Mastering the Art of Loss

Losing someone you love isn’t a one-time lesson, it’s a process that one must endure for the rest of their lives.

‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’ Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’.


No-one will argue with the statement that in 2016, we’ve lost a lot of people from the celebrity world. People who had such an impact on our lives, even though we never knew them. People who we looked up to, maybe idolised. Some people that we felt we knew personally. There’s no sugar-coating it: bereavement is cruel. Nothing can prepare you for that sudden void that it creates, and nothing ever fills that void, even if you try to.

Grief doesn’t believe in having a timespan, either. This will be our eighth Christmas without our beloved mother (and today is her fifty-ninth birthday) and I’ve already spent four weeks steeling myself mentally against crying like a sap every time I hear ‘Fairytale of New York’ because it was her favourite Christmas song. And this year particularly I’ve felt her slip further and further from me, because I’ve had to grieve for her repeatedly over the last twelve months. My brain frantically clutches onto fragments of memories I have of her like a man overboard clutching onto an inflatable raft.

First, there was David Bowie, on the tenth of January. I’m not a diehard Bowie fan, but Mum was. She used to tell stories of how she styled her hair like his, and there’s photos of her wearing a cross around her neck as he did. According to Mum, Bowie dictated what Mum wore in her late teens/early twenties, one outfit (if I remember correctly) was an orange top with yellow trousers  (which she got caught wearing by one of the Sisters in the hospital in which she was working at the time). Bowie’s death brought those memories back instantly and that day I mourned for time that couldn’t be recalled.

Four days later, Alan Rickman died and it brought back memories of a family tradition long forgotten: the four of us ‘kids’ meeting on St. Stephen’s Day in Mum’s house, eating crap and watching Harry Potter. Some years that would be the only day that we were all together. Alan Rickman was also in Love Actually, where he plays a love rat. I watched that film with Mum and there’s a scene where Rickman’s wife (played by Emma Thompson) has discovered her husband is having an affair (she discovered some jewellery in his pocket but she was given a Joni Mitchell CD for Christmas instead). In this scene, she listens to Both Sides Now, one of mum’s old favourites and even now, even though I’m expecting it, this scene breaks my heart.

In between the deaths of two absolute comedy legends (Frank Kelly’s on the 28 February, my husband’s birthday, and Victoria Woods’ on 20 April), another absolute comic genius, Ronnie Corbett, died. Every Christmas my mother snuggled on the couch and tittered at the antics of The Two Ronnies reruns. She’d probably seen every episode before, but she still laughed until she cried at them.  And after she died, whenever I saw Ronnie Corbett, I saw her and the big smile plastered across her face.

More recently, the passing of Leonard Cohen (11 November) suddenly reignited that sense of loss that each day, I try to keep buried inside me, along with a sense of panic. I explained in last year’s instalment of Mum’s Birthday Blogs that my way of dealing with particularly stressful things is to push them into a black hole and pretend they’re not happening. Thanks to the nervous breakdown I had two years ago, I now deal with what I’m feeling as it comes, though I must admit old habits die hard. And this year, what I’ve been wondering is how much I actually remember. How much of it is real, and how much I’ve fabricated.

For example, her voicemail message which I rang incessantly for a year after she died. What was it exactly? Was it ‘Sorry I can’t take your call?’ Was it ‘Sorry I missed your call?’ Not important, I know, but you’d think I’d remember that much. Her favourite singer as far as I’m concerned was Joni Mitchell but it might have been Alison Krauss, Elaine Paige, Mary Chapin Carpenter. I’ve no idea what her favourite dinner was because she cooked so many. Every year, as the sense of loss heightens, my memory of who she was becomes entangled with who I would need her to be today.

Of course, there are things I remember. Silly, insignificant things. Like the way we used to stop at KFC in Newry every time we went to Belfast (there was no KFC in Tullamore at the time). The time she bought a collection of Harrods Beanie Babies in the pound shop in Athlone. How she used to paint her pictures slowly, using bold primary colours, giving them thought, time and care. How you weren’t allowed to talk during Casualty or Holby City (we didn’t have Sky+). How glamorous she looked after putting on makeup and how she was the envy of so many women in town. How she had a brooch to go with every outfit, even in the noughties.

And today, on her fifty-ninth birthday, I remember thinking how she was invincible, how she’d be around forever, how I couldn’t see my life without her in it nagging me. And yet, here I am, fielding questions from her almost five-year-old grandchild who would’ve loved her Nana Una.

‘Mummy, was Nana Una pretty?’

‘Yes she was honey, very pretty.’

‘Was she a good cooker like you?’

‘A brilliant cook, she did lovely stews, lasagnes and roast dinners.’

‘Did Nana Una like art?’

‘Yes, she did, and she did lots of paintings and drawings like you do.’

‘I bet you miss her very much.’

My dear Alison, you have no idea how much.

Happy birthday Mum. I was never going to be able to stop you slipping away from this world, but you will never slip away from our hearts. And I know that even if all the other memories fade, we will always be left with love.


Just a date

It’s funny how the human mind can make associations, how a chill in the air or a familiar smell can wash over you and bring you back to a time and place that you thought you’d never have the good fortune/grave misfortune of experiencing again. For example, when I see my own breath fog up against the black sky for the first time every October, I know that Halloween is just around the corner, with Christmas nipping furiously at its heels. I know as I chomp on a contraband Easter egg after Alison has gone to bed at night that the slight red tinge in the sky is signalling the arrival of summer. I smell the barbecues, the freshly mown grass, the faint titter of laughter wafting gently through our windows.

And despite the improvement in the weather (well, normally. At the moment it is freeeeezing), I begin to feel cold, heavy, wary. Sometimes I feel sick with restlessness and anxiety as memories, good and bad, swoop in and strangle me until I can’t breathe. May used to be my favourite month of the year, and in many ways, it still is. For me, May signifies the beginning of the end of school and college. It reminds me of a photo that was taken of my brother and I when I was five, celebrating my brother’s ninth birthday on 18 May, just me and him, with an icecream log. Mum wasn’t there because she was recovering from her c-section; my sister had been born almost a fortnight beforehand, on 7 May 1989.

Exactly twenty years later mum closed her eyes for the last time.

I’m sure that it’s an absolute bitch for my sister to have to share her special day so selflessly. I’m sure that no-one wants to sit around moping on their birthday, getting all maudlin about the past. Birthdays should be happy days. Personally, though, I’ve always found birthdays to be a bit of an anti-climax (apart from my 21st when John Paul proposed in front of my family and friends. That was an awesome birthday), to the point where I would actually rather if the day came and went without being marked or acknowledged at all.

And for years I felt the same about my mum’s anniversary, which I try in vain to separate from my beloved sister’s birthday. Can the two be separated? It’s a struggle every year to experience such happiness and sadness at once. How have I managed it? Trying to pretend that the anniversary didn’t bother me, that’s how! Oh so it’s mum’s anniversary today? Well, she was dead yesterday and she’ll still be dead tomorrow, so what difference does a date make? It’s Laura’s birthday, let’s not forget that!

Trying to deny the sadness didn’t work for me in the long run, and last year five years of suppressed emotions hit me suddenly like a freight train. I had to take a considerable length of time off work to feel normal again. Note to the readers: don’t bottle up your emotions. They will come back when you least expect and bite you on the ass. Hard.

For the first couple of years after mum died, I went through the motions. For the first anniversary, I insisted on holding lunch in our house after the anniversary mass for all my relatives so that I didn’t have to face my emotions. It worked; I was so busy in the lead up to the event that I barely had time to think. The second anniversary, I stood beside the grave with my aunt, husband, sisters and brother, then proceeded to go out that night and get wasted (in the name of celebrating Laura’s birthday of course). By the third anniversary, I had an almost three month old baby with terrible reflux and I spent the whole day crying because I felt like an inadequate mother. I had been so hard on my mother and yet, she managed to raise four of us. At that stage, I was seriously debating whether I had it in me to raise one.

Yet somehow mum was there, guiding me. Some days, it just wasn’t enough. I needed to hear her voice. I longed for the opportunity to ridicule her childraising advice. I wanted her to tell me I was doing something wrong, nagging me to the point where I’d lose it and ban her from seeing her only grandchild. I needed her to remind me that I was not alone. And she did, in her own way. I managed to push past the fear and the preconceptions I had of myself, and do the very best for my child, the way my mum did for me.

This year, I will try to embrace the date and try not to suppress my emotions. I promise to allow myself to feel the dread, the sadness, the emptiness. I will grieve for what we lost, as well as what we could’ve had. Most importantly, I will remember that the 7 May is a day of happiness and celebration, and acknowledge that people enter and leave our lives in the strangest of ways. And even though this day is tough, simply because of a date on a calendar, I will be thankful for the fact that I had such a wonderful mother who gave us a sibling who is intelligent, beautiful and loving. (Laura, I can hear your head exploding from here).

For me personally, 7 May will always be a strong reminder that good things happen, and bad things happen, and after they do, all that is left are memories, both beautiful and terrifying.

Rest in peace Mum, and thank you for bringing Laura into all of our lives. I think of you and miss you every single day. And happy birthday sis, make sure you fill your special day with lots of wonderful memories. xxxx

Mama Mia!

Since writing my last blog post, I feel somewhat lighter, happier, as if I have been freed from a horrible prison. And now I have the confidence to say that there are days when I, an amateur mummy, worry that I’m doing the wrong thing. Have I allowed Ali to eat too much chocolate today? Is that glue toxic? Where did she pick up  on that phrase?  and so on.

I was never under the illusion that motherhood was easy. In fact, I imagined it to be so much worse than it is. Until I had Ali, I didn’t ‘do’ kids. They were dirty, nosey, smelly creatures who pervaded every area of your life. However, no words could describe the love I felt when the nurse placed her in my arms. Suddenly, it felt as if I had changed. I was not Sarah any more, I was Alison’s mummy. And my own mummy was not there to tell me what to do or how to cope with this shift in identity.

It’s almost obligatory at Christmas to think of loved ones who have passed away. In my case, the feeling of loss is intensified by the fact that Mum’s birthday is this Monday 15th December. She would’ve been 57, only a ‘young wan’. It doesn’t help that her favourite Christmas song is ‘Fairytale of New York’ which so happens to be played everywhere about fifty times a day in the run up to Christmas. People look at me in shock when I don’t squeal in delight when it starts. Well, now you know why.

Becoming a mummy myself has been the greatest privilege of my life, but constantly wondering if I’m doing the right thing can sometimes be draining and isolating. Torturing myself by saying ‘I can’t even ask my mum’ doesn’t really help, all that does is send me into a self-pity fest. I find myself wondering how she did it with four; when sometimes I struggle with one, bearing in mind that I have Cerebral Palsy and wasn’t always the self-sufficient being I am now.

There was many a time when I truly resented my mum. Like all the times she made me attend physiotherapy and speech therapy after school when I really wanted to be at home writing poetry. Like the times she made me type out my homework on an old Sirius computer with an eerie green and black screen, when I wanted to write in my copybook like my classmates (to me it’s all the better if the teachers can’t read it). The final straw was when she sent me to the National Rehabilitation Hospital when I was sixteen, for intensive physio, speech and occupational therapy. I was livid because I was missing school, and the auditions for the class play (which I had written). Surely I, living with the disability day in, day out, know best what I need? Mum didn’t seem to see it this way.

Mum pushed me hard, often to the disgust of other parents. ‘Keep that foot straight’, ‘Speak slower’, ‘Look at what you’re doing’, she would bark at me. I would give her the doe-eyed look, the one that said, ‘You heartless bitch’. She seemed to find this hilarious. She revelled in this bitchiness. Often she and I would be about town and somebody would come up to her and say something like, ‘I feel sorry for the poor creatur.’ To which mum would respond, something along the  lines of, ‘You feel sorry for her? What about me, I have to put up with her all the time!’ or ‘My daughter doesn’t need your pity. She has more brains than the two of us put together!’

My mum was not just a mother. She was Una, a sister, a friend and a nurse to half of Tullamore at some stage. When I was pregnant, all of the nurses in the outpatients department had stories to tell about her, which usually ended in ‘well, I will never forget how your mother helped that man/woman that day.’ Mum used to tell me that nursing broke her heart. She listened to so many stories and carried them with her to the grave; to this day I couldn’t tell you any of them, but I know that some of them affected her deeply because she told me so.

Mum was elegant, witty and caring; she could also be forgetful and embarrassingly inappropriate. She spoke her mind at all times, which often had hilarious consequences. She wasn’t perfect by any means, but I couldn’t have asked for a better mother. She is the reason I am who I am today, and if I can do half a good a job with Ali as she did with me, then I would be a very happy camper.

So happy Christmas, I love ya baby, I can think of a better time, when all our dreams come true.

Happy birthday Mum. You may not be twenty-nine and a bit, but you will never have to use the purple rinse either. Thank God for small mercies.