Thoughts from an aeroplane #2: Cape Town to London

Sunday 26/06/11

I am sitting in Cape Town International Airport, waiting to board my flight home. I haven’t written anything since I was coming in to land here four days ago; I haven’t even had a chance to read through what I wrote then.

Interestingly, what has come up for me now is sadness related not directly to Tessa, but to South Africa. In a bout of homesickness, I’ve put some of my favourite South African songs on the ipod – ‘Say Africa’ by David Goldblum, followed by ‘Homeless’ by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, featuring Sarah McLachlan. Today, for the only time in this trip, I went into a supermarket. It was the first time I felt like I was in South Africa, with the small little differences like having to weigh your fruit in the fruit section rather than at the till (I smelt guavas and had to have some), and seeing signs for Cell C, FNB, Pick ‘n Pay. My home country – the warm smiles, the taxis, the cape accents. Where my family, my childhood, my grounding is. It suddenly seems utterly crazy to be flying ‘home’ to foreign London. It seems upside down that everything here is now what is foreign, or feels odd and unknown.

On this journey, both to and away from different concepts of ‘home’ and ‘family’, I carry my mother with me, though no longer her ashes, which now occupy sea and earth. This time she is only in my heart, my memories, and photographs. She smiles warmly at me from two A4 photographs from the memory board at her memorial – here with me, so present, so tangible, and it seems utterly impossible that I will never feel her hands in mine again.

In a strange way my grief has felt diluted since the day after I arrived here – cloudy, and indistinct. It has got lost somewhere in the rush of administration, organisation, and snatched time with family and friends. I cannot take away from the importance of what these days have been; I can only acknowledge the change, and start to feel the simple clarity of pain and loss begin to sink into me again as I sit here alone. It has also given me more insight into some of what others have been experiencing – I can understand more now how much harder it has been for those far away to really come to grips with Tessa’s death.

Yesterday morning we gave some of Tessa’s ashes to the sea. My brother Jason, and my father Noel, paddled the few kilometres from Three Anchor Bay to Clifton fourth beach with me in sea kayaks, to where some of our family and friends awaited us. The swell was high enough to make the sea feel dramatic and majestic, but not to worry about our safety. I carried a box of Tessa’s ashes between my legs, wrapped in plastic bags for safekeeping. Dirk’s sister Molly had made beautiful boxes for the ashes, and the one I carried had a design that included fish, and it was perfect for the occasion. The sea seemed big enough to take in Tessa, and hold her memory for us, as well as accepting the anger and sadness I wished to leave off shore. As I paddled around the corner and saw the beach I felt a knot growing in my stomach. My dad commented that I express my emotions through my stomach – a trait I have inherited from him. We beached safely, riding some fun little waves up onto the shore. Upon the beach there was a second box of ashes, which were scattered from the rocks by those who stayed ashore, as we headed back out to scatter more into the sea – Jason and Noel back in their kayaks, while I left my craft on the beach to swim out in Tessa’s swimming wetsuit, accompanied by Tessa and Dirk’s friend Jonathan, and Jonathan’s daughter Katie. This to me was a vital process. I felt utterly alive, in every cell in my body. The view was breathtakingly beautiful – looking out past the boulders to the open ocean, and behind to the white beach, the twelve apostles and Lion’s Head rising up imposingly, the tablecloth just beginning to creep over Table Mountain, the sea green and white and endless around me. I took a handful of ashes from the box Jason held, and swam off, slowly letting the water permeate the ashes, and gently draw themfrom my grasp down, down into the depths. The reality of those small chips of bone left behind when the grey dust was gone seemed impossible, but I turned my mind to feeling Tessa’s love for this incredible place all around me.

So much of this time seems steeped in the gentleness of love, caring, tears, pain, loss. It is soft, and separate from the normal realities of life. Remembering to cook, or wash clothes, is difficult and seems to detract from the emotional process. But life doesn’t stop, and I was reminded of this by a nasty bout of seasickness half way through the paddle back to Three Anchor Bay (though mine was less intense, and more short-lived, than that of my brother-in-law Doug). As the weather worsened, the swells grew, the air chilled, and the discomfort my seat (which had slipped backwards, leaving me unable to reach the steering system properly) grew, I was faced with the physical discomfort of continued life. I was glad though to have my sister Elin accompanying me on the return trip, as Elin and Doug had switched places with Noel and Jason – glad to share time together in this dramatic setting so beloved by Tessa, though missing having Tabby there with us too.

Now, I am airborne, with turbulent tremors reminding me how far I am from the solidity of the earth. Disconnected, disjointed, and in the strange holding bay between what I leave behind and what I travel towards. This has always been a somewhat sacred space for me – travelling alone, with rare time to think, relax, record. I remember again how seldom being alone feels lonely to me, and recall my grandmother Paula’s words, so recently watched in the video Jason composed of clips of Tessa, in which she wished for her great-greatson Jakob ‘Inner resources, so that when he is alone he is not necessarily lonely’. That is something I have appreciated throughout my life. I find loneliness comes most often when surrounded by people to whom I am unable to relate my inner conflicts.

I still don’t feel ready to return to ‘normality’. To home, to work, to running, to Canoe Polo. I know I will – I choose to, and I will be okay, or at least mostly okay. It feels too soon; I still find it difficult to relate to anyone who is not mourning. But slowly, slowly, I will ease into a world without my mother. I am still discovering how my mother’s death has, and will, change me. Some of the change will be temporary, some permanent; some resulting is obvious external behavioural differences, and some subtle thought processes. I will, after all, have the rest of my life to be affected by it.

We had, inevitably, to begin the process of sorting through some of Tessa’s belongings. There is no rush on this, and there is some that should go to her sisters, friends, or other loved ones who would like something to remember Tessa by. Of clothing and jewellery, each of us wished to carry a few pieces home to help us continue to feel connected to her. When deciding what to wear to the public memorial on Saturday night, I considered wearing one of Tessa’s lovely dresses. What decided me against this idea was not a worry that it would upset people to see me in Tessa’s clothing, as most people have been heartened to see us in her things. No, it was instead a desire not to play too much into the role of representing Tessa. I am mightily proud of carrying many of her attributes, though far from all of them. She has been my role model for many years, and I would be deeply sad if I did not feel that I shared many characteristics with her, and carry forward many of the lessons she taught me. I am not, however, my mother: I am her daughter, but I am also my unique self. I may wish to work in the same (or at least similar) fields as her, but I will bring to them my own talents and strengths, and miss many of hers. I have been so incredibly proud to feel at different points in time that I am like my mother in particular ways, and I am aware of the extra importance now attached to this, as it will be a way to continue to keep her alive within me. I could focus on the similarities, some more obvious than others: I am the fourth child, with two older sisters and a brother, just as she was. My heart is in Development work. I love stories, poetry, and writing. I take great pleasure in the natural world, strive for self-awareness, self-expression, and try to face and accept my demons. I try to make the most of every minute of every day that I am lucky enough to be alive. But it is as easy to create an even longer list of dissimilarities, though I have no desire to attempt such a list at this time. There is a balance between wanting to embody many of the things I admire in my mother, and retaining and maintaining my separate identity.

I will finish tonight with a song – an extract from The Flaming Lips song ‘Do You Realize??’  (please ignore the awful American spelling and double ?? of the title), which I hadn’t heard before tonight, and I liked the sentiment of.

“Do You Realize – that everyone you know someday will die

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes – let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun don’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round”

Monday 27/06/2011

It is interesting what a different internal process I have been going through during this flight in comparison to my journey toCape Town. I am one hour away from London, and the thought playing on repeat in my mind now is the image of Tessa, flying on another SAA flight just over 5 weeks ago, with the same arrival time, heading unknowingly towards a holiday we had all been so excited about for over a year, and was so ill-fated throughout.

Breakfast has arrived, but my appetite is gone and I can’t stop crying. I’m listening to the Kings of Leon ‘Come Around Sundown’ album on the ‘plane’s entertainment system – it is not an album I knew before last night, but having listened to it a few time during the night it has embedded itself firmly in my consciousness. Here is a sample of lyrics from one of their songs, ‘Radioactive’

“When the role is called up yonder
I hope you see me there

It’s in the water
It’s where you came from

And the crowd begins to wonder
And they cry to see your face

It’s in the water…
It’s in the story
It’s where you came from
The sons and daughters
In all their glory
It’s gonna shape them
And when they clash
And come together
And start rising
Just drink the water
Where you came from… “

Holders of memory: smell, photographs, videos, music. I don’t want to remember my mother in snapshots, as I found myself doing for the first time during the final musical piece in the memorial on Saturday night. When I mentioned it to my aunt Judy, she pointed out that photographs (and other memory holders) can be memory triggers, sparking something and bringing associations flooding back. My experience on Saturday, however, was different – I was only able to visualise her in photographs. It was as if she was resigned to that single dimension, with her smell, hand gestures, expressions, and warm skin gone not only from the world, but from my memory too. It made me feel utterly panicked as she had felt so fully present, so completely with me, until that moment. Luckily it was a fleeting experience, which has not yet returned.

I suppose it was inevitable that at some point my mother’s death would lead me to ponder my own demise. I am only surprised that it has taken so many weeks to start playing on my mind in more solidity than momentary and disorganised thoughts. Last night, unable to sleep, I began re-writing my will, adding in details such as specific items I would like my children, family and friends to have to remember me by. I have even decided to specify where I would like my ashes scattered – in the Umzimkulu river, and beneath trees planted near my mother, grandmother and grandfather in Newlands Forest. Why be so specific? Not because I really care for myself, since I believe there will be no self left to care about such things, but because it makes things easier for those still alive. I believe that a pilgrimage to those places, which between them carry meaning to both me and many of those close to me, would be a useful grieving process. My grandmother had time to fully prepare for her death. I do not need the same degree of control as her, but I did see some of the benefit to those of us still here, dealing with both grief and practicalities.

I turn again to the question of life. I wrote before of my anger at the seeming pointlessness of it following Tessa’s death, but of course, I have never before needed there to be a ‘point’. Life has seemed to me enough in and of itself. I have never needed there to be more to it than the fleeting experiences of everyday moments, and the memories we carry with us. I have never needed an afterlife, or a sense of some greater purpose. Being human, and being present in each moment of my life (a challenge, as I feel myself drawn into the future and the past), is enough. For this to suddenly seem no longer enough of a reason to live has been a very temporary experience, though I sense it will keep returning for brief periods.

We are coming in to land. Here I sit: warm flesh, hard calluses, short hair, and calm confusion. Now it is time to step back into the world, and try to face it with chin up and a smile, at least some of the time. The time of having complete space for mourning is over; sadness now needs to be integrated into everyday life instead. Luckily, for now at least, I feel up for the challenge.


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