Closing the gap on grief

Slowly land slips from sight as the gray patches of cloud encapsulate the plane. The thought of what lies ahead makes me swallow hard. Comfort and refuge increasingly fade away as the aircraft creeps forward through the blackening denseness and everything around me becomes less certain and more isolated.

I gaze out the oval window that overlooks the wing, to travel this route is to suffer a desolation that no earthly place can inflict upon you, and a tear trails down my cheek. Into the darkness I go.

Passengers drift off with dreams as the lights are dimmed, but my troubled thoughts are overwhelmed with regrets and “what ifs,” and they keep me awake.

I remember the phone call a month earlier to my mother and the shock of hearing the faint metallic chime of a clock eventually overpower our conversation. Its haunting tick, tock, tick, tock on the hour to the sinking theme song of the Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On,” struck a nerve. The Titanic (an America romance-disaster film) was the last movie we watched together as a family.

“I don’t really like the clock either,” my mother said smiling with her bright forget-me-not blue eyes.

“It’s so loud that I had to take it off the wall in my bedroom and now it just rests on the kitchen counter.”

“It reminds me of dad,” I replied while reflecting on a troubled time.

“Please get rid of it,” I insisted.

My dad asked for a clock that chimed for Christmas, 16-years earlier. He left a strikingly beautiful grandfather clock behind in South Africa after our big move to the Isle of Man in the dead of winter 1994.

We missed the character and life the towering grandfather clock brought into our former home. To replace this clock we left behind was hard, but my mother searched every nook and cranny on the Island and found the perfect fit for our home.

It was a small wooden clock that loudly chimed on the hour reminding us – “I’m here!” A gold pendulum would swing from left to right and right to left. I would stare at it as a child hypnotized.

This clock was the last gift my dad got. On January 2, 2001, he took his last breath. I was 13-years-old and my sister 15. The three of us – mother, sister and I – went home that night numb.

I will never forget the dimmed lights, the silence that hung in the stale air and the shock of touching my dad’s cold and lifeless hand. He was gone.

My dad was a strong and empowering role model in my life. He had a zest for life and grabbed opportunities as they swung by. As a go-getter my dad became a black belt karate instructor, policeman and trainer, businessman, Christian counsellor, mechanical engineer, and then entrepreneur. Whatever he focused his mind on he could do and absolutely excel on it. He left big boots to fill.

The future seemed bleak without him as we drove home that wintry night. We hoped somehow to find the courage to face the long and lonely journey of life again, but shortly after the visitors stopped coming, along with the cards, flowers, and phone calls, and my dad was laid to rest, the clock stopped ticking.

In the coming weeks my mother desperately tried to fix the clock, replace the battery and take it from shop to shop to get it ticking again. Nothing worked. The clock was so unique to the Island that no one knew how to bring it back to life. Its poignant silence reminded me that my dad was gone, a loss which irrevocably changed the landscape of my childhood.

My mother juggled every role – mother, father, provider and carer – as my sister and I grew up. But it’s in these testing times you realize that you can endure far more physically and mentally than what anyone might think possible, as long as you don’t give up.

My mother is an amazing lady. I am, however, disturbed that she purchased a similar clock to the one my father had with the same metallic musical chime every hour. After our phone call I suddenly feel like crying, and in holding back I guess my mother’s secret. She is going to leave me. I will be alone.

It’s Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. I am on the plane. Through the window I can see soft yellows, oranges, and pinks. This is golden hour, a period just before the sun rises (or sets) during which the sky is most alive with colour.

My mother is blue-eyed, blonde, slim, beautiful, and strong. She has the strongest, softest hands. She held me safe as a child and has guided me as an adult. I still need her. To lose my father was hard, but to lose my mother – a lump forms in my throat at the thought and a memory I buried long ago suddenly springs to life.

“Do you breast feed?” my mother yelled to the figure holding a baby on the lower level of the path that overlooked the endless ocean. There’s no reply.

Louder, “Do you breast feed your baby?” 

The figure with long chocolate-coloured hair pulled back in a ponytail, stopped in mid-stride and looked up in surprise. 

“Mom,” I winced with embarrassment. “It’s a man!” I whispered in horror while trying to march quickly away from the unfolding scene.

In the plane I chuckle at this memory of my mother that spoke her unfiltered mind. I’m pretty sure she apologized for the mistake, but that scene is hazy now because I was too busy planning my escape at the time. This event took place in June 2013.

I gaze out the oval window of the plane with a smile that quickly fades with the sun across the horizon. I wonder if this blurred memory was another one of those signs or omens of things to come.

“We will be making our decent in approximately twenty minutes. Please fasten your seat belts and make sure your trays are clear and in an upright position. Please do not leave your seats until we are safely in the boarding zone. Thank you for flying with…” The air hostess trails off.

The aircraft tilts slightly to the right and begins a slow and steady turn. Peppered below are buildings and vehicles, along with square plots on what looks like a huge map. Gradually everything comes into view as we near the ground. There’s a sudden bump as the wheels are released before we tilt one more time ready for landing. There’s a screeching of breaks on the tarmac as the plane culminates into the final act of arrival.

A chill is in the air as the doors are pulled open and one-by-one we descend the narrow metal stairs and through the back of the airport building. I am now on my last mile, the drive to the hospital. But before I can leave the airport I have to collect my luggage. It’s another slow process.

I wait for the conveyor belt to roll into action, and then I remember the many times I would come home from university and my mother would be standing on the other side of the transparent glass waving and shouting, “That’s my daughter!” with pride and a big smile on her face. There’s no one to greet me this time. My heart sinks.

The conveyor belt circulates and here comes my tartan-coloured suitcase. I reach in and wheel it off and down the hall towards the front entrance. I’m about to walk out the building when I hear my sister call my name. I turn around with surprise, and we rush to each other and hug. A good friend to my mother has also arrived. I try to make light-hearted conversation in the car about the weather while we weave through the small towns and endless rolling emerald-green countryside, but silently we are all very anxious.

The car pulls up to the hospital and I feel physically sick with nerves. My mother’s friend drops us off at the front entrance. We thank her, and then head inside. The hospital smells of strong antiseptic lotions and washes. Patients are being pushed down hallways on beds, rolling along in wheelchairs, and hopping on crutches in their pajamas. There’s a feeling of unease as we stride down the hallway and through one more set of doors.

In the bed furthest from the door, with a large window that overlooks a field, sits my darling mother. I rush over to her side and gently hug her frail frame and kiss her yellowish cheek, a sign of liver failure. I look into her big watery sunken forget-me-not blue eyes and tell her how much I love her and that I am here for her. I am so happy I have made it on time and that my beautiful dearest mother is still alive and with this I cry for joy.

I think of my mother when she was young and an old Polaroid photo springs to mind. She’s wearing a bright blue silk blouse that offsets her forget-me-knot coloured eyes, and a black pencil skirt cut above the knees. She has shoulder-length blonde hair and is so beautiful that looking at her is like looking at the sun: impossible to regard for more than a few minutes. How quickly time passes, every minute a golden nugget.

~Mother at her birthday party as a young girl~

My mother would often say, “I’m stronger than you” and would then follow through by trying to prove it either in an arm wrestle or some sort of race. Now the roles had reversed and I had to be strong for her.

She said, “I’m going to worry and care about you both (sister and I) until the day I die, so you better get used to it.” And she did.

The sun has yet to rise when a tear breaks free and the rest follow in an unbroken stream. I go to the washroom and stand there in the surreal silence. Press my palms against the sink and cry with the force of a person vomiting.

Life changes in an instant. I believe we all have a moment in our lives that creates a before and after, like a sharp and sudden spike on a flat line. This was mine. She was there for me when I took my first breathe in this world and I was there as she took her last.

Mother passed away just before Christmas and 16-years after my dad took his last breath. They were married for 16-years. She died on December 16. Time can never separate them now for they are reunited eternally in Heaven.

Poignant poem in Durban Botanical Gardens, South Africa.