I am supposed to be writing a book but instead I am writing a blog, but they both start with a ‘b’ so I consider that progress. It is better than sitting on the carpeted floor of the Explore Bookshop in the swanky mountain town of Aspen, Colorado wiping tears from my cheeks as I peruse the bottom shelf for books on grief and loss.
Yes, it has come to this, occasional weeping behind sunglasses in dark corners of an upmarket Colorado ski town in between envy inducing adventures posted on my social media feeds that belie these not so happy moments.
I am no doubt not the first to lose some salty water in this postcode. The tears of marital affairs stain the mammoth credit card bills of Gucci, Prada and Dior that line these streets while the tears of one night ski stands drip into morning Bloody Marys designed to get you back out there to do it again.
The rest just go running, up hill, up mountains, at altitude. It’s better that way. If you keep active the black dog can’t catch you. There’s a lot to be said for that. Though this may account for why the yoga studios in town are so obsessed with flow yoga, hot yoga, power yoga, thug yoga, disco yoga, any yoga where you don’t really have to drop down into the spiritual and emotive practice that so many other yogas provide.
I try to hike, yoga, run, channel my inner athlete, I really do. I make it out the door and half way to the trail on my own only to realise I have left my water behind, I have a deadline that’s pressing, I can do it later, the sky looks like it might rain, my foot hurts, my hair needs brushing, I need a nap.
This is a long way from the daily hikes of August that I bound out of bed to complete, knowing nature was always the answer. But something has changed between August and October and that something is calendar time.
The dust of my mother, Joy, sits in a tupperware container on a shelf in the back room of a funeral parlour in the town where she died 357 days ago. The upcoming year anniversary may well contribute to the malaise that has crept under my skin the past two weeks and sent me into social isolation with Netflix and sushi and that side trip to the bookstore floor.
I plan trips to Wholefoods that never happen and dine on peanut butter served from a jar on a spoon for dinner instead. I book online into gym sessions that I never attend then cycle my cruiser bike for kilometres on unknown bike trails heading nowhere that I know of until l get there and turn back home.
One year ago tomorrow I got the call from my father. I had just ordered a second latte from the crew at my office that doubled as a cafe on the northern beaches of Sydney.
“Your mother has collapsed and is in hospital, they think it is pneumonia, no need to panic” said my father down the line neglecting to mention the thirty minutes she lay on the floor with him and their dog by her side waiting on an ambulance to take her the 200 metres down the road to the hospital.
By the time I had panicked, left my untouched latte behind and headed the two hour drive south of Sydney to Bowral she was in the high dependency unit of the local hospital looking stunned and shell shocked, her eyes like saucers in her ghost white face. She knew what was coming, she had bladder cancer, cancer in her lymph nodes, cancer in her lungs, a faulty heart that could go at any time and a decade of Parkinson’s and all she cared about was those left behind.
“Who will look after your father when I am gone, what will happen to him if he is in hospital like me?” worried my mother aloud only calming down when I told her we would be there. The week prior she had insisted on me purchasing pyjamas and underwear, to last a year after she was gone, for her husband of 55 years lest he end up in hospital with nothing to wear. She was like that.
“Look for me on the wind Rachael” she said from intensive care when I found her bed empty one morning fearing the worst only to be told she had suffered heart issues in the middle of the night and been transferred downstairs.
By the time we got her into a private room in the private hospital it was only a matter of days or so we thought. We hadn’t counted for her reserves of energy. Nor that time my sister and I showed up after a night we thought she wouldn’t pull through and when I asked her ‘Hi mum, it’s me, Rachael, do you remember yesterday?’ she burst into the Beatles Yesterday favourite, singing two verses and a chorus with us singing along with back up from the hospital janitor cleaning her room.
Her final night on this earth we ensured our father set up a cot and slept by her side only to discover the next morning she was not only awake and talking but sitting upright eating solid foods with her husband by her side. Little did we know she was waiting, waiting for her husband to be happy. A strange thing considering he was about to lose his partner in life crime.
Two weeks prior to her collapse she had confided in me that the doctors had told her and Dad that the time was nigh and she feared her husband would be grumpy to the very end. We had talked about why, understandably, he was grumpy and she had said she did not want him to regret her final moments.
So on that morning she ate her solid breakfast after what would be her last night. I don’t know what they talked about throughout the darkness, if anything, perhaps just having each other by their sides was comfort enough. But it was clear in the next hours that she was, again, putting those left behind first.
As my father left to clean himself up for a couple of hours, my mother went downhill, slipping into a pain that she had refused morphine for two days earlier after our father wouldn’t accept it was time. My sister and I spoke to mum and asked her what we could do for her.
My sister mentioned that ‘grumpy Dad’ would be back in an hour or so and I said “but Dad’s not grumpy this morning” because he wasn’t, he was perky, and our mother asked why.
“Because he spent the night with his wife by his side, woke up in the same room as her and shared a breakfast alone together” I replied.
So she took the morphine and slipped into an unconcious state from which she never woke up and two hours later took her last breathe. She had simply been waiting for it to be ok for our father, for him to be at a place of acceptance before she would leave and when she did, she did it her way, quietly and with good grace. Not once in that week did I see her cry.
Coming up to a full year later and I remember all the details as acutely as if it happened this week, the trips to Target to buy undies because I packed for a night not a week, the laughter with the funeral director we spotted picking up someone else’s deceased loved one when we told him he had arrived too soon, the tears in the coffee shop trying to order a latte, the feel of my mother’s skin when I held her hand.
Yet so much has happened in the year in between. Not least is I packed up my bags, sold everything I own and jumped onto a plane to Colorado to write a book.
I have written about the waves of grief before and in my life enhancing adventures inspired by the loss of my mother I thought the grief was gone. But I didn’t count for the anniversary. You can’t lose a mother, even if it was her time, without a forever life shifting impact of some kind and as much as it sucks the only way out of grief is through.
I don’t know what I will do on October 15 at 1.15pm, the time she died. If I had a handful of her ashes I would dust the rocks of the John Denver Garden in Aspen in her name. I may just hit a bar and drink a Brandy Alexander on her behalf or listen to the upbeat soundtrack of old world Sinatra, Neil Diamond and Sammy Davis Junior that had us toe tapping at her wake.
Though I may just head to the dog shelter in Aspen and take a rescue dog for a walk in the Rocky Mountains. The ultimate dog lover with a soft spot for the wounded, she would have done that too back in the days when she could walk without effort. Maybe I’ll find Joy there again, in the mountains on the wind.
Read more: “A Lady to the End” Joy Oakes-Ash obituary in the Southern Highland News
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