The things about grief

I have a plastic A4 sized folder that sits on a shelf in my wardrobe. It contains papers that I threw together when we cleaned out my little brother’s room, after he died, 4 years ago.

Some of those papers include a signed annual leave form, for annual leave that began on 11 September, the day we found out he had passed away. There is a work review, with comments written by John and his supervisor, and incident reports John had kept copies of.

These may seem like odd things to keep, but I had a strong desire to keep these pieces of paper on which my brother had written, because I don’t have a single piece of written correspondence from John that I could treasure – no hand-written letters, no emails, not even a text message. (I got a new phone about 4 weeks before he died, and old texts did not transfer over.) He had only just set up his very first email account, a day or two before he passed away, for purposes of the course he was to start on the Monday.

I kept these pieces of paper also because of my writer’s love of the little incidental details that make up a life – again, something I have no other records of, in the life of my brother. These pieces of paper give me dates – the date he signed his leave form, the date he had his worker review.

What’s more, I can interrogate them for evidence of my brother’s personality and character. I detect these traits in the criticism he – someone who had left school at 16 – wrote in his work review (“my PD says in part exactly the opposite of what it is intended to convey”) and in the incident reports he filled out. These reports are, in my opinion, concrete evidence that my brother was a compassionate, thoughtful person with integrity and personal ethics. He took the trouble to fill out an incident report, to formally raise it as an issue that the elderly residents in his care are not given hats to keep them from being burned in the sun when taken out into the garden. And when I read his incident report outlining in great detail an event where a staff member subjected an elderly resident to taunts and humiliation, until John kicked his co-worker out of the room, I can sense his level of anger and disgust at that behaviour, as well as his determination that the elderly man be treated with dignity and respect.

There are other papers shoved into this folder: a photocopied page of the local newspaper of our home town in the late 1990s, featuring a fresh-faced John in a promotion for the business he worked in at age 17, and the obituary pages from the days following his death, torn from the same local newspaper some 16-odd years later.

In addition to papers, I collected some of his CDs and books, but I can’t name the CDs and books, because they are all still in a box in our ceiling storage. At that time, I couldn’t bear to look at that box of his things, but I didn’t want them to lose their identity as “John’s” by integrating them into our CDs and books, so up in the ceiling they remain 4 years later. Up in the ceiling also, is a bag with his work shirts in it. I took that because they smelled like John.

When you are left with so little of someone, outside of your memories, you’ll grab anything you can.

*

I have written many posts about my brother’s death, and about my thought processes when I was grieving, but when last Friday came round, and it was 4 years since he had died, I suddenly felt a strong desire to not write a thing. I just didn’t want to sit down knowing that I was going to scrutinise, analyse, and write about my grief, all over again.

Because it seems to me as if focussing on how his death made me feel requires me to actually distance myself from the immediacy of those feelings. As we know, you can’t be in the moment, and also be writing how you feel about the moment. As soon as you start observing how you feel about the moment, you are no longer in the moment.

I guess this tendency to observe and write about my feelings is probably a curse that comes with having the urge to write in the first place – because of course the flip side is, that to write about your feelings, you need to be able to take a step back and observe them! This makes me ponder what causes me to be inclined to step back and observe my own thoughts and feelings – something I’ve done since I started a diary when I was about 11. It also causes me to scrutinise my motivations when I write posts about grieving.

When my brother had just died, I constantly felt a desire to tell complete strangers – the waiter in a cafe, the client at work, any one in any trivial interaction – that my brother had just died. And on any occasion when I did tell someone, including friends who didn’t know my brother, I wanted that person to reel backwards in shock. I wanted tears to come to their eyes. I wanted them to be speechless with emotion. I wanted their eyes to well with tears. My sister expressed something similar at the time, writing in an email that she felt like she wanted to accost strangers and say “look, this is the gist of it….”

What drives that desire to scream the news to the world when someone you love dies? AT the time, I felt like I understood why people in other cultures wear black arm bands, or something to indicate to the rest of the world that they are mourning.

Back then, I definitely wanted other people to also be devastated at the loss of my beautiful brother. I wanted others to fully grasp the enormity of the situation, so that they could empathise with me. But also, I’m sorry to admit, I wanted to inflict the pain that I was going through, onto others.

Last Friday, I felt weighed down by all the posts I’ve already written about my brother’s death and my own grief. I knew the answer to what my motivation is in writing them – it is always, to try and convey the depth of the shock and grief that I felt. And, yes, there is also a desire to make the reader feel some pale imitation of that grief – at least, to make the reader feel sad, as I’ve felt moved to tears when reading others’ writing.

I would like to think that, at least as time has passed, my desire to move the reader is not motivated by anger and hurt, and a need to pass on the pain, but by the hope that my writing might occasionally be good enough to illicit an emotional response in a reader.

In any case, after 4 years, last Friday even that noble literary-minded goal did not motivate me. I decided I couldn’t sit down on the day of John’s anniversary to write about the milestone. It felt contrived – wallowing in grief for the purposes of writing a post. I decided instead, that I’d just be in the day, instead of writing about it.

(This is not to say I won’t write any more posts about grief – I suspect that I will – but for some reason, on that day, it felt important not to.)

As it happened, it was a glorious, sunny day last Friday, and that seemed to confirm that after 4 years, it was time for me to celebrate John’s life, instead of focussing on my sadness at him being gone. So that’s what I did. The day held a mixture of mundane, pre-planned chores, as well a few indulgences to mark the day (enjoying a coffee at a favourite cafe by myself, buying a bunch of flowers). Of course, there were a few moments – buying the flowers, listening to a particular song – where I choked up with tears for a few moments, but strange as it may sound, I had a lovely day, and in the back of my mind all day was John.

*

Since John died, I’ve started a new collection, based on my new interest. It’s a collection of words – words that make up lists:  lists of songs, poems, stories, and plays, with a common theme – grief.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that collection another time, but today I thought I’d end this post with some lyrics from a song from my “Grief” collection. It’s by Clare Bowditch, an Aussie singer/songwriter, who was 5 when one of her older sisters died, and it’s titled The Things About Grief.

*

The thing about grief is

It knows what I did, and it knows what I did not say

it sentenced me to a long, long life of excavating

things my little head can not yet understand

but I patch it all together with string and rubber bands……

(….)

The thing about grief is

few people know if the i comes before the e

and it’s hard to give away cos it’s the last thing you gave to me

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3 Days (remembering John)

It’s a bummer when you are not sure what date to remember your deceased little brother on.

On reflection, this dilemma is probably not as uncommon as it sounds. A family member is found, passed away, and the question is, did they pass away on the day they were found, or on the day prior, on which they were last seen about 1am? A coroner’s office can provide a letter with a date in it, but when they are unable to provide the cause of death, it’s easy to also assume that their guesswork includes the time of death.

So when this time of year rolls around, I remember him on 3 days in September.

Day 1 is 9th September. In 2011, 9th was a Friday. It was the last day that John would ever get up in the morning and go to work. The last day that he was seen alive, going about his usual business.

On 9 September, he did an early shift, at the residential care facility where he worked as a PSA (Personal Services Attendant). After work he travelled home on public transport. He didn’t earn a huge wage, and couldn’t see the point of paying for the petrol, maintenance, registration and parking permit required to have a car in the inner Melbourne suburb where he lived. He probably arrived home and had a shower, and then relaxed, listening to Sonic Youth, or Depeche Mode, or reading, or watching TV. I can picture hi sitting outside and smoking, tobacco or other substances, as he frequently did.

9th September 2011 was not just any old normal working day for John. He would have been in a pretty good mood. It was his last shift before 2 weeks of annual leave he’d organised in advance. He had been thinking for a while about training to become a Registered Nurse, had recently sat the required tests, and enrolled in the course. As someone who left school at the age of 16, without finishing Year 10, never undertaken any further study, and worked at many different unskilled jobs for the next 16 years, I’m sure there was a great sense of achievement and pride for him in getting into this tertiary course.

So on that Friday night, John was about to have a rare weekend off, and then, on Monday morning, embark on a 2 week intensive course, followed by weekly evening classes, and eventually a career as a Registered Nurse. He had a few drinks, made dinner, for himself and my youngest brother, and after hanging out until late in the night, he went to bed.

That’s as much as is certain. After that point, in playback mode, time slows down.

10th September 2011 came and went without incident, but in my mind now, it is the twilight zone. It’s the hazy, not-quite-real, in-between date. It’s the gap in-between my brother being alive, and being found in his bed, dead. It’s the day that seemed normal at the time, but in hindsight it’s an abomination, because it’s the day where the rest of us went about our Saturday assuming all was still right with our world, totally oblivious to the fact that a terrible chasm had formed, at some point on that day, between our imagined reality and real life.

Played back in slow motion, I see myself that morning doing all manner of frivolous activities. See, there I go: taking my daughter shopping for shoes and to the local op (thrift) shop. There I am again in the afternoon, sitting at home, phoning my sister, who lives overseas. In a strange turn of events, given what was to come, I was phoning my sister to say that a friend of hers, from our hometown, had passed away suddenly from an asthma attack at the age of 39.  After that call, I phoned John with the same news, but he didn’t answer, and he rarely ever responded to messages so I didn’t leave one.

I will never know whether my brother was already dead when I waited for him to pick up the phone.

We don’t know what time on 10th September his sleeping state was disrupted by something – perhaps, (as suggested by the coroner), a seizure – that turned out to be catastrophic. We don’t know when whatever-it-was changed normal sleep to something else, perhaps a coma, or perhaps death in moments. I don’t know if it was in the wee hours of that morning, or at the exact moment that I locked up my car in the cark park at the local shopping centre. Perhaps it was just as his phone was ringing next to his bed.

We will never know, and I don’t spend a lot of time wondering, because no answer to this question is any more satisfactory than any other. The greater mystery, so it seemed to me at the time, was that there was no announcement. No bell tolled, no sense of suffocating dread overcame me. No sound, no thought, no feeling indicated to me that in one particular second on that weekend, something catastrophic had taken place.

I said that the 10th was the twilight zone in the middle, but in fact, we do know that he was alive at the very start of the 10th, because he was seen by our youngest brother, P who lived with him. P was still up past midnight on 9th, watching TV when John got up to get a drink. P decided to go to bed. That was the last time he would ever see his brother alive.

This brings us to 11th September.

It’s a date already overloaded with images of grief and death for those of us living in Western countries, where the date is synonymous with the World Trade Centre attacks of a decade ago in the U.S.

On 11th September 2011, the airwaves and the media were particularly heavy with collective memories because it was the 10th anniversary of the attacks. That Sunday, I was out shopping yet again with my daughter – in the morning at a local shopping mall, and in the afternoon at the supermarket to get groceries. Apparently I shopped for most of that weekend.

There I am on the Sunday, driving and listening to people call up the radio to share memories of 9/11 from 10 years earlier. Their stories make me feel particularly bleak this year, and for the first time, I decide my daughter is old enough to hear an edited version, so, grimly and a bit cruelly, I explain the bare details of what happened on 9/11. She cries.

Later on, there I am again, back at home in the afternoon, sitting at the computer with writer’s block. I’m trying to think of something to write about on this blog, and I don’t hear my mobile phone ring upstairs. I’m still agonising over what to write as the landline rings downstairs and my partner answers it. I take no notice, registering only that he’s talking to someone he knows, and assume it’s someone from his family.

As I sit there at the computer screen, I’m unaware of the significant moment that is drawing close. I see myself, blissfully ignorant that a devastating turning point in my life is now only a few minutes away. I’m concerned with my blog, and not taking much notice of what my partner is saying on the phone. In fact, if I ever tried to recall it afterwards, I thought I had heard him laughing, and assumed he was talking to a family member.

Those last minutes tick by, as that phone call comes to an end.

There goes the last minute of my previous life, slowly disappearing, as I tear myself away from my blog and follow A. up the stairs, because he “needs to tell me something.” When he starts to sob, above me on the stairs, I immediately assume something has happened to one of his elderly parents.

I see myself, rushing to comfort him, in the last second before he tells me why he is crying.

Replaying it in my mind, I hear those final few seconds bang loudly and ominously past me, like a goddam drum section in a symphony orchestra. Like the cracking of thunder before a deluge.

So there I am, as that last second ticks past, standing at the top of the stairs. Mistakenly thinking I’m comforting my partner.

It’s the last second of my previous life, the life where I thought everyone I loved was alive.

That was 11th September.

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.

It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.

I have tried, I promise. I’ve tried to write a new post without mentioning the recent death of my younger brother. But it still doesn’t feel right, yet.

But I miss writing, so sometimes I sit down at the computer with a vague notion that I’m going to write something unrelated to him. I imagine that I might write something interesting, thoughtful – even perhaps entertaining or witty – but I usually find myself staring at the computer for a few minutes and then quickly cutting the whole farce short by giving up and checking out other people’s blogs instead. I’m not ready.

Of course, every day I get through work, socialising, and the interactions I have to have with people all day long, without mentioning him, but blogging is a little bit like writing an – admittedly edited – diary, so I feel as though, if I can’t talk about John here, then I have nothing to say. In this particular forum, I don’t want to give anyone the mistaken impression that everything is fine and I’ve moved on. Despite it being an unpopular topic that is highly unlikely to get my blog featured on Freshly Pressed anytime soon, I’d rather indicate where I’m at, which is apparently that I’m not able to write an upbeat post designed to make the reader laugh and hit the “Like” button.

Hopefully I’ll get back there one day. And add a “Like” button.

So I thought maybe this was a good compromise; a way to slowly get back into writing about other things – by tying in a book I’m reading at the moment, however unrelated. As it happens, I’m reading A Visit To the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. I’m really enjoying it. It is about a group of people whose lives are intertwined, and it’s set in various localities in the U.S. Each chapter is not only told from the perspective of a different character, but also jumps around in history, from when they are teenagers in the seventies through to (so far) when they are in their 40’s in the early 2000’s. So at the start of each chapter it takes a few paragraphs usually to work out who is the narrator, and a few more to work out approximately where this part of the story fits into the larger picture. I felt a personal resonance in this line from a character called Scotty, who appears to be a bit of a loner:

“There’s a fine line between thinking about somebody and thinking about not thinking about somebody, but I have the patience and the self-control to walk that line for hours – days, if I have to.”

I knew what Scotty meant about that fine line. What he hadn’t (yet) mentioned was that it takes a lot of energy walking that fine line. It looks easy, in fact it looks like you are not doing anything, but deep down inside while you talk to clients or friends or your plumber, you are thinking hard about not thinking about someone. I’m not as disciplined as Scotty – for me the energy used up by a stretch of not thinking about John usually gets balanced at some point, even inadverdently –  by the arrival of some really strong memory of him that makes me cry again. I am a Libran, after all, and we are supposed to need balance, so maybe that’s just how it works for me.

Scotty then goes on to say, of an old friend, whose picture he has just spotted in the paper, ” After one week of not thinking about Bennie – thinking so much about not thinking about Bennie that there was barely room left in my brain for thoughts of any other kind – I decided to write him a letter.”

Ah yes, see? The energy, or the space, taken up by not thinking about someone, needs release at some point.  So you write a letter. Or, as in my case, when there is nowhere that I can send any letter that John is ever going to receive, you look at a photo, or you relive a memory, and you cry. It still happens. It’s only natural, and that’s the way it is.

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