Monday, January 30, 2012

A Celebration of Life

There is a thread of continuity running through our lives, that all of the major events in our lives are celebrated at home – two of our children were born at home, we were married in my parents-in-law’s home, we had a naming ceremony at home for our children, and now the final ceremony of life, a funeral service, took place in our home this weekend, which feels like it has brought our celebrations of life full circle.

My mother in law died peacefully in her home last Wednesday morning. It was her time and we were all relieved for her to be free, however sad for ourselves for losing her. While we all knew that her ashes would come home to be planted under a tree on our farm, we weren’t quite sure about what sort of service we’d be able to hold for her. She was a Catholic, but at 89 hadn’t been to a church for many years. She would have wanted a ceremony presided over by a Catholic priest, but we wanted more than just the official form of a traditional service. The priest who visited in her last days was wonderful and warm and we were prepared for a formal ceremony in his church even though none of us had ever attended it. However he came to our rescue and himself suggested a ceremony at home for her as more meaningful and appropriate in the circumstances.

After that it all fell into place. He would officiate and select appropriate prayers and blessings, we would be able to put in all our own contributions, memories and the rest. Our house, spacious as it is with its ever-stretching main room and used to festivals and enfolding gatherings of people, was the perfect venue. We cleaned and de-cluttered as never before, somehow feeling that it needed to be cleaner for this than even for our festivals.  Friday was spent baking rock buns, crunchies, banana bread, tea loaf and heart biscuits interspersed with more cleaning.

The service went beautifully on the day. There was a wonderful energy, more of celebration of her life than mourning her death. We had a table with pictures of her, candles, crystals and shells, her signature walking stick and so on.  Somehow seats were found for everyone. And the service itself went from formal prayers to informal remembering of her and tributes to her. Everyone had so much to say, from moving eulogy to funny stories and informal remembrances, that the priest had to leave before we were all done, so he did his final blessing before taking his leave.

Our children then played a couple of recorder pieces they’d chosen, which bridged the gap and restored the contemplative mood, before we carried on with the memories, so that everyone who wanted to had a chance to say or sing their bit. Our wonderful farm employees, who have been with us for years, sang Amazing Grace in harmony for her.

All in all it felt right, in keeping with her spirit and her life to have held this celebration for her here in a familiar place. There was joy as well as sadness and an energy filled with spirit, created by all the people who loved her, coming together. The overall message was of love, even the priest's sermon was on love and he chose a few prayers centered around the message of love, excusing himself for having to leaf madly around his book between the wedding section and funeral section to find all the right readings!.

We’ll have another more informal memorial service later in the year to plant her ashes and a tree for her, so that family from farther afield who weren’t able to attend can also have their chance to be part of a ceremony for her.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Death and Life

My mother-in-law on her 88th birthday two years ago
Death is just a part of the cycle of life. But it’s a part that we hide from, push away, avoid like an unfortunate, socially inept relative. In books the baddies die, but never the main characters, at least hardly ever. If they did there wouldn’t be a follow on, we wouldn’t buy the book in the first place. So it’s hard when death becomes part of everyday life for a while.

At the moment my mother-in-law is slowly dying. She’s 89, has been getting frailer for years, but we think this is the final stage. She’s at her home on our farm with a nurse and two of my sisters-in-law taking care of her. My husband and I take turns sitting with her when she’s calm, but can’t really help with the nursing. Our kids are just going on with their usual routine of school and play, even though there is an atmosphere of limbo and holding of breath in our lives.

We wish she could go quickly and have a release from the distress and discomfort that she’s experiencing, but dying happens in its own time; strength of spirit fights frailty of body and the letting go process is hard.

My kids asked questions about death when they were younger. They know our beliefs. But this is the first time it has been so close to them. When my father died it was a distant thing, cut and dried news from the other side of the world. They attended his memorial service but I flew over alone for the funeral. Now they are on the fringe of a gradual, drawn-out dying.

Co-incidentally the story book I’ve been reading to them over the last couple of months Roller Skates (Newbery Library, Puffin) is one of those old-fashioned children’s stories that isn’t afraid to confront death in one of the good characters. We reached one of the later chapters where a little 4 year old girl, befriended by the heroine loses a battle with pneumonia and the doctor she brings to her arrives too late to save her. I’d forgotten about this and it came right in the middle of this week of nursing their old grandmother. We started talking about the old days – this is set in New York in the late nineteenth century, before antibiotics and when poverty meant that young children often did die of diseases that can be cured easily today.

At one point Middle Daughter said she didn’t want to talk about death any more, so we stopped. It made me wonder if we should be talking to them more about what is happening around them, or let them insulate themselves with their regular lives and let it flow over their heads. It’s all part of life and growing up, so I don’t believe we should protect them too much by not telling them anything, but I don’t want to force them to confront more than they can deal with emotionally. I’m a great believer in answering questions when they come up, at whatever age and letting things unfold in their own time, so hopefully we’ll hit the right balance.

Anyway I’m glad it turned out that we were reading Roller Skates just at this time, and have lingered over it longer than usual what with the distraction  of holiday time, and forgetting the book when we went away to the river for our holiday. It turned out to be entirely the right thing to be reading, giving enough room for discussion and putting feelings into words and images.

Looking at the reviews on Amazon, most of the adults had fond memories of it being read to them as children and re-read it regularly, while the kids who reviewed it universally found it boring. So definitely better to read aloud to your kids – mine all enjoyed it.

I don't know how many more days my mother-in-law has left but I hope she finds the right time and slips away peacefully. I hope my children learn and grow from the experience of death happening within the family, rather than removed and sanitized by distance. It is all part of life after all.

25th Jan Edited to add: Juju died peacefully in the night with three of her six children around her. She was compos mentis and full of humour to the end. Go well Juju on your next adventure, with all our love.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Summer Holiday Ingredients

The essential ingredients of a summer holiday – water, water, water, sand, mud, water, sunshine, food ,family, friends and more water...

There’s something about being able to get up straight into a costume, paddle up the river in a canoe, drift back down with the tide and then swim in soft brown river water, all before breakfast, that makes you feel relaxed and healthy, living only for the day, letting the stresses of real life fade.

We had a lovely week away at the river swimming every day. Friends were staying just upriver from us for the first few days, so the kids were able to taste a new sense of independence – setting off together in the canoes to go and visit, unaccompanied by any adults.

This house was far enough upriver to have only a very gentle tidal flow, so it was safe enough for the kids to play about in the water for hours in their life jackets. The grass sloped into a sandy/muddy beach slightly sheltered by reeds. Much play with mud and messing about with boats can turn a teenager back into a child in moments.

Of course the horses came too and had a water jump built for them as part of a cross country course.

Only at the river do you set off for a sleepover by boat.

Heading off upriver to their friends' house, with the full moon peeking enviously over the cliffs.

And now it’s back to reality – school, 44C hot summer weather, my mother's visit ending as she heads to Australia to see her other two grandchildren, work to kickstart for the year... time to work on extending the positive, relaxed vibe of our river holiday to cover everyday life. Anyone know how that's done?!