That quote is from a John Mellencamp song. The day I heard it, really heard it, was the day that I truly understood what losing someone who has come before you means.
I remember when I was 24, my Nanna, Joyce Champion Bronson, was diagnosed with renal failure and the doctor gave her two years. She was 76. She was still living in her own home across the road from us at Everton Park, living her subsistence living with a fully stashed garden of fruit, herbs, vegetables and luffas… yes, she grew her own skin cleansing equipment…
I got a transfer to Cairns with work. My personal life was taking me on a path that took me away from my family of origin and the strongest woman role model I had that showed me that you are ok if you have a life on your own. Probably too ok. She was a tough old stick and while I knew she loved me a great deal, emotions were something you kept in check.
The day I had to say good-bye to her as I moved away, I remember sitting in her lounge, her house smelling like the usual infusion of garlic and fresh herbs just chit chatting as normal; me, feeling like I was going to have a stroke trying so hard to hold back my tears at my ABJECT fear of never ever seeing her again, and that this might be my last good-bye.
I was the eldest of my generation in this family. She was an only child who had four of her own children and three of them moved away as soon as they could. She had a love hate relationship with my mother that I got to be the one to smooth things out and be the one who never took sides. She was a huge part of my upbringing and belief systems and sitting there having to walk out of her house, was to date, the hardest thing I have ever had to do in a relating experience with a person in my life.
I loved her, I didn’t want to ever have to deal with the knowledge that this very moment was potentially the last ever contact I would have with her.
I couldn’t hold it anymore, I had to let me come out and I just sobbed, “Nanna, I don’t want you to die, I don’t want this to be the last time I ever get to say I love you and give you a hug…” in between raking sobs.
She gave me a hug and said “Oh love, don’t be sad, we’ve had a good life together…”.
That and the very first EVER comment about how my first husband had treated me “he’s been a bit mean to you.”
These were the two things I remember that she said that day, that’s it.
I still sobbed uncontrollably walking back across the road and getting on the plane to Cairns. Two years it took, just like the doctors said. I got to sit with her and hold her hand in her last three days. I was not there for her final breath. That was a testament to her and how I knew she would have wanted it. She was no longer burning hot and trying to get a breath. She was truly no longer suffering anymore.
My pain for me turned to my pain for her pain that she had to go through this last bit, the last horrible bits of what happens when your body stops working. The day she told the doctors to stop all treatment was just as bad as the day two years before but when I truly acknowledged her suffering over mine, my sadness changed.
Pain has an anatomy.
At first its about you and the fear of loss, then it’s about them and what they are going through, and then it’s about God, how can you make someone suffer like this, then the judgement at others who aren’t suffering that should be because they are horrible (that one is a shock when that one lands) and then its the memories and the thoughts of ‘they’ll never get to see’, so then the pain becomes about others who will not have the joy that you have, then you see how much suffering and you are begging God to please hurry up.
My Nanna’s death was her reward for all that she had been through in her life. Seeing her at peace made me understand it. Even though she was no longer in her body, I felt her peace and therefore mine.
The reason I share this today is because I have a friend who is going through the knowledge that her dad doesn’t have too much longer to go, the greatest ever significant male in her life is on for the fight of his life, and everyone has told him he’s not going to win and my friend gets to sit by and watch it play out.
Peter Harvey passed yesterday, one of Australia’s finest journalists; his daughter’s tribute to him today is beautiful. Sad and glorious, just like the quote at the beginning.
I’ve had three families in my circles who have lost loved ones without the chance to say good-bye in the last couple of months. There are unsaid words for the ones left behind and they will suffer with that until forgiveness lands and they will find peace.
My only prayer for them is that their suffering doesn’t manifest their own illnesses that take them out unnecessarily down the track.
As I type this recounting what I felt about my Nanna, that was in 1995, eighteen years ago and I still can’t get that story out without tears of pain. Lots of them. My only sadness since losing her was that my husband and children never got to meet her. I know she would have loved Don. He’s a gardener you see, and the luffas would not have been lost on him, or her cooking.
You know how you have that question of who would you have for dinner dead or alive.
Nanna is my first one on the list.
Not because I have things I didn’t get to say to her, but I want to say to her in real life, “Look Nanna, look what I made – two beautiful healthy happy children; look who I am going to grow old with, isn’t he lovely, see he’s not mean like the last one. I landed on my feet Nanna, aren’t I a clever girl.”
So to all that may read this account, while you feel that the pain you are feeling at the thought of never seeing a loved one again may truly kill you, and you have a lot of people around you saying ‘be strong for them’, I would like to give your permission to at least once, not be strong.
Tell them you don’t want them to go, tell them how much you love them, tell them how broken you feel at the thought of losing them forever. It will help keep you strong believe it or not.
I truly believe once you get that fear of loss out of your system it helps you be stronger, and if you know their death is inevitable, pray for something, anything to reduce their suffering. Give them permission to let go, to not prolong THEIR suffering. They are only fighting to save the ones around them from the pain they don’t want YOU to go through.
If you are grown up reading this and you are someone who is looking down the barrel, then I too give you permission to face what’s coming and talk about it. It’s not a scary place to go and by all accounts, there is a pretty amazing view and you get to look after your family in really cool ways when you get there.
Say what you need to. Get all those things out of your head that you wish to say, even if it’s really one last “I love you and you do what you want in your life”, just like Kerry Packer said to his son James the day before he was leaving for good.
Get the pain out on the table, speak of it, out aloud, and then just love each other until the time comes where they arrive in your dreams.