Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gratitude. We has it.

Ten years ago today I was in the little Austrian city of Klagenfurt, capital of the southern province of Carinthia, teaching a four-week summer school course in Australian literature to a group of faintly bemused but entirely willing students from all over Europe, most of whose English -- their second or in many cases third language -- was arguably better than mine.

I remember this so clearly because my mother had died unexpectedly three months earlier and it was my first birthday without her. Hers was a week after mine and of course Mothers' Day was always in that mix as well; I'd spent a few days in Vienna before travelling down to Klagenfurt and the Austrians make a very big deal about Mothers' Day, so the shop windows had been full of pinkified, treacly tributes to Mutti, in large glittery print.

On the way to Austria there'd been a couple of one-off academic gigs in Barcelona and I'd gone into meltdown there one day because the Spanish ATM wouldn't give me any money when I keyed in my PIN, which was, at the time, my mother's birthday. I told this story of symbolic rejection, sobbing, to a robust Australian acquaintance who happened to be staying in the same accommodation for the same conference and she fixed me with a beady gaze. 'You do know you're not fit to be travelling, don't you,' she said.

She was right, and it made me realise I had to decide: either suck it up or go home. ThirdCat has written a couple of terrific posts recently about grief and its power and weirdness, about what it does to you in the months following a death. You can't ever tell when or where or why it will strike; all you know is that you don't know yourself as well as you thought you did, you're not as tough as you thought you were, and you need to make allowances for coming unexpectedly and completely to pieces for no apparent reason, often in a public place. This when travelling alone in a country in whose language you are not fluent can give rise to all kinds of misunderstanding, and I had reason more than once on that trip to be grateful for my sense of humour. I am not used to feeling weak, but I was too sad for feeling weak to make me cross, which would have cheered me up, so any laugh was welcome.

When I'd first told my European hosts about my mother's death they had both immediately said 'Of course you must cancel and stay home if you need to,' but I'd only given that half a second's consideration when I heard my mother's voice saying 'You get back on that horse,' as sternly, loudly and clearly as I'd heard it eleven years before when I had in fact fallen off an actual horse and was lying winded on some rocks in a dry creek bed in the hills somewhere north of, I think, Whittlesea. And for the third time, there in Barcelona, I heard it again and, in a tired sort of way, regrouped.

So there I was in Klagenfurt on my birthday, prepared to spend it alone (it was Friday, a non-teaching day) in my little room in the modest pension near the university where I was staying. What actually happened was that two huge bouquets arrived together that morning via Interflora, one lot from my father and sisters and another lot from the Bloke. Then my oldest friend L and her partner rang up from the Barossa Valley and sang Happy Birthday. My academic host's lovely wife Irene, chatting about her son's imminent 18th birthday, asked me innocently when mine was and I was obliged to say 'Um, er, actually it's today,' whereupon she whipped up a family birthday dinner complete with cake for me in the next couple of hours, no mean feat for a woman with two teenage sons and a little baby, and they all sang the Austrian version of Happy Birthday to me in perfect three-part harmony. And the next day my best mate (who was working for the UN at the time) detoured through Vienna on her way from Sarajevo back to New York and made the four-hour train trip down the eastern side of Austria to spend the weekend in Klagenfurt and take me out to dinner.

All of which is to say that if you know someone who's recently lost someone, going the extra mile for them in the way of a thoughtful and/or generous gesture might save them a black day. And they will never, ever forget it.

23 comments:

scientician said...

Happy birthday from a fellow May birthday person (mine is tomorrow)! This is a lovely, touching story. My mother's birthday is five days after mine and I've had similar experiences with the tie ins between mothers day and birthdays. It's amazing the things that stick in your mind. Thank you for this post.

fifi said...

Oh, Happy Birthday!

And I shall do my best to go the extra mile for whoever i can possibly think of. What a lovely post that was.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Thank you for this, Pavlov's Cat. The being-kind horse is a good one to be on, and you've reminded me of that just now in the excellentest way. And happy birdy to you.

curious said...

Happy birthday, it is my sister's birthday too. It's ten years since my mother died and I sometimes find myself knocked sideways at the realisation that I can't pick up the phone and call her.

Helen said...

Yes, I've just heard a distant relative but a good'un has died. I'm wondering what I can do for her lovely husband. He lives a few K's away. I'm good at casseroles but he'll be getting squillions of those anyway (thinking of TC's stories of lasagnes in fridge - cold comfort )

ThirdCat said...

Happy Birthday, PC. May it be a most excellent one and a fabulous year to follow.

Also:
'You do know you're not fit to be travelling, don't you,' she said.
Geez...lucky she'll never be travelling with me. Even without the symbolism a rejecting ATM would make me sob.

He might get squillions of casseroles now, Helen, but maybe in a couple of weeks...or even in six months' time, or this time next year. And anyway, they can be frozen.

Miscellaneous-Mum said...

My father died less than three months ago, so I know exactly what you mean. My emotions still, today, tend to be hijacked at any given moment - which, when you have small children, is rather inconvenient.

Thanks for writing it. Glad to know it's not just me.

And happy birthday.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful post.

Have a great birthday!

anon editor

Infense said...

What a wonderful post. (The word 'post' seems inadequate for such impressive writing)

Stephanie Trigg said...

Happy Birthday, dearest cat. Agree absolutely about travel and trauma. From what I know of your family, too, birthdays and such occasions are, quite properly, taken very seriously. Which makes such synchronicity both easier and harder.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Thank you all for these lovely comments and good wishes. Stephanie, I'll never forget you arranging an entire 50th birthday party for me complete with speeches and minders, either -- a much happier occasion. And I was thinking of you as I wrote this, hoping Jean is on the mend and there's no longer that heavy anxiety hanging over you all. Also, I hope your knees have recovered. Doing the Twist (or so I surmise) in heels, tch!

Fine said...

Happy birthday Pav. That's a wonderful story. Reading your blog is one of life's small pleasures.

iamnotacake said...

What a lovely post. I hope you had a wonderful birthday yesterday.

Helen said...

Happy belated birthday, Pav! I hope it was a really good one.

Mindy said...

Happy Belated Birthday PC. May there be many more in a long and happy life.

@ Helen he might just like someone to talk to. Or you could check that he's ok with using the washing machine etc. TC is right too. In a couple of weeks the calls will have stopped and the casseroles will be eaten and that's when he will need someone.

Nabakov said...

I've always found a hearty "Cheer up, you'll join 'em soon" bucks spirits up no end. Well at least mine if not theirs.

On a more serious note, I've found from experience that one of the best things you can do for someone close that just lost someone very close is take over handling as much of their day to day business as you can until the shock wears off ie: sorting out bills, domestic and work arrangements, immediate travel arrangements to be with family, etc.

Certainly be there as a good listener (and talker too) but helping sort out the minutiae of daily life at such a time is pragmatic, often necessary and gives you a sense of control when dealing with fate striking close to home.

I still have some unreimbursed expenses from dealing with such situations but I've let 'em ride on the assumption that others will be stuck with the same when I'm killed in bed by a jealous meteorite.

Incidentally the capture for this comment is "sitylver" which doesn't sound like a bad neologism for one who tends the affairs of others that have just have suffered a major loss.

Nabakov said...

Oh shit yeah. Happy Birthday! You don't look a comment over 40.

Nabakov said...

And yeah well, obviously my big comment above was made by a fairly empathy-free bloke who's a lousy cook.

But my point is there's always a need in immediate post-mortality situations for someone who can get on the phone and start organising stuff while the bereaved cope with the initial impact.

At these kinds of literally life and death moments, all decent people become practical communists.
"From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs."

The captcha for this comment is "sulami" which does rather sound like an Asian version of ""sitylver"".

Anonymous said...

AAaaargh. My only excuse is that its your birthday today in America (where, in fact, I am not, so it is a useless excuse, but, as I said, my only one). Happy birthday. Excellent advice. Lovely post.
Much love,
word verification philitst
from a philitstine?
T

Pavlov's Cat said...

'one of the best things you can do for someone close that just lost someone very close is take over handling as much of their day to day business as you can until the shock wears off ie: sorting out bills, domestic and work arrangements, immediate travel arrangements to be with family, etc.'

That's brilliant, Nabs. Also true about 'from each, to each', etc -- when my ma died, I and my three Gemini planets put my hand up for all the comms and writing stuff (question: why is a three-line death notice harder to write than a six-page eulogy?) and my sister the Leo nurse did all the horrible hospital-and-doctors stuff.

Hello T -- *waves* -- I owe you an email from ages ago, so I think you still have an inch or two of moral high ground. Wish you were here so you could tell me how best to plant out these beautiful mixed bulbs I got for my birthday.

Best WV ever, to my mind, is the one Laura got the other day for a comment on the zoo post: 'rantaloppe'.

Lefty E said...

I agree with Nabs too - with one particular exception: handling the funeral arrangements can really take your mind off the shock of loss, by giving you stuff to focus on, in a useful way, that is also a tribute to the person who is gone.

Nice post Pav - rang a lot of bells for me. My Dad died suddenly one Xmas day. Which, as time goes by, turned out actually a positive-ish thing. I loathed Xmas anyway, so nothing was spoiled. But there's always an occasion happening - so the day never passes without remembering.

More to point: an ex-girlfriend dropped off a home cooked spag bol one night shortly afterward, without fuss, and without even staying after she knocked. I just fond it at the door with a note.

And I will never forget that.

kris said...

Here here.

Happy birthday.

M-H said...

Missed your birthday 'cos I was in NZ, but sending best wishes anyway, and thanks for the post. A lot of ghosts around me at the moment and I can't even blog about it all. Bummer.