Allow me to take you on a journey of that time a couple of years ago, when a very kind and well-meaning Chinese massage ‘expert’ fixed my achy woes in ways that should only be reserved for infidels.
It was my birthday. I hate surprises and in the lead up to special occasions I spend a disproportionate amount of time ensuring I don’t get caught off guard. I had sleuthed my stuff like a pro, and found out that someone – who shall remain nameless – (*cough-my sister-cough*) purchased a massage for me. At my very loose suggestion, no less! At the time of my hint-dropping foray into birthday preparedness I didn’t realise that ‘massage’ was actually Chinese for ‘you will almost die alone and in agony’. I knew it was coming, so I had plenty of time to think about it and had prepared for it for ages. Meaning, I thought about it, swooned over the very idea of it, day dreamed about the wondrous, knowing, soothing touch of another human. That was before I knew it wasn’t going to be a fun thing.
I walk into the store. Yes, store. Let’s discuss this. Many times in my life I have casually remarked that I’m going to the store for milk, bread, nappies, even, once I went out for, wine. But I’ve never said “oh hey, I’m just popping out to the store for a massage. If I don’t come back you can safely assume I’ve been tortured for national secrets, and I need some time off the grid for all our safety.” Massages should be done in places of serene beauty and calm, by people who aren’t trying to kill you, with oil that washes off your skin after the first shower.
Anyway, I enter the shop and approach the desk. In my calm-I’m-not-yelling-at-children voice I say, “Hi, I’m Cath. I have a 2pm appointment.” A very attractive, kind looking lady smiles, and dramatically waves her arm in the direction of the red velvet curtains. I assume she’s just showing me the way, but she follows me in and steps towards me, her pretty face now void of all expression, and she exclaims louder than necessary, “TAKE CLOTHES OFF!!! LIE DOWN!” It’s then that I should have detected her extensive military training and just politely excused myself, but my back was legitimately sore and I obeyed. She pops her head back throughthe curtain and without warning and says “LEAVE PANTIES ON!!” Yep, thanks Xena Warrior Princess, I’ve had ‘massages’ before, I know the drill. Sheesh.
I’m lying on my tummy, with the feeling that my face isn’t quite aligned in the face hole properly. I’m wiggling my head up and down to adjust myself when she walks back in. She wastes no time, and unlike other massages I’ve had, doesn’t bother to ask if I have any trouble spots, or pressure preference (DING DING DING, WARNING, WARNING, GET OUT, GET OUT NOW!). She lays a towel over me and starts to rock me from side to side, I wonder if I’m not in the right position on the bed but get the feeling she’s not going to communicate what she needs, so I just lie there, being shoved back and forth across the bed, thinking that her concern about leaving panties on was irrelevant because one of my lady lumps is going to bust out from my armpit at any second. Soon the rocking stops and the assault begins.
I hear a clicking sound, and later realised it was at that point that she removed the fleshy fingers she was born with, and replaced them for butter knife-cross-knitting needle droid fingers that she would later insert into the skin of my back for supposed therapeutic benefit. It felt like acupuncture with chopsticks. She’s working her ‘fingers’ up and down my upper back, around my shoulder blades (which used to actually be attached to my body), and watching me closely for the spot where I wince the most so she can start drilling into me. I can’t breathe, I’m gripping the end of the bed and my eyes are shut so tight that I’m seeing stars. I hear the squoop squoop of oil being dispensed and I’m immediately relieved that at least her hands might glide over my skin. WRONG!
I’m only about ten minutes into it, and already I have that feeling of intense labour, where you’re sure that in the next breath you’re going to say ‘ok guys, really, I’ve seriously tried my best, I promise I have, but I just can’t do it anymore, I need drugs or Jesus or Chris Hemsworth’. At this point of labour with my children I was actually vomiting with pain, it was real and foul, but strangely liberating that I could allow my body to be so awesome. However, at this point of the massage, my teeth are hurting from clamping my screams in and HOLY MOTHER OF PETE SHE’S STANDING ON ME WITH FOOTY BOOTS!
She hasn’t even hit the really freaking sore part of my lower back yet, so any pain I’ve felt thus far has been purely from her choice to hurt me, and I’m actually scared. My eyes fly open in terror, and wildly flit around in trapped animal style. I can see the bottom of the bed, there is someone else's dribble marks underneath the massage table/torture chamber and I immediately want to know what kind of mutant could find this relaxing enough to actually lose muscular/facial control. Or perhaps that person died during treatment. More believable.
I think I have internal bleeding.
For some reason, she’s standing at my head, leaning right over me, working on my hips (the really sore area). Her little body is ploughing my face into the wrong shaped hole, and her freakishly pointy elbow is boring a hole in my pelvis and in extreme pain my upper body shoots off the bed and I’m almost at a 90 degree angle, my top half naked and in a cold sweat, at her eye level. She jumps back. I slam myself back down, too fearful to speak, she’s obviously stronger than me and really wants me to be feeling the revenge of whatever crime I have committed against humanity.
Then, she stops abruptly, puts the towel back over me and starts hitting me so loud that the sound hurts my ears. Her hands are cupped and she’s thwack-thwacking me in what I can only assume is to encourage the now deadened blood cells to jump back into life. Suddenly, she bends down to my face and shouts “YOU OKAY!!!!” It didn’t sound like a question, more like a ‘tell no one you were here’ threat, but I couldn't answer anyway, because she'd massaged my voice box into my sinus cavity. I try to flex my muscles enough to nod my head, but only a pathetic squeak of air comes out. “DRESSED NOW!” she commands. “TAKE TIME” she adds with her jack in the box trick through the curtain.
She’s gone, and my relief is tangible, but I can’t move. All of a sudden I’m freezing cold and I’m shaking, and I decide that that this is how it feels to fall off a mountain and land on a stair case made of lego, sakata rice crackers and pizza crusts. Very slowly, I get up and put my clothes back. I hobble out of the curtained room and make my way out.
She meets me outside the curtain with a cup of water, and I freeze, fully expecting her to throw it at me. But she bows a little, and presents it to me with both hands, smiling sweetly. “Ooh, you have sore back!” she says with surprise. Really? It is? I hadn’t really noticed you CRAZY SADIST PIECE OF MASSAGE ARSEHOLE! “Please drink lots of water today, you feel better soon” she kindly says. I look around for her evil twin, assuming she’ll be peering at me through the velvet with sharpened teeth, but we’re alone. I can see she means it, she WANTS me to feel better, she wants my back to feel better, but she needs psychiatric assessment.
I walk out, a little away from the store, and weep. I catch a glimpse of myself in the window and my face is possibly permanently disfigured rom the ill fitting face-hole. What just happened? Where’s my car? Did I even drive here? What’s my name? Every nerve ending in my body is screaming ‘HERE I AM!’ and I need all the wine from all the lands.
It’s taken me almost two years to forget enough of the horror to be able to remember this experience. Needless to say I’ve never been back to the massage store, although, in her defence, my back did feel amazing for a couple of weeks post-torture. Still not worth it.
There’s an elephant in the room, and it keeps shifting uncomfortably and farting death bombs every time I sit down to write. It shuffles into my space, pushing me out of my chair, putting big elephant feet on my keyboard. It’s suffocating me. I have so many words writhing to the surface, tunneling to get out, so many stories I am desperate to tell, but until I deal with that elephant I’ll be staring down it’s trunk, inhaling it’s stench, shoving it’s giantness out of my way. You get the picture. I have been too busy dealing with the elephant to actually write about the elephant.
My husband died (that’s the elephant, in case my cryptic theoreticals stumped you).
My children’s daddy went to heaven.
On December 2nd 2014 we got the terminal diagnosis, with the loose prognosis of six to 18 months. He passed away just six weeks and three days later on January 18, 2015. Our children were two, three and five. Babies. Our oldest child started Prep just five days after his funeral.
A year ago today I sat in an uncomfortable chair in a comfortable hospital room, holding his hand, whispering in his ear, wiping his face, watching him with eagle eyes soaking up every bump and freckle, as he died. I stayed with him, washed him with the nurses, made him comfortable and walked him down stairs with the orderlies. It was surreal. I remember it like it was just this morning, and also feel like it was something that happened to other people decades ago, something that I just happened to accidentally witness.
He stopped breathing, and among so many other things, I stopped writing. Partly because I was thrust into raising grieving children and I am more exhausted than I knew to be possible, and partly because even I, as verbose as I am, could not find the right combination of verbs and nouns to actually, honestly and wholly tell this story. I have attempted writing this for 12 months. Countless paragraphs that seemed right at the time, but during the editing stage sound preposterous. The story of my last 12 months changes every day, sometimes it’s hopeful, sometimes courageous, full of love and forward movement, sometimes it’s a rambling, sleep deprived rant about why cheesesticks are so fucking hard to open (I mean for the love of Dirty Pete, can’t they seal the ends with something less gluey?), sometimes I’m breathless with gratitude for all the people who have helped us this last year, sometimes it’s a raw and burning story that would make your heart burst open and shrink at the same time. Sometimes there are no words for it at all, and even now, I know I will read this entry a hundred times thinking these words are outrageous, inaccurate, and wondering if I’m doing the right thing by opening up. People have suggested that what I might write could help someone else, which seems crazy. Please be kind, this is hard but feels necessary.
When I was posting more regularly for Mama In Wonderland about my for-reals version of parenthood, it seemed that you related. The tantrums, wayward vomit, whimsical poo episodes, accounts of my chaos and moments of epic failure; you, as a collective audience (of four people) said, “yes Mama, it’s like that for me too. You are not alone, and because you’re not alone, neither am I.” My challenges as a parent were ones that you felt too, plus, you know, I’m hilarious so there’s that also… I used to write about how shit and hard and alone motherhood can be, and now, it’s shitter and harder and aloner; and that’s not so relatable. I am daunted by that.
I miss him. I miss the smell of him. I miss his touch. I miss looking over to the other side of the bed and admiring his profile. I miss wanting to smother his face with a pillow when he snored like a nose breathing stallion. I miss his hands, he had strong hands. I miss the way he would tease me. I miss the sound of his voice. I miss every single tiny and inconsequential detail of who he was, and all the enormous ones. At times I’m so overcome with sorrow that I can’t breathe. And at times I am so overcome with solo parenting that I can’t breathe. At times I see glimpses of a future for me, and I’m so intrigued that I can’t breathe. And all of the not breathing feels wrong and foreign. Sometimes I feel like I’ve misplaced my default settings as a person.
People rallied when he died. They worked their arses off and raised money, they delivered meals and gifts. They called in, and stayed away. They overlooked the constant war-zone of my lounge room. They provided for us in ways that a dad would normally. And they did it all without so much as a blink of expectation, and I didn’t have to ask once. I have felt so incredibly buoyed by our very giving community, the sisterhood reached out, and without ever imposing, gently nudged me forward, and kept a net of hands around me as I stood up and walked on. I have never felt so embraced and yet so alone in my life, and also so awkwardly appreciative – when people give and give and give, there’s no way you can ever convey your gratitude. The kindness of these people is actually silencing (there literally are no words to convey it). It’s weird, something you never expect to experience, something that never feels normal, regardless of how utterly indebted you feel. I question everything that feels normal now.
Who am I without this man who has at various times walked with me, carried me, ran to keep up, lifted me to my feet, stood in front to protect me, and very occasionally (mostly accidentally) stood in my way? Who am I now? I’m a widow. A WIDOW – say what?! I’m a single mother. I’m not only raising three kids, I’m raising three grieving kids, which I don’t know how to do (and lets be honest, I didn’t know how to raise three regular kids, that’s the whole point of this blog). My husband died. He was 35. WTF?! Who am I? I’m a different version of me; one that is more weary, less tolerant, more intimidated, more determined, more knowledgeable, less angry, more durable, so much more grateful and more likely to say ‘I love you.’ They sound like great qualities, right? Quite a price to pay for such an impressive list of self-growth though, right?
He knew he was going to die, he had to say goodbye to his children. He was an exceptional dad, and I’m not just saying that, I’m really not. He was attentive, and patient, he would include them in everything; a 30 minute job outside was a two hour activity because each child had a turn to carry something, a go with the screwdriver, they were made to feel included and important. He was a better dad than most, and he was a better parent than me. My little Wonderlings have proven that bravery is innate, taught me to be fearless, and shown me how much I am needed; they miss everything about him, and, they’re too young to even know what they are missing. I knew him better in person than they will ever know him in memory, and it stings. I don’t know how to raise our children without him, and I feel that sometimes I’m staring down the barrel of the rest of my life, being the only one shouldering the real day-to-day responsibility of these babes. It’s just me and the elephant, and it’s intimidating (especially considering I’m in the process of evicting the elephant).
Our year, aside from all of Brett’s medical shiz has been stupid. In the last 16 months the kids have had four surgeries (variation of adenoids/tonsils/grommets), three sets of stitches, 16 courses of antibiotics, six staph infections, we’ve all had whooping cough, gastro and started school. Every single day is a hot mess of managing the health (both physical and emotional) of the kids. I have tried so hard (with the help of professionals, it’s okay, I have a team of people with letters after their names) to create an environment where the kids can explore death and their grief safely, with openness and age-appropriate terminology. For example, his funeral was a goodbye party, it wasn’t a coffin, but the box with flowers with daddy’s body inside. Kids don’t understand what a coffin is and enforcing them to try and understand adult terminology only makes them more confused. I try to use this type replacement language so that they can better understand the concept and have the matching vocabulary to ask questions when they need to.
I field some pretty confronting topics… in preparation for one of the kids’ surgeries, we had to go to a pre-op appointment at the hospital. I was running a couple of minutes late, so pulled into a car park and started the flurry of undoing seatbelts. The youngest Wonderling, at only two years old said, with an open mouth and doe eyes, ‘oh! Have we come to pick up daddy?’ We were going to be late, and so while I found our paperwork, carried her from the car and assembled kids to cross the street, I explained that ‘oh, my darling! Remember sweetie, daddy died, he is in heaven now, and it would be so nice to pick him up, wouldn’t it! But he isn’t here at the hospital anymore.’ Then, before I’d even drawn breath, our five year old asks ‘mummy, do you think the bugs have finished eating daddy’s body yet?’ I answer as honestly as I can, ‘actually sweetie, no I don’t think think so. They put special things in daddy’s box so that his body stays the same for a while.’ That’s a really natural question, but not one that us adults needs to ask, because we inherently know the answer to it. Then our four year old sits on the floor exclaiming his hunger, refusing to move (which was a stall tactic as he was feeling confronted about being at the hospital again).
Going to an appointment with three kids was hard before this happened, but right there in a 90 second window of time, are the valid needs of three grieving children, all making their needs evident (as they should, and I’m glad they’re comfortable enough to), all while I’m running late to a medical appointment in the hospital where he died. I can’t even… This is one micro example of our days. They’re all like this; this is just our life now. Aside from the fact that I burn with white-hot pain for their loss, I am navigating the needs of three tiny little people who are trying to make sense of this new reality. It’s so mother fucking hard sometimes. Every day is a long-distance negotiation of emotions, fears, realities, learning, remembering, lost shoes, cries of injustice and claims of ‘I had it first’. Things are normal and oh so not normal.
But, as we mark the one year anniversary, we are okay. We are eating vegetables. We are brushing our teeth. We are wearing clean clothes. We are finding things to celebrate. We are upright. We are healthy. We make new friends and love each other. We remember him all day every day. We are okay.
Strangely, as intrusive and silencing as the elephant has been, I’m going to miss it. Its giantness and perpetual intrusion have been oddly comforting in some ways. But no more. I am alive, and for an aspiring novelist you’re kind of a downer. Thank you for being my brave and bossy shield, but it’s time for you to go now. Goodbye, Elephant.
Oh, and fuck you cancer.