‘It took a hurricane to bring her closer
To the landscape’
Grace Nichols, Hurricane Hits England
Grief can be horrible; suffocating, interminable, heavy, bleak. Sometimes it feels like you’re teetering on a precipice of a cliff. In the fog. At night. You want to have the temerity to step forward, but are unsure and afraid. You are looking around for familiarity, but it can be hard to see further than your own hand. But it would be impossible to feel that way 24/7. Exhausting. No, instead these feelings exist mostly as an undercurrent to the daily mundanities that make up our existence. Getting in the shower, entertaining the kids, making tea, driving to work. Some days they come to the fore when nothing but a massive, heaving cry will ease the blockage, and others they murmur away in the background, making everything you see and touch seem just that little bit out of kilter. At least, that is my experience.
It sounds draining; it can be draining. However, there is also a useful bi-product of grief, in the shape of adrenaline. That surging rush; a basic human reaction to traumatic situations: fight or flight. For me, it has always been the former that has been my body’s default mode, and one that has helped me charge through, appearing ten feet tall and tooled to the hilt, but in truth, small, armourless and vulnerable.
This rush can make anything seem possible, both good and bad. Following my sister’s death two months ago, I experienced moments when I would find myself suddenly panicked that my toddler might somehow find his way inside the washing machine, or that my older son would sleepwalk through the tiny gap in his bedroom window and end up on the concrete 20 ft below. These were barely thoughts in reality. So fleeting that I hardly allowed my mind to articulate them, before they were replaced in a never-ending cycle with the mundanities I talked about above. And at the other end of the spectrum? Well, just ask my husband, and he will tell you what other more ‘positive’ possibilities I entertained; taking the kids to New York at Christmastime, going platinum blonde, having another baby… ‘This is life’, became my mantra, ‘so you better bloody live it’. And so it was that a week after my sister’s funeral, I found myself tentatively tapping out an email to my cousin, Justine.
Justine and myself are from a long line of descendants of the legendary Mary and Paul, my mother’s parents. Since my mother is the eighth of twelve children, I’ll let you do the maths on the current populous of my cousins. This really does mean that our family will almost certainly never, ever be in the same place at one time, regardless of how significant the family funeral/wedding/birthday is.
If there was a horizontal line marking the births of all the cousins in the family, I think it would be fair to say that Justine would be in the second quarter, and I would be in the last. In short, we are not the closest in age or proximity. Due to my dad’s decision to take a job in the North East two years before his death, our family always felt marooned from our Southern counterparts. This, along with our quaint northern accents made us apart; different. Perhaps it made us stronger- more hardy- I don’t know. But I always felt that difference
Despite this difference, and distance from the rest of the clan, there has always been something about having the same blood running through your veins as someone else who may well live hundreds of miles away or be from a different generation, which means that connecting with them is rarely awkward, and in fact, the times when we meet is genuine, and warm and natural.
The day before we travelled up for my sister’s funeral, I had received a lovely card from Justine expressing her sadness at the sudden death, and apologising for her absence at the funeral due to a work commitment overseas. She quoted the terrible tragedies that had made the headlines in the UK in the first half of this year, and made a connection with how when ordinary people react to trauma, their actions often somehow become those of ‘heroes’; thus intimating that my own actions, and those of my other sister’s, in the wake of this horrifying family trauma had somehow also been heroic in the eyes of the wider family. While I can’t help thinking this was an overly generous analogy, it was a lovely sentiment all the same. Anyway, it was lovely and touching, and the words moved me and made me feel even more so that ten foot soldier who could deflect any oncoming missile.
I initially messaged Justine in the week following the funeral mainly to thank her for the card, but also to gently sound out an idea I had for a documentary I wanted to make. I should explain that Justine runs a production company- for the telly, you know. For those of you who think I was punching well above with just a kernel of an idea and absolutely no clue what making a documentary entails, well, you’d be right. But, it has always been my philosophy that, in order to achieve your goals, you must first visualise them. It engenders confidence, even when you feel like the words themselves are so dickish, that no one, but no one will take you seriously. Nonetheless, I was still rather timid about the idea, even when I had vaguely (and as casually as I could muster) sketched the proposal to Justine in an email to her work address she had given me in reply to my initial message. So timid in fact, that my finger actually lingered over the ‘Send’ button for some time after I had read, edited, and re-read the email many times. Anyway, eventually I sent it, and after checking my email too many times to mention over the proceeding hours, like some lovesick teenager hanging on a reply from a boyfriend, she got back to me. A warm email that fed my confidence, and not only that, contained her contact numbers, and a suggestion I catch her the following morning.
I pencilled in a time to call her after dropping the boys off at their respective childcare, and before a lunch date with my husband at Pret in Leeds (we know how to treat ourselves!) I was tentative about my ideas at first, but as soon as we got talking, Justine’s openness and warmth pricked my confidence and by the time I came off the phone I felt like this very personal, but fascinating journey might actually happen. We talked about crowd-funding, and resources, and structure. She would speak to a few people she knew who might help me, I would begin to sketch out a plan- a justification for my project. It was all very positive. I think I might have even whispered “Yessss!” after I hung up. I may have done a Morecombe and Wise style mid-air kick. But I could be wrong…
By the end of our shared soup and muffin at Pret, I had told my husband all my news and had begun to feel that this hurricane was finally about to spit me out on land.