I apologise for the recent brief hiatus in A Peek at Life. Usually, when faced with any kind of difficulty, I write – I’ve always needed to write in order to help make sense of what is going on. However, after my mother died and before I embarked on a 5-month trip to the United States, I was not at all motivated to write. Instead of needing to understand, I wanted rather to leave well alone; like a scab that shouldn’t be picked. So, I spent a lot of time staring out of my bedroom window or at the telly, not thinking about very much at all. And when I did have to focus on getting something done, I had the attention span of a gnat. As our departure for America loomed and nothing was getting sorted, all I felt was a strong urge to just lie down and wish it would all go away.
While gazing vacantly at the telly one afternoon, I happened upon the movie Last Orders, based on the novel of the same name by Graham Swift. Coincidentally I had just finished reading the book and had noted a scene in which the character Ray talks about his father dying while he (Ray) is fighting in North Africa during WWII:
And you wouldn’t think it would make any difference to your immediate safety, him not being there any more, when he wasn’t there anyway, as far away alive as dead. Except it takes away a sort of allowance, a sort of margin. It makes you feel you’ve moved to the front, you’re next.
Watching the movie and rereading the marked passage helped me to see that what I had been struggling with, apart from the achingly painful loss of my mother, was an acute sense of vulnerability. I had moved to the front and it was bloody disconcerting, to say the least!
Up until this realisation, I had been having rather unpleasant dreams, revisiting my mum’s death over and over again. And then I had a dream about her in which she looked and sounded so happy, just like her old self. It was such a vivid dream that when I woke up I found my neglected journal and, for the first time in ages, wrote my morning pages in which I described in detail how she looked, what she said and how happy it made me to see her like that. That day I decided to bury her ashes in the garden of her wee house. I dug the hole and then, for some inexplicable reason, I decided I needed a picture of her to bury with the ashes. I used the search function on my laptop and typed in “edna garden”. Nothing came up, so I searched my external hard drive for older pictures. The first picture that came up was a shot of my mum standing at the front door of her wee house with the garden in the foreground. Perfect. I printed it out and laid it in the hole that I had dug. As I was about to scatter her ashes on top, I realised, with quite a jolt, that the clothes she was wearing in the photo were identical to what she had been wearing in my dream. I buried her ashes and planted a spring-flowering Cestrum on top. And, from that day on, I stopped having the nightmares and started writing again.
A while ago a friend of mine confided how unsettled she had been when, at the first Christmas after her mother died, it had dawned on her that she was now the family elder. It’s a sobering thought. However, as daunting as it is to assume the mantle, it is also a privilege and I realised this when I became a grandmother earlier this month.
Three days before we were due to arrive in the United States for the birth of our first grandchild (and 2 weeks before her due date) little Isla decided to make her debut. Kiera and the baby were fine but it was very upsetting to be so far away for such a life-changing event – it was a nasty reminder that both my children are scattered to the four winds. Those three days were an eternity but when we finally set off on our trip, it went surprisingly quickly and painlessly.
One of the aspects of the trip to the USA that I dread is the ± 2-hour drive from the farm to Durban airport on the N3 (as accidents occur with alarming regularity on this stretch of road, one usually has to leave earlier than necessary, just in case). Trucks hurtle along the N3, driven with such murderous intent that getting onto the same road as them is like entering a Mad Max movie. Arriving at Durban airport with shattered nerves definitely starts one off on the wrong foot for the rest of the trip (Durban to Jo’burg, Jo’burg to Washington DC with a fuel stop in Dakar). So, this time we decided to fly from Pietermaritzburg (Oribi) airport to Jo’burg and what a pleasure it was. It’s an easy 45-minute drive from the farm; we had time for a G&T in the small airport café before checking in, which was a doddle as the plane only seats about 70 people. Our flight to DC was uneventful and we arrived at Dulles airport quite unscathed by the long flight.
We arrived on the day that Kiera, James and Isla came home from the hospital and a week later, Alex flew up from Miami to visit his baby niece. It was lovely to be all together again as a family, with the tiny addition.
It’s been an absolute joy to be part of Isla’s life from the beginning and I can’t help but think of my own mother who was part of my children’s lives from their births until they left home. Sometimes I catch myself wondering if she felt what I feel when I’m holding Isla and how much I took her love for my children for granted.
In the final episode of Wallander (yes, I watch a lot of telly!), there’s a scene at the end where he is walking on the beach and talking to the ghost of his father. “It’s just moments now, Dad,” he says, “everything, just moments now. They don’t add up.” “What don’t?” asks his father. “My memories,” Wallander says, “my life doesn’t join up. I can’t remember.” His father replies, “Someone else will remember. Someone will remember for you.”
I will remember.