idea to use St Peters, he said, and I did not disagree. I had already sent my idea about what should go on the inscription for the plaque to him and he came back with some emendations, which I included in the final draft. This I scanned into the computer and attached to the email I was sending to St Peter's to formalise the arrangements. I will now wait until next week when the parish office gets back to me with instructions for the next steps to take to fix the plans.

St Peter's columbarium - where people's ashes are interred in brick walls erected in a garden-like setting for the purpose - is a sweet little locality that you can find behind the church by going down a path and some steps. There are water features, trees, flowers, rocks and plants. People have been using the columbarium to put their relative's ashes to rest for as long as I can remember - we grew up in Watsons Bay, my brother and I - and the place was even for us boys then sometimes a place of resort in our wanderings around the area on weekends. The church can be found not far from The Gap with its old-growth scrubland bush and its tram cutting, now unused, sadly. I went to kindergarten at St Peter's, was married there, and we held granny's funeral there too. It is in a real way part of the family story.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Starting to feel more normal

I've been posting from time to time about how I feel now that mum has gone. The problem of what to do in the mornings still exists but I have started to feel a bit more normal on and off over the last day or so. It's a big change in my feelings of wellbeing and for me clearly signals a new era in the process of recovery since mum passed away on the first day of the month.

It's hard to identify just what has changed over the past day or so. There is no specific cause that I can unambiguously put my finger on apart from the fact that probate on the will is now progressing. I had some conversations with my brother about the will and he seems to be satisfied with the way things turned out. That might have something to do with it, but it's uncertain because the change has been so dramatic. As for what exactly has changed, again it's hard to put my finger on it but the fact is that I don't have that crushing feeling of depression any more, a feeling that nothing was right in the world and that I could not tolerate just to be.

Being comfortable with yourself is important because a lot of other things are predicated on your ability to feel comfortable in your own skin. If you cannot feel normal then you tend to seek ways to alleviate the discomfort, and you might for example turn to artificial substances - such as alcohol, as has been true in my case - to bring you back to a feeling of normalcy. This has obvious disadvantages, especially long-term, as you then risk becoming dependent on such measures in order to maintain the feel of normalcy. Substance abuse can have such undramatic and unsurprising origins as this, it has to always be remembered.

So I feel normal walking down the passageway in the apartment between rooms. And I feel normal in the mornings when I sit in front of the computer with the TV on in the background. There is a sense of hope, a sense that things can be managed and even, perhaps, enjoyed. This sense of wellbeing is essential for me to feel normal. It might be the same for you, I cannot say, but it certainly is the way it is for me. 

Monday 25 July 2016

Still missing mum

The last post from me was on Saturday. Weekends are hardest, as I mentioned in that post, because on those days ABC News 24 only runs every 30 minutes, with reruns of existing programming filling in the gaps. This means that the ABC runs on mere fumes during weekends compared to weekdays. For neurasthenics like me - trying to cope with grief - this is a source of discomfort. I rely on the TV to get me through the afternoon and evening.

Usually I wake up at around 10am. I leave it as late as possible, anyway. There's no point in getting up earlier because even if I do the temptation will be to go back to bed straight away. So I snooze through the early morning and into mid-morning until I am satisfied that I have occupied as much time as possible in this relatively pain-free manner. Sleep is the preferred solution for those who are coping with a crisis like grief.

And I have an overwhelming desire to talk with people about mum. Especially as she was in those last weeks when the infections were becoming overwhelming. Those days when I would visit every day, instead of every two or three days, because I knew the time was limited. I knew that there was not much time left for mum. I could sense it even though noone told me anything like that. It was my intuition - this approach of the final crisis out of the minor crises of recent weeks - and it guided me in my actions during those last weeks. I stopped buying food because I was spending so much time visiting mum, and started eating at restaurants in the evenings. I still haven't gone back to regularly buying food again, except for bread and milk, which I need for breakfasts.

Outside the window the scaffolding is still in place. The workmen have been through with their drills and other equipment, preparing the balcony to receive its new balustrade. The construction crews have been moving through doing their various tasks. They have drilled holes to receive the new balustrade's upright supports. Right now the balcony is empty, but at night I still listen for intruders when I wake up in sleep because my brain is restless and unquiet. There have been no intruders of course, but the fears remain after the lights go out. I will be glad when they have packed up their tools and taken away the scaffolding so things can get back to normal. It's not the sounds they make so much as the anxiety the scaffolding creates, which, late at night, cannot be helped.

Saturday 23 July 2016

Weekends at home

Because of the way TV programming is organised, weekends at home are more challenging than weekdays. On weekdays there is a whole newsroom full of staff at the ABC producing the programming for ABC News 24 - the 24-hour TV news station of the public broadcaster - but on weekends they function on a reduced staff so they fill the remainder of the time available with reruns from the past week. Which is not as fun as wall-to-wall news. What do they think, that the news stops on weekends? People stop getting into trouble and having car crashes? What is it about weekends that makes the TV so boring?

I went up the road to have a bowl of ramen for lunch after sleeping for most of the morning. The ramen was good but when I get home I want to sit down with the TV on and drink wine and watch social media. That's what I do in the afternoons. It's like a ritual for me now - the TV on in the background with the browser windows open at Facebook, Twitter and TweetDeck, Google Plus and LinkedIn etcetera. There are a lot of windows open at my pages.

The other problem with the TV is that the volume is really low. Even when I turn the volume up to 100% it's still low because it needs to be fixed. I can't take the TV to the repair shop however because it's too heavy for one person to carry. So I have to buy a new one. Maybe when things have settled following the death of my mother I can think about spending a bit of cash on a new TV. Right now is not a good time.

The other thing that has happened is that the death certificate came through from the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. This means that my lawyer can get on with the job of getting probate for my mother's will. One of the big ticket items that has to be looked after when someone dies. In the meantime I will sit here and watch TV and drink wine. Some people have very thoughtfully offered to do something together in this period of mourning, but I find it all a bit challenging. Going out, I mean. It's so much simpler to just stay at home and engage on social media like the mad thing that I am.

Monday 18 July 2016

Still in a holding pattern ... but improving

Here I am with ABC News 24 on in the background looking after my social media accounts. My usual situation in the afternoons. It's where I go to get away from things, helped by a bottle or two of chardonnay. You can see Malcolm Turnbull here giving his press conference on the occasion of the announcement of the government's new ministry. Malcolm couldn't make it over to my place this afternoon because of prior engagements, so I had to do with watching him on TV. I'm so amusing.

It has been a week since mum's funeral. When I look back on the funeral it seems like such a little thing to celebrate - is that the best word? - an entire life. Perhaps more fittingly I have been going back over my blogposts - which started on the subject of mum in November 2014 - to read them anew. What I find is something full of life and tenderness. I am touched by the bigness that small details occupied in my life on the subject of mum. Little things like making lunch at the right time so that we could always have dinner at the same time in the evenings.

Of course it was when I was living with mum up on the Coast that I started to drink wine in the late afternoons, and on into the evenings. I would rock on over to mum's place at around 4pm or 4.30pm in readiness for preparing the evening meal. I remember what I cooked, too. There were the favourites like chicken wings roasted in the oven. Steak, mashed potatoes and boiled vegetables (the zucchini put on last because it didn't take as long to cook as the carrots). Or a nice roast beef with roast potatoes and pumpkin, served up with gravy made from the juices left in the baking tray.

I would drink while preparing the meal and while eating it too, then I would put a bottle of wine in the bag I had brought for the purpose, and carry it home to drink further into the evening, as I sat in front of the computer with the TV on in the background. Watching TV obliquely with social media to the fore, and with wine to accompany the mix, has become something of a habit.

And I remember those day trips down to Brisbane on the motorway from the Coast. About 2 hours driving outside rush hour, just a quick jaunt to the gallery to have a look at what was on in the art world. Two galleries in fact, since they built MOMA next door the the state gallery. And a sandwich for lunch at the cafe outside the state library.

Today I walked up to the post office to pick up the box of coffee that they had tried to deliver earlier on in the day. Somehow I had missed the buzzer on the front door. Sleeping probably. When I wake up in the mornings the day seems so lifeless and blank. I don't know what to do with myself, so I go back to bed to snooze through the morning if I can. If I cannot then I get up and switch on the TV and go back to social media and wait until it's lunchtime.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Returning a wedding ring to the nursing home

The first time mum went into hospital in Sydney I took off her wedding ring and put it in my pocket because there were signs up in the hospital about protecting valuables. I took it home and put it in a drawer in my bedroom. But when mum had been sent back to the nursing home and I had gone up to visit her again I noticed that she was again wearing a wedding ring. I asked her about it and she said it was hers. I took it off her hand and gave it to the staff. However another wedding ring appeared in due course and so eventually I gave up trying to wean mum off the habit of wearing them.

I never worked out where she got the wedding rings from. Had she got up in the middle of the night and wandered into someone else's room? Had someone given her the new rings? Was she swapping them for something else of value? The puzzle remains a puzzle to this day. I asked the staff about it again today when I took this final wedding ring - which the funeral directors had taken off mum's hand after her death - back to the nursing home but they didn't know the answer either. Some things can never be known, like what old people do with their jewellery in nursing homes. No doubt mum had simply looked at her hand, thought to herself that she needed a wedding ring on it, and had acquired one. Somehow.

I drove up to the nursing home this morning along the normal route. It was a leisurely drive. The car seemed to know instinctively where to go, which lanes to change into, and when to indicate to turn or change lanes. I just sat at the wheel and let things take their course, seemingly in auto-pilot. On the way back to the motorway I stopped at the Vietnamese bakery and bought a sausage roll and a pork roll. I ate them in the car, which turned out to be a bit of a risk because somehow I wiped my right eye with a finger that had touched some chili and it started to water furiously as I was driving down the Warringah Freeway. But I made it home safe in the end listening to the radio as per normal.

Later, I discovered there were some things missing from the box of photos - including an oil painting by Barbara Cameron and some old 19th century hymnals - and I phoned the nursing home to ask where they might be. They said they would get back to me in a few days.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Book review: Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle vol. 1, A Death in the Family (2012)

When my mother was in the hospital dying recently I read to her from this book - a part of the narrative where Karl Ove and his brother are cleaning their grandmother's house following the death of their father - and, also later, when she was in the nursing home I read from the book again. On the day of mum's funeral I finished reading this volume in the series. But these things are of no material interest in themselves. I include them only for autobiographical reasons.

Knausgaard has successfully made an industry out of his own life. He has, it is said, alienated a large group of people including certain members of his own family. In the event you wonder if it was worth it. The sales of the books - five have been translated and six written - would suggest it certainly was.

And people talk about Knausgaard because his success is something of a publishing phenomenon. So everyone has their opinion about him. If he is boring, he is still compelling. That is one thing I have heard people say. For myself, I almost stopped early on with this volume in the series because I feared the incipient violence of the father - I shun violence wherever I see it - but a friend suggested that I would enjoy the book. And I did enjoy it. I especially found the modulated tone of the novel a relief. Here there are no sudden rises in the tenor of the writing to disturb you. Everything is at a steady, predictable level, and it is restful to read.

Knausgaard is a clever writer who also embellishes his prose with accurate descriptions of things as varied as the way the sky looks over a town in the summer, or the way a seatbelt is fastened to its clasp. He is not afraid of any challenge, and you feel assured that he will carry you along on the platform of his narrative in a leisurely and steady pace until you reach the end. He is nothing if not stable. Which is sort of nice as there is so much bruising writing around these days. I start a lot of books and I finish a lot fewer. Mostly only books that I finish get reviewed here.

The death in the family is the death, of course, of Karl Ove's father, and most of the story centres around Karl Ove's youth or the point in his life - much later chronologically - when he buries the man. Many young people - myself included - complained (and complain) about their fathers, of course, so the trope is not unexpected. Karl Ove is also just a little bit younger than me so his cultural references are familiar to someone of my age reading the book. So there is a lot in those early parts that is close to home. Although Karl Ove seems to maintain his love of soccer into middle age, whereas I largely abandoned any interest in sport as soon as I became an adult.

All these things are highly personal, and it is true that you do develop a personal relationship with the author/main character, Karl Ove. The way he grows on you is gradual, through the general accrual of detail that goes to make up the narrative. He grows on you bit by bit until you have formed a distinct opinion about him in your mind. You like these parts about his character but you regret that he seems to have certain failings too. But he gets under your skin. The link between the author and the reader is intimate. It's something that will stay with you for a long time. It's something that only literature can make happen. It is its own type of magic.

Monday 11 July 2016

The day of the funeral

Someone kindly gave me a bunch of white carnations for the funeral today. I brought them home and put them in water. There were ten people attending the short service, which only took about 30 minutes, and who later came next door in the funeral home to have sandwiches and sausage rolls and small, coconut-filled cakes. There were also scones with jam and fresh cream. There were jugs of fresh juice and cups for coffee.

Two people stood up to give an account of their memories of mum - myself and G, mum's housekeeper - and there were also some words from mum's niece who is currently on the road with her family crossing central Australia in a car. I spoke extempore, without notes, as did G. Clare's words were spoken by the civil celebrant, Charyl.

My contribution was basically a brief biography. I remember I was looking down at the lectern all the while I was talking. I felt more comfortable talking this way, rather than looking up at the collection of people in the room. I was a bit worried about suddenly tearing up with emotion if I caught someone's eye, so I just kept my eyes lowered during the whole of the delivery, which took about ten minutes. G told me she started to get nervous during her presentation. In fact she did very well. She said later that I could be heard quite clearly while I was talking.

After the service - during which we watched a short photo montage of images taken from my collection of photos of mum - everyone gathered outside where the casket by this time stood in the hearse. We said our last goodbyes. Clare's mother, mum's sister-in-law, guided me to the coffin and I started to get emotional. I touched the cold, varnished wood, which was a mid-brown colour, and I could see the condensation from my warm hands forming on its surface. I took back my hand and turned away from the coffin. The hearse started to move off after they had closed the swing door and moved slowly around toward to cemetery, which is located just down the road. The cremation will probably have already happened by now, or if not yet, then soon.

We all gathered in the room next to the chapel where the food was laid out. We stood around in small groups talking. The staffer in charge of the event came and spoke to me briefly about future things - including the death certificate, which he says will take the government about two weeks to produce - and then he left to attend to other things. I asked for containers to put excess food into. We had originally planned for about 20 people so there were a lot of uneaten scones by the end of the morning. Someone brought plastic containers into the room and left them near the hot-water urn. I picked them up and started to load them with sandwiches and cakes using the tongs that were scattered around the place. Others did similarly, in preparation for taking home some simple refreshments. Later, we drove down the motorway and I dropped off two friends in the city who had arrived at the event by train. Then G and I drove home through Chinatown.

When I got home I opened up the box containing the visitor's book and in it was the death certificate that was filled out by mum's GP after her death. It said that mum had died from cardiovascular collapse which had proceeded for minutes before life expired. So she had finally died of a heart attack related to the sepsis.

Saturday 9 July 2016

Feeling rather strange since mum has gone

This morning I woke up and made some coffee, then drank a cup and went back to bed hoping to resume the dreams that always punctuate my sleep, but no luck, the dreams had fled. The coffee maybe had chased them away. I tossed and turned for a couple of hours until I got fed up with it and emerged. In front of the computer I went through my Facebook feed for the past 12 hours or so and made some comments.

The laundry had to be done and I always love doing the laundry. I had washed the clothes in the morning while I was still in bed, and so I put a load into the dryer and switched it on. The dryer rumbled comfortably for the 45 or 50 minutes or so that it takes to do a load. During this time I had the TV on and was listening to it in the background while attending to social media. Then I took off the first load and put it in the laundry basket. I put on the second load - the shirts - and sat back again with the TV on above the tumble of the dryer. Room room room room room room room room went the dryer.

I tottered around the apartment until it was time to go to lunch and off I went to the noodle shop down the street which - I discovered today - is operated by a Korean who lived in Japan. His front-of-shop staff - the girls - are Japanese and the cooking staff at the back - the boys - are Korean. He talks to them in their own languages. He likes me because I always buy a beer at his shop on weekends to go with my gyouza and ramen.

After eating I came back and went back to bed to read some of my book. But it was boring and I got up and ironed the shirts, then went out to watch TV and drink some wine. I started to feel human again. The strange feeling I get when I am alone in the apartment - when I feel as though my head is located about a mile above my body - disappeared. I started to feel normal again. Not normal like I do when I am doing the laundry, but normal for when there is no laundry to do. Tomorrow at lunchtime I pick up G from the airport as she is coming down again for mum's funeral, which is on Monday. I'll have to find a tie to wear.

Wednesday 6 July 2016

All alone since mum passed away

It seems strange that there's noone to drive up the motorway to visit. I used to enjoy the approach to the motorway ramp, just down the street, with the radio tuned to ABC 702 in the mornings and the talk shows emanating through the speakers. It's very strange to be able to stay inside in the mid morning instead of venturing out to go to see mum in the nursing home or in the hospital. It has only been a few days since mum passed away but already the tremors are being felt.

In loneliness. The empty hours which previously would be filled with a sense of purpose. Now they are spent wondering what to do. Waiting for the late afternoon when the wine can decorously be brought out to sip. Waiting for someone to call, to tweet, to post. Lonely hours in limbo.

I am waiting for the funeral, which will happen next Monday, to rouse me from this torpor. I will probably cry. I have met with the funeral celebrant and we have decided that I will just talk extempore for a while about mum. Mum. Her photo with me appeared on Facebook this morning. The photo we took in 2009 when I had just moved up to Queensland to look after her. Since then we have spent a lot of time together, eating dinner, watching the corny UK TV shows she loved so much in the evenings, in the nursing home, in the hospital.

Waiting for the funeral but also waiting for the rest of the process to get through, including the proving of the Will and the issuing of the death notice. All these things take so much time and consume so much erratic attention. In the meanwhile I am sitting here with a glass of chardonnay and watching TV in the background while attending to social media. A quiet, solitary place animated by other souls in their textual brackets, as it were, in their own little boxes of sense and quotation. I watch the world go by and wait for the time for dinner to arrive. It's almost like being in company, and sometimes I talk with someone. Like you. I can talk with you.

Monday 4 July 2016

Getting the funeral organised

This morning I drove up to the nursing home to get some clothes to dress mum in for her funeral. One of the nurses there brought down one of the care staff who normally showered and dressed mum in the mornings to select some things, including underwear, a pair of pants, a shirt, a jumper and a pair of shoes. I put them into a plastic bag I had brought along for the purpose and collected mum's suitcase - which was actually my suitcase which I had used for moving her down to Sydney - and her purse from her handbag. Then I took everything out to the car.

I drove south along the motorway to North Ryde where the undertaker's office and chapel is located. (This is where I had got lost on Saturday looking for the cafe.) I gave the staffer there the bag full of photos - including a thumb drive with some scans I had made years earlier, two or three loose prints, and a framed reproduction of a black and white photo mum had had - and explained that the person I have met on Saturday had asked me to bring them in. I also gave her the bag of clothes for dressing mum.

When I was finished at the undertaker's I drove home and then went to see my psychiatrist - we have an appointment every two weeks - who listened to me complain about things for an hour. It's always a relief to talk to him, it seems to do me good. After that was finished I dropped into a nearby restaurant to have a bowl of noodles for lunch, then I went home and lay down for an hour.

The undertaker sent me an image showing what the newspaper ad for mum will look like. So far I have had about nine responses from people who want to come to the funeral, and there might be a few more as a result of the newspaper ad. Everyone has been so kind since mum died, I have had a series of big hugs from people I have met, including lovely ones from staff in the nursing home. I don't know why I worry, but I do, so there you go.

The image that accompanies this blogpost shows a detail from a rug mum knitted some years back while still in Maroochydore. Of late she would not have been able to do work with this much detail. It is made up of a series of "tracks" of native animals with embroidered captions ("croc xing", "brumby xing") making up a patchwork quilt that is very special, and I have someone in mind who might like to receive it. I'll take the quilt up to the dry cleaners when I get some free time.

Saturday 2 July 2016

The day after mum died

I bought a democracy egg and bacon roll this morning at the polling station after voting. The queue for the voting booth even at 8.05am stretched round one corner and almost to the next. It's a busy booth, as you can guess. But I also was busy because mum died last night.

Last night I had just returned from having dinner and was in the apartment at around 6.30pm when the nursing home called. The voice on the other end was hesitant and reluctant so I knew what she was going to say before she said it but nevertheless the sobs gushed out as I answered and told them that I would not come out then but would instead visit the nursing home in the morning.

I went online and contacted my daughter and talked to her on Skype for a little while. Not long. But enough to get through that stage of grief when all you can do is sob breathlessly and helplessly from the pain. She tolerated my emotionalism stoically and I could see her lip quivering in response. It was exactly what I needed. Then I got down to making more calls to tell family members and I also made a quick Facebook post that generated a big reaction from friends and family on social media - more than I expected, and I was very humbled by the goodwill out there in the community. People had been reading my blogposts and so they were aware of what has been happening with mum.

Later in the evening I watched some mediocre British crime dramas and then went to bed where I hardly slept until early this morning, and even then it was fitfully. After getting up in the morning and voting I drove up to the nursing home and called my brother on the iPad that had been left there. I told him about all the things that have to be dealt with - from the Will to the death certificate and the funeral arrangements - and we talked a bit about the pictures that mum had in her room, which we will now deploy elsewhere.

I carried photos and paintings down to the car parked in the garage - a local soccer comp that was on in the park meant street parking was scarce when I had arrived at the nursing home - and drove to the appointment I had made at the undertaker's in North Ryde. There I parked and walked off in search of a cafe but the path just took me to a caravan park. I asked for directions and they pointed me back down the road, so I trudged back along between the forest on one side and the cemetary on the other, until I returned to my car. Then I drove up into the cemetary driveway and found the cafe, where I ordered a sausage roll and a small flat white.

Later when I had finished eating I met with the representative of the undertaker's and we went through the seemingly endless series of questions you have to answer to bury someone. There are forms to fill out and sign, some of which have to be sent off to government offices, so it's all very detailed. I could hardly imagine going through all this alone so I was glad to have the undertaker to lead me by the hand. As they say, it is a stressful time in anyone's life.

I finished up, got in the car and found the tunnel back to the city, then drove down the motorway until I arrived at home, unloaded the car and lay down to rest. I didn't sleep again. My mind is rushing with so many thoughts and worries, and now I hope that a few people will come along to the funeral which will be held at Gregory & Carr's, 14 Delhi Road (cnr Plassey Road), North Ryde on Monday 11 July at 11.30am. Just drive through the black gates on Plassey Road, there's parking inside. Drop me a line if you want to come along, as I need to get the numbers right for catering purposes.