On Loneliness and Grieving.

Seven summers ago I sat shiva. It changes you. People say I have a strange relationship with death; they’re usually people who thankfully haven’t had any relationship with it at all. But I don’t think that comes from losing a parent. I think I was always aware of the idea that people might not be there the next day. That trust was a hard gift to give when you considered the likelihood of being left alone at any minute without warning.

So when, indeed without warning, a matter of hours after happily hanging up the phone on one of several daily calls to my father, I was summoned almost wordlessly to his already dead body, no chance to say goodbye, I can’t remember feeling shocked. The often quoted feeling of  ‘this cant be happening to me’  never even crossed my mind. It almost made sense, somehow.

Back then, for whatever reason, I chose to focus on the positive in the situation for the most part. I felt grief, I tore my clothes, I cried what must have been buckets of real tears, don’t get me wrong. It was probably the saddest and most difficult period in my life. But I’m not sure I ever complained. I’m not sure I ever shouted and raved about how unfair it was. Anger didn’t come into the equation for me.

Not then anyway.

I’m angry today. With a lot of people. I’m angry that you didn’t phone me, even though I told you in advance what day it is. I’m angry that I had to tell you what day it is in the first place, and that I have to explain (even though you’ll never understand) why it’s important to me. I’m angry that you are allowed the immense privilege of not understanding, and I have to go through this, distancing me from everyone un-scarred and whole in my life.

I’m angry with you too. I can’t understand how you can let this slip your mind. How you can marry someone and have a child together, and never think she might end up in this position. And I’m so frustrated that now I’m here dealing with it, you can’t remember something as important as today and phone me up and see how I am. How can you tell me that this is all harder for you than me, if this day hasn’t even crossed your mind, in a fraction of the way it’s taken camp in my own these last few weeks?

I’m even annoyed at my family. For reaching milestones that he never will, for taking for granted relationships he will never experience, simply for not being his sons, his wife, his nephews, nieces, parents, siblings. Mostly for leaving me the only one who feels this, and giving me no outlet to satisfactorily share it, and in most cases for hardly trying. I can’t pick up the phone and ask for a memory that’s slipped just out of reach, because no one else shares it, or worse still, because the risk of blank faces is just too frighteningly painful. I just have to wait while it fades further out of mind, losing the very puzzle pieces that made up a man’s life. I can’t pop round anywhere to reminisce, because no one shared our relationship.
Ironically, this was the very fact I so eagerly clung to while I sat shiva at 19.

It was only me. I was so proud to alone walk my Dad out of this world with dignity, to do the customs and laws that a family member does according to Jewish law, all on my own. I felt I was really making a difference, really proving that our relationship had always been him and me, and that was no different in his death, no intrusions. It was almost sacred- just the two of us.

But now it’s the one of me.

So I’m angry with You most of all. Not for taking him away from me, that’s too easy, although as I grow up I realise just how cut short his years were, taken at 63. But it’s the way of the world after all, a child losing a parent. But mainly for the way You left me here.
My mother wasn’t his wife, my brothers weren’t his sons. My husband and my son never knew him, I have no uncles or aunts, no grandparents. To make things slightly crueller, there could have been a lifetime companion to share this grief with, miscarried at seven weeks. At one year old, I was destined to be entirely alone in this, and I didn’t even know it.

So I sit here, writing mainly to myself, the only person who has been feeling this day approach with a heavy heart, and the only one who woke up this morning remembering, and wondering what might have been.

Today would have been my Daddy’s 70th birthday. Not old, not really, but seven long years gone. My life is truly so changed since he knew it, that I wonder if he would recognise me at all. And yet the people in my life now, have moved on from even the memory of ‘him and me’ to the point where they can’t remember the importance of today even when I’ve told them directly, let alone out of care of me. It’s not their fault, why should they? It’s only me who is stuck in both times. Missing and living simultaneously. Both getting on with life, and coping with death.

Still, I cant help but wonder whether the burden would be lighter to bear if there were anyone else to share the load.

Pink Strollers vs Monster Trucks

I recently read a debate on a public forum where mothers were discussing whether it was appropriate for their boys to be playing with dolls and toy strollers, pink or otherwise.

The arguments on either side were fairly simple. One side put the choice onto their husbands, who apparently would rather their toddlers were playing with footballs and toy cars, and felt uncomfortable with their manly babies being exposed to too much pink. The other side took the banning of ‘girl toys’ to be the parents way of bringing up mini chauvinists, who would shun both cooking and childcare, and treat their future wives as second class citizens.

I was particularly interested to note that from what I saw, no-one was making the argument that it simply doesn’t matter. Toys are toys. No one was insisting that your son either cooking up a frenzy in a plastic kitchen, or angrily causing mini car pile-ups has no effect on what kind of boy or man they will become.

So does it? Personally I found the conversation slightly ridiculous. If your son wants a buggy, let him have one, If you can find a blue one, great. Otherwise, get the pink one!  The idea that by your child playing with a fake baby they are going to be anything less than a “proper boy” is frankly ludicrous, and yes, as I saw one mother say, bordering on homophobia. Pretend play, which includes feeding a fake baby, cuddling it, kissing teddies, and taking care of a toy in a nurturing way, is an important developmental milestone which every child, male or female should be experiencing and indulging in.

Just in case anyone needs any help working out what is worrying male behaviour, it includes wearing female undergarments and recognising shoe designers by the heel size. Your toddler is simply learning and growing. In my opinion, there is no difference between your son hugging his Action man and hugging his sister’s Barbie doll.

On the other hand, I also had to stifle a laugh at the mothers who are rallying against the wife-beaters of tomorrow. If for whatever reason, our sons do not end up with buggies and dolls, because they are simply not interested or perhaps because we can’t all afford to indulge this weeks interest, I think there are far more important ways of showing them how to grow up to be well rounded and sensitive men. You want your son to know how to cook, even without a plastic kitchen? So take him into the full sized one and let him pour the flour. You want your baby boy to be a hands-on father, then lead by example and be the kind of dad that inspires that behaviour in his kids. Shoving a pink plastic buggy in front of him isn’t going to make him a nurturing parent, any more than it will make him gay to be frank. Both concerns seem to me to be rooted in social ignorance. This idea can only be reinforced when you realise how little you worry that your daughters enjoy playing with cars and planes.

On a personal level, after an afternoon at a public stay and play, where R spent an hour cuddling and feeding a baby doll, I decided to get him his own. Due to his sight, his developmental play has been somewhat behind, and this was the first instance of pretend play I had seen him take part in. I was delighted. We got him a blue ‘boy’ doll, (as if he knows the difference) and a pink stroller, mainly because it was cost-effective and cute looking. He loves putting the baby’s clothes on and off, taking him for walks in the stroller, and giving him cuddles and kisses.

Just in case that worries anyone, he also loves throwing the baby against the wall, building towers on its face, and discussing the football scores with him at length. At least that’s what I assume his babbling must be when he chats to it. They are both boys after all.

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SPD.. Sibling Personality Disorder

I have been part of almost every concievable family structure. With two older brothers, I am a youngest child, and have been known to be spoilt, selfish, highly competitive and ambitious. Being my late fathers only offspring, and being the only kid at home from the age of 9 (on and off) I am only child and oldest child rolled into one. This explains the bossiness, the perfectionism, the importance of my friends to me, and the leadership capabilities. For a short while in my life, I inherited a ready made step family, and became middle child. (My least favourite of the bunch.) I suppose that can explain the tags of insecurity and strong desire to sort out conflict. I’m yet to discover any long lost twin.

There is a lot of discussion on whether your placement in your family and the gaps between siblings makes a difference in how you grow up. If the gaps are too small, will the oldest feel ignored? If the gaps are too big will he be spoilt? If you wait a bit longer will the youngest be babied? If you have an odd number will one feel left out?

Personally I find all these theories a little laughable. If you scour the web, you will find lists of great leaders who are only children or firstborns, serial killers who were middle kids, and nobodies claiming this is down to their youngest placement in their family. If I wanted to I’m sure I could find enough personalities in the world to prove the exact opposite can also be true. I believe that the only part that a childs place in the family can play is the expectations they have on their own personalities and the way society expects them to treat themselves.

Any other explanation surely takes away your own free choice to be the person you want to be. If you are going to blame your pitfalls on your number in the household, your successes must be given the same source. Instead, take the responsibility on yourself. Worried that your bossiness as oldest child is holding you back? Change it. Take a step back, try and let others take the lead. Ignored as a middle child? Find where you shine and grab it with both hands.

As for parents, I think the desire to blame the shortcomings of your children on anything and everything outside of yourself can be too strong. Some situations are certainly harder to deal with, as I often feel when I see people who have incredibly small gaps or many multiple births. But the way your kids are brought up, and the way they get along with one another, is nothing to do with the age gaps or placement. It is everything to do with the way you bring them up and the morals and guidelines which they live their life with. One of the reasons I could watch Jo Frost supernanny all day every day, is how she almost always sorts out the famillies she visits by transforming the parents outlook and actions.

When I was younger, my eldest brother used to play games with me. Imagination play, board games, teaching me things.. I loved having such an older brother. Over 11 years between us meant that no matter how ‘young’ he really was, he always seemed grown up to me. I even forgave him most of the time for the deadpan lies he ‘taught’ me and encouraged me to repeat to friends and family. Boys.

My point is that the eleven year gap didnt and doesnt make a difference in terms of closeness. Similarly, I know many siblings with ‘perfect’ 2 or 3 year age gaps who can’t bear to be in the same room as each other. I think there is too much pressure. Only you know what is right for your family, and only you have to live and deal with your own children. We are told that Yaakov and Esav were brought up exactly the same way, and yet one grew up evil and one good. This shows us that you are not meant to do exactly the same for each child, and even two kids growing up at the same time with the same treatment can grow up as polar opposites.

As I have been blessed with so many different family types in one, maybe I am looking at everything too simply. But in my eyes at least, the only ‘personality syndrome’ that comes from your family structure, are the ones that you give yourselves.

Thoughts?