Life and Death

Today is Friday August 28th. Kia ora katoa.

Today is a special day. It was my mother-in-law’s birthday. She passed away one month after her 90th birthday, at the end of September 2018. Her funeral was the occasion for a great family gathering – people came from Auckland, Nelson, Dannevirke, Dunedin, Australia and the US, and someone brought my daughter from Hawkes Bay. We spent several days together – a special time. We’re a large family, and this time was not without controversies, but we were all joined in a sense of grief and loss. It was a time of great gratitude. The weather was kind. Pre-Covid 19, this was a special time, when travel was not limited, and the size of gatherings was not restricted. We hugged, wept, and laughed, as you do.

One of my oldest and dearest friends died in Auckland last Monday morning. We found out on Monday afternoon. We are still devastated. We have shared a lot over the years. The pandemic creates all kinds of problems, not least of which is Auckland being at Level 3 and the rest of New Zealand at level 2. My friend’s daughter was with her, but her three sons were overseas, and had to endure managed quarantine for 14 days on their return. We had known for less than a month (1 August) that her cancer had returned, and her condition was terminal. Still, I don’t think anyone expected that she would pass so quickly, that in the space of 24 days her life on earth would be over. It is a relief that her passing was peaceful, and her husband was with her.

It seems very sad that we cannot be together at this time. My friend had a large family, and she kept in touch with them all. She and her husband had many, many friends, both here in Wellington (where they used to live), and in Auckland, after they moved. One longs to speak to and share emotions with her family, and with our many mutual friends. One remembers other funerals: my friend’s parents (her mother’s death from a heart attack before her daughter was born); her father moved back to Wellington where he lived alone, and although quite deaf, remained cheerful. He died in his 90’s. He was a dear and godly man.

I first met my friend at a prize-giving ceremony for the Hors Concours French competition, when I was 14. The ceremony was held at my alma mater, Wellington Girls’ College, and I had won a prize. (unfortunately, in spite of future attempts, I won no more prizes).

My husband went to school with her husband. He was at our wedding. We attended their wedding. They married in St Mary of the Angels, in Boulcott St. Fr Frank McKay married them. We all knew everybody – Frank had been an English Lecturer at Victoria University, and he was also a friend of the poet James K Baxter. My friend was always very concerned about social issues.

I am getting slightly ahead of myself here. At university, she was part of the Student Christian Movement, which I also joined. We had several mutual friends, who have kept in touch over the years. One of these friends died of fatal heart attack in Australia in winter recently (2018?) His funeral service was held in Sydney, but he was buried in a family plot at Karori Cemetery a few days later. I remember this as being such a special time. Strangely for Wellington in winter, it was sunny, fine and warm.  There was a very good grave-side service before the burial. Afterwards, there was a very nice occasion nearby, with plenty of food and drink – tea, coffee, and alcohol. This was a special time, but you don’t want to have special times at only at funerals.

We saw our friend and her family frequently over the years, as children were born, and they moved from Lower Hutt to Seatoun. More than once I took my sons to her house and we walked down to Scorching Bay, where the children would go swimming. I remember going to a farewell party at their house before they moved to Auckland.  I think that this move was a wrench for my friend, but her husband got a job there, so they moved.

Before they moved, a mutual friend arranged a lunch for us women who had three sons. I remember three others, but I think there were 6 of us.  Another time she invited me to attend a series of career lectures, called “What Colour is your Parachute?”

In Auckland, they rented a house in Onehunga for a while, before they moved to a larger home, which they made some alterations to. We spent quite a lot of time in Auckland: we had a house up there for a time. Sometimes we would have dinner at “GeeGee’s” in Greenlane. Sadly, it is there no more.

After our children grew up, I enjoyed meeting my friend alone, and the two of us would eat, drink tea (her) and coffee (me), sometimes a glass of white wine. One thing we wondered about was (in the chaotic 1970’s and 80’s) who would our sons marry? We are so thankful that they have linked up with wonderful wives and partners. My husband and I joke that our wonderful grandchildren have chosen their parents well. My friend and I shared with both our husbands great joy in being grandparents, while noting, that while we were good mothers ourselves, and parented differently from our own parents, everything has changed. For each of us, motherhood was a huge part of our lives, and it takes some time to let go of that intensity and joy and replace it with relief and a different kind of joy.

As time went on, we ceased to spend time together alone. We had to share social occasions with our husbands, and these took on a different hue. Health matters took over, and although we were not “old” or “elderly”, we had to acknowledge that we were aging.  We all suffered serious health issues, apart from my husband, who continues to dodge bullets that sometimes catch the rest of us. One has to “make accommodations”, my friend would say, and I have to admit that I have envied sometimes the moves she made. Sadly, she is no longer with us, and I fear that their present house will not be suitable for her husband much longer. Thankfully, he has family and friends who will continue to support him.

We visited our friends in Auckland last winter for a few days, when we were privileged to see them more than once and spend time with them, despite our increasing frailties. Again, she had much wisdom. She was good at enunciating things which I was tentatively exploring. One liberating things she said was not to do things one doesn’t like, because one can, or it’s “good for you”; rather, get help with the less pleasant things (without feeling guilty) so that you can spend what energy you have doing things you enjoy. She also said that aging and death are part of the process of living. She was sensible, matter-of-fact, realistic and unemotional about this. It doesn’t mean we won’t miss her, or that her death at 68 is not a huge loss. She should have lived to a ripe old age, like her father.

Speaking of enjoyment, our friends came to our youngest son’s wedding in  early 2018. This was indeed a special time – a wonderful wedding (and not a funeral). We saw them both before and afterwards, and both said how much they had enjoyed it. I think we all received a special shot of energy at that time.  We also enjoyed sharing details of our travels overseas, anchored in the main by visits to our children, and their new babies. 

Speaking of enjoyment, this afternoon my husband and I saw the wonderful Prado movie at Wellington’s Penthouse theatre. Although there was lot of traffic, it was sunny and warm, we found somewhere close to park, and got to the cinema in time. I have been to the Prado! It brought back many memories. We had a lovely time in Madrid, and greatly enjoyed this museum.  We shared memories of the Prado over a very nice lunch of savoury crepes and salad, afpel strudel, and coffee.  We agreed that some of the paintings featured in the film had not been on display when we visited the Prado.

My friend’s funeral will be live-streamed in a few days’ time. Not many people can attend, and I imagine it will be a difficult choice, as to who should be invited. I like the idea of knowing in advance who will be there, but these pandemic limitations, which we have coped with up until now, have real repercussions. On Sunday we are to spend the evening with mutual friends in Wellington. No doubt that will be a special time, and we will share more memories. I just want to rush to Auckland, but Auckland under level 3 cannot be a very social place, if one is even allowed to go there.

Switching now to the US, it is really saddening to hear about the Republican National Convention. I have listened to several podcasts about it, all uniformly depressing. I don’t know what is more upsetting: the terrible and neglectful response to the pandemic, that continues to destroy so many lives, and so many jobs; the appalling violence in Kenosha; or the fact that Trump and his enablers continue to be so tone-deaf about these very real hurts and harms, that affect the whole world. It seemed that George Floyd’s death had really affected people, but now you just wonder:  it seems all right for police to shoot a black man, Jacob Blake, seven times (he does not die, but is paralysed), but the 17-year old (white) who shot two people dead is arrested in a gentle manner, and is praised on Fox News for his vigilante type actions, in addressing violence (with more violence?).  As many have pointed out, it is not his job to take the law into his own hands. It is all really shocking. It seems too that rather than Trump’s style being an aberration, many applaud him for it, and appear to enjoy the chaos, hurt, and division he has unleashed. Many of us despair that, despite the many good, “decent” Americans who spoke at last week’s Democratic Convention, this genie of hatred cannot be put back in the bottle.

Still, there are things to be thankful for, many of them, including each other, and one’s faith, family and friends. Nga mihi.

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