Posted by: regina | May 24, 2010

Dan, for John

My friend Dan died May 28, 2009, two years and 3 days after my sister, Vikki. Vikki died of ovarian cancer in Nassau, Bahamas, Dan died of nose cancer in Atlanta, Georgia. Dan was 62, Vikki was 44. For both, their fight was short; death came too soon for them. And for us who they left behind.

On May 14, 2009 I sent Dan and John, Dan’s partner of 35 years, a message just checking in, seeing how things were. I knew Dan had been ill and my last message from them said he had seemed to be improving. The message I received back was grave. Dan had been moved to a hospice. John had been his primary care giver for the past year, since he had been diagnosed with the cancer. The decision to stop all treatment had been made. Now, Dan’s medical needs were such that John would no longer be able to care for him at home. Two weeks later my sweet, funny friend, Dan, was dead.

I am writing this story for John, Dan’s partner, also my friend. I have never been able to tell you John how much the death of Dan touched me, so close on the heels of that of Vikki. I think somehow you knew it would affect me. I had not seen you or Dan since my wedding almost 7 years earlier but we have always managed to stay in contact through all my wanderings through Europe and now Asia. I never spent a huge amount of time with you both in Atlanta. Yet, you became my friends, two people I knew I could always turn to for whatever reason. Now one of you was gone. Dan was gone; the person who brought us together and created our friendship.

Three days after the second anniversary of Vikki’s death. Three days later to mourn the death of a friend. I remember telling Didier numbly that Dan was dead. I was at a loss for words. I did not know what to say, how to express what I felt. How it hurt and how it brought back fresh Vikki’s death. Why does the universe take the good ones?

What could I say to you John? What could I say that could make you feel better? Nothing. I could not say that time would heal the hurt, how could I when it had been two years, now three at this writing, and I still hurt. I did not want to sound fraudulent in my own ears. I could not find the words to comfort you. Not much could have comforted you then. I think you knew that. Now one year later you write to me that things are better, a little less painful. You have been through all the one year anniversaries, thinking what you would have done together on those days, thinking of the arguments or bad times, what you could have done differently. You have woken every day and faced an empty house, void of Dan’s presence. At least I could get away from the Bahamas, away from the house where Vikki lived with my mother; unlike my mother.

My first Christmas after Vikki died, we escaped to Mauritius to try to have a holiday, to get away, in essence to forget. I could not. I saw Vikki in my mind’s eye standing on the roadsides in Mauritius, dressed all in white with her white blonde hair. I became angry, so angry. Anger was my Christmas present to Didier and Gabby, only 15 months then. It was as if I blamed them for her death. They were the closest, the easiest targets at which my grief could lash out. I was tired, so tired, blinded by sorrow I could not express, by memories. I felt no-one understood, no-one could say anything to help me. I hated everyone for it. No-one could take away my pain, assuage my anger. Just listening to me could not help. I couldn’t even describe what I felt.

Every year during the 10 days prior to Vikki’s death, I live my own private hell no matter how hard I try to forget. The images of Vikki in those last days of her life are still vivid. What she did, what she said, how she moaned in agony, the moments during which she took her last breaths, my actions, my mother’s wretched grief… everything is still there living in full colour in my memory. The cycle is not complete until May 31 when she was buried. The second date I cannot forget either. It was the date, the anniversary of my wedding in France with Didier’s family who were unable to celebrate the real wedding with us in Nassau, as you and Dan did. Now it is the date Vikki was committed to the earth. In those remaining 6 days I relive the days following her death, the funeral preparations, my beaten mother, the argument with my second older brother that has split me from him, the battered corpse of Vikki to whose face I applied makeup for the sake of a viewing, a ceremony of a religion I no longer believe in. I have the imprint of that soulless stiff body in that coffin within me still.

Can I train my brain to forget? Can we train our brains to leave their memories in the past, to move forward in life? Talking to people who have lost a sibling, for me, others who have lost a lover and partner, like you…. does it help? I do not know, I have not had this opportunity. Or perhaps I resist the idea. If I participated in a group like this I would want to scream out…. yes, you speak of your sibling but I cannot feel your grief, I can only feel mine for the loss of my sibling, my sister, who you never knew. Maybe I should try it. You said it has helped you.

I recently found a website that discusses sibling grief. It is the closest I have come to someone understanding what it has been like for me. It is the closest I have come for me even to comprehend how I feel. I was the one there at the end to give support to my mother. I cannot fathom what it is like to lose a child but I have seen it written on my mother’s face, in her body, in her thinking. All I could do was to try to protect her from getting hurt more. But who protected me? I was there alone with my mother. I had to be the strong one. In the Bahamas, there was only one person who acknowledged my grief. Kelly, the sister of an old schoolmate, a person I barely knew, spoke the words that mattered most to me ‘I feel your pain.’ Thank you, Kelly. Now it is your sister who might be ill. I hope I never need repeat those words back to you.

John, I still do not know how to make the loss of Dan feel better for you. We both know he, like Vikki, would not have wanted us to spend so much time grieving their deaths. But I also know that it is us who are left behind. You are not Dan. I am not Vikki. We are who we are. I understand if you still need to grieve. I understand if at times you feel you want to do nothing at all to get over Dan’s death. I understand if you want to move on. By moving on, at times we can feel guilty of forgetting them, so we seem stuck in our despair. I understand it is hard. I understand there are times when you are sad, angry, resentful, moody, tired. I understand if you feel cheated, misunderstood, not talkative. I understand that it’s ok to want to live a normal life, go out, be with friends and family, to laugh at funny moments without feeling you are betraying Dan’s memory, to even laugh at something he would have said or done in a similar situation. I also understand that now, one year later, it’s still ok to cry, to feel strangled by tears that refuse to flow, to feel your chest is tight, restricted.

I want to tell you that I am so sorry Dan died, that he died from such an ugly stupid disease. I am sorry for his suffering and for yours. I am sorry for the loss of my friend, the loss of your partner. I am sorry I never got to see Dan again, to hear his jokes, to see you two still together after so long. Your relationship awed me, made me feel all things in love were possible. I am sorry I did not come to his funeral. Even if I could have, I would not have. I did not think I could bear it and I would not have been any comfort to you. So I am sorry if I was not there for you. I couldn’t be… I did not know how. Only now through these writings am I able to say how I felt, how I feel, for the first time to really think about events and write about my feelings, my emotions. It is difficult to do. Maybe even worse than talking about it to someone, you cannot hide from your own mind. Maybe I should do what you are doing, write a letter to Vikki. What would I say? I do not know.

You sent me a message about a memorial for Dan that was held on July 24 at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Atlanta. My sister is buried in a church in Nassau with the same name. What coincidence is this?

Here is a something amusing I am certain Dan would have appreciated. After the funeral, the wreath of large pink roses and blue-violet orchids that my mother and I had selected was placed on top of Vikki’s grave. They were placed there in spite of the fact that people in that neighbourhood seem to enjoy robbing the dead of their flowers on a fairly regular basis. Friends were concerned there would be no flowers left on the grave the next morning. There were. Not a one had been touched. We joked that no-one had dared steal flowers off the grave of Vikki, that she must have been there guarding them somehow, threatening eternal haunting to any thief that ventured into the graveyard to make off with any of her beautiful flowers.

I didn’t attend the memorial for Dan either. But this is my memorial to Dan now, for you…

Dan, Vikki, John at my wedding in Bahamas

Dan and me, wedding in Bahamas

Dan in Paris

I remember Dan, my client who became my friend, my gay friend who introduced me to his wonderful partner John, who is still my friend. I remember Dan, my fellow cat lover, my comedian, my birthday party guest with red roses in hand when I worked at CARE, who poked fun at me for my date who was younger than me. I remember Dan, who invited me to dinner parties with a hilarious pig farmer, who set me up on a date with someone from Kentucky, who filled my glass with wine, my heart with lightness and laughter. I remember Dan, who took me to lunch in Atlanta before I left to live in Paris then came to visit, thought the men were skinny and short and pretended to eat an entire bowl of chocolate mousse. I remember Dan, my sender of Christmas cards with money to treat myself to a drink; my wedding guest, who met my sister and became friends with other friends from my wedding and whose exquisite gift of a glass flower sits in my living room.

Dan, John, me in Atlanta

I remember Dan and there always next to Dan doing all these things, has been John. John, who I hope reads this and understands what I am trying to say to him. Who I hope will never stop being my friend, who I hope I will see some day again, and who is always welcome wherever I am.

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Posted by: regina | May 21, 2010

Face Painting

In the numbness that followed in the days after I watched Vikki’s life, ravaged by ovarian cancer, come to an end, I made the decision. I remembered the death of my grandmother 20 years earlier, how I looked into her coffin at the viewing and did not see the woman I had loved. I saw some pale white powdered creature with fake splotched rosy cheeks and thin red lips, a face I did not recognise as my grandmother. I remembered my anger, who had made her look like that? She never looked like that in life. I swore Vikki would not be turned into some macabre painted face by someone who barely knew her. I swore I would make her beautiful, I knew she would not have wanted anyone to see what she had become. I would be the one to apply makeup to the face of my dead sister.

Vikki had never discussed with me or my mother any arrangements for her funeral. Perhaps she chose not to dwell on the details of her death; perhaps she thought she could beat back the cancer. She had only briefly mentioned it to a friend, Natalee, who lived in the house next door. The house has belonged to my grandmother before my mother sold it. According to Natalee, Vikki had wanted to be dressed in her favourite colour, black. She had wanted a black top, a black miniskirt and a black lace scarf to cover her nude head. Amongst her clothing, we found a sheer long sleeve black shirt and a silk sleeveless black top to place under it. The only black miniskirt Vikki owned was a leather one I had given her. My mother resisted the leather skirt; she thought it too short, not appropriate for a religious ceremony such as a funeral. She wanted to include black hose; shoes were not necessary. I reminded her that it was Vikki’s funeral, and this is what she had wanted to wear. The coffin would be open from the waist up; no-one would see her legs. There was no need for hose or worry about the length of the skirt. She gave in. The clothes were sent to the funeral home.

On May 30, five days after Vikki died, in the early afternoon of another hot day in Nassau, I drove to the funeral home. The viewing was scheduled for that evening. I prayed to Vikki, hoping she would hear me, help me. “Please help me to do your makeup the way you would have wanted. Guide my hands. Give me the strength to do this.”

My second oldest brother had arrived for the funeral the day before. He offered to come with me to the funeral home. He had been working in a Catholic church in Florida at the time, assisting at funerals as part of his job. But I declined the offer. I did not want him there. He had become fanatically religious, claiming he could see ‘godly’ visions, believing himself the recipient of messages from the Virgin Mary, and my son to be the next king of France. I did not want to listen to his ranting and biblical quotations. I did not want to be subjected to the Catholic religiosity in which I no longer believed, but that I was enduring superficially for the sake of my sister.

I arrived at the funeral home and was greeted by the young funeral director in charge of arranging everything for Vikki’s burial. He brought me to the coffin where Vikki lay. I began to tremble, to cry silently, to whisper over and over to her as if she could hear me, “Oh Vikki, what have they done to you, what have they done to you?”

It was horrible; I could not have imagined this. The yellow/green jaundiced blotchiness of her skin caused by the decaying of the body, the lips positioned together so that her beautiful lower full lip was now thin, the scalp with angry reddish marks perhaps from where it had been shaved for the embalming preparation, the left side of her head where a lump protruded as if a vein had imploded. Her eyes were fixed shut. Her stiff hands positioned one over the other on her chest. She wore the clothing we had sent. They had been cut down the back, and placed on her as she lay in the coffin. I knew this because I could see where the cut edges had been tucked under her body. Beneath the clothing, I could see a black plastic bag around the torso of her body. I did not know how I was going to get through the next few hours. My hands shook, I felt weak. I was grateful my mother was never going to see this nightmarish image of her oldest daughter; that it would not be her last image of Vikki, as it is mine.

The mortician came to my side. With words I do not remember, he managed to pull my grief struck soul back out of that coffin and into the room. I will be forever grateful for the humanity, kindness and professionalism of this man who remained at my side during that time. If it had not been for him, I fear I would have lost my sanity. I wanted to know why Vikki looked the way she did. He explained quietly that the embalming process injected fluid into the body. All orifices and any holes from tubes such as the port that has been put in her neck and where her stomach had been drained had to be filled with something to inhibit the fluid from escaping. It was the reason for the black plastic bag that enveloped her body – in case of leakage. I couldn’t see it, but there had been cotton stuffed up her nose and ears, and her lips had been sewn shut. I absorbed this information almost clinically without reaction; I suppose I had no choice, the gruesomeness of it too much for my brain to dissect at that moment.

I learned makeup could not be applied too far in advance of a viewing because it gets absorbed quite quickly into the body. The mortician demonstrated how to apply it. He explained a lot was necessary to cover up the yellowing of the skin. So I applied layer after layer to the waxen face – the powder base, the light purple and pink eye shadow, the black mascara and eye liner, the blush, the pale pink lipstick that Vikki loved to wear. Her nails had been manicured the week before she died and had since been cleaned of the horrible green stains that had been on them in the hospital. The mortician held her hands for me and I coated her nails carefully with light pink polish. We placed her favourite rings on her fingers, earrings in her ears, around her wrist and neck the bracelet and necklace she always wore, gifts from her partner. The cross her friend Johnny had given her that she had kept with her during her illness was placed in her hands. He had asked she be buried with it. Then, with some difficulty we wrapped the black lace fabric Natalee had bought around her head, securing it under the weight of her head, covering the grotesque scalp. She looked beautiful, serene, almost Madonna like with the black lace framing her face, the makeup softening the harshness of death. Only her lower lip was not as it should have been. I thought how I never noticed before how straight and thin her nose was, how almost broken it seemed at the ridge where she always wore sunglasses. I was mildly shocked to discover how much in this attitude of death she resembled my mother. It had always been me whom people though resembled my mother. It was ironic. I wandered if anyone else had ever remarked on this similarity.

It was a surreal experience. It was Vikki there in the peacock blue coffin that we had selected earlier that week, but at the same time, it was not her. Whether it was his intention to do so or not, through his dialogue with me the mortician succeeded in making me feel as if yes, this was indeed a corpse, a body, something that resembled my sister. Yet, Vikki was no longer in that lifeless stiff pallid skin with leaking orifices and wounds. Where had she gone? I did not know. I only knew the thing, the soul, the spirit, the consciousness or whatever name we have for it, that had once been Vikki, it was gone. The face I had painted was just a painting of her. Yet, it was the only palpable thing of her I could touch or see. If her spirit had left her battered body, I did not sense it, her, anywhere near me. And it made me feel empty, abandoned, betrayed. My spiritual beliefs were starting to slip away, to crumble in the face of death.

Before leaving, I placed the malachite heart I had given Vikki, believing its energy could help her fight the cancer, in the coffin with her and a card covered in dolphins. She had liked dolphins. In it, a note, words I don’t remember exactly…

You’re free now to do everything you ever wanted and not feel pain. Go find Gam, she loves you and doesn’t dislike you as you believed. Go find Daddy, don’t be afraid because he will not hurt you now. Don’t forget me, the sister that loves you.

That day, I decided that when I died, I would be cremated, my remains scattered somewhere beautiful. There would be no ceremony, no memorial. Perhaps in this way I am like my father – this is what he requested in his suicide letter. I do not want to sit on someone’s shelf in an urn, a reminder to them to grieve or something to dust mindlessly after the years have passed. I do not want a grave and headstone, a place for my husband, child or grandchildren to revisit their pain, to be obligated to upkeep. I do not want my loved ones to drag out their goodbyes, their suffering by the need to choose a coffin, clothing, flowers, songs, biblical readings; everything for a funeral, a religious ceremonial belief to which I no longer subscribe. I do not want them to endure what I did when Vikki died, what I will no doubt have to endure again someday when my mother’s life comes to an end.

I told the mortician. He too preferred the fire.

I returned home and waited for those hours to pass, for the viewing when my mother would see the result of my labour. I whispered over and over to the universe, to Vikki, “I did the best I could, Vikki. I hope you like it. I’m so sorry if it’s not what you wanted. I did it how I thought you would want it.” My mother thought Vikki looked beautiful.

It mattered.
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What do you think about funerals and the process of viewing the dead?
What do you think happens to the soul when the body dies?

Posted by: regina | April 5, 2010

Belief

I believed all things in this universe are connected somehow; all events happen for a reason, a reason sometimes inexplicable to the human mind, there were no coincidences. I believed that when someone close to you died, you would still sense them, maybe even see them, they continued to exist somewhere. If you were lucky enough, you could talk to them, hear their voice.

When my sister Vikki died in 2007 from the life sucking disease of ovarian cancer, these beliefs crumbled. Why did the universe choose my sister to be an example to the world of what cancer does to people? Why do I not hear or feel the presence of my sister yet others in my family say they do? Is it only their hope that activates their imagination? Almost three years onward, I am finally starting to rebuild my beliefs.

I felt helpless to prevent Vikki’s death. Death, not passing away. To pass away sounds so gentle, so kind. Death sounds violent. Vikki’s death was not kind; it was tragic, unrelenting, cruel. After more than a year of physical and emotional suffering, gifts from the ovarian cancer, her life ended in three rattled breaths. Three intakes of life-giving air, the second and third coming further and further apart. For her, an eternity filling in those seconds in between. For me, a mere minute, if that.

In those last two days, Vikki lay mute in a drug induced sleep, moaning from time to time from whatever nightmare tortured her internally. I whispered often to her to let go, to be free, it was ok to leave this world. I did not anticipate how it would grieve me so when she heeded my whispers.

Did I feel relief that her suffering had passed? Yes. Had I not uttered my words, would she have lingered longer… who would have benefitted? I know the answer… only those of us she left behind. We are selfish; we often do not want a loved one to die despite his or her pain, for we know we in turn will feel a different pain… the pain of loss, the pain of being left behind. Does the heart feel pain? I say yes; a physical pain, an indescribable sadness in the region of the heart clawing upward toward the throat, trying to escape, but unable, trapped.

Was Vikki emancipated from her agony the moment the last breath left her? Did her body, her soul, her spirit, her ghost, her essence, whatever you wish to call it, go through turmoil on another plain of existence to understand her life and death? If I am to believe what the clairvoyant told me, I could believe Vikki is going or has already been through a period of understanding. An understanding of why she was subjected to such an experience, of the connections in her life or past lives that brought her to that point. Did Vikki experience a new anguish in this learning that we mortals are unable to fathom?

What of those persons who succeeded, unlike Vikki several years earlier, in committing suicide – my father, my father’s brother, my sister-in-law? Did their misery end or did it begin anew in death so they too could comprehend their path?

Comprehension, a difficult process when it involves acceptance of what we are not ready, not willing to face, to accept the past, the present, the possible future, the unknown, the rights and the wrongs we have committed against others and those committed against us, the mistakes, the good deeds, the unthinkable deeds, the love we had, the love that escaped us. Does it all come crashing down on us when we die, a punishing lesson to be learned before being sent back on earth again or evolving into a being beyond my comprehension?

Or do we have nothing, no light, no peace, no god, no heaven, no hell, no reincarnation, no other worldly plain – just empty nothingness. “Peace or is it?” asked Vikki once.

What do I believe now?
I believe anew all events are connected, there is no random act. As vicious or incomprehensible as we perceive the act to be, it is for a reason. I have found one connection of events – it is the birth of my son Gabby. My son, who Vikki loved from the moment he was conceived, came into this world on September 9 at 5:25 pm. The original delivery due date was to be the birthday of my father, a fact I dreaded. I didn’t know what that would have done to Vikki, for Gabby to be born on the birthday of the father who molested her when she was a child. Even though he had put a gun to his head 5 years earlier, she feared him up until her death and, knowing she was dying, she feared facing him beyond the grave. Fate changed it so that Gabby was born four days before Vikki’s birthday, at the hour that matched the day of her death – May 25. I know many scoff, that I “imagine” the coincidence, but the knowledge makes me shiver… I believe Gabby was connected, and still is, to Vikki.

But why did it have to be Vikki that died? Was it for her story to be told, to educate other women, to help save lives, even if only one life? Will that one life be more important than was hers to humanity? Will that one person play a role greater than was Vikki’s? Because… Vikki’s lost battle to ovarian cancer, all she endured in her life; the child abuse, the anorexia, the drugs, the alcohol, the health problems, the never-ending issues with her womanhood… how could it have all been for nothing?

I only see my sister in rare dreams, precious moments of sleep I am never able to recapture. Is it how Vikki communicates with me? I do not know for certain. I can only hope.

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Do you believe everything happens for a reason, that we are all connected?
Can you see connections/coincidences in your life?
Do you sense your deceased loved ones in your life? How?
What do you believe we will find when we die?

Posted by: regina | March 30, 2010

Pieces of Memories

Today I stood enrobed in a saree of gorgeous teal, purple and pink. As the shop assistants smiled at me I knew so would be Vikki, if she had been there. Invited to a Bollywood Indian wedding this coming weekend, my saree has been made for me to fit the occasion. Drawn to the vibrant teal of this soft fabric since first seeing it, I wonder if subconsciously I am supporting the ovarian cancer awareness movement whose ribbon colour is teal, somehow honouring the memory of Vikki.

Vikki chose to wear mostly white, black or maroon, but she would have been enraptured by this shop of exquisite fabrics from India, sequinned and studded with faux jewels. She would have lost herself in the market place of Little India here in Singapore and drooled over the jewellery, DVDs, CDs, watches, clothing and food of the Mustafa Centre, famous for its 7 by 24 hour patronage.

In Singapore I feel closer to the memories of Vikki than I did when I lived in Belgium. Living here since November 2008, the similarity to the Bahamas in the architecture of the bungalow houses, the climate, the fruit and the vegetation makes me feel strange at times, almost displaced. Of one thing I am certain, Vikki would have adored Singapore. My mother, who visited recently, also remarked often on this during her stay.

The shorts clad, trendy flip flops and designer sunglasses culture would have delighted Vikki. It was her style, her signature look. The plethora of international eateries, especially those typically Singaporean, heated with black pepper or red chilli peppers would have slid down her throat easily, the spicier the better. The Japanese sushi and sashimi would have been heaven for her almost vegetarian diet.

And what of chopsticks, so widely employed here to sample Chinese delicacies? I believe Singapore has Vikki’s name written on a chopstick somewhere. She hated to eat with metal, always carrying around chopsticks with her in her bag. It was a known oddity about her that was accepted by friends and the restaurants she frequented in Nassau. And if she forgot the chopsticks, they provided plastic.

Singapore, the mecca of Asia for shopping, would have spun her head, unused as she was, living in Nassau, to such variety and abundance. And although Vikki loved designer stores and shopping in general, she was rather frugal in what she owned (as I found at when she died). I can imagine walking Orchard Road with her, the elaborate Champs d’Elysée of Singapore, discovering new stores, rummaging through the twice yearly mammoth sales for great bargains. And after, a coffee at any one of the numerous cafés such as Starbucks, a chain that I encouraged her to open in Nassau prior to it popping up out of nowhere all over the island.

She could have taken Gabby with me to enjoy the popular children’s activities available; the shopping centres full of indoor playgrounds and merry-go-rounds, the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari, the Bird Park, the art and music centres for babies and toddlers… We could have eaten seafood at East Coast Park, the sea next to us, a view of cargo ships between us and nearby Indonesia.

Vikki liked celebrations, she loved to buy gifts for people, she loved to give. Chinese New Year, Indian Diwali and Christmas light up Singapore, decorating the main shopping areas, stringing trees with lights and displays, an amazing site to see. She would have loved it, been inspired by what she saw to try new ideas at home in the places she worked, to create a style of her own that wowed people with its nouveauté on the tiny island of New Providence.

Would Vikki have wanted to live in Singapore? Despite its allure, the answer is no. Why? There exist in Singapore no clear sapphire, turquoise and emerald waters. No beaches of white, pink and golden sands, untouched and unblemished, as in the Bahamas. Yet, I cannot help but feel the attraction Singapore would have had on Vikki, how she would have appreciated it, how it would have vibed with her. But I know she would have never parted from her beloved ocean and beaches of the Bahamas.

I can smile sometimes through the pain of losing Vikki because here in Singapore, I have managed to find pieces of her. Vikki eating with chopsticks, Vikki eating mangoes, sapodillas and sour sop, Vikki drinking espressos, Vikki eating seafood by the waterfront, Vikki buying yet another pair of flip flops or sunglasses, Vikki eating spicy food I would choke on, Vikki decorating the house for Christmas, Vikki buying little trinkets for me, Vikki browsing through the shops… Vikki, just being Vikki.

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Do places bring back memories of your loved ones who are deceased?
Do you feel comfort in the memories these places bring, or does it pain you still?
Is it possible to smile through pain of loss?

Posted by: regina | March 29, 2010

A Mother’s Love

I am in the hallway of the children’s ward screaming silently in my head at my dead sister Vikki, “Why have you let this happen to Gabby? Why? You were supposed to protect him, to be his guardian angel!”

A few days ago, we took my son, Gabby, to the emergency room of the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Singapore after he woke up mid-night vomiting every 20-30 minutes for 4 hours. At the ER, he was given a suppository to suppress the vomiting. It didn’t work. He continued to vomit the syrup drink they provided until there was only yellow bile left to spew. Fearing dehydration in one so young, five hours later he was admitted to the hospital. His face was pale, frail. His blue eyes rimmed sleepless red, the sockets purple hollows.

We were requested to bring him to a special room to have the IV inserted in his small hand. One parent was allowed to stay. Unable to repress my tears, I remained in the corridor to scream my fear for my son at Vikki.

Gabby braved the IV, uttering only ‘ouch.’ We told him his hand would drink water for him from the drip that was attached, his tummy could rest. Later that day, he curled against me in the hospital bed, falling into an exhausted sleep as I sang “Sleepy sleepy Gabby.” My husband sat vigilant in an adjacent chair, I lay next to Gabby in bed. We drifted in and out of sleep, waiting for his recovery.

One and a half days later we returned home, Gabby fine, me physically spent with anxiety and stress. Relief came with sleep.

A mother’s duty
How many times did my mother hold my sister’s hand through the pain of her ovarian cancer, at home, at the hospital? Could she even count the days she sat vigil at Vikki’s side in the hospital after she had endured one treatment or another? Or the nights at home when she lay in Vikki’s bed next to her while she slept, waiting for some new misery? How often did she cry out to her Catholic God, asking him where he was? Why had he forsaken her, why was he taking her daughter?

When I came back to the Bahamas to be with Vikki for those last few days in May 2007, my mother was a shadow of the woman she had been a year earlier. Her 79 year old face was strained with worry, her body thin and bent with the weight of taking care of her ill daughter.

At the funeral, my mother quietly and with grace wept, her shoulders collapsing inward as if trying to shield her heart. After Vikki’s death, the times she had never been there for Vikki when she was younger and troubled preyed on my mother’s mind, made her question her worth, her value to her dead daughter. It made her question Vikki’s love for her.

Vikki’s rock
Mom, you need not question Vikki’s love. It was one of the last things she asked of me; to make certain to tell you she loved you. And from Vikki’s own hand, she wrote the following in her journal…

April 16th, 2007
My Mom is always here for me. She has more than made up for not being there when I was younger. She is really here for me now when I really really need her. I don’t know what I would do without her support and help and just being my Mom. I love her so much and have been so close to her.

Escape to sleep
After Vikki’s death, I insisted my mother return with me to Belgium. I would not leave her alone in the house she had shared with Vikki, to sit in the room where Vikki once slept, to smell her perfumes, to wallow in sadness. I could not leave her to suffer the memories alone. So I brought her to our house in a foreign country to try to heal her, to make her see joy in her grandchild that Vikki had adored. I tried to make her understand that Vikki had wanted her to live, to enjoy life now that she was no longer burdened by her illness, to be happy somehow.

And my mother slept. She slept for three months during the nights, late into the mornings and parts of the days. Her exhaustion gradually lifting as the months went by. Time healing her heart ever so slowly as it heals it even now.

It’s almost three years later. I am unable to speak very much to my mother of Vikki. When I do, our voices tremble; we become engaged in our private grief, unable to comfort each other, awkward, until the subject changes.

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What do we do for our children when they suffer?
How long does it take our body to recover from the trauma of the death of a loved one?
Is sleep one of the healers of pain?

Posted by: regina | March 22, 2010

A Few More Minutes

Speaking at my sister’s funeral following her death from ovarian cancer was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I held my 8 month old son, Gabby, while my oldest brother gave his eulogy to her. It was my turn, my body felt heavy, almost unable to pry myself from my seat of sorrow. But I wanted to speak of Vikki to those people assembled in Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, so that they could learn of grief and love. And so I walked trembling with tears to stand behind the pulpit, the one at which as a teenager I had stood to do the readings before the sermons, and I preached my heartache to the gathering.

A sister’s eulogy
I was together with my mother at Vikki’s bedside when she died. I know some of you have already experienced this, but for those of you have not, I hope you never do. I hope you never see your sister or your brother die before you in the destructive way that cancer feeds on life. I hope you never experience the anguished tormented grief of a mother who is not supposed to outlive her child.

I was the last person of Vikki’s family and friends that saw her while she was still lucid – that was late Wednesday night (before her panicked gasping for air). We talked about a trip we had taken to Exuma two years ago. Vikki had been in awe of the beauty of the Exuma waters.

We talked about my baby, Gabby, how she was so happy to have been able to see him born, how she would try to be some type of guardian angel to him. The last time Vikki was able to get out of bed, with great effort and pain, wheeled in a chair with an oxygen tank outside the ward, was to be able to spend a few precious minutes holding Gabby.

That night I asked Vikki if she needed anything and I will never forget her reply, “A few more minutes, a few more hours, a few more days.”

She told me to leave the hospital before it got too dark, she was still my older sister and I was to listen to her. But before I left, she told me to not forget and make certain to tell our mother that she loved her. That night, she told me she had so many friends, almost as if she had never realised how many of you there are.

Vikki used to collect quotes about how she felt about life. So here are some of her thoughts for you to take into consideration as you live your lives with her in your memory.

The best kind of friend is the kind you can sit on a porch and swing with, never say a word, and then walk away feeling like it was the best conversation you’ve ever had.

There are moments in life when you miss someone so much that you just want to pick them from your dreams and hug them for real.

Dream what you want to dream; go where you want to go; be what you want to be, because you have only one life and one chance to do all the things you want to do.

May you have enough happiness to make you sweet, enough trials to make you strong, enough sorrow to keep you human, enough hope to make you happy.

When the door of happiness closes, another one opens, but often times we look so long at the closed door that we don’t see the one which has been opened for us.

Maybe God wants us to meet a few wrong people before meeting the right one so that when we finally meet the right person, we will know how to be grateful for that gift.

Always put yourself in others’ shoes. If you feel that it hurts you, it probably hurts the other person too.

Happiness lies for those who cry, those who hurt, those who have searched, and those who have tried, for only they can appreciate the importance of people who have touched their lives.

The above quotes are from unknown authors.

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What would you say at your sister’s or brother’s funeral if you had just watched them die?
Would it be difficult to speak when you are in such emotional turmoil?

Posted by: regina | March 19, 2010

Gasping for Life

A few months ago, I convinced myself to start meditating again, after having abandoned it for almost 3 ½ years. I closed my eyes, trying to follow my breathing, trying to shut out all the noises of Singapore coming in through the windows. Suddenly I am wrenched into the memory of Vikki.

Thursday morning the hospital called my mother asking for us to come as soon as possible, Vikki was agitated and they thought we might be able to calm her down. It was 8 days after my return to the Bahamas from Belgium. My husband, unable to stay longer due to work commitments, had said his goodbye to Vikki 4 days earlier, leaving me with an 8 month old Gabby.

Driving us to the hospital, I felt a tingling rush in my hands, a sensation akin to what I experience when doing reiki. I remember shivering in the heat of the morning, feeling dread weaving its way into my heart.

Gabby was with us; we had no other option, no-one to babysit him. I remained in the corridor outside the women’s public ward of Princess Margaret Hospital, trying to entertain Gabby. My mother went inside to Vikki. The time seemed interminable. It was not visiting hours and I was alone in the hallway with a blissfully ignorant baby, only the hospital staff going to and fro and in and out of the ward.

My mother emerged, tired, worried. Vikki was panicky, unable to breath. I left Gabby with Mom to see what I could do to help.

Vikki was wearing an oxygen mask, gasping for air, wreathing in her bed, clutching at her chest, fidgeting with the IV tubes that entered the port on her neck and pulling at the mask as if it inhibited her breathing somehow. In retrospect, I was almost clinical in how I reacted. I tried to calm her, to make her meditate on the photo of her beloved dog, Gucci, which she kept at her side always. “Breathe Vikki, breathe. Focus on Gucci. Try to calm down and breathe.” She held the photo for a brief few minutes, stroking the image of Gucci, trying to do what I asked of her.

“I can’t…. I can’t breathe Bumpa (my nickname).”
“Help me…please, help me,” she implored over and over. All I could do was hold her hand, repeating what I had already said to her. Then the doctors came.

From early morning Vikki had been unable to breathe freely despite the amount of oxygen being pumped to her through the mask. Her doctor had apparently discussed with colleagues their course of action. The only thing they could now do was to ease her suffering and keep her calm by increasing the dosage of morphine and another drug whose name I do not remember. Once they did this, Vikki would be in a comatose like state and unable to talk. It was the only thing they could do, the ovarian cancer was no longer treatable.

I don’t know if Vikki ever knew or understood what would be the outcome of this easing of pain and panic. That the cocktail she received through her IV was an elixir of another realm… the beginning to the end of her life on earth.

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Have you ever had to watch someone you love suffer such panic?
What did you do to help them?

Posted by: regina | March 17, 2010

Ocean Desires

I am often accused by my husband of having unrelentingly high expectations of beaches we visit. How can I not? I grew up in the Bahamas, a place some call paradise on earth, an archipelago of exquisite beaches surrounded by some of the most visually stunning waters in the world. My sister, Vikki, saw and appreciated this natural beauty that surrounded her.

Vikki was not a sun worshipper, not someone you would find catching rays on the beach. She preferred to watch the ocean from the vantage point of one of the many little restaurants/bars that can be found along the waterfront of Nassau and Paradise Island. She liked to watch the waves splashing onto the beach as they rolled in from the kaleidoscopic green blue waters of the ocean.

Vikki’s desire was to see the ocean one more time before she left those islands forever. It’s not that she resented being in the women’s public ward of Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau, it was because she wanted to experience something so innately beautiful one more time. Johnny, who had become a good friend to Vikki during her illness, was eager to fulfil her wish, offering his house to her as that of my mother’s was not on the water.

But the ovarian cancer took its victim viciously. My sister was taking so many drugs to control the effects of the cancer and the chemo – morphine to stop the constant pain, medication to relax her, to reduce the nausea, control the vomiting… an endless list. Unable to eat anything solid, an IV was affixed to her through a port in her neck giving her fluids to nourish and hydrate. Tubes entered her stomach pumping out the waste that she was unable to expel naturally. Her legs and feet were horribly swollen and liquid oozed from her feminine parts and had to be wiped away periodically. Her nails and teeth were stained yellow green from all the times she half spat, half vomited green liquid through her mouth and nose.

My sister’s body, in those 10 days that I stayed by her side, was swiftly shutting down from the inside, dying. But her soul, her humanity, her humour, her caring and even a small portion of her vanity, if the desire in the face of an ugly disease to appear beautiful to others is that, remained almost until the end. She never complained that she could not see her precious ocean, she never said anything, never blamed anyone for not granting her this wish.

My heart aches at how sad it must have made her. I’m so sorry, Vikki. I should have tried harder to grant you this wish. I did not know that death would come so quickly. I should have found a way to let you see the glory of nature once again and not the cold corner of the ward you were shoved up against, the cheap hospital table next to your bed, not the harsh ceiling lights and the smell of soiled bed sheets, the tangle of tubes, drugs and the heaviness of other sick women around you. Maybe it would have made your dying easier to be caressed by the breeze and shone upon by the sun, the glorious colours of the ocean waving to you in the distance.

I won’t know, you can never tell me or you will not tell me. I thought I would somehow hear your voice, feel your presence when you died but I don’t. You are gone, but my pain remains. And I hope little by little with these words, it will dissipate and my memories of you will no longer be so harsh, but of you sipping cocktails in the sunset framed by the ocean you loved so much.

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Have you ever had the chance to grant the dying wish of someone?
What if you could not, do you feel remorse or guilt?

Posted by: regina | March 16, 2010

Promises To and From a Guardian Angel

The day before Vikki died from ovarian cancer, she promised me she would look out for my son, Gabby, from wherever she was going, a sort of guardian angel. And, she made me vow to tell my son often that I loved him. “Tell him you love him no matter how angry or upset you are; always tell him you love him so he knows.”

Seeing Vikki
Gabby first met Vikki in February 2007. He was 5 months old when we brought him to the Bahamas for a 2 week visit. The second time was 3 months later. He saw her for a fleeting 10 minutes in the hospital corridor of the women’s public ward, 7 days before she died. Those meetings were brief but Vikki adored Gabby. She adored him before he was born; from the moment she knew I was pregnant. And, typical of Vikki always desiring to be different, she called him by his middle name, Sacha.

Ever since Vikki’s death we have always shown Gabby the photo we keep of her. When he began to talk, he could tell us her name when we pointed to the photo.

Gabby had barely turned one year old when one day I asked him who it was in the photo and he replied correctly, “Vikki.” I decided to show him a photo of my mother with Vikki, me and my brothers when we were all very young. I asked him, “Who’s Vikki?” When he put his finger without hesitation on her image in the photo, every hair on my body stood on end. I didn’t say yes or no and showed him a few more family photos taken in various places until he lost interest. Every single time he pointed correctly to her image.

How did Gabby know who that little girl in the photo was? He had never been shown any other picture of Vikki. Was it coincidence that he pointed correctly every time? Or did he actually know Vikki somehow? Could it have been that she came to him in dreams or in waking as the little girl she once was? Could it have been that she was keeping her promise?

Lullaby
I started singing a goodnight lullaby to my son almost one year ago. Every night, I sing him variations of the lullaby but there is one part about Vikki that I always sing.

Sleepy sleepy little Gabby, close your eyes and go to sleep
Sleepy sleepy little Gabby, close your eyes and dream sweet dreams
Sleepy sleepy little Gabby, close your eyes and hold Roo Roo
Sleepy sleepy little Gabby
Mommy and Daddy love you very much
Sleepy sleepy little Gabby
Aunty Vikki loves you very much
Sleepy sleepy little Gabby
Vikki lives in the sky with the stars
Sleepy sleepy little Gabby
Vikki watches over you like a guardian angel
Sleepy sleepy little Gabby
Tell Vikki that I love her.

Sometimes I ask Gabby if he talks to Vikki. Most of the time he says yes, other times he does not answer. When I ask him what they talk about, he does not say. Maybe, he is unable to explain it to me in the language of a 3 ½ year old. Can he really see her or hear her voice? Or is he making it up in his childlike way?

Whatever it is, it makes me happy to think maybe he can see, hear or feel her because I am unable to do so. So, sleepy sleepy little Gabby, I hope you are able to tell Vikki I miss her and I love her and that I am keeping my promise to her.

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Do you believe children can see the dead?
Do you believe our loved ones watch over us from wherever they exist after death?
Are you comforted by this, if you do?

Posted by: regina | March 15, 2010

Big Pink Lips, Questions for the Universe

Tinky was my beautiful cat with soft angora like long grey fur and sparkling green eyes. I loved him dearly. Every night of his life he slept next to me, either above my head or next to my side. Vikki adored my cat from the moment she saw him when she came to visit in Atlanta, Georgia (USA). She scooped him up in her arms and planted huge kisses on his head and cheeks. For the duration of her stay, Tinky was covered in big pink lipstick marks in the places Vikki had kissed him.

My sister had a mouth like the supermodel, Cindy Crawford, with a large pouty lower lip completed by a beauty mole above the upper lip. She loved to wear pink lipstick. After that trip, her big pink lips all over my cat became a joke between us. When she got her dog, Gucci, she too was subjected to the same pink lipstick kisses.

Saving Tinky
I eventually moved with Tinky to Paris, France. Tinky fell seriously ill. He was vomiting constantly, drinking a lot of water and eating very little. I had already seen these symptoms in another cat I had when living in Atlanta – he had diabetes.

I was distraught. I loved Tinky and did not want to see him suffer as had my other cat. I spoke to Vikki on the phone and told her of my heart-wrenching decision to put Tinky to sleep. The evening before I was due to have Tinky put down, Vikki called me back. She extracted from me the promise to take Tinky to a vet and give him one last chance to live. “You can’t give up on him. You love that cat too much to not try,” she admonished me.

After much soul searching, I cancelled Tinky’s appointment with death and took him to a vet. He stayed there for three days over Christmas. Every day I went to hold him and talk to him as he lay delirious, hooked to an IV and shorn of his soft grey fur. Eight years later I would hold the hand of my dying sister, as she lay with her head shaved in the hospital bed of the women’s public ward, in a drug induced sleep, attached to an IV and tubes.

Miraculously, Tinky survived that experience and lived until the age of 15. After 6 years of insulin shots twice a day, random seizures and one day of blindness, his kidneys finally failed. I was travelling in Long Island in the Bahamas when I got the call from my husband telling me he was dying. I tried to get a flight home to be with him one last time before he died. I did not succeed; he died before I could even make it back to Nassau.

Thank you for being there
Vikki was there for me when I arrived back in Nassau, waiting to hug and console me and tell me how sorry she was Tinky had died. She understood because she had her beloved Gucci and knew the depths to which one can love an animal.

I never told you Vikki, but I thank you for saving the life of my cat, for understanding my love for him and for being there to console me in my grief.

Questions for the Universe
I used to imagine how I would feel when Tinky died, but the reality of grief cannot be imagined. He had been with me through thick and thin unquestioningly for 15 years of my life. I used to believe the universe (what I call God) timed his death to occur when I was away. In this way, I could always remember my beloved cat full of life and not in the metamorphosis of death. My last memory of him is kissing his warm soft purring face.

I know my cat’s death cannot be equated to that of Vikki’s, but I truly believed I was able, within the year that followed, to come to terms with losing him because I did not see him transition from life to death. Unlike I did with Vikki.

Why did the universe choose to commence the shattering of my spiritual beliefs by allowing me a bedside seat at the death of my sister? By permitting me to watch her be drugged into silence in order to combat the pain that wracked her body as it became poisoned by the toxins she was unable to expel? How am I supposed to forget those memories?

Some would say I should try to let go of those memories but I cannot. Rather, I am not willing to let go for in letting go I am afraid I will start to forget Vikki. And right now I must remember everything I can about Vikki. I must tell her story and bare my soul. And then, maybe after, I can find peace.

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