Friday, July 24, 2009

Dealing with tough stuff

This is one of those posts that might conform more to the traditional weblog version of blogs (that is, a personal account or journal) than something that might suit general consumption. As I am want to write here all about difficult parenting issues (well, at least those that are fit to print), I didn't want to shy away in this post even though the subject matter is difficult. As hinted at last year, my wife's mother, my children's Grandmother Helena has been ill for sometime. She was diagnosed some time ago with breast cancer and years of treatment did not turn it around. She passed away last week.

As you can imagine, our children were prepared for this as it was some time coming. Throughout the whole process our philosophy was to set out the truth and the probabilities of recovery as we knew them throughout. Last year, it was apparent that that probability had fallen to zero. The children knew it and they knew it during the several visits to their grandmother after that. They were able and free to talk openly about it all with all and sundry and this, we think, ultimately helped them understand and work through it all.

Two bits of background. Helena was relatively young (61) but also lived in another city, Sydney. So she wasn't a part of day-to-day lives but there were regular visits. It took her a few years to work out how to be a grandmother but when she did a solid relationship, particularly with our eldest, was built up. She taught her to play chess and to knit. When she visited, she shrewdly brought enough cheap toys so there were presents each day. The relationship was cherished and we knew that her passing would be mourned.

To a great extent the mourning began a year ago when the visits stopped and the illness took over. She was no longer the same person. But my daughter still worked towards the days of old. She took over the role of knitting her niece and nephew scarves and she built a chess set for her grandmother. I was proud of the way she tried to make the best of all of this.

Inevitably, philosophical issues took hold. I recognise that for many our approach would not be their way but we were strictly of the "when you are dead you are dead" variety. And, again, by way of information, the children did not appear distressed at that notion. A pet had died before and somehow the thought of finality was consistent with their view of the world. As of today, they do not expect to see their grandmother again.

Similarly, we did not shield the two eldest from the funeral and ceremonies. My 8 year old son joined me as a pall-bearer and both of them took their place in shovelling dirt into the grave. To them, there was intense curiosity at the whole process, in particular, at the open grief from adults especially, Helena's husband and also both of her parents who outlived her.

Perhaps the major issue with something like this is that there is a need for parenting resources and attention at precisely a time when those are in scarce supply. The children's mother was understandably occupied, and away during the final weeks, and I could have used her in discussions with the children. But we had had time and so the issues that needed to be sorted out were given time (especially with the help of the whole Michael Jackson thing that provided a warm up. That said, during the precise moment I was need most immediately I was out of the country, a calculated risk at the time, and had to rush -- only took 20 hours! -- back after just one day abroad.

Helena died of breast cancer; a disease both her mother and grandmother had. You won't be surprised when I tell you that the first time I heard about it my immediate thoughts were for the my three women and girls in the direct genetic line of fire of this. But there are actually four sisters and so currently seven in total who face the high probability of this occurring during their lives. And what is more, it is of a currently unknown gene. Diligence in early detection is our treatment now but hopefully for my children, the progress of science might yield something more comforting.

To complete the story, my wife gave an outstanding eulogy for her mother. It was perhaps the best speech I had ever heard at a funeral and prior to the fact I didn't know she had it in her. I was both amazed and proud to hear it and it moved so many of the 150 people there. Perfection.

She wrote the speech out and I'm going to post it now (with permission) to complete the log of these events. Two of the children were long asleep when it was given but I hope one day they will read it and see it for what it is. It says so much about the strength of their own mother.

In celebration of our mother’s life, I’d like to talk about what Mum left behind. There is a huge Mum-shaped hole in our lives. And I think a huge Helena-shaped hole in all our lives.

I’m going to talk about three things: our memories of Mum, the values she left us with and finally the people she left behind.

We remember our mother as a wonderful and unique person. She was caring and patient when we were young and provided us with a good model for us with our children. She always wanted to hear the truth and always valued and respected our opinions. She didn’t always listen to our opinion, but she wanted to know what it was.

She wanted what was best for her children and when we were growing up there was never a dull moment. We never quite knew what was going to happen next.

I shall remember Mum every day as I read to my children, as I hear her voice in my own and see her hand when I look at mine. Those hands taught us how to tie our shoelaces and how to win at chess in three moves.

She did not suffer fools, a trait which she shared with us. Which brings me to the values she gave to us.

The strongest value she gave to us was the importance of family. She was the most doting and beloved grandmother imaginable.

She taught us the value of independence and this is an aspect that we all hold very dear.

She had a high regard for intellect, which we are passing on to our children.

Although I’m sure she did not intend it, she taught us the very importance of integrity.

Finally the people she left behind:

It’s very difficult to know how to thank the person who gave you life. Because as my 8 year-old son tells me: “there is nothing I like more than my life”. Well, actually there IS something I love more than my life and that is his life and that of his sisters. My mother gave to me the things I love and cherish most. She gave me my sisters and she by extension gave me my children. And for that I’m eternally grateful.