Sitting with Sadness

Mortality is something I struggle with. A lot. And when people close to me get ill I feel a rising sense of panic borne out of a combination of helplessness, fear of death, and perhaps also (selfishly) fear of abandonment. I lost my grandparents at a relatively young age, which may go some way towards explaining why I feel the way I do. Indeed, if we look into our past most of us will see something that helps to make sense of our emotions in the here and now. What I’m trying to work on is accepting the emotions that certain situations can elicit, allowing myself to sit with them, experience them and let them wash over me instead of fighting them off. The worst thing we can do when we experience negative emotions is try not to feel them. Every emotion has value and is trying to teach us something. So if today, like me, you are feeling weighed down by sadness, try sitting with it for a while, accepting it for what it is, letting it into your heart and mind. Then, take a deep breath, let it out, and continue with your day.

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I Had a Miscarriage / Why it’s never okay to ask a woman when she’s having kids

I wasn’t sure when, or even if I would share this very personal story with the world. But last week I felt suddenly courageous and submitted it to the Instagram page @ihadamiscarriage. The response has been phenomenal, and since it was published I’ve felt more sure than ever that sharing it is the right thing to do. Because too many women suffer in silence. And I want to do my small bit to break the taboo around miscarriage.

My Story

We recently announced our happy news – we’re having a baby! This is my fourteenth week, and getting here has felt like the most interminably long journey. Every day I have worried (and do worry) that something is wrong, that this little miracle will be taken away from us. Not because I am an over anxious mother, but because it happened before.

Because in March this year we were also doing a happy dance, staring at the positive test and dreaming of all that lay ahead of us. But it wasn’t to be. At my nine week scan we heard the words no new parent wants to hear: “Your baby has no heartbeat.” As it turned out, s/he hadn’t grown for the previous two weeks, so I had technically been carrying a dead embryo inside me all that time.

I’d had flashes of knowing something was wrong. One night during a barbecue we were hosting, a feeling of cold dread swept over me. It was so bad and so unexpected that I took myself straight off to the bedroom without so much as a good night to our friends. I ran a bath, sat in it and cried, feeling the loss somewhere deep inside without really understanding what it was.

After we found out I cried and cried. That first day was hell, but with each day that passed I felt stronger. I took a week off work to get my head together, booked a D&C operation for the following Friday (because, despite my doctor’s less than reassuring comment that it would happen naturally “at some point”, I didn’t fancy travelling all the way from Brussels to Nashville the following week for my friend’s bachelorette party and wedding, and having it happen in the middle of a packed dance floor. That would have kind of killed the party vibe, you know?).

One day, before the op, I walked to the local park, picked a beautiful old tree straight out of a fairy tale and held a little ceremony in my mind to gift the baby’s spirit to the tree for safe keeping. That ceremony kept me sane, and to this day that tree brings me a deep sense of comfort.

The operation was less traumatic than I had feared. I went alone, because my husband had to work, and had my first general anaesthetic, which to be honest scared me more than the procedure itself. By that point I was just relieved to have it out of me, this tiny nearly-human that was never destined to join us. Afterwards I felt relief; I was myself again. Except you are never really quite the same again after something like that. Not completely.

And so I went to America, had a wonderful time, told almost no one what had happened. Returned to ‘normal’ life. And the days and weeks went by, and at some point we felt strong enough to try again. And for the second time we were blessed to not have to wait too long, something for which I am truly grateful, because I know too many people who have struggled, who are struggling, for myriad reasons.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

When I told my colleagues the news of our second miracle, one said: “That’s weird, we thought you were pregnant a few months ago.” I stood there, silently screaming I was I was I was. “Really? No, I wasn’t.” I hated to deny it, but where could I begin?

Another colleague has been asking the childless women in the office why they don’t have kids yet, challenging us on how we can put our careers before our families, why we would want to.

No matter how well meaning the question, it is never okay to ask a woman why she doesn’t have kids. Behind the smiles and politely brushed off comments, for those who are struggling it hurts like hell. You never know what a woman has gone through, or is going through in order to have children. And unless you are that woman, or her partner, it’s frankly none of your damn business.

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Image credit: Kimothy Joy / #ihadamiscarriage

Parting Gift

The following post was written in response to the Creative Ink Writing Prompt on 15 Dec:

The present sat, unopened, for weeks. As if preserving its integrity would bring him back, somehow make it all un-happen. But it wouldn’t, obviously, she knew that.  They all did. But nonetheless they had formed a tacit agreement that the gift would not be touched, nor moved from its place on the living room floor, despite the tree and all its fallen needles having long since been cleared out.

And so they carried on with life, or at least some semblance of it; Matt going to school, Abi to her part time job to make some cash for uni. Philippa painted on her face and cooked them dinner each night. But she spent her days wandering the heath with Barney the dog; bare faced and aimless. She kept it together for the children, thanks to the prescription drugs she had tearfully begged her doctor for. They blurred the edges, made the pain a little less acute. But when they started to wear off reality crept back in, and she was faced once more with the abject terror of being alone, in an empty bed. And an empty life.

He had been a healthy man. An active man. And yet. Cancer could be so indiscriminate. Sometimes no amount of spinach smoothies and early morning workouts could stave it off. When it’s your time, it’s your time. That’s what he’d always said. What a tragedy that his time had come so soon. Just past the post of fifty, the milestone Philippa had dreaded for years. But not him. He was ever the optimist. And now he, and all his optimism, had gone.

Today the children were both out; Philippa couldn’t remember where although she knew they would have told her. She made a cup of coffee, her brain on autopilot, and carried it through to the living room. As much as she wanted to avoid looking at the present, her eyes were drawn to it like magnets. He had known, when he bought it, that the time he had left was short. She knew he had made peace with that in a way she couldn’t imagine herself ever doing. After twenty years of marriage, losing him was like losing the use of her limbs. They had so much still to do, so much still to see. How could she do any of it without him?

Their big plan, once both kids had left home, was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They had talked about it often, sat at the kitchen table late into the night, drinking Malbec and plotting out the route they would take. Philippa couldn’t imagine herself climbing a mountain, but with him by her side she knew she could do it. With him by her side she could do anything.

She was on the floor now, kneeling with the present on her lap. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks, splashed onto the Christmas wrapping paper. Whatever was inside would, she knew, break her heart. But it was time. For the kids’ sake she had to move past this. It was part of the process. So she steeled herself and started to peel back the layers. Inside was a head torch, a pair of hiking socks and the Dr Seuss book they had read to the kids when they were little. He had marked one of the pages with a yellow sticky note. Philippa opened it on that page and laughed aloud when she read the rhyme:

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!

As sad as she felt, the pain that had held her in its thrall since his parting loosened its grip just a little. She took a deep breath and exhaled. With his parting gift, he had set her free.

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Chasing Sunset

I wrote this for the Creative Ink Writing Prompt, but also for a special friend, my twin soul, who is forever chasing summer, and who turns 30 tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Twin xx

She had always loved sunset; the romanticism of one day coming to a close, with the promise of another soon to follow. Flying at sunset was the best, that feeling of cheating time. But it was all too fleeting. You could never cheat time, not really. And that was why she had to leave.

Liv’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She slipped her hand inside and pressed down on the power button until she was sure she had killed it. She couldn’t risk the onset of unwanted emotion. The only way out of this was cold stoicism. And when she got there, well, then she could deal with things once and for all. It would be over.

She didn’t know how long she had been asleep, but the red-rimmed sky had finally succumbed to the blackness of night. Liv rolled her neck from side to side, wincing as she cricked it back into place. The cabin was dark, save for occasional spotlights beaming down onto insomniac passengers like alien spacecraft.

Something brushed her hand, making her jump. It was the little girl sitting across the aisle. By Liv’s estimation she was four, maybe five. Tight black curls and fresh pink lips. Cherubic. Liv looked across at the girl’s mother. She too was beautiful, or at least she would have been were it not for the trail of dribble descending from her open mouth.

“Hi,” the girl whispered.

“Hi,” Liv whispered back, ignoring the tightness in her chest. Her heart.

“I’m Becky. What’s your name?”

“Liv.”

The girl regarded her with such a look of scrutiny that Liv felt unnerved. Of course she didn’t know her secret, she couldn’t know it. And yet.

“Can we be friends?”

Liv smiled. “Of course.”

Becky’s face shone from the inside out. Her lips parted to reveal a gap-toothed smile. Liv wondered if she was perhaps older than her original estimation. She watched as the girl reached into the pocket of her pinafore dress, screwing her face up in concentration as she tried to retrieve something. Eventually she pulled her hand out with a flourish, extended her arm and unfolded her fingers. In the centre of her palm was a turquoise stone. “Take it,” she said.

Liv picked up the stone and ran her finger along its surface. It was smooth and round, and though it was dark she could make out flecks of glitter in its swirling pattern. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

“It’s yours,” the girl replied.

“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly…” She offered the stone back to the girl, but she shook her head and refused to take it.

The girl’s mother stirred beside her, opened her eyes and looked down at her daughter. She followed her gaze to Liv, and when her eyes alighted on the stone in Liv’s hand her breath caught in her throat. “Becky, darling,” she said, her voice measured but tense. “Why did you give this lady your stone? Don’t you want it?”

The little girl looked up at her mother and shook her head. Her mother smiled as if this meant something momentous, but Liv had no idea what. “Thank you,” she said to the girl. “I will treasure it forever. Truly.” The girl’s mother smiled, and Liv noticed she had tears in her eyes. She blinked and looked away. Nothing more was said.

When they had touched down and were waiting to disembark the plane, Liv found the courage to turn on her phone. It buzzed immediately. She had known it would. Before she looked at the message she went through the motions of passport control and baggage reclaim. As she stood at belt six, there was a tap on her arm. It was the girl’s mother. The little girl was playing with a doll several feet away, lost in her fantasy. “I wanted to explain what happened on the plane,” the woman said. “It must have seemed strange.” Before Liv could reply, the woman spoke again. “You see, Becky lost her twin a year ago. In a car accident.”

Liv felt her lungs deflate. “I’m so sorry. How terrible for you both.”

Despite her brightly coloured and expertly applied makeup, the woman’s grief was obvious. But Liv sensed something else behind the sadness, maybe a spark of hope? “It’s been the hardest year of my life,” she said. “And for Becky, well, it’s hard to imagine how deeply this has affected her. She’s only five, and the two of them were thick as thieves.” She looked over at her daughter. “The thing is, that stone she gave you on the flight. It belonged to her sister.”

Liv pulled the stone out of her pocket. “Please, take it back. I would never have taken it if I’d known.”

The woman smiled. “But that’s the thing. She wanted you to have it. For a year she’s carried it around with her everywhere, desperate not to let it out of her sight. Her therapist said it was part of the grieving process, that she would let go of it when she had turned a corner. And now, well, now it seems she has. I just wanted you to know. Whatever you said or did on that plane, thank you.”

The woman called her daughter and they turned to leave. As they walked away Liv heard the woman ask why she had given the stone to the lady on the plane. The girl replied: “She needs it more than me Mummy. Turquoise is for strength, she has to be strong for her daughter.”

The arrivals hall began to spin. Liv steadied herself on her trolley. She put a hand to her tummy and stroked it. How had the girl known? She couldn’t have known. Remembering the message on her phone, Liv took it out and read it. It was from Mark, of course. Just seeing his name on the screen choked her up.

Seven words.

The best she had ever seen:

I KNOW. I LOVE YOU. COME HOME. X

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Today

Today, I will celebrate life instead of being afraid of its fragility.

I will take time out to breathe deeply, to feel the blood flowing through my veins.

I will give thanks for all my blessings, which are many.

I will pray for those who are suffering, and mourning loved ones.

I will not take things too seriously, or let them overwhelm me.

I will realise that, in the end, the only thing that matters, will ever matter and has ever mattered is love.

And while there is breath in my body I will honour the commitment that I make today: to be a good person, keep an open heart and enquiring mind, and help others whenever and wherever I can.

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In Memoriam

Yesterday I was deeply saddened to learn of the tragic deaths of four children at the Mants’ase Children’s Home in Lesotho, which a friend is involved with. Whilst the loss of a child is always devastating, what makes this story especially heart breaking – besides the fact there were four of them – is that they died trying to rescue a duck from a dam, which they believed to be ill and in need of help. The children were aged between eight and twelve, and a six year old who was with them when the tragedy occurred did not comprehend the seriousness of the situation and did not report it immediately for fear of being told off.

Incidents such as this are a huge test of faith for those of us who have it. If there is a God, it is difficult to understand how He could let four innocent children die in the pursuit of saving another living being. But if there is anything we can learn from such incomprehensible tragedy let it be this: the importance of compassion, of loving for our fellow humans (and non-humans), not just in word but also in deed, and of living every moment as if it was to be our last.

God bless you and keep you Nthabeleng Kibe, Mpho Mafa, Tebello Machona and Reitumetse Mohale. Sleep tight little ones. x

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Should anyone feel moved to make a donation to the children’s home to show support at this difficult time you can do so here. Thank you.

Remembering a Friend

A year ago today someone very special was taken from this world in the worst possible way, leaving a deep chasm of grief in his wake. For his family, his girlfriend and his friends life would never be the same again; there would forever be a Paul-shaped void. Of course life does, inevitably, move on – it has to, for despite its power even grief can’t stop the world from spinning on its axis – but time, though a healer of sorts, can never erase the pain of such a shocking and untimely loss.

I only knew Paul for a short time, but he made a big impact on me, as I know he did on all the many others that he met along the rollercoaster ride that was his life. Yesterday I was so happy to be reunited with his girlfriend Sarah, for whom the past year has been difficult beyond words, but who has shown such admirable strength of spirit in the midst of her grief. Nothing will ever make up for the loss of Paul, but one thing is certain: He may be gone, but his exuberance, charm and joie de vivre will never be forgotten.

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