An Open Letter To My Dying Mother

I am a career hoarder. Anyone who knows me will tell you that. I have files on my work desk from ten years ago. A former housemate and I collected empty beer bottles to signify the countries whose beers we had tried (I kept them after he moved out). I own t-shirts from the 1980s and Phantom comics from the 1970s. I went to a comedy gig all about hoarding, came out of it afterwards with a 12″ single of The Church’s Under The Milky Way which I still own (thanks Corrine Grant!). I even have the ticket stub still, in my collection of comedy gig ticket stubs; which are not to be confused with my music concert/sporting event/movie ticket stub collections… or my beer coasters. I am a career hoarder.

It’s safe to say then that I have trouble letting go of things. This in itself is both a blessing and a curse, and truth be told is deserving of its own post. The reason I bring it up here is borne out of news that I received around six weeks ago from my family back in Western Australia. I’ll spare you the details; it can however be summarised in these four words:

My mother is dying.

My reaction to this news, both initially and during the subsequent weeks, has been all over the shop. I’ve randomly shuffled through many of Elisabeth Kübler-Rossfive stages of grief. If you’re unaware of these, let this friendly giraffe describe them for you: http://youtu.be/G_Z3lmidmrY. I’ve also exhibited some of George Bonnano’s natural resilience, especially in the company of my mother and siblings when I went to visit them last month. All of this topped off with a smattering of my own personality traits; humour as a defence mechanism, stilted anxiety, tortoise-like introspection and a dash of reckless abandon. Zoom out a little bit to see the immediate family dynamic and the full spectrum of emotional behaviour is laid bare for all to see.

So then why am I publicly posting what may arguably be the most tragic and personal of situations of my life into the blogosphere? Well credit for that one is due to Caroline*. Caroline you see is a counsellor who I’ve been put on to in order to talk about what’s going on and about the inevitable conclusion. And one of the suggestions that they have made is writing a letter or a poem or a prayer or something similar to Mum as a means of saying goodbye.

Of letting go.

Now here’s where it gets even more poignant. It’s been a couple of months since I started to write this post because… well, life gets in the way. Wife, two young kids, work, footy, beer. The usual. But as we know, death waits for nobody and the grim reaper is an impatient bastard. Mum passed away a few weeks ago. The weeks since have been some of the toughest I’ve gone through and, regardless of things getting a bit easier, things are still pretty tough. As a result the urgency on my saying goodbye as a way to initiate the healing process has increased substantially. So here goes…

Dear Mum,

I am writing this letter to say goodbye. You know that of course because you’ve read the rest of this post! This isn’t a breakup letter. There’s not going to be any “it’s not you it’s me” stuff in here, no “I think we should start seeing other people”. I want to do this to acknowledge and honour the profound influence that you’ve had in my life until this point, and I need to do this to move on with the rest of my life that’s still ahead of me.

For years you were my mother AND my father. You protected me from many of the evils of the World while still giving me the freedom to learn things for myself. You sacrificed a lot to give me what I needed in life. You taught me about courage, about music, about strength, about making the most of things, and about English comedy.

You were on my side when my deputy principal isolated me from my classmates the day I went to school in ugg boots. You consoled me when my under 15s footy team lost the grand final. You were there to congratulate me when I graduated from primary school, from high school, and from university. You knew when I came back from a mid-year-12 trip to Rottnest Island with mates that I’d had a lot to drink that week. You took me in when I broke up from my first major relationship. You gave me my first driving lesson; your advice still in my ear… “Remember that you are the only sane person on the road”. You were, and still are, the only person who didn’t need to have a conversation with me to be in tune with me; sitting silently together was enough. You sent me care packages during my early days in Mumbai; when I was lonely, scared and homesick. You made my children smile when you held them, and as I saw you with them I also saw you in them. You accepted my wife into your life and into our family, and loved her as if she was an extension of myself. You were my safety net whenever I flew the trapeze of life. And now you’re gone.

I’m doing all of the right things when it comes to grieving, and about dealing with things. I got to see you before you passed away. I’ve said goodbye in person while holding your hand. I’ve had time to myself. I’ve talked to people. I’ve cried and I’ve hit things. I’ve reminisced while collating photos for the slideshow which ran during your funeral. I wrote and delivered your eulogy, and your death notice in the newspaper & on social media. I’ve accepted the condolences and well wishes of many people. I’m writing this post. I’ve spent time with Caroline the counsellor, and have booked in more time with her. I’m busying myself with work. I’m even getting excited about our purple-clad footy team!

We haven’t spent a lot of time together in the same place during the last few years, which by rights should really help me to adjust to life without you around. I have a young family of my own now, and a career that goes some way towards supporting them. You have said that you are proud of me for doing this, and given we have a family history of nomadicity I don’t have too many regrets about not being around in person. I miss you so very much however, and despite all of the grief resolution boxes I’m ticking I am struggling, and I expect to for a while yet. But I was thinking: am I missing you or am I missing the idea of you? I will always miss you but I will always have the thought of you in my mind. I have photos, memories, anecdotes and artefacts of you. So what is it that I cannot let go of?

Letting go…

That’s it, isn’t it? I need to let go. I need to move on. You have been on duty for all of your life, on guard from one thing or another; from the Blitz to lung cancer. And you have been on duty for all of my life as well; from fatherless love child to father of two lovely children. It’s time for you to rest, and for me to stand to arms. You were there for your family, now it’s time for me to be there for my family; it’s time to look after me and mine. And it’s time for me to put you to bed… Nigh night, See you in the morning, Sweet dreams.

Bye Mum. I love you.

Johannes.

* Not their real name… or is it???

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