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.”


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.

Conversations with my mom about flowers

Almost 4 weeks ago today my mom died, unexpecedly, peacefully. That probably sounds abrupt but it was.  It’s too sore to describe how I’ve felt from the instant I heard to now. I’m still on sabbatical so I have the ‘luxury’ of grieving uninterrupted with the support of my sister and loved ones, who are also hurting. I often think about how my mom would’ve handled losing people she loved. She survived many personal tragedies and emerged with a positive outlook on life. ‘Time is a healer’ she says said, but I try to imagine how she felt in the thick of it all, like we are now, and I know she too would’ve been hurting.

The thing that makes me feel closest to her now is nature, plants specifically. Most other things seem pointless or too draining to think about but seeing her garden flourish, doing flowers for her funeral or thinking about the flowers for my wedding make me feel happy.

Mom's Magical Garden

Mom’s Magical Garden

A typical Magical Garden arrangement

About a year ago I conducted this ‘interview’ with my mom about her life with flowers. I have so many more questions but I’m happy to be able to share these words of hers:

Me: What role have plants played in your life?

Mom: A very important role in my life. I was brought up with my mother teaching me about plants. My mother was my greatest influence. I couldn’t live somewhere where things couldn’t grow. When I cam to Plett there was no work and there wasn’t a florist here so then I went to CT on a course with a famous last called Joan Pear who used to do the flower arrangements for the ships that came from London to Cape Town. She started a school of floristry in CT. She was very good with bridal work. When I came back I opened blossoms…coming back from Joburg in the car we drove passed a valley full of beautiful blossoms. We collected branches from fruit trees and made pink paper blossoms on the ceiling. Opened in 77. It was very successful with weddings and Interflora. The people in Plett were old and their families would send them flowers. It was difficult to get flowers. Proteas were local but the locals don’t like Proteas. The other flowers came on the bus from PE. I sold the shop at a good profit when I had my first baby. With that money I built my house. Then I started doing the flowers for the Beacon Island Hotel, which I did for a very long time as well as weddings. Sometimes I’d have to drive out to try to find the bus. Sometimes the bus just threw the flowers off the bus on the street in the Crags when they were late. Weddings are very nerve-wracking things.

Me: Do you have any wedding disaster stories? 

Mom: I once delivered the wedding bouquet and the bride was in such a state.  Someone ended up putting the flowers in the deep freeze – they were frangipani and of course turned brown… Brides would often walk down the aisle without their bouquets.

Weddings were so rewarding but the mothers were always the worst. They thought they were getting married again. They wanted to choose the bouquets for the brides. You had to subtly tell them to shut up. I always had lots of pictures they could choose from. 

I learnt a lot about flowers – what flowers lasted. Agapanthus florets make the best bouquets, so do frangipane and orchids. Everyone wants roses but you have to be careful in the sun. In England they used to use Lilley of the Valley. And Tubor Roses but they only come in Spring. They last so well and have a fabulous perfume.

In the last 20 years or so the most popular colours are antique – antique roses etc, not white. People seldom used colours other than white. I once did a bouquet of red roses with ivy hanging down and it was a real flop.

Me: What plant moment are you most proud of?

Mom: I always used to grow plants to sell to buy things for my children. I once sold hydrangea plants at Christmas time to buy roller blades for you

Me: Is there a plant that cheers you up when you are down?

Mom: I love primulus. You don’t get them in bunches but they’re so pretty in the garden in Winter. Roses are the most amazing.

Me: If you had to choose between a pet animal or a pet plant what would you choose?

Mom: A plant definitely. You have to clean up after the animal and give them to someone when you go away.

Me: Do you talk to your plants?

Mom: Sometimes. Actually just this very morning, I said to my African violet: ‘you’re so beautiful! When did you have so many flowers?’ I don’t often talk to them…OH wait I do! When my white bouganvillae was dying I put my arms around it and said, ‘Don’t die, please don’t die’ and it didn’t it cheered up. It was sulking because its pot had been moved.

Me: Do you use flowers for eating/medicinal purposes?

Mom: No, definitely not. I know some people say you can eat nusturtum leaves but I’m not a salad person.

Me: Which do you think are the hardest plants to grow?

Mom: I’ve given up growing vegetables. I’m not very good at it. I have too much shade.

Me: Which are the most rewarding plants to grow?

Mom: Inca lilies are so rewarding, such marvelous cut flowers. There’s every colour under the sun. And sweet peas-I love the perfume. I love growing herbs and using them in my kitchen.

Me: What unconventional tips do you have for growing things?

Mom: Comfry is a wonderful thing. You can cut the leaves up and put them in the soil around the plant. The nutrients help the plant. People also make hand cream out of it.

Fynbos from up the hill in Keurbooms, where my mom’s ashes will lie in peace

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