Dealing with Death
Until 1997 I hadn’t lost anyone particularly close to me, other than distant relatives, whose funerals I went to out of respect and to show support. The first funeral I had been to that I remember was for my cousins’ baby who had died of cot death (SIDS) when I was twelve years of age. It was 1978 and a grey day in Melbourne. My cousin was small and skinny with the front of her hair dyed orange and she was clutching onto her boyfriend. They were both crying uncontrollably and everyone else was huddled around them in a protective circle.
I remember the coffin being so terribly small. Everyone commented on how in the hell they could’ve fitted him in there. It was powder blue with a royal blue ribbon around it, only needing two men to carry it up to the altar. Afterwards, at the wake, I heard snippets of hushed conversation about the events leading up to the discovery of his lifeless body in his crib, how the blood had settled in ridges so he must’ve been dead for a while.
At the time, they didn’t know much about cot death and everyone puzzled at what happened, what could’ve been done and how hopeless the situation was. I was a very young twelve year old and didn’t know how to react so just hugged my cousin and said sorry and she gripped me and said “luv ya cuz!” It was all very confusing and sad.
For a long time, death happened to other people and I was somewhat cocooned from it, until 1997, when it caught up with a vengeance. Early in the year, I was in a relationship with – let’s call him John, who was many things but he mostly drove me insane. We had been together for about a year. I learned a lot from him and he was passionate, crazy, insanely funny, hyper intelligent, unemployed and a writer. I loved him to death but he was a serious drain on my energy. I had been doing my own tarot readings for years and at the time had pulled the cards out every so often, but every time I did, as I was shuffling, the death card kept falling out. Every time!
I consider myself mostly secular, but at that time, it freaked me out. It happened six times in one week and I decided not to touch the cards for a while. Two weeks later I picked them up again and carefully shuffled, deliberately clearing my mind and thinking about my career and other pleasant things. When I cut the cards and turned half the stack over, the death card stared me in the face! I was mortified. I quickly put them away again and told John, who was Catholic and straight away he was freaked, telling me to stay away from them.
At the time I hadn’t had my period but I’d always had issues with my cycles so didn’t think much of it, until I ended up having to go to the emergency room with unexplained bleeding. It was a miscarriage. After it was all dealt with I thought of the death card but brushed it aside, as I was upset over losing the child, even though it wasn’t planned and probably for the best seeing as the relationship was by no means stable.
Two weeks later John and were in my kitchen, making dinner when the phone rang. It was my stepfather who matter of factly told me that my younger brother Peter had died of a heroin overdose. Just like that. I’ve always had a delayed panic response to crisis. It’s always way after the dust has settled. I calmly asked what I needed to do. He asked if I could come with them to view the body. I agreed, hung up and asked John if he could watch Zack, who was ten years old at the time, so I could go and identify my brothers’ body. He was dumbstruck and came around the counter to hug me, telling me – “Of course!”
We talked about Peters’ wretched life and how on the one hand it wasn’t a shock, but on the other – how it was still a surprise. We had all tried, at various and numerous times to help him, to offer a stable home and to get him help. But it never worked due to relapses and so on. Things would get stolen, he would get involved with seedy circles and bring them back to our homes. There were mountains of broken promises, rivers of tears, lies and hopeless regrets.
My mother and stepfather turned up and we drove to the hospital. I was worried about Mum as she was so calm and rational. She kept saying over and over that at least the hopeless struggle was over, as though she was trying to convince herself. I knew that deep down it didn’t matter – the struggle, because the bottom line was that her baby was gone. The chance for trying to help him one more time was ripped out of her hands. We talked like robots as though reading from a pre-approved script until we arrived at the hospital. Once inside they took us to a room and a nurse told us that they had him in another room. She pulled me out of the room for a minute to tell me that Peter was on a slab and rigor mortis had set in, so it probably wasn’t suitable for Mum to see him like that. I agreed that it was probably for the best if I was the one to identify him.
I went back into the room and without explaining why, told Mum that I should be the one to identify him. She agreed – still stunned and said that she wanted to remember him the way he used to be. Before I walked out she said “Make sure you check the tattoos. Remember? Jimi Hendrix? And get the rings if they’re on him.” I said ok and followed the nurse into the hallway where a kindly policeman was waiting to lead me to the room.
Once at the door he turned and stopped me as I was ready to just casually walk inside. He told me to prepare myself. In a calm voice he said “The person you’re about to see is not the same as the one you’ll remember, so take your time.” My mind was racing but I just wanted to get it over and done with, so I nodded impatiently and said ok. He opened the door slowly and held it open for me to walk in. I took two steps and instantly – a tear shot out of my eye like a bullet! There he was, like a statue from Pompeii, on a cold metal slab, on his back, with his arms twisted upwards as though warding off an invisible attacker.
The plastic tubing was still in his mouth and a clear plastic sheet was draped over his body. It was like something out of a horror movie. The expression on his face was contorted as though he was still in discomfort. The smell of formaldehyde was overwhelming. I started hyperventilating. The policeman had a hand on my arm, asking if I wanted to take a break. I said no, but was having difficulty dealing with what I was seeing. I remember thinking “Check the tattoos”. I saw Jimi Hendrix on his bicep. It’s amazing how your mind tries to trip you up. I kept saying to myself “Are you sure it’s him? Check again!”
I kept checking and even when I said to the policeman, “Yes it’s him” and we walked out the door, I had to turn around and have a second look, to make sure. As he walked me back to the room where Mum and Brian were, I composed myself and asked the policeman to make sure we got his rings back. He promised and he did. As soon as I walked into the room I looked at Mum and didn’t even have to say anything. Straight away she collapsed into sobs and it began.
For a week the grief kept its’ distance from me. I was the one who called all the relatives all over Australia and planned the funeral. I organized the viewing before the funeral (we decided not to have an open casket – even though they did a great job on Peter and he looked so peaceful). On the morning of the funeral, that’s when it hit me. I was sitting on the couch next to John, when all of a sudden it was like a cannonball hitting my stomach. I had previously assumed that grief was just like any other emotional pain or depression, just deeper. No-one tells you that it’s a whole different ball game.
I physically felt it, in my stomach, like a rolling black ball, all consuming and dragging me down in a pit of despair. There was nothing I could do to fight it. It horrified me, as I could not control it. I could hear a howl come out of me that I had never heard before. John grabbed me and held me, much to his eternal credit – he did have a human side. I sobbed and gasped, drowning in a pool of darkness, wondering if I would ever come out of it. About ten minutes later it subsided. When I finally came to and sat back up I realized that this might happen at the funeral. I wondered if I might be able to control it then.
At the funeral, one of my cousins played the didgeridoo – which is an amazing instrument at any time, but at a funeral it drags out your grief, kicking and screaming, by the ankles. Everyone was kind of holding it together until he started playing, when the curtain finally closed over the coffin. The deep bellow of the instrument grabbed our souls and we surrendered. It was beautiful and horrible at the same time. But very necessary.
A week later I was having a shower and the grief monster hit me again, right in the pit of my stomach. I doubled over and collapsed on the bottom of the shower and waited for it to subside. It was like being possessed by a separate entity. It came in and after it did what it had to, it left. After that I was able to control it better.
Two weeks after my brother died, we heard about my uncle committing suicide. It was during the anthrax epidemic and farmers were having to cull their stock. He had been depressed and two weeks earlier had started taking prozac. My aunty told me that he had walked into his neighbors’ dam and drowned himself.
A month after that, Johns’ sister committed suicide. She gassed herself in her car after a relationship breakup. John and his family were devastated, as they had already lost a younger sister when John was quite young and their father a few years earlier. That whole period was a fog of death. It was so surreal and it took quite a while to get back to some semblance of order.
It wasn’t until the end of that year when I remembered the death card popping out all those times. It took a long time for me to be able to take the cards out again!
In, but not of.
It’s hard to describe yourself as a fringe dweller without coming across as an attention seeker, or as someone desperate to be perceived as different and standing out from the crowd. On the one hand, here I am writing a blog in order to flesh out my stories for my memoir – according to advice I have received, which states that modern writers have to blog and market themselves in order to ‘drum up business’. Blogging seems so extroverted and not really something dwelling on the fringe, as everyone is doing it.
On the other hand, blogging is very foreign to me, as I usually write everything in long hand before typing a second draft on my computer, which is then re-jigged as a third, forth and fifth draft (sometimes more), before I send the query letter, synopsis etc to a variety of publishers and so on, without anything ever having been exposed to the public. I usually prefer this operating behind the veil, although it is a new and exciting experience putting my work out there for all to see, before it is accepted or rejected by publishers.
I have always felt like I am ‘In, but not of the world’ – not so much an outsider, but definitely a fringe dweller. Even when amongst people I feel close to, I don’t usually feel that people truly understand what I am saying or trying to convey. Maybe it’s the same for everyone – as we all experience things differently. And maybe that’s why we tell our stories, so that we can at least try to make a connection. Maybe if there’s someone out there who understands or who has been through the same or similar things, we won’t feel so strange or alone.
Like most introverted people, I live a lot inside my own head. However I do enjoy getting that stuff out because it does get cluttered and noisy! When I was very young I used to draw question marks with faces inside them. Apparently I drew them on my stuffed humpty dumpty doll. A friend of my fathers’ wanted to get me analyzed. That was the time when I set my crib on fire. It was also around that time when I would get up in the middle of the night and assemble my dolls and stuffed toys and hold meetings. I had a lot to discuss and it was all so very important, until my mother came in and angrily told me to get back to bed and go to sleep.
I remember having afternoon naps and staring out the window at the bright blue sky, in a daze. It was a kind of meditative state, staring at the sky and the clouds, hearing a plane faintly in the distance, or a lawnmower. I don’t think it was particularly spiritual, but I remember wondering about life, who I was and how nice it was just to be still and wondering about life! Sometimes I would get up and look out the window onto the rooftops below, at the air vents and dirty alley ways. I don’t remember thinking anything specifically. I was just full of wonder and maybe making plans of what I would do when I had the freedom to get out amongst it all.
Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom
My mother often told me that I always seemed far away and that sometimes, when I looked at her, I seemed to be looking straight through her. It’s probably because I’ve always been such a daydreamer. Teachers have always told me off for staring out the window and to pay attention. Reality can be such a bore. When around others, and being forced to be a part of the group and to join in, I find it annoying and distracting, unless I’m actually interested in what’s going on. I hate being told that something is going to be fun, when the other party has no idea about what I might find enjoyable.
Growing up, others mistook it for contrariness or stubbornness. It was never deliberate. I tried (and continue to try) very hard to be a part of society or any particular group and even pretend where necessary, in order to appease and maintain the status quo. But every now and then I step on the brakes, as I remember that I am not 10 anymore. I remember that I have developed my discriminative senses over the years and that there are times where I can say no or put in my two cents worth.
When I was five and in my first year of primary school, it was after lunch and the bell had rung but I hadn’t heard it. Everyone else had gone back to class but I was oblivious and kept playing in the tall grass, talking to myself in a world of my own. Eventually the teacher came stomping down the dirt track calling my name and my stomach jumped. I snapped back to reality and followed hot on her heels. She snarled over her shoulder “Didn’t you hear the bell?!” Cow.
It’s funny thinking of myself as a child – as the only thing that has changed is that I’m older. Essentially I’m still the same person, just with more memories, ideals, tastes, problems and circumstances, etc. I still stare out the window. I still find it hard to join in. I still find it annoying to have to go through a daily routine (instead of going to school – going to work and having to pay bills etc, like everyone else!). I still wish I could be taken care of, even though I’m a grown woman and a feminist. I still wish things could be simple, although I love intellectual pursuits. I still love being silly although I abhor childishness. I still crave adventure although I relish the comfort of my home.
I so desire a successful writing career but I’m also very afraid of it. Is that what’s holding me back?
We’re all on our own journeys in terms of spirituality and I, like most others have vacillated between a variety of beliefs (and most recently, more towards non belief). But for me, at least, it’s far more interesting to go back to when I was a child and to remember what it was like to not know, or at least, to wonder. As an adult I hate not knowing and much prefer concrete evidence, common sense, reason and intellectual understanding. I can look at a sunset, knowing that it’s a collection of vapors and chemicals and can still be exhilarated by the beauty of it all without having to attribute it to a deity. (I don’t mean to offend the religious, each to his/her own etc – this is just my opinion, at this stage in my life.)
However I do remember the ‘magic’ of otherworldliness. I do remember being mystified by the idea of fairies and the idea of an all powerful, all knowing Godhead who watched over us and had all the answers. I remember believing that my teddy bears and dolls had feelings and souls. One early memory I have is being a toddler in my crib and setting fire to it, with a box of matches I had found. I lit the matches one by one, throwing them to the edges of the crib, watching the flames in rapture, feeling like I was in the center of a birthday cake.
My mother remembers the screaming, calling the fire brigade and crashing into the room to save my baby brother and I. My nightdress had gone up in smoke and all that was left were the arms and the back of it. I didn’t have any burns whatsoever! Everyone thought it was a miracle. My teddy had a burnt leg and I was completely grief stricken. Every time I looked at him I was wracked with guilt for having hurt him so much.
Even as a young adult I felt a twinge of shame and it took a long time for me to realize that he was just an inanimate object! (It was even worse when I had taken him for show and tell at school years after the fire, when a nasty little shit had ripped out his eyes, the bastard! I thought – now he’s blind too! I couldn’t bear to let my mother sew new eyes on him for fear of putting him through more pain. More guilt for me!)
When I was about ten years old I walked into our kitchen and straight out asked my mother if she believed in fairies. I did – but I needed an adult to tell me so I could feel secure in the ‘knowledge’ that fairies were real. I knew the instant she responded with that ‘Oh god, I better humor her’ look, that fairies were not real. I was angry, hurt and deeply depressed. Even though she tried to convince me “Yes darling, of course I believe in fairies!” with that patronizing smile, it was too late. I had my answer.
Mind you, I didn’t stop reading fairy tales, and books by Enid Blyton, mythology, Catweazel, The Children of Green Knowe etc. I was 50% willing it to be true and pretending it was true and 50% knowing it wasn’t and ignoring that fact. For me, the bottom line was that it was entertaining and afforded me the kind of escapism I dearly needed.
When I was little I remember going to stay at my aunt’s farm in the country. She and her boyfriend were hippies. They had chickens and a ginger cat called Peter, who went on adventures with me. They had a statue of David for a doorbell. There was a sign over his penile unit that said “Pull”. You flipped the sign up & pulled on the penis that was attached to a wire that sounded the doorbell. Hilarious! They had a big shed full of these statues. I was mystified by these statues. (Not sure if it was the start of Agalmatophilia, which is sexual attraction to a statue or figure – but I don’t feel like that now, even though I appreciate them!)
I would spend ages hiding in the shed, just staring at them, transported to another dimension. I can’t remember what I was thinking, but it was magical. A few years earlier, when I was around five years of age, I had started having hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations – which is basically dreaming while awake. I’ll write about those experiences in more depth later as there’s quite a lot of ground to cover. But at that time I had also started to get up in the middle of the night and would talk to myself in the mirror. Needless to say, it freaked my elders out! They would put sheets and towels on the mirrors but I would just go to another room and do it again!
I was always attracted to the idea of alternate worlds, portals, other dimensions. Maybe it was a subconscious need for escape, as my parents were divorced then and I was living at my grandparents with my father and my cousin and brothers. I kept having a recurring dream of a mountain which still haunts me to this day. I’ve always wanted to find ‘my mountain’. In the dream, I would wake up at my Nanna’s house and go out into her garden, around the side of the house and I would see this majestic, snow capped mountain behind the shed.
I could never get to it because there was always something in the way, like a gate I couldn’t get through, a clump of weeds or bushes, etc. I can see now that it probably represented the integrated self calling to me – for a chance to escape all the crap our families were going through and to ‘find myself’. Every time I see a perfect, snow capped mountain I get a chill of excitement, like I’m still waiting for it. It’s almost a spiritual pull. But it’s a very particular type of mountain and for some reason, ever since I can remember, it’s somewhere in Sweden!
(Not Sweden – but looks just like my mountain!)
When I was living at Nanna and Pa’s, around five years of age, I had an experience that could be explained as either my synapses misfiring, or a narcoleptic experience (although they say that hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are not technically under the umbrella of narcolepsy). It could have been a dream. The funny thing is – my Pa had the same experience when he was a boy and so did my father and his twin, in the same room! (Pa had his experience in a different house.)
In my event I was asleep in my room at Nanna and Pa’s, when a bright light suddenly filled the room and woke me up. It was so white that it was tinged with blue and was almost too bright to look at. I was under the covers, afraid and wondering what was happening when an astronaut came into the room. (When it happened to my father and his twin brother they called him the white milkman and my Pa had said he thought it was a ghost.) As soon as I saw the astronaut I passed out. Then I felt waves over me, as though two people were on either side of the bed wafting the blanket up and down on me. I was so scared but couldn’t move.
I’ll talk about my ‘narcoleptic’ experiences in another post, as they would take up a whole chapter. The sensations were always the same, tingling up and down my spine, feeling frozen and not being able to move, not being able to scream for help. My father and uncle had said that the white milkman came to them when they were in the crib and the room also went a vivid white color. Apparently he just stood there staring at them for a while and then he disappeared. My Pa had a similar experience with his ghost.
I’ve also had OBE’s (out of the body experiences – also known as astral traveling). I’ve seen fantastic planets with colors that I’ve never seen before and had experiences that aren’t easily explained. One time, I slammed back into my body so hard that my boyfriend at the time freaked out and leapt out of bed, thinking that I had deliberately jumped onto the bed from the ceiling! He was angry, scared and confused. When I explained to him what happened he still didn’t believe me and thought I was nuts.
The idea of these magical experiences being real is quite delicious, as they hint at otherworldliness, which would mean that there is something else out there, the ‘unknowable’, that would allay my fears of death and ceasing to be. In my twenties, when I was going through a phase of fearing death, I had an OBE where I was floating in a strange place amongst a lot of crazy mathematical equations. I kept hearing a voice telling me that death was not the end. Of course, when I woke up, my fear of death had vanished.
A religious person would say that it was God coming to help me. A scientist would say that it was my subconscious will trying to calm myself down so I could keep operating. My attitude is – whatever works.
I enjoy fantasy as it juices up the imagination and enriches my creativity. I also enjoy reason as I am most comforted by the truth, facts and figures. I like my feet firmly rooted in the earth so my head can safely wander through the universe and back again.
Preparing to write a haphazard memoir
I had taken a week off work to write and for two days I procrastinated with fits and starts, but pretty much only produced the beginning of a poem regarding my mother and her life. Only a page and a third so far! Inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ I used interesting language and it was all going well when I just stopped. I just wasn’t feeling it.
Then I got sidetracked by music, t.v., the internet and naps. When I went back to it – it wasn’t there. Not so much writer’s block – I just didn’t feel it. The thoughts of delving back into her life seemed unappetizing. I’m not sure if it’s the guilt of being so far away from her and my family or fear of the painful memories.
I keep oscillating between projects, genres and formats, not being able to make up my mind. I’m very good at making lists and organizing my writing. I have spreadsheets and notes that make it very clear as to what is to be written and how. The hard part is actually sitting down and writing them out – fleshing them out.
It takes me so long to finally pick a genre that by the time I’ve decided what to write, I sit down and instantly find myself dissatisfied with my choice and end up staring at a blank page. Again, it’s not necessarily writer’s block. There’s an unsettling feeling that it might not work or that I’ve made a wrong decision in terms of format or topic.
Then I think about not writing in long hand whilst sitting on the couch and ponder writing at my computer. The issue with my shoulder freezing stops that idea in it’s tracks, so I think about going to my other desk that looks out over our lovely back yard. But then I’d spend too much time gazing out the window daydreaming and the cats would want to join in and disrupt everything.
It seems like I’m making excuses but in truth I lack the discipline, because I don’t do it enough. I’m great at planning but doing is another thing entirely. I know that usually once I get into it, pages start flying and I’m in the zone. I can meet publishers deadlines. I have had articles published in three of Llewellyn’s Almanacs and every time I submitted my writing way before the deadline, without any need of revision, I’m proud to say.
But that was then, this is now, as it’s more personal as I’m attempting to write a very personal memoir. (What memoir isn’t personal!?) Part of the problem is censoring as I go. I can’t help it. I can feel my family peering over my shoulders. I find my eyes wandering up the page, making mental notes or crossing out what I’ve written, revising and mutilating.
I remember the Beats – particularly Kerouac saying something about rewriting being censorship and to go with your original, raw and true thought. I guess I’m a little more like Ginsberg (Oh how I wish!) in that, although the idea of not censoring is delicious, it seems sloppy and messy. Then I hear Burroughs say ‘Exterminate all rational thought’ and I’m back at square one!
I’ve been working on a non fiction self help book (yawn!) for the past few years. It started out with the idea of life mapping, using techniques such as self analysis, ritual, dream interpretation and researching your background through the trials and tribulations of your parents and what they brought to the table – in terms of psychological influences, parenting skills (or lack thereof), experiences, events, backgrounds, circumstances and so on.
I’ve got it all worked out re: synopsis, sample chapters, permissions and citations, research, formats etc. But I just can’t seem to get back into it. Ever since I received feedback from Urbis (a writing site that disappeared without so much as a ‘thank your mother for the rabbits’!) – I’ve been stuck. Mind you, the feedback was constructive, important and relevant (and so terribly obvious that I was disgusted for not thinking of it myself).
The advice was – why don’t you use yourself as a case study? Readers like to know that the writer knows something about the subject because they’ve experienced it, or in that book’s case – that the writer has gone through the steps put forth. I had thought that I could get away with using other people as case studies – namely Jack Kerouac and Vali Myers.
I was such an idiot. How could I have laid out an action plan for others to follow when I hadn’t tested it out on myself? How could I claim that my processes worked if I hadn’t gone through them myself? (Even though I had dabbled in ritual, dream interpretation etc – I hadn’t done so in the formalized way that my book was suggesting.)
Then I realized that I had the daunting task of ‘unraveling’ myself and my history. How horrible to relive the experiences I’ve been hiding from my whole life. How laborious to wade through all the crap that bubbles under the surface of my shining, smiling facade! People have always told me that I seem perpetually happy and content; that I’m helpful, kind, dependable – almost zen like. Hilarious! Made me want to punch them in the face.
I’v always been viewed as carefree, strong and capable. Not so hilarious. Every time someone told me so, the anger started rising in my throat. I should have been thankful that others viewed me in such a positive light. But that’s always been the problem. It suited them to do so. It was in their best interests to think of me like that – then they could keep heaping it on me! I would be stoic and brave and they could continue to lean on me, depend on me to be there for them.
Woe betide me if I ever leaned back. I was supposed to be strong. I was told to snap out of it and keep everything kicking along. Or they’d make excuses and hasty retreats, not contacting me again until the storm had passed. When I failed, let things go, became a mess – their anger knew no bounds. I was never allowed to be anything less than strong, capable, dependable.
Digging up all those memories and repressed feelings seemed akin to letting the zombies run wild! I wondered if I could still keep it all together whilst recording all that flotsam and jetsam. Just writing those previous paragraphs had me gnashing my teeth, fighting back tears and wanting to punch my teddy bears!
Mind you, it wasn’t all that bad. Like most people, I’ve had just as many good things happen to and around me, if not more. It’s just the concept of unearthing everything, warts and all, at the same time trying to maintain order, that boggles my mind. Then of course, there’s the guilt of hanging out dirty laundry. (An old boyfriend told me once that I was more Catholic than him, when it came to guilt – and I’m not Catholic!).
Writers have to deal with the guilt of hanging out the dirty laundry, in the most skillful way, however – in one sense, no-one owns events, or has control over your emotions or memories of those events. The trick is to try to be reasonable and philosophical.
(To be continued)