Mother of God

My mother in law Mary has just passed away, you might have read about that here recently.  She slipped away late in the quiet of night.  I like to think of her last exhale as a sigh; no more struggle. I like to imagine her now, free to move. Happy, laughing and feeling at ease.

The last time we saw her she was having a good day. My husband cracked a joke and her face broke into a sudden grin; she laughed and we saw a glimpse again of the Mary, Mum and Nanna that we know. I like to think about that moment and I am grateful she got to share a laugh with her son. She loved him so much.

In the beginning, I used to think of her irreverently, as
‘Mary: Mother of God’
…because, like many doting mums, the sun rose and shone in the eyes of her boy. As if he himself were God! I thought wryly.  It seemed that he could do no wrong, and when we visited, her whole world would shift to revolve around him completely. I remember we were talking about him one day, soon after he and I had got back together again after a breakup; I stated what I thought was the obvious, “-yes, but even he is not perfect you know, Mary”. She looked at me and her mouth dropped open, just for a second, and I realised that in her eyes, he just was.

mary-mother-of-god-iconOf course, I wasn’t a mother myself then, and now that I am, I understand her better. In her eyes, her son was perfect. She loved him completely and unconditionally.  That kind of love is the special reserve of mothers. He is a lucky guy to have been so loved, so adored. I’m sure it is part of why his self esteem is so robust. She has always been his unwavering cheer squad, his bringer of supper and endless cups of tea.

Sometimes, believing that your kids are perfect makes it hard to love their partners. Mary and I didn’t think the same way, and there were times that I thought we would never breach the awkward misunderstandings between us. It seemed impossible for her to know that we were actually allies in the same quest; to love the man she raised and the man I chose. Maybe I just wasn’t the sort of girl she understood, but I always felt the love I gave him was not the love she thought he needed.  I agonised over it for years, wondering how I could do better or convince her that my intentions were pure.

I suppose it is common in mother-in-law/ daughter-in-law relationships. Many of my friends would say I am not alone. I persevered with the relationship because I knew that family was more important than those feelings. That there would be a time when she might need me.   As she got sicker and the Parkinson’s Dementia took hold, she often spoke to me about Rachel, her son’s wife. Because in those conversations, to her, I was someone else entirely. During those times, I enjoyed a friendship with Mary that I hadn’t experienced before. It was quite good for both of us.  I’m grateful for all those times when we were able to see each other through fresh eyes, and find something in each other to love.

The visit before last, in a rare moment of lucidity, she told me she just wanted her boys to be happy. My mother heart understood that so completely. Her eyes seemed to implore me to take up the torch, to make sure of it. I held her hands and told her I would do everything I could, but I knew even as I said it, that neither she, nor I could do enough to ensure her sons’ happiness. And that is the pain of love. To want to make everything perfect, to smooth the way, to lower the barrier, to ease the burden. We wish to do this for the ones we love even though we know that  we cannot control the hardships of life. They are not ours to command.

I held him in my arms after we heard that she had passed. He’s a big guy, my hubster. I held that big man and listened to the boy within, as the realisation began to wash over him. I held him and I thought about how far happiness was in that moment, and I offered him instead, comfort. Empathy. I listened and I helped him pack his suitcase. I made him a coffee for the midnight drive home.  I wished I could take away the shock, the loss, the thoughts of what might have been.  I know from my own loss, that those things are the price we pay for having had the love of a great mother. I could no longer take them from him than take the sun from the sky.

I think of Mary and imagine her soaring high above us, her eagle eyes watching out for her boys like she always has.

I know I am failing her still, failing to make him happy in the ways she wanted for him. I cannot be the sort of wife she wished me to be. I will not subject myself to the sort of life many women of her generation chose. I just cannot believe in my heart of hearts that the pathway to marital happiness lies that way. At least, it certainly doesn’t for the hubster and I.  When I am subservient to him, it simply breeds resentment. It’s not our recipe for success.

Still, these days I feel softly towards her for her expectations. In my head, I ask her to forgive me for not meeting them, because I simply can’t.  I ask her to look again at him, to notice. He loves an imperfect woman, lives an imperfect life.  And, he is already happy, in all the ways that count the most.

Rest now; mother Mary.  Rest safe in the knowledge that in any way I can, I carry your love forward into the future. I cannot mother him as you did, those times for him are treasured and past. But your boy, he’s safe in my arms,
I promise.

I don’t think there is a more fitting song than this one for this post, it was written by Paul McCartney, about his own mother Mary who died when he was 14. This one is a cover by Vazquez Sound, I just loved that it was sung by a child, because nothing renders you closer to your inner child than the passing of your mum.  So this is for my man, and for me too.

Constance Hall and the F Bombs

Being REAL in a world full of curated gorgeousness is so needed.  We are all so desperate for a breath of fresh air!

'A Queen is a woman who just wants to love other women and not do that bitchy thing that so many of us do,' says Constance Hall.
‘A Queen is a woman who just wants to love other women and not do that bitchy thing that so many of us do,’ says Constance Hall.  (photo source abc.net.au)

 

Constance Hall is refreshingly real. She’s the actual ‘Bad Mom’ (have you seen that movie?  I hated it, but I got what they were trying to say… it’s time to let go of the ridiculousness between women that exists in mama-land).  She’s a skate-in-sideways chick. An Australian sensation, mother of 4 and insanely popular mummy blogger. And she has just released a book. It’s about her, about mothering four kids. It’s a no-holds-barred look at relationships and life after babies.

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Today I went to her book release Q & A session hosted by The Women’s Collective and the Pullman Hotel in Auckland. I knew she would be irreverant, I knew there would be some shock-factor stuff, because that is her trade. I knew there would be challenging statements, because she is the Constance Hall of the recent social media cyclone over the ditch (a fellow mummy blogger let rip about Con’s manner of mothering and Con retaliated. It sparked a ‘mum war’ on the internet). I stayed well clear of it because I hate the nastier side of social media. It makes me so sad.  But I was curious about this raw kind of mother. The tell-all kind of mum. It bucks the trend alright, I wanted to see if she was just a sensationalist, or if there was something deeper driving her work.

Me and my fellow Queens this morning, Trudy and Pascale.
Me and my fellow Queens this morning, Trudy and Pascale.  Yep, I am a Big Bird, and no, I am no longer going to stoop to try to be more diminutive than I am!  #tallgirlsproblems

I was fascinated. Con (we’re at nickname status already cos that is how she rolls) blew onto the stage like a kind of mini tornado. Her hair was frizzy in a way I recognise from my own morning mirror, but on top of it she was wearing a crown of flowers and jewels. She’s tiny in stature and massive in presence. You could say she kind of exploded onto the podium like a freak weather bomb; blowing in out of nowhere and taking off the roof.  Within two minutes she had reassured us that she was wearing undies, unlike the other four days she’d been in New Zealand, because she’d be catching a plane later and she needed somewhere to hide her wee. Her humour is as raw as she is and the whole way through her talk, f-bombs exploded like colourful fireworks, punctating her florid discussion. She’s kind of like what would happen if you could cross Frida Kahlo with Reese Witherspoon and Whoopi Goldberg. Kapow!

I loved her. I think everyone in the room did. I loved that she said out loud some of my hidden, inner thoughts. I even loved all the f-bombs, because they made us laugh. I dated a comedian in my younger years, he always said that people laugh at what they relate to, especially when it is rude. And because every human being can relate to toileting, sex and death, regardless of their individual circumstances, most comedy covers these subjects. It’s just funny for us to see our not-talked-about experiences mirrored by others. It makes us feel more normal. Apart from wees and poos, Con’s Q & A covered: marital sexy time, break-ups, behaviour management (of kids and husbands), dealing with a history of abuse, death of children and grandparents, suicide, wine, why it’s best not to fight in front of kids, the age-old working mum vs. stay at home mum debate, the importance of support, multiple birth mothering, dyslexia, The Sisterhood, dealing with judgmental people and the importance of connection.

I can’t wait to read her book; Like a Queen. She’s just adorable. She makes the very hard job of mothering feel so much more achievable. She makes us feel like we’re doing a great job. Like everyone has days when it goes to custard. I think we forget that, in our intensity around getting it right.  We forget to cut ourselves some slack occasionally. We forget that having a loving mother is much more important than any other type of benefit we can achieve for our kids.  That having a loving mother is more than many kids have.

There were tears today from we women in that packed out auditorium. Tears of recognition and relief.  I’ve come a long way since the early days of parenthood and my babies are much older than most of the little ones at the venue today, but the message was as relevant to me as for the new mums there.
Take a deep breath. Do you love your kids? Do they know it? Love wins, every time. And you know what? Extending a bit of that love in your own direction is a brilliant idea too from time to time. Might just stop you from losing your mother-f#$%ing mind!

This afternoon, I’m going to assess the impact of Cyclone Con. I reckon she demolished a few of the ideas in my head that were damaging my peace of mind. I am grateful. Who needs perfectionism anyway? All it has ever done for me is give me reasons to feel like a failure.  Good to see that particular idea hitting the dirt. And what  purpose comparison? See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya. And that ol’ flower, success? It’s moved into a new neighbourhood. Into the love camp. Over there I am already a raging success and that matters more than anything else.  I’m going to make like Queen Con, and take heart that my heart is the most important part of mothering.

Open your windows, let the winds of change blow out some of your cobwebby corners, too. It’s liberating!

If you’re keen, you can buy Like a Queen, here: www.likeaqueen.com.au

Neil Diamond & The Lounge Lady

 

I woke up yesterday morning with tears running across my cheeks. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by that, times are hard around here right now. But I was. I didn’t wake up crying even when my own Mumma was dying. I didn’t wake up crying when I thought my type of Dysautonomia would progress until I could barely function. I didn’t wake up crying any of the times in my life when it might have been warranted. But yesterday, I did. I stumbled out to the kitchen that is so full of memories of times with my in-laws. I popped the kettle on and thought about how integral having a cuppa was to my relationship with my mother in law, Mary.

We didn’t always agree on things, she and I. But we did agree on the necessity of a good cuppa.

Mary has Parkinson’s Disease. She was diagnosed not long after I joined the family and I remember well how it rocked everyone. Mary and John are stoic and proud Englishfolk. It was clear over the years that they would deal with it their way. Our wider family, the social workers and district nurses, the network of support around them, watched on with a kind of admiration for their determination.  John doggedly problem solving his way through her caregiving, devising natty little devices for pill dispensing, modifying her walker, endlessly adjusting, adapting, and rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. And Mary herself, a consummate non complainer, tried hard to mitigate the ravages of Parkinson’s on her brain and in her body. Eventually, as seems to be the pattern for elderly couples where one is terribly sick, the caregiver gets increasingly rundown and their own health struggles set off a cascade of events. It has happened even to John and Mary, the indomitable two.

This week, I’ve been with Mary while John is in hospital down country.  She’s in a nursing home in their little regional town. He’s having rehab after spine surgery. Mary’s nursing home is so beautiful. The views across Buffalo Beach take my breath away. But I’ve noticed that the high needs residents don’t appreciate the view. That the ravages of age steal distance vision.

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These unfortunate few stare mostly into space, occasionally focusing on the person in front of them who is typically asking loudly and brightly a series of questions.  A nurse enters Mary’s room:

“HELLO MARY!  HOW ARE YOU TODAY?”
Mary jumps at the sound of the voice so close. Her rheumy eyes try to focus, her hand reaches towards the stimulus. The tremors are bad today and her body is almost bent double, contracting up and in on itself. Muscles tight and unwieldy.
She mumbles something but her words are indistinct.

“LET’S GO TO THE DINING ROOM SHALL WE? TIME FOR LUNCH!” the nurse shout-speaks chirpily.  Lunch will be in half an hour, but it takes that long to wheel and cajole everyone into position.  Mary’s eyes brighten momentarily, and very slowly, she licks her lips. She likes her food. I smile at my memory of this whippet thin woman, carefully  portioning out her own meals to half the size of everyone else’s at family dinners. She has thrown caution to the wind. Food is good. I think of the bucket of liquorice allsorts I sent up last weekend, now half gone. I’m glad she can still find enjoyment in something.

“HOW’S THAT CAST? SORE?  MARY, ARE YOU SORE?”
“I’m-alright-thankyou” she whispers, barely audible, but they are the first words I’ve heard today. I know it is habit, her responses to questions like this. Every time she moves, she winces. The cast is heavy and cumbersome against her constantly moving frame. Her frequent falls have resulted in a complication in her already broken shoulder. The bones beneath her socket joint hang loose and jut into her ribs under her arm.

“OK THEN! UP WE COME… ARE YOU READY TO STAND? I’LL JUST REACH AROUND AND HELP YOU UP …GOOD GIRL!  HERE WE GO…”  the nurse braces to lift our waif-like Mary. You’d be surprised how heavy a waif can be when you are lifting all their weight without assistance.

“OH DEAR, DOWN WE GO.  MARY?  ARE YOU WITH US? MARY!  HELLO MARY? BIG DEEP BREATHS, MARY!”
Mary had momentarily fainted. It happens most times she has to stand. Her eyes roll back in her head and she is a ragdoll. Quite different from her usual rigid bodied self. Now ensconced in the wheelchair the nurse takes her down the hall to the dining room. It is next to the Lounge, the communal area lined with other octogenarians, glumly sitting and waiting to be taken in for their hot lunch.

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Neil Diamond is on the telly. A gentleman fixes his tearful eyes in my direction. I have come to expect emotion in this place, I wonder if maybe Neil’s crooning is making him sad.
“Have you seen my wife?” he asks me, his voice trembles slightly as though he knows the answer will be bad. I remember being here when his wife passed away. I pat his hand. “No, I haven’t, I’m sorry. I am sure you will see her soon” I feel guilty as I say it. But to tell him the truth again and watch the grief anew. I just can’t do that (I’ve seen the nurses tell him many times and he is always so distraught. “Was I there for her?” “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” “Where did they take her?”  “Oh no… no…”  he’d keen, his hangs wringing in his lap and the confusion and distress furrowing his age spotted brow).
No. It’s too unfair.
Within minutes he has forgotten again. His face is blank.  I’m glad I didn’t tell him.

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Mary has nodded off. I let Neil’s music transport me back to happier situations. I am toe tapping and humming. I see the slippered foot of the man in the chair beside keeping the beat. He grips my hand.  Meanwhile, Neil drawls and gyrates in his sequin jacket “I’M ALIIIIVE”! The irony is not lost on me.
“I would have been a jockey you know!” say the earnest man. His eyes are twinkling, one of his pupils is blown. I wonder if he did that falling off a horse. “I could do things with horses other people couldn’t do.  But no. No… encouragement…” he sighs, suddenly dejected.
“Oh do shut up!” shouts the lady just past him. “I’ll kick you in the butt one of these days!”
“You shut up, you fat slob” says the woman beyond her. “Take no notice, Love” she says pointedly to the man beside me, rolling her eyes openly at the upstart.  Many of the elderly could care less about politeness. They’ve run out of time for niceties. They just say it like they see it. This Lounge can be a brutal place.

A nurse aide moves Mary into position at her dining table, deftly swinging a giant bib across the front of her. As she does it up, she tells me that Mary helped her children learn to read at the school, some thirty odd years ago.  She was a teacher aide at Mercury Bay Area School. Suddenly Mary is animated. She says the name of the nurse aide’s kids. “That’s right, Mary!” she smiles and then, turns to me, “-sharp as a tack! There’s a lot of people who love this lady”. She pats her gently on the shoulder.  I nod. Kiss Mary on the forehead and say my goodbyes.  I’m sad. We love this lady too. It stings a bit that she can remember those kids, but she has forgotten who her own grandchildren are. The synapses that connect that information to her conscious mind have been stolen by Parkinson’s Dementia. She’s had only one thing to say to our girl Bee this week. That she never did like the colour of Bee’s hair. She hasn’t been able to notice that Zed is even here. These kids who come with me every day to see their Nanna. These kids who have never complained about the grim realities of spending time here with her.  They love her too. Regardless. Gosh I am proud of them. They hug her and kiss her goodbye and she clings to them. I think she knows at some level, some basic biological level, that they belong to her. I comfort them with the facts that her brain misfires sometimes. Tell them, for her, that she loves them.

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I’ll be back tomorrow. She won’t know me then either. I’ll be just another friendly face among the many attending to her. My voice will be loud and bright like theirs; do we do it to dispel the despair of it all? She’ll look at me with confusion. She might shout at me like yesterday, or stretch her face into a semblance of her beautiful smile. She might hold my hand, or demand I help her go to the toilet. She might just be drifting, somewhere between Life and the After, talking indecipherably with her long passed sister, long red braids twisting around her youthful hands, skipping along a street somewhere back in England. I hope that she feels loved, wherever her mind has gone. That the warmth of my hand transmits all the humanity of my heart for this frail, vulnerable lady.

I guess the tears are okay. I guess they are just a part of the lifelong process of accepting mortality. Someday, someone might have tears about me. Mary once told me that she thinks of this mortal coil like a fixed sized plane. As babies get born, all our souls get kind of crowded here. Sometimes, other people have to get off, making way for new life. She said it made her feel better thinking of it that way.

Everybody has their time and then one day, they move over. That’s just the way of it.   Take it away Neil:

…everyday

There’s a brand new baby born
And every way
There’s enough to keep you warm
And it’s okay
And I’m glad to say
That I’m alive

 

Useless

Hello, my name is Rachel and I am a useless blogger.

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When I was little, the single most frustrating retort from my mother was when she would close my most recent, incessant argument with:

“JUST. BECAUSE.”

I needed a reason why I couldn’t chew gum/ wear a t-shirt with ‘easy’ emblazoned across the chest/ yell at my maths teacher (all true stories).  I needed reasons so I could keep arguing. So she would tighten the set of her jaw and shut up shop. Just. Because.  It’s taken being a mother myself to understand the value of the statement. It’s a full stop, a justification in and of itself. It’s enough, already. It’s when something needs simply to be accepted.

Back to this blogging malarky. It used to be that I would write a couple of posts a week, sometimes more. Each around 800 words apiece. I’ve amassed a large archive of words. But more often than not these days, I’m so busy in my offline world that my online world makes much less noise than it used to.

When I started blogging, I studiously ticked the boxes on the ‘backend’ of my blog. I fretted over my ‘niche’ and tried to quantify my ‘audience’. I ran giveaways, launched ‘series’, built awareness for my illness community and cared more about ‘SEO optimisation’ in my writing. But these days, I care most about writing. Just writing. If you are reading this I am so genuinely grateful, because I haven’t done much to bring you here or keep you here. I’m just being me, writing my story, in post-sized-bites.  I guess, technically, that makes me a useless blogger, a tag I am really proud to wear.  Because blogging is about much more than all that useful stuff. Blogging is about self-expression, about reflection and learning. For me, it’s a record of my thinking, an archive of my journey.

Veggiemama (Stacey) from Melbourne started it all. You can read here about how the useless-blogger-groundswell began, that my mate from I Give You the Verbs (Annette) turned into a movement, complete with it’s own hashtag (#uselessblogger), that ate the cat that swallowed the fly. I don’t know why we swallowed the fly, perhaps we’ll die!

It’s a grand thing to know that my blog can continue, ‘useless’ as it may be. It’s a bit extravagant maybe, blogging anyway, blogging about all of my life, not just one part of it. Writing even when what I have to say comes out and I think ‘yawn, who is going to want to read this anyway?’. But I have great faith that my readers, like you, have free will, and will only read on if you want to. If you don’t that’s fine with me too. There are blogs that I have lost interest in over the years. If you are here it’s because you want to be. I like hanging out with you! Thanks for staying.

This whole ‘useless blogging’ thing resonated with me. The blogs I love most are the ‘useless’ ones. The ones people write for the love of blogging, not the pursuit of followers.  The ones that bare it all, that lay their hearts out on the screen, full of authentic power. The vulnerability, the mundane, the beautiful normality of life. And sometimes, too, the pain.  I love these blogs because their authors care most about being real. It’s much more interesting to me than a pretty splash page, a new header image, or fancy widgets. Those things all have their own merits, but it’s content that floats my bloggy boat.

Do you blog?  Are you a ‘useless blogger’ too?
Join the revolution!  Be a daredevil and blog,

just. because.

The Poet

The first time I fell in love, it was in the library. I was in Year 7 and he was in Year 12 (oh the scandal!) so hanging out around everyone else always drew unwanted attention. None of the narks and gossips went to the library at lunch time, so that is where we could meet without scrutiny. I liked to think that the librarian understood our impossible situation and had a soft spot for young love. It seemed all very Romeo and Juliet to me, star crossed lovers, forbidden by family to be together.  His skin was golden brown and his eyes flecked with gray and gold. But it wasn’t his skin or his eyes that made me fall so hard. It was the poetry. That day, he asked me to hold out my hand and close my eyes. He placed two things in my palm. A folded piece of paper, and a tiny heart carved from chalk with the point of a compass. The heart, he told me, had taken all of a double maths period. The poem he’d written last night, lying in bed, thinking of me.

I was moved.  My heart was his. He wrote poetry for me!

 

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A few years later, when time and circumstance had brought that ill-fated tryst to a close, I heard that poem on the radio. It was song lyrics, from a song written long before I ever met him. His declaration of love was a pilfered fake. That moment of perfect romance; plastered on the walls of my gallery of treasured memories, frayed and curled on the edges before dropping to the floor.  A new fissure cracked across the surface of my idealistic heart. It would underscore my opinion of men, along with all the other little and big betrayals. All the while, the books I had read, the movies I had watched, built my romantic hopes until there was no man that could reach them. And eventually, there I was at 23, divorced and bitter. My young husband had gotten our friend pregnant, he had left to live with her and raise their family.  It took a few years, but finally, I saw a counsellor.

“Why do you punish every man you meet for the behaviour of another person?” she asked.  It gave me pause. I realised that I couldn’t go on like that. Dropping all my disappointments at the feet of any man, as if he were solely responsible for the failings of all men.  My man-hating ways had to find some balance. I had to look at people as people, not with the prejudice I had toward their gender. Or be forever alone. At that time, being alone seemed like a fate worse than death.

I spent years looking for a person to spend my life with. Years for learning a great deal about the nature of men and of myself. About how being a ‘victim’ of relationship breakdown is a choice. Bitterness is counterproductive. When things go wrong, we are always equally responsible for how it will play out, no matter how preposterous that might seem. And that I am the only person who can be accountable for my own happiness. I grew up. Poetry isn’t always literary genius, sometimes, poetry is a two word text in the middle of the day: ‘Love you’.

Romance takes many forms, if you care to notice it. A cup of tea when you’re not expecting it. A shared glance about something over the heads of the kids. Or something like this…

 

'Enjoy the day my honey. Love you!'
‘Enjoy the day my honey. Love you!’

Today I have wrestled from our schedule a little bit of ‘me’ time. Time to write, to drink coffee and muse. It’s been a busy school holidays and the kids are off doing fun activities, both on the same day in a little bit of heavenly orchestration. I have loads of jobs to do, but I don’t mind a whit… because I can do them uninterrupted and listening to my own music! I can dance like a ninny around the house and tap out my words into the ether. The hubster knew how much I was looking forward to my day of solitude; he gets it. So when I got back to my quiet kitchen from dropping off the kids, I found his words scrawled across the splash back in the kitchen. They are not borrowed words, they are straight from the heart words, genuine words. Words to make my heart warm.

I am the luckiest of girls to have a guy like that in my life. He is a whiteboard-marker-wielding poet, even if I didn’t know it. 😉

Bookish

The first book I ever read was made by my Mum. It was a scrapbook she put together for my oldest siblings.  By the time it had passed into my treasured possession, the newsprint corners were soft and well-thumbed.  My favourite page was the page for ‘red’.  There was a lady in red, red flowers, red strawberries, a big red floppy hat. A collage of pictures cut from the pages of magazines and newspapers and annotated with her copperplate script.  I loved that book. I used to read it while I sat on the potty, or when I had flopped on my tummy on the lawn, or when I had escaped into a world of make-believe in our garden playhouse.

Mum told me that I was reading at age three, probably because I just wanted to be doing what the big kids were. We had a huge library of Arch Books (bible stories retold in rhyming verse for the children of churchgoers). I loved those books, the rhymes, the illustrations; especially the story of Esther. I read anything I could get my hands on, just as long as it wasn’t a library book. Enid Blyton, the Sugar Creek Gang, Pick-a-path novels, the Narnia series, Little House on the Prairie, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, Apple Paperbacks and anything about Nuclear War and post-apocalyptic survival. I liked the ones about mutants, like Children of the Dust.  And then there were the Janette Oke range of Christian Romance novels, oh!  I wanted to fall in love with a tall silent rancher out in the Wild Western Frontier.  Griddle cakes, corn bread and snapping on a fresh apron “afore my man came home”, sounded so good!  My books were usually hand-me-downs and garage sale books …I loved every one of them, because I could keep them!

I had a bit of a phobia of book-borrowing when I was a kid.  When my teachers insisted I had to borrow books from the school library I would beg to be let off. There were tears. Of course I wanted to read the books, desperately, but borrowing them was upsetting. I knew I wouldn’t want to give them back and keeping them was against the rules. I overcame my phobic silliness in later years, but it is fair to say that I am a book buyer more than a borrower. I see it as a committed relationship. We belong to each other. Me and my books. These books of mine are all dear to me.  I love them. I collect them and keep them close.  One day, I am going to have a little room of my own that is lined with bookshelves. There will be a reading chair that is just for me. Large, overstuffed, wing backed and red. There will be a lap rug and cushions and a drawer full of chocolate treats. There will be a kind of heaven in that place that only exists in the company of books.

On those shelves, you would see some of the books I talk about in the following list. This list of prompts was given to me by the lovely Claire Barnier, fellow blogger.  You can read her Living Library List here And these books I list? These are some of my friends.  My bookish buddies. Some of the truest and most spectacular friends I know.

A book that changed your life
Mister God, This is Anna
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A book you were proud to read
The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkein.  My Granny posted it from New Zealand the first year we were in Papua New Guinea.  It was a challenging read for me at eight, but I was determined to get through it! My big brother Shaun had read all of the Tolkein series and I wanted to impress him.  I’m not sure  if I managed to, but I remember thinking that Bilbo was a very brave Hobbit. And I wished Gandalf hadn’t kept disappearing! I still love epic children’s stories and love introducing these old favourites to my own kids.

A book that inspired you to try something different, or do something differently:
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.  I working as an Aupair in Germany and had just done a little tour of Cambridge University. I was 19. I was utterly naive and deeply confused by independent life and the feminist feelings that were hammering in my head. Virginia Woolf was a suitably inspirational character, fighting the dons of ancient universities whose paths I had walked, awe-inspired and feeling intellectually tiny.  She wrote this book in 1929 and her courage and determination in the face of enormous odds blew my anitpodean mind. To me, this book was the beginning of understanding history and my infinitessimal place within it, as a woman. It was the context bringer for my feminism and a wonderful counter to all the Austen I had soaked myself in during Year 12, 3 unit English. I read this, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and returned from my OE a changed girl. A fierce girl.
I began to speak my mind and choose my own path. It was disastrous, at first! But the beginning, for me, of being my own person:

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

A book that surprised you
Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda is the only book that I have ever started, loved, and not finished. It bested me. There was a point in the book when something unravelled in me. I felt used by the author, toyed with, disrespected. I threw the book across the room and cried and cried and cried. It was terrible. I was devastated, I just could not endure. I knew that wherever that book went, it was going to be bad. I love Peter Carey’s writing. It was probably a fit of ridiculous histrionics, perhaps it was more to do with my own circumstances at the time, but I felt deeply betrayed.  I was afraid of where Carey was taking his characters, I wanted a different story. I wonder sometimes, if I will ever finish this book. Maybe I will return to it one day.  Not finishing a book is very out of character for me. It is in fact,

“an improbable idea tearing the membrane between dreams and life.”
Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda

For now, the one that got away sits on my shelf, alone in it’s unfinished state. I imagine it holds some notoriety among the others on the shelf.  Do they whisper? That book over there…

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A book that made you cry
Most good books make me cry. Either because they are sad, or because they are so well written that I despair of ever writing my own!   The first book I cried over was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (she also wrote The Secret Garden).  I have just finished reading the longform poem: Autobiography of a Margeurite. So cleverly written, so heart catching. So beautiful. It made me cry too.  Sometimes my hubster walks in to find me with my eyes swollen from crying. He knows after all these years not to worry, he’ll just ask “Good book?”

A book that required dedication
Cries Unheard by Gitta Sereny.
It’s the life story of one of Britain’s most notorious female child murderers, Mary Bell. It is really a book about the criminal mind. About how criminals aren’t just random occurences within the populace, but the result of systemic abuse and neglect.  Their behaviour part of a psychological picture it is so hard to look at. But we must. We must begin to address the ways we fail children in this society, and how we perpetuate the terror by creating monsters. This book is a call for responsible parenting. It’s always stayed with me and weighed heavily on my heart.  It required dedication because it is very hard to sit with stories that are not fiction but are so horrific they haunt your dreams. Real people’s stories can be so much more distressing than fiction. But I stuck with this story because I needed to. We all need to stick with these stories. To keep them forefront in our minds when we are caring for the next generation. To do better by our babies.

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A book you are grateful for
Blank books, journals, this wordpress draft page, my wordprocessing software.  Since I was tiny, writing has been the best way for me to navigate my head and find my way out of the maze in there.  I love to read books. And one day I will write them.  Like a few other things in my life, the process towards backing myself has been slow, but I’m on my way.  I am most grateful for the most recent book-in-my-head that is growing out of a new idea. It happened during a writing workshop I did recently with Pip (you can do it too, click here!). Ideas come at different times, but this one has me more excited than the others. I’m working on a plot structure and feeling a bit excited about this little baby book!  I am grateful that it has begun.

A book you read when you were half your current age
Wild Swans by Jung Chang.  This book was the beginning of my fascination with Chinese authored literature, particularly women’s stories. I was fascinated by China because my parents were living there and because I knew nothing about it. China was for me the most exotic, extraordinary, intriguing place.  I read this book overnight. It is the story of three generations of Chinese women and spans the cultural revolution. A powerful read and fascinating insight into the tumultuous modern history of China.

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A favourite book from childhood
The Anne of Green Gables series. I love me a strong heroine!  Anne was probably the beginning of my feminist ideas, not that I could articulate that then. I liked her rebelliousness and her intelligence. Although now there is so much in those books that makes me cringe (including the sappy Gilbert Blythe), but they were a huge part of my early reading bookishness. I loved everything about those books.  The smell of them, the laminated glossy green and white covers and the beautiful cover illustrations. I even wrote an ode to Anne’s white woman (her stillborn baby) in my adolescent grief.

A book that will always have a special place in your heart
Z for Zachariah.  I think I it was 1988 when I read this one; it’s the story of a girl in a post nuclear holocaust world.  She lives in a valley which is a tiny micro-climate, unspoilt by the devastation beyond, and she is utterly alone. I was captured by her story and by the emotional conflict the arrival of a stranger created. It stayed with me, that book. But it’s special place in my heart is because the first time I ever went out for dinner with the hubster, we talked about survivalist literature. We bonded over this book.  Looked each other in the eye and realised we would be together. So I will always feel affection towards this book!  I can’t wait til Zed is old enough to read it.

The best movie or TV series adapted from a book you have read
Little House on the Prairie!  John Landon. Is the theme song playing in your head, now!?

The worst movie or TV adaptation of a book you have read
The Bridges of Madison County.  No adaptation can top the reading of that book for me. It holds all sorts of special memories. I read it aloud from cover to cover, on a dinghy, drifting out on Lake Macquarie. When the light went, I finished it by torchlight. It was a special book experience and even Meryl Streep can’t top that.

A disappointing book
The Bible. Disappointing is too strong a word… I’ve read it cover to cover a few times but I still struggle with the idea that all of the Bible is the inspired word of God. I question so much about it. If He was commissioning people to write on his behalf, He might have ensured a bit more of a balanced approach for the women’s perspective, ya know? Something a bit more accessible for future generations of readers? The bible contains some extraordinary and important stories and is a records some beautiful words.  But I have always wanted more from it than I found within it.  I have also found the literal translation of some of it by Christians to be devisive and uphelpful.  It’s a cultural/contextual problem.  I considered studying theology so I could understand it better, but back when I was considering it, theology seemed a directionless career for a woman so I abandoned it.  Nonetheless, and not wishing to sound sacreligious, just honest, I have often wished I could understand the deeper meanings of the bible better than I do.

A book that makes you smile every time you see it
Mrs Millie’s Paintings was written and illustrated by a Matt Ottley, who like me, grew up in PNG.  That influence shows all through the illustrations.  But my favourite part is the double page spread where ancient Mrs Millie is skinny dipping and her backside is showing. I like it because subsequent publications of the book censored her bottom, cladding her in a bikini.  But I’ve got the original with Mrs Millie’s bum!  Ha!
It’s also a poignant story with an important message about creativity. I love it.

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A book that made you want to learn more
Half the Sky is a book written by journalists, Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  In their many years writing for newspapers, they were struck most by the stories no one wanted. Stories about the plight of women across the globe. So they set out to write a book outlining the issues for women in our world. If you are interested, you can find it here. It’s a very important read.

A book or series you will never forget
Clan of Cavebear was something of a sex-ed series for me in my late teens. Perhaps caveman sex was a poor education, in hindsight. Some of those scenes are indelibly etched.

A book you would prefer to forget
I am such a fan of Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche’s work. I was swept up into Half of a Yellow Sun and no less captured by Purple Hibiscus, although darker and more difficult. So when Americanah came out I was really excited! But it is so different to her other work, somehow. I found myself wishing I hadn’t looked in on that American/African immigrant world, it felt like such a destruction of a culture I didn’t want amercianised. She raises important issues about race, culture and immigration, however. All topics close to my heart. It was beautifully written (I don’t think she could write badly if she tried to). It’s just that I’ve decided I really like her Nigerian based fiction much more than anything set in the States.  Maybe I’ll change my mind with her next novel.

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“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

What you are currently reading
Buy me the Sky by Xinran.  She wrote The Good Women of China, one of my all time favourites from my sino-collection.  So when I saw Buy Me the Sky (about the only-child generations of China) I knew it would be worth the read. It has already given me so much insight into the social dynamics and fallout from the One Child Policy.

A book you come back to read time and time again
I rarely read a book more than once. Do you?

Would you like to join me, reflecting on Claire’s Library List?
(copy and paste below…)
I’d love to see your list!
Or hear your thoughts on mine…!
Are you bookish too?

A book that changed your life
A book you were proud to read
A book that inspired you to try something different, or do something differently
A book that surprised you
A book that made you cry
A book you couldn’t live without
A book that required dedication
A book you are grateful for
A book you read when you were half your current age
A favourite book from childhood
A book that will always have a special place in your heart
The best movie or TV series adapted from a book you have read
The worst movie or TV adaptation of a book you have read
A disappointing book
A book that makes you smile every time you see it
A book that made you want to learn more
A book or series you will never forget
A book you would prefer to forget
A book you come back to read time and time again
What you are currently reading

 

Best I Can

How do you navigate a healthy marriage when one of you is long-term sick?

I am so fortunate to have a man whose commitment to our marriage equals my own. But that isn’t just a lucky thing, there are never any guarantees that relationships will produce equal commitment. When we found each other, we were careful.  We talked explicitly about this issue.  For us, our previous marriages to others provided the common ground we needed for common understandings. We credit our equal commitment to having first hand understandings of the opposite.  We both had more commitment than our previous spouses.  Both of our marriages ended because the other half didn’t feel the same way about commitment.

So when we met, our shared language was all about what commitment really meant. To us. Did we share the same ideas as each other?  We knew we couldn’t proceed any other way.  And we found we did. But it was touch and go as to whether we would even get married.  It had seemed to us that marriage is nothing to do with the paperwork.  Broken hearts and other people’s choices had shown us just how easily you can dissolve that legal agreement.  For us, marriage was not to do with the paper at all.  Our marriage began when we moved in together.  It was sealed when our baby girl was born, and ratified when our son arrived.   So when sickness moved in, we were already pulling together; equally yoked to the beautiful burden of being a family.

My hubster is an honest fella.  He told me once that if he had known what was ahead of us, he wouldn’t have embarked on the relationship. In truth, if I had known I wouldn’t have wanted him to, either. Who would ever choose it? Who would ever want it for their partner?  For themselves?  Neither of us.  But now, he often reassures me that he’s staying. He chooses to stay committed to me, to our family. He says, in his quiet way, “I’m not going anywhere”.  And I know that he means it.  And I have agonised about whether or not I should leave him. Set him free and let him have a different life. He tells me he would be miserable without me and I know that it is mutual.  We’re a set now. I can’t pull my weight physically, financially and sometimes not even emotionally. But when it comes to commitment, we are equal. And that is the forward momentum our marriage needs.

A few years ago when we were beginning to struggle with my lessening ability to do things around the place, we had an argument. It was a big blow up.  A big release. And I realised that we needed to make another commitment to each other, so that we would know at all times we could rely on each other. We promised that we would always do our best. That is a different thing for both of us, but equal effort.  If there was something I could do, I would do it. If there was anything that was within my scope of ability, I would do it. And I have. He has too. It’s actually a brilliant rule for life.  I think, before we made that promise, he was afraid that I would sink into a chronic illness malaise and do less and less and less.  Not from lack of ability, but from lack of will.

what do you see inside my heart_i’m good

And so that is how we navigate marriage with one of us sick. We both commit equally to the marriage and we both commit equally to doing everything we can, our best, to make it work.

How do you manage your relationship in the context of your illness?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Have a listen to this stunning song by Priscilla Ahn.  Oh, that voice!

What Families Do

I wrote this piece last year when I was reflecting on my changing attitude to being sick. Instead of hating everything about Dysautonomia, I was beginning to see the silver linings. To understand the value of any human experience in teaching us important things, about ourselves and our loved ones.  This piece is about my daughter, but it is also about me.  About being a little kinder to my own mother heart and not judging all the shoulda/ woulda/ coulda parenting moments.

Caring for the diverse needs within a

She was nine years old. And it was only one of the times she had noticed that something was happening for me.  I was doubled over on the edge of my bed, wracked with tremors, pushing my terrors for the future away from myself.  Carrying the ever present burden of knowing my condition was progressive and living in fear of what was to come. She came over to me and cradled my head in her arms, shushing me and stroking my hair.  “It’s going to be okay… poor Mumma” she murmured.

Her arms seemed so strong, yet so frail, wrapped around my head. An image of her tiny hand wrapped around my finger on the day she was born flashed across my mind. I thought about how unfair it was that she should be bringing me comfort.  So young, she should be out in the yard doing cartwheels with her friends.  Selling lemonade or riding her bike. Not picking up on cues invisible to most and cradling her mother’s exhausted head in her arms.

I looked up at her, filled with the wonder of who she is as a person, her capacity to love, to make me feel like her words could be true.  I looked at her as the tears filled my vision.  And as I said “I’m so sorry, honey”.  She shushed into my hair.  “It’s okay Mumma”.

Later, we talked some more about it. I explained that I wished it were different. I told her how much I wished she didn’t have to see me sick, or worry about me, or feel responsible for helping me. She reached for my hand.

“Mum, this is what families do.  It’s called loving people,”

she said, her quiet voice warm and sure. This kind of insight is rare in a child. She’s extraordinary, my girl. And she’s right.  The time comes in every family when we need to look after each other. It might be an elderly family member or a tiny baby, it might be a sick parent or a child with learning differences, it might be a broken heart or a lost dream. Caring for the diverse needs within a family isn’t the sole responsibility of a mother.  It is a work of heart from everyone in the family.  It’s what families do. Making sense of the challenges we face and delivering the love and care we need. It’s what makes families work.

I have often raged against my diagnosis.  Felt like it is a cruel punishment meted out just to us; us alone, among the throngs of well people smiling out from the glossy pages of normal life. Why is it my husband and children that need to suffer through this?  Isn’t it enough that I do? Why must it throw their lives into disarray as well?  But lately, I’ve been seeing it more often in a different light. The light that shines through situations like the day she comforted me.  I’ve been thinking about her words.

As I watch her grow, I have often thought about the hand fate dealt us. She has such a beautiful heart, my girl.  Strong and sensitive, sweet and soulful. She may have developed these aspects to her nature entirely independent of our situation, that’s true.  But when I contemplate all the challenges we have faced as a family, I know that her life experiences have contributed to the beauty of her soul. Hardship, unpalatable as it is, helps us to grow. I see that she is advanced in the knowledge of all that matters in life. Her priorities are good. Her heart is kind. There won’t be much that she will face as an adult that she won’t already have inner resources for. She’s set.

It’s true that my diagnosis has brought us all much suffering. Yet that suffering has brought a perspective that helps each one of us to appreciate the beauty of life so much more. I didn’t choose to get sick. She didn’t choose to have a sick Mum.  There is no need to apportion blame to the facts. They just are.

Because this life, this is the one we got. And it has given us a chance that many others don’t seem to have.  Through all of the moments of need and response, we have learned we can rely on each other.  We can rest in each other’s arms. We get it. For every difficulty, there is a flip side benefit.  For every compromise, respite.  Some of those benefits will be more evident in the long term.  But some, like that strength of connection between us as her arms wrap around my head, are for right now. It’s nothing to do with sickness or even wellness. It’s nothing to do with how it should be. It’s nothing to do with being a failure as a Mum or over-burdened as a kid. It has everything to do with how it just is. This is life. And as she put it: It’s called loving people.

I’m grateful to have this wonderful girl in my life. I’m grateful for the lessons in love that I get to learn every day. And yes, I am grateful for the space created for that learning by my diagnosis. There are many ways to grow as a person, just as there are many ways shut it down. If there must be sickness, then we are not going to waste any of it ignoring what it has to teach us.

It’s just what families do.

and we danced…

Today is a bit special. Even after a night of slumber-party-parent-duty for my daughter and her crew of friends. They’ve all got the day off school today because of her school’s centenary celebrations.  So we thought we’d celebrate the school’s birthday and our girl’s. So slumber partying was in order for last night and a beach ride today! This is the beach.

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And this where I have chosen to sit and do some writing.

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It’s stunning.  Early Autumn here, so not hot, but not cold. A little zephyr of a breeze. A coffee has been drunk, a pastry has been eaten.  The surfers are out in the waves and the girls are all back in the saddle, the place they love best, riding along a beach on our wild West Coast. This country is so breathtaking.  I hope they will hold this beauty in their hearts forever and never stay away for too long.

So many of the younger generation fly to bigger shores when they finish school.  It’s almost a rite of passage here in the antipodes.  Back to the ‘motherland’, or across to the Americas.  Over to where the action is and far, far away from all this natural splendour. I hope that each one of these girls carries a bank of beautiful memories like the ones they are creating today.  Carries them like homing beacons to bring them back to us when they are far away.

I’ve been thinking a lot more about those future days, when they are all grown up. I can see it emerging in my girl; the woman she will become. She and her friends sang with gusto, all the way out to the coast this morning.  Full of exuberance, they sang of a kind of love they are yet to experience. And I looked at their beautiful, shiny faces in the rear vision mirror.  Beautiful creatures. They don’t know yet, but they will.  Not so far from now.

We turned the music up, and together in the cocoon of our big warm car, we danced in our seats, be-boppin babies.  The old girl, the young girls. Full of happy hopes and wonderings. Full of a love of our own.  Love for life, for our beautiful country, for horses and sea air and the waves on the ocean.

It made me think of this song, from back when I was a young thing myself. My brother gave me a copy of The Hooters on cassette. Remember All You Zombies? That was them, too. I really loved that tape.

This the them.  And We Danced.

And we danced like the waves on the ocean romanced
We were liars in love and we danced
Swept away for a moment by chance
And we danced and danced and danced…

(ha!  love the eighties, not the mullets!)

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The Inverse of Adverse

…mothering from a place of pain…

Sometimes, for my writing gigs about parenting, I feel like there are two categories of mother in this world. It’s probably because I write for both groups. I’d like to write for Dads too, but I don’t relate as naturally to the Dad things. When I see a mothering issue, my writerly mind starts to turn it over from the points of view of two types of mum. The healthy mums and the sick mums.

Of course, it’s much more complex than that, because all mothers face diverse challenges every single day.  Many mums we see in the ‘healthy’ camp, are in fact carrying interior burdens they would cringe to let out into the daylight of public opinion, I get that.  There’s a huge crossover between those camps. Life is an imperfect art and really crap things happen all the time. You might be in the midst of creating the most intricately perfect artwork on the canvas of life when it chucks a whole can of turd brown paint over your work. It happens regardless of who you think you are, the category you fit and whether or not the universe recognises that you should have exemption. Your beautiful work of art might not get up on the gallery wall, at least, not until it’s finished. We all carry scars, suffer fresh wounds.  We all have reparation work to do.  The Bad Stuff happens everywhere, even when it doesn’t look like it.

The other day, I picked up one of my kids.  I recognised the car in front of me as one of my friend’s.  I didn’t get out of my car to say hi (although I wanted to.  I am learning to look after my limitations better so I can cope for longer in my upright world).  She knows me, she knows my stuff.  So I sent her a message on my phone, from one driver’s seat to another  “Hello Beautiful!” I tapped.  Because she really is bona-fide beautiful.  This Mum is the sort of Mum that other Mums look at and their insides sink.  She looks perfect.  A tiny little frame, perfectly groomed hair and face, clothes you wish you had hanging in your own wardrobe… if only they made them ten sizes bigger!  She’s got a few degrees, a chic home. Bright, beautifully mannered children.  Oh, and that car rear I am staring at?  Very nice thank you very much.  The lady’s got class …and the means to show it.
And in truth, I really like her in spite of all that, you know?  😉 She’s personable, approachable, interesting and funny.  She’s a genuinely lovely person.  She slid elegantly out of her driver’s seat and came to chat with me at my window. I was struck by her beauty.  Sigh. Suck in your tummy, Rach.  Put on your smile.  I wonder how she really is?

How she is, really, arrived about two minutes into the conversation, when she revealed that she is facing not one, but two, major health crises.  I stared at her flawless complexion and thought about the torment that must be happening behind that beautiful face. Her vulnerable eyes are shielded by reflective sunglasses. I feel so lost for how to comfort her.  Even though I know it.  I know that torment. The ache of the sick mother.  The loneliness of facing your own mortality in the mirror.  The frustrations when the sick stuff leeches into the mothering stuff.  It’s horrible.  Unfair.  It’s life.

My heart is tuned toward the mums who are mothering while sick.  It’s like I can hear them, sobbing in their wardrobes, hiding from their children. I see the images that haunt their night time dreaming, their fears unleashed in a scape not limited by reality.  I feel their thumping hearts as they consider the most awful possibilities. A final severing of the metaphorical umbilical. The thought of life without them in it.  Carrying on.  Of some other person, filling their dent in the bed, their place in the world. The sick mothers, thinking about their babies, as much part of them as their own pulse and breath.  How can you even begin to prepare your babies for a world you may not be in?  And how can you do that without suffocating them in your arms and trapping them in your presence?  How can you step away from the feelings, to balance your mothering, when you live in fear?

There is so much to be afraid of.  But nothing we can do will change our truth.  Big life stuff is an irrefutable fact. It’s just part of the shape and texture of the life we happen to be living.  It’s real. It’s here. There is freedom in speaking it out. In owning it. And there is relief in surrendering expectation to a new paradigm. And because being sick gives it’s own gift of perspective and gravity;  there is something quite extraordinary that we get to tap into.  We get to mentally jump off the expectations of perfection.  We get to let the pressure drop. We get to focus on the things that matter most of all.  If we are prepared to leap into a new way of viewing our crappy situation.

My mother heart projects forward into the future. I look at my babies, so precious.  I think of the time I have with them.  The length of which, no person knows. As unpalatable as it is, the amount of time any of us have is limited.  I think of the quality of that time and I know my purpose.  I want to help my children to become excellent adults.  Beautiful world citizens who are kind, open-minded, thoughtful and flexible.  I want them to make the best out of the crap life hands them. I want them to make our world better for them being in it.  And there is no more artful way to do that then to teach them how to respond to adversity with grace.  How to take even small opportunities and run with them. I’m a sick Mum.  And it is precisely because I am sick that I have a meaningful context and opportunity to help my children be exceptional people.

I resolve to answer my fears with determination.  My situation is a chance that not every mumma gets. I know the value of my time and the importance of my role. I will teach. I will nurture. I will do these things imperfectly and sometimes flat on my back. I will do them with love and an eye on the people my children are becoming. In every adversity there is a teachable moment.  We can do something beautiful in every ugly, uncomfortable moment. We can guide our babies into fulfilling lives.  Show them how to shore-up, talk about it, get through.  How to keep their eye on the value of every given moment.

Don’t waste it, sick Mummas.  My sisters-in-arms.  Embrace it.

One moment, one day, at a time.

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