You Go With Them

“It may seem to you that your life is over now. Your future without the person you love is no future at all. Death is a head-on collision with your plans. But everything in life–the gold fillings of your teeth, the cotton of your sheets, the air you breathe, all the food you will ever eat–everything there is was born from a collision. Inside every single thing that lives is a debt to a distant star that died. Nothing new is ever created without one thing colliding into another.And something new is created when the person you love dies.Because they are not the only ones who die: you die, too. The person you were when you were with them is gone just as surely as they are. This is what you should know about losing somebody you love. They do not travel alone. You go with them.”

― Augusten Burroughs, This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t

The sky in Tulum Mexico is endless and blue. The air sticks to my skin like sugar. Our white stucco room smells of lime and salt. In the corner, a large mirror leans against the wall, and often I imagine India standing in front of it admiring herself in her bikini. Before India died I thought it would be teenage girls that would most upset me but it’s not. I frequently watch them strolling on the beach. Instead it’s the little girls that make me cry. In Canada, they seem to follow me everywhere I go: in the line-up at the grocery store, sitting next to me at the movies. If I go to a restaurant, no matter where I sit, I always end up across from one. In Mexico it’s no different. I can’t take my eyes off the six-year-old Mayan girl with broad cheekbones and black eyes, who trudges everyday along the beach selling bracelets, or the three blond Norwegian sisters giggling as they race around the hotel pool on Christmas Day. But hardest of all, is the little English-speaking girl of about three, who’s family has moved in next door. In the mornings I hear her calling her mummy through the thin walls. Nobody will ever call me that again. It’s the kind of thing that a person takes for granted until it no longer happens.

Long before India died, I began imagining her death, trying to figure out how I could live without her. I thought I’d want to run away: drive through the States, escape to Peru, move to the Sunshine Coast. But everything I imagined was wrong. Grief is visceral, it inhabits the space between the ribs. There’s no way to plan for it. It changes form minute by minute. I had no idea how it would feel. I certainly never pictured myself sitting on her bed burying my face in her pillow desperate for her scent, or rifling through her drawers hoping to find a t-shirt that might fit me so I could feel near her, or feeling panicked because I’ve misplaced her hair brush.

The night before we left for Mexico, I started to cry imaging her urn all alone in the house. It wasn’t until some friends agreed to visit India that I felt I could leave.  I had no clue this would upset me until hours before our departure. This kind of thing happens frequently nowadays. I can feel fine for hours, talk to friends, tell jokes, and then once alone in my car I cry all the way home to Wakefield . Even crying feels different than it used to. My heart throbs and I feel as though the blood pulsing through my body will rupture my veins. There’s no separation between flesh and emotion. The only time I’ve ever felt such a physical connection to my emotions was when I was hugely pregnant and India would stir inside me. The irony of this is startling.

Originally I’d planned to put the blog to rest after India’s death but I’ve decided to keep going. It’s important that someone write honestly about loss. During the last months I’ve been reading lots of books about grief. Some offered good advice about the physiology of the state but mainly, I’ve found myself incredibly frustrated with the style of writing. They read like new age self-help books. Paragraphs are rife with words like divinity, self-love, infinite and of course, the ever present journey euphemism. Mourning is a condition of being. It’s not the same as conquering self-defeating habits or discovering how to love yourself. It’s not possible to find a cure for it any more than it’s possible for a person to learn how to live without sleep. When I went looking in the East End Chapters for books about grief I found only twelve. Conversely the shelves were teaming with diet books. Ours is a culture afraid of death and those who mourn. Incredible really, after all we’re all going to die and chances are high at some point we will all lose somebody we love. Naturally , it’s hard to watch someone we love struggle, especially when we know we’re powerless to change their feelings. But, being unhappy when bad things happen is inevitable. No matter what success I have in the future or whatever lessons I learn from this experience—if any—I won’t ever get over India’s death, nor will anything make it better.  I accept this because I recognize that this sadness is the cost of loving my daughter and I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Imagine you own one of those antique Delft Blue china plates and it hangs in your kitchen on the wall. Its decorated with the illustration of a Chinese court scene: a bird in an ornate cage, fawning courtiers, an empress in a flowing gown. The lip of the plate is chipped, fine lines run through the well and the paint is fading. Still, this plate is a prize possession. Suddenly one day the wire snaps and it falls off the wall. It survives but the corner where the empress sat is gone. You can glue it in place but the illustration is forever obscured. The empress will never be as regal. This is how I view myself now. The trick is learning to live like this.

I’m still me.  I like all the same things : good beer, expensive shoes, red wool, a well-written book of short stories. At the same time I’m not. Some days I feel as if I’m in my late nineties, on others I feel as if ten-years-old again. How can I be so old and young at the same time? Not long ago I was in the Giant Tiger and I spotted some funky purple socks and I thought, oh I should get those for Indy’s Christmas stocking. Then I remembered she was dead. I felt so old, standing there under the florescent lights reliving her death.

Why do I feel so young? The simple answer is a huge part of my identity was invested in being her mother. It’s not just that I lost the person I loved the most in the world, it’s also that I’ve lost who I became when I was with her. I don’t know who I am if I’m not mothering her. Of course I remain India’s mother but her death has put an end to my ability to mother her.

Grief is isolating. Often I feel as if I’m on one side of a river and everyone I know is on the other side. My side of the river is not without beauty, there are almond trees and olives but it’s hard hilly country with little shade. Whereas the other side has plenty of shady trees and green cool spaces to lie on. People may come over and visit my side of the river but they know they don’t have to stay. I’m here forever. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the nuances of my new landscape but I can’t help looking across the river and remembering my life over there. This hurts much more than what anyone says or does. Furthermore I can see how people live on the other side and how many of them take it for granted. I remember when India was dying,  I was in a local coffee shop and I overheard a neighbour talking about her daughter who I know and like.  For forty-five minutes I listened as this woman moaned about all her child’s inadequacies to her companion: she’ll never have any money, she dresses like a slut, she has no common sense, blah, blah, blah. I shouldn’t have been listening but I couldn’t stop. This was more than a woman letting off steam about teenager, this woman’s voice was thick with contempt. People worry all the time about saying the wrong thing or bringing up India in case it upsets me or the timing is wrong. What they don’t understand is that I’m never without her so they’re just giving voice to my thoughts. What does affect me is listening to conversations like that one. Don’t get me wrong, everybody including myself, loses it with their children. But there’s a difference between frustration and scorn. More than anything I’d like to teach my neighbour how lucky she is.

I still talk to India all the time. I tell I her about the bone-coloured sand crabs that scurry across our beach, Eduardo, the Mayan cabdriver who teaches her dad how to count in Maya, and the black and white spotted cat called Pancho, who joined us for dinner one night when I couldn’t stop crying and how he looked like an anthropomorphized version of her. I don’t know if talking to India helps or if she hears, I only know I’ve talked to her for sixteen years and I won’t ever stop. From time-to-time I feel she sends me signs that she can hear, strange moments of serendipity, when the world seems brighter than usual. At these times I find her favourite quote in the book I’m reading or as just as my thoughts turn to her, a tiny bird with a yellow belly arrives suddenly on the window sill and begins to sing.

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37 Comments Add yours

  1. Beautiful. Concrete. Cutting to the bone. It’s true. We go with them. It’s true, we die a little too, we are not the same. The clarity in your writing is brilliant. And I appreciate it fully. My brother died sixteen years ago. I still talk to him. Know all the little things he would enjoy…the “purple socks” and such.
    You shine. She shines through you.
    I never knew what an amazing gifted writer you are…
    Thanks for this..
    xo
    I.

    1. onmefall says:

      I’m so touched. Thank you for your kindness.

  2. Bev says:

    thank you.. thank you for putting your heart to paper. I feel privileged, (although unworthy)

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read our story.

  3. Valerie says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Lesley. You’re often in my thoughts.

    1. onmefall says:

      How kind of you to think of me. Thank you.

  4. Carole says:

    beautiful and heart wrenching piece Lesley. I think about you three a lot, this shines a light of understanding on what you’re experiencing and my heart goes out to you. Sending love, c

  5. xtina says:

    Thank you for writing this, and for writing it so beautifully. Reading it put words to some of my own thoughts, experiences and feelings that often go unspoken. Feeling like some strangely unfamiliar version of myself. Feeling like I am in a world apart from those lucky people who haven’t been subjected to the same “enlightenment” that I have. Feeling so, so isolated. Yes to all of these things. Thank you for your honesty.

    I too am searching and pining somedays even, for guidance or an understanding of this condition of being called grief, but have come up short. For the most part, I have politely rejected the platitudes and have turned inwards to just experience it however it is that my body and heart will experience it…but oh, what a lonely place that can be sometimes.

    I am in awe at the clarity with which you write about this after losing your daughter such a short time ago. To repeat what a previous commenter wrote so eloquently: You shine. She shines through you.

    I think of you often.

    ps. This was one essay on grief that I thought was well written and which parallels some of your thoughts:
    http://www.rebellesociety.com/2013/12/18/5-lies-you-were-told-about-grief/

  6. jane G says:

    LBT…..you are soo so amazing your ability to share and communicate is un measurable. you inspire and encourage others in so many ways…..thank you xxx

  7. Deanna Young says:

    Thanks, Lesley. I’m glad you’ve continued the blog and will be grateful for it as long as you do. I agree that it’s important for people to write honestly about loss. This is so wise, so clear and so beautiful. It helps me. You are generous, as ever.

    1. onmefall says:

      It helps me a lot to write about my daughter and our story. It takes a lot out of me but I’m not ready to stop.

  8. You were called to the very extremities of love, and not only did you endure it, but you amplified it, making it more than ever could have been imagined, and I thank you for sharing that light with us.

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you for your letter. It’s my pleasure to share our story.

  9. xtina says:

    Thank you for writing this, and for writing it so beautifully. Reading it put words to some of my own thoughts, experiences and feelings that often go unspoken. Feeling like some strangely unfamiliar version of myself. Feeling like I am in a world apart from those lucky people who haven’t been subjected to the same reality “enlightenment” that I have. Feeling so, so isolated. Yes to all of these things. Thank you for your honesty.

    I too am searching, and pining somedays even, for guidance or an understanding of this condition of being called grief, but have come up short. For the most part, I have politely rejected the platitudes which can almost feel painful (despite the well-meaning) and have turned inwards to just experience it however it is that my body and heart will experience it…but oh, what a lonely place that can be sometimes.

    I am in awe at the clarity with which you write about this after losing your daughter such a short time ago. To repeat what a previous commenter wrote: You shine. She shines through you.

    I think of you often.

    ps. This was one essay on grief that I thought was well written and which parallels some of your thoughts:
    http://www.rebellesociety.com/2013/12/18/5-lies-you-were-told-about-grief/

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you for sharing that link with me. I found it very interesting. I appreciate you taking the time to read my writing.

  10. Mary Koch says:

    Wow. Your words are very insightful. As I read, I’m thinking of my son. The love of his life broke it off with him on New Year’s Eve and he is mourning the loss of love — a broken young man who does not know where to begin to heal. There is no anger, just incredible sadness for a relationship that just ended. Your words will help me hold him up through this. I need some words, to know what to say about loss of a loved one… while a relationship break up is not the loss of life, it is the death of an emotion that feels as if it gives us air — a purpose — and the death of that emotion leaves a mark forever. And the pain he feels – I too feel, viscerally. Thank you for writing this. Through your loss, you’ve given me the advice I need. India is an infinite angel.

    1. onmefall says:

      I’m glad my story helped you. Thank you so much for reading.

  11. NCD says:

    a friend linked to your blog on their Facebook page which brought me here. I am so sorry for your loss. i am a medical oncologist who has also experienced personal loss and your words describe the experience poignantly and perfectly. I would like to share your blog with a few of my patients’ families who have experienced loss of family members, esp young adult children. Thanks for sharing

    1. onmefall says:

      Please feel free to share the blog. I hope it can be a comfort to others. I’m glad it spoke to you.

  12. K.B. says:

    Hi Lesley,

    I am on your side of the river, but it was my too-young husband at the beginning of December. We have a small son. I cannot imagine your pain. Grief IS isolating, but it helps when someone writes so eloquently of it, and points the way for how others might behave, as you have.

    Interestingly, not much makes me crazy as we knew this was coming for over 3 years, but when people speak of or to their partners or spouses with contempt, I have trouble keeping quiet. A lot of trouble.

    Wishing you and your husband courage and peace, as these are what I wish for myself as well. Thanks for sharing your beautiful words.

    1. onmefall says:

      I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your grief with me.
      I’m thinking that in the future I might not keep my mouth shut when people are rude about their offspring. I think it was wrong of me not to say anything to my neighbor. I think India would be proud if I stood up from the kids. Maybe you could follow suit. Thank you for writing me.

  13. Kumari says:

    Thank you for your courageous writing. I think of you often.

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you for reading & keeping me in your thoughts.

  14. SH says:

    Of course you’re broken. How not? And there’s nothing we can say to make things easier. One day, in a year or two, I hope you’ll find a book by Elizabeth McCracken called “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination”. It’s beautifully written, and if nothing else it will let you know that people have made this terrible journey before you.

    She was a beautiful, beautiful girl. I’m glad you still talk to her every day.

    1. onmefall says:

      I’m always happy to get book ideas. I think I’ve read something else by her and found it intriguing. I’ll never stop talking to her.

  15. Thanks for this, Lesley.  I particularly appreciate this paragraph:

    During the last months I’ve been reading lots of books about grief. Some offered good advice about the physiology of the state but mainly, I’ve found myself incredibly frustrated with the style of writing. They read like new age self-help books. Paragraphs are rife with words like divinity, self-love, infinite and of course, the ever present journey euphemism. Mourning is a condition of being. It’s not the same as conquering self-defeating habits or discovering how to love yourself. It’s not possible to find a cure for it any more than it’s possible for a person to learn how to live without sleep. When I went looking in the East End Chapters for books about grief I found only twelve. Conversely the shelves were teaming with diet books. Ours is a culture afraid of death and those who mourn. Incredible really, after all we’re all going to die and chances are high at some point we will all lose somebody we love. Naturally , it’s hard to watch someone we love struggle, especially when we know we’re powerless to change their feelings. But, being unhappy when bad things happen is inevitable. No matter what success I have in the future or whatever lessons I learn from this experience—if any—I won’t ever get over India’s death, nor will anything make it better.  I accept this because I recognize that this sadness is the cost of loving my daughter and I wouldn’t change that for anything.

    I get tired of this talk too in the area of having cancer but thankfully there are some outliers in the field of positivity like Barbara Ehrenreich and other lesser known women who write well about their experience.  I wonder how this “journey” metaphor evolved as it is not how I envision having locally advanced breast cancer either but the metaphor is used again and again.  I think others tend to frame our experiences of grief and loss to make themselves feel better and to protect themselves.  

    I find much more solace in the Buddhist notions of non-attachment as everything is impermanent.

    Did you know that Anne Pitman posted this on the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre website?  I’m not sure how many parents of children seek services there as most of the programs seem adult-oriented and not even that family-oriented.  Hope it helps a few people, in any case.

    Well-written and it is good to challenge some of the mainstream writing in the area of grieving and loss.

    Take care, Christine (Xtine on Facebook)

  16. Fiona says:

    Hello,
    Some time ago, an edited blog post of yours appeared in an Australian newspaper, and my curiosity was piqued enough to start reading your blog. I’m so sorry to hear of India’s passing. All I can really say is that you are in the thoughts of people like me who don’t know you directly. Take care, and best wishes your way.

  17. Pamela says:

    Lesley – its good to hear your voice. Thank you for sharing this
    Pamela

  18. Pauline Conley says:

    I am grateful for your decision to continue the blog. Your insight into this difficult but inevitable state is generous and compelling.

  19. K.B. says:

    Lesley, a friend posted a link to a NY Times article and I found it of interest given my own recent bereavement. It might resonate with you as well, this article and the original one it is based upon. Take care.

    1. onmefall says:

      Beautiful article. Thank you for sending it to me.

  20. Leigh says:

    Lesley,
    I am so moved by this post, well, all of them really. I am glad you are still writing and that the process of writing is an outlet for some of what you’re feeling. Your words are of comfort to others who struggle with grief, and that is a very good thing. One of my best friends passed away almost six years ago so, I can relate, if only a very little, to that river that divides. It is so helpful to know that you’re not completely alone with grief.

    On the other hand, I also struggle being on the other side, too. My 6 year old son suffered a serious brain injury last december and is quite lucky to be alive, let alone his usual little self. So, one of the things I struggle with these days, despite how ridiculous it must sound, I know it must sound ridiculous, is feeling overwhelmed with both gratitude and guilt. Losing my patience with the kids, or taking a single day I have with them for granted feels unpardonable, so I hear what you are saying about witnessing those moments when voice is given to complaints or put downs about their kids. Then I wonder, what makes me so lucky? Walking away from the edge of tragedy is a funny thing and it changes you too. I guess there’s no making sense of it.

    I hope you continue writing, your voice is both tremendous and necessary.

    Take care. Leigh

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you for taking the time to write. I’m happy your boy is his usual self. I think tragedy does change us. I feel I’m more empathetic these days. Though I don’t really care about the little things anymore. I appreciate your letter.

  21. Marc WALTER says:

    Good morning Leslie, as I was looking at the Farrelton art website, I was curious to find out about a few names I didn’t recognize. That’s how I discovered your blog. I have been touched. Your wonderful writing feels true, raw, and sooo beautiful. Yes it is difficult to express our emotions when they are not “only” of joy. Talking about death is still taboo; so is talking about sadness. In a teachers’ workshop earlier this week, I was just expressing how sad and frustrated it makes me that we don’t express our emotions and feelings with one another. When I create, I hope to leave works in nature where some people will find a place to reflect upon their life, or to share their impressions with one another. I have not been confronted to the death of a loved one beside my grand-ma when I was in my twenties; I think my youth at the time helped me overcome it and the cycle of life and death was in a way “respected” as she was older than me. Father of two boys, I try to prepare for their departure since they were born; I think often about the moment they will leave to live on their own; I also often think about their death. I am also a husband and think of my wife in the same fashion, although I have been caught forgetting my luck. I realize I will never be prepared to loose a loved one and don’t fool myself believing I can.
    Reading your January 3rd text makes me reflect again, appreciate the boys and my wife and my friends with an added awareness. Although I don’t think our paths have crossed, a piece of you and India will be part of my path now. Thank you so much for the courage it takes to share your story. Marc

  22. ***Grief is visceral, it inhabits the space between the ribs.***
    Yes. Yes. Yes..
    My heart mourns with you, weeps with you, hears your words inside this room.
    I’ve been mourning my sister’s murder for over 3 years. I shall never stop. Never. Until my very last breath.
    Gorgeous, heartbreaking, Amazing Post.
    Thank you for your raw honesty.
    (your blog link was sent to me by Kelly @ Inspired Edibles.) xxx

    1. onmefall says:

      I’m so sorry about your sister. I wish it wasn’t so. Thank you for sharing your experience with me. I know it will never go away. It’s only how I choose to live with the pain that matters.

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