Monday, 31 October 2011

The Right Thing to Say

As soon as I entered the shop I saw what I was looking for: an exquisite, frothy, cream baptismal gown. It was rather expensive but that was irrelevant. I held the dress at arm’s length thinking about its size.

“Can I help you?” A woman with a welcoming smile approached me.

“I’m not sure this will fit.”

“How old is your baby?”

“Our baby is dead but he was full term. I want a beautiful gown to bury him in.”

The woman’s smile disappeared, her eyes filled with tears and she enveloped me in a warm hug. “I am so sorry. If it is too large, I can adjust it for you.”

I will always remember the compassion this shop assistant showed towards me. Although I was a complete stranger, she shared in my sorrow and went out of her way to make the difficult task of buying a burial outfit for our baby as easy for me as possible.

It must be very difficult for a person to know what to say when she hears that someone’s baby has died. Generally, people are not comfortable with death and they fear saying the wrong thing. This usually results in nothing being said at all.

 A couple of weeks after our baby Thomas died, we went along to a picnic. We weren’t sure going along to the gathering was the right thing to do, but we were urged to come along: “Don’t stay at home by yourselves. It’s not a good time to be alone.” I joined a group of women who were chatting.

“Hello,” they greeted me and resumed their conversation. No one mentioned Thomas. As I sat trying to keep my mind on what was being said, I could feel a couple of women taking furtive looks at me. Did they notice the tears threatening to fall from my eyes? And then Carol arrived. She walked straight up to me, touched my arm and said, “I don’t know what to say but I can’t say nothing as if nothing happened. Sue, I am so sorry.”

The ladies at our local shop are always very friendly. When I ventured out shortly after Thomas’ death, they were eager to hear news of the birth. (I hadn’t told them that our baby was unlikely to live after delivery.) The words, "Oh, you have a saint in heaven!” sprang to one woman’s lips. It was a reaction that I was to hear many times over the following weeks. It sounds like a comforting thing to say but I must admit that it didn’t help me at all in those early days.

A couple of weeks after Thomas’ death, I was cleaning the Venetian blinds. This is an excellent job to do when feeling angry: bang, bang went the blinds, bumping from one side of the window frame to the other, in time to my intense, angry thoughts. Suddenly, I hurled my cloth into the bucket of water and stormed out of the room in search of my husband, Andy.

“If having a saint in heaven is such a fantastic thing, why doesn’t  everyone want a saint in heaven? Would anyone swap their newborn for a saint in heaven? Of course not!”

In time, I came to realize, for myself, the gift of having our own saint in heaven. I thanked God that Thomas had lived long enough to be baptized and so we are assured that he is in the presence of God. But this appreciation came slowly over a period of time. In the beginning, the words, “You have a saint in heaven,” sounded like a platitude said by those who had no idea what we were going through.

Thomas had a diaphragmatic hernia which allowed many of his internal organs to move into his lung cavity. With the lung cavity occupied, there was no room for Thomas’ lungs to grow and he was born with only a fraction of his intended lungs. His lungs were too small to allow independent respiration. Because Thomas’ body was imperfect, some well-meaning people have said, “His death was all for the best.” How could it be for the best when my heart was breaking?

Six weeks after Thomas’ death, my grandmother came to visit.

“How are you?”

“Not very good.”

“It was all for the best.”


“I had a daughter, Angela, who was a year older than your mother. When I was pregnant, I fell down the stairs and the baby’s spine was broken. Angela died when she was three weeks old.”

Later, I questioned my mother, “Why didn’t you tell me you had another  sister?”

“I didn’t know,” she replied. My grandmother had carried her heartbreaking story inside her for over 55 years.

In an effort to comfort me, a few women have confided that they too have lost babies. Hearing their stories made me feel less alone. I wanted to hear all the details: were their experiences similar to mine, did they feel like I did, would this deep ache of grief ever go away?

In the early days after Thomas died, the phone rang frequently. It was usually the same few friends. We had an understanding: if I needed to talk I would come to the phone but if I wanted to be alone, then a message could be given to the caller to say I wasn’t up to chatting. This system worked very well. My friends’ feelings weren’t hurt if I didn’t want to speak. They didn’t have to worry that their call would be unwelcome. I didn’t have to be anxious every time the phone rang.

Gradually over the weeks, the phone rang less and less. Sometimes, feeling sorry for myself, I felt forgotten: everyone else had gone back to their own lives thinking we were coping with ours. It wasn’t really like that, of course. Every now and then someone would be inspired to pick up the phone and dial our number just at the right time. How many times I would sink into that steep pit of grief unable to pull myself out. Then the phone would ring and in seconds I could feel a lifeline being thrown out to drag me back from despair.

Similar lifelines have appeared with the unexpected arrival of friends on our doorstep. One ‘bad day’ Gail stopped by. “I hear you have a special memory box for Thomas. Would you mind sharing it with me?” Gail had lost a son a few years previous and soon we were swapping stories about memory boxes. We even laughed when Gail told me how she’d photographed every casserole baked for her family, in the days following their loss. “I had to make memories out of something. There wasn’t much to show that our son existed. I didn’t have a baby to photograph so I took shots of funeral flowers and casseroles.”

I will be forever grateful to our loving friends who supported us after Thomas’ death. They weren’t afraid to talk to us. They didn’t deny our feelings or try to cheer us up by asking us to ‘look on the bright side’. They bravely shared their own experiences of grief in an effort to ease our feelings of isolation. More importantly, they gave us opportunities to talk. They showed remarkable patience as we worked our way through the same story over and over again. The help and concern these friends showed   didn’t last for a few days, weeks or even months but years and they are aware that our grief will never quite go away.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Longing for Some Quiet Time

Whenever someone mentions the words ‘school work’ there are loud protests:

“We don’t do SCHOOL work! That sounds so boring. We’re LEARNING! We’re having adventures.”

But Gemma-Rose mentioned the forbidden word the other day and no one corrected her. She said, “I wish we could do some school work, Mum.” And we all agreed. We sighed deeply, thinking longingly of all those books we are half-way through reading, untouched for a month or more.

School work? Adventures? Normal everyday life? Whatever we call it, we are longing to return to our usual routine.

It’s been 5 weeks since we had a ‘normal’ week: one week of an unschooling holiday, another at the beach, a week of wedding preparations, and one away at a homechooling camp, another week of yet more wedding preparations and … finally, the wedding itself. Yesterday, our eldest daughter Felicity was married to her beloved Graham in our parish church.

The wedding was such a joyous occasion. All those weeks of work culminated in a perfect day full of happy memories, abundance of grace and… many extremely tired people. I hear the bride is still running on excitement. But the beautifully presented mother-of-the-bride has been transformed into an exhausted woman bearing huge bags under her tired eyes. Gorgeous flower-girls and bridesmaids, who were flitting about like butterflies yesterday, have come to a standstill.

And just a few moments ago I heard those forbidden words once again:

“Now the wedding is over Mum, can we do some school work tomorrow?"

Gemma-Rose is longing to get up early tomorrow and do ‘normal’ things. She wants me to continue reading White Boots which we never seem to get closer to finishing. She wants to practice using that new analogue watch she never has time to glance at. She wants to play the piano and have some more lessons. She wants to write some letters and go on a Wednesday adventure…

I look back at the last 5 weeks and I am sure the girls have learnt so much even though we have not consciously thought about ‘school work’ in a long time. At one point, I suddenly remembered the official records book which has been languishing forgotten in a basket. I gathered all the girls and then we brainstormed:

“Tell me everything we’ve learnt recently so I can write it all down in the book.”

The girls fired examples of learning at me from all sides and soon the pages of my book were covered in my untidy scrawl. Yes, plenty of learning had taken place. Everything that has happened in our recently hectic life has been an opportunity to learn. I haven't had to look for rich experiences to place in front of my children. I haven't had to bring the world to them. The world has thrust itself upon them and it has been good. 

We have had great fun going on holiday, and catching up with friends at the homeschooling camp. It was exciting preparing for our first family wedding. We enjoyed the wedding immensely and are savouring these last hours with Felicity and Graham before they leave for their home on the other side of Australia... but…

Sometimes it is good to have a quiet life with time to read a few books together, to consciously strew a few things in my children's pathway, to have time to sit and sip coffee and chat and discuss whatever we like…

We love normal, quiet times and I am hoping, like Gemma-Rose, that soon those days will return and I can say, “We have a whole free day to learn whatever we like... What shall we do today?"

Congratulations, Felicity and Graham.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The First Birthday

From my Thomas diary:

25th July 2000
Already I am starting to dread Thomas’ birthday. It is coming around too quickly and I am not nearly ready enough to face it. I want to finish his cross stitch and have it framed by his birthday. Also, I want to have his headstone erected by then. I think of the All Souls Mass that will be celebrated in St Patrick’s Church at the beginning of November. We haven’t been inside that church since Thomas’ funeral and I don’t want to go back.

16th November 2000
A week ago it was Thomas’ first birthday and God gave us a warm dry day. We were able to visit the cemetery with a “Happy Birthday Thomas” banner, fresh flowers, felt flowers made by Duncan, and small statues of the Holy Family to place on the grave. After arranging our gifts on Thomas’ grave, we took some birthday photos with all the children smiling, a contrast to the photos taken on the day after Thomas was born. The children have survived. They have made Thomas an important part of the family and now celebrate having a brother in heaven instead of clinging to the sadness of his birth and death. After our photo session it was time for a picnic lunch in the cemetery grounds…

… All the children insisted that we give Thomas a proper birthday celebration. We had a birthday banner in the kitchen for him and a birthday cake for tea. I felt tearful at various points of the day but I didn’t want to spoil everyone’s day with my sadness. It was easier to get through the day than I had anticipated. I didn’t look at my photos or memory box as this would have invited tears. Instead I contented myself with thinking about Thomas at night in bed and having my cry then.

It has been a very long year. I am quite surprised to find that it is finally over.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Beautiful in the Eyes of God

In An Undying Love, I wrote:

The other night, Gemma-Rose climbed onto my knee for a big hug. She touched my face gently and said, “I think you’re the best mother in the world.”

“I bet other little girls think their mothers are the best,” I replied.

“You’re my best mother. You’re so pretty.”

“But I’m getting old.”

“No you’re not. I think you’re gorgeous.”

“You’re only saying that because I’m your mummy.”

“No I’m not. I don’t say things that aren’t true!” Gemma-Rose was rather indignant.

And then she hugged me tight and I enjoyed a very special moment.

I have been thinking about that conversation and also about beauty. Although my natural response is to argue with Gemma-Rose (how many of us protest when we are told we are beautiful?) I should believe my daughter: she is telling the truth. In her eyes I am beautiful. She thinks I am gorgeous.

What does she see? Why am I so beautiful in her eyes? She doesn’t notice the lines and beginning-to-sag skin. These are insignificant to her. They don’t register. What she sees is a mother she loves.

I think about how I look in God’s eyes. Does He notice my signs of ageing, the extra couple of kilos that I didn’t have a few years ago? Are these insignificant to Him? Or perhaps they are actually valuable to Him. Does He see a child of His whom He loves so very much? Does He think I am beautiful?

Perhaps little children have a true sense of beauty. Perhaps they see things in a similar way to God. When we grow up and lose our childhood innocence, we adopt the world’s standards of beauty. And we become dissatisfied.

So really I have no need of Picnik and photo-editing, and I don't have to know How to Look Gorgeous Forever . All that is fun but nothing more. When I want to feel beautiful all I have to do is pull Gemma-Rose onto my lap and listen to her words of truth. I am beautiful. We all are. We are all made in the image of God.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Celebrating Without the Birthday Boy

This time twelve years ago, our family was anticipating the first birthday of our son, Thomas. I was dreading Thomas’ birthday and the closer the day drew near, the more unsettled I felt as the acutely painful memories of his birth and death forced themselves upon me. In contrast, all my other children were eagerly anticipating the day, and they started to make plans regarding how we should celebrate this special occasion.

Thomas has always been a very important and integral part of our family and everyone agreed that he deserved a special celebration just like the rest of us. I wasn’t so sure and in some ways I thought it would be easier to ignore his birthday and try not to think about him too much. But despite my hesitation, a celebration was planned.

“We can make Thomas a birthday banner and tape it to the dining room wall,” suggested Felicity.

“Could we make a banner to erect over his grave?” asked Duncan. I thought about it. Would it survive the elements? Perhaps we could cover it with plastic.

“What presents shall we give Thomas?”

“A religious statue? And we must buy flowers and have a birthday cake…”

“Can we visit Thomas and take a special picnic?”

Soon plans were made. I ordered the flowers: two identical posies, one for our home and the other to take out to the cemetery. The children started designing banners. Someone made a birthday cake. We had a small statue of the Holy Family to place on the grave.

Thomas’ birthday arrived and I headed to the florist to pick up the flowers. A little brown bear with a mournful expression looked up at me from his place on the shop counter. Before I knew it, I’d bought him. I took him home, a birthday present for Thomas. We named him Leo.

The banners were ready, one large, one small. The large one was blu-tacked to the wall: Happy 1st Birthday, Thomas!

“We should write our birthday greetings on the small banner,” someone suggested. And as I wrote my message of love, a few tears insisted on escaping from my eyes. I hurriedly wiped them away. I knew that if I started crying, I wouldn’t be able to stop.

Soon we were at the cemetery. Thomas is buried in a beautiful place: the children’s section of the St Patrick’s cemetery. There, surrounded by fields of grazing cows and tail-swishing horses, are a number of small sad-looking graves. We tidied up Thomas grave and arranged his posy of lavender, miniature roses and baby’s breath flowers.

One of the boys found two sturdy sticks. We sticky taped the banner to the sticks which I banged into the ground either side of the grave, using a mallet. Now visitors to the cemetery would know it was our baby’s birthday. They could stop and read our birthday messages and they would know just how much we love our birthday boy.

“We should take some birthday photos.”

All the children stood behind Thomas’ headstone and smiled widely as I snapped away.

Then it was time for our picnic. We settled on the grass in front of the church and enjoyed our birthday treats. I often wonder what people think of us picnicking in a cemetery. To me, it feels the natural thing to do. Because of Thomas, we can call the cemetery ‘ours’. We have earned that right.

That evening we had a birthday cake. The children wanted to sing “Happy Birthday Thomas” but I wouldn’t let them. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to cope with that without breaking down into the tears I’d been trying to avoid all day.

I didn’t get out Thomas’ memory box. I didn’t flip through the photos and look at his blood-stained clothes.  I knew that would be dangerous. I knew that would be the end of all my self-control.

On that first birthday I went to bed very early. I wanted the day to finish. Once in bed, I could no longer suppress the tears that had been threatening all day. I sobbed as I remembered.

Twelve years ago, we established a whole new set of family traditions which we repeat every November 9th. We visit Thomas taking along flowers, a banner and special food for a birthday picnic. One year we introduced the ritual of tying balloons to Thomas' flower bowl. We tidy up his grave, give the sandstone slab a good scrub and take some birthday photos.  And in the evening after dinner, we have a birthday cake (and I am now brave enough to let the children sing “Happy “Birthday”).

Little Leo was the first bear in Thomas Teddy Bear Collection. Each year, on his birthday and at Christmas, I buy Thomas a new bear. I told the story of Thomas’ bears in Leo, Augustine and Theodore.

Each year I put together a memorial for Thomas on the coffee table in the lounge or some other prominent place . I carefully arrange Thomas’ latest birthday bear, a candle and some flowers, together with any birthday cards friends might have sent.

Thomas’ birthday is slowly creeping closer. I am starting to think about this year’s celebration. Soon I will have to go searching for the perfect birthday bear. Which one will capture my heart? Which one will be the right bear? I will know Thomas' Teddy when I see him.

Going through the rituals for a birthday boy who is no longer here with us is not always easy but I wouldn’t omit them. Celebrating Thomas’ birthday is a way for us to say, “You are still a very special part of our family. We are so glad we have you. Thomas, we love you.”

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Novel Writing Adventure

Imogen is sitting in the family room with her netbook balanced on the arm of the sofa. I look over her shoulder and notice she is writing a blog post…. another one. She always seems to be writing. The other girls also spend a lot of time tapping away on their computer keyboards.

All my children love writing and I wonder how this came about. Did they see me sitting at my computer playing about with words and think, “Hey! That looks like fun. Perhaps I should have a go”? Is writing like reading? Do children need to see us enjoying it in order to want to join in?

Imogen looks up and sees me. “Charlotte and I have been discussing the characters for her NaNoWriMo novel.”

NaNoWriMo? National Novel Writing Month. Charlotte and Imogen have signed up to write a 50 000 word novel during the month of November. My Jane Austen girls can’t wait to get started. And they want me to join in.

“Have you registered yet, Mum?”

I haven’t. “I can’t sign up until I decide on my user-name.”

“You could be Mrs Bennet,” Charlotte suggests with a grin. She is writing under the name of Elizabeth Bennet and Imogen has chosen to be her sister, Jane Bennet.

“No!” I protest. I could never be Mrs Bennet. “I’ll think of something myself.” I still have 8 days. That’s plenty of time to get organised. I hear that it’s not important to do any preparation. I don’t need to have a plot and characters all ready to go. As soon as I start writing on Tuesday 1st November, ideas and inspiration will begin to flow. I hope that’s true! Actually it sounds feasible. I’ve experienced this before.

The girls and I have read Chris Baty’s book No Plot? No Problem! Chris Baty is the founder of NaNoWriMo. We now know anyone can write a novel. The biggest problem people have is procrastination. There are a lot of would-be novelists out there, including me, that never actually make a start. Months ago, I had an idea for a children’s book but the idea has remained an idea. I haven’t yet written a single word of the actual story. I keep thinking: I’ll get around to it one day…  But if we sign up for NaNoWriMo and commit ourselves… who knows what we can produce by the end of November!

I am looking forward to starting my novel, and putting aside special writing time each day. Even more, I am looking forward to sharing my progress with my children. And reading their writings too. We are going to encourage each other along and share our family passion.

If I were the sort of person that planned out school work and worried about covering the curriculum, I might say, “That’s English writing all sorted out for the month of November!” But I won’t say that because that might make novel writing sound like school work and something that has to be done. And ‘school work’ doesn’t sound very appealing. Following a passion sounds so much more exciting.

I think we are going to have enormous fun during November. We are choosing to take on a challenge and I am sure we are going to learn so much as our novels take shape.

It might be a bit quiet here at my blog for a few weeks as the girls and I compose our stories. Perhaps I should hang a sign on my blog: Gone to write a novel. Will be back soon!

Does anyone else's family share a passion for writing?  Will you accept the NaNoWriMo challenge?  Will you have a novel written by the last day of November?

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Holding a Child After Death

When I was pregnant with Thomas, I often thought about his death. Could I give birth to my son, stand by his side as he died and then hold him close? Could I arrange his funeral? Could I say goodbye and watch as he was lowered into his grave? I wrote about some of these fears in The Viewing. And I also mentioned them in my diary...

23rd November
… The staff were disconnecting non-essential tubes and wires and Thomas was being placed in our arms for the first time and to die. His heart failed before his lungs and he died at 3 pm – 28 ¼ hours old. We all held Thomas and we all cried. The photos tell the story of our anguish. Then Thomas was taken, all remaining tubes etc were disconnected and he was dressed. We were able to hold him and photograph him. He looked so different away from all the equipment – so beautiful, looking just like Imogen with her nose and other fine features. His little hand, in the photographs, shows clearly all the needle marks. What suffering for a little baby. Babies are meant to know warm milk and be cuddled and held close. They were never meant to undergo such pain.

… I realise now that I never looked at Thomas’ ears… Why didn’t I look at him more closely when I had the opportunity? I never saw his eyes open, never saw him move or heard him make a sound…

… I never thought I could watch my baby die or hold a dead baby in my arms or arrange a funeral. But I have done all these things, things I’d rather not have done but things I had to do out of love for our baby. Although Thomas was dead, he was my baby and it was easy to hold him and cuddle him.

He looked different at the funeral director’s… The coffin was at first distressing. Thomas was in the white coffin in the chapel room and only his little face was showing. I cried because he didn’t look like my baby Thomas. However, Charles, the funeral director, took him out of the coffin and placed him in my arms and I felt better…

3rd December 
… I have been sorting out photos ready to order reprints. It worries me that the photos taken at the hospital look so different from the ones taken at the funeral home. What did Thomas really look like? I’m not sure now. Why didn’t I look and look and look at him while I had the chance?

Gone to Write a Novel

“Mum, we’ve registered for NaNoWriMo,” says Charlotte.


“National Novel Writing Month,” explains Imogen. “We’re going to write a novel in 30 days… 50 000 words! You could join in too, Mum.”

I think about it. Could I spend November writing a novel? Do I want to write a novel? What would I write about?

I hear about a book by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. I download a copy of No Plot? No Problem! Soon Immy, Charlotte and I are absorbed in the book. I am thinking about the possibilities.  I am starting to feel excited. Yes! This could be fun.

My daughters visit the NaNoWriMo website and register.

“My user-name is Elizabeth Bennet,” announces Charlotte. “And Immy is going to be Jane Bennet.”

“I refuse to be Mrs Bennet,” I say quickly and we all smile.

I am still thinking about user-names. I'm having trouble coming up with the perfect one but I’m not worried. I still have nine days in which to register. Nine more days before November arrives. Nine more days before NaNoWriMo begins. Nine more days before I open my computer and type the first words of my 50 000 word novel.

And nine more days before I hang a notice above my blog saying: “Gone to write a novel!” I guess it could be quiet around here for a few weeks.

"Have you decided on your characters yet, Mum?" asks Charlotte.

"I'm going to write about five sisters," I reply. 

"What are the sisters going to do?"

I have no idea but that's not a problem. I'm setting out on a writing adventure where anything could happen; the possibilities are endless. Where will my five sisters be on the last day of November? I can't wait to find out!

Will you join me? Will you take up the challenge? Will you also have a novel written by the end of November?  

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Viewing

I am the type of person who hates to look at dead pets. If I see a goldfish floating upside down, I immediately avert my gaze and yell. “Callum! The fish is dead. Quick! Scoop it out and bury it.” I don’t know what I am going to do when the guinea pigs decide they’ve had enough of life. I hope it is not me who discovers their lifeless forms on the floor of their cage. So you see, it was a real concern of mine when I had to face the fact that I might have to hold, not an expired pet, but the body of our dead son.

At the time of my pregnancy with Thomas, I had never seen a dead body. Could I hold a dead baby in my arms? What would he look like? How would he feel? Would I be too frightened to pick him up? These were all concerns which caused me immense suffering in the months preceding Thomas’ birth.

During Thomas’ last minutes of life, he was disconnected from all equipment except the ventilator, and given to us to hold. The whole of our family was present. We took turns cradling him in our arms as his life slipped away. This was the first time Thomas would have felt the touch of his family and this touch was his last sensation as he left this world. We weren’t aware of the exact moment of Thomas’ death until the doctor pointed out that, although the ventilator was still mechanically pumping away, the heart monitor no longer showed a beat. Thomas had gone.

Once disconnected from all the medical equipment, Thomas was taken away by one of the nurses. We were invited to sit in the private lounge area where we were to await the return of our baby. It was strange. I didn’t even consider not holding Thomas. Even though he was dead, I wanted to see our child. We hadn’t been allowed to touch him all those hours he was in intensive care. He hadn’t really seemed like our child but more like the hospital’s as the doctors constantly worked by his side. Now we would be able to see him properly for the first time.

When Thomas returned, he was dressed in a nightie, nappy, booties and bonnet and was wrapped in a handmade quilt. Again, we took turns holding him.

I thought he looked like Charlotte but now that his nose is clear of the tube, he is more like Imogen. Look at his profile.”

What colour hair do you think he would have had? It looks reddish.”

His hands look so sad with the marks from the needles.”

The nurse told us that we could spend as long as we liked with Thomas. “Just place him in that cradle when you want to leave or ring for a nurse.”

I know he is dead but I can’t just put him in a cradle and leave him by himself. Can I call you?”

With our baby no longer alive, we felt the need to return home as soon as possible. I no longer felt I had a legitimate excuse to occupy a hospital bed and we knew our other children needed us at home. As we said our goodbyes to Thomas, the nurse invited us to return to see him again the next day if we wished. But we didn’t return. The hospital was far from home and we got tied up organising the funeral, looking after the children, coping with our own needs.

Several days before we buried Thomas, we arranged to see him at a ‘viewing’. A couple of our friends asked if they could come along too and they arrived with their young children in tow.

I was eagerly anticipating seeing Thomas again. Never having gone to a viewing before, I didn’t really know what to expect. If I’d thought about it logically, I would have worked out that Thomas would be in his coffin. However, the sight of his little body lying in the white casket shocked me. I went up to him and then cried, “He doesn’t look like Thomas.” It was almost unbearable. The funeral director then asked if I wanted him to take Thomas out of the coffin so that I could hold him. Soon I had his little body tucked under my arms. It was difficult to keep hold of him. His legs kept slipping from my grasp like a rag doll’s. He was dressed in the exquisite baptismal gown I’d chosen for him and although he looked beautiful and peaceful, he didn’t look like he had in hospital. Thomas was passed around to those who wanted to hold him. Then we took some family photographs very aware that this was our last opportunity to capture pictures of our complete family:  parents and six children.

Although we saw Thomas on two occasions after his death, I still have some regrets. I realised later, that we’d never seen either his ears or his feet. We’d held him all bundled up and not really examined him like we would have done had he been alive. The doctors and nurses of the NIC unit were fantastic and, as I knew they were always looking for ways to improve their help to bereaved parents, I wrote to them with some suggestions.

Perhaps newly bereaved parents could dress their own babies after death? Perhaps the parents could even bathe their children? It would have been so lovely to have seen Thomas’ hair in its true colour.

I don’t think my fear of seeing and touching a dead person is an isolated fear. I think other people have these concerns too. A friend once confided the story of going to see her father before his burial.

I was so afraid of seeing him. Then I realised that the body in the funeral home wasn’t my dad. He was gone. The body was just a shell.  Nothing to be afraid of.”

I listened quietly but I couldn’t agree. Thomas’ body was him. Yes, his soul had departed but his body was still a very special part of him. And because his little dead body was still Thomas, there was nothing to be frightened of. How can you be frightened of your own baby son?

One of the families, who came with us to see Thomas, had older children who weren’t present at the viewing. When the family returned home, these children asked their younger siblings, ”What did Thomas look like?”

The answer: “Well… like a baby… of course!”

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Smiles and Joy and Blog Awards

Stephanie at Mostly Blue with a Touch of Pink wrote to me:  “I awarded your blogs the "Stylish Blogger Award" in a post today…”

I have noticed award buttons in the side-bars of many of the blogs I enjoy reading.  Now I will have one of my own!

What do blog awards actually mean? I have come to the conclusion they are a way of letting everyone know, in a public way, that someone enjoys reading a particular blog. They are also a way of spreading a little joy throughout the blogosphere. Who can fail to smile and feel happy when someone says, “I’ve awarded your blog an award”? We all spend a lot of time writing. Isn’t it wonderful to find out that someone has been sharing and enjoying our posts?  Awards are also a way of letting others know about our favourite blogs. I love following recommended links. Who know what treasures I will discover while I’m hopping across the blogosphere? And lastly, awards are an excellent way of getting to know each other a little better.

So I am really pleased Stephanie enjoys reading my blogs Sue ElvisWrites and Stories of an Unschooling Family. As I sit here writing this, I have a huge smile on my face. Thank you, Stephanie for sending some joy my way. And thank you for sharing my posts and stopping to comment regularly and adding to the conversation. I always love hearing from you.

Awards are meant to be shared and passed on, but before I can do that I have to share 7 things about myself. What haven't I already told you here on my blogs? Well...

  1. I am a first born child. Can you tell I am a bossy oldest sister?
  2. I am short sighted. Did you suspect I wear contact lenses? I wore glasses as a teenager and was so vain I wouldn't even wear them in the dark when Andy took me to the movies.
  3. I studied botany and biochemistry at university but I can't keep a pot plant alive.
  4. I haven't owned a pair of high heeled shoes since I was a vain and senseless university student. In those days I even tottered through the snow in tall heels.
  5. I am a no make-up girl except for a quick coating of mascara.
  6. I once said I'd never be a Catholic, and I'd like either 2 or 4 children. Good thing God knew better.
  7. I hardly ever watch movies but I love a good book especially if it's a Kindle book. 

I hope I can make a few bloggers smile by passing on this award. I have one huge problem: I have to nominate only 5 bloggers and I would really love to spread the joy to all the bloggers I follow. This is so difficult… I think I will nominate 5 very different blogs, so here are my choices…

  • 1.       A Catholic blog: Noreen at Rosary Mom because her blog shines with her love of Our Blessed Mother Mary, and her passion to end abortion. I also love Noreen’s book and movie reviews. And she is a beautiful person.
  • 2     An art blog: Vicky at Victoria Leach –Portrait Art because I am in awe of her artistic talent. I love watching one of Vicky’s drawings come to life as she posts progress updates. To me, it’s magical.
  • 3.       A homeschooling blog: Leanne at Roses, Tea andOur Lady because so often Leanne and I visit each other’s blogs to discover we’ve independently written on similar topics. We always seem to be in tune with each other and I love sharing with my dear friend.
  • 4.       A writer’s blog: Ellen at Plot, Line andSinker. Ellen is such a talented writer. I have enjoyed her Catholic fiction novels immensely. I have read every single one of them. Sigh! And I am impatiently waiting for her to write some more. Ellen's most recent novel is Stealing Jenny. I love Ellen's book reviews and always visit her blog when I'm looking for something new to read.
  • 5.       A grief blog: Sarah at She Brings Joy because Sarah so eloquently shares her feelings and stories of her daughter Beatrix. As a bereaved mother myself, I can relate to all Sarah’s posts and I’m sure this blog is connecting many grieving parents who are looking for a kindred spirit, someone who understands.
  • 6.       A teenager’s blog:  Imogen at Dancing with Dragonflies because I love her interesting stories and her style of writing. And I love her!

I have broken the rules and nominated a 6th blog because I want to increase the smiles…

I hope the above bloggers will nominate their favourite 5 blogs and tell us 7 things about themselves.

Thank you, Stephanie!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

How to Look Gorgeous Forever

“Mum, can I use Picnik, please? I want to play around with some photos.”

I logged Sophie into my account and left her to have some fun. Sometime later she called out,” Come and see what I’ve done!”

There on the computer screen was a collage of Andy and me.  And I look gorgeous. Andy looks pretty good too!

“I added sparkle to your eyes, put blush on your cheeks, whitened your teeth and used the wrinkle remover,” Sophie announced proudly.

Was I in need of so much ‘help’?  The girls have always insisted I haven’t any wrinkles, that I’m not looking old. Were they telling the truth? I have to admit I like this new improved me. Since seeing Sophie’s photos I have been thinking…

Perhaps I can ‘adjust’ all my photos before I post them. Normally I sort through the photos: “No! I look awful in that one… That one shows too many wrinkles…. Oooh! That one’s not very flattering.” Does anyone else do this? Do you pick and choose what images everyone sees of you?

Why does it matter so much what we look like? Once our parish priest reminded us we can’t rely on our good looks. One day everything will head downwards and we need to have something else to carry us through life. So I have been trying not to think about age but about my character. But it is difficult.

Recently I was discussing ageing with my sister. I confided my reluctance to get older… well not to get older, but to look older. And Vicky being more virtuous than me (and looking more than 5 years younger), insisted that looks don’t matter. How glad I am that I am only 5 years older than my youngest sister. What if there were 17 years between us like there is between my youngest and oldest daughters? How will Felicity cope when her hair is greying and her skin starting to line, when her younger sister is still very much in her prime?

I think about why I don’t want to look old, why I am reluctant to admit my age. I guess it’s because I am afraid people will think I am too old to be their friend. Will they think I am too old to understand them, that they can’t relate to me?

But now I have a solution to my age problems.  'Online Sue' no longer has to look her age. With modern technology, thoughtfully provided by the photo editing site, Picnik, I can be young and gorgeous forever. I can encourage my children to use only edited photos of me on their blogs. No one need ever know I am 50. Oops! That kind of slipped out.

But what if we ever have that international bloggers’ conference I suggested to Victor? Or what if some of my blogging friends actually do make it to this side of the world and knock unexpectedly on my door?

“Sue? No, you can’t be Sue. She’s a lot younger than you. Are you her mother?”

Perhaps I had better not pretend to be young and gorgeous. Maybe I should remain who I am.

Now what did Father say I needed to do when everything starts to head downwards? Something about virtues? Sigh! I have a lot of work ahead of me....

Turning Famous Paintings into Jigsaw Puzzles

My girls love putting together jigsaw puzzles. We often look out for cast-off puzzles at markets and garage sales. We come home clutching piles of old boxes, hoping all the pieces are inside. The girls like to work on huge puzzles that take days to put together. And though I can see putting together puzzles is satisfying work for them, it can be a bit frustrating for me: “When are you girls going to finish that puzzle? I’d like to use the dining table again.” (Not that I really mind.)

But there is one sort of jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t take up any table space. Nor are there ever any lost pieces. These are virtual computer jigsaw puzzles and although they are not quite the same as real puzzles, they have yet another advantage over the traditional puzzle: There is never any need to buy new puzzles.  There are endless free ones available to solve on the computer, at the click of a mouse.

We first discovered online jigsaw puzzles on a website called Garden of Praise. This website has resources for studying art (amongst other things). A number of artists are featured, and for each there is a biography; one highlighted painting, with others available for viewing in a slide show; quizzes, crosswords and word searches…. and puzzles. Quizzes, crosswords and word searches don’t really appeal to my girls. But what they do like are the jigsaw puzzles.

Each featured painting has been made into an online jigsaw. The number and shape of the pieces can be adjusted so Gemma-Rose can chose a fairly simple version of the painting puzzle to solve, while Imogen can have the challenge of lots of little pieces.

Last year I was lamenting the fact that the Garden of Praise site only has one painting per artist available as a jigsaw puzzle. I thought about this for a while: couldn’t we make our own computer jigsaw puzzles?  I did some browsing and discovered some free downloadable jigsaw creators. I’d soon downloaded Free Jigsaw Lite.

“We’ve got a jigsaw maker. Now all we need are some pictures.”

The girls started searching the Internet.

“I’ve found lots of paintings by Grandma Moses,” announced Imogen. “I’ll save them to the computer.” Minutes later she was using the images to make virtual jigsaw puzzles.

“Who wants to have a go? How many pieces do you want your puzzle to have? Do you want to race against the clock?”

We soon realised that the higher resolution images were the best because they could be separated into the greatest number of pieces.

After a few sessions of puzzle solving, the girls became familiar with many paintings by Grandma Moses and later, other artists. As they put the pieces together they discussed the painting. They soon realised what sort of subjects Grandma Moses liked to paint. They could recognise her style and remember the titles of her different works. They wanted to know more about Grandma Moses and went away to do some research and then we had some interesting discussions. 

When the girls are solving art puzzles they think they are just having fun. But I know they are doing much more than this: they are learning.

Another activity offered by Garden of Praise is colour-in pictures of famous paintings. Again, only one painting is featured by each artist. But I had an idea. I printed out black and white copies of each painting for the girls to colour in. But recently I had a better idea….

Actually it was Willa’s idea.  I read about it on her blog, The Quotidian Reader. Willa‘s post is called A Coloring Pages Tutorial. She explains how to produce colouring pictures from photos and other images, using the website, Picnik.

So now I am off to turn the art images we downloaded for the jigsaw puzzles, into pictures the girls can colour in. On second thoughts, I think I will tell the girls about Willa’s post and get them to do the producing themselves. They love using Picnik. A bit of computer work... paper in the printer... press the button and...

"Who wants to colour in a picture of Grandma Moses' painting The Quilting Bee?"

I am sure everyone will.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Wednesday Adventures

One evening last week we were all sitting together in the lounge of our holiday cottage. The older girls were drawing, the younger ones were reading, and I was fiddling about with my camera. Although I’ve had the camera for a few months now I haven’t yet read the manual properly. I keep dipping into it and trying things out. I should have read the instruction booklet carefully from start to finish before actually using the camera but somehow I can’t seem to do things the correct way. I am a learn-as-I-go, trial-and-error type of person.

I tapped the camera touch screen a few times and all of a sudden I realised how to adjust the light levels for a particular function. “Hey girls! I’ve just learnt something new. I am sooo clever!” I grinned.

“Mum! It’s the holidays. You’re not supposed to be learning anything,” protested Sophie. We all smiled. It’s a big joke. We all know holidays are excellent occasions for learning all sorts of interesting stuff.

“I’m sure you’ve learnt lots too, Sophie,” I said. We sat thinking for a moment and then…

“Well, we can now all paddle a kayak and we know what to do when one capsizes.” We all remembered that moment when the kayak rolled over, depositing its occupants into the deep, cold lake water.

“Yes, we revised our lifesaving skills. And we talked about concussion and how to treat it, after Dad clonked Charlotte on the head as he turned the kayak back the right way up.”

“We saw the bluebottle jellyfish on the surf beach and we discussed the correct treatment for stings.”

“Vinegar for box jellyfish, hot water for bluebottle jellyfish… We observed the tides and the wind strength… the Beaufort scale, you know.”

“Don’t forget the hooded plovers. There’s only one breeding pair at Cudmirrah. They’re endangered birds. And the sand bar… With all this rain recently the lake has ‘opened’. I didn’t know what ‘opened’ meant until I read that board at the beach. That was interesting.”

“We’ve written our diaries every day and drawn a lot of pictures and doodles… and taken a million photos. And I’ve got lots of ideas on how to make a holiday scrappity book. Perhaps we can use the collage templates on Picnik when we get home.”

“Gemma-Rose and I cooked cakes and discovered what to do when you add twice as much milk as needed by mistake.”

“We’ve ridden the bikes. Dad taught us all about the brakes while he was adjusting them. And chains and gears. Those bikes really did need a lot of maintenance.”

We talked about the black swans and other birds we'd stalked with our cameras, the shells and rocks we'd collected, the plants in the cottage garden, the different seaweeds on the beach... Yes, the girls had learnt a lot of interesting stuff and it was only half-way through our week away.

Children are always ready to learn. They soak up everything like sponges. They love new experiences and are eager to try things out. And on holiday there are plenty of new things to catch their attention. How could they fail to learn when they are surrounded by such a rich and different environment?

Many years ago, I’d take the kids out somewhere every Wednesday. We’d pack a picnic and go exploring. We went to the fish markets and bought squid, prawns and baby octopus and then came home and cooked them for dinner. We walked through the rainforest in the botanic gardens and then visited the glasshouses. We wandered around the art gallery or the museum under the stern gaze of the curator who watched the little ones suspiciously. (I must admit that when Felicity was a toddler, she ducked under the rope barrier and touched a Monet painting.  I could have died from embarrassment.)

All our Wednesdays were mini-holidays and the kids soaked up a great deal of knowledge while they were having fun.

Somewhere along the track we slipped out of the habit of going on adventures. (Too much work with babies and toddlers perhaps.) A few months ago I realised this and we've set out, with cameras in hand and hot chocolate in our backpacks, to have some adventures at our local lake and bushland. But I am sure there are so many other exciting experiences out there waiting for us, if only we'd think to pack up a picnic and get out of the house.

And so the holidays are over but I am wondering... perhaps the fun (and the learning) can continue….

What shall we do next Wednesday?