A better year

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I didn’t know it at the time, but one year ago almost to the day, my mum would be at my birthday celebrations for the final time.

Less than two months later, she broke her ankle while trying to “escape” from a respite facility, and seven weeks after that she went to live in a secure dementia ward, where she is as I write this.

The strange thing is, as I look back on the past year, I know it’s been a better year for me, and I think for my family, too.

In fact, for me, the past year has been better than any of the previous five. From the moment mum was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s it seemed that our family’s world tipped on its axis and it stayed off-balance for the best part of half a decade.

As her condition worsened, and she disappeared from us day by day and piece by piece, my ability to cope with what was happening waxed and waned from so-so to shit-house.

For the first two years of mum’s illness, I got pissed a lot. Strangely that didn’t make anything better or change a solitary thing. For the longest time, I couldn’t talk about what was happening to her – and to us – without sobbing uncontrollably in some type of snot-infused premature bereavement. My inability to verbalise what I was feeling – grief – came out through my words in this blog and I am grateful that sometimes, back then, I chose to write, instead of drink, my pain away. Sometimes.

Then I decided that maybe my drinking wasn’t “normal” so I quit for 18 months. I understand now that my drinking at that stage probably wasn’t normal, but that didn’t make me a problem drinker. It made me a woman who was grieving her mum and who didn’t know how to feel the feels she was feeling.

Staying off the sauce, though, was mostly good because I learned how to face the worst thing that had ever happened to me – which was losing my mum, who was also one of my best friends, far too soon – without disappearing into the rabbit hole of a vodka bottle to make it all “go away”.

And then this year happened. By then I’d said goodbye to a bad relationship and a job that didn’t make me happy. Both of those decisions, I know, were partly informed by mum – it was if she was still guiding my hand even though she could no longer tell me what was the best thing for me to do.

Then mum never came home again after her accident and I had to learn how to visit her in an environment that I found so challenging I’d often be left in tears as I stumbled out of that long corridor into a sunlight I struggled to see.

But working for myself as a writer, from wherever and whenever, brought me so many adventures, so much freedom, and so much love (some of that love was only temporary but, man, what a temporary it was!) that after years of more shade than light in my life, the equilibrium started to tip back in my favour.

I wrote a movie and also learned to surf. And while mum might not have approved of my new obsession (I know my dad doesn’t), I’m sure she would’ve been out there watching me sooner rather than later if she could have.

In fact, I think surfing is possibly a gift from her, because her illness was part of the reason why I waded into the waves in the first place. It’s her life cut short which continues to make me try to live mine with everything that I’ve got. Perhaps that philosophy is her final gift to me.

So, I’ve learned how to visit mum and accept where she is and who she has become. I’ve learned that she is happy and safe and I’ve learned how to find joy in the simplest of things such as throwing a ball to each other or helping her to read the hands of the clock on her bedroom wall. And I think we’ve all learned how to breathe again.

So, as I turn 44 in a few days, I know that I’ve had a better year. It will be my first birthday without my mum at the celebration, but my dad, my step-parents, my brother and a small assortment of my crazy friends will be there to help me fill the void that she has left behind.

And I get the feeling that with a cracker-jack start like that, then next year will be an even better one for me – if only I remember to seize as many days as I possibly can.

 

 

 

The Vagina Brigade

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In the past month, I’ve learned to appreciate people with vaginas just that little bit more.

And it’s not because someone’s had a baby or (more likely in my age group) a hysterectomy. It’s because during the past few weeks, a number of people with vaginas have held me up when I very momentarily felt like falling down.

To be fair, there were also a few men, who clearly don’t have vaginas of their own, who did the same so I think I will make them honorary members of my Vagina Brigade (VB) whether they want to be or not.

Now before you start to get a little squiffy at all this talk of vaginas, it’s worth remembering that the name of this blog is OMV, which stands for Oh My Vagina. The thing is, over recent years, I haven’t talked much about my vagina due to it, well, not receiving enough action worthy of writing about at all.

I’m not too sure that situation is likely to improve overly much in the future, but what has come to pass is a renewed appreciation for the women (and the honorary women) in my life. You see, recently, when I needed them they were there.

There were repeat phone calls, boozy Wednesday nights (and Friday and Tuesday nights for that matter), lunches, text messages, dinners, movies and maybe a little more wine. They listened as I tried to make sense of a situation, which I’ll probably never understand, but one I now accept played out exactly as it was destined too if only I’d allowed myself to see the truth right there in front of me.

They offered advice but no judgment and they reminded me of my smile, my hope, and my courage. Just as they have done during these long years of mum’s battle with Alzheimer’s.

And then as soon as I turned the corner back towards real life, and objective thinking, it was my turn to be there for them. Within mere moments it seemed, one of my VBs lost someone in tragic circumstances and another said goodbye to a beloved pet who had been by her side for some 16 years. In fact, she painfully joked, it had been the longest relationship of her life.

There’s a saying that I like, which is: “Real isn’t who’s with you at your celebration. Real is who’s standing next to you at rock bottom” and the past few weeks have reinforced this truism to me.

When the shit hits the fan and you reach out for help – or better yet your VB instinctively knows you need them – those are the people who are your tribe, either through blood, friendships old and new, and regardless of whether they were born with a vagina or not.

The past few years have sure been tricky for me and so many people in my life – maybe it’s just being in our 40s and we’re not even halfway through that decade yet. But with every upheaval, we’ve stood side by side throughout it all and somehow found our way back to the light again. Indeed, the Maori phrase “Kia Kaha”, which means stay strong, is one that my Vagina Brigade has lived and breathed together. And I know that’s the way we will always be. How awesome is that?

The waves and me

For about 30 years I never really went into the ocean at all.

I might wade out to my knees or perhaps to my chest when I was feeling truly brave, but I would usually never venture much further than that because I was bone-deep scared.

When I was a kid I wasn’t fearful of the waves. I remember frolicking in the ocean whenever it was warm enough to do so on the South Island of New Zealand, which admittedly may have not been that often.

Then when I was about 12 or so I stopped.

It wasn’t until more than a decade later that my step-mother suggested that my rapid retreat from the water most likely coincided with a traumatic childhood event that until then I thought hadn’t affected me at all.

I was about 12 when some gymnastic friends of mine were killed in a small plane crash over the Cook Strait. They were flying to a competition in Wellington but never made it. Instead the plane crashed into the heaving swells between the North and South islands. Only one person survived and was left an orphan in the process.

A gymnast friend of mine, and her parents, who had also lived around the corner from me for many years, weren’t so lucky. They never found their bodies such is the deepness of that volatile body of water.

I remember having nightmares in which they were skeletons still strapped into their seats in the cold dark abyss so far from any lightness whatsoever.

I’ve been on many a beach holiday since those days, but mostly stayed on shore. If I went for a dip it was quick and mostly unpleasant.

Two weeks ago, at the start of my “writing from home while in Sri Lanka” trip, one of my best mates took me into the water. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t petrified. He’s a long-time surfer, as well as a former gymnast, too, so he calmly taught me how to duck under the waves, how to read them, and how to slowly start letting go of my fear. I think our shared connection to that grief of the past allowed me to finally move on and back into the water. I will be forever grateful to him for it.

Over the next few days, I went out by myself a few times, got dumped more than once, but strangely the waves no longer held the same fear and loathing for me.

A few days later, I arranged a surf lesson, given we’re chilling in a surfing mecca for three weeks. The instructor forgot about me and I was quietly relieved, thinking that perhaps my newfound ocean bravado was a little premature.

In hindsight, I think I would’ve been quite happy to sneak back to the waters and just benignly float around some more, but then something rather magical happened. An Aussie surfer we’d befriended offered to take me out instead. He’s been surfing for more than 30 years and is fit and strong and kind.

He is also gorgeous so half an hour later when I kept falling off the board when attempting to just simply paddle on it, my ego was washing down the beach along with any shred of my rapidly diminishing dignity and my ill-timed attempts at flirtation. 

But he persevered and took me out again that same afternoon, where my improvement was miniscule at best. A few days later, with a better board for an absolute beginner like me, I started making a tiny amount of progress and by that stage, my surfing teacher had become something a little more than that, too. Who knew that my astounding surfing incompetence could ever be attractive? 

That was 10 days ago and I’ve been out on the waves every day since. I’m also covered in bruises and scrapes from a number of unfortunate instances where I decided to face- and body-plant the beach, my board, someone else’s board, my fins, someone else’s fins and been dumped by a massive wave which held me under for eight seconds. And through it all, while respecting the ocean, my fear has mostly disappeared.

Today I managed to surf for about 40 or 50 metres a few times and each time I looked happily back at the best (and most handsome) surfing teacher in the world and he was just as stoked as I was.

I don’t really understand how or why my fear of the waves washed away. Perhaps I just decided that there was no place for any more irrational anxiety in my life.

And then once I did that, it’s almost like the universe (or perhaps the waves themselves), sent its congratulations to me in a human form who, one year on from me leaving a toxic relationship, has restarted my heart. And someone who has gently guided me towards a surfing journey that I know is only just beginning.