Recently I gave an interview to a magazine regarding the ‘Living with Loss’ project and how it came about. This is something I often reflect upon, especially since the project has grown beyond anything I could have imagined.
Of course it all starts with my children. This is a bit more of my story and about them.
I am blessed and very glad to have given birth to two children, but they are not alive, and the gap left by their absence can never be filled by anything or anyone else.
The last words I shared in person with both of my children were connected to trains – actually on a train, in the case of Pax – and on a platform next to a train about to depart , in the case of Catherine. Almost 30 years apart. Coincidentally, both trains were going south.
When I first started writing this post, I was on a train speeding south. I quite like travelling by train – sitting back to watch the scenery, the possibility of stretching my legs whenever I want. But train travel is painfully poignant for me.
Let’s start with Pax. Some details are blurry.
India. From Lucknow to Mumbai – or, as it was then – Bombay.
He was almost 3 ½ years old. Catherine was there, one month short of her 2nd birthday. It was May 1982.
It was a long trip. I was there with my first husband and our travels in India at the time were part of our work for a Christian organisation.
Train journeys in India are long and the conditions are often unpleasant – at least they were back then, in the early 1980s. It was hot and dusty. We paid a bit extra for a small compartment when we could afford it – ‘2nd Class AirCon” I think it was called. Along with our luggage, we had a hamper with containers of boiled water and food, as what was available enroute was mostly not safe to consume. We even carried a potty so that neither child had to visit the rather disgusting toilets. We’d let them ‘do their stuff’ in the potty in the compartment and then disposed of it in the toilet.
This was one of those long journeys. I remember the compartment. I remember buying a watermelon. Feeding Pax spoonfuls of the cool sweet melon juice as he became poorly. I remember vaguely him saying something.
We got off the train in Bhopal, the first major station enroute, rushed Pax to the hospital. Tragically that was where he died.
It was a large government hospital. I will never forget the intensive care room – a massive open plan room with tables upon which seriously ill children lay, surrounded by relatives. I have never been back inside that hospital but I did return to Bhopal in 2013 – an important part of my grief journey which I’ll write about another time.
Fast forward 29 years. Standing on the train platform in Stoke-on-Trent with Catherine. Her post-Mother’s Day visit has come to an end, and we are waiting with her for the train that will take her home to Dudley. There’s a hug and a farewell. She gets aboard. I watch her find her seat, and the train pulls out of the station.
I did speak to Catherine again, over the phone, but that was the last time I spoke with her in person. She died a week later.
The station where I saw off Catherine is our local station, and so obviously I return to there periodically. The first few times were quite emotional. Still now almost 9 years onwards, when I take a train south, I will often walk over to the spot where we had our last hug. It is a significant patch of the station for me, a very sad place.
The arrangement of our local station has since changed . You can’t go onto the platform unless you have a ticket to travel. To be frank, it is a bit of a relief when we are seeing off friends who have come to visit. Now we will say goodbye at the ticket barrier rather than on the platform. You can understand why I am contented with this arrangement. Saying goodbye on the platform is very hard.
Lives lived, although short
The sum of my children’s lives is so much more than those last words on/by trains, but still those moments have special significance.
I mentioned above that it took 31 years before I returned to Bhopal where Pax died. It’s when we do the work of mourning that we eventually find we are comforted. My grief for Pax was suppressed and somewhat on hold for three decades. Going back to India, as difficult as it was – and it was very difficult in many respects – was something I desperately needed to do, and it did bring me to a place of more peace.
More peace is the operative word. I can never have complete peace. Both of my children were lovely and beautiful and kind; both were wanted and both were loved. But both had health problems. When Pax was 1 1/2, we discovered he had a rare genetic condition that affected his blood. Little was known about it at the time. His death was caused by acute haemolytic anaemia, and even the blood transfusion he received could not save him. Catherine, on the other hand, had mental health problems. She was a very intelligent girl and then young woman, with ambitions and hopes for her life. But her struggles with bipolar disorder spiralled out of control on a number of occasions, and she spent long spells in hospital. On a sunny April morning she took her own life.
Neither Catherine nor Pax ‘were’ their illnesses. They ‘had’ their illnesses, and eventually those conditions led to their premature deaths, aged 30 and 3 respectively.
Not having Catherine on the phone each day has changed my life. Not having her to visit, to enjoy meals together, to meander through the shops. Not having her stylish eye to comment on my clothes. Not having her funny sense of humour. Not having Pax has changed my life. Not having a young man who by now might have been married with children of his own. Not having the grandchildren I would have loved to babysit and teach to read, as I taught my two children. Not having a crowd for Christmas lunch, or someone to bring home souvenirs for from my many travels.
Not watching my children reach their dreams is one of the hardest aspects of my grief, as I think it is for most bereaved parents. It hurts so badly to realise that what they wanted, they could not have – Catherine in particular who lived enough of life to have ambitions.
If I could, I would get on a train and go and see them, but I can’t. Because my children are not living, I have time on my hands that many other women of my age do not have. I don’t have children or grandchildren to take care of.
So I do other things. I organise and run retreats and workshops; I can stay in touch with people who are grieving and support them. I can write this blog and lots of other things too that are part of my ‘Living with Loss’ project.
Those things are good in themselves, yes. But they do not make up for the fact that Pax and Catherine are not here.
What I’ve done is try to make the best of the life I’ve got, but it’s not what I was expecting, not what I wished.
If you are reading this, perhaps you too are in a life situation that you were not expecting, not planning for, not wishing for. I hope that you too can find ways to live the life you have.
This is a bit of my story. There is much to tell. Thank you for reading and for sharing in my memories of Pax and Catherine. May you also find comfort in sharing your own memories.
PS. Pax would be 41 today (3rd January 2020). Join me, if you like, in raising a toast to him on his birthday.