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Ejo #135 – Promises

This one’s about my Mum.  As many of you know, her life as a girl in Greece was difficult.  At the age of four, she fell down a well and broke almost every bone in her body.  She was forced to work as a shepherdess from the age of eight and unceremoniously yanked out of school when she was 12.  She was beaten, berated and told that she’d been born only to provide an extra pair of hands, while at the same time castigated for being an extra mouth to feed.  Her parents never told her they loved her.  And when, at the tender age of 16, she resisted their attempt to sell her off to a man three times her age in an arranged marriage, she was shipped off to a country she’d barely even heard of, in order to work and send back her earnings. 

My Mum’s resilience was remarkable.  She may have been scarred by her formative years, but her ability to rise above her past was something I’ve always admired.  A wonderful example of her courage was when, at the age of 44, she enrolled to study a course in natural medicine at the local college.  The year was 1991 and, after years of dreaming about it, and talking about it, and thinking about it, she finally just did it.  She went to school and learned, academically, the healing properties of plants.  She overcame a lack of confidence in her English, a lack of formal education, overwhelming social anxiety and a damaged self-esteem in order to pursue her passion.  Like I said, remarkable. 

Nerd. ❤️

Being a self-absorbed, 19 year old asshole at the time, I can’t remember what gave her the courage to finally take the plunge.  I know that my Dad would have supported her unconditionally.  Had it been a new year’s resolution?  Had someone challenged her?  Did she just wake up one day and decide to do it?  I’ll never know.  Of course my Mum was an exemplary pupil, and I remember her spending hours studying every day (while I, in my misspent second year of university, wasted my hours drinking copious amounts of beer and playing cards in the university common room).   Mum graduated, and then spent the next several years continuing to study, continuing to learn, reading books, posting on forums, asking questions – always striving to know more about her craft.  Thirsty for more knowledge.  She grew her own plants, her own garden laboratory, and constantly experimented with them (OK, fine, sometimes on us kids).  She made tinctures and creams, oils and poultices.  She was always concocting something for someone, always drying herb cuttings, always fermenting, infusing, mixing, soaking, powdering.  Always. 

A few of my Mum’s thousands of handwritten labels. She literally had a remedy for everything, always within arm’s reach.

In 1999, my Mum took all the knowledge she’d acquired over the years and actually wrote a goddamn book, a compendium of plants and their uses.  Years of study and personal experience finally culminated in her life’s work.  My parents spent a shitload of money to self-publish thousands of copies of the book in Greek.  She actually wrote most of it in English, but because she felt her English wasn’t great she hired a translator to transcribe her notes to Greek.  I kind of wish she hadn’t done that.  Over the years she sold a few copies here, a few copies there.  But selling books on consignment is a real bitch, and it’s hard to make money in Australia from a niche book written in a minority language.  Not that getting rich was ever my Mum’s goal.  Her goal was to heal people.  To help them.  My Mum was driven.  Single minded. 

The title loosely translates as, “A Family Guide: Herbal Remedies”.

Perhaps that’s something I inherited from her.  Growing up, I was rather goal oriented.  I wasn’t necessarily great at achieving the goals, but boy did I like setting them.  I used to be quite the new year’s resolution queen.  I’ve come a long way since my very first attempt at new year’s resolutions, possibly inspired by my Mum but, let’s be honest, also possibly inspired by Dolly magazine.  I was a 16 year old maniac cultivating an elaborate and detailed sub-world inside the four walls of my bedroom.  Here, lifted straight out of my handwritten diaries, is a taster of the chaos and mayhem that emanated from my addled teenage brain that first day of 1987:

  1. Learn to dance and sing like Madonna
  2. Fill my wall with Madonna posters
  3. Meet five new, gorgeous guys
  4. Lose weight (still at it, 34 years later)
  5. Become a good photographer and create a portfolio of self-portraits.
  6. Get mostly As and some Bs in my half-year report
  7. Buy lots of cool, trendy clothes
  8. Enter, and win, the Dolly covergirl competition (I’m so embarrassed)
  9. Get some really good disco tapes
  10. Become the biggest flirt – watch out guys, here comes Chryss Stathopoulos!!!!  (I actually wrote these words in my diary, and I am now crying from shame)

OK, so I sucked.  Big time.  The only one of these I achieved was having a wall full of Madonna posters.  And even today, I still have no idea how to flirt.  Jump forward two years to January, 1989, and I’d somewhat figured this shit out: 

  1. Kiss at least one guy.
  2. Don’t eat any chips.

Definitely more attainable.  I easily ticked both of these off and got a taste for how good it felt to achieve annual goals (also: how good it felt to kiss boys).  In 1990, ten years before I’d even heard of Dr. Atkins, I gave up bread for the year.  Just because!  And yeah, I totally got off on people’s reactions when I told them about it.  I liked the incredulous attention.  Yes, I was a weirdo.  But I was doing me, and for an angsty teenager with low self-esteem, that actually felt really good.

The next year I went without chocolate for 12 whole months.  Sounds impossible, but it was pretty easy once I decided that it was going to be a “no matter what” situation.  I simply wouldn’t put chocolate in my mouth.  You don’t even realise how ubiquitous chocolate is until you decide to give it up.  That shit is socially difficult to say no to.  Especially at easter.  People are always like, c’mon just have a little bite.  But I resisted and it felt like a great achievement.  I learned the value of not always giving into your impulses.  And for a young teenage girl who’d regularly polish off a family sized block of Cadbury’s Snack chocolate in my bedroom whenever I felt sad, I reckon that’s pretty impressive.  For the next two decades, I alternated between not eating chocolate for a whole year, and not eating bread for a whole year.  It was just something I did for discipline.  To prove to myself that I could. 

I think the reason that I stopped, in the end, was age.  Just getting older, wiser.  You could say I became more mature.  Doing something for the sake of it held less appeal than when I’d been younger.  I gave myself free rein to eat chocolate and bread whenever I wanted, at around the same time that my friend Nicole introduced me to her version of new year’s resolutions.  Her unique selling point was that she’d set the same number of goals as the number of the year itself.  So in 2009, she had nine goals.  And in 2010, she had 10 goals.  I loved this concept and immediately started planning my 11 goals for 2011.  To me, a resolution veteran, this felt revolutionary.  It was a fresh new take and I was totally onboard.  I can’t remember all of my goals for that year, but I definitely remember one of them.  And it was to write an ejo a month.  As you can see, ten years later, this is a goal that I am very proud to still be fulfilling.  I can’t imagine not writing these ejos.  They have become part of who I am, in a far healthier way than being known as the girl who doesn’t eat chocolate. 

Some of my 15 for ‘15 goals included making my Mum a photo calendar of her and my Dad (which she loved) and taking a self-portrait every single day of the year (which was an incredibly rewarding challenge in terms of how I saw myself, and also with the improvement of my photography and editing skills).  I also set myself the goals of running in a 10km race (didn’t do it), doing yoga three times a month (didn’t do it), attending a writer’s group once a month (didn’t do it), studying a photography course (didn’t do it), having a massage once a month (I couldn’t even do this one) and losing 7kg (sound familiar? didn’t do it).

As you can see, my goals were becoming more difficult to achieve.  And I’d regressed back to the kind of bullshit nonsense I’d been mindlessly slapping together as a 16 years old.  Also, the fact that I wasn’t able to tick off so many of them was actually starting to tick me off.  And really, I was just finding it more and more difficult to think of so many goals as the years went on.  Eleven goals was no problem.  But coming up with 16 new goals for 2016 was tedious. It wasn’t fun anymore and I wasn’t really getting much out of it. So, when 2017 rolled around I simply decided to give it all up.  For the first time in 30 years, I was resolution and goal-free.  And it was so liberating.  Just “being” was a luxury.  Just living my life was a treat.  I somehow continued to achieve things that I wanted to do.  And I didn’t go crazy on bread or chocolate or ice-cream or chips.  I was just kind of a grown up about it all.  Ha, imagine that.  Me, adulting!

Since then, I haven’t really missed “doing” new year’s resolutions.  I live my life as best I can.  I do yoga every day, I try to eat well (shoutout carnivore), and I try to be a good person.  I meditate every day in the shower.  I give to charity.  I read a lot.  I have therapy.  I think about how my actions and words affect other people, and I strive to be the best version of myself on a daily basis.  Without pressure.  I no longer need the gimmick of a yearly goal in order to “improve” myself.  I just aim to do that in every moment.  I am proud of myself for that, and I know my Mum was proud of the woman I turned out to be. 

My beautiful Mum died two years ago today.  Nothing will bring her back, but I have thought of one way in which I can keep her spirit and memory alive.  I have decided (resolved?) to do something this year to honour her.  And, along with three other projects, I’ve set myself a target date of the end of this year.  I’m not calling them new year’s resolutions, because they’re not.  They’re just things I want to do. 

So, what are they?  OK, first up I want to learn the lyrics so I can sing along to the 1980 song “The New Rap Language” by Spoonie Gee and The Treacherous Three.  Yep, I am a 49 year old white woman.  Who gives a shit?  I love the idea of the mental and linguistic challenge of learning this eight minute, densely-worded rap.  Studies have shown that mental exercise, things like learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument, can stave off degenerative, neurological conditions.  So this is my fun way of fighting dementia.  Yay!

Next, I want to learn how to pick a lock.  I’m not talking about using a bobby pin to jimmy open a flimsy suitcase fastening.  No, no, I mean using a lockpick toolkit to open a serious padlock or door-lock, secret agent style.  I promise I’m not planning on using this skill for any nefarious reasons.  I just reckon it’d be a pretty fucking cool skill to have.  And, once again, learning a new skill, learning how to use my fingers in new, dexterous ways, creating new neural networks; it all has to be good for my brain, right?

My third goal of the year is to plan my funeral.  Nope, I’m not intending on dying any time soon, so don’t worry about that.  I’ve just been thinking about this one for a while.  Planning my Mum’s funeral brought my sisters and I together, giving us something to focus on other than our excruciating grief.  It was all-consuming and helped to fill our days.  But it was hard, man.  It was fucking hard.  You’re making big decisions at a time you’re barely capable of getting out of bed in the morning.  When I die, I don’t want David and my sisters to have to go through that.  Also, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of my parties, but bitches, I throw down an epic event!  I don’t mean to brag, but we’re talking about the kind of party people talk about for years afterwards.  People are still talking about the 7am cucumbers in the jacuzzi from the first house party David and I threw in 2011.  Living in Dubai has always been hard for me, because I haven’t made many friends.  So whenever we visit Melbourne, it’s become a tradition to throw a massive shindig, get everyone I love together and go a little crazy.  Drink, dance, carouse!  Over the years, I’ve honed my skills as a party planner and I’m pretty proud of some of the bashes we’ve thrown. 

There was the gorgeous garden party at Madame Brussels, the 80s party complete with awesome tunes, daggy fluoro outfits and plenty of jello shots.  There was the picnic in the park with bottles of rosé, yummy finger food and a crazy thunderstorm.  In 2016 we held a weekend-long, ten year anniversary party at a log cabin in the mountains, and most recently, we celebrated David’s 50th birthday with a wild Studio 54 party.  Yes, there was a white horse.  Yes, the police were called.  I guess what I’m saying is that I like planning the details, I like creating the invitations, making the music video teaser, getting my creative juices flowing.  And most of all, I love all my friends gathering in one place to celebrate an occasion.  So why wouldn’t I want to plan the biggest, best, and most amazing party of all to celebrate my own life.  I know exactly what music I want played, and I want to make the video.  I don’t need eulogies. I won’t be able to hear what you say anyway, coz I’ll be dead. Instead, I want to tell you, my friends, how I feel about you. And what you mean to me. I’m gonna turn the whole fucken funeral thing on its head.  I’m going to do it my way.  And you’re all invited.

And finally, my passion project.  The goal that has the most meaning to me this year.  I want to translate my Mum’s book into English.  I want her knowledge, her work, her sweat and tears and inspiration to reach a larger audience than it currently has.  Hundreds of copies of my Mum’s book are sitting in a storage facility in Glen Waverley, gathering dust.  That’s not what she intended, it’s not what she wanted.  And it’s not what I want.  Maria Stathopoulos, the author, deserves to be read.  She deserves to be recognised and lauded and celebrated for her work and for her small, but worthy, contribution to humanity.  She wanted everyone to have access to the world of natural medicine, the healing properties of plants and herbs.  She wanted everyone to share her joy and enthusiasm and love of the natural world.  Her own personal antidote to our industrially, and corporately, manipulated existences.  And I will help her to fulfill that desire.  I will honour her. 

I’ve already started working on it.  Last year I commissioned my talented artist friend Anka to illustrate the plants that my Mum had photographed for her book.  There were 36 in total so it was a huge undertaking.  Each illustration took her between two to five days to complete, working with archival inks on heavyweight cartridge paper.  The project happened over five months, from May until October 2020, a period during which Anka, who is London based and works in hospitality to support her art, was locked down and not earning an income.  The assignment gave her some breathing space, a small, regular income and the opportunity to focus on her work.  I am so grateful that my Mum’s book was able to facilitate that.  I love every single one of Anka’s illustrations, and I know my Mum would have too. 

Anka’s beautiful drawings of my Mum’s dandelion, echinacea, rosemary and horseradish root.

I also asked my sisters to check if we kept any of Mum’s records or notes that might help me to translate the book, and Pieta actually found a bunch of floppy disks labelled “Mum’s book”.  Perfect.  Except who the hell has a floppy disk reader?!  No-one.  Pieta had to buy a FDD to USB drive and then convert the text to word documents.  I’ve been practicing my Greek too, so that I can fine-tune the translation (because google translate can only do so much).  Last year I picked up a few Greek magazines and I’ve spent hours just reading the words, not even understanding most of what I’m reading, in an attempt to re-familiarise my brain with the language that is actually my mother tongue. Three of my goals this year are just silly promises to myself. The last one is a very serious promise to my Mum. It’s not easy. None of this is easy, but I’m driven. Single minded.

Ejo #123 – Anniversary

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.

60

My beautiful Mum.  I love you so much. I miss you more than anything.

 

Ejo #112 – Dear Mum…

Sometime in mid-March I wrote a bunch of cards for friends and family around the world that would be celebrating their birthdays and anniversaries in April. One of those birthday cards was to my Mum. Sadly, I never got to give it to her. Not when she was alive, anyway. While I was enjoying a spur-of-the-moment long weekend in Tbilisi, my beautiful mother died in hospital, getting ready for emergency surgery. She’d been ill with an aortic aneurysm for a while but I guess I didn’t realise just how serious it was. Maybe she downplayed it, or maybe I just didn’t want to realise it. Whatever the case, her death hit me like a freight train.

This ejo is going to be a rambling rumination on the process of grief (mine anyway). As I said in my previous post, the last thing I feel like doing is writing and publishing my ejos, but I KNOW my Mum would have wanted me to keep doing it and so I will try. I can’t guarantee the next few will be any good, or that they’ll be about anything other than my deep love for my Mum and the profound feeling of loss I have now that she’s gone. But hey, it’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.

Grief is weird, it truly is. As most of you know, this isn’t my first rodeo. Oh yeah, grief and I go way back. I lost my Dad to cancer in 2003, so I’ve been around the block as far as losing a parent goes. But the thing you need to know about grief is that it isn’t an emotion, or a feeling. Grief is actually just a process. So you can’t define how it feels. It’s different for each person, and different each time. So yes, I was familiar with grief, but I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel when my Mum died. I actually had no fucking idea how much it would hurt. Losing my second parent has been exponentially more painful. I loved my parents equally, but in the fifteen and a half years since Dad died I’ve developed a deeper emotional relationship and bond with my Mum. Plus, she’s my Mum, you know. I still cannot fully comprehend what it means to be without the woman that gave birth to me (after 36 hours of labour – sorry!), the woman who gave me life and who loved me so fiercely, and so unconditionally. I still cannot really process a world in which that is a fact. I feel lost, and the feeling is awful and lonely and devastatingly sad.

Grief is weird. Part of the weirdness is that I judge myself quite harshly about how I’m actually grieving. Sometimes I feel like I’m not sad enough. I function enough to go to work (which requires a pretty high level of functioning) and I appear fine, but on the inside I am ashamed that I’m not a blubbering mess. I am ashamed that I am even able to function. Other times, it’s all I can do to remain standing when the waves of grief hit. And they hit hard. And I bawl and wail and curl up into a little ball and I miss my Mum so desperately that it physically hurts. It’s genuinely how I feel but part of me thinks that it’s all a bit melodramatic and over the top. That I should be better by now. That other people don’t carry on like little babies when their parents die. But you know what, maybe they should. And maybe we should expect them to. Because it sucks and it’s sad, and even though time heals, it doesn’t heal linearly. It heals like a fucking mess.

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I’ve had some well-meaning people tell me to be strong. But I’ve never understood that. I’m strong the rest of the time. When my Mum dies, I’m going to be destroyed. I’m going to be confused and bewildered and emotional, and I’m going to cry myself to sleep. Every single night. And that’s OK. Because the fact that my beloved mother is dead is absolute fucking agony. I recently discovered that I was capable of sounding like an animal while crying. A wounded animal. I forgot how visceral and guttural grief can be. How your heart can physically ache, as though it’s been punched. Sometimes I cannot breathe from the pain. It’s so raw, so intense, so monstrous. My Mum was my favourite person in the world, and now there is a big empty hole in my heart and in my life, where she used to be.

Sadly, I have so many regrets. The two saddest words in the world are, “If only…”. I try not to beat myself about it but there are so many things I wish I had done, or said, or asked. I try to be gentle on myself, but it’s not always easy. Regrets are sneaky little fuckers. On the other hand, I am grateful for so many things, and I try to keep my focus on that. I am grateful that she knew how much I loved her (oh, she knew). And I’m so, so grateful that I got to spend some time with her in February. I’m grateful that my sisters were with her when she died. I’m grateful that in the last couple of years she taught me how to make some of my favourite meals. Her best recipes. I’m grateful to have a couple of her rings, which I wear every day. And I’m grateful that I brought back her pink jumper, infused with her Mum smell. She might be gone, but her essence is still here, for now. And so, a part of her is still here. With me. It’s weird to get so much pleasure from something that leaves you with so much pain but I’m grateful that my brain can be tricked into thinking she’s still alive, even for just a second. I bury my face in the soft, pink cotton, close my eyes and inhale deeply, and her scent just brings my Mum back and I am there, hugging her and smelling her, and being enveloped in her warm embrace. And then I open my eyes and the only thing I’m holding is her pink jumper.