Absence

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Last night I dreamt of my father.  I sat beside his old armchair as he stroked my hair to comfort me.  I don’t know why he felt the need to give me solace, but I was content to stay there for the longest time.  I was both outside of the dream watching, and inside the dream feeling the touch of his hand.  I lost my dad fifteen years ago and I rarely dream about him, so when I do, it’s a bittersweet treat.

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On a day like today, when the sun doesn’t seem to rise, the sky, instead, simply becoming a lighter shade of grey; when rain drizzles and the landscape is just a smudge of shapes; on a day like this, which already makes me melancholy, it’s easy to feel the stab of loss.  The details of illness, of death and death’s aftermath are lost in the passage of years.  This is true for all of those I’ve lost.   But the thing I have found most difficult about death is absence.  A person who was there is now gone.  There is a space where they should be: a hollow in an armchair; a silence where there was once a voice; a void where there was a routine.  Death is haunted by those pinprick moments when I remember that they’ll no longer return.  It’s hard to comprehend that existence has been extinguished.  That I once had a father, a mother, and now I simply don’t.

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After Dad died, I wrote a story.  It was set in a derelict house on an isolated, snowbound moor.  From the gape of windows, to the hollow of footprints, to the empty chair under a broken roof, I see now that it was all about absence.  When my mother died, I wrote about the absence of words and the drought of colour in the pictures I painted.

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With time, the pang of absence lessens.  I no longer expect those I’ve lost to walk into a room.  I no longer visit the places in which they existed.  I no longer do the things we once did together.  Memories replace flesh.  But when I experience a new loss, inevitably the others resurface.  I remember that there is a space that a person once inhabited.

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When you observe the nuances of the seasons closely, the transience of life is always present.  I walk through the winter landscape with my dog and wonder about his concept of absence.  Every morning, at the same time, he will pause in his walk and face the direction from which the two Labradors he adores will appear.  Waiting.  But this week they moved away.  I wonder how many mornings he will wait before no longer watching for them.   It’s difficult enough for us to understand absence when we know, intellectually, what has happened, but for him people move in and out of his life without explanation.  Perhaps he would ask the same questions we do, if he could – why? where? how? – but we’re no closer to explaining absence than he is.

In this season when the earth displays her bones, loss is felt more keenly.  Loss of warmth, light, colour.   The silence left by the absence of birdsong.  The spaces that remain after the leaves are gone.  The gaiety of flowers and insects.  When everything is stripped back, the gaps seem bigger.  A bitter seam of absence runs through this season.

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And yet this is also the season of dreams, when I am filled with possibility and my creativity is at  its height.  Because of course the earth isn’t really dead.  Darkness is the loam in which things begin.  And absence is never only absence.  It is space for growth and self-examination.  That person-shaped void will always be there.  But what will that space allow me to become?  Absence has taken me back to the bones of myself and what I love.  It led me back to nature and a re-connection with the earth.  It led me into a deeper creativity.  Loss leads to movement.

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There are moments when I despair that the cost of loving is often the grief of losing.  But I’ve also learned that people are like seasons too.  Some are only meant to be in my life for the briefest of moments, some for the length of my years.  My life is richer for all those who have peopled it, but I no longer try to hang onto them when their season is over.  I’m just thankful they were there when I needed them.

Time to create

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“The worst of it is the certainty that I will die, not someday or sometime in the future, but today.  This is the day of my death.”

Reckoning – Andrea Stephenson

 

When I was young, I had time to write, time to draw, time to create.  The hours passed slowly, bending to fit the things I wanted to do.  There was no urgency or purpose – no deadlines, no pursuit of success.  Creativity was a pastime, not a goal.

Now, time is precious and passes quickly.  There is less of it in my day, my week, my year.  Now, uninterrupted time makes me procrastinate.  There are so many things I could do with a day that I often fritter it away, undecided.

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We all know that our time is limited, but it’s a concept that is difficult to grasp until it runs out.  I recently realised that the years I have left may now be fewer than those I’ve already lived.  I’m often surprised that ‘twenty years ago’ doesn’t refer to the seventies, but to the nineties.  People I think of as contemporaries are actually a couple of decades younger than I am.  We try to control time with bucket lists and life plans.  But time is nobody’s servant.  It follows its own sweet path and we can stumble off it without warning.

Sometimes, I worry that there won’t be enough time to fulfil the creative dreams I have for myself.  And yet, time isn’t always a barrier to success.  You can write a story in a day, a novel in a month and publish a piece of writing in seconds.  Creativity isn’t dependent on youth.  The passing of time only enhances the depth and breadth of creative work and writing is not a profession you have to retire from.

And ultimately, how much time is enough?  If you knew exactly when you would die, would this make a difference to the way you lived your life?  That was the question I asked myself when I wrote my short story Reckoning.  You can find out what conclusion I came to because it’s just been published in the latest issue of Popshot, a literary magazine distributed to 18 countries.  I’m thrilled that my story was chosen for the ‘time’ issue and has its own dedicated illustration.  You can buy the magazine by clicking on the cover above.

 

Painting in colour

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When my mother was dying, I began to paint, but only in shades of black and white.  I’d barely picked up a pencil since I was a teenager, but one morning, in the middle of her illness, after another late night dash because she was confused from all the pills, I went to work, sat at my desk, started crying and couldn’t stop.  I didn’t return for four months.

I don’t remember why I picked up a paintbrush, but during those months of my own recovery, I discovered I loved to paint.  Although I’d always been good at art, writing was what I felt compelled to do.  For years, it was a craving, always a story in my head or struggling onto the page.  But during four long years of caring for my mother, words left me.

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Our relationship was a complicated snare of love, guilt and resentment.  She was an older mother, from a conservative generation of working class women who knew their place and kept up appearances of respectability at all costs.  I was an only child, with no-one to share the weight of her expectations.

“Children are meant to be seen and not heard,” she would say, and I played the good girl so well that for years I was crippled with shyness.  As a teenager, secretly, I reached beyond her boundaries; doing all the things she would have disapproved of had she known.  Later, I was more openly different from what she expected: dressing like a punk, smoking, going to university, coming out.  And yet, though I had the strength to be different, I still feared her disapproval and censored even the simplest things in my life to avoid it.

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By the time her breast cancer returns, this time saturating her bones, we’ve reached an uneasy calm in our relationship.  I am no longer the teenager who ran up the stairs crying that I hated her.   Dad, the calm, accepting one, died some years earlier and I feel a duty to cultivate a grown-up, civil relationship.  I have a partner that I love, a career and my own home.  Mam and I have even graduated to saying ‘I love you’, since her confession that she never heard those words from Dad, but it feels so unfamiliar on my tongue that I’m rarely comfortable with it.  There is still tension, but we have ways around it.  My way is to avoid telling her anything that she might disapprove of, or telling her much of anything at all.  Our phone calls – daily since Dad died – last only minutes.

There is no sibling to share the obligations of being the child of a terminally ill parent.  At first, she is sick enough to be dying, but not sick enough for proper care.  Although her doctor talks starkly of power of attorney and whether she wants to be resuscitated if she dies, Social Services talk of waiting lists and expect her to cope.  It’s a time of never really knowing what to do, or who to go to for help.  Though her own siblings support her in practical and emotional ways, and I have my own partner to support me, we’re all lost under a heavy sense of responsibility and desperation.

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They think, at first, she’s damaged a nerve, causing her pain when walking.  She  transforms, over the period of a year, from an independent woman, always looking after someone else, to someone who hardly leaves the house.  It’s only in hindsight that I realise how dramatic the transformation is.  Only in hindsight, reading about secondary forms of breast cancer, that I realise someone should have suggested a scan sooner.  Because how could any of us have known that a painful leg was the signal that the cancer had spread to her bones?

In the early part of her illness, sometimes she’s fine.  I get used to travelling in hospital transport to endless appointments: checkups, scans, radiotherapy, blood transfusions.  She walks with a stick at first, but by the end she’s in a wheelchair.  I never become practised at manoeuvring her around, but, with some indignation, I do begin to realise how difficult the world is for wheelchair users.  Everyone loves Mam, finding her sweet and amusing.  She’s the darling of ambulance drivers and nurses.  I find myself resentful of this, because they never see how demanding and disapproving she can be.

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Looking after her becomes a long round of guilt.  Guilt that I don’t visit enough, guilt that I don’t care enough, guilt about the things I don’t do for her, guilt about the things other people do for her, guilt that others might see me as a bad daughter.  Visits and phone calls become a source of trepidation – how will she be?  If she’s depressed or subdued I feel guilty.  If she’s bright, I’m relieved.  If she’s done nothing, seen nobody, I feel guilty.  Sometimes, if she has had visitors I feel guilty that I wasn’t there.  When she’s in hospital, I take only the occasional night off from visiting.  And though she may have had a posse of visitors during the day, she complains of how long the evenings are when nobody visits, so that the guilt I feel for wanting an evening to myself is doubled.

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Her bones are so fragile from the cancer that she begins breaking them: a collarbone; then a hip; then her other hip.  Our life turns in circles: work, hospital, sleep; work, convalescent centre, sleep; work, struggling to care for her at home, sleep.  There is barely time for a meal in between and no time for anything much else.  Sometimes, I long to yell at her, to tell her how difficult it is for us, working full time and caring for her in between.  She seems to swell with the attention, enjoying all of the visitors and casually distributing tasks.  I remember the critical, flawed relationship she has hinted at with her own mother, when she was expected to look after others without any thought for herself.  Perhaps finally she feels important in her own right and this is why she acts the way she does.  If she would only acknowledge what we do to help her, but there’s no gratitude, only entitlement.

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We become regulars at Accident and Emergency, either because of a broken bone or because she’s so confused or urgently unable to cope that it’s the only option open to us.  But they don’t want her there. I have the impression they think we’re wasting their time; that she’s crying wolf because she doesn’t want to be at home.  They don’t see how she struggles.  She’s sent to a hospice and they send her home because she isn’t critical enough.  A day later the doctor sends us back to A&E because she can’t walk.  A&E tell me they think she wants to go back to the hospice because she prefers being there to being at home.  They talk about a nursing home, but finally, she’s deemed ill enough to return to the hospice for good.  I’m desperate for information, but feel as though nobody tells me anything significant.  And being the good girl I’ve been trained to be, I probably don’t ask enough.  What I really want is the impossible: for someone to tell me when she will die.

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I have only one sliver of normality.  My partner and I drive to the river, to a quiet spot we love.  We drink coffee and talk and talk to the gentle sounds of the river and the boats tinkling in the marina.  We watch passenger ferries and cargo ships passing through.  These talks prepare me for everything from Mam’s death to her funeral.  Emotionally and practically, it’s how I learn what to do.  I’ve never been good at sharing my emotions.  I keep everything deep inside, a legacy of avoiding my mother’s disapproval.  But slowly, my partner draws it out.  We live it before it happens and that’s how we deal with it.

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There is a kind of peace at the end.  Before the cancer seeps so deeply into her brain that she can only repeat the same phrases again and again and plead for God to let her die.  She talks about her death with acceptance and asks forgiveness for the things she got wrong.  And in the last days, I sit in her room in the evenings, my back to the window, and watch golden autumn sunsets shaft across the room, steeping the bed and my mother in a warm ochre light.  The worst of the illness, and the worst of her, fades as I’m left in that room, sitting in the half-darkness with the stillness that amber light gives me.

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And after she dies, I begin to paint in colour.  My first colour painting is of the Northern Lights, a vibrant scene of light in the sky.  It sits on the easel, waiting to be finished, as the funeral director visits to plan the funeral and the Vicar comes to discuss the service.  I finish it as life returns to normal.  I realise now that I started painting because my life was too full for words.  Now the words are slowly coming back, but I have the painting as well.  My partner says that, after all those years, we have to start learning to live again.  The words and the pictures are part of that.

My mother died on 29 September 2010.  I wrote this last year as a way of reconciling the experience of looking after her, our difficult relationship and ultimately, her death.  I’ve decided to share this on what is the third anniversary of her death.

Through a glass darkly

When I want to make sense of my life, I write.  I write lists to organise the thoughts in my head.  I write plans to determine the way in which I want my future to unfold.  I write about big ideas to forge my opinions.  I write about my life to understand my history and my present.  I write stories to experience other people and other lives.  And when I don’t know how I feel or what I want, I write and see where it takes me.

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This week, I attended the funeral of a woman I knew fairly well as an old friend of my mother, but whose personality I didn’t connect with and sometimes found unpleasant.  I went to her funeral out of duty rather than affection and so the sense of grief I’ve felt at other funerals was absent.  The morning was bright and full of spring.  As the crematorium was filled with traditional Northumbrian pipe music, I became transfixed by the window above the altar.  The window is arched and leaded but made of clear glass, so the light that shafted in was white and clean, casting hatched shadows on the wall.  I thought about the cemetery outside that I’d walked through on my way here.  Daffodils in full bloom, crows hopping grave stones, collared doves foraging and magpies squawking through the trees.  I felt calm and curious in the crematorium as I listened to the summary of this woman’s life.

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I struggled to begin this post.  Although I have many prompts for future writing, none of them seemed to reflect my current feelings.  Since we returned from the forest, I’ve been unsettled and dissatisfied, yearning for some kind of escape.  My creative ideas have stalled.  I’ve found it hard to focus on reading and my concentration wavers.  Attending the funeral made me reflect on the direction of my own life.

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Eventually, I decided to write without a destination in mind and see where it led me.  And what I kept returning to, was my belief that it’s through the act of creativity that I can come to understand my life.  Life, in my view, is about exploration.  I believe that the reason we have so many unanswered questions about why we’re here and what will become of us, is because if we knew, there would be no reason for curiosity.  Because I think our true purpose is to discover – to learn about ourselves, our universe and what it is to be alive.

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And to do this, I think all of us are furnished with certain gifts or skills, which are the lens through which we really see the world.  My gift is to create through art and writing and through these I’ll eventually find understanding.  Others will view life through science, or religion, or physicality or caring and learn those lessons they need to learn.  I see life as a vast web of energy and I believe our discoveries feed that web, spinning new threads and making the universe a wiser (though not necessarily better) place.

Copyright - Mandy Bland

Copyright – Mandy Bland

We become lost, I believe, when we look at the world through the wrong lens – that is, the wrong lens for us.  If we don’t recognise our gifts, or fail to use them, or we’re prevented from doing so by circumstance, that’s when we go wrong.  Of course, even if we do use them, that doesn’t mean there won’t be sadness, or insecurity, or terrible experiences.  But we can see the truth of the bad as well as the good through the lens of our own gift so that we can come to terms with it and learn from it.  And if this is true, it doesn’t matter if we never get published, or sell a painting, as long as we use our abilities to see our lives more clearly.

What is the gift you use to see life clearly and how has it helped you to learn?