“Mommy go to work”

An older picture, at Sophie's 1st birthday party.

Sophie turned two on 15 June, while Janie was in hospital. It was a Wednesday. I remember sitting with Janie in the ward as she sobbed about missing her precious little girl’s birthday. We had plans to hold a big birthday party that weekend. Plans that were scrapped. Plans that were never fulfilled.

In the three or so months of Janie’s employment at Gorilla Creative Media, I had taken over the role of the house mom. I’d fetch the kids from playschool every day, put them down for naps, make dinner, wake them up and get them ready for bathtime and supper. Janie would normally return from work around 5 or 5:30 pm, either during bathtime or just afterwards. We’d always have supper together, and we’d alternate between who would read stories. Truth be told, Janie normally did the story telling, as by the time she’d arrive home I was so over being a mom that she’d jump in and ride the roller coaster until the kids went to bed. It was a good rhythm, one I miss.

Sophie was really starting to put words and phrases together not long before Janie passed. She knew mommy would come home, but would frequently say “mommy go to work.” She knew that mommy was at some place called “work,” but in her little mind she also knew mommy would come back from “work.”

At this point I should pause and describe our Sophie. The phrase “dynamite comes in small packages” comes to mind, as does the idea that splitting something as small as an atom can lead to mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our dear, little Sophie is… well… no pushover, shall we say. A little, compact bundle of EXPRESSION. She laughs very loudly, and protests even more vociferously. Her head is hard as granite and she has no discernable fear impulse. This is witnessed by the many times she has careened, pole vaulted and launched herself from perilous heights only to crash down on some other highly visible part of her head which makes her look like the poster child of the abused babies federation. I think she will grow up to be a boxer or cage fighter. She is something else…

Not that she doesn’t feel things. Whenever a child is hurt at her playschool, Sophie is the first one on the scene with hugs and kisses.  The FIRST one. Whenever she  hits me in any way and I say “ouch,” she always says “sorry, daddy,” and strokes my head, gives me a hug and a kiss. She cares for other people very, very much. It’s just her own personal safety that she disdains.

But enough of that…

How does little Sophie express her sadness at not having her mommy around any more?

Mommy go to work.

This was said over and over again for the first few weeks after Janie went to hospital and subsequently died. At times I would have her on my lap, cuddling, and she would say it again and again as if it were a magical mantra. What words does a two year have in her vocabulary to express her longing for her mother?

Mommy go to work.

Unlike Seanie, I have not told Sophie that mommy died. I have instead said that mommy went to Jesus, and she would repeat what I said. Every night at bedtime, I pray with the kids. I speak to Jesus with the kids there. I have no clue whether she makes the connection between the being I speak to in prayer and mommy and where she might be. There is a pretty big difference between a two and a three year old.

So we have not crossed that bridge. In fact, we have not taken the exit leading to the bridge. Sophie has gradually stopped saying “mommy go to work.” However, since Seanie has begun to open about his mother, I have begun to bring out pictures of Janie. There is one I keep by my bedside. Sophie loves that one, it was taken before Janie and I were married. She looks positively modelish and beautiful in it, and Sophie just grins from ear to ear and says “mommy!” to it, often hugging it. She expresses her love for the mother she will never see again in person in this life. To her, mommy will return someday, so she express longing, not grief.

She doesn’t cry out for mommy at night. However, she does demand to be carried much more now. I have read that this is very common. A major source of security is now gone: mommy, who ALWAYS came home from work, now doesn’t. One of the most important, if not the very most important components of her reality has simply vanished into thin air. She doesn’t understand that mommy had a sore head and had to go to the doctor to get better

Mommy go to work.

There is no before and after for Sophie, there is simply rhythm. Rhythm and repetition. Now she is becoming accustomed to a new rhythm, one lacking a major component. She still recognizes mommy from photos and the like. How long will that last?

I am convinced that I will be the one to provide her what memories she has of her mother. Seanie may have his own concrete memories, and one day he will be able to share them with me. But what about Sophie? Will there be anything solid that she will be able to call upon sometime in the future?

Personally, I doubt it. She had only just turned two when Janie passed away. She will always know that that’s mommy in the picture there, but only because I keep the pictures out and she can sustain that tie to the image. If I were to take all of the pictures off the wall, if I were to hide away the one on my bedside, would she forget what her mother looks like altogether? Probably.

So that is assignment number one for me, as far as Sophie is concerned: sustain what memory exists. You had a mother, Sophie. A wonderful, beautiful mother who loved you with every fiber of her being.

I often shudder at the thought of raising a little girl. Boys I get: I was one of three. Seanie is familiar territory to me, even if he is such a sensitive little chap. He’s still a boy: he wants to kick the ball, he wants to play with his trucks, he wants to wrestle. Sophie, for all her braggadocio and sometimes boyish tendencies, still loves dolls. She talks to them, brushes their hair, carries them around until she hilariously hurls the doll across the room and laughs. Hey, she doesn’t have to be a mom today. But I see that she is rather different from Sean in some pretty fundamental ways.

Sophie is also a social butterfly, whereas her brother is more introverted and thoughtful. Sean is feeling this loss on a very profound level, even if he is not able to express it very well. Sophie, I imagine, feels the loss too, but she just charges headlong into life with the same gusto as ever, shooting first and asking questions later. This is our Sophie loaf, always one to live in the moment, much like her old man.

I have no idea how I will approach the subject of her mother’s death when the time comes.

I have no idea how I will coach her on the differences between boys and girls, about just life in general…

And then of course there’s the first period. Me, in the tampon isle? Goodness…

Of course I am jumping way ahead. But as any father of daughters will tell you, these are the things that play on our minds. Now I’ll be doing this without Janie’s sage hand, without her deft touch. Certainly she invested so much into me, but we had never arrived anywhere near questions such as those. To put it mildly, that stuff scares the crap out of me.

But that’s not today’s worry. I really do know that. My concerns for now are potty training her. Boys and periods are still quite a long ways off, thankfully. For now I have this rambunctious little pickle that just loves her daddy to death, and for all her temper tantrums and attitude, she is still just one of the most caring and sweet children I’ve ever met. She gets that from her mom, who was all that and more. I’m excited to see the kind of young woman Sophie grows into.

The question of her grief does not weigh on my mind as heavily as Sean’s, but that has as much to do with her stage of development as anything. There will come a time when that becomes more prevalent, and you’ll all hear about it then. For now, she sleeps well, she eats well, and my, she fills her nappy exceptionally well. These are the day to day concerns of any parent: is my child healthy? Yes. Is my child happy? Yes. Is my child thriving?


Mommy go to work.

Ja, my angel, but daddy’s at home for you.


“Are you sad because mommy misses you?”

Duck face. Nuff said.

What does grief look like in a three year old? I know what it looks like for me: some days it feels as though somebody rolled a wardrobe onto my chest after pumping me full of tranquilizers and whisky. The idea of just getting out of bed seems ridiculous. Get out of bed for what? What can there possibly be left to live for? But the little three year old boy with the giant blue eyes standing next to my bed at 5am reminds me that he needs to wee-wee. And so I throw back the covers…

Seanie last saw his mother on 13 June. So it’s going on two months now for him. For a month after she died, he would not mention her, would not ask about her, would refuse to talk about her if I brought the subject up. I did what the child grief counsellor told me to do: tell him the truth. Tell him mommy died. Tell him she is not here any more, that she stopped breathing, that her heart stopped beating, that she doesn’t talk to anyone any more, that she will not be coming home any longer and that we will never see her again on this earth. One day we will go to her, but she will not come back to us.

For the week Janie was in hospital, every day I told Seanie: “Mommy is sick with a very sore head, but the doctor is helping her. She will be home soon, and she loves you very much.” He accepted what I told him for what it was and never doubted that what I said would come to pass: that he would see his mother before long and everything would be okay.

Oddly enough, to coincide with Janie being in the hospital, Seanie picked up bronchial-pneumonia. I’d never seen him so sick. It was aggravated by the absence of his mother, and so I was rushing him to the doctor’s office and then racing back to the hospital to be with Janie. For her part, Janie was torn apart by how sick he was. A mom to the end. The doctor prescribed antibiotics for him, and not two days after doing so I was back at the doctor’s office with Sophie, who picked up Seanie’s bug. This overlapped with Janie dying, so there was an abundance of doctor action during that period of time. I hope to never see the inside of a doctor’s office again, although I know that is a ridiculous thing to say. Kids get sick. What can ya do?

Like I said earlier, Seanie stopped talking about his mother for a month or so. This behavior began right after I told him mommy died. I started taking him to a child grief counsellor to help him open up about the loss and begin to process his grief. He has mostly done what he had been doing: avoiding the subject. The last time out, he really bonded with the counsellor. I feel that in light of recent developments, he might begin to access and work through his sorrow. But more on that later…

Many people are under the mistaken impression that very small children do not grieve, but this is not the case. Alte Dyregrov in his book Grief in young Children: A Handbook for Adults  mentions: “It is not unusual for preschool children not to react [to the news of a loved one’s death], but many parents find this surprising. Straight after having been told what has happened, a child may ask if he or she can go out and play. This kind of reaction may be a sign that the child is pushing thoughts about what has happened to one side, so that they can take them in a little at a time. But this may also reflect the fact that young children are seldom able to grasp the long-term consequences of what has happened until they gradually come to understand that the person who has gone is not coming back.”

When I told Seanie his mommy was dead, he said he wanted to play with his toys. My family was there that day, my mom and dad, brothers Randy and Tomas. I kind of looked at dad and shrugged, figured “well, I’ve told him now.” While I was aware that he probably did not understand “dead,” he would have understood that mommy was not coming home any more. He showed no visible signs of sadness, in fact, he was just his normal, happy self. It was not until much later that the shell cracked.

My mother flew out from the States to help me with the kids when she understood how serious Janie’s condition was. She arrived here in South Africa on the Friday upon which Janie was operated. She left on the 15 July, almost a full month later. The day after she left, Seanie, Sophie and I went down to Ramsgate, a little beach town in southern Kwa Zulu-Natal (the province in which we live) for a vacation with my mother and father in law Al and Sue, sister in law Philippa and her husband Will. We spent a very fun week right on the edge of the ocean, took the kids down twice a day to the water during an unusually cold South African winter, and basically had a good time bonding and the like.

Now, Seanie has always been something of an “ouchy” kid. He has always been very effusive about any ache and pain he’s ever had, in fact the word “sore” was probably his second or third word learnt. Nevertheless, since Janie’s death he began to complain often of having a sore head. “Seanie’s got a sore head, daddy,” was a common refrain in the weeks following her death.

This sat on my mind a bit. One morning while we were at the beach, Seanie complained of having a sore head. So, I asked him: “Seanie, do you say you have a sore head because mommy had a sore head and didn’t come home?” He replied: “yes, mommy has a sore head, Seanie has a sore head. Seanie’s died.”

It’s funny how you forget how a word might be so pregnant with meaning to you, and therefore you simply assume everyone else understands it. I knew Seanie probably didn’t understand “dead” or “died” or “death,” but I suppose I reasoned he would get that death is associated with not coming home, not seeing the person ever again. But how does a child who has no concept of time whatsoever internalize a phrase like “never again?” His days and nights follow the same exact rhythm. He gets up, I feed him, we go to playschool, I fetch him, he has a nap, he gets up, he plays for a while, then it’s bathtime, supper, stories and bedtime. Even throughout this entire heinous ordeal, the rhythm has stayed the same. Routine, routine, routine. How is that mommy suddenly stops coming home at 5 o’clock in the afternoon? Why is daddy driving mommy’s car now and not the bubble car (my sister in law Andi’s old Corsa that we were using for a few months)? Why isn’t mommy helping with bathtime?

Not that he’s ever asked these questions. He accepts what is in front of him; but it doesn’t mean he is without a sense of her absence. Randomly, things escape from his mouth. One day a week or two after Janie’s death, Seanie and I were drawing with chalk on the blackboard outside, and out of nowhere he looks at me and said: “mommy is at the doctor’s office with a sore head, but she’s coming home again soon.” And once again I had to tell him mommy was dead, that mommy wasn’t coming back any more. Oh… pass the red chalk, daddy.

And so it happened that the week after we returned from the beach, on a night when Seanie and Sophie were sleeping over at granny and grandpa’s house, my dear, sweet boy awoke from a dream crying for his mommy. Mommy, mommy, I want my mommy, over and over and over again. My dear mother in law held him and rocked him and told him she loved him and was so sorry time and again, as he wailed and sobbed uncontrollably. He went on like this for ten or so minutes, and eventually fell back asleep.

I found out about it the next day.

As rotten as I felt for not having been there the night the dam finally broke, since then, he’s been very different. He mentions her often. One day on the way back from the Shongweni Farmers Market, he noted that his hair was getting long. I said “ja, your hair is getting long, buddy.” He was quiet for a moment, and then said: “mommy can cut it for me.” And again we go… remember Seanie, mommy is dead. That means she can’t cut your hair any more. “But she cut my hair last week, daddy.” No Seanie, she must have cut your hair about six weeks ago… “Oh… well, you can cut my hair, daddy.” Anyone willing to teach me how to cut hair?

I’ve started telling Seanie now when I’m sad. He’ll ask if I’m happy and I’ll tell him that no, daddy is sad because he misses mommy. Just yesterday Seanie asked me: “daddy, are you happy today?” Yes Seanie, I am happy today. “Are you sad because mommy misses you?” Such a funny way to put it… does mommy miss me? Can she miss me from the place of joy and peace where she waits for me and her beloved children? “Yes Seanie, daddy is sad because daddy misses mommy very much. But daddy is also happy because you and Sophie make daddy very, very happy.” Cue 50,000 megawatt Seanie smile. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.

What a long road this is going to be. I write these things knowing full well how voyeuristic and tacky blogs can become. And still, doesn’t Seanie deserve to have his story told? I think so. A magnificent, boisterous, wonderful chip off his mother’s wonderful block, a spectacular representation of all her good traits and just a really neat kid has lost a major chunk of his soul. But he’s still Seanie. He’s still that gorgeous human being, filled with promise and humour and silliness, still able to light a room with his smile, still able to melt a heart with one look. And thank God, he is beginning to tap into that place where the healing of his beautiful soul will come from. A long road, a sad road, but a good one, through the valley of the shadow of death. It’s a valley, though. He will come out the other side one day. We all will.

Almost two months ago, my life changed forever.

A picture of ours I love, taken in England back in 2007 at our friends Ben & Kelly's wedding bash.

So many friends have asked me over the last month and a bit what happened, that I’ve decided that my first post on this blog will be just about that. It’s hard talking about what happened, not only because it is so recent but because one of the exhausting aspects of processing grief is the constant repetition of the death story. So, in the interest of expediency, here is the story:

Several months ago, Janie mentioned to me that she had stopped carrying tea cups in her left hand. This must have been back as far as February, that’s my guess. She would not carry a teacup in her left hand because sometimes it would slip from her grip and fall. Her left hand felt noticeably weaker. She said this and began to cry. She was worried about it, and I placed my hands on her shoulders and said these exact words: “love, you do not have a brain tumour.”

Except, as many of you now know, she did. Not long after this exchange, Janie started a new job at a company called Gorilla Creative Media. The offices are located in Umhlanga, and as many of you who are familiar with the whole Durban area know, Waterfall is a long ways away from there. The commute was not a nice one, having to snake her way from Waterfall to Kloof to the M13, then get on to the N3 and finally the N2 in that charming morning traffic of ours. Soon after starting at Gorilla, Janie began to complain of headaches. She went to see the doctor who thought it was likely something to do with her eyes. So, she went to the optometrist, and sure enough, she had astigmatism. She was prescribed glasses, and for a short while found relief from the headaches.

But they came back. Persistent, pressing, gnawing headaches. Not always bad, just… there. She felt them there almost all the time. But they weren’t debilitating, and after all, the job was challenging and she had a long commute every day, so we chalked it up to stress and left it at that.

Janie awoke at 4:30 in the morning on Sunday, 12 June with a migraine. She was in agony, and woke me to say she was in terrible pain. I massaged her neck, which seemed to settle her, but the pain carried on and she couldn’t get out of bed. The babies were confused when they came in later, so I ushered them out of the room and put on the TV, made Janie some tea and hoped it would pass. By noon, the migraine was still firing away, so I called Janie’s sister, Philippa, and asked her to come and look after the kids while I took Janie to the hospital.

The doctor on call at the hospital gave Janie some pretty powerful painkillers intravenously and told us to call a neurologist first thing the next morning. The painkillers helped some, but Janie could still feel the headache in there, just waiting for the drugs to wear off. The doctor also prescribed some pill form painkillers to help Janie through the night, which we would later discover didn’t do much at all. Janie was immediately sick as soon as we arrived home from hospital.

On Monday morning, the 13th, I called the neurologist at the hospital, only to find out the waiting list to see him was two weeks long. I went to our doctor’s office here in Waterfall to ask what could be done, and they told me to bring Janie in. Her doctor ran a test on her and determined she needed to see the neurologist, that day. He pulled some strings and we were waiting to see the neurologist at Westville Hospital that afternoon.

He ran the same test our doctor had run on Janie, and determined she needed to be checked in to the hospital for observation, just in case she had had a stroke which was causing the weakness in her left side and the headaches. He ordered an MRI for the next day, and we went downstairs to check Janie in.

So now we are up to Tuesday, 14 June. I went down to the hospital early to hang out with Janie. I stayed and we eventually went down to the X-ray people to have her MRI done. Once finished, we went back up to the ward and I sat with Janie and we talked. I might have left at some point, the details are blurry. Later on that afternoon, the neurologist came to the ward and asked us to come over to a computer screen by the nurses’ station. And we saw it. A tumour, in the right side of the brain, large and round and black against the grey of the brain matter on the scan. The neurologist said it could be a cyst, perhaps a tumour or brain cancer. But there it was. The room spun and I felt my legs were going to give way, but I put my arm around Janie and we walked back to her bed. We both cried and prayed and hoped for the best.

The neurologist handed off the case to a neurosurgeon, who in short order upped Janie’s pain meds and ordered a drip that would bring the swelling on the brain down. Janie began to feel better for the first time since this whole ordeal began. The neurosurgeon informed us that he would operate on Janie’s head on Friday. He would transfer her from Westville Hospital to St. Augustine’s in Durban for the procedure. And so it was.

The surgery took place on Friday, 17 June at 7:00 am. The doctor removed a cyst on her brain, but also discovered a brain tumour, what is known as a type-2 glyoma, or slow advancing malignant brain tumour. He said that as far as malignant tumours go, this is the one to have. It could be controlled with chemotherapy and radiation. He felt her prognosis was good: she was young, healthy, had so much to live for. She would likely make it. And for a few days there, we all thought she would, too. Visits on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were all positive. She was off the ventilator by Saturday, was talking and interacting well. A bit emotional, and sometimes there would be a small seizure on the left side of her body, but I just put that down to the fact that she’d had her brain drilled into. Sunday’s was so encouraging. She really was herself. She looked great, she was cracking jokes and being Janie.

At around 7am on Monday morning, as I was preparing to take the kids off to school, I received a call from the ICU. At 5:30 in the morning, Janie had stopped breathing. Her left pupil was fixed and dilated. She had had a massive seizure, and they had intubated her again and she was on the ventilator. I was to come down immediately.

After dropping off the kids, I went to my mother in law’s house, and she, Philippa, myself and my mother went down to the hospital. We spoke to the neurosurgeon. He showed us a scan they had just performed: the tumour had jumped from the right to the left hemisphere. Her brain as swelling out of control. If it could not be brought down, her brain would be crushed within her skull.

All day we waited and prayed and watched the machine gauging her cranial pressure. Up and up and up it went. Slowly, the realization began to dawn on us all: Janie was not going to make it. That evening, we all went home knowing that there was no hope. Janie was pronounced dead on the morning of 21 June, a full eight days after she first checked into Westville Hospital.

So that is the story. It is the heartbreaking launching point of this new phase in my life. It is also the single most monumental event of my 35 years. It brought the curtain crashing down on nearly nine years of marriage, a full 13 years of my blessed acquaintance with her. The pieces to pick up are everywhere. Were it not for the incredible love and support of Janie’s parents, Alan and Sue Spence, her sisters Philippa and Andi, my parents and brothers and wonderful friends like you, I would have despaired and thrown in the towel right away. I have not yet, and that is a credit to them, to you.

But there is hope. And there is life. And yes, life carries on. Janie invested so much in me, and it is starting to blossom now, even in the midst of this catastrophe. And I can make it as a single father. I have the two most wonderful babies, and I will need to become whole again for them. And I will be. Eventually.