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Sunday, 16 December 2012

And Do I Grieve?

summer dry
(compare with winter green in July)

As Christmas fast approaches, memories of earlier times jostle with the urgency of the present. Who will we celebrate with this year? Who is missing?

In Australia, Christmas is in summer. It can be scorching, it can be mild, sometimes it is cool and raining. Some families like to maintain the winter traditions of hot roast turkey, cranberry sauce and all the trimmings, followed by pudding with custard. Others throw a barbecue with prawns and snags, followed by a modern summer dessert. In my family we serve cold turkey and ham with salads, and place a bob each way for dessert – a traditional pudding and a pavlova.

The poem that follows is in memory of Phyl Stretton (1916-2007) who, as my honorary grandmother, spent several Christmases with us – and always asked for pavlova instead of pud.

And Do I Grieve?

I hold her hand again, the image burned
Into my thoughts of Phyl in recent days.
A hand surprising for its strength though she
Was failing, held in pain as cancer swelled
Her abdomen. Two years or maybe three
She'd hoped, believing medicine would save
Her from the worst. So when the doctor said,
'If this won't work, there's nothing more to do,'
She could not comprehend. I had to tell
It all again, and starkly spell it out
In letters large. Not only was it hard
For her to grasp the surgeon's careful words,
But she could not be comforted as I
By his expression, anguished and distressed;
My secondhand impressions did not paint
The scene sufficient to relieve the night,
For Phyl was blind; e'en so does age prepare
Us for the eve when this life's day shall end.

I knew her in the morning of my life
As fam'ly friend, and party drama queen.
At thirteen I had grown to trust her so
I'd sought her wisdom for my future plans.
Our paths diverged, locations far apart
And lives that intimated nothing more
Than distant memory we'd ever share.

Vicissitudes of life reversed our roles.
Her widowhood and accidents o'erwhelmed
Her, stole her will, her joie de vivre sapped.
A weekly visit then became routine,
The pattern set before we realised
The name of our relationship had changed –
She was a grandmother to me whose own    
Had lived so far away, they'd seemed unreal,
And I the grandchild she could never have.
These years together as she grew more frail
And independence slowly fell away
We spent by talking life: the daily now,
Her memories of theatre, friends, and war.
E'en then she rarely spoke of spouse or son,
The menfolk in her life a silent void –
Her father'd died in war when she was two –
Yet stories of her youthful lovers showed     
A need, perhaps, that never was fulfilled.
Romance came to her briefly at the end
Of her long life. Her friend, her 'lover', gave
Her final days a comfort and a joy.
Her love of feeling loved was like a girl's –
And he no less delighted. What a pair!
They quickly made a name among the staff;
Detractors had their say, and with just cause,
But he revealed his worth as she grew weak:
He rarely left her side, he went each day
To her in hospital, and he no youth.
I'd meet him there; we'd each take hand held out,
'With you both here, I've nothing more I need',
She'd say, her dry eyes closed, skin tissue-thin.
I found an hour all that I could bear
But faithful lover stayed with her all day,
All days. There was one special hour before
She came, at last, to her own bed, when we –
Myself, the chaplain, Phyl, beloved friend –
Received Communion, simple, deeply felt,   
Her fav'rite people joined by Heaven’s love
The first and only time. For faith was birthed
As age exacted tax on former health,
And heaven's vision comforted in part
The loss of what before had been her life –
The theatre, parties, long-held friendships – God
Had drawn her close, his death and life now hers.
We talked of him together and we prayed
The last time I was with her, holding hands.
I said, 'Goodbye', but only for the while
We'd be on holiday. I wrote her cards
From Torquay and from Lorne. I sent the first
Before the phone call came to tell her death;
I've kept the rest.

                                    There was no funeral.
Possessions bagged for charity, her son
No want for things beyond the words she'd breathed
Of love for him; so late for him. We spoke
The third time in the decades we had shared
His mother. Does he grieve? Do I? For whom?
My visits with her were a chance for me
To talk about myself, my hopes, my fears
And hear her words of affirmation, backed
By thoughtful questions and remembered news.
She listened. She believed in me. She loved
As grandmas well can do, without regard
For faults and flaws, just seeing diamonds gleam
Where I saw only quartz, my stumbling words
Of poetry and prose heard carefully
And shared with friends. For her I read aloud
The poets she had cherished long and oft
Recited on demand, her stagecraft strong.
And yet she was an ardent advocate
Of my poor lines. How she would scold if now
She heard those words!

                                    So what remains of Phyl?
Nought but relationships she'd deftly formed,
And stories told, which we may choose to weave
As colour in the cloth of our own lives.
Recalling Christmases, the fam'ly thrilled
When Phyl was one of us, pale matriarch,
Or was she fairy godmother of old?
Bestowing gifts and blessings on her folk
Who valued trinkets, kindly words, bequeathed
As evidence of this grandmother's love.

Her presence veiled now, still she lingers, whole
In spite of fractured memories. I cringe;
The image fixed before me now is soiled
With pain, with my own helplessness and urge
To run from clutching hands and sickly smell.
And weeks before that, when her usual grip
On what was real began to falter, slide
Into the past, the present gone, I braced
Myself to bring her back. But past was kind;
Did I betray her when I chose with love?
Yet death by cancer was the thief which stole
From her the clarity of thought and speech,
Expended her élan. Remember, though,
Her sense of fun, her biting wit, the quips
That yet broke through the haze. On our last day
Together, only half in jest we talked
Of heaven's plan to throw a merry bash
To welcome her. We'd no idea how near
That day – one week from then until she left.
And do I grieve? For her sake I rejoice.
And for the memories I'm truly glad,
And for the richness extra fam'ly brought
To all my kin. Of life lived, what remains?
A hand in mine and many lives enhanced.

Until next week…
Claire Belberg

1 comment:

  1. This Christmas will be our first without my mother-in-law. The whole in-law thing was a first for both of us, so we had to find our way through. We were family for nearly three decades. Although confusing to have two 'Mum's in my life it was nice to have someone I called Mum after my mother died. I know, I havent really commented on the poem itself. It brought all sorts of lovely thoughts to mind of how life is wonderfully complicated at times. My mother-in-law was a tough independent fighter, until towards the end when she needed someone to fight for her. It was a joy and privilege to do so. I miss her. Poetry does this, it has a beauty in the words worthy of attention, but really good poetry prompts reflections and responses beyond technique. So I guess that means this was a really good poem because I can't stop reflecting. :)


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