Vale Dear Friend – Have You Solved The Mystery of Death?

The sun exactly at noon is exactly [beginning to] go down.
And a creature when he is born is exactly [beginning to] die.


Hu Shih, Chinese Philosopher,philosopher, essayist and diplomat

On Saturday night I couldn’t settle. A telephone call from Canberra the day before said Margaret’s death was imminent – within 24 – 48 hours. The vigil of her final hours carried out by  two other friends – the remainder of our “gang of four” – sitting either side of her bed at Clare Holland House hospice each holding one of Margaret’s hands.

“You’re too far away Mum to do anything , but worry. Try and relax… we care about you.”

I started a jigsaw puzzle after my daughters insisted I focus on something pleasant. Their words of wisdom, sympathy and nurturing an appreciative role reversal.

“Remember your last few days together in January, focus on that image and all the good times you’ve shared.”

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Margaret’s dying had occupied thoughts and shaken emotional equilibrium for weeks. Daily text messages or phone calls from close friends, an ever present reminder someone I’d known since teenage was dying from breast cancer – a disease my body was fighting successfully – so far. Margaret’s lobular cancer, detected too late had spread to her brain stem and groin. Life seemed unfair and good health such a lottery!

I’ve experienced grief many times, especially over the last few years.  Friends and family farewelled; the most poignant goodbyes being husband John and my parents. I understand about complicated grief. For several years, I could identify with this state.  I appeared to “get on with life” , but my pain never fully receded into the background or diminished. It was even physical, with a permanent pain in my heart as if a stone lodged there, pressing its weight, interrupting normal rhythm. I became the great pretender, perfecting the art of an outward smile without any inner joy.

To endure life remains, when all is said, the first duty of all living beings… If you would endure life, be prepared for death.


Sigmund Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

Thoughts and memories of those I’ve lost circle in my head on a permanent loop. Each death a reminder of the one before: I don’t believe my yearning and longing for John will ever disappear and memories of others can appear unbidden, triggered by a smell, a piece of music, a photograph, a snatch of conversation… but I do “get on with life”!

And so when the call came at 6.00am Easter Sunday, to say Margaret had died the night before, I knew exactly when the moment had come. On Saturday evening, just after ten o’clock I’d had a strong urge to go outside again and watch the progress of the lunar eclipse. As I stood watching the clear night sky, the angst and worry about Margaret’s dying dissipated. I felt she was at peace, free from suffering and earthly worries .

She breathed her last breath at 10.15pm, April 4th 2015, 25 days short of her 68th birthday. Mary Jane’s photographs capturing my thoughts that Margaret joined all the others who have gone before, including her parents. “Who would have thought dying was so difficult,” she had whispered last week, insisting she saw her parents waiting.

That waiting now over.

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Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

After I received the news, Mary Jane and Anne bought me a beautiful orchid. Tall and willowy, like Margaret, a wonderful gift of life!

” To plant in Margaret’s memory, Mum.”

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Later, I went for a walk by the sea with a writer friend – another life-affirming pleasure and always a solace to me. Although it’s autumn, abundant signs of fresh growth promised new life.

Creating Memories

My garden reflects the rich tapestry of family life. The plants are a mixture of immigrant and native, just like us. Some are already memorials. Two sturdy bottlebrushes (callistemon linearis) remind me that two mothers grieve for sons. The wattle, as straight as a mast, thrives, but reminds me of a friend who died in despair. A rose from Coydon a link to the family home with Mum and Dad. There are cuttings from friends, plus birthday or appreciation plants nestling beside Mother’s Day flowers, nurtured by tiny hands.

Each has a story.

The rosemary bush by the mailbox extra special, an unexpected gift from a lady whom I‘d never met.  In September 2002, when John died after a heroic struggle with debilitating lung disease, a small healthy rosemary plant arrived with prayerful condolences.

In ancient literature and folklore, rosemary is a symbol of remembrance. It’s also an emblem of fidelity with a belief that its properties improve memory. Rosemary has particular significance for Australians because it grows wild at Gallipoli.

Rosmarinus Officinalis (‘Dew of the Sea’) is an evergreen shrub of the mint family. John loved the sea and often shared stories of his 16 years in the Royal Navy. His affinity with the sea led me to scatter his ashes at Stony Point. He’ll revisit many shores, including Mordialloc. And as the girls and I travel the world we know he’s always near.

The girls made tiny sprigs of beribboned rosemary for people to take home after John’s funeral, a custom since 1584. Rosemary even gains a mention in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Ophelia, decked in flowers said to Laertes: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.’ Shakespeare’s plays another love John and I shared – the ties that bind. So many memory triggers…

My garden will always be a work in progress. John’s announcement in 1984 when we bought the house prophetic, ‘the garden will have to survive on neglect. There’s enough to do inside to keep me occupied for years!’ However, like love, the rosemary flourishes and many passers-by and neighbours pick sprigs for their Sunday roast and other dishes. The other plants thrive too, like me they are low maintenance!

The ‘renovator’s delight’ garden still has the original couch grass with a small clump of Strelitzia regina (Bird of Paradise) and a bluey-mauve Blue Moon rose, shrubs spectacular when in blossom. Acquired plants fit the soil and landscape of the area; flora enriching the habitat for native birds, butterflies and bees. Drought-tolerant plants minimise water use and are wildlife friendly. There is beauty inherent in the evergreen native trees and indigenous plants produce the harmony I desire – native and exotic.

Bees and butterflies buzz and flitter from agapanthus to lavender, from rosemary to geraniums. Wattlebirds feast while insects scurry on lobed dark green leaves. A ringtail possum nests nearby. Blazing red hot pokers (kniphofia) create a rainbow in autumn.

Each day as I check the mailbox, or go for a walk, the rosemary reminds me that ’flowers seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity.’

I ponder where I’ll plant Margaret’s orchid to reflect on life and feel blessed.

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Death is an absolute mystery. We are all vulnerable to it, it’s what makes life interesting and suspenseful.

Jeanne Moreau

Mammograms and Memories

A reason for my reluctance to host a regular blog has been fear. Fear that the posts will be self-indulgent twaddle, or boring rants instead of relevant, helpful and interesting!

Despite the impression I seem to give, like many writers I lack confidence in my ability and nurse an inferiority complex. “Highly Strung” was the comment teachers made in the school reports of my primary years in Scotland–not sure what that means, except I can remember often feeling nervous and anxious. Mind you, in the 50s when some teachers wielded the strap freely, threw chalk and the blackboard pointer, I’m surprised most of the pupils weren’t highly strung.

Well, today I had an excellent reason to be anxious. It was time for my annual mammogram and ultrasound and although they have a super new machine at Mentone Radiology, which hopefully will minimise the need for biopsies because of the intensity of images it produces, the downside is that your breasts are still squashed as flat as they can make them, and for at least 11 seconds—a longer time than that required by the old machine!

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However, I am grateful to have access to breast screening because it was my birthday mammogram in 2010 that detected cancer. I may not be alive today without that mammogram! So, regardless of the discomfort and pain, please get screened!

In 1994, when Dr Carmen Lawrence was the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, Australia led the world by developing a number of innovative health programs for women, such as national breast screening and cervical cancer screening. I and countless other women are grateful to the Keating Government, and subsequent Federal Governments for funding FREE regular screening for women aged between 50-74, the age group most at risk from breast cancer.

Writing helped me cope with my cancer diagnosis and radical mastectomy. They published a story I wrote in Journey, Experiences with Breast Cancer, Busybird Publishing, 2012. My close friend and fellow writer,  Glenice Whitting drove me to Eltham Community Library for the launch. I had finished chemotherapy and had been back at work almost a year, yet when I held the book in my hands and read the first paragraph of my story I trembled, tears pressed against aching eyes and my mouth went dry.

This room is too small. A tiny desk jammed in the left corner as we enter through the door. A four-shelf bookcase laden with pamphlets melts into the right wall and four grey cloth office chairs cluster beside the desk, silent when moved against the carpet, which is another nondescript grey. I think how crowded the room will be when filled to capacity – patient with partner or friend, the doctor and a nurse/counsellor. Or, maybe cosy – it depends on what news is delivered.
Now, there is only Deb, the nurse who has been looking after me. We are waiting for the doctor to return and already I feel claustrophobic. The Venetian blinds are semi-closed on the pencil thin window, but I can feel the chill from the stormy sky threatening hail.
I don’t gasp for air, or take deep reassuring gulps. Instead, holding my breath, I almost stop breathing. Perhaps a subconscious plea for time to stop, even be rewound, will be answered. This morning has become surreal. I can sense rather than see Deb behind me, her chair close enough to be reassuring, or grab me if I lose control. I think she expected me to sit in the chair parallel to the desk, face the doctor, and her but I sit once removed, where a husband or partner should be. Where John should be. I suppress a mixture of emotions: anger, pain, sadness, self-pity, and fear.
The empty chair reminds me I’m widowed eight years. A silent voice in my head acknowledges reality – I’m 57, alone, and no man is going to find me attractive now. I tremble for a moment, an almost imperceptible jerk. Deb leans closer; I can feel the heat from her body and grit my teeth, willing the tears to stay behind burning eyeballs. The ache for John’s strength beside me is making me emotional. I must stop thinking the impossible.

When publisher Blaise van Hecke asked if I would read an extract I could only shake my head, not trusting my voice to function without breaking down. A crack was developing in my Scottish stoicism and the veneer I showed the world of the strong survivor getting on with life. This latest crisis was not a mere glitch, and I was not so strong after all.

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One of my daughter’s friends sent me this message after reading the book:

I just read your chapter. I thought it was beautiful. I am finding it hard to articulate what I mean – it felt delicate – in such a terrible and confronting time, I found it very positive and empowering. There is more than the actual disease,  so many other raw emotions involved. It also helps put things in perspective and appreciate those who we love and care about. I really love your approach and how you express your experiences – you are such a strong and wonderful person. I think cancer is terrifying, I managed to smile and feel a sense of peace/calm, it felt like you were in control and not about to crumble. I feel so grateful to have read your story, and many more will be able to learn from you.

When Julia Reichstein, Media and Events Officer for the Mentone Public Library invited me to speak at a special forum with other breast cancer survivors about how writing can help put trauma into perspective and be a good coping tool, I accepted.

If sharing my journey and knowledge helped even one other person, the anxiety and stress I knew I’d feel about speaking in public would be worth it. (Yes, I’m still highly strung!)

The day entitled Writing Through Adversity was a great success and I’ll post my notes at a later date, but today I’ll close with a poem I wrote about the day they diagnosed me, and an encounter I had with a neighbour.

We all cope differently with what life throws at us, but usually, friends and family are happy to support us. However, there are various organisations who will also support you, with Lifeline being one of the best.

Too Close For Comfort

He stumbles at the mailbox
our pallid complexions
a mirror match
our anguish palpable.

Pam is dead, he whispers.
we stand together
in damp wintry silence
legs atremble, minds numb.

He confides that diagnosed
with breast cancer
his wife stood in front of
a train last night…

I cannot speak and clutch
my BreastScreen results
A coiled snake
To cope with later…

We stand apart
in damp wintry silence
an express rattles past
bellowing a lament.

© 2014