Everyday we’re shuffling

I’m looking out my window, across the red and silver Colorbond (R) rooftops. The sky is pale blue, and although it’s sunny, a soft, cool breeze ruffles the leaves of the palm tree in a neighbor’s yard.

Listening, I hear the steady swish of traffic about a kilometre away, on the highway, the chirping of birds, the high-pitched chattering of a small child in a yard nearby, and the distant droning of what sounds like a light airplane – the kind that make their way through the sky on a lazy, sunny, Sunday afternoon like this one.

And I’m thinking, because I can’t help doing so, that it was a pleasant, sunny Sunday afternoon exactly like this one, 12 months ago, probably at this very time of the day, when I walked up the stairs, into this room, and was told that my brother had died.

When I think of this, I wonder if it’s possible that all moments in time still exist, just in some other reality that we don’t have access to, and that on some other co-existing plane of reality, I’m always still coming up those stairs and about to hear that news.

I guess they do, at least in one sense, because they exist forever inside our heads, in our memories, where they can feel as real as the moment that they happened. Particularly if, in that original moment, reality was pulled away from underfoot, and felt like a dream anyway.

The date of my brother’s death is actually 10th, or 11th – there is differing opinion amongst family. Some of us choose not to believe the autopsy report, which left a lot unanswered, and remain convinced that it must have been the 10th. So today, the 9th September, is not the anniversary of his death by calendar dates, either way. But by days, it’s the anniversary of the Sunday afternoon, almost identical to this one, 11th September last year, when I followed my partner up the stairs wondering what he needed to tell me, and, as Joan Didion discovered, I learned how life changes in the instant.

Believe it or not, though, today has been a lovely day. I’ve caught up with 2 friends, one planned, the other  unplanned. I’m about to go and hang out with two of my brothers, have a few drinks, and probably talk about John. Tomorrow I’ve taken time off work to go and see my parents. It has been on my mind for the last month now, that the one year anniversary of my brother’s death was drawing closer and closer, so I suppose I am as prepared as I could be.

There has only really been one moment today that caught me off-guard, and served as a reminder of how grieving works. No matter that overall you are coping so much better, there will still be moments that remind you that you are only taking baby steps. Apparently even a year later, any time I experience, for the first time since John died, something that I had done or somewhere I had been before, I will need to register that fact.

This morning, it was at the gym, a place I sporadically visit. At the end of what could only loosely be described as a workout, I went to the usual room to stretch, but it was so busy that there was nowhere to set up (or lie down, to be more accurate). I recalled an upstairs room that I had used occasionally, but not for a long time. I walked up the stairs – and as soon as I walked into that room, emotion swept over me. I immediately registered that it must be because the last time I’d been in this room, John had still been alive. My unconscious knew this and was telling me quite clearly: I hadn’t needed to do any conscious calculations. I struggled with tears, which threatened to start seeping out my eyes, mindful that there was a spin class in the room next door to me.

The moment was all the more incongruous because of the awful, loud music coming from the spin class – Party Rock Anthem. I hasten to say that I am only familiar with this piece of music because it was a big hit with the 11-year-old crowd last year, and my daughter’s grade 6 class chose it for their performance at her final school concert: they all learned to “shuffle”. You may also know it as “the song that goes everyday we’re shuffling“.

Now, I’m the sort of person who gets teary at sad scenes in movies, and milestones like her child finishing up primary school for ever. For a large portion of last year as my daughter headed towards the end of grade 6, I had fully expected to be one of the parents bawling at the final school concert.

But  when the time came around, due to the circumstances, I found myself going through those last months of her primary school years in a state of shock and numbness.

Hearing Party Rock Anthem, at that moment this morning, served to take me back to that period  – to the end of last year, and my daughter’s enjoyment and blossoming as she finished up primary school, shuffled on stage with all the other grade 6 kids, and looked forward with excitement to high school. I was painfully reminded of how those few short months had happened around me, and yet passed me by as if I hadn’t been there. I’d been physically present, I’d looked like I was taking part, but my emotions had been squeezed into a box and the lid had been slammed shut. I should have been excited for my 11-year-old, and simultaneously sad about her leaving primary school behind, but I wasn’t able to feel any emotion over it, or shed a single tear about it, because my brother had just died. Having just experienced a death, how could I feel anything resembling sadness, for something as commonplace as a child ending grade 6? Conversely, if I allowed myself to feel some sadness about it, that could lead me down the path of recalling that John was not around to see her finish primary school, would never see her go on to high school, and focussing again on how I could never have imagined that would be the case.

I was scared that if such thoughts were left unchecked in public, they could lead to an outpouring of grief that would be out of proportion to the circumstances.

So in those final weeks of grade 6, at the last primary school concert and the Grade 6 speech night, I was just an observer, with dry eyes and a slightly dazed expression on my face, as though looking through a window at something I was not part of.

I remembered all of that now, standing still amongst the stretching mats and the weights at the gym, my eyes welling with tears, while Party Rock Anthem blared out from the room next to me. It was disconcerting to feel moved to tears in a gym, by such an unemotional piece of music. I briefly wondered how I would explain to someone, if spotted, how such a formulaic piece of dance music could evoke emotions that would have me fighting back tears.

But there was no need. No one saw me. I managed to put aside the sadness – for that moment – wiped away the stray tears, and got on with my stretches.

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