Three months down the road, progress and convalescence

Originally Posted on September 20, 2011

It’s been three months since Janie passed on from this life. She slipped out of our fingers at 5:30am, the 20th of June. The docs pronounced her brain dead the next morning, but I know when she checked out. She was walked to the other side by my Lord, her task here on earth completed. She finished well, having accomplished so much in her very short allotted time.

I learned this week from my mother, who had spoken to a brain tumour specialist that it is very likely Janie had that miserable tumour in her head from the time she was 12 or 13. That means the clock was ticking for her from a very young age, long before I ever had the pleasure of meeting her. I was told by my mother and someone else (our family doctor) that nevertheless, despite the fact that her life was to be cut short, God entrusted her to me for a short while. She was my wife, my lover, my very best friend. She was and is the mother of my children. I am sure part of her mission here on earth was to bring these two exceptional human beings into existence. Her womb carried these two lives to term, her genes imbued their souls with so much of what makes them so unique and magnificent, her care nurtured them from early on and the memory of her will walk alongside them as they carry on the road without her, but not alone.

Another part of her mission was to meet me, to love me, to enrich me with her very essence. I have written before that I believe she was meant to make me a man. She pulled it off, she succeeded. If I’m not there yet it’s just because I’m a slow learner. I have the full curricula etched into my soul. She did that.

If God writes the curricula, then Janie was my teacher. She instructed me in the nuts and bolts of life, everything from finances to keeping an orderly house to understanding and loving the soul of a woman to raising children in the right way. My parenting style is different to hers, but I am drawing immensely from her example. I am growing still. I owe that to her.

I am a better parent today than three months ago. I am a better cook (for small children) than I was three months ago. I am a better home maker than I was three months ago.

I ache somewhat less than I did three months ago. Every day it gets just that little bit easier to make it through the day.

There are setbacks. The happy wall project plumbed the depths of my soul and energy reserves. I’m paying for that. I was going to take the kids up to Ballito for the week to spend some time by the ocean. As it happens, I have some kind of bronchitis or something and a mouth full of ulcers. Mom and dad Spence stepped in and have taken the kids down to the beach for these few days so that I might recover some energy and get well here at home. I cannot express here adequately how grateful I am to them for that. I awoke this morning to sunshine coming through the curtains. I haven’t switched on CBeebies today. I haven’t made tea in the bottle today at 5am. I slept. I am recuperating and that will stand me in good stead to make the last push before my mother comes out from the States next month.

I honestly expected the depression today to be far more acute than it has been. In fact, I’d say I’m not depressed at all. Just somewhat sad. I suppose that’s down to the understanding that despite the fact that Janie’s days were always going to be short, despite the fact that the tumour was coded into her genes from before the time she was born, I still was given the opportunity to share my life with this unbelievably wonderful person. I wish there were a word to express this sensation. It’s bittersweet, but there is awe and immense gratitude in there also. How could I not rejoice in the 13 years of our acquaintance? How could I not celebrate nine good years of marriage? How could I be anything but thankful for the gifts she gave me, our two beautiful children and the tools to become a man? This is the stuff that people get married for: to be fruitful, to reach the apex of their potential as humans in that conjoined life where the two become one.

You, Janie, you made me what I am. From where you are in your place of solace, hear this: thank you. I miss you but I carry you in my soul. I always will. You are my first love. I’m surrounded by your affection; I am submerged in joyous gratitude. I am baptized into this eternal love that God gifted me through you. That you are gone does not remove the transformation. I grow in your physical absence. That was your gift to me, among so many others. I miss you, but the will to live is stronger than ever.

One of Janie’s favorite albums was Tom McRae’s “King of Cards.” She was particularly fond of the first track, Set The Story Straight. It takes me right back to our place in Wilmington, making dinner, having a glass of wine with her and catching up on her day at work. We had a good life there in the States, but our home is here in Africa. Someone asked me yesterday if I were going to go back to the States now that she passed on. As much as I miss my friends and family there, I know where I belong. I am glad we returned so that she could be in this country she so desperately loved, to be near her family and childhood friends when her time was up. I’m eternally grateful that we came home. This is my home, too.

So this post is a tribute, on this the three month anniversary of her untimely demise. Cheers, love. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, even with the same result.


The Happy Wall

Happy Wall7

Originally Posted on September 19, 2011

Ever since I started taking Seanie to meet with his grief counsellor, I’d been aware that I needed to find a way for the kids to interact with tactile objects that were reminiscent of their mother. The grief counsellor suggested putting together a memory box. This is a box including things Janie used to wear, such as shoes, clothes, earrings, etc. as well as pictures. I have yet to begin on those, but I had an idea early on that I have seen through to fruition.

The picture above is of the “happy wall,” a wall of pictures of our family, which include many photos of Janie holding and loving on the kids. This is to act as a reminder that they had a mother and that she loved them very much. But the happy wall wasn’t just about putting up a bunch of pictures of us as a family. It’s a project that needed a very definite process. I’ll explain.

One thing I heard early on about memory boxes was to involve the children in selecting items they would want to put into their individual box. This gives them  a sense of control, which is so important when they had no say whatsoever in their mother passing away. I wanted to do something similar with the happy wall.

Happy Wall8

Above you see a picture of the wall with the picture frames left empty. The idea was to select a number of photos and allow the children the time to interact with the pictures and select ones they liked, pick the frames, put the pictures in the frames and then put them back up on the wall. As I sit and write this here tonight, I think I did the best thing by following this process.

Happy Wall12

Seanie took to the task like a fish to water

Not that both kids jumped in with both feet. Seanie participated enthusiastically, picking photos left and right and running up to the wall to pick his frame. I think he saw it as an opportunity to have some say in this whole thing. I tried to help him putting pictures in the different frames, but he wanted to do it all himself, and put it back up on the wall and everything. He kept saying over and over again “I’ll do it myself.” I think this was an empowering exercise for him, and I am so grateful I did it now.


Happy Wall9

Sophie’s still not too sure about the happy wall

Sophie struggled with this one. I think seeing so many pictures of her mother after only one or two scattered around the house (notably the one on my bedside table) at one time really jarred her. She just didn’t want to participate. She’d sit for a minute and look at a photo, and I’d try to coaxe her into picking one for herself, but she’d just say “uh-uh” and walk off to sulk for a moment or two before eventually coming back. After a while she became distracted and went out into the garden to play. I decided to not press the issue as she was probably feeling very confused and saddened by the whole thing. I forged on regardless as I know it will be of value to her in the future.

 Happy Wall2

Sean worked alongside me in this task almost right up to the end. Eventually he missed his sister and ran out to look for her and play together. I rummaged through the last photos and put them up myself. It was, for me, an extremely emotionally draining task. I’ve not felt that weary at the end of a day in weeks. It’s carried on over into today, and I eventually broke down in the presence of friends earlier tonight. This is the hard, necessary part of attacking grief: going into the places and situations where it really hurts and opening yourself up to feel the full frontal assault of the loss. It’s difficult stuff, but I know to the core of my soul I have done a good thing for my children.

 Happy Wall3

This morning, the kids were up at their usual jolly 5am hour. I put on the box and made them their tea, and collapsed back in bed for another hour or so. When I got out of bed, I found several pictures of Sophie with Janie scattered around the lounge. While I catnapped, Sophie had been pulling down pictures of herself and her mother and interacting with them. Being that she’s two, she probably noticed Tinkie Winkie or whomever dancing around on the screen and just dropped the picture wherever she was standing at the time, but then would eventually think of her mother again and go pick another picture, sitting with it for a while. That’s a good thing. She has very little vocabulary to express her feelings. I heard her calling “mommy, mommy, mommy” at several points throughout the day. She hasn’t done that since about the week after Janie died. Suddenly, she’s right back in those emotions. It’s hard to witness, but I know it’s necessary for her in her grief journey.

 Happy Wall4

At one point during the morning, Seanie asked me “daddy, can I please have a picture of my mommy?” I asked him which one he wanted, and after some pointing at this or that one, we settled on the one of Janie kissing her Springbok’s jersey. He held it, like he was just sitting with her, hanging out and watching TV. He said “I will give this to mommy when she comes back home.” I had to go back in to telling him his mother was dead, which is always so very painful as I think the pictures have also had the effect of awakening that latent sense of hope that she will return eventually. Children of his age have no sense of time, everything is just one long now. I told him mommy wasn’t coming home because she was dead and that means she isn’t alive like you and me and she can’t come home any longer. He said “that’s not such a good idea,” which is his sort of blanket statement for “that sucks.” It does buddy, it does suck. But he seems legitimately happy to look at the pictures. He pulled a few down during the day and took them with him to go play in the garden. He’d bring them back in and leave them someplace for me to find. I’ll be pinning pictures back up on the wall for months to come. I’m fine with that.

 Happy Wall 5

There are still so many more grief tasks for me to get into, but I think this one will help us for years to come. The idea is, over time, to rotate out some of the pictures for new ones of us while never totally removing Janie from the wall. But in time, there will be photos of our family as it is now doing things and making new memories. Always with an eye on the past, because she is always going to be a part of our family.

 Happy Wall6

In a sense, the happy wall is the one place in the house where we can go and commune with the memory of her. I like that it’s positioned right at the front door so that when you cross the threshold, there is our story, right there at the entrance of our home. A constant reminder that we were blessed enough to have had such an outstanding person in our lives for far too short a span of time, but whose impact has changed us for the better, forever.

This has been, without a doubt, the single most difficult day I have had since the first few days following Janie’s death. The weariness I have felt today was of the variety that robs you of the will to live. The kids were very needy today, no doubt because they are processing difficult emotions themselves. They squabbled almost non-stop all day long. Being a Saturday, they’d normally skip naps since they hadn’t expended enough energy, but today they both went down without a peep. The emotional upheaval of the happy wall took it out of them too.

But I cannot help but think that this might have been the best thing I have done for the kids since I landed with the job of their sole remaining parent. It’s painful and difficult to watch them struggling and processing these things in the ways a three and two year old will, which involves a lot of crying, neediness and clinging, and when you’re labouring under your own grief these sorts of demands can push you right to the brink. I didn’t have a great day with the kids today, but in the balance I have had far worse ones while bearing much less emotional strain. In the balance, today was a victory, the day after a major battle where we secured the town and repelled the enemy. We are brawling grief together as a family, and even though we’re exhausted and sad, we are getting somewhere together.

I look forward to the future when we will go back to the happy wall time and again to reminisce about the memories those photos elicit. I look forward to us pulling out old photos and finding new homes for them in big family albums, and putting up new photos of us as we are at the time. The old life was good. The new one will be also. The happy wall will be our place to rejoice in what was and give thanks for what we have now and who we are becoming, which all owes so much to that fantastic, wonderful woman that we knew as mommy and darling. She is very much with us.

Happy Wall11

That’s my mommy

Another week down

Originally Posted on September 17, 2011

All things taken together, it’s been a good week. Several exciting developments have taken place on the home front, and I’ve heard some news that I will not divulge here today, but will inform you about in the months ahead. One thing at a time folks…

Above you see a concrete pad I had installed today that will be where our future fireplace will go. I’m pretty stoked about it. I have a guy coming to quote on the installation this afternoon.

I’ve also begun a project that will involve the children which should be completed this afternoon. I will write about it on Monday. There is much taking place and the house is going to be a bit of a zoo for a while, so I’m glad that this project has sort of organically coincided with the start of works so that the kids have a transition in to the new place our family and home is going. But more about that on Monday.

The weekend is upon us. We’ll do all the things we normally do, like the market, mall and church, but this Sunday we also head up the north coast to Ballito for five days by the sea side. I’m looking forward to that. Ballito is one of the nicest beach towns I know. The kids are going to have a blast.

Three months ago today was Thursday, 16 June. Janie was in the ICU of St. Augustine’s hospital, seeing out another day before heading in for surgery the next morning. She was beautiful, brave and pain free at the time due to the anti inflammatories the doctor had given to reduce the swelling on her brain. I remember going in and chatting to her that evening. Janie’s best friend Wendy was there as was Philippa her sister. My mother was set to arrive the next day. Janie would come out of surgery the next day and seem to be making remarkable progress before the tumour suddenly jumped hemispheres and killed her.

Three months on and life is utterly and completely different. It could not help to be otherwise: when the center of your life is removed, you must find a new center. The orbit must change. Three months on and I’m beginning to find that new center. I’m beginning to reconstruct my life and that of my children, and I feel as though I have reasons to live other than just hanging in there for the kids.

I am certain that I am in this place now largely due to this blog experiment in crowd-sourcing recovery. Opening up and revealing things in as raw a form as I’m able to here and receiving prayers, encouragement and especially hearing from others who have lost someone dear to them has carried me to a place I don’t imagine I’d be at had I decided to keep everything bottled up inside. That’s not a credit to me but rather to us, all of us, co-participants in this unfolding drama. I know that sounds like a pretty lofty way of putting it, but that is exactly what it is. I wouldn’t be here were it not for me doing this and were it not for you reading and replying and praying. I am where I am because of us.

That theme has been reverberating through many aspects of my life. I am who I am because of us, meaning the nexus between myself as an individual and the people in my life, especially Janie. She had the most profound impact upon me as an adult. But then everyone has an impact on me, whether I recognize it or not. I don’t think anyone in the West really sees it that way. We are individuals that impose ourselves upon the world. It’s rather more complex and subtle than that, I think.

The Zulu word Ubuntu means “I am who I am because of who we all are.” Nelson Mandela in his book A Long Walk To Freedom characterized as the idea that “people are people through other people.” It means all we do and say, the ideas we harbour and the attitudes we nurture has an affect on everyone within our circumference and even on society as a whole. Some might find this somewhat impinging on their rights, but as the bumper sticker goes, “rights” are for people who do not have relationship with one another. When you are in a relationship with someone, when you love someone (which is the appropriate way to be when in relationship with another, be it amorous or platonic), you don’t worry about their rights but about them as individuals. Your concern is for them. This is right and proper.

To drive the point a little further, a dear friend of mine posted the following on his Facebook the other day: “If you’re a person—not a dog or a bike or a tree, but a real flesh and blood person—does the advice “Don’t take it personally.” make any sense? As long as I’m a person, I’m probably going to take it personally. It’s hard to deny one’s personhood just because someone else has failed to acknowledge it in the way they communicate.”

That’s a very well stated point. The comment “don’t take it personally” is a preface or a caveat thrown in before a (normally) offensive thing is said. This does violence to the object of the offensive comment since it does not consider the pain the comment will cause while leading the speaker to (mistakenly) believe that he or she is doing the other party a favour by stating the “truth.”

If we have a hard thing to say, we must say that thing in love. Love seeks to find a way to communicate truth while preserving the honour and dignity of the object of the truth statement. It also causes us to analyze ourselves and see whether what we are about to say is necessary, constructive and ultimately uplifting. The point of being in relationship with one another is to grow both together and upward at the same time, becoming something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an acknowledgement that we are not only “all in this together” but that we are, in a very real sense, one another. The bible speaks about this when it mentions that the church is the body of Christ. It makes no sense for a body to attack itself. When cells mutate and revolt against the body, it is called cancer. Likewise, when we treat each other with anything less than honour, love and consideration, not just a focus on “rights” (which are, ultimately, the very least we ought to do for one another), we do violence to ourselves also in the end. Because we are who we are because of us.

I love the concept of ubuntu. As a Westerner, it doesn’t always work itself out the way I want it to in my soul. I still snarl at people in traffic and treat them with less than honour. I still call certain politicians names, failing to understand that they too are a part of me, and like us all, is made in the image of a loving God who has lived in a community of his own (known as the Trinity in theological talk) from before time existed.

So this blog has been a little experiment in ubuntu, if you well. Sort of ubuntu online, if you will. I like the idea of crowd-sourcing recovery. I reach out to you, and you have reached back and reached across to others. I have received several emails from people I’ve never met who have experienced something similar to what I have, and I have drawn incredible strength from knowing that this disaster will not be the defining moment of my life. It has certainly initiated a process of transformation in me, but that could not be otherwise. The volcano erupted. The landscape has changed. But the first buds are coming through.

Think of your tears as the rain that coaxed new life out of the wasteland. We’re doing good, folks. Let’s keep at it, shall we?

All grown up now

Originally Posted on September 15, 2011

This has been a wonderful, strange day.

Not terribly different from all the others since Janie passed on. Kids up before the sun is, doing the morning routine and off to school we go, back home to do work and such… but then…

One contractor after another began to arrive at my doorstep. That’s right, Casa de Jones is getting a facelift. New floors, new carpets, new lighting… it goes on. For those of you living in the Durban area, we’ll do us a new house launch when all the work is done. It’ll be epic…

And where do I get the funds to do this? Life insurance. Yeah… it’s a weird one. I’m beyond excited about getting the house fixed up. I’m ambivalent as to where the funds came from. We’d never have the opportunity to fix the place up now if Janie were with us. As it is, the payout will more than cover all the upgrades. And it goes further.

Today I went to my bank and cut a check to pay off the house. Back when Janie, the kids and I were all living under the Spence roof, we went in on a property together in a kind of equity split where we had 50% percent of the property. Our half of the property included the two room house where me and the babies live in. Today, I paid that half off.

So I’m suddenly a home owner. I don’t know how to feel about that.

I’m excited and somewhat ambivalent at the same time. In a sense, that’s why I’m diving in with renovations. This was always “our” place, as in Janie and me. And the kids, but as parents know, homes are where we raise the children. They occupy a family space that is primarily ours in a way. They don’t get much say on the decor and whatnot. They grow up here and become the people they will be in this common area known as home. That common area used to include Janie. We’d have been paying off this place for years to come, but with the life insurance…

See what I mean by ambivalent? It’s cool to have the house paid off, but…

I suppose that drives back at the heart of the whole gratitude thing I’ve spoken about in recent posts. I am grateful to have the house paid off, and I’m not going to get all wishful thinking and say “oh but if only…” Sadly, there is no if only. There is only what there is.

So the house is now mine… well sort of. See, I want to diverge into a different topic.

GET A WILL. Let me try that again: GET A WILL. If you are alive and married, especially if you have kids, get a will. When I next see you, I will ask: “have you arranged a will yet?” I’ve drafted a will and will be finalizing it as soon as possible. You HAVE to do this. Let me explain.

Since Janie and I never wrote a will, our property is now in my name, as well as Seanie and Sophie’s. Now, you might ask, what possible good can there be in including Seanie and Sophie’s names, both minors, on the title deed? Well, since the property was in the names of dad Spence and Janie, and Janie is now dead, and since we did not have a will, the house is now estate property. Therefore, the estate passes on to me and Seanie and Sophie. There are all myriad complications with this scenario that I will not bore you with, but please, please, PLEASE, get a will. Outline where you want your stuff to go and to whom, and do it right away. The stress and pain on those left to pick up after you are on your way is enough right there to make you get off your duff and do this. It’s important. All the business of death that I deal with these days could have been drastically reduced had Janie and I had the presence of mind to just go out and do our wills. Too late for us, but not for you.

And get life insurance. Like, today.

So, back to the topic… the house. We are doing upgrades. Our share of the mortgage (bond) has been paid off. We are now free and clear without any overhead excepting living expenses and various an sundry kinds of insurance. I think that many people would find this to be an enviable position to be in. And it is. But it came at a very steep cost.

I think this whole battery of feelings can be lumped into the broad category of “I shouldn’t enjoy good things in life now that my loved one is gone.” That’s a rough sentence to pass on those who survive a major loss. It’s not bad enough that you lost someone so very dear to you, but now you are not allowed to actually enjoy life any longer because of that. I feel terrible that all this good stuff is happening now that Janie has passed on. I do. It’s weird. Here the house is paid off and the kids will now have a major leg up in their tertiary education as a result of the life insurance payout, but dammit… Janie died and then that happened, that payout. It wouldn’t have happened were she here. I’d rather have her here and figure out repaying the kids’ education until we were in our retirement homes or whatever, but that’s now how it went. That is not how the cards fell. That is not our story. So… now what?

I think it’s unfair to tell myself that I shouldn’t be grateful and rejoice in this event, no matter what had to happen to make it come about. I know for a fact Janie, if I could talk to her spirit in person, would tell me that it’s okay to rejoice because she never wanted us to be in any kind of debt whatsoever, no matter how small. She was frugal in the extreme. She would be pumped to be in the clear.

However, I’m aware that she would likely feel very much the same as I do were our roles reversed. It’s called survivor guilt.

It’s odd to be a survivor. You spend a lot of time just contemplating being alive. Then good things happen after the ONE REALLY BIG, TERRIBLE THING, and you wonder… is it okay to be okay with this?

It is. You won’t feel like it is, but it is. We reject it because death is a curse and we feel like we ought to be accursed for having survived, but that’s not true. Life goes on.

Life goes on.

And on.

And on.

One day, if you’ve lost someone dear to you, you will need to get up and live. That’s because you haven’t died. You haven’t died. You haven’t died. And to do things that affirm your life isn’t a denial or denigration of the loved one who died. Think of it: what would that person want for you?

So I guess that, at least intellectually, I’m okay and excited about the upgrades that are going to be made to the house. Making the place mine will go some length to restoring the sense of “home” in this house for me. I won’t turn the place into a shrine or mausoleum for Janie. I think she’d be repulsed by the idea. No point in turning the joint into a boneyard. Nah… rather turn it into the home the kids will grow up in. Rather make it fun, make it us.

I think it’s gonna be cool.

I think you ought to come around when it’s ready.

Eat somethin’ good

Originally Posted on September 14, 2011

I love fish. Always have. There’s no way that you could serve me fish that I wouldn’t devour it: raw, broiled, stewed, deep fried, air dried, whatever. It’s all good, all yum, all fantastic. Fish might be the world’s most fantastic ingredient, in all its magnificent multiplicity and grandeur.

Yet, I know a lot of folks who aren’t into fish. This can only be down to poor preparation. The one truism about fish is that you need to do as little as possible to it to coaxe the wonderful flavour and texture from within its flesh. And with all the varieties out there, there are as many ways to prepare it as there are fish in the sea.

I got so tired of writing bummer blogs last week that I decided to include on food entry this week, and this is it. This one comes to you courtesy of the Casa de Jones kitchen, and I hope you like it. The kids sure did.

Whitefish ragu with macaroni

Whatcha need:

– 500 grams of firm fleshed white fish (hake is good, cod is better)

– 2 small fennel bulbs, like baby fennel, fronds removed

– one small red onion

– three cloves garlic

– olive oil, as much as you like

– button mushrooms, like half a punnet or so

– 1 teaspoon smoked paprika

– 2 cups chicken stock (white wine is good too)

– 1 tin of whole peeled roma tomatoes

– 10 to 15 capers, drained

– enough macaroni to feed four people (so you have leftovers, silly)

Madness in the method:

Sweat them onion and fennel

Before starting, you must ensure the chi in your kitchen is just so. Therefore, mood music is of the utmost importance. For this dish, may I suggest some Raphael Saadiq, perhaps a dash of Menahan Street Band, or even some Mellow.

Alright. In a heavy bottomed pan (I use a dutch oven cuz they rule) bomb like a tablespoon or two of olive oil over medium low heat. While this warms up, chop up your fennel and onion together, and then mince the garlic and chop up your mushrooms. When the oil is up to temp, hit the onion and fennel in there and stir it in, allowing it to go until it’s translucent. Toss in the mushrooms and stir in until they’re coated and beginning to give up their water. That’s when you toss in the garlic, not before. Otherwise you get burnt garlic, and that is not yum at all.


Stock at Casa de Jones is homemade and frozen in ice trays. That’s the funny blocky stuff you see it there.

When you can smell the garlic good and proper, toss in the tomatoes, give it a stir and pour in the stock or wine. Hit it with the smoked paprika. This stuff is magic. Go for the real deal, the picture above should set you on the right path.

Turn the heat down to medium low and allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, fill a large stock pot with cold water and put it over the heat, crank it up to high. Make sure your fish is cubed into largish pieces. If you have a trusted fishmonger nearby, ask him to pick you out a nice, firm white fish for this.


Smoked paprika. Totally essential.

Once the ragu has simmered 20 or so minutes, throw in the capers and some of the reserved fennel fronds. Placed the cubed fish right on top of the ragu and push them down in a little and allow to simmer away slowly on one side for ten minutes or so.

When the water for the macaroni is up to a boil, turn the fish in the ragu over, crank the heat up in your dutch oven to medium and allow the simmer to come right up nicely in the ragu. Drop the macaroni in the water, stir well and let it cook.

Once the fish has cooked on the second side for about five or so minutes, remove from heat and drop a lid on it.

Check your macaroni every few minutes until it’s al dente, strain, pour in a tablespoon of olive oil, plate and add the fishy goodness and ragu. Yumminess has occurred. Rejoice with a glass of nice, crisp riesling (apple juice for the kids) and watch the grub vanish down grateful hatches. Perfection.

Scattered thoughts

Originally Posted on September 13, 2011

Some days, I don’t know what to write. This is one of those days.

Grief group has ended and will not reconvene until early November. By then, my mother will be out from the States and I hope she will join me for the next one. She won’t be able to attend for the whole thing, but I think it’ll be good for her and me to go together, as we are processing the death of the same important person but in different ways.

Last week was the final grief group session, and I skipped it. I feel pretty stupid about it. I just didn’t want to go. I just wanted to do something fun. So I went to the mall.

Wee. Fun. I recognize that not sharing with my grief group friends made the week that much harder on me emotionally. It’s not something I plan to do again.

You make silly decisions when your world gets turned upside down. You get an idea into your brain and you just have to see it through. I go on periodic shopping sprees to make me feel better. In fairness, these are things that we needed for the most part, such as new clothes for me and the kids. Having a sudden influx of cash helps in that regard. But comfort buying was always something I did throughout my life. I find I’m leaning on that during this strange period of my life.

I also changed my room around. I can’t as yet afford a new bed, but I found it very difficult early on to sleep in our bed with it in the same old position as it used to be. So I moved it from the center of the wall into the corner and changed its direction. Janie’s side of the bed is now jammed up against the wall. I figure she won’t need to get out of that side any longer.

Also, I bought what folks in the US know as Direct TV (DSTV out here). I’m not sure why we never got it while she was alive. It sort of never factored in to our list of priorities. Now I watch TV at night once the kids are down. Other times I don’t. Restlessness is a major issue these days.

I decided I needed a new hairdo. It’s not very different than what it used to be, but I (sort of ) style it now, using gel, a product I used to never touch because I thought styling one’s hair was vain. Now I find it makes me feel a tiny bit better, just doing a little more to look… I don’t know. Alive, I guess.

On days when the kids are staying over at mom and dad Spence’s house on a Thursday, I go out in the evenings either to dinner or to hang out with a friend. Thursdays are hard. Returning to an empty house still just doesn’t sit that well with me. I wake up later on a Friday to absolute silence, which some people would think is bliss. I have to say I’m not a big fan.

I talk to myself. Constantly. I’ve said that before, but even I think it’s excessive. Still, who else am I going to talk to at night when the kids are down? I hate phones, so I talk to myself. I tend to not be a very good listener.

Weekends have been brutal, but I’m beginning to get a handle on them. The kids are now fully into the whole Saturday routine of going to the farmers market. We stop by the same stands in the same order: the mad Scottish fresh juice guy, the mushroom lady, then the fresh eggs lady, then the vegetable stand, then around the arts and crafts area where I normally buy a toy or something for the kids, then Simon Hemingway the charcuterie superstar, then Chrissie the mad English cheese lady, then perhaps the Duck Lady, perhaps the Shongweni Breweries stand (gotta have my IPA), then the Dutch stand for beef croquettes (Sophie always cheers when it comes into sight), then the fresh bread stall, then the Assagay coffee stand, then we might, if the kids have been really good, stop by Herman the German’s pastry stand and get something deliriously sweet. Then we head out. This last Saturday we went to the Hillcrest Mall. I blogged a bit about that yesterday.

Sunday sees us going to church. This last weekend we gave it a miss. Instead, we went over to the home of the estimable du Buisson household for a braai and an opportunity to watch some rugby. The whole Monk-Klijnstra clan was there, who although there are only six of them in total, it somehow always seems like more… this is meant in the very best way! It was a wonderful day. The kids had a blast. Seanie sat in Victoria du Buisson’s lap for hours on end. It’s been a while since he’s cuddled a young mom. It was sweet and sad all at once to witness.

Up and down, up and down, like waves on a vast sea. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. How very odd and regimented the days have become. I am coping better with the demands of single parenthood every day. I will do even better when I start looking after my health a little more carefully and get back into the gym, a thought that both attracts and repulses me at the same time. I am no gym bunny. Exercise is now a grim reality I must undertake for the sake of my energy levels and sanity. But the thought of working out… I’d rather drink beer and eat some really fatty boerwors. While watching the rugby. With a vast bowl of Nik Naks on my ample gut.

Janie was alive during the last rugby world cup. We watched it at our little house in Delaware. Janie was pregnant with Seanie at the time, and gave birth to him soon after South Africa hoisted the trophy for a second time in their history. It was a sweet, sweet period of our lives. The picture at the top was taken right after we won it all.

I can’t help but feel that regardless of how short our marriage was, we had it good together. Sure, we fought and argued, as any couple does. We were both very stubborn people and we clashed over so very many things, all of which seem trivial and stupid now. But the love was a powerful undercurrent and kept us going. We never gave serious thought to divorce. We never would have. Our children were our payment for sticking it out. Now I get them all to myself. The only thing I’d change about my life now would be to have her back in it. But then that’s wishful thinking again.

It’s wonderful to be able to look back on a relationship and see that, in the balance, it was good. I normally arrive at this point of reflection at least once a day. As much as I still cry regularly over her loss, there is no bitterness. There is no “if only.” I could have been a better husband, but every married person could be a better spouse. If there is ever to be a Mrs. Jones version 2.0, she will get a much improved version of myself. She’ll have Janie to thank for that.

But that is the very last thing on my mind. Mostly, I look back and think, in light of this new life, that our history as a couple gives me strength to do this new phase, and do it to the best of my ability. It wasn’t just her, as in her example, her love, her skill as a mother that spurs me on. It was us. What we had. What we built together. We didn’t have a tremendous amount of time in which to do it, but I don’t feel as though we were slouches with the time we were given. I think we did pretty darned well. I’m proud of us. We done good.

It makes doing this life now easier. I have been well equipped by her and us. New skills are emerging every day, as if on their own. I am a much, much better parent at the little things than I used to be. I don’t lose my top with the kids any more. I used to do this regularly before. I’m not slouching or fobbing off responsibility, which was my mark and trade before. Obviously necessity has dictated this, but I could just throw up my hands and say “enough, I’ve been beaten” and not too many people would blame me for doing so. This is not a pride thing since it was something that was built in to me through my relationship to Janie. I was just never forced to access it before.

The really cool thing is, I’ll get better at it still. Seanie is 3. Sophie is 2. I have lots of time to hone these budding skills. I’m genuinely excited about that. Maybe there’s a latent spendthrift in me that will emerge in greater force in the months and years ahead. That would make Janie really proud.

Yeah, this post has wandered wandered wandered. Not all who wander are lost. I once was lost, right at the start of this whole thing. I was desperately lost. Now… I’m perhaps not totally sure of my surroundings, but I’m beginning to find my way. That gives me hope. But it was not born in a vacuum. I have all those years with Janie and our time as “us” to thank for the strength I am finding now on a daily basis. That and, naturally, the love and support of family and friends  that have rushed to our side in our time of greatest need.

Love abounds. Gratitude is a choice.

Choose well, friends.

Subtle differences

Originally Posted on September 12, 2011

I’ve been at this single dad thing now for going on three months and noticed a couple of interesting things. While we live in a day and age where the notion of a “family” could mean a mom and a dad, two dads or moms, or a single parent, either male or female, I find that for the latter group there are a number of subtle realities that fall short of our Western society’s supposed endorsement of single parents as a category.

What do I mean by that? Basically, we aren’t programmed to look at a single parent as a normal thing at all, especially if that single parent is a male. An example: I took the kids to the mall on my own on Saturday. I couldn’t tell you how much attention that garnered us. It was all of the positive variety, meaning all the looks from lovable grannies were of the kind of “aw, that dad is giving mommy the day off and taking the kids out.” It put me in a completely undeserved positive light, and the kids were perhaps seen as having this super dad who cared oh so much for them and his his wife. A nice idea, but not quite the case.

That’s a positive example. A less than positive one would be that, at the same mall or really any public gathering place where bathrooms are present, I have yet to find a single men’s loo with a baby changing station in it. Some malls, like the Pavilion and Gateway have family loos, which include the same sort of changing stations as the one seen at the top of this post. I’ve never seen a single one of these in any men’s loo anywhere in this country.

What is the subtle message being transmitted here to the men of South Africa? This is apparently not the province of men, this business of changing nappies. Men are apparently never expected to either take their kids out on their own nor change a nappy ever, at least not in a public setting. The picture at the top was taken at a McDonald’s somewhere in the States. I wonder if the McD’s here has one… but then, why on earth would I want to take my kids there?! That “food” of theres is, to put it kindly, food in name only. But we won’t go there today. Maybe someday I’ll let rip on the golden arches. But I love that they include baby changers in the men’s loo. It might be their single redeeming quality.

It makes me sad that, taken together, these two observations reveal some of what white South Africa expects of it’s men: go to work, pay the bills, and play with the kids… at home. If a nappy needs changing, leave it to the women. C’mon guys… really? I want to take my kids out to public places, but what do I do when Sophie fills her britches?

Maybe I should just start changing her right out in front of everyone, out in the open. That might get them moving on those changing stations.

Returning to the first observation, why is it so surprising to see a father taking his kids out on his own? No one would bat an eye if they saw a mom on her own at the shops with a gaggle of kids swinging off of her. Must be that dad is at work, and mom’s just gotta buy stuff. No one minds that. But there have been times when I’ve taken the kids to the shops during the week at around 3pm to pick up a few things, and I get the funniest looks then. It’s as if they’re thinking “must be one of those new-fangled families where the mom is making all the cash.” It’s a weird sort of passing of judgment on my manhood. Mr. Mom or something. Must not be clever enough to hold down a real job. Shame.

I don’t really mind that too much either. The assumptions don’t affect me directly because those folks have no idea about our reality. But it surprises me how these roles are so very entrenched in the collective psyche out here. I can’t say I noticed it in the States, but then I held down the “real” job once Seanie was born. If by real job you mean being one of the millions of unhappy cubicle dwellers manacled to a headset fielding the inane complaints of disgruntled customers. But if I think about it… yes, it’s present there too. The sort of passive approval that would come during casual conversation: what do you do? I work a job I hate to feed my family. Nice one. So do I.

So the man works, and the woman rears the babies. It’s a matter of teamwork. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. As something of a latent traditionalist, I think it’s better to have at least one parent at home for the kids when they’re done with school just to give them a sense of stability. So I’m not bashing on dads for having a 9 to 5. Far from it.

But for a while out here, Janie had the real job and I was minding the children. That was from March of this year until Janie passed away in June. In a sense, I had some on-the-job training to prepare me for this next phase of life. I wasn’t really looking out for the looks then, but I see them all the time now. Maybe I’m hyper sensitive.

Thing is, I don’t think I am. Men really aren’t expected to get to down and dirty with their kids. Men aren’t expected to get up with the kids at night. They aren’t expected to go to parent-teacher meetings. It’s okay to go to kids events, especially if it’s sports since that’s manly. But don’t bother offering to change a nappy at the Spur because there isn’t even a changing station in the loo.

This isn’t an indictment of South African dads or men but rather of an unchallenged status quo that is predicated on an outdated and ignorant understanding of what it means to be a man and a father. Just because you don’t have a womb to push a kid through or breasts to feed the baby doesn’t mean you don’t participate in every other aspect of parenting with the same commitment and devotion as the moms. The fact that our society doesn’t offer the sort of cultural cues like a changing table in the men’s loo just serves to reinforce that notion.

But I guess that’s why moms get flowers on Mothers Day and dads get ties on their official holiday. Flowers symbolize beauty, grace and life, everything a traditional concept of motherhood embodies. Ties symbolize work.

It is my opinion that dads are losing out on so much because of this mindset. The really sad thing about unchallenged roles is that they are taken to be both good and normal, and that anything that is outside of those kinds of social mores are seen as a threat to the whole way of doing things. The sense of being nurtured by a parent is built over years through the little things like changing nappies and giving baths, making lunches and wiping away the tears in the middle of the night, helping with homework and talking to the teacher, washing clothes and changing the bed, helping the kids in and out of their clothes, taking them to the loo, taking them to the doctor and giving them their muthi so that they feel better, bandaging their owies and kissing away the pain. Moms do all of this stuff, all of it. Dads can’t expect to have that kind of tight bond just by spending a little time with the kids on the weekend.

And sadly, I get the feeling our society doesn’t expect them to. We perpetuate the notion that it’s okay for kids to have the tighter bond with their mothers. I definitely never did much of any of the above while Janie was around. Now I do it all. With Seanie being three and Sophie two, the bond we will form from here on out will be much more of the “maternal” kind, and I am actually thankful for that. As the remaining parent, the fact that I now do all the nurturing gives them the chance to form at least one very strong bond with a parent. I am now mom and dad. I play both roles. I couldn’t be happier, given the circumstances. And I feel sad for men who don’t have this and feel as though something like this is either unmanly or impossible. It is my firm belief that if men participate equally (as possible) in all the little nurturing activities that take place daily when rearing children, the bond formed there would be an awful lot stronger than what society passively intimates is the “proper” relationship between a father and his children.

I think that is a worthwhile project to pursue.