Conversations in the Pool

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I love the water! The picture above shows my favourite place to immerse myself. Its the Ocean Baths in Newcastle on a particularly stormy day. Actually on this day the baths were closed.

I learned to swim there. My older siblings, already well able to swim, belonged to Newcastle swimming club and would compete each weekend while I was instructed in the art of swimming.My Dad, a wonderful photographer, took a picture of my graduation to floating on my back! It was on a slide and shows a curly haired about 4 year old me in my “bubble” red and blue swimmer, eyes clenched, mouth shut as if my jaw was wired,little stubby arms out, chubby body stretched, achieving what had, until that moment been impossible! I remember feeling such a grown up girl being able to achieve such a tremendous level of aqua competency!

I love the bracing chill of the water,even on the coldest days and the feeling of complete freedom as all my bits are able to move without interruption for as long as I want them to. Gravity weighs me down on land. I love the water!

Recently I have been a regular participant in aqua therapy courtesy of my dodgy knees. Sadly I can only stay in the water for 30 minutes, the water being heated, to avoid keeling over! But I have come to love that too , the water, not the prospect of keeling over  and it softens me up for the necessary agony of the exercise and physiotherapy that follows ,all in the hope of being well and truly ready and able for my first knee replacement in April. Another story!

This week, a friend from my in patient two weeks was at my session. She is a gentle, softly spoken woman who dislocated her shoulder in a fall. Her name is Rosemary. She was talking to the supervisor and I could not help hearing the conversation. She was weeping while speaking and the supervisor was so very attentive to her. I was drawn into her story because of my own.

Her granddaughter, “I was present at her birth. Her Mother invited me to be there, it was just amazing”, was at that moment,  “Its happening now” giving birth to her first child, Rosemary’s first great grandchild. Tragically the little boy had died in utero.

Familiar words came out of the mouths of both the women “you would wonder how that could happen these days” and “my daughter is pregnant with her first child, I will have to ring her up when I finish here” from the supervisor. “I don’t know what to say, I am so sad.” I could not help it and I went up to Rosemary and apologised for interrupting and said to her “it happened to me four times and then we got our beautiful Joseph”and we hugged each other in the pool.

What could be a source of hope for Rosemary, her daughter and her grand daughter is how much things have changed and how much the loss is recognised as a real and life long ache, never to be dismissed by well intentioned (but so ignorant) words like “it’s nature’s way of taking care of its own” or “you are young, you can have another one”or even “I baptised you baby”. Those last words were said to me in 1980 by a woman I had known all my life, a devout, good Catholic woman who was the midwife at the birth of my first unknown stillborn daughter (27 weeks gestation) . I am sure she truly believed they would bring me comfort, and to this day I respect her faith, but it was the first time in my adult life that I realised that the “Institution” was not capable of compassion! That thought was reinforced when,the equally well intentioned, equally good Parish Priest comforted me outside the first Sunday Mass I went to after getting out of hospital and said “You, know Louise, you are lucky your baby didn’t get to 28 weeks because you would have had to have a funeral then. At least you were spared that!”

I found out six weeks later that I had given birth to a daughter and over the next couple of years I gave birth to three more greatly loved and longed for daughters. At the time of the anticipated birth of the last one, I was greeted in the labor ward by a spiffing looking young fellow who was a medical student.He came to ask me if I would mind if he was present during my labor and the birth “I have to witness a birth” he chirped! “Well you won’t be watching this one!” I was able to reply. Maybe he should have – maybe I could have said yes. It would certainly have given him a different perspective on the whole thing! The next day, returned to the post natal ward, surrounded by mothers feeding their babies at regular intervals, a woman with a clip board appeared at the end of my bed. “Good morning Mrs. Roach. I am from the nursing mothers association and I am wondering if you intend to breast feed your baby?”  I was in a state of shock.  “Um, my baby died” I managed to get out, at which point her clip board went limp, as did her shoulders, her entire body and she burst into tears at the foot of the bed! It would never happen now – I HOPE!

It was that “Last One” that healed me really. I had been given no information about any of the babies except that they were girls and no reason could be found for their deaths in utero. I was waiting for labor to begin and I asked the midwife (no doctor was present for any of the births – just afterwards) if she thought I might be able to see the baby. She had a lovely conversation with me and assured me that if the doctor thought it was alright for me to do that, if there were no serious abnormalities or disfigurations, she was sure it would be ok. And so it happened.

The doctor arrived, after she was born. “I understand you would like to see your baby” he said and he went over to where she had been placed. “I think it will be a good thing” he said and he brought her over to me. My one regret is that I did not hold her but the dignity with which he held her remains with me today (30 years plus later) and I have never forgotten his words. He said “Louise, this baby is as much your child as any of your children at home. She had the same potential, the same capacity to love and be loved as any of them. She is your child and you love her as much as you love the children who are yours at home” and I looked at her and what  I saw was absolute perfection.

She fitted perfectly in the palm of his hand. Her tiny, tiny ear shell like in its perfection. Translucent! Her little closed eyes and her tiny feet – slightly bigger than my little fingernail. I have never been able to look at tiny baby feet pins, or even decorations on christening cakes without remembering all of my little unknown loves!

I had been anxious about how I would feel when I saw her and what astounded me was rather than sadness, or anger, or desperation, I felt absolute peace and completion.The doctor’s words had helped of course, but there was something else. Her life and the lives of my “Other Three” had been confirmed and affirmed and that confirmation and that affirmation remains. If there is one thing I wish I could do, it is to go to their place of rest and to sit in peace, but as I type this on my front verandah on a gorgeous November day, overlooking the agapanthus that are about to burst into bloom, looking up to see the foliage on the frangipani trees, hearing the birds and feeling the gentle breeze, I am sitting with them, loving and holding each one of them. I did not name any of them but the girl’s name we had chosen at the time of the first pregnancy was Rebecca – they each remain Rebecca to me. The boy’s name we had chosen at the time, was Joseph.

When approaching the age of 35, I became  pregnant for the 8th time I was able to approach it with a degree of ambivalence that may have shocked some. Which ever way it went, I knew the process, or so I thought! For the last 9 weeks of the pregnancy I was hospitalised as a “geriatric, gestational diabetic mother”. I was allowed home for weekends once I learned how to self inject my insulin. I nearly went insane  in the hospital in spite of my private room and when it was decided to induce me at 39 weeks, I went through the most interfered with, undignified experience of my life and the child refused to cooperate so I had the epidural,having been assured I would be awake for the birth. He  refused to leave his in utero home and I had to be knocked out for the cesarian!

Once he was born, he was placed in his father’s arms where he remained for about an hour and a half establishing a bond so great it is awesome! It has only just occurred to me how isolated my husband had been in the loss of our daughters. Blokes. being blokes didn’t talk about that stuff, nor were they invited into the process. Thank goodness that too has changed.

I did not see the baby until he was about 4 hours old. I could not believe he had arrived and he had arrived safely. I used to worry about my children not realising how it is possible to love them equally and individually and so I tell them. “Patricia, you made me a mother. Ken, you made me special”, having tipped the scales at 11lbs 13ozs, “Megan, you made me beautiful” and I was a bit of a stunner – 26 at the height of my “beauty” “and Joseph, you made me happy”. They continue to do so, every day!

I will never forget my conversation with Rosemary in the pool. I think of my grand daughter, Gabrielle, just 18, finished school and about to embark on life’s big adventure. I was present at her birth -so was my mother, four generations of females in the birthing suite. I cannot protect her from what life will throw her, nor can I make sure life only throws her wonder and awe! But I am certain, knowing what I know of the gene pool from which she comes, she will find wonder and awe in those desperate,sad times, enough to sustain her ( and all my grandchildren) to be able to thrive.

 

I love to sing in Church!

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In 1994 I went to Ireland. I was 43 and I travelled alone. It was my first overseas trip. Prior to that, my only experience of plane flight had been in a 24 seater plane to Brisbane and a mystery flight to Adelaide. I had always proclaimed that nothing smaller and a Jumbo Jet or the Queen Mary would ever see me leave terra firma! It was while I was in Ireland that I had one of my great myths about the Irish debunked.

On the feast of Christ the King, I found myself in the Cathedral in Killarney. This was towards the end of my trip. Before then of course I had been to Mass in just about every town I went to. In Dublin, I went to midday Mass on the Friday I arrived  – it was packed to the gills but without singing. I saw two young girls, grubby looking little things begging on the steps. I did not give them any money but about ten minutes later I was nearly bowled over by the pair of them as they raced up the streets, grins all over their faces, licking huge ice creams!

In Shannon I went to a vigil Mass and was asked by the priest if I would play something for the crowd – no singing but perhaps I might like to play something so I did a rendition of Amazing Grace with my ever so lovely key change for the final verse. It went down like a lead balloon – obviously I had overstayed my welcome and stretched the evening liturgy beyond its acceptable use by time and people literally bolted out the door to get free of the place nearly taking out the exiting priest and altar boys! I found the Church in Tralee and Dun Laoghaire – where I encountered an entire family of Indian beggars. But it was in Killarney that I was filled with  sense of hope as I heard the magnificent pipe organ being warmed up 10 minutes before the start of Mass.

AT LAST! Frantically I searched for hymn books – none to be had. Rifling through the copy of the notices I had collected on the way into the Church, thinking the words to hymns might be included all I could find was a price list for the forthcoming parish “bazaar”! Just before Mass began a beautiful little pip squeak of an Irish young woman – red hair and all – climbed up to the microphone and in a glorious Irish brogue said “Today is the feast of Chroist the King. Please join in singing our entrance hymn.  “Here we go,” I thought. The organ thumped out the introduction, the girl leaned forward, nearly swallowing the microphone and from out of her mouth came the tiniest, thinnest, most faltering voice I have ever heard – and hers was the ONLY voice I could hear! Not another set of jaws in the entire congregation open to allow any kind of utterance and it continued throughout the Mass. I was so disappointed.

Come communion, our singing “leader” announced “Please join in the singing of the hymn Chroist be beside me – the breastplate of St Patrick.” Well, I knew this one and I let rip. All the way up the aisle in the queue only stopping to say “amen” to “the body of Chroist” and all the way back to my pew. People stared at me, I thought in admiration of my beautiful voice. I felt uplifted and inspired. Here I was bringing back the DNA of my Irish Convict great great grandfather and my indentured servant great great grandmother, adding my voice to the voices of Irish history! What an idiot! I asked my good friend who ran the B&B I was staying at about the reluctance of the people to sing”Oh, Louise! You didn’t singing in Church did you? Jaysus they’ll be thinking you are a protestant. Only protestants sing in Church! De Catholics have choirs for de singing!”

November 2nd the Feast of All Souls

I have been so overcome by the present in the last couple of days, that I have to distract myself from the obsession with the past and my attempt to make readers who did not live it, try to understand why so many catholics, free ranged, prolapsed and otherwise are so connected to their “formation” – willingly or not!

November the 2nd is the feast of All Souls. On this day, traditionally, we remember and pray for those who have died and who are perhaps languishing in purgatory (“a place or state of punishment where some souls suffer for a time before the go to heaven” – Green Catechism circa 1950’s and something I remember because of the alliteration I think). November 2nd is the birth date to my beloved brother Paul and our beloved grandson Darcy and I learned today that it was also the day the a beautiful Aunt of an extended member of the family died, peacefully and gently, just as she had lived her life.

I am a firm believer that connections with loved ones are eternal. I am a firm believer too, that it is the story that lives forever. Treasuring our story, sharing it with love, sometimes,indeed often, with challenge and always with hope is what makes us eternal. While the story remains told, through the story tellers, we remain!

Only one of the people in the  oldest image in the collection I have used remains alive. My only, dearest Sister. But looking at the picture I can tell you of Mary Kathleen, my Grandmother who lived till she was 99, who changed her name from Mary Anne to Mary Kathleen because she thought her given name was too plain, who was severely admonished by Newcastle City library because she ripped pages which contained improper language out of books she borrowed , who had one eye removed at the age of 92, who was the first person to refer to me as a “good woman” when at the age of 19, my Mother (also in the picture) had to inform her of the impending birth of my first child – conceived long before the sacrament of marriage was administered.

I can tell you of the other woman in the picture, Mary Patricia, who was always known as Pat and who, upon the arrival of her first grandchild, the one mentioned in the previous paragraph, decided she was too young to be known as Grandma and became “GrandPat” forever after.   A staunch Catholic she, together with Dad, prayed every night that they would be gifted with vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Four of the six of their children received”the call”, something that gave my parents mega star status in the parish. I was the first one NOT to get the call. Other things were destined for me! But Mum (and Dad) stoically and lovingly “let go” of their children at the ages of 16 – 18 as they embarked on their own journeys and they became loving Matriarch and Patriarch to the two generations who have come after their children.

The little curly headed, coat wearing child ,breaking free  while his mother was perhaps trying to hold him back is my brother Peter who grew up to be brilliant in every aspect of his life. Academically he could do anything, a brilliant musician, composer,conductor, singer, pianist, organist, writer  and priest. His image features elsewhere in the collection of photos. Brain cancer robbed him of his sight, his intellect and took him away in such a painful manner leaving behind wounds which I do not believe will ever heal. He baptised my children,he married two of them, he encouraged them to be the best people they could be – and they are. There is a thick cloud of melancholic silence that surrounds this story but the children will tell it to theirs and truth rather that evil will prevail.Peter died on September 11th 2014, 7 years to the day since that terrible cloud descended on him and all of us.

My Dad is there too – the dapper fellow posing for Mum on the beach – Jimmy’s Beach I believe. The story teller, the newspaper bloke, the music lover, the disciplinarian, the one who encouraged all his kids to reach for the highest goal and who became the most beloved GrandKen to his Grandchildren. He is there with his oldest Grandson Ken and his youngest grandson Joe – our sons each one of whom loved him, as did all his grand children.

Alzheimers got him and took him away from us to the point where he remembered nothing of his own life. He lived to see his first grandchild , Gabrielle Grace. Dad was a newspaper editor and on the day her mother took the beautiful Gabbi, aged about 4 months up to see him in the nursing home he said,

“And who is this?” I replied “This is your first great grandchild, Gabrielle.”

“Oh, Gabrielle. G -A-B-R-I-E-L-L-E” spelling it out like he was back at work “is that right?”

“Yes, Dad, that’s right!” He repeated the exercise three or four times more and then came the last version,”G-A-B-R-I-E-L-L-E” and looking at the bundle of pink frills smiling on on his lap in the bed he took our breath away by adding “B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L”!

And I am there too in those grainy black and white images. Sheltered under the arm of my big brother Paul. A surly, curly headed about 3 year old, wearing my emotions all over my face, a trait which has continued into my dotage and sporting a “Dad’s haircut” up a tree while Dad, who was a wonderful photographer encouraged me to smile. Mum would have spent an hour and a half getting what was left of the ends of my hair to flip and to shine, after washing it over the laundry sink having previously “conditioned it” with her special recipe of olive oil and kerosene, a mixture which made me hesitant to be near naked flames for many years!

Paul was the oldest of the tribe and he was the protector, Leaving school he became  a Marist Brother. He left. He married the magnificent Jackie and their two daughters Sophie and Millie  are inspirational, intelligent, beautiful young women. Paul lived with motor neurone disease for 19 years. He died on March 25th  2016, the feast of the Annunciation which coincided with Good Friday. A brilliant educator, committed to public education, he achieved an inspirational level of respect across a wide range of people. His memorial at the Great Hall at Sydney University was attended by luminaries from every walk of life. Both he and Peter were awarded the Order of Australia. To be asked to speak at his memorial has been one of the greatest honours of my life.

And at the piano is my mentor and great friend Sharon who died in January 2016. She was Peter’s soul mate and his greatest and best critic. In her autobiography “Blood on the keys” she describes him as the great platonic love of her life and it was a reciprocal arrangement! Sharon had the capacity to shoot from the hip and hit right between the eyes every time. She definitely did not suffer fools gladly! She railed against the Catholic Church being more totally out of range than free range and in the end, in her inimitable form, insisted on receiving the last rites from a priest and being buried from the local Catholic Cathedral. She had a list of celebrants who were absolutely NOT to be invited to preside and her choice of celebrant, a wonderful , dear good friend of Peter’s came to Newcastle from Moree to do the gig!

And then there are the living! Our children, Patricia Grace, Kenneth Charles, Megan Elizabeth and Joseph Charles. Not only have they brought us joy in their childhood but they continue to bring us love and wonder through the choices they have made as adults. Patricia, married to Jeff is Mother to Gabrielle, Eliza and Darcy and her marriage to Jeff brought us the gift of our bonus grandchild Joshua. Patricia, known to all as Trish, spoke with such heartfelt dignity of her beloved Uncle Paul in the Great Hall of Sydney University, holding the assembled throng of “luminaries” spell bound! Ken,brought us the astounding Carrie! Beautiful, talented, dancer and mother of our grandson Oscar who is so much like his Father it is often like watching a re-run. Of course he is also like his Mum, much more comfortable with singing and dancing than his Dad ever was. Kenneth, known to all as Ken,carried his beloved Uncle Paul into and out of the Great Hall having been unable to attend his Uncle Peter’s funeral.  Megan Elizabeth brought us Chris and their little boy, Jacob, our youngest grandchild is something else! Talking before he was three, he reminds me of the stories Mum would tell of her first born Paul who was talking at birth (almost) who was inquisitive, adventurous and full of energy. The gene continues. In addition to his mother’s Irish, German, English heritage, his Father’s connection to the Wiradjuri people makes him a truly unique addition to the family tree!

And then there is Joseph Charles. Freshly graduated from uni. A writer with the skills of his grandfather. Patient, gentle,  who spoke the acknowledgement of Country at his Uncles Paul’s funeral and who, with his two sisters, helped carry Peter to his place of rest, remains attentive to his “ageing parents” making all the connections of history and spirit which are so much a part of what makes each of us “eternal”.

When Mum and Dad were married on Boxing Day 1942, Mum’s bouquet was like a waterfall of frangipanis. Every Boxing Day there would be sprays of frangis around the house, having been picked from the big tree in the front garden. Most of us have managed, at one time or another to have at least one frangipani tree in our gardens. I have included the picture of the flower in my own front garden because to me it represents all the words I have written here and what I believe life and death are about. The stunning, simple beauty of the flower, the subtlety of the changes in colour from the centre to the starkness of the white majority are like life’s changes to me resting as they do on the truth of the blackness  of the onlooker’s experience of the loss of a deeply loved on in death. I find comfort in this image.

Even though much of this wordy, wordy post has focussed on the past it is the living who will keep the story alive. It is the genetic connection but more than that it is the spiritual connection that enables this. It is the noticing of the traces of those who have gone before us, a piece of music, a flower, a moment of silence, a flickering flame, a passing shadow, the sound of birds, the timing of same,the smile on a young face, the colour of sparkling eyes and stillness that moves us to wholeness and gratitude.

I’m not sure if that is God, and many of those who have come after me would say, without fear, it absolutely isn’t but it is something!