Today was a hard day for a lot of people in my world. Another young life lost to the vicious and indiscriminate bastard that is cancer. I don’t know the two local young ladies whose lives have been recently cut so brutally short, but I am witnessing the impact that their loss is having on the people and communities around me and while it is apparent just how deeply they are affected, my heart is bursting with joy at the way these beautiful lives are being honoured.
Yet again tonight, just like last week at the Soul Song celebration, it was clear to me that to live your best life is categorically the best way to honour someone’s memory or mourn their loss.
The young lady who today lost her brave fight against a brain tumour, was a beloved and talented member of the local dance and theatre community and although there were many broken hearts at our rehearsal tonight our choreographer started the evening with the most perfect introduction. Her pain was obvious, she spoke through tears at times, but she forged ahead and after reminding us all what is really important – to live, to love, to laugh, to encourage and to strive to do your best, we had a great and productive rehearsal.
On Saturday, I had the great honour to being part of a small group to sing at a special gathering to celebrate the life of another young lady who also recently lost a courageous fight against a brain tumour. She had specifically requested that it be a celebration and that bright colours were to be worn so we all donned our most colourful outfits and headed out the local university. One of our singers is a close family friend, and wanted to gift the family with a song we have learnt this year ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. The version that we do is by Soweto Gospel Choir and features soloists – normally two, but just one on this day. It was that soloists’ strength that particularly moved and inspired me on this occasion. Despite this being the celebration of a complete strangers life, it was a hard thing for our whole group: We felt a great weight of responsibility to sing beautifully and bring a blessing to the people that had gathered, and to help our friend give her loved ones a special gift. But ultimately, that song relies on the soloist/s. The solos are huge and can not be done without killer pipes and immense passion. And boy did she deliver. Of all the times I’ve heard it, this was the most powerful. It was truly one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. This wasn’t an accident, it was a deliberate choice and it took a toll – as we walked out of the room and out of sight, her legs buckled under her and she leant on a table shaking and crying. She had poured her whole self into that song. She gave it all. We all did, but the rest of us from the relative comfort of the group – I had a friend holding my hand the whole way through and tears still streamed down my face as I sang. But I did it. She did it. We did it. It was emotional and taxing but also life-bringing and rewarding. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and also one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been a part of.
When my Dad died the world stopped turning. For me, anyway. I honestly thought it had for everyone at first. But then I realised that other people’s lives were continuing on pretty much as normal – people were still going to work, people were still going to the pub and talking and laughing together. It made no sense to me. I couldn’t understand how people were carrying on, and the thought of being able to do the same made me feel sick – like I shouldn’t be able to function or laugh or think about anything else if I really truly loved and missed him. But I had so many people telling me I had to be strong for my mum and the only way that I could do that was to distract myself and focus on the things I had to look forward to, like seeing my family. I tried my best to keep a smile on my face and keep my tears for the privacy of my bedroom. My grandparents had flown over from the UK when it was apparent that Dad was not going to recover, but my father’s sisters did not arrive until the morning of his funeral – 7 days after he died. In what was an otherwise bleak week, it was the one thing I was looking forward to. I had thought about their arrival all week in order to distract myself and was excited to pick them up from the airport. While I can’t remember the car ride home, I’m sure I talked the whole way. Probably about New Kids On The Block and other equally trite topics. I was 13, after all.
When we got back to the house, it was time to get ready for the funeral. I vividly remember what happened next: I was in the bathroom, applying way too much black eye liner when my aunt came in. She was a very heavy set lady with hair like a ginger Jason Priestley circa BH90210, with a rats tail at the back for a classy, feminine touch. She closed the door behind her and stood behind me at the mirror. She looked into my eyes via my reflection and with her thick north English accent said “What do you think you’re bloody playing at? Your father’s just died and you’re smiling and carrying on like this is a fooking family reunion. We don’t want to be here, you know, on t’other side of world. You need to pull your friggin’ head in and show some respect, you heartless little cow.”
Although there were a million thoughts racing through my head and a thousand responses on the tip of my tongue, no words came out. Just tears. Black, eye-liner stained tears. “That’s better” she said, and walked out of the room.
Looking back now, I’m not angry about it. Obviously she was grieving the loss of her brother, but she’s also got more issues than Vogue and is just a miserable, angry woman in general. That’s who she is, but it’s not who I am. Because I choose not to be.
That incident is not something I’ve thought about often over the years (I think I’ve tried to block it out) but on reflection it explains a lot. It explains why, as discussed in my last blog post, I have always felt an obligation to be mournful on my Dad’s anniversary and birthday, and why I have felt guilty when I’ve enjoyed or been otherwise occupied on these days. And it also explains my tendency to view the ability to function after a loss as heartless and uncaring instead of strong and coping. I’ve never really acknowledged to myself the trauma that that conversation caused me – Sticks and stones and all that. But now that I’m thinking about it, that was a pretty fucked up thing to say and it’s no wonder it’s screwed with my head.
Earlier this year I got a lead role in a show at a local theatre company. During the shows run, I learned of my grandmothers passing. The fact that I wasn’t notified at the time of her death, and found out via Facebook a month later was something else I had to process and probably messed with my head more than my 88 year old grandma taking her long expected leave. But despite the grief and pain and hurt and betrayal I was feeling, I got up and did it. The show went on. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve done but also one of my proudest moments. I mustered strength that I didn’t know I had and gave one of my best performances. Because it wouldn’t make her happy for me to cancel a show and have 150 audience members turned away at the door. It wouldn’t make her proud to see the theatre have to refund tickets because of my inability to perform and it wouldn’t change anything or help me feel any better to let down my fellow cast and crew. It would be just another thing for me to feel bad about. Continuing with my life, on the other side of the world, when there was nothing else I could do, was all I could do. Of course I desperately wanted to curl up on the floor with photo albums and wine and cry my eyes out, and I did exactly that – after the show.
So, I guess what I’m finally learning is: It’s OK to be OK. And if I’m not OK, that’s OK too.
I will be. Because I choose to be.