It's raining, I have the hip hop music on the itunes, coffee and toast with freshly-made lemon curd (made by me, even), and am indulging in the fun part of the software development life cycle (yes, there is one, at least in Heatherland). There's leftover rogan josh (made by me!) in the fridge. Yesterday I rearranged the furniture, and now my house looks way more ordered, even if it's not, objectively speaking. After jumping through hoops, my flatmate finally got her study visa, which means that they'll let her back into the country on tuesday. I think it's just lovely that the comments on the Helen Clark Supporters facebook page are so overwhelmingly positive. In short, it's a good morning, worth note.
The family eulogy, written & presented November 26th, 2009
Hi, I'm Heather, Colleen's eldest daughter. Today I'm speaking on behalf of Colleen's husband, Bill, and the children - Peter, Sheryl and myself.
Firstly the family would like to take this opportunity to thank the wonderful staff at Whakatane hospital, and the people at Hospice Eastern Bay Of Plenty. I always thought "oh, that's nice" when I saw those "in lieu of flowers" bits at the end of obituaries, but what Hospice have done for my mum and the whole family goes well beyond what the word hospice ever evoked for me. They've provided nursing care, equipment, they've organised domestic help and personal care, they were the ones that suggested we bring mum home so she could spend her last days with her family, and they've given us some amazing guidance and moral support on a daily basis throughout this difficult period. They are awesome.
Secondly, I ought to apologise in advance: if you're remotely uncomfortable at the sight of a grown woman wailing like a toddler with a chilli-flavoured lollipop, you're at the wrong party. Bear with me.
It was always going to be pretty easy to collate a laundry list of good things to say about my mother, but over the last few days - indeed, these last weeks and months - I've seen a whole swathe of little snippets of her life added to the classical mother figure I already knew, to gradually form a mostly-complete jigsaw puzzle of a real, complex, & generally magnificent three-dimensional person. It kind of took me by surprise.
I think it's safe to say that everyone here knows how smart my mum was. She had a lot of different hobbies over the years, and excelled at pretty much everything she put her hand to. She took on the responsibility of many different teaching and administrative roles, most notably in her profession as a teacher, and in the Girl Guides. She got us children to follow suit - Mum & Dad made sure we got every opportunity to try out whatever hobbies were available and encouraged us to stick with the ones that resonated. All my life I took it for granted that "doing stuff" came as standard. That's what normal people do, they get interested, they get involved.
As smart as I always knew she was, it's only been in the last few weeks I've realised the extent of my Mum's resourcefulness. All her different activities weren't just things she stumbled into. What she did was identify what she needed, for her family and herself, and she'd then just make it happen. In particular, she was a very social person, and the different activities were a way to connect with people, forge new friendships. That aspect of her was so pervasive that I'd barely even noticed it until I saw the common theme in the sympathy messages - that she was so warm, friendly and welcoming, and that she connected.
With her sharp mind and her ability to connect, she was also generous - if family or friends were undertaking a task, she'd jump right in with whatever skills she had to offer. She even seemed to bypass the "maybe I can help" thought process and jumped straight to "what's my role here". It could be argued that sometimes she was too generous - a few of my school projects had a not-inconsequential amount of her handwriting and hand-drawn cartoons in them. I still suspect she enjoyed those projects more than I did, although that probably would've been easy, since it was just homework to me. As for whether she should have let me stand or fall on my own, I think she empathised a little too acutely - procrastination is the common trait that vexed both of us all our lives. I'm dressing it up as a tribute to her that I had to get up at 6 o clock this morning to write this speech.
The other common theme in the messages we've received is, of course, how positive she was. I think she'd always been grateful that we'd never had to deal with any major catastrophes in our family, so it wasn't until she got sick we all discovered just how deep and abiding her strength really was. Even with all that she was going through, she was usually the one comforting us. The day before she died, she realised what was happening to her, and still - after some heartbreaking conversations she declared that we don't know what's going to happen, and that we'd make the most of whatever time we had.
So I've glossed over the laundry list for the purposes of not talking all day, but as always, the greatest of these is love. A regular occurrence at our house would be one of us kids walking into the kitchen and catching mum & dad having a bit of a smooch. Without fail the scandalised child would go "ewwww", to which mum would say "well, would you rather we were fighting?". It's lucky for her that none of us smart alecks had heard of the phrase "false dichotomy" at that point. But it's definitely her most valuable legacy that we were part of a family with parents who loved and sustained each other for the whole of their time together, all the better to share the love around.
Two characteristics stand out in this house, even now. I assume its shape and composition contribute to the strange noises in the night. Of course my apartment exhibits its fair share of creaks and crashes, but it takes a lot to compete with the city's constant white noise, and brick buildings don't subject us to gunshot bangs from the rafters. When the rest of the night is so still, listening to the house settling its creaky bones simply serves to unsettle the occupants.
The second trait is the huge population of creepy crawlies. Only the flies were immediately apparent before Mum got sick, but since she's no longer on her trademark cleaning binges, the house is being gradually overtaken. Any corner or crevice on the deck is swallowed in spider webs (replete with past and future meals), ant colonies move in and ignore the bug bait in favour of anything else exposed, skinks roam around the carport and occasionally scuttle through the house, and assorted one-off weirdos materialise in the bedrooms and bathrooms, usually after the sun goes down. A few nights ago I investigated a strange rustling that I thought was a mouse. It was an earwig, the size of one of the lizards, that had trapped itself in a plastic bag.
After Mum got better, she got worse again. The original infection was beaten, but the fever persisted, and her leg has become so painful that they have her on a morphine pump. Best guess indicates an abscess, for all practical purposes untreatable. After a very frank discussion with her oncologist regarding her short future and her diminishing quality of life, we've decided to bring her home. It doesn't seem to matter that we've been preparing for her eventual demise for so long, it's still too sudden and too soon.
There's a constant mental backdrop of entropy. We can attack the cobwebs with a broom and spray the flies, and tidy the house & mend the fences, but given the size of the house and its encroaching habitat, given the sheer volume of a person's life, putrefaction will eventually prevail. It's no poor truth for an alchemist, but hard.
After a lie-in, I spent the morning padding about the house in my pyjamas and my mother's slippers, mopping the floor and scraping dog hair off the sofa, while Dad mowed the lawn. Such is the pastoral lifestyle. Mum's back in hospital, after being finally strong-armed into calling up her nurse & describing her symptoms - fever & rigors coming & going over a period of 10 days. It appears she's finally reached a regularity of health complaints at which the "normal" bar has been lowered to near-drowning. It was actually a relief when the doctor diagnosed E. Coli, and declared her kidney function normal for the purposes of pumping her balloon-full with antibiotics. Between the medicine, the morphine and her regular sleeping pills, she's gone a little dotty, but every day she gets closer to skin-coloured (notwithstanding the bruising from numerous failed attempts to find a vein) - the rigors have stopped and her appetite has returned.
There were about three or four days that Dad & I spent getting progressively more worried, and when she was admitted, utterly freaked out. Carrying around that kind of horror for a few days at a time, and sometimes weeks, has become pretty standard for Dad, which is the real horror. It's only recently I realised that the transition - putting things off until mum got better - is not going to be transitory. Whatever we do, we need to build "mum being sick" into every equation. The crisis periods such as this most recent one are actually pretty brief in proportion to the timeline of diagnosis, treatment and recovery, but it's at those times the whole ordeal of living-with-cancer seems relentless.
Anyway, that was the realisation that prompted me to build a regular commute into my own lifestyle, and despite our family's own personal Damocles' Sword, I'm richer for it; also remarkably fortunate that I hooked a job that doesn't require my physical presence. I've been spending two or three weeks at the farm every couple of months, and the periodic schedule change is starting to feel normal: work / gym / Ben-for-the-weekend in Auckland, work / a little light farm work / prepare dinner (animals & people) / external-hard-drive-full-of-tv-shows on the farm. Work's been just busy enough that I've had both time and momentum to pursue a bunch of other projects while I've been here - learning to drive (finally), consolidating my mighty virtual empire, blogging (a means to its own end), and swotting up on basic alpaca maintenance. I've gotten the hang of capitalising on my work-momentum during the slow days/half-days/hours by perfecting mental-direction switches on the fly. There's also something to be said for the lack of distractions in a countryside routine - I'm in charge of creating my own entertainment (especially since I'm subject to Dad's taste in TV - not bad per se, but heavily weighted in favour if docos, Mythbusters, and Grand Designs), so I might as well make it constructive. Anyway, upshot is it's encouraging to be so productive. Perhaps tomorrow I'll finally build exercise into my routine. Wrestling alpacas doesn't really count.
Although I've had lots of fascinating trajectories on which to lapse lyrical over the last couple of years, the final step - the act of sitting down and writing - has been repelled, very much as two magnets' like poles drive each other away. On those rare occasions I've written something, re-reading it has been a similar trial. So instead of writing about complicated, thought-provoking topics, I've decided to resort to spewing forth whatever is whatever, much as if this were a real blog. The hope is that eventually I'll remember how to write.
I'm at the farm again, the weather's been benevolent, the few alpacas that remain are being very low-maintenance (most rest have been spending time with kind, grass-rich friends), the environment is very much the definition of idyllic. This time around I was called upon to Mum-sit while Dad showed a couple of the animals at the Hamilton show. Mater's leg has swollen to about three times its normal size, and although the tumour within isn't threatening her life, the doctors are now discussing amputation as a viable option, with a view - ironically enough - to making her more mobile again. Given her current condition - bored, bedridden, tired & frustrated, it sounds like an eminently appealing prospect.
I was intending to write on slightly more upbeat matters, but I don't think I have it in me right now.
Like most aspiring somethings, I harbour ever-present grand plans of overhauling my web presence; transforming it into a mighty virtual empire, connected and collated into a representation of my life's achievements. Granted, at that point, the sum total of my life's achievements may very well be a mighty virtual empire. I guess I could just hang mirrors on opposing walls of my bedroom.
Anyway, in a perhaps retrograde step, I've reinstated the favourite of all my blog layouts, and set up cross-posting to livejournal. Oh wow, see her go!
In other news, my job is getting progressively cooler. In recent years, I've noticed that people at parties feign far greater interest in my work (in comparison to the bad old days of "oh, you must be very clever", and "that stuff goes right over my head"). When I was writing software for real estate agents (really), I had a simple one-line explanation down pat, but the people-at-parties would demand greater and greater detail, until the point the conversation got too unenlightening to bother continuing - like a sneeze that was never going to come.
Now I say "I make websites". Soon I'll be enthusiastically seeking out computers at parties and surfing 'em in to show off. I'll go from being the most unwillingly boring person at the party to the most enthusiastically boring person at the party. "See that big button? See how it changes colour when you mouse over it? I DID THAT!"