I apologise in advance for any spelling mistakes or half-finished sentences, but I have to get off to swimming lessons now

10 May

One of the few books I brought with me is The World of Charmian Clift. How did I choose my small box of books? I have no real idea, but so far, they have brought great rewards.

Like the other night, in the essay ‘The Time of Your Life’, I read this:
‘…one of the things that experience teaches is that happiness is not a permanent human condition, nor is the single-minded pursuit of it ultimately rewarding. It occurs, but occasionally, and often quite incidentally to some other purpose or endeavour. But if I am not a consistently happy person, I think I am an optimistic one, in that I belive in the possibility of happiness and my own ability to recognize it’.

I like that paragraph. It’s helped me to work something out.

Because at the moment, I am sad. Deeply sad. I miss my Dad. We were very close. We spent a great deal of time together. We talked on the phone. He was, as the mister once said, my Go-To man.

I know, however, because experience has taught, that this particular state of sadness passes. I know that days will come when I no longer sit up too late trying to stave off ghosts. That I will stop seeing things and reaching for my phone, because I know my Dad would love to hear them. The sight of his handwriting will not always make me cry. I know that those days will come.

And so, I am not seeking a way to lose that particular sadness just yet. I am not actively looking for a way to ‘get over/on with it’ or to ‘move on’ with life. I am not finished with that sadness yet. It still has a job to do.

At the same time, I want to live a not-unhappy life. In a few months, my youngest boy will be seven, my eldest nine. There are not so many years that they will want me in their classrooms, that they will ask me for a cuddle before they go to bed, that they will be turning to me to say, ‘Mum, were you looking, did you see that?’ We are in the midst of an adventure, in a city that is growing (yes, literally) before our eyes, in a culture and a state of being that I do not understand. I am about to live the dream I’ve had for a decade when I take my boys to Spain.

I need to be sad, but I want to be happy too.

I’ve been feeling quite guilty about that. Almost as if it’s disrespectful to Dad, as if I haven’t loved him enough, as if moments of happiness mean that I haven’t been sad enough.

I’m not a fan of guilt. I realise it’s got it’s place, and for other people it’s fine, but for me it’s generally related to self-indulgence. An ugly kind of self-indulgence, not like a new book or scrubbing the bath or wherever good self-indulgences take you. So I want to lose the guilt. And one way to do that is to remind myself that life is not lived in static states of being. Memories might make life look that, but of course it isn’t. Charmian Clift again:

‘Time has a particular trick, and a very clever one, of threshing and winnowing experience. As years pass the inconclusiveness of events in actual formulation is husked off and blown away like chaff on the wind. All that memory retains is a hoard of spearate grain. Oh, I was happy then, one says. Or, that was the greatest time. Forgetting that the happiness was inextricably mixed with all sorts of vexatious problems and irritations and interruptions. Jobs still had to be done. People knocked on doors at the wrong moment. One waited and waited interminably. And the greatest time ever was probably husked in boredom, doubt, and even fear.’

For the past few years, since Dad’s diagnosis, I’ve survived by living on two different layers. The top, coping layer, from the top of my head, down to my chest just lived moment by moment. Get out of bed, have a shower, make the lunches, take the children to school, buy the paper, come home, have breakfast…and so on. Underneath that, was the space from the ground to my chest, a heaving layer of uncertainty and stress, always threatening to break through the top layer, often succeeding.

One of the most difficult things to reconcile during this time, was whether to be hopeful or realistic. Where there is life, there is hope, (and what’s the point if you don’t believe in the hope), but the reality of his prognosis was always fairly grim. It seemed very strange to me that hope, deeply felt, utterly believed-in hope could live side-by-side with realistic pragtamism. Surely one of them must be right and one of them must be wrong.

But maybe not. Of course not. Emotions are a seething mass of dichotomies and inconsistencies. Having one emotion does not exclude the possibility of having another.

Certainly, there are some dichotomies which, for me, are difficult to manage. But even stress and uncertainty have not been entirely incompatible with happiness. All of us meeting Dad at the market for breakfast, for example, they were happy times. Not forced, we-may-never-do-this-again happy times. Just simple happy times of sitting together and comparing the weeks we’d had.

I have been trying to tell myself that I should not label emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. That I should just let them all be. I mean, it’s true that I am sad, but I am also angry and bitter and cross, because despite the time we had between his diagnosis and his death, there is so much unresolved. Dad said that time was too short to be angry and then he got too tired anyway and so did I, and so there are things we did not address and now I’ve got a few emotional messes that I have to sort out for myself. But if I’ve got no problems letting my brain be sad and angry at the same time, so why not occasional happiness too?

There are still more sad than happy moments. When horrible things happen – as they have over the past few weeks – I fall back onto the couch, a fragile, unspeaking wreck. There are still days when I just could not give a shit. I am exhausted still. I’m not quite ready to stop being sad and I don’t expect that when I look back over these days I will think, They were happy times.

But I am glad I brought this book in my small box and tonight I’m going to read the essay on page 27. Is There a Hypochondriac in the House? And after that, youngest boy, you’d better watch out.

PS This is nothing at all what I expected to be writing when I first read this essay.


21 Responses to “I apologise in advance for any spelling mistakes or half-finished sentences, but I have to get off to swimming lessons now”

  1. Cristy May 10, 2009 at 2:44 pm #

    Oh you have an amazing way with words Tracey. I am crying now and feeling strangely wiser too. Thank you.

    I hope that you are being well taken care of – by family and self. I admire your strength and perception.

  2. Cristy May 10, 2009 at 2:47 pm #

    Sorry Tracy. My cousin spells her name with an ‘e’. Feel free to call me Christie.

  3. Deborah May 10, 2009 at 3:02 pm #

    Many years ago, when we were battling infertility, I learned that grief and happiness are not additive; you can’t subtract the grief from the happiness and end up in a overall slightly happy state, or a slightly unhappy state. The grief is just as real and just as intense, despite the happinesses of your life.

    As for a difficult few weeks – whatever the difficulties are, I’m so sorry. I recall that the 12 weeks or so after we shifted to Adelaide were among the worst we have had. He was stressed, I was unhappy, the children were bewildered, we fought over everything and nothing. The move itself was bad, but there were other things adding to it, and because the move was bad (from minor things like our container being unloaded in Melbourne, to major things like… well, that would be TMI), we couldn’t cope with the other things very well at all.

    12 weeks. Hold out for 12 weeks. Things get a bit better after that.

  4. mary May 10, 2009 at 3:20 pm #

    Tracey – I lost my father 16 years ago and it is still with me. I so badly wanted to talk to him these past couple of months. Having said that I FEEL him with me , when I am driving, when something works out – he is there.

    As for Charmian Clift ( I read a wonderful biography on her a couple of years ago btw) – I am thinking that whilst you are in Dubai you should take a trip to Greece and esp. to Hydra..

    Thank you for this very moving post..

  5. innercitygarden May 10, 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    I’m not having a terribly eloqent day, so I’ll just say yes, exactly and thankyou. For today’s post, and for your book.

  6. suse May 10, 2009 at 4:21 pm #

    As a friend of mine says, grief is not linear.

  7. Sari May 10, 2009 at 5:08 pm #

    I have nothing wise to comment, just wanted to thank you for your wise and lovely post. It made me cry for all the inevitable losses in our lives. May your family pamper you today – you are most certainly loved to the moon and back.

  8. tut-tut May 10, 2009 at 10:02 pm #

    Oh, it is hard, isn’t it? Pulled in so many directions. I lost my mother very unexpectedly when L was in the third grade. And we had moved far away the year before. It’s hard to know where to put all your emotions.

  9. Alby Mangroves May 11, 2009 at 3:35 am #

    Very moving post. Wouldn’t your Dad be happy that you are happy? Wouldn’t he want you to hold him in your heart while you feel happiness in everyday things, and in your children? I understand what you mean about the need to experience the sad, and that this will end when you’re ready and not before.

  10. Mindy May 11, 2009 at 3:49 am #

    My Dad is fishing. Every now and again he checks on us, admires the grandkids he never got to meet in real life, makes sure Mum is okay. I’m sure there is plenty of room on the riverbank if your Dad likes fishing too.

  11. Laura May 11, 2009 at 5:07 am #

    Oh Tracy…This rings such a chord with me and many others.

    I was coping with just recognition and sadness after reading it and then I read the comment about Dad is fishing, and THEN the tears started.

    It will be 15 years soon since my Dad’s diagnosis. He fought a brief struggle before it got him, four months to the day.

    I treasure the time I spent with him during his illness. We were always close, I’m sure we talked about stuff that he never talked about with anyone else. I had an insight into his relationship with Mum that I carry with me.

    I still miss him. Not every day now, but there are many aspects to my life now that I just know he would enjoy, and be very proud of me for achieving. I often ‘feel’ him with me, and find my laugh sounding like his throaty chuckle. It makes me feel close to him.

    Big hug, a long slow heartfelt hug to you. (May I link to this post please? It says it all)

  12. Kath Lockett May 11, 2009 at 6:14 am #

    Tracy this is such an honest post and the comments above this one are also helping my eyes stay a bit too full of tears today.

    How’s this for a pithy but true sentence? Your Dad would be so proud of you. We are.

  13. franzy May 11, 2009 at 6:36 am #

    The Clift excerpts remind me of a Buddhist saying my mum told me: “This too shall pass.”

    That’s it. Sadness does go, as does happiness. Something about the wonder of impermanence being permanent is quite reassuring at times.

    I mean … lovely post. Happy mother’s day.

  14. Zoe May 11, 2009 at 8:38 am #

    The way you write about your dad and Pavlov Cat writes about her mum has made me be a bit nicer to and more grateful for my parents, who are in their early 70s. Thank you for that. I hope it makes you a little bit happy.


  15. Kate May 11, 2009 at 11:39 am #

    I’ve been thinking about my dad too recently, wishing that he was around. one thing that I realised during my grief was how much strength there is in vulnerability – in truly feeling how much you miss a person. but i also believe it is possible to come to a point where the only links binding you together are those of love – when all the guilt, anger and denial has disappeared, love is what remains.

  16. Stomper Girl May 11, 2009 at 4:36 pm #

    I have a close friend dealing with the loss of her mother and she talks in much the same way. Grief is such a process. My friend has a young child too and she constantly juggles wanting to feel the grief and having to keep putting one foot in front of the other for his sake. So hard.

  17. hendoaskswhy May 15, 2009 at 11:54 am #

    Thankyou. This reminds me that the daily struggle I’m feeling at the moment is normal, or as what passes for normal in a time of grief.

  18. Laura May 15, 2009 at 12:41 pm #

    Virginia Woolf said that what makes writing into art is the finding of the rhythm – it makes a wave in the mind. That’s what your writing does.

  19. Kate June 10, 2009 at 3:56 am #

    I think one of the things for me is finding ways to facilitate the sadness and greif. To find the space that it sits comfortably in my life.

    When I find that balance, it feels good. I am still sad, but it feels right. It feels respectful and healing and like a process. An important one.

    Lots of the time, though, I can’t find the balance. Life gets in the way, or I am too tired, or I don’t want to deal with it. I get angry that I am tired and sad and that is making me unable to enjoy the thigns I love – friends and crafting and everything else. So I push it to one side and I ignore it. But that doesn’t help me enjoy things more. It has the opposite effect. And THEN, when I cry and am sad, it doesn’t feeel good. It feel cloying and clogging. It feels like I am trapped in a dark room with my sadness, and the sadness has it in for me.

    So then I look for the balance again. The place where the sadness is part of me, is a friend to me, is a naturla part of what life is. Where the sadness doesn’t mean I am un-happy. Last night I found that balance (your book recommendation helped a lot, although I think it was probably as much a catalyst for soemthing I needed – Dr Suess might have done as well, who knows?) and today I am more happy than I have been for a long time.

    The sadness is still here. But it doesn’t own me.


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