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The intensity of my experiences didn’t stop when Viv died as I found myself at odds with my brothers. We have always got on a family supporting each other in different ways, while recognising our differences. I resented the ease with which they settled and chatted in Viv’s house which had been, so recently, an environment dominated by women supporting their friend; a space where a powerful transition from life to death had been enacted.
Processes of clearing and sorting that had been undertaken so carefully up to that point were suddenly rushed and chaotic. I couldn’t sleep, and I longed to rage at Viv and off load my frustration. In the middle of the night I phoned my husband in London and blurted out my woes. He suggested a walk to look at the night sky – which is so beautiful and clear in rural New Zealand with the Milky Way streaming across the sky. I decided to drive to a local beach to see the sun rise and wait for the shags fly in for their dawn visit. I had heard about this daily occurrence and decided now was the time to witness it. I drove on deserted roads and into the car park disturbing two Little Blue penguins that had been nesting. I did watch the stars for a while and listened to the waves but being mid-winter, it was cold so headed home feeling miserable. Even that wasn’t working out. Later I tried to explain to one brother how alienated I left from them, but I only read confusion in his eyes. It was time to call Lynne. She said she’d been awake at 3am wondering how I was getting on. Not well! So Lynne drove over and mediated for the family. She talked of the intensity of the past weeks and talked about Viv’s wishes in terms of how she wanted her possessions dealt with. We all deal with grief differently, and I know my brothers loved our sister dearly, but we were far apart in spirit at that point. Later a friend, mulled over my reaction and offered this response.
If you were to look at it from a Maori perspective, you could look at what happened as a violation of tapu, And I found myself wondering what are we protected from when death and dying are professionalised. How are we diminished by parking 'death and dying' away from our vulnerable conflicted selves? I see that you have allowed yourself to be transformed by the experience of travelling so closely with Viv. You've passed through a liminal space.
Lynne moved straight back into Viv’s house to take care of my needs as well as assist with post-Viv arrangements. She suggested I might like a massage from Elizabeth, so we drove out to her country house, sat in her kitchen, drank green tea and ate freshly made carrot cake, then Elizabeth took me to her massage studio and soothed my tense twitching body. She offered the thought that I had been Viv’s guardian during her final weeks of life and now, in the immediate days following, I was the guardian of her spirit, that I was in flight or fight mode but I couldn’t flee.
So yes, I fought my brothers like a lioness protecting her (dead) cub. I was strident about being the one to speak on behalf of the family at the planned social gathering, along with three other women, whose lives intertwined with Viv’s. I can mark the moment when I started to soften towards my brothers and that was when we were preparing Viv’s sitting room to receive guests. I had selected a range of photos illustrating different periods or aspects of her life. My brothers offered to help me, and I gave a curt ‘No, I want to do this.’ Then I reconsidered and said ‘yes, I would like help.’ So, I began to let my brothers back into my heart, and together we stuck up photos of our sister. Photos from her childhood in Britain; group photos when she was in the NZ Universities’ Women’s Hockey team; skiing and cycling; photos from her many years teaching and photos with children from families that were special to her. One of my favourites was a youthful Viv slobbed out on an old settee with cigarette and beer glass in hand looking the worse for wear. All my sister.
I was woken by Lynne pre-dawn on my final morning in Viv’s house. We, along with one of my brother’s, had an appointment at Tata beach. This time I would watch the shags arrive. In the dark beach car park, where I had previously disturbed two Little Blues, another car was before us. We thought we knew who it would be, and as we walked along the beach we spotted a bucket with thermoses sticking out and knew it was Carole (the quilt maker). At seventy-nine there is no stopping that woman. She was there with her son waiting to join us with hot tea and a batch of freshly baked biscuits. So we sat on a large driftwood log and watched the sun rise the shags fly in from outlying islands. Not so many birds – barely two hundred - when at other times numbers can rise into thousands. Still, it was a memorable way to end my stay.
Later that morning Lynne waved me off from Viv’s doorstep. I was with my three brothers and we were driving over the hill for some banking business (I was letting them into this as well, so we would all share Viv’s estate account) then on to the airport where I was flying out. We were united. Kinship creates strong bonds and I value what I share with my brothers, their own children, and children’s children. They are all a part of my extended family and help define who I am. But I will miss my sister with a deep ache. She left me a farewell letter of love and gratitude I will cherish and intend to take with me to my grave as she did with my own letter of love and gratitude for her life.
Back home in London, I bought a small cherry tree and scattered some of Viv’s ashes under it, just as others have carried out rituals in New Zealand with their own selected trees.
In final email to Viv’s Listers with news of her death, I ended my message with the Maori phrase I learnt in Golden Bay that was repeated numerous times to me, usually accompanied by a bone crunching hug: kia kaha ‘keep strong’.
Part Seven can be read here
The Dying Matters Coalition is led by the National Council for Palliative Care,
the umbrella charity for end of life care in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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