One year ago today I was snuggled up in a very cosy bed, in a small hotel in the Sololaki neighbourhood of Tbilisi, Georgia, sleeping off a horrendous hangover after a night of cavorting. We had a 5pm flight back to Dubai that afternoon, and plans for a very lazy morning. I did hear my phone buzz a couple of times during the night, but definitely wasn’t in any hurry to check my messages. At around 8.30am I got up for a quick dash to the toilet and casually glanced at my phone as I lay back down in bed. There were a couple of messages from my sisters, but more alarmingly my youngest sister Pieta had tried to call me. I called her right back and asked her, “What’s going on, is everything OK?” trying to ignore the mounting, irritating sense of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I can’t remember exactly how she started the sentence – something about Mum being prepared for emergency surgery. But the world stopped when I heard the words, “She didn’t make it”.
Sometimes, the brain knows and doesn’t know, at the same time. My brain heard what my sister said, but definitely didn’t want to compute what it meant. In a two second period, my brain tried to convince me that the surgery had been called off, for some reason. That my Mum didn’t make it to the operating theatre because… she’d been moved to another ward, the hospital had been evacuated, the doctors had rescheduled the surgery. Anything. Any other translation. On another level my brain grasped that my Mum was gone. And so, my adrenal glands shot adrenaline into my circulatory system; causing my pupils to dilate and my muscles to tighten to the point of shaking. Causing my heart to race and my breathing to became shallow. I sat up in bed, ramrod straight. I could suddenly see everything in the room in the sharpest of detail, all the colours brighter. I could actually hear a conversation outside our window, even though I couldn’t understand the words. I heard a motorcycle starting up. “What do you mean?” I asked Pieta. I can’t remember her response. In a state of fight or flight, I desperately reached for words. “Is Mum dead?” I needed to hear the word no. I can’t remember the response, but it wasn’t no. The response, whatever it was, was not one which my reptilian brain recognised. I asked Pieta again… “Is Mum dead?” There was a pause, and this time the answer was yes. Our Mum had died.
I think this is the point at which I went into shock. I cannot remember the rest of the conversation. David reckons I said the word fuck, several times. That seems about right. I cannot remember saying goodbye to my sister. I know I didn’t cry, not right away. Not yet. I remember just being confused. My brain simply refusing to comprehend. I remember turning to David and saying, “I don’t understand” over and over again. I remember looking into his eyes and not even really recognising him. I remember curling into a ball in bed and holding onto my husband for dear life. And I remember wailing. I remember actually willing my body to go back to sleep, wishing for the blissful oblivion of sleep. And my body complying, shutting down. Thank god. I drifted in and out for a couple more hours. Wailing every time I gained consciousness, every time I woke up to the nightmare of remembering. And finally, the tears did come. Sobs that racked my whole body. And, “I don’t understand” on a loop. Over, and over again.
I don’t understand. I don’t understand.
We had to check-out of the guesthouse at midday, so I do remember having to get up and shower. Like a robot would shower. Knowing how to shampoo, when to rinse, programmed to scrub the right spots for the right amount of time (maybe a little longer than the right amount of time), eyes glazed. I remember having to pack, somehow I packed. I remember checking out, my eyes red and swollen from crying. Smiling when the lady asked if we’d enjoyed our stay. Knowing that she must have heard the cries of despair emanating from our room all morning. Not caring.
We left our bags at reception and wandered the grey, bleak streets of the city. For hours. I wasn’t hungry but I drank Georgian wine. A lot of it. I wanted to blot out the pain, but of course this was pain that couldn’t be blotted. David was wonderful, of course. He arranged time off work and booked us on the first available flights back to Melbourne. I remember being at Tbilisi airport, crying uncontrollably and not caring about all the people looking at me, with discomfort. I don’t remember the flight back to Dubai. I do know that I cried so much, my eyes swelled shut. I didn’t care.
This is grief. This is what the death of a loved one looks like. I bet if I asked my sisters for their account of the same day, it would be similarly full of details and blurs. I hate that it’s been a whole year since this day happened. I hate that the magnitude of it slips away, day by day. I no longer cry myself to sleep (much), but I still feel the bewilderment and dissonance of the finality of my Mum’s death. I still don’t understand. A small part of me is used to not seeing my family for a year at a time, and that part of my mind is going to get a real fucking shock when it realises that this is it. There is no next time. She’s not there anymore. The house is sold. There are other people living in it. Walls have been knocked down. The world has continued to turn, without my Mum. An entire part of my life is gone. Forever. The world still turns.
This morning I sniffed a bottle of my Mum’s favourite perfume. Her signature scent, Lulu. It smells like her, but… not really. My Mum’s pink sweater still does smell like her, but, after a year, that scent is fading. As though everything about her is retreating further away. Is grief misplaced love? Love with nowhere to go? Maybe. It sometimes feels like that. A dead person is just a memory, a concept. Loving a real person is expansive, it’s infinite. Loving a dead person is an exercise in futility. I don’t believe that my Mum can still hear me or see me. I don’t believe that she’s still around. I wish that I did. I’m sure that would bring me some comfort. What I do believe is that I hold all the love she ever gave me, I hold it all in my heart. And I hold it very, very close. It’s all I have left of her. And that’s something that will never fade.