My big brother Peter died 15 months ago. Sounds like such a long time when I say it like that, but somehow the memory is still painfully fresh. He was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer 10 weeks earlier, and that was all it took – 10 weeks from diagnosis to death. Not nearly enough time for me to get over my shock and have any real appreciation for what he was going through, let alone work out how I could cope with it. So I concentrated on practical things: flying into Brisbane every fortnight and staying long weekends, going to appointments with him. I packed up my house and was moving down to Brisbane to help care for him but he died suddenly, 2 days before I got there, way sooner than any of us had expected.
The funeral was blur, then instead of grieving the big brother who’d always been there for me, all of my life, I focused on my mum who had longstanding health problems because I didn’t want her to die too. Peter had been living with mum for thirty years, since dad died, so I knew she’d take his loss badly. She’d not only lost a son (unthinkable enough) she’d also lost her companion. I couldn’t comprehend that kind of loss, so I didn’t try. I just moved into her house, cleared out my brother’s things and started the long process of settling his estate while I tried to prepare mum for life without him.
It didn’t work. She died 5 months later despite a huge effort by all our remaining family members to support her. She was frail and hiding her grief. Also hiding the fact that when no one was looking, she wasn’t eating… anyway, another funeral. This time the combined shock just seemed to numb me. I took comfort from the fact that every day, women all around the world are losing their mothers. I knew we were all trying to cope with the terrible severing that occurs when the one person in the world who loves you unconditionally is gone.
Just as I had when my brother died, I took refuge in keeping busy, sorting through hundreds of ornaments and photos and vases, boxes of embroidery cotton and knitting wool and dress patterns she hadn’t looked at for 40 years. She’d lived in the same house for 62 years, and for every Christmas of my life I’d sat at her table for Christmas lunch: when I’d been single, married, a mother of two, single again and then a grandmother. So much of my life sitting at that kitchen table.
The thought that I’ll have my first Christmas Day somewhere else was incomprehensible, yet somehow we all managed it. My 30 year old son hosted Christmas lunch at his house for the wider family and without mum and Peter it was impossibly strange, and so awkward it hurt my heart. We kept telling ourselves Next year will be easier. Next year will be better. And maybe it will. I hope so.
I’m coming up to 18 months since I stepped away from writing, and after 20 years as a published author, writing full-time, that’s hard. The stories that used to buzz around my brain with chattering dialogue and steamy emotions are gone – for so long now that I almost forget what it was like to live in those fictional worlds.
I’m not depressed. Rather the opposite – I’m trying to live the rest of my life because my brother didn’t get to. But I don’t have any impulse to write, and I don’t know what to do about that. It’s been so much a part of my adult life…I’m not quite sure who I am without it.
A writing teacher, mentor and manuscript assessor. Yes, I can still do that and I’m getting better at it all the time. But the year I stopped writing I had three of my Husband Series novels shortlisted in the Australian Romance Readers’ Association Top Ten Erotic Romance awards. So shouldn’t I get back to that?
I don’t know, and a decade ago I could not have imagined thinking that. I was so sure I knew what life was about and what I was on the planet for. But now I don’t. Life has slowed down into coffees that last all morning, conversations with loved-ones that feel pivotal and taking the time for self-care: eating, sleeping, tending the garden.
Perhaps this is the business of grief, now that my role as the executor of two estates is over. Time is the healer, and to do justice to the love that has been lost, I seem to be taking that time, lingering over life as if it’s a book I’m not ready to put down. Examining small details. Allowing a space between thoughts. Listening instead of talking all the time.
Is this normal? I don’t know. But it seems to be heading in a positive trajectory, rather than the opposite. And whether it ends in me writing again…well, I hope so. My characters were always so real to me that I miss them as if they were friends on holiday. I’d like them to come back. I want to share their highs and their lows, but I’m not promising anything. All I can do at this stage is stay with each day and give myself the best chance I can to get back to those worlds.