I have never been the best at dusting, or I should say at regular dusting. Saturday mornings of my childhood, were spent polishing linoleum floors and dusting a myriad of surfaces. The sideboard, the top of the china cabinet, the tops of the presses; each a display space for a plethora of knick- knacks and treasured possessions. A proper dusting entailed the careful(ish) removal of each item to the large oil skin clothed table crafted by my grandfather that dominated our living room. The item was itself wiped with cloth, the holding surface area dusted and the object replaced. There were varied styles of approach to this task that could probably form the basis of a philosophical treatise or some old-aged psychometric testing. As the ‘sense in’ or ‘point of’ dusting every week eluded me, my own approach could sometimes be a little less precise than that outlined above. In my own adult life, I have embraced a more elongated interval style approach to dusting and household chores in general. I have no memories of John dusting, I suspect that ne’er a duster was ever put in his hand by my Mam. John left for university when I was six going on seven when he was sixteen going on seventeen and so missed the true glories of my dusting years- the time trials, the cutting corners and the dropping of ornaments.! John never lived at home again but how I remember his visits home, each one forever like a mini Christmas and thus it ever was.
After over three lockdown months (in which there was very little dusting done) away from the sea, I returned with what felt like the longest awaited exhale upon arrival. Phooshhhh! Blowing away so many cobwebs. As I exited the sea (which my body experienced as being at least two degrees colder than what it was, it was somewhere between 8 and nine degrees) it felt that I had begun to wash out particles of stiffness and weariness that had collected in the crevices of my being. The crevices and folds where my grief sometimes physically lurks, hiding itself in the mix of depleting hormones and age. Re-immersing my whole being into an enveloping body of literally breath taking, pain inducing water helps the decanting of some of my grief. It enables the happening of an internal reckoning with my grief and is one of my many small acts of mourning.
A small act on a big stage. I can let it all spill into the ocean, invisibly to other naked eyes, the many forms that “all” takes on any given day’s visit. I know it sounds a bit daft. A silent soliloquy of my soul that brings John and his absence back in into the light of my days. Back where it has some sense of unwanted belonging, acknowledgement and integration. As the sea pain eases into numbness, and my quickened breath slows, this is another place where my softness gathers.
Five beautifully cold swims later( all squeezed into the one week) with my ability to stay in the water gradually increasing, it feels like I have moved from decalcifying my grief to rendering it into oddly shaped broken gems for dusting and polishing. It’s veneer is once again more multi faceted. Reflecting back both the love and the sorrow. Once again, the sea just strips me back, to nerve endings and breaths and blood moving through my veins. In the moments when the pain surges in my feet and my hands, and I work to slow the initial panic breaths, I am suffused with an encompassing knowledge that I am alive. Its’ exquisite coldness propels me to an urgent pulse of self preservation that I’m not as attuned to, on dry land. There is a joy to that pulse that feels separate from everything and intrinsic to it at the same time. The pain is followed (reasonably swiftly) by a most glorious numbing that flows into a distilled pleasure of awareness that allows for the opening of me to all that this piece of seascape has to offer. It opens me to myself.
I often find myself writing about the sea and my grief when I really want to write about John. I’m circumventing the mixed up feelings that are mine as we approach the third anniversary of his death. I feel I am spoiling for some imaginary fight, but it is myself who is in both corners of the ring. There can be no winner. It is easier for my heart and mind to focus on grief rather than on his death. The symptom rather than the cause.
This past year has been full of plenty of ‘lockdown downtime’. Gifting me the opportunities to remember and recall my life from way back when and from more close by times. Opportunities to sit and think, to mull again and again over my life and my expectations of myself. Lockdown amounted to a more introspective way of life as my world pared down to ever decreasing circles of contacts and space. There were times in this past year when that was so welcome. I felt the first lockdown which included John’s second death anniversary was the world belatedly catching up with how I wanted it to be in the aftermath of his death. ” Stop all the clocks ….. he is dead” [W.H Auden Funeral Blues]
There were other times, particularly the first months of this year where I felt I needed distraction, social contact and movement to counterbalance my sad feelings. Those feelings of sadness that underpin my present life are not going anywhere. I will be forever sad that John died when he did, in the manner that he did, I will forever miss him. I have grown accustomed to the circular presence of sadness, the peaks and troughs. I am okay with feeling this feeling, it is bittersweet, it is love and it is not eviscerating shock. I have decided not to use the word ‘still’ in relation to any of my feelings around John’s death ever again. This feeling of sadness does not preclude the feeling of happiness but it does underscore it. My unheard musical symphony of continuing love.
I believe I thought living with grief would be different as an adult middle aged woman with a fair bit of life experience under my belt to what it is. I am not the person I was at nineteen and my daily life is so very different. We change during our lifetimes. Our experiences shape and shear us. I believe that the world expects more of me too, that’s the truth, the world has unrealistic expectations of all grievers. Death and its attendant emotions cause such discomfiture among people, who can find it hard to bear witness to the pain of grief. I too expected more of myself, I have difficulty sometimes in remembering that I am in fact human. Wanton wistfulness that age and perspective and life experience would somehow reduce the full hammer blow of death. Really, how could it?
I have had such an amount of conflicting thoughts in the living of my “on” after the death of John and I am much more aware of my emotional spectrum and my ability to feel so much more than one thing at any time. Grief is just that label of the folder that all the emotions you feel after the death of someone you love gets filed under. Some emotions require more space than others and come to fore at different times and in different combinations. There are feelings that I have never been too comfortable sitting with, anger, resentment, guilt, fear, loneliness, insecurity, anxiety, but death and grief demands more of us than we think is possible. Trying to rationalise them out of existence did not work for me. That is just the way it has been for me. The phrase ‘at least’ is too being banished from my grieving lexicon.
I am coming to the last few pages in one of my journals, (I have three on the go, there is a system involved) it lasted just over a year and a half. Fits and starts, ebbs and flows, surges and retreats it holds them all, and somewhere, written in the gaps and between the lines are also all the unspoken thoughts and words, lurking there among the inked words that did make it to the page. I can hear some of my internal wrangling’s when I read back my words. I can sense when I worried that my grief felt ‘indulgent’ in comparison to John’s actual death. I have to live with his absence but he is the one who is absent. I can sense where I’ve muzzled the pain in my words , capitulating to my own need for some forced positivity and hope. I can revisit the days when tending to my grief seemed to strip me of my own compass of compassion. Seemed to strip me for seasons of my ability to be a fully present parent. Stripped me of my ability to provide a holding space for my own children’s grief at their Uncle John’s death and sometimes stripped me of my ability to be a holding space for their lives. I can also read of the acceptance and the recognition that I have to meet myself where I am at and that in truth I could not be other than I was, and will not be other than I am.
I have never been able to swim fully under water, I inhabit the surface ,like a half submerged iceberg and I travel about at the same speed stretching the sea water into ripples around me. I can duck my head under and keep my face downward coming up for unequal breaths but in the main I like my head above water seeing whereabouts I am. I wish you were here John , firmly in my view finder, doing the odd cannon ball. I miss you and love you.
The Foxglove and The Fern. It took me by surprise the familiar foliage on my left. Not belonging in my previous imaginings of this place at all. I walked, where I had never walked before, Following in your footsteps. I knew where I was headed. With leaden feet, a dizzy head and a dulled quickening heart, I picked my steps. Brokering the tangled knotted wood underfoot. My tempo and my gait as uneasy as my mind. Just before the bend which was sharp, the foxglove and the fern popped brightly into view. Their familiarity catching me offguard, Evoking thoughts of home. Thoughts caught in my throat Catching my breath. Breaking the watery rhythm of my gaze. I had been furiously surveying the landscape. Trying to memorise my surroundings, your last surroundings. Imprinting them forever in my addled brain. Trying desperately to keep a back dated company with you. To be there with you To catch you as you fall. Their presence and their leafy clothing added an everyday essence to the taste of the air. The cooling shade of the mountain’s trees Providing relief from the high bright continental sun while reducing my aperture of the scene. My depth of field plumbed along my soul lines bridging the distance between then and now. Giving focus to my mind and refuge from those many late night calculations. Shrouding my uncertain disbelief, that I could not, still, undo that day. The foxglove and the fern, ensured that we, were never mere tourists You & I. I could see you at home there, Striding towards the outcrop of gray granite rock. A Guillamene of a rock. You, as at home there, as the lone fir tree. Jutting out, oddly angled, Its roots embedded in its' scant rocky source of life. All the close up commonplace groundlings mixed with my uncertainty of the everything; The closeness of the sky the metric, orderly ridges of the trees. The barren and the lush playing counterpoint to my erratic breath. The foxglove and the fern. Did you notice them again? Did they bring you home? Transport you unknowingly South East and West? The Foxglove and the Fern, I know not if they brought me heedless comfort but they will forever be my mental waymarks, To the path that made me pilgrim. Jillian Quinn/ July -Nov 12 th 2019