Unknown

I am standing on a precipice.

Before me is the Unknown. It’s dark, and the wind blows up at me, pushing and tugging at my clothes and my hair. Come, it whispers. Come. Don’t be afraid. 

Behind me is everything I’ve ever known. My memories, my family, my home. The simple comfort of knowing I belong. My mother and my father, their hands holding onto my small ones, guiding me, loving me, protecting me. It’s light and familiar and comforting. It is the knowledge of who I am, who I have made of myself up until this point. I am a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend.

Behind me is safety. But the wind and the Unknown call to me. Don’t look back, it urges, there’s nothing for you there.

I feel as if I am at once a great adventurer, setting out into the world to discover lost civilisations and dinosaur bones… and a small girl running away from home with nothing but pyjamas, a toothbrush and a can of baked beans (sans can-opener).

My toes dig into the soft earth and I spread my arms like wings, ready to fly. The wind pulls at me and in my heart I know it would carry me as easily as an eagle, free of my bonds.

For in the comfort and familiarity of the Known, I am bound and trapped. Tethered, conforming to what is expected of me. Bowing my head and doing as I’m told, ever the good girl. Settling into the harness and ready to pull.

I am restless.

I am not a child.

But I have not been allowed to be an adult.

I bend, and I untie the ropes and chains fixing me to the ground, to the Known, to what is safe and familiar.

I spread my wings and fling myself into the wind.

That’s it, it agrees, it’s time to learn who you are meant to be. 

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Those No Longer Here

It’s 11:25 pm on Christmas Eve.

Presents are wrapped and under the tree.

Mince pies are cooling on top of the oven.

The Christmas pudding is in the freezer.

Father Christmas has been and gone and the Small’s pillowcase (a tradition in my family) is bulging with presents and sweeties. The plate of mince pies has been consumed, the beer has been drunk and the reindeer have left bits of carrot all over the stoep outside (and a little bit inside, just in case the dogs decide they like carrot).

I have done my absolute best to make this a nice Christmas.

My heart is heavy and tears keep coming up unbidden behind my eyes. There is a physical ache deep inside my chest where my parents are supposed to be.

This is my first Christmas without my Mom. This is the first Christmas without her saying (over and over and over again) how nice the tree looks. This is the first Christmas without her giving me strict instructions on how to make the pudding, even thought I’ve made it by myself for the past five years. This is the first Christmas where I haven’t walked the earth trying to find the perfect gift for her. It’s the first Christmas I’m not going to here her saying “Thank you!” and really meaning it even though she has no idea what to do with said “perfect gift”.

This is my third Christmas without my Dad. He used to buy my present all the way back in November and be absolutely unable to wait to give it to me. So I’d get it early, knowing that it meant there’d be nothing from him under the tree. He’d leave something for me under the tree anyway, always “from Santa”.

I was reading through old Christmas cards. Mom hoarded them, seriously. There are some dating back to when she and Dad got married. I read through them when the Small and I were putting up the tree. Christmas is about family and friendship and love, and I was very strongly reminded of that, seeing all the names that, while not forgotten, had not been thought of in a while.

Gran, with your Scottish accent that I’ve never forgotten (And Granddad whom I never met).
Tony, my uncle, I’m sorry I don’t remember enough about you.
Grandmum and Granddad, who spoiled me rotten and always bought me dresses.
Kay, Fiona, Warren who ended their own lives far too soon.
Donny, finally reunited with the love of your life, Art after a decade parted by the Veil.
Muriel, my “surrogate grandmother”. You were taken from us so horribly. Bron and I miss you.
Jerry. Beautiful, kind, passionate Jerry. You were a good friend and an amazing artist.
Christy, my other uncle. I hope you and Mom and Tony are catching up on all those years.

There are too many, and others unmentioned. I love them all. I miss them.

But most of all, I honour my parents by keeping the spirit of Christmas in my home. I know it sounds horribly clichèd, and like something out of a Hollywood movie. But Christmas has always meant a lot to me. It meant so much to them. And I will keep it alive. Even though the memories clutch at me and the tears are so damn hard to chase away.

It’s how I honour those no longer here.

Tis the Season

I am a Pagan who celebrates Christmas.

Yeah, I know, I get that look a lot.

I could give you a whole dissertation on Christmas being solidly based in Paganism, the origin of the Christmas Tree and the majority of the mythologies surrounding Christmas. I could tell you that Yule and Christmas are almost the same thing.

Let me get even weirder. I am a Pagan in the Southern Hemisphere who celebrates Christmas.

Confused?

It’s the Summer Solstice now, not the Winter one. It’s not Yule, it’s Litha.

Better?

Yeah, you can stop looking at me funny now.

Christmas is a very important holiday in my family. My dad, who wasn’t even Christian, absolutely loved Christmas time. He was like a little kid. He fed my belief in Santa until I was 13 years old, even though I stopped believing at 8. But he was Santa. He put gifts under the tree “from Santa”, he filled stockings “from Santa”. He loved it.

Every year, my mom would make mince pies and the Christmas pudding (we make an ice cream cake, because it’s the middle of summer). It was my proudest moment when I was finally allowed to help, and it was bittersweet when the only reason I took over entirely was because her illness no longer allowed her to continue.

On Christmas morning we gather under the tree and have coffee and mince pies and open presents. Then we head over to one or another aunt for the big family celebration.

I am very close to my family. They are everything to me. I adore my aunts and uncle and all my cousins. They are special to me. They make me happy.

Christmas, for me, has little to do with religion and mythology (though I know it’s important to a great many people). It is a time of happiness and family and joy. When everyone is just a little bit nicer to each other, even strangers. When we reconnect and remember the important things in life.

The first Christmas without my dad was very, very hard. This first Christmas without my mom is even harder. Christmas spirit is a little bit lacking, without her saying how lovely the tree looks every five minutes until it drives us to distraction. It’s funny the things you miss.

If it wasn’t for my 6-and-a-half-year-old nephew Xavier, we probably would even be giving it a miss this year.

But that would dishonour my parents.

So. I’m going Christmas shopping today. I’m baking mince pies and making the pudding. I’m going to make sure there are presents “from Santa” under the tree.

Because I am a Pagan who celebrates Christmas.

I Feel Pretty?

For the longest time, I felt bad about myself. Insecure. Fat. Ugly. Undesirable. Unwanted.

I think it’s something girls are predisposed to as children. We’re force-fed Barbie and Disney princesses with long legs, skinny waists and well-endowed chests. We are taught that the ideal woman is thin, proper, wears pretty dresses and makes herself look beautiful for the guy.

I was about eight years old when I started showing signs of being Not-Skinny-Enough. I was an active, normal kid and while I did have a fairly large sweet tooth, I don’t think I was particularly overweight. Certainly, photos of me from that time don’t look like it. But, my mom felt I was gaining too much weight so off I went to the dietitian.

Now, I am a child-care professional. I have taken a course in childhood nutrition. I’ve read the books. Hell, I even passed primary school biology where they teach you about what a balanced diet is. What that dietitian put me on was NOT a balanced diet for a normal, active eight year old girl.

No sugar at all, fair enough.
Minimal dairy.
I could have rice with veg a few times a week.
I could have a protein with veg once or twice a week.
I don’t remember what breakfast was.
My school snack was a few slices of cucumber and a couple of carrot sticks.

I was so hungry. I felt weak. My body literally went nuts. I craved food. I craved energy. Anything I could get my hands on, I binged on because if I didn’t it would get taken away. I would eat my way through slabs of chocolate, whole giant bags of Smarties, tubs of ice-cream, anything with sugar.

It was round about then that I actually started having a weight problem.

“You are a thief! A thief and a cheat!” my mom would scream at me whenever I was caught. To this day, I hear that whenever I indulge in a chocolate.

By the time we moved house when I was nine and I started at a new school late in the year, I was the Short Chubby Kid. When I was ten, I became the Short Chubby Kid with Glasses. I was a bully magnet.

“Hey fatso!”
“You’re so ugly you should die!”
“The elephants are getting jealous!”
“Don’t come near me! You’re so fat you stink!”

Three years. I lived with that for three years. I started self-harming at eleven. So then I was the Short Chubby Satanic Kid with Glasses and Scars.

I would like to take this moment to mention that I was not, in fact a Satanist. But the enforced Bible study in my school taught all the kids to think that I was.

I would also like to mention that at no point did any teachers intervene. And my parents told me the bullies were “irrelevant”. Also, I self-harmed in front of my class of other eleven and twelve year olds. I got in trouble for bringing a knife to school but at no point was the issue of my self-harm addressed. How’s that for an awesome school system, eh?

I eventually became suicidal at twelve. I overdosed on pills (don’t remember what they were). I got sick, and got booked off with gastro. End of story.

By that point I had resigned myself to the fact that I was fat, ugly, a thief and a cheat and I would Never Ever be Beautiful Ever.

Incidentally, psychology indicates that a person’s view of themselves, their world, their morals and ideals are all formed between the ages of six and twelve. After that point, it’s ingrained and hard-wired and very hard to change.

By the time I got away from the bullies in high school, other than my school uniform, I did not wear dresses. My clothes were frumpy and hid my body. I wore a lot of boy’s clothes, tracksuit pants and jeans. My weight never went down (indeed, it went up). I wasn’t that much of an unhealthy eater, but the normal active eight year old did not become a normal active teenager. I hid in the library mostly. I curled up in a corner with fantasy novels and escaped.

In matric I cut my hair. If not for my fairly big boobs and wide hips, I could have passed for a boy.

After I left school and did my whole journey of self-discovery at eighteen (“Wow, I actually AM gay, fancy that!” It’s very hard to realise if you’re actually gay or just sexually and hormonally frustrated when you go to an all-girls school), I became even more masculine. Not because I was gay and wanted to somehow fit into the “stereotype” but because I wasn’t required to be feminine any more. I wore my hair short, even shaved at one point. I dressed in jeans, takkies and men’s shirts. I walked with a slouch to hide my chest and never crossed my legs when sitting on a chair.

You see, in my mind, to be feminine was to be beautiful. I was not beautiful, so how could I be feminine?

That was the truth of my world. It was one I accepted like an uppity colt accepts being broken in. The saddle was horrible but I didn’t actually have a choice.

And then I met two friends who saw my worth. Friends who called me beautiful and told me to stand up straight and be proud of my boobs and big hips. One showed me how to start letting go of my past (and with it the Short Chubby Scared Scarred Kid with Glasses) and the other showed me how to dance.

The thing with belly dance is it doesn’t require you to be any sort of fixed shape. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t like the music. I felt awkward and ungainly (and too fat and too ugly and too unfeminine) and to be honest for the first few minutes I hated it. And then something clicked. My brain and my body met for the first time since the normal active eight year old stopped being normal, active and eight. And we kind of said, “Oh hi. I remember you.”

It sounds ridiculous, right? But you need to understand that when you don’t exercise at all for years because you’re too busy escaping into the worlds of fantasy novels, your brain knows nothing about your body except for what it sees in the mirror. My brain didn’t like what it saw in the mirror so tried to ignore my body as much as it could.

Dance changed that. Dance has helped me connect with muscles I didn’t know I had. Dance has taught me to be unafraid. Dance has taught me to shake my ass in front of three hundred people and dare them to say just one word about elephants.

It has been a long and painful journey and it is by no means over. I turn twenty-seven in eleven days time. For the first time in my life, I feel feminine. I feel proud. And if I don’t quite feel beautiful yet, at least I feel pretty.

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Me, in 2005, with a guy friend who happened to be wearing the same shirt (I’m the short one without a beard).

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Me, last week.

Start Living

I find myself missing my Mom more and more with each passing day. Little things set me off. Like today, I was watching Bones on  the computer, and I learned something interesting, and I turned to her to tell her, and she wasn’t there. And then I burst into tears and wrote a sobby Facebook status uipdate about how much I miss her.

We have her ashes. We want to scatter them in her rose garden, as we scattered Dad’s in the rest of the garden. Finding the right moment for this has been hard.

It’s all so different now, and there’s a dull ache in my chest that I’m sort of starting to get used to. It’s similar to the one I have for my Dad, but it’s strangely sharper. Maybe because her loss is more recent than his. Maybe it’s because despite everything, the fact that I’ve lost my Mother hurts like hell.

And yet… despite all this, I feel an odd sense of freedom. I’ve been out the past two weekends. I performed at a dance show in the first weekend of September, and did the DVD editing this past weekend. I worked on it through until Wednesday, every night. And I didn’t have to feel guilty that my sister and the rest of my family were being forced to look after Mom when they might have wanted to do other things, or take a break. It was actually nice to give them time to do stuff together, just the three of them.

Also, I think I’ve started to fall in love (insert happy giddy, nervous-wreck grin here). I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve been romantically interested in. My longest relationship lasted only 9 months and I broke it off (seven years ago) because between university and what I perceived as family obligations, I couldn’t make time for her, and I couldn’t be there for her when she needed me as her girlfriend. It hurt us both (her more), and I am very, very lucky that I can still count her amongst my friends. The last time I attempted a relationship was in 2008/early 2009, and with my Dad being depressed over his recent retirement and Mom’s mental health failing, I felt too guilty to pursue it. Which wasn’t fair to her either. Again, I’m very lucky that I can actually count her (and her wife) as two of my closest friends.

Since then though, I’ve doubted that I could actually feel romantic love any more. Or infatuation, or simple “OMG, I have a crush!” giddiness. I haven’t wanted to pursue romance. It’s got to the point where I’ve been wanting to be artificially inseminated, get pregnant and raise a child on my own because I didn’t think I would ever meet the right person and fall in love.

Not that I’m saying this girl is the right person, I don’t know that yet. I don’t even know if she’s interested in me, or if she could become interested, or even if she’s attracted to other women. Though she might be? Maybe? Possibly?

All I know is that at this point, this giddy “OMG, I have a crush!” feeling is so alien to me that it gives me such a huge sense of joy to know that I can feel it in the first place. All I know is that I want to protect her and love her and make sure no one ever hurts her again. And if, if, if I can only do that as a friend, you know what? So be it. I won’t push it and I’ll take it very, very slow (I’m good at that, I think?) and I’ll see what comes of it.

I’m starting to live.

It’s a nice feeling.

One Last Time

I have tried to write this blog post a few times and never really got past the first line. It’s been hard to sort out my feelings, to be able to look at the past few weeks and say “it happened, it’s real” and not want to fall to pieces.

My mom has died. She died on the 21st of July. Her memorial was on the 30th – two years to the day since my Dad’s death.

She was ill. She’d had a mild cold, but she experienced sudden and rapid brain deterioration to the point where she didn’t seem to know who I was. And at times she seemed like she did, but she cried all the time, every time I went to visit her. So I don’t know if she recognised me or not. Either way, I think she wanted out of that hospital and I don’t blame her. But she developed epilepsy (which the doctor’s didn’t tell us until the day before she was released into a nursing home), which meant she’d had to stay there for longer.

The sisters at the frail care home said that if we’d got her to them sooner, she’d probably have survived.

That hurt. A lot. They didn’t mean it in a bad way, but I was the one going to visit her every day. I was the one who saw how unhappy she was. I was the one who should’ve realised that the hospital wasn’t the right place for her, how desperately unhappy she was there.

Should’ve. Could’ve. Would’ve. It doesn’t really matter. She’s gone.

Brett, my brother-in-law, shared a comforting thought with my sister and me: it took Dad two years just to get Heaven ready for her. And as my aunt put it, Peter Pan has been reunited with his Tinkerbell.

I just feel empty.

No one around me seems to have any concept of how I feel and it’s so isolating. I know many people who’ve lost a parent, but virtually none have lost both, and certainly not so close together. My parents are gone. For all intents and purposes, I’m an orphan. My worst nightmares have been realised.

People come to me and say, “You must be so relieved,” and I’m like, “Yes, I’m so relieved my mother just suddenly died, alone, in the middle of the night, surrounded by strangers. I’m so relieved I never said goodbye to her the day before, because I didn’t want to upset her more than she already was.” I’m not fucking relieved. I’m so, so sad. I want my mom. I want my dad. I’m not relieved. My heart feels like it’s been ripped out, torn up, roughly glued back together and shoved haphazardly back into my chest cavity.

But at the same time… there is a sense of relief and it’s not quite the same thing. She’s got her mind back. She’s back with Dad, and her parents and brothers. She’s not miserable any more. I don’t have to clean up after her when she loses control of her bowels. I don’t have to worry about leaving her alone. I don’t have to feel guilty for going out and leaving my sister to take care of her while I have fun.

And then I feel like an absolute shit for thinking that way.

She was my responsibility. I’ve been taking care of her since I was about 16 years old. I’ve been the grown-up in our relationship since I was 14. I had to make sure she was OK. And I feel like I let her down. I feel like I abandoned her to that place. I closed my eyes to her suffering when I should have realised something was desperately wrong and I didn’t.

And I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry, Mommy.

I feel so lost. I miss my parents so much. I just want to hold them. One last time.

 

Mom

I grew up with alcoholic parents.

Apparently they both drank like fish (including while Mom was pregnant with me) until I was about 5 years old, and then they joined AA. I then spent a good deal of my childhood in AA meetings so I think I’m one of the few non-and-never-been-drinkers around who understands how the disease of alcoholism affects not just families, but the alcoholics themselves.

Dad stayed sober for a while before he started drinking again… that part of my life is another story. Suffice to say he got better, and I had a wonderful 10 years with him before he died.

Mom went stone cold sober in 1990 and hasn’t touched a drop since then.

But the damage was already done.

The years and years of heavy drinking left a horrible mark on her brain. In 2002, after years of slow and almost imperceptible decline, she was diagnosed with atrophy of the cerebellum. It would be degenerative and affect her balance until the point where she would not be able to walk. It also affected parts of her cerebrum, and over the years her ability to speak, and her memory, have worsened to the point where she can barely speak and sometimes doesn’t remember things that used to be so important to her.

It has made her immature, so that it’s like living with two five-year-olds instead of one. In fact, my nephew Xavier often seems to be older than her, mentally.

We are not as patient as her as we probably should be. It’s very hard you see.

My beautiful mother. The actress. The radio personality. The woman who read the entirety of the Chronicles of Narnia to me – twice – with voice action… reduced to a stumbling, shuffling, stuttering, mindless shadow of herself.

It’s very hard.

And I get angry. I get frustrated. I say things I really shouldn’t.

And in honesty I am terrified that one day I’ll be just the same. Because the jury is still up in the air. Was it the drinking? Was it a predisposed condition exacerbated by alcohol. And if it’s a predisposed condition, what if I am already on the road? I don’t drink. But what if my sobriety is completely ineffectual? I do not want to lose my mind. I don’t want to be a burden on my family as she is to us.

Yes, it’s horrible to say. But she is a burden. And gods, I’m a horrible daughter but I hate her. I hate her as much as I love her. I wish she’d die, and then I dread the day when I lose her forever. I want my mother back, but I can’t have her. I can only have a two-yearold in a 63-year-old’s body.

I just don’t know what to do anymore. I feel so helpless.