I sat on the old park bench with my two incredibly lazy dogs and people-watched. I saw you run around, laughing, smiling with your adorable son. I’m guessing he is around four. Both of you, in hysterics over your game of peek-a-boo. It made me laugh. It is one of those perfect sights that makes a young woman like me think of herself as a mother one day. It also made me think that you must need boundless energy to keep up with your giggling little munchkin. As soon as he caught sight of my little balls of white fur he ran straight over, you, a few footsteps behind, trying to keep up. He insisted on hugging both of them and asked me if they were twins. Then as I was responding to his many questions he coughed, abruptly and intensely. You were unfazed and apologised insisting he isn’t contagious.
He has “Cystic Fibrosis” we both stated in unison. We spoke about Orkambi and research and you told me about how you encourage as much physical activity as possible. You were so optimistic and enthusiastic, it was contagious. You made me think of how different life is now for people being born with Cystic Fibrosis. A far cry from my mum’s birth and odds in the seventies. You brought me back to a place I hadn’t been in a while. I am in this constant battle of emotions. I am torn between feeling resentful that my mum never lived to avail of the numerous treatment options out there today and also incredibly grateful that so many others lead such different lives and will have different fates. Most days, I focus on the positive. The endless emerging therapies and the stepping stones leading to an eventual cure. Some days, every so often though, I wallow. I wallow in that dark place where those options didn’t exist. Where the light at the end of the tunnel got further and further away from us and every passing day our hope diminished. You know what though? That’s okay. Grief is a complex thing.
Thank you, kind stranger, for the reminder that now, there is so much light. So much hope. Even in my dark spaces, people like you interrupt my solitude with your bright lights and music. I hope your son has a life filled with light.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to power I have been forced to confront my own feelings on some things. Everywhere I go there is some mention of reproductive rights. Something, somewhere always acts as a trigger. Websites chiming in, celebrities tweeting their own personal beliefs, a statement T-shirt on a crowded college campus, news headlines, a friend absent-mindedly discussing his overt views over drinks on a Saturday night, blaring radio segments, magazine covers, trashy red-top papers with misleading headlines, it doesn’t cease. Everyone has an opinion and most are forcing theirs down my throat. I sat in a crowded room, each of them bickering casually over their own thoughts and feelings. I reached into my bag to get my phone and instead met some old tablets. My mum’s tablets. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t used this bag since before my mum’s passing. I held them tightly in my hand and my breath became shallow. Must. Keep. It. Together. Just as Birdy’s voice began to wind down I was transported back.
I sat in the kitchen of their house. It hadn’t even been four months since I had faced my greatest challenge. They had two children, their first has CF, now in her thirties, fit and healthy. Their second was lucky enough not to receive two copies of the gene. They spoke of their experience with their first child. They had never even heard of the disease. They faced shock, sadness and a steep learning curve. They spoke about all of it in such a ‘matter of fact’ way, emotions of their distress clearly in the past. They then spoke of their second pregnancy. This was when the tone changed. They tell me it was then that they realised they were pregnant with a ‘decision, not a baby’. My heart sank. I felt sick. I felt the colour drain from my face. I was already upset but now I was just disgusted. Did they really just say that? I had no idea how to feel. I was outraged, horrified, hurt, bewildered and just outright irritated. How am I supposed to respond to that? I zoned out. I was too busy immersed in my own grief and misery to defend my personal opinion. Then, they stated in a rather aloof ad stolid way ‘you too Christina may be faced with such a decision, since you carry the gene’.
Please allow me to set the record straight: I will never be faced with such a decision. A child’s life is not a decision for me. It isn’t a choice or something I can play with. Any child of mine will be loved and cared for regardless of their health or their life expectancy. How dare you confront me with your ideals.
I understand everyone has a journey and I don’t understand that journey unless I have lived it myself but this is my opinion. Please don’t talk to about my future. I believe in being informed, prepared and educated on these things but I certainly don’t believe I have a say in any of it. I don’t want a choice, not in this scenario. Unless I explicitly ask for it, I don’t want your advice or thoughts.
Most of the time I feel empowered by my life experience as a researcher. I feel like it gives me an insight that others will never comprehend.
It enlightens me in ways others will never be privy to. It makes me more well-rounded.
I can help educate others into the ins and outs of living with Cystic Fibrosis. What it looks like. What it feels like.
However, on that random day my emotions take over. I can’t remember what professionalism looks like. I just sit there and nod. Inside, I’m dying. Normally, I can separate my own experiences from formal meetings, not today. Today I swallow hard and fight back the tears. I want to scream. I’m not sure why today is different from other days, I just know it is. I want them all to stop. Stop talking. Just stop. Every word wounds me. Every single word leaves a gaping, oozing wound. Nobody has noticed. They don’t notice I’m bleeding. They are oblivious to my pain as I sit there and nod in agreement. I sit there, silently bleeding. It’s only 9am and I am already empty. I have nothing left to give. Nothing can comfort me. It’s 9am and I am wishing it was 6pm. I’m wishing I could go home and cry. Go home and mourn. Go home and tell my dad I just can’t do it. Go home and grieve.
Then, suddenly I recall why I’m here at all. I recall her strength, her courage, her unwavering optimism and I suck it up.
Lab is calling, research waits for no-one.
Sometimes you just have to feel the pain.
Being raised by a woman with a chronic illness, you learn to be resilient. You learn to recover. When you are broken or defeated you quickly gather yourself, pick up the pieces and make a new plan. It’s how you survive. It’s how you make it through the day. I rarely let myself just hurt. Why? The obvious answer is because it is soul destroying. It takes you to the darkest pits of your mind. The places you almost never visit. The places the light doesn’t reach. The places you fear you may never get out of. Today, I stopped. I stopped recovering. I stopped trying to bounce back from the darkness. I lay down in her favourite room and I just breathed. My breath was heavy. It took mere seconds of letting my guard down to see her. I am six years old and she is chasing around the park. I’m wearing that big, red coat that you love. The air is crisp and has that fresh Autumn scent. Everything is brown and orange and the air is laden with Halloween anticipation. I’m screaming and giggling as I run away from you. You chase after me with a sparkle that your eyes only ever had in those younger years. Your skin is perfect porcelain in the cold air, just like it was until the very last day. I’m so happy I could burst.
Where did that all go?
Sometimes you just have to feel what you really feel because holding it back all the time is exhausting. If I just lie here, my eyes shut tight, my body perfectly still then at least I will have you here with me. If I just keep my eyes shut then you will never disappear. Don’t go because the second I open my eyes I have to gp back into survival mode.
Survival mode might be killing me.
Sorry I haven’t written in a while, life kind of got in the way. I’ve been thinking about you even more than usual lately. I have wanted to write but knowing you will never write back destroys me.
Remember when you said ‘when you know, you know’? I thought it was just one of those meaningless statements. The ones people bandy around along with other, over-used clichés. I thought it was just one of those things older people say to younger people.
A few weeks ago, it clicked. When you know, mum, you know. A year ago I told you I didn’t know and you told me that was my answer. I didn’t fully appreciate what that actually meant. Or perhaps I just wasn’t ready to appreciate the gravity of your words. I always knew. You knew before I knew. How did you do that? How did you always know? Is that a gift that comes with time? Is it a mother thing? Is it just an Alison thing?
You were right. I sat on the edge of my bed sobbing as he packed up his things and left. All I wanted to do was run to you. I wanted you to work your mother magic and fix it. I wanted to see your face and know, no matter how bad it hurt, you would be there for me, with me. I lay in my big bed that night and begged you to tell me what to do. You didn’t answer. I was low. I gave it a few days and waited for the storm to pass. I imagined what you might say had you been here. You would have told me that it would get easier. I would have rolled my eyes and disagreed. But, once again you were right. Every day got a little brighter and the puzzle pieces started to slot together. He wasn’t mine. He was the one I wanted to want, so damn bad. He reminded me of you in some ways. His gentle nature and warm embrace.
Are all of those clichés true?
One last question, why is the right thing so damn hard?
P.S I spilled coffee on your favourite pink coat, the one you always told me to take off when I am drinking something. Sometimes, I hate when you are right.
Your best friend,
It has been 7 months.
Actually, I am not even sure if that is exact as I can’t bring myself to do a count. We have yet to produce an official memorial card. Everyone is always asking if they can get one and every time I have to tell them that I actually haven’t made it yet. The first question I get is ‘why?’ The answer is always the same ‘I have been too busy with work’.
Total crap. I could have made it anytime but I can’t. I just can’t. The prospect of looking through all of those photos, videos, letters and poems makes my heart sink. It is a feeling that takes over. Once you let it in, it drowns you and I have only just learned to swim again. If I let it in even a little the flashbacks flood my mind, taking up all the space. I go right back to that day, that awful, horrific day. The day I lost my best-friend. The worst day of my life (apart from the day I got that weird fringe that made me look like a young, German boy). It shoves out all the light and fills me with darkness.
I haven’t made her memorial card yet because I simply cannot bear to. Making it makes is just too real and I am not there yet. I am not ready to admit that this is forever. I am not ready to give up the fantasy of her returning and embracing me like she had just had a long hospital stay.
I hope one day I can open the photo albums with peace in my heart. I hope I can re-read her old text messages and recall the best and the worst memories. However, that day is not today. I don’t know when that day will be. Maybe tomorrow, maybe never. You don’t go through a trauma like that and emerge from the rubble totally fine. It takes time. It takes lots of things, things I don’t have yet.
For now, I will take it in bite sizes. Little bits here and there. Let the acceptance creep in. Let the grief creep in. Trickle in, bit by bit, drop by drop.
“When a stargirl cries, she sheds not tears but light.”
― Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl
That is how I see my twenties right now. For a long time I was an adult. A responsible adult. An adult who knew what time to administer morphine doses and antibiotic side-effects off-by-heart. It has been over six months since losing my incredible mum. At the funeral a family friend said something to me that I thought was unhelpful and useless at the time but now, I get it. He said ‘She left you with a gift. The gift of time’.
He was so right. I have that now, I have time. Now, I don’t have to quite as responsible for a while. I am only responsible for myself. It is such a strange feeling. It is a liberating feeling but one that is always tinged with sadness and emptiness. I am my own keeper now. I have imagined what this might feel like but I had never accounted for just how bewildered I would feel. What is a twenty-two year old supposed to be doing? I’m not sure just yet but I will figure it out. For now, I am still becoming accustomed to working on my own schedule. A schedule that I fix. A schedule that I create. A schedule that is not influenced by many other external factors. A schedule I have control over.
No matter how exciting this new phase may be part of me will always prefer to be there, with her, helping her, caring for her, just sitting with her.
Is that selfish? Probably.
She isn’t here though and I know what she would want. She would want me to hurry up and get to the party already because it started years ago.