A number of years ago, when my dad was dying, everything stopped. Like pressing pause, everything in my life was put on hold when I got the call to come home. I had been living in Ireland for about a year at that point, so it was inevitable to a certain degree because I couldn’t very well commute between work and hospital or actively manage any other part of my life from across the Atlantic. At the time I also had only one other person in my daily life and he was already with me, quietly giving me the strength I needed for myself and to help my own family. It was a luxury I can only appreciate in retrospect.
It was several days into our recent family ordeal that I was stuck by the parallel between my own experience and that of my sister-in-law (Aunt Strawberry). Only two days before she was due to fly back to Kuwait where she teaches in an English school, her life also came to a screeching halt. Our experiences are not quite the same. I had (and still have) the luxury of one of my parents with me, and I already knew with that heavy, final certainty when I returned home that there would be no second chances or medical miracles for my dad. However our status as expats, forcefully removed and kept from our adopted countries by circumstance beyond our control, meant that there was no other choice but to pause everything. While The Mister, with his ability to work from anywhere with just his laptop and an internet connection, returned to work remotely after the first week of Nana’s hospitalisation, his sister had no such choice. You can’t teach five year olds remotely. It is, in my experience, both liberating and frustrating. Free to focus on nothing but the hospital visits, the bedside vigil, daily arrangements and status updates, liaising with the doctors and the rest of the family – this becomes your sole occupation, free from the distraction of trying to manage mundane every day things that take on an absurd, surreal quality in comparison to the gravity of your situation. At the same time you’re completely stuck in place by the unpredictable nature of the human biology and limits of medicine, unable to move backward or forward, make plans more than a day at a time, or determine when you will be able to return to your regular life.
My mother used to say sometimes when I was arguing with her “wait until you have kids.” It was one of those closing arguments that you can’t rebut, and she would pull it out of her arsenal whenever I would frustrate her with my own obstinance on some issue or another. I hated it because there was no counter-argument. Having kids changes everything, from your daily routine to how you look at life, and, as I have now discovered, the experience of grief and bereavement as well.
There is no pausing. The younger your child, the less time you get to yourself. Whereas before my life was paused for me, now I was struggling hopelessly to bring it to a halt myself, to find those quiet moments of pure selfishness that you need when you want to wallow in sadness, to really feel the depth of your own loss without the distraction of being a mature adult.
Life simply doesn’t stop when you have a three year old. To be perfectly honest, I now firmly believe that this is the worst age for a child to be in such a situation. Hawkeye is old enough to ask questions, but not old enough to understand the answers. Old enough to know there is something wrong, but not old enough to make sufficient sense of his new world order. The questions of the month were “Where is Daddy?” “Is Nana better?” and “Can we talk to Nana?“
I knew that Hawkeye understood that there was a fundamental change on some level of his subconsciousness from the first day that we left Dublin after I got the news that Nana had passed away the day before. We were in The Mister’s car after he had collected us from the train station when Hawkeye asked me two questions. At the time we still hadn’t agreed on our approach to handling the situation, so I settled on answering with absolute honesty but without volunteering any additional information.
“Are we going to Nana’s house?”
“Yes, we’re going to Nana’s house.”
“Will Nana be there?”
“No, honey. She won’t.”
There were no further questions about seeing Nana. He asked sometimes if Nana was better, if Nana was with the doctors, but it was like there was some basic acceptance that Nana had moved to a realm that was elsewhere. The concepts of “Nana” and “Nana’s house” became separated. By the time we were ready to return to Dublin, I actually found myself aggressively determined to keep calling it “Nana’s house” as a way of helping him remember her.
But funerals are more than just about answering the difficult questions. When you’re three life revolves around you and your needs. And apparently a three-year-old’s needs are constantly having mommy around with him, either for reassurance or for entertainment. Entertainment can, sometimes, be achieved by other persons but reassurance is, apparently, a mommy’s sole domain. We did not attend every single family event over the three days of the funeral arrangements. After some discussion, it was agreed that attending the removal with Hawkeye was absolutely out of the question. Staying up late reminiscing and drinking was also not an option. We did, however, attend the family-only cremation service on Friday and the funeral Mass and burial on Saturday.
Hawkeye seemed determine to munch his way through the solemnity of each occasion and I was determined to oblige him if it meant that he would be distracted long enough for me to pay attention to the proceedings. I remember catching the eye of one of our friends at the grave side. The priest was sprinkling holy water on the urn which had already been lowered into the grave. To do so, he had come around to a corner of the family burial plot where I was standing, slightly behind Hawkeye, when I looked up to see my friend giving me a bittersweet smile. I tried to imagine what she must be seeing from her vantage point across from us: a priest in his vestments performing an ancient solemn rite and, standing right next to him, a three year old bundled up in a puffy jacket and hat with a bobble on top, eating his way through a biscuit with a look of fierce concentration on his face. Yeah, I’d be smiling at such an incongruous sight too.
However, there was no greater metaphor for the expression that “life doesn’t stop” than the morning of the cremation service. We were up before the winter sun hazily made its appearance on the horizon through the overcast, wet sky. I stayed in the car with Hawkeye as we stopped at the funeral home to arrange ourselves into a procession behind the hearse for the long drive to Ireland’s second crematorium in Shannon. A heavily Catholic country, cremation is still not a very popular choice and the opening of a chapel and facilities in the West of Ireland was only a recent development. Even though we were spared from having to travel all the way to Dublin for the service, it was still over an hour by car along back country roads that seemed determined to twist and turn in every direction.
Hawkeye got sick in the car. Twice.
We were thirty minutes away from our destination when it happened and the lead car behind the hearse. Pulling over was not an option. We pressed on while I did my best to keep Hawkeye calm. A few family members swooped down on our car as soon as everyone came to a halt in front of the crematorium chapel to assist me in changing Hawkeye and cleaning up as best as possible. The service wouldn’t start without us so by the time we emerged from around the row of parked cars, the extended family was all assembled at the front doors, looking at us sympathetically. Walking with me in the procession behind the coffin, Hawkeye was subdued but calm and we made our way to the front pew where he sat sideways on my lap, observing everything from his resting spot against me.
It was toward the end of the service, at its most poignant moment with the crescendo of the final song playing to allow the gathered family members to pray and reflect that I was reminded that my life was no longer my own. One hand clutching my husband’s on my left, and the other trying to offer support to Aunt Strawberry on my right, I was sitting there with tears in my eyes, smelling ever so slightly of vomit, when Hawkeye turned his head toward me and whispered right into my ear.
“Mommy, can I have something else to eat?”
No, life doesn’t stop. All you can do is roll with the punches. And have biscuits stashed in your handbag.
The featured image is a throwaway photograph I snapped quickly while in the car outside the funeral home before we set off on the long drive to Shannon. The car window was wet from rain, and it was still dawn, with most of the light coming from the adjacent lamp post and not the sky. My husband was outside organising the line of cars before our departure. I don’t even know why I tried taking the photo, figuring that it would be deleted. However, when I saw it, it looked to me more like a washed out watercolour than a photograph and for some reason I kept it. The blurry silhouette of my husband against the grey dawn seemed like a fitting image of the morning.