A week or so before the Christchurch earthquake, some 19 months after my father died, my family gathered to scatter his ashes. He had often joked that he wanted them to be spread in the sea near my parent’s home so he could float in and out on the tide and keep an eye on my mother.
There was no good reason why we didn’t do it sooner, and it took a great deal of persuasion, several arguments and a tad of negotiation to get us together on that afternoon. Behind our reticence lay one thing – we weren’t ready to say goodbye.
How can someone we loved, and who was so much part of the fabric of our lives, become this dust that scatters in the wind and sinks beneath water?
On that afternoon, however, we finally were able to say our farewells. His ashes swirled away in the wind and water, along with the water lilies we sprinkled that floated away in a procession on the outgoing tide. Now Dad is there, part of the sea that ebbs and flows past the small bay where Mum lives.
After that day, I was thinking about how the experiences we had been though with Dad’s illness and death had changed our family – then the earthquake struck. Since then, I’ve been wanting to write something but haven’t known how or what. Here I am in the safety of my home; my children are safe, my house intact, what can I say that wouldn’t seem condescending or pretentious?
It took me a long time to learn it, but unless you have been there, you can never know what it is like. You think you do, but you don’t. Across the world at this moment, countless people are fighting to survive – against storms and natural disasters, against tyrannical governments, against illness. Every day, lives are shredded – so what do I know about it, sitting here?
I think what I want to do is share my experience of loss and grief and how I got through. Say this is what happened to me and how I coped, and hope it will help someone else a little.
My dad first got ill in March 2009. He suffered an aortic aneurysm, basically the main artery in his body ruptured and bleed out into his abdomen. Miraculously the doctors managed to save him but for the next four months it was setback after setback. He was in and out of ICU and when he was finally released from hospital, he came down with MRSA – a superbug – and was re-admitted. Ten days after returning home, he died in his sleep from a heart attack.
I went to see him two nights before and we had a long talk about all sorts of things, generally the same things a couple of times over because his short-term memory was pretty shot by then. I’d gotten in the habit of always making sure to say “I love you” before I left, but this time I forgot. I remember pausing by my car and wondering if I should go back up, but I thought I would see him in a couple of day’s time. Except I didn’t.
His death hit us all hard, and the first few weeks afterward were exhausting. I was really struggling to come to terms with it so after I came home one Friday night, I decided to have a nap before dinner. My daughter popped her head through the door to say good-bye – she was heading out with her boyfriend for the evening.
She left and I snoozed away. As I lay there, I heard sirens getting closer; very close, in fact, which was unusual for our suburb as it is slightly off the beaten track. “God imagine hearing that and not knowing that it is for someone in your family,” I thought.
Ten minutes, later someone was pounding on the door. It was my daughter’s friend, sobbing and hysterical. Catherine had been in a car smash, it was just around the corner which is why the sirens sounded so close. We drove 500 metres down the road to the accident, where my daughter was still trapped in the car. Ambulances, fire trucks and police cars surrounded it and the street was lined with onlookers. The rescue services were hard at work, cutting off the passenger side door so they could get to her.
Time slowed as I walked towards the car, I was so scared and I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. I didn’t want to get there as I didn’t know what was waiting for me, but at the same time I wanted to get to Catherine, reassure myself that she was all right, that nothing bad had happened, because this wasn’t really happening. Except it was real, and I had to find a way to deal with it.
As the car had hit front on, Cath had slid underneath the dashboard and her leg was trapped beneath it. The paramedics were giving her morphine so that once the rescue crew had finished they could pull her out. I ran around the other side of the car, crawled into the wreck alongside her, and held her hand to try and calm her a little. And then they lifted her out and that is when I put aside my emotions because they had to go into a box and wait there because right now the person screaming on the stretcher, with her leg shattered into pieces, was my daughter.
When we reached the hospital, and the trauma team descended on her, I finally sat down for a moment to gather my wits and try and think about what to do next. I looked around and realised that we were in the same resuscitation room that I had been in with my father a few months earlier. I could not believe this was happening. It was beyond belief.
Time has passed, slightly more than a year, and my daughter is well again. In a way, we won the lottery that night because many teenagers have not emerged alive from car wrecks like that. Luck pays more of a factor in our lives that we care to think. It has been a hard road for us all, but one story in particular helped me through.
It is Zen fable that tells of a village which was devastated by war and lay in ruins. The villagers go to the village monk and begin to berate him.
“You tell us to be compassionate and to love our fellow man but look, all that we have is in ruins. How can we be compassionate and loving in the midst of all this devastation.”
The monk turned to the villagers and said: “Sometimes it is enough to simply endure.”
Sometimes, all we have to do is endure, get through each day intact and hope the next one is a little better. Life is a bit like a river, it keeps on flowing and pulls us along with it whether we like it or not. As I told my daughter when she was recovering in hospital : “One day this will be only a memory, for now you just have to make it through each day until they start getting better.”
And they did.
Life is so uncertain, and what I have learnt more than anything else is that we can’t do this on our own – we need each other in good times and and in bad. When things are really tough, and there is not much you can do, a hug and holding hands is the most powerful healing balm in the world.
And when you love someone, tell them, and tell them often, because you never know when it is going to be the day that they walk out the door and that is the last time you see them.
“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is as strong as death.”
Song of Solomon 8:6