God’s blowtorches & blessings

It never ceases to amaze me that people manage to sell (and get sold on) the prosperity gospel. God may refer to pouring out His blessings, Jesus mentions how the Father clothes the birds and flowers, so how much more will He will do for us etc. but there’s nowhere in the Bible about life being easy, rolling around on piles of dollars, strewn on satin sheets, all because God desperately loves us so much He wants us to be uber-wealthy.

Prosperity gospel reminds me of law of attraction /universal manifestation teachings. Whereby the believer is told to use God/ the universe as a power to achieve whatever the believer wills. Thought creates. Think a million dollars strongly enough and it will appear in your life. 122408_Blowtorch_448x336

Whilst the truth of biblical Christianity is just the opposite: God uses me, the believer, not the other way round. Rather than the Holy Spirit (HS) being my magical manifestation magnet, instead the HS resides within to help me do God’s will. Because, heaven knows, I’d be up the proverbial creek without a paddle trying to carry out God’s will without it!

Yet the most hilarious bit about the prosperity gospel is, well…. does no-one read the fine print nowadays? I have many joyous phrases to describe my journey with GJ&HS, but “winning lotto” and “gee, isn’t it a smooth road without hiccups?” aren’t ones that spring to mind.

God has His crucibles. His ways of achieving the growth of those who love Him:

The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart. – Proverbs 17:3

He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. – Malachi 3:3

The crucible metaphor being how heat purifies metal to its purest form, just as times of trial, tribulation and suffering refine our faith.

It sounds so lovely, doesn’t it, precious metals and crucibles? Conjures up images of tastefully-crafted jewellery at the end. But let’s not forget the sweaty, burning, eyes closed against the furnace heat part.

I refer to such times as God’s blowtorches. Personally, the last few months? They have not been the simmering sense of a frog warming up in a pot, but a blasting heat that requires an asbestos grip on Jesus’ divinity because…wow…so You think I need that much refining, Lord? Ouch.

After a series of intense weeks, the SAP picked a shift in my tone from: “Yes, just little bit of testing, but, oh, such joy to be embraced in the trials. I’m totally meditating on James 1 2-4, whilst colouring-in a mindfulness page I’ve designed based on the same Bible passage..” …to something darker. Think Steven Seagal meets Jason Statham.

The SAP suggested it was all part of God’s refining rather than one isolated lesson for me to grasp.  So refining is a lesson in itself. Yet it was fairly obvious I’d reached flash point when I began slanging back at God with blackmail threats:

“You know those awesome gifts of engagement, communication, and ‘sell ice to Eskimos’ You gifted me with, Lord? Well (through gritted teeth), you really don’t want me using them against You rather than for You. I reckon the atheists would love me on their team…and I’m feeling just pissed-off enough right now to do a really awesome job. Ease up on the damn blow torch!”

Thank heaven for answered prayer. I suspect God answered The SAP’s respectful one – “I’ll pray the blowtorch turns off,” he kindly offered me – over my full-frontal tactical assault.

And in His constant, loving, amazing, God-only way, the next day His gentle Yellow Post-It notes of care began to appear or, rather, I was able to see them more clearly. Perhaps the SAP added in something about scales from my eyes in his prayer too?

Like the meeting – after a time of attempting to introduce more prayer into a Christian workplace and feeling a resisting silence to change – when a team member, without prompting, suggested prayers directly afterwards.

Or – in the middle of my worst blowtorched stresses, as that voice in my head began to ask how seriously I had got this wrong, that God really was a spaghetti monster in the sky and wasn’t this just a freakin’ mess and why not go back to how it used to be, because surely it was easier then? – sitting with two Christian women who demonstrated total commitment in their faith, an unwavering certainty that prayers would be answered, that God’s hand was in everything. Intelligent, Godly women, one older, one younger, who through shared prayer reminded me that their faith in Jesus’ sacrifice came not through spaghetti monsters but seeing God work in their lives over and over.

They didn’t even know, those two women, as they sat across the table from me, how close my fingertips had come to breaking point hanging off my blowtorched cliff.  But listening to them talk, hearing the clarity of their certainty, was my chance to draw faith from their faith.

There’s a lesson for us all. You never know who is listening and watching, how God is using you in one moment, and the unexpected encouragement that moment can bring to someone else. Salt and light.

The same day, God drew me back to the longer passage in James 1:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

I realised I had missed a major point on perseverance. There I had been, with ground teeth and bleeding fingernails, grittily persevering. “Just hang on,” I would grind out to myself. “You can do this.”

I had been focused on the wrong two verses: the ‘most famous’ first two, the ones held up as the lights to be guided by in testing times. “Just hang on, Phil, because, on the other side of this, you’ll be whole and complete. That’s the deal.”

Trouble is, the harder I hung on, the more effort I put into this back-breaking perseverance, the more sweat-drenched and slippy my grip became.

No-where in the passage does it say enduring in the sense of being ground down. No. James’ emotion is pure joy. As for the work of perseverance so I could be mature and complete? James doesn’t write that I’m the one having to do the work. The elegant solution, the best approach, the one that would take the pressure off my clamped jaw and anguished, exhausted brain? Verses 5 and 6 leapt out at me:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

I didn’t need bleary perseverance and gritted teeth. I needed wisdom – God’s. And I needed to get my head back into His game so I could draw on His wisdom without doubts. Otherwise I was going to be swamped.

Finally, it filtered through. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been unstable, haven’t I? I don’t have the wisdom here. I need Yours. Please.” Even better, after all my slanging, all my challenging ungratefulness, I could hold onto His promise through Jesus: that He would give it to me generously, without finding fault.

The wisdom He whispered made me smile and hiccup, and get a little snot-monstery. “Count your blessings, dear heart. The way through the blowtorches are to count your blessings.”

I am recognising God’s methods with me: Pressure, pressure, blowtorch, refine, okay so now you’re hanging on by your fingertips, dear heart, so… pause. You’ve taken too much on yourself. Here’s a hint. Why not lean on Me? Ask Me? Let me encourage you? Ah, yes, there you go. See, look, you’re still here, now get your breath back, get the growth, rumble with the joy and get back out there and FLY.

So I am back to swigging grace like Guinness, chomping humble pills like Smarties and remembering the one with all the wisdom. Whilst holding onto the greatest lesson of all. Crucibles refine and the way through my blowtorches are to count my blessings, because blessings are our paths to pure joy:

  • Children who are heathy and nourished
  • A husband who never fails to make me laugh: from impersonating a Cath and Kim power walker to being a doofus over helping me stretch a hamsting when I’m taking life too seriously
  • A job that not only delivers regular income to our household, but challenges, stretches, satisfies and allows me to contribute to something bigger than myself
  • A business. With fun-loving clients who trust me and let me have fun too
  • A house. With a room for each child and more to spare
  • A roof that does not leak
  • Running water. Electricity. WiFi!
  • Indoor plumbing
  • Friends. Whose doorsteps I could turn up on at 3am knowing they would help
  • Faith. That God has my back. That Jesus has it covered
  • Access to healthcare
  • The ability to worship in public. Read the Bible in plain sight
  • A SAP
  • Shops without food shortages
  • Answered prayer
  • Blog posts that are read, shared and commented on across the globe
  • Being Loved. Crazy, radical, God-driven, let me lay down My son’s life because I want to be right next to you always, loved.

Just wow. So many blessings. So many joys. Plus, after the blowtorches? Growth. Always growth.

Urgent, evangelise. With Salt (& Tequila).

“It’s liver cancer.”

“How long?”

“Six months without treatment. 18 months with.”

As she dashed tears from her eyes, I swept this valiant 42-year-old woman into a hug. “I’m so sorry,” I told her, adding some slightly bluer language under my breath for good measure.

Yet like a neon question mark flashing at the back of my brain, there was only this: ‘What does she believe? And how do I ask without sounding like an awful end of days prepper?’

Through business circles, I had known her for years. Not closely, not until the start of 2015 when we ‘just clicked’ as members of the same networking group. We discovered a similar outlook on life. Offered complementary business services. Wicked senses of humour. Some shared emotional baggage that we unpacked over wine as only new friends on discovery can, laughing at each other with a gentleness that said, yes; I understand that screwed up bit of you too.

She was the coolest of cool friends, yet without ego or notion of how beautiful or cool she really was.

“I’m not telling many people about my diagnosis because I want my business to go on as normal,” she told me. “But I’ve seen what you post on Facebook and I see you have faith. I feel ok about it. I’ve enjoyed my life. There’s nothing else I really want to do. I’ve always tried to treat others how I would like to be treated myself. But I don’t believe anything comes next.”

Really God and Jesus? Really?

After six plus years of knowing her around the business traps, we properly connect in the year she is given a terminal cancer diagnosis; her without any belief or faith about what comes after death, and me a scant 18 months after becoming a Christian?

There are no Godincidences.

But, really? Pressure much?

For anyone who doesn’t understand why some Christians behave like shiny-suited TV evangelists, it’s because Jesus said some serious stuff in the Bible about what happens when we die.

“The only way to the Father is through me,” he told his disciples. “The promise of eternal life, the resurrection, the free gift of grace comes only if you are willing to lay down your life and follow me.” (I’m paraphrasing).

If not? Well, it’s not pretty. Too many Christians like to gloss over it, playing safe in the more new-agey pools of God being nothing but love.

Who can blame them? Hellfire Bible-thumping religion has done G&J a huge disservice. In reaction, the pendulum has swung the other way in today’s world of free choice, self-service and freedom.

Standing up and saying, “Well, actually, I do believe that God calls us to account when we die,” is not welcome. Too often the fire ‘n’ brimstone hangover of being called to account overshadows the good news of that Jesus fella.

The good news that through the grace of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection, I can stand in front of God as a child in front of her loving Father, and receive forgiveness and an eternal gift of life.

But here’s the kicker: you’ve got to get to know and accept Jesus first.

As I sat in front of my friend, reeling from the news of her cancer diagnosis, listening to her dismiss her Roman Catholic schooling (heavy on the guilt and wrong doing) and what she’d heard from her brother-in-law pastor (I know, I know, the irony), the true punch in my solar plexus was this:

‘She can’t die without sorting out where she stands with God and Jesus. But, on the face of it, she’s lived a good life. She has an amazing moral code and value system. How do I explain that none of that matters? That compared to Jesus on the cross, because of our very distance from God, we are all broken and needing saving? No matter the amount of our virtue and strength of moral fibre.’

I cried a lot that night. And prayed. I visualised the Holy Spirit (HS) firing through that liver of hers so often it was more lighthouse than vital organ in my prayers. I had one of those slanging, bargaining type conversations with God: “Quick zap of the HS and all will be well. I’ve got my prayer warriors on it too. I know You can hear us. She knows we are all praying. C’mon, what better way to prove You exist than a miracle cure?”

I don’t believe slapping people round the head with G&J gets them closer to understanding. Yet the urgency was horrible. Even more as her treatment failed. It got to the point that if another well-meaning Christian had asked, “Has she said the Jesus prayer yet?” I may well have reached over and ripped out their throat in a very unchristian manner. When one of them asked, quite seriously, “Do you think you’ve done enough?” my tongue bled from my biting it. To ask me, tripping around in my flawed way, if I’d done enough, dismissed God’s sovereignty and my friend’s heart. Whilst it was ultimately down to God and her, not me, it still made me feel like hell. I couldn’t make her become a Christian.

So what could I do? I prayed (as did others) and kept on being the sort of Christian I am: irreverent, flawed, and prone to explaining G&J in my own quirky way. It is less theological college, checklist ‘shiny’ and more sweary, eye-rolling ‘I know, I can’t quite believe I’m a Christian either,” reality.

When Jesus told his early followers to be like salt – let their faith stand out, be a well-flavoured advertisement for Christianity – I’m sure he didn’t expect me to pair it with tequila slammers. By my being the least expected ‘type’ of Christian person (ie: not religious), I pray daily that Jesus can be seen in his true light. Which is all I wished for my friend.

So when she asked what I believed, I said God doesn’t promise me a pain-free this life, but he promises me an eternal next one. Told her, no, her cancer wasn’t punishment for wanting to die during her own brush with depression years before.

I said, simply, how we live in a broken world. That we are all more flawed than we  images-1.jpgcould ever believe, yet more loved by Jesus and God than we could ever dare imagine. And that heaven was way, way better. How I dearly wanted to see her when I got there, so could she please get with the resurrection program that Jesus offers. Plus, when my time is up here on earth, could she start lining up the margaritas for my arrival.

Sadly, the doctors were wrong. My friend died just four months after her diagnosis. We didn’t do any shiny ‘I give my life to Jesus’ prayers. But in those four months she humbled me by reading all my blogs and asking questions. She came along to church – which was a touch and go first visit  – but she came back to sing carols with a passion and hold my hand as she did so. She even whispered that I ought not be frustrated by her experience back at church, “because you made sure you explained it afterwards. I get it.” I don’t think she understood just how much she taught me about God and Jesus as I tried to show them to her. Is still teaching me.

In the final week of her life, as she drifted in and out of consciousness I asked how she and God were doing. “He’s really helping me,” she whispered. I went back most days to sit next to the bed and, when the opportunities arose, read her Psalms and gospel verses. “Beautiful,” she whispered over Psalm 121, my voice breaking at verse 8.

Being a Christian is tough. Being a Christian in the hospital room of someone who is dying, surrounded by her friends and family, who may or may not share your faith, is tougher. They needed their own time with her; who was I – more of an outsider with what may have appeared to be a lesser friendship/business connection – to keep turning up at her bedside?

Back to salt: how could I not? On the first night she was admitted, she had whispered to me: “I don’t want to die.” So even if she – and her other friends and family – did not share my faith and hope in Jesus, perhaps they could find some solace in mine. Sometimes it felt like I was sharing him across eggshells. Like sending John 14:27 to her husband – who at the time may have felt least able to let his heart be untroubled – and carefully adding: “Sometimes it’s like tasting nails…but sometimes there is comfort.”

The last afternoon, her barely conscious, a shadow of the woman admitted eight days before, I said one final prayer to this lover of all things bright and beautiful. “You know, I think Jesus is standing right in front of you now, holding out the most amazing technicolour coat. All you have to do is reach forward, take it, and let him wrap you in it.” Her hand under mine gave the faintest of flexes. She died early the next morning. New Year’s Day.

But the tribe of shiny Christians asking about her ‘doing’ the Jesus prayer scared me. I spent the hours after her death proclaiming God’s sovereignty on one hand, and then whispering how I’d love to know He’d got her on the other. “Just a sign,” I implored. “Just so I know. Please.”

What happened next is how I describe God’s personal love for us all. He didn’t have to offer me comfort. He is sovereign and my exhibiting control freakery over the outcome of His conversations with my dying friend totally disses His sovereign bit. Who am I to be asking, “how did You and she go?”

Yet that day, on the drive south of Sydney to grieve on a less-populated beach with waves and my surfboard, every car I passed seemed to have either a fish sticker on the back or a crucifix swinging from its rear-view mirror. I coughed and hiccupped and saline snot-monstered my hope: “Is that the sign? Or am I imagining things? I’m so sorry God. You know how I need it up emblazoned on a billboard so I don’t miss it.”

At the last minute, I changed my mind over the beach I was going to. As I pulled into the car park, the beachside meeting room boasted this red sign:

Beachposter

Praise God for His graciousness. I imagined Him asking, “Now, dear heart, is that literally a big enough sign for you?” I sighed, cried some more, smiled and recalled, Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. – Hebrews 11:1

I have faith He has her. Which means, along with no more pain, sorrow or hurt, I have confidence she’s going to have a margarita waiting in heaven with my name on it.

Not because of anything I’ve done, not because of works, not because I deserve a lemon, salty, triple-sec, tequila cocktail for facilitating an introduction between God and my friend. But because of His love and Jesus’ grace I get to see her again.

Amen.

Keep calm…and press the lifeline button

It has taken one year, five months and ten days for me to write this post. To write down the moment-to-moment experience of the day my Mum died. Mostly because I wasn’t proud of how it went. Somehow I wanted it to be more, show more, have more. So forgive me my delay.keep-calm-and-press-the-lifeline-button

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog that the night before she died, I spent time numbingly distracting myself with the 50 Shades Trilogy. I also cleared out lots of papers and looked through her boxes of photos. Mum drifted in and out of sleep whilst I sat on the floor next to her bed, looking at pictures of trips she’d taken on her trips to Australia.  We didn’t talk. Sometimes I look back and think, ‘Should I have sat down on the bed and awoken her to talk about the good times, get her to look at the photos, remind her of how much we’d shared and experienced?’ Upon reflection, I realised I didn’t want the confrontation. That the end was nigh. Not did I want to disturb her. If Mum was drifting in some pain-free haze, who was I to interrupt the peace?

So I softly said goodnight, gave her a last sip of water, and went to my bed in the next room. I read some more, staying awake so I could hear if she needed me, and eventually drifted off to sleep. Whilst I slept, my husband Tony came down from the guest rooms upstairs and read quietly to her – a book of Australian Poetry. It is our joke now that no-wonder she chose to die the next morning.

I awoke early to an SMS from Australia, a dear friend who I call the ‘great psychic’. Wishing my mum love and peace in her passing. I walked into the lounge room and stood next to the bed. Mum was breathing, but slowly. “Do you want a cup of tea?” I asked. No response. And in that moment I knew. She was breathing still, but it wasn’t going to be long.

I wish I could say I sat down, held her hand and with poise and grace said good-bye. Instead I took two steps back and thought, “Oh shit, do I call someone?” Luckily Tony walked in at that moment. I looked at him and burst into tears. “Should I call Mary?” he asked, referring to one of the carers, who was a short drive away.

Mum was still breathing. Her death was but moments away. Yet we were both looking externally to somehow make it better. No matter how much grace and peace I had come to believe I had around this moment, now it was here every quiet belief failed me. Tony stepped outside to make the phone call.

I stood alone next to the bed, trying to sob and hiccup as quietly as possible because I didn’t WANT her to hear me and hang on. I knew (intellectually) her death was inevitable.  And you know what she did?

She waited. Waited until I was no longer alone. She heard Tony come back in and quietly tell me that he’d spoken to Mary. Then there was one exhale. And her chest did not rise again.

‘But, but, hang on, no, wait’ my brain stuttered. It was so anti-climatic. Was this it?

Of course it was. But then we didn’t know what to do. We looked at each other. It was early, none of the carers were on shift. I’m sure we could have come to an elegant solution, should we have stopped to think, but neither of us could. The carers had said press the lifeline button should we need any help, as it would ring through for assistance. So we did.

Which meant an ambulance was sent over to take a reading of her heart and confirm death – because Lifeline had to follow its own protocol. Not exactly the quiet, peaceful ending I’d so delicately imagined, although it did give me a chance to canvas the two female medics who arrived about what had to happen next. I even asked their advice on local funeral directors – all whilst trying to ignore the piece of paper coming out the portable ECG with one long, flat line upon it.

I’ll get onto the rest of the day in other blogs. But did I learn a lesson that morning? Well, I’ll be better equipped to help anyone in future come time of death!

Mostly, I learnt that no matter what – no  matter how strong, how poised, how prepared, how stoic you think you’ll be – nothing prepares you for the moment a parent takes their last breath. And that’s OK. Because by not being prepared for that last breath, you recognise  you have been prepared all your life. To love and live. Why should we be prepared for last breaths? Last chances? Instead, prepare for first chances, first hopes, new dreams, first kisses, first love (remember that somersaulting tumble in your stomach of first love?). Because all of that, ALL of that, gets you through the last breath.

And so, the end is near

There are many memories of the week leading up to Mum’s death, but none so indelibly printed on my brain as the one when I walked into her home the morning we landed. I had imagined a scenario of her sitting in her favourite chair, perhaps a little pale and tired, but nevertheless sitting in her chair, a cup of tea on a tray close to hand, with Teddy the dog curled up nearby.

It was like watching the slowest sunset, just waiting for the shadows.

This was what the oncologist’s “possibly six weeks” timeframe had given me.

My own imaginary, comforting countdown whereby in the first weeks she’d be sitting, perhaps even well enough to come out with me in her wheelchair for some retail therapy. Then, as weeks went by, slowing down before eventually taking to her bed for her final days. I’d even bought her some duty-free Clarins for a spot of in-home pampering to help pass the time.

Walking into her sitting room and seeing her lying in a hospital bed slammed my comforting countdown into a concrete wall and scattered it into millions of pieces.

Thoughts splintered through my brain in what appeared to be milliseconds.  ‘Don’t cry, keep it together, be strong’ was the first. ‘What the bloody hell were you thinking with the Clarins?’ was another. I even looked over at her favourite chair, sitting empty, because my brain couldn’t compute what my eyes were showing me in the bed.

She looked like she was asleep. An oxygen tube to her nose. On a tray, across the bed, cups with straws. Water, ice chips. Tissues. Lip balm. I crept closer and gently stroked her hair. Ever so slowly she opened her eyes and turned her head my way. It was unlike any other reunion we had had before, where Mum had always showed joy and excitement at my arrival. This time there was nothing in her eyes except a foreign weariness. A diminishing of her living will. “It’s OK Mum,” I whispered. “I’m here now.”

Honestly, it was strangely anti-climatic. No words of gladness that we’d made it. No greetings to her grandchildren or Tony. No emotional outbursts or vital words that had to be spoken before it was too late.  It was like watching the slowest sunset, a subtle dying of the light whilst waiting for the final shadows.

What will Grandma look like when she’s dead?

I recall little about the flight to England. I must have watched  movies, slept, eaten, drank but I have no recollection. What I do remember is watching it unfold around me,  feeling part of it yet removed. I wondered about the stories of my fellow passengers. Tears would bubble up as I remembered what we’d being doing once we disembarked in London. Part of me wanted to randomly tell people that we were here because my Mum had been given but weeks to live, as if by telling them it would somehow normalise it. That by introducing them into my shocked state would help me make sense of it.

In Worcester Cathedral, this is believed to be the tomb of Sir John Beauchamp and his wife Joan.
In Worcester Cathedral, this is believed to be the tomb of Sir John Beauchamp and his wife Joan.

Originally I’d planned to drop Tony and the kids at my Dad’s home and make the trip to see Mum alone.  I wanted to see how she was (translation: how did she look) so I could prepare the children. It was a story and SMS from my cousin, Heather, that changed my mind.

A friend of hers had made a similar trip many years before. But instead of going direct to see her Mum in hospital, she went to the family home to settle her young children and have a rest. During that time, her Mum passed away and she didn’t get to see her alive. My cousin said it took years for her friend to forgive herself. “I’d just hate for you to have to experience that, especially after all you’ve gone through to get the kids’ passports and get there quickly,” she told  me.  Her SMS to me when we landed in the UK was another, specific request to do so.

Based on when my Mum died, I could have taken the detour.  Yet I’m incredibly glad we didn’t. ‘Preparing’ the children was simply my excuse to try and delay the inevitable. I will write another post about children, funerals and death, given grandparents are typically their earliest exposure to the end of a human life.  How our two dealt with it was with a matter-of-fact calm that was inspiring – and gave me much needed lighter moments. Like the time we told Miss G (then 5) we had to go to England because Grandma was dying. “Will she look like this?” she asked, dropping her head to a left angle, rolling her eyes back, opening her mouth and letting her tongue hang-out whilst making an odd choking sound. Umm, hopefully not, darling.

A big lesson in keeping passports up-to-date

We were packed. My employer had been understanding, telling me to leave and make contact as soon as I knew anything. Tony’s employer less so, not quite making the connection why – as it was my mother, not his – he needed to leave in such a hurry. The topic of grief in the workplace is a blog for another day.

australian-passport_The evening before I went to check-in online. And experienced a soul-destroying panic when I went to put in our passport details. Both of the children’s passports had expired about four weeks before. It was close to 6pm and I literally could not think. I managed to speak to someone in immigration who would not believe I had been able to purchase flights online without entering details. I didn’t care that lastminute.com had a flawed system, I just needed two bloody passports! It got worse, unlike adult passports, the kids needed a brand new application to renew. Where would I get passport photos at 6pm?  Thank God (or whomever you ascribe random luck to) for Google, online services for printing our applications, and the wonderful pharmacist at Rockdale who stayed open late for me to skid in with the kids. When he told me that he’d only listed passport photos on a special search site only the day before, I knew, somehow, somewhere, some benevolent spirit was helping us.

It didn’t stop my sheer terror that we’d miss the flights though. Virgin Atlantic told us we had until 1310 at the absolute latest the next day to make the flight. Tony calmed me, saying I could leave the next day and he would follow with the kids, but, bizarrely, that made me even more upset. The irrationality of grief; suddenly the thought of facing a 24hr flight alone became overwhelming. Seriously – most mothers would jump at the chance to fly 24hrs without their 7 and 5 yo and enjoy movies uninterrupted. Indeed I had done so five months earlier! But this time was different. I needed my family unit around me.

The next day was organised with military precision. I left crack of dawn to be at immigration offices when they opened. Bags and kids stayed with Tony who would meet me at the airport at normal check in time. I was playing by the belief that if we just stuck to the schedule, it would all work out fine.

Bursting into hiccuping sobs in front of the immigration desk probably wasn’t my best look. They made no promises, but put the children’s passports on express — which is normally with 2-3 working days. You can rant about bureaucracy as much as you like, but I experienced nothing but support and compassion. The passports were turned around in three hours. A stressful, fingernail-biting wait, with more tears when they handed them over,  but I made the airport with time for a calming G&T before the rest of the family arrived and we embarked. Not only did the rush, the stress and the race keep me distracted, it gave me special insight into what was to become a constant theme over the coming days and weeks. The kindness of strangers.

What do you pack for a funeral?

After hanging up the phone, I remember my mind attempting to process the notion that Mum was going to die. Not as some abstract concept, that we like to explore in some philosophical way, but the stark reality that she, incredibly soon, was no longer going to someone I could call, fret about, get angry with, share news with. The whole part of my character that had been formed by this woman would no longer have a point of reference. That I somehow would be adrift.

Packing an outfit for the funeral when Mum had not yet died was impossible
Packing an outfit for the funeral when Mum had not yet died was impossible

It wasn’t a space my mind was happy playing in for long. It was like lifting the lid on a chasm of nothingness, peering into a void that – quite possibly because I had no experience by which to measure – I backed away from pretty damn smartish. Imagine preparing to abseil forwards into a dark space that has no sense of depth or width. Without a rope.

So you rationalise what you do know. Busy-ness is a wonderful tool for keeping emotions at bay. It gives you something you have control over.  And we had a lot to do. Tell our respective employers. Tell the kids. Tell the school. Book flights. Pack.

By nature, I am an activator. I like to get things done. Years of meditation and yoga have taught me to balance that but in times of stress our most base instincts kick in. Ticking items off a list gave me purpose. It was my first experience of the early stages of grief and loss that everyone goes through. Denial. A response that takes you through the first waves of pain. I rationally knew my Mum was going to die, but by making my lists and focusing on the short-term goals of simply getting on a plane, I was able to deny the emotion and delay stepping into that void.

Packing was bizarre. A normal task I had undertaken countless times before turned to wading through mud. A rogue thought would fly up from the black chasm and sideswipe me as I was folding clothes.  It bothered me that I didn’t know how many pairs of undies I should pack, because I didn’t know how long I would be away for. No matter that the UK has washing machines and M&S lingerie departments, my brain needed something concrete to fuss over.

Worse, the idea that I was going to have to pack something to wear to a funeral lodged in my brain. Whenever I thought about it too long, hideous globs of emotion would start to fight their way out.  This wasn’t like packing for the holidays we’d taken to visit Mum in the past. This was it.