Life After My Mother

It’s been almost five months. Five months since I ran to the Byron Bay lighthouse and back in the evening light of the Australian Summer. Jess and I were road tripping on the other side of the earth. Run, shower and early dinner before the long drive back to Sydney. We didn’t have dinner as it turns out because I got a call – the kind we don’t really dread until we’ve been on the receiving end of one. It was my sister, with the news that my mom was gone. Whoosh, just like that. I could write a book about these last months. I’d have a chapter on the nightmare that was my flight home. The funeral. The sorting out of things. The wedding. And then trying to go on with life. But i’ll focus on this last chapter – the going back to normal when really nothing is normal at all.

Having someone removed from your life is both unfathomable and very painful, almost physically. If I close my eyes it feels like I’ve been sucked to the centre of the universe, to the very origin of my agony. The layers go down so deep that when I hear the sound of my own wail escape from under there it sounds like it will take years to reach it’s destination. I didn’t know that place existed before. I cry like that in the private moments I can find. When I get home from work or when I’m in the swimming pool behind my goggles. Sometimes my husband finds me and rescues me from what would be a much greater desperation without him. He is patient and caring in the face of what, for him, must feel like coming home to a record stuck on the same pathetic song. I regularly think that I’m feeling a bit better, that I’ve turned a corner and then realize I haven’t.

In the beginning I would count the days and the weeks without her. I noticed with unease the transition between waking up with a sick feeling in my stomach to waking up without it. From crying every day to wishing my tears would occur with greater frequency. I would see signs of my mom in nature in the weeks following her death, in the Knysna Loerie that visited her home or the ladybirds that kept landing on me (imagining you’re connecting with a lost one in nature like this is apparently common and called animism). I would notice doors and windows left open thinking she was letting herself in to be with us. Now I wish that my mom would appear to me in dreams so that I can feel what it feels like to touch her or hear the words she would use in a conversation. But she doesn’t, she’s nowhere to be found.

My intellect can’t make sense of this experience – what it means for life, the after life and about how we should live now. I feel an acute sense of fragility for myself and the people I love. I know that Death doesn’t discriminate and I fear that somebody else will be taken from me in cruel succession. I won’t be able to cope with more. There is an urgency to life now and what I should do each day in acknowledgement of that but at the same time I feel like something inside me has died and I’m unable to do very much of anything. I don’t have the capacity for this new urgent life I want. CS Lewis touched on the laziness of grief in his memoir of his wife’s death: A Grief Observed. “…I loathe the slightest effort…Even shaving. What does it matter now if my cheek is rough or smooth?” And this is how it feels, the slightest actions seem futile and require too much energy. The bigger ones, impossible.

The loss I feel is specific to my mother but translates to something  more general – a loss of confidence. I am fragile and exposed and unable to tackle a world that no longer makes sense. Physically I am weakened. My back goes into revolt almost as my mother passes and our wedding concludes. There is no obvious cause and no obvious cure. I fixate on my aches and pains and psycho-analyze that this is because deep down I want to be sick, that way I won’t have to leave home and be surrounded by all these people who have forgotten my mom is dead.

People say I should speak to my mom but the only question that keeps replaying in my head for her is: “Where are you?” She doesn’t answer. I want to know where she is but I don’t want to divert my grief with a spiritual quest to resolve that question. I’ve only recently started to read a few memoirs of what it’s like to lose someone and I’m intentionally steering clear of anything more theoretical. It seems our grief is all similar yet different. I like to think that mine is bigger and sadder than other peoples’ because I lost a mother or because my mother was better than other mothers. But I don’t really think that’s true, it’s just that other peoples’ grief is in the past or the future and not visible to me, as mine is not visible to them. As Meghan O’Rourke says of her experience in her book The Long Goodbye: A Memoir: “Other people – friends, colleagues – got used to my mother dying. But I did not.”

There is some small consolation in the circumstances of my mom’s death – she didn’t suffer, we had no unfinished business, she had met my fiancé and knew that I was safe. For myself, I’m grateful to have a sister to go through this with – the only person who could come close to know how I feel – and a husband to make a new life with. This is the first time I have really had to stare death in the face and I know that very soon it will be time to avert my gaze. As La Rouchefoucauld said: “Death and the sun are not to be looked at steadily.”

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Sunrise from Keurbooms Beach

So I will try to focus once more on life and hope that this reprieve will last long enough for my heart to heal. Losing my mother has been brutal but the days are finally starting to to roll on less tainted. I am not unchanged but I am in recovery.  One thing I know for sure is that the next time I see someone crying in an airport or on the street I’ll stop to ask  if they’re ok. Maybe they just lost their mom.

Sabbatical Itinerary

After some months of careful crafting (budgeting, flight booking, convincing clients they don’t need me anymore and parents I am not abandoning my wedding) I am officially on a three month sabbatical.

It feels amazing! I was a bit stressed and emotional pre departure (sorry LOML) but I am on the road now and it’s as if the world of work has totally evaporated and been replaced with real life.

The Itinerary:

Day 1 (8 Sept): flight to Shanghai

Day 2-4: 53 hrs in Shanghai

Day 4: flight to Thailand (sleep in airport hotel)

Day 5-11: Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam with my sister (also on sabbatical but in Sandton)

Day 12-14: Train journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh with (2 nights on train broken up by 1 night in Citadel city of Hue inbetween) I am writing this from the train so as usual I’m a few posts behind my actual movements – will catch up soon and write in real time I promise. 

 

Day 15-20: Sydney, Australia with my girls

Day 20-25: Road trip up to Byron Bay and back with the realjessharrison

Day 25-27: Back to Sydney for one last w end

Day 28-33: Bali for solo time: beach, yoga, raw + not raw food ( Wedding day approaches)

Day 34-38: More Bali or silent retreat in Thailand (tips for 3-4 day silent retreats in Bali or Thailand welcome please)

Day 39-49: Back to Harlem for LOML time

Day 50-75: South Africa for family time pre wedding

Day 75-81: week in SA on ‘safari’ and in Cape Town with friends and family pre wedding

Day 82: Wedding!!!

Day 83-89: recover from wedding

Day 90: Let’s not talk about it

The goals of the sabbatical: 

Active goals:

  • Be fit and healthy: Do yoga every day, eat fruit for one meal (currently loosely in observance):

  • Blog regularly (currently in observance)
  • Develop the habit of reading more (currently at 7% – too many other fun things to do):

Passive goals:

  • Have one or more life revelations (but don’t think too hard about the meaning of life while on sabbatical)
  • Absorb elements from travels to incorporate in daily life when back in New York/find inspiration

Overall, my objective is to enjoy the experience of travel and to appreciate all new things ‘in the moment’ (very yogi lingo, sorry), initiate good habits that can be maintained when back to normal life and spend special time with family and friends, especially my parents, sister and family who are normally so far away.

Thank you world, LOML, sister, friends and fam for supporting this adventure. The objective I’m doing the best at right now is enjoying every moment in the moment!

Enough boring lead up and more fun travel stories to come next time.

Three things I learnt in my 3 single years

In my post about what I learnt from a 4 year break up I mentioned that I also learnt ‘lots of other things, about myself, the kind of person I want to be and the kind of person I want to be with.’ This is true and here’s a breakdown of that journey.

Single Year 1: Learning about myself

In my first year of being single, amidst the initial trauma of a break up, the first thing I learnt is that I knew my own mind enough to have made the right decision. While I was stuck with some feelings of guilt, the focus shifted to what I really wanted in life. Where did I want to live? What kind of career did I want? I realized I could be anyone I wanted to be and anywhere in the world. I only had myself to consult. This was liberating but also overwhelming. Should I quit my job and work on yachts in the South of France? Or should I get a job in a cinema on a ski slope and learn to ski? I seriously investigated any kind of life that was nothing like my current.

I concluded that I didn’t want to live in London anymore. I was stagnating there and I wanted an adventure. And that’s how I got plotting to move to New York. I had a goal with a unique focus and it made me feel like my own person again.

What I also noticed about that year, on reflection, was that I sought male attention. I wasn’t used to being alone and made a string of bad dating decisions. I dated more than one person at a time, I hooked up with a friend, I had my first one night stand. All a disaster. I slowly realized that I was affected by the behavior of these men I supposedly didn’t care about. The common advice for singles is ‘make the most of it’ but I would be more selective if I had to do it over again.

Single Year 2: Learning about the kind of person I wanted to be

Freshly arrived in New York for my adventurous new life, I adopted the ‘yes man’ approach. I said yes to everything. I didn’t necessarily stay friends with all those people I met in the early days but sometimes I met other people through them. I also did a lot of solo travel to locations I’d always wanted to go to, like Mexico and girls trips to party places like Ibiza. I even went on a mom daughter cruise around the Caribbean and discovered that my mom was a very cool person and travel buddy.

Girl Time in Ibiza

                                                               Girl Time in Ibiza

Party Boat with Mom

                                                             Party Boat with Mom

While on this busy exploratory streak, I also learnt that I had some work to do on myself. There were things I was fearful of, things I was angry about and things I didn’t know what to feel about. I decided to self examine more. The easiest way to do this (if you live in the US and have health insurance) is to go to a therapist. I don’t say the best way, just the easiest. If you can’t afford a therapist, I would suggest setting a timer at home and talking to yourself as if there is a therapist listening on a chair opposite you. One hour of uninterrupted time with yourself will tell you everything you need to know.

With a little bit of probing I learnt that I could let go of certain emotions and stop fearing certain others. I felt much calmer about life in general, less like I was racing against a clock or competing against a sea of un-named faces. I spent more than a year away from my family that year, fighting against the balance of what was expected of me and what I wanted to give. By the end of that year, there was still lots to learn but I felt like I knew what I was striving for. I’d made enough mistakes to see what needed more work but I stopped self-flagellating.

Single Year 3: Learning about the kind of person I wanted to be with

In my third year, I decided to reset. I was looking for discipline and rigour. I was tired of saying yes to everything, tired of eating out and staying out late. I moved into an apartment by myself, stopped drinking for a month and signed up for a cycling training program with New York Cycling Club, doing long distance rides in a group every Saturday for 10 weeks. I felt fit and strong and focused. I stopped dating (for a bit) and I don’t recall but I apparently told a friend at the time that I wanted to be in a real relationship. So I know that I knew what I wanted.

I spent the Summer with friends going to the beach, sailing, cooking at home. I didn’t realize that in amongst this group of friends was the person I would end up being with. We would talk about everything, including what we were looking for in a person. I recall citing a list of ’10 things I was looking for in a man’ to him on a car journey home.  Things like ‘quietly confident, ambitious, must think he’s won the lottery, good face’. I remember it fleetingly crossing my mind that the American fit the description of most things on my list other than thinking he’d won the lottery (he showed no interest at the time). I think it was this exercise of actively naming what I wanted and recognizing that there was someone in front of me who represented the majority of the criteria that prompted me to explore the option when it became available.

7-10 of The 10 things I look for in a man: Feed me, take me to the beach, take me on a boat (please):

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Don’t get me wrong, three single years is a long time to learn all these lessons and if I were to find myself single again, I hope I wouldn’t have to re-learn all of them. I was also 3 years away from 30, trying to make a life in a new country, hating my job and at one point adjusting to the idea of having a very sick father. But we all have things going on all the time and break-ups and being single probably won’t come at a good time. Whatever your circumstances, I guarantee it will be a great time to learn about yourself.

Respect for my elders

My dad turned 70 yesterday. My mom turned 70 three years ago. Here are some other numbers:

  • My mom had me when she was 43. My dad was 40.
  • My mom had been married once before but her husband died 6 months after their wedding.
  • My dad had 2 daughters before he married my mom.
  • My dad has 4 daughters in total. I grew up with only 1 of them.

If I look at the numbers I see that my parents had entire lives before us. Before each other. They loved and suffered and experienced things. Then they were just my parents. Until about 5 years ago when I started growing up and and seeing them as real people. I started to imagine what it must have felt like to lose the person you love and have to start again. Or to have a child out there who doesn’t know that you’re her father or one that doesn’t want to know you at all.

My Dad as a Dashing Young Man

                                My Dad as a Dashing Young Man. Happy 70th!

I think this is a common phenomenon for us children. To gradually have the veil lifted and see that our parents are more similar to us than dissimilar and that we are more similar to them than we realized. Ten years ago, I saw a lot that I thought was wrong with my parents. Five years ago I was actively aware of the traits I’d inherited from them that I did not want to display. Today, I’m focused on how I can be more like them and emulate the characteristics that I love and respect in them.

Like my mothers curiosity and resourcefulness. She once flew my sister and I all the way from South Africa to Wimbledon where we slept on the rock hard pavement with only a borrowed blanket from a B&B so that we could get tickets for Center Court and see my idol, Steffi Graf. People told her she couldn’t afford it but when we got home she rented out our house and we spent the summer holidays in a Caravan Park down the road. She even let me paint our gypsy caravan my favourite colour, turquoise, and wasn’t embarrassed when we set up camp next to the sleek motor homes with satellite dishes for their TVs. Now that’s the kind of person and mom I want to be.

Or my father’s creativity and gentle nature. While my mom is more conservative, my father would sketch nude hippes in the Knysna Forest back in the day. I think the stillness and focus of drawing must’ve appealed to his nature. I’ve never seen him raise his voice unless unduly provoked. When he said no, it meant no. ‘Finish ‘n klaar!’ he liked to say or ‘Finishinkla!!! if exasperated. He was a quiet but not a passive leader, making his voice heard when it was important. I think it must be thanks to him that I’m attracted to the quiet confident types (or type) now.

It has taken me years to learn that I want to be more, not less, like my parents. They learned lots of lessons for me before I was even born and right now, they are still here to teach them to me, for which I am very grateful.

A selection of my mother’s favourite mantras, etched in my brain for life:


You’re Face is Your Fortune


Where there’s a Will There’s a way


Never Give Up


There’s no such thing as bored


Sunburnt Little Girls Make Wrinkled Old Ladies


 

 

Following the Yellow Brick Road

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When I left my homeland seven years ago, I wasn’t running from anything. I hadn’t been stock-piling food for fear that South Africa was ‘going the way Zimbabwe’ had gone. I believed, and still do, that the country has a bright shiny future. I was following my own little dream – to see the world, to meet weird and wonderful creatures and learn clever things. At least I think that was my dream, but it’s all so long ago now, who can really remember? The days and the years speed by, the lessons change and the faces rearrange. All I can be sure that lingers on is the desire to see the world, to discover new places and people out there on the untrodden road.

There is a price to pay for all this newness and adventure. For every fascinating foreign encounter, a heartfelt homely one is forfeited. For every new relationship forged, an existing one is neglected.  All the energy we expend in adjusting, adapting and acclimatizing to new environments is used up and cannot be invested in other things. Emotionally, I live in two countries and service two sets of relationships. It’s important to recognize which of these are transient and which have really got your back, and invest in them accordingly. A big bad city like New York really helps to put things in perspective, you learn quickly that for all the wow factor, people here are self-involved and unlikely to invest in you. When a hurricane hits, that person you thought you had a really solid relationship with, is unlikely to invite you to stay in their guest bedroom on the Upper West Side.

But that ‘s just the flip side of why people come here in the first place, in search of self-sufficiency and self-expression. The anonymity afforded by a place that is not your own can be a convenient guise and fuel for freedom and re-invention. Or it can just be fucking lonely. It all depends on what you’re hoping to discover on your path at that point in time. And herein lies my massive conflict: I want to be invisible but I want to belong, I love my family and my country but I also love living here. In such unclear-cut cases, one has to make a choice –  to abandon one world or to inhabit two simultaneously and dedicate a little more energy to a double life. For me, this is a privilege rather than a sacrifice. It affords me the luxury, of one day, when the going gets too tough, to be able to click my heels and wake up in a place where the sun is shining, the language is colorful and the love is abundant.New York, I adore you, but there’s no place like home.

You Know You’re Single When…

…Your perfume runs out.

The realization that I would have to replenish my own supply of Tom Ford Black Orchid left me feeling mildly depressed this morning. Up there with lingerie, it is not a purchase one should ever have to make for oneself. That’s what boyfriends are for. You’re never going to be unhappy when they come home with a little bottle of Chanel or a La Perla surprise.

These are what are known as safe gifts – like flowers and chocolate, just so much better. I’m quite happy to buy myself flowers and chocolate, they too are essentials but one tier down on the Intimate Gift Scale, making them acceptable for self-purchase. Having to doll out for a Myla number or Coco Mademoiselle on the other hand is the ultimate reality slap. I’ve done it of course. How else to stay sweet smelling when you can’t be sure when the next gift giver will be making an entrance. Sigh.

Not very feminist minded of me of course. As an emancipated woman I should delight in the purchasing power my equal salary affords me. But I don’t. Luckily, I have a surrogate boyfriend. My sister has always intuitively understood that ladies don’t buy their own fragrance or lace and has kept me in supply when boyfriendless i.e. most of my life.  Thanks sister! You’ve made being single a happy place to be.

If you’re reading this and you have a sister, ask yourself: Is her perfume running low.

I leave you with one final profound thought:

Remember: Guys like to smell nice too.

Liebster Sister…

…Thank you for my Liebster blog award!

As I write this little blog purely for my own amusement and in the hope that some of the things I say resonate with other people, I like to think I’m not motivated by statistics – number of hits, comments, new followers etc. An award on the other hand, I can’t help but get excited by, even it has bestowed on me by my very own sister. It still makes me a WINNER. The last time that happened I was still in school and I’m not gonna lie – it feels good!

Now in order to pass on the Liebster blog award you have to be a winner yourself. My sister’s blog On Sabbatical in Sandton  is very deserving of this accolade. She started it in 2009 and has since kept us regularly informed in her witty tongue-in-cheek style on what its like ‘faking it & making it as a lady of leisure….and on being a mommy’ .  Her blog charts her adventures as a wife, business woman, daughter, sister, friend and most recently mommy, in one of the loveliest suburbs of  South Africa, Sandton and around the world. Naturally, every time The Sister (that’s me) gets a mention in her blog I feel a flush of fame but it’s often her depiction of The Husband that has me in stitches.  See Babytalk-by-boys. So a big congrats to my Sister for her award and gratitude for passing it on. You are my blogging role model!

Now to pass on the award to MY favourite bloggers:

A fresh and colourfully written blog about all sorts of cool stuff from digital trends, film, fashion, ads and books. My favourite culture fix from a very talented Eva in Paris.

Ever wondered what it’s like being a European in America? Yes, sometimes you may as well be speaking a different language – from politics to food to fashion – it’s all très different but très amusant. Warning: OMG this blog is en Français but worth hiring a translator for.

This dude collective has regular original content about cool stuff like cycling, music and photography. Get your music inspiration from the TDJ section – that’s Tune du Jour for the uninitiated and artsy inspiration from their newly pioneered ‘photobeering’ concept.

That leaves another 2 spots for you, my readers, to please nominate via the comments section of this post 🙂

For the winners, here’s how the Liebster Award works:

The Rules:

1. Link back to the person who gave it to you.

2. Post the award on your blog for all to see!

3. Give the award to 5 of your favorite bloggers (with 200 followers or less).

4. Leave a comment on your chosen blogs to let them know that they have been given the Liebster Blog award.