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Archive for the ‘In Sickness and in Health’ Category

The first time I saw the flat I live in now I thought “thank fuck I don’t live in this hell-hole”. What met me was a dark, dank (if large) flat, filled with what to me amounted to no more than junk, and it was dirty. The first time mum saw the flat she pulled me aside and said in shocked tones: “Don’t ever move in here!” But I did.

The rooms have been “reassigned” since then, and some of the hoard has been shifted, but it is essentially the same overcrowded, dirty, ugly space it was. I have failed in my efforts to turn it into a home after my standards. It’s sad. And it makes me sad. And it is a huge contributing factor to my depression.

Mum was an architect. She loved design furniture, and of course she leaned towards airy Scandinavian designs, Bauhaus and modernism. Though our home was by no means pristine – how could it, with two kids, a dog and both parents working? – it had a clear and logical layout and the entire framework was good, as in, the house itself was nicely decorated, painted, the floors were nice, the ceilings, the walls… and the furniture was collected according to mum’s very high standards. Mostly.

There was that one time when dad had spent days clearing out the basement and got rid of stuff mum considered junk (perhaps because it was mostly dad’s junk and included old shoes he’d grown out of during the war but held on to for sentimental reasons, or perhaps it was in case they proved useful, you know, broken old shoes no-one could wear). Then he went to work. At the same time the two little old ladies next door cleared out THEIR basement and threw out several old pieces of furniture. Mum spent the entire afternoon trudging between their heap of junk and our basement, rescuing what she considered gems that she could restore and that would prove oh-so-great, quickly filling up the space dad had worked so hard to clear. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen dad reduced to tears.

So. I come from a line of hoarders. The ability to dump stuff that is of no use, or not acquire new stuff that one really doesn’t need, is not something that was instilled in me as a child. That ability came much later, when Kevin and I had an accident while moving from Edinburgh to London and a lot of our stuff got ruined in the crash. The fact that we walked away with only minor bruises put things into perspective.

Before I moved in with Thomas, however, I lived in a large flat with almost no furniture. The layout was wonderful – you could walk from the hallway to the bedroom to the living room to the office/dining room to the kitchen and get back to the hallway, all in a big circle, and every room had at least one window. There was so much light, and so little furniture, and every morning I would roll out of bed, make a cup of tea and then do my round through the flat with Mischa in tow just enjoying the SPACE and the LIGHT – and the fact that it was so easy to clean and keep neat.

Then mum and dad came to visit. First I had that “touché” moment where mum in awe asked how I kept the place so clean and tidy, then a few weeks later came that other moment when a large lorry arrived with a load of furniture from mum. My grandparents’ sofa, a dining table, six dining chairs, a beautiful, handmade, mahogany sideboard (also from my Danish grandparents), dad’s old mahogany veneer office desk (HUGE!), an old waiting room bench mum had restored herself, the old chest my Norwegian grandfather had used when he went to America to try his luck (I seem to remember dad telling me he even tried his hand as a cowboy in Arizona). The place was suddenly less empty, but as it was so big it easily accommodated all of it and still looked neat and tidy – and cosier.

Then Thomas and I married. I held on to my flat to the end of the contract, half-way dreading the challenge of joining our two households. I knew it would be a nightmare to try to add my old period furniture to the overcrowded mishmash in Thomas’ flat.

And it was.

And it is.

And every day I have moments where I metaphorically bang my head against the wall in despair wondering what I can get rid of to give myself some breathing space. And each time I find something to dump, Thomas fills the freshly liberated spot with empty cardboard boxes, or tools, or motorcycle parts or… Is this some sort of Karma visited upon me because mum got dad to dump his stuff so she could fill it with her kind of stuff?

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Moving on

Not a day goes by when I don’t think about those I’ve lost in the past+ year. The last one to pass was Orion’s foster mum, Elisabeth. Her daughter contacted us and asked us if we could be at her funeral on the 13 April. Of course we could!

We knew no one there. We only knew Elisabeth’s daughter because of her obvious family likeness and where she was during the ceremony. And her grandson was there – him we knew as Orion had also meant a lot to him and he often came along when Elisabeth came to see Orion after we adopted him.

It was one of those standard funerals that they have here in Vienna. In a tastefully decorated room, with a priest, with pall-bearers, flowers, music, a picture of the deceased, a couple of hymns, with people wearing black and blowing their noses (just like us) and a eulogy.

No one knew us there. Until the eulogy.

Elisabeth’s family, her best friend, her love of horses were all part of it. Her fostering Orion was part of it. And then – Thomas and I were part of it. And then they all knew. Because we were holding a picture of Orion.

And when we followed the casket to the grave, and the casket was lowered into the grave, and we all stepped up one at the time to drop a little soil and a flower onto the casket – we dropped the picture of Orion in, giving him a final resting place wit his foster mum.

It was a beautiful day. Sunny. 13 April.

Kaki’s memorial service was on the 11 May. And it was funny and sad and lovely and at times downright weird. I think she would have got a good giggle out of it. Perhaps she did. Perhaps she was there. Who knows.

And life goes on.

Dad came to visit. Our flat is unfortunately not laid out for us to have anybody staying with us so we rented a studio flat a skip and and a jump away. Not one of dad’s skips and jumps, I hasten to add. Not even one of mine. And definitely not one of Mischa’s: he has started walking so slowly I refer to him as my tyre. Anyway, it was a rather drab looking place seemingly used as a storage space for unwanted random bits of cheap furniture. But dad only spent the nights there so it wasn’t too bad. He got to see our new car: our first convertible. The most impractical car imaginable but the offer was so good we couldn’t pass on it. And who wants to be sensible, anyway?

We have lots of plans. But no plan for where to start. We’re planning to find time to plan a time for when we can plan where to start. Not easy with Thomas’ shift schedule and my random teaching work.

But it’s definitely a plan.

I think it’s also known as Life.

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The pain is bottomless. So intense it defies description. I feel extremely sorry for myself.

Over the years life has dealt me many blows of the kind we all have to endure sooner or later. Still, last year tops the list of things-that-come-in-threes, only in my case it came in five.

I had no idea I was so poorly prepared to cope with it, though.

I walk Mischa. And suddenly, the huge gaping holes left by the five I lost in the course of 2012 open up and I tumble in. My eyes fill with tears, my heart beats like crazy, and then there is this noise, an “uuuh-uuh-uuuuuuhh”-noise, not even proper howling, just sore, painful grief. Mischa gets confused and waddles up to me and rubs his head against me. There, in the park next to Votivkirche, I huddle over Mischa hiding my tears from the general public gaze, sobbing into his neck.

Gerard died in April. Unexpectedly while on tour with his partner, Pat. He was one of the few people who really knew me, who never took any shit from me, who always shared his jokes and sent unexpected e-mails with acute observations of life. He had an uncanny talent for sarcasm and explosive anger, as well as the ability to get over it in a matter of seconds. He never bore grudges. Over the years we shouted at each other, laughed together, set the world straight with the help of several bottles of wine – in London, in Skibbereen where we first met in 1993, in Dublin and even here in Vienna. He introduced me to Kevin, and to Irishness. Istill can’t believe he is gone.

Gerard at my wedding 2011. It was to be the last time I saw him.

Gerard at my wedding 2011. It was to be the last time I saw him.

Next to die was Orion. Only weeks before he died he had been with us on a biker event in Germany. The proud, nervous, aggressive rescue dog we’d had for two years by then had turned into a wonderful family dog in our care. He took his inspiration and comfort from Mischa: the two were like the grumpy old men in the Muppet Show, bickering all the time and yet clearly enjoying each other’s company – though Mischa only just put up with Orion using him as a pillow.

Orion

Orion as I will remember him

The day he died he could suddenly not get on his feet any more. His energy was simply not there and I could not even get him down the stairs before he collapsed where we were, on the landing, and he pooped right where he was. He was so ashamed and so helpless. Our funny, sweet, long-legged dog who so clearly loved his life with us had nothing more to give.

Then Don died. Though I had lost touch with him over the past couple of years, I still saw him from time to time when swinging by iT for a show. One evening he did not turn up to run the lights for a performance, and when Jack and Osas went to his flat they found him dead in his bed and the cat hiding in a corner where they could not get to it, absolutely terrified. A quiet death, at least, and the cat now lives with another friend, as batty and scared of life as itself.

Next up was Colin. Another talent of sarcasm. And another who knew me well. Better than I at times was comfortable with. He was given the death sentence several years ago, told that he had prostate cancer which would probably finish him off within three to six months. I still remember him calling me and asking me how I coped with my back pain as his back was so damned sore and he had no idea what to do about it. Then the diagnosis. And his reaction: “Well, THAT sorts out a few things, anyhow!” He was quickly ready to meet his maker but things lingered, he got bored, got a girlfriend who made him feel alive, finally settled his debts and then went into hospital for an unrelated operation on his leg. He died in the morning of 5 December, supposedly after complications from the operation. Kevin later gave me this description of the funeral:

“Well, what a day. Lashing rain, howling wind, deep mud underfoot, the grave actually caved-in before we started and they used a mechanical digger to get it ready. The coffin really was a cardboard box…and quite heavy…and ‘he’ arrived in the back of what looked like an estate car instead of a hearse. We all got covered in mud as we lowered him into the grave…but…it worked. Tim said some wonderful words, Cristina (yes) played a penny whistle tune that he loved, another friend sang two lines of a song that he’d asked for, and Zoe and Dan [daughter and son] read a poem Colin had written about football results. We put a dictionary, a packet of cigarettes and matches, some crosswords, the poem into the grave… And then we had a drink or three in a nearby pub. And we laughed a lot and cried a little.

I feel I celebrated the lives of three people today, Gerard, Don and Colin.”

I couldn’t be there. I had no money. I wish I had money.

When we were in Norway in July, it was clear that mum was not very well. In September, she finally had a pacemaker fitted, and she apparently improved. She improved enough for her GP to give the go-ahead for mum and dad to travel to Spain in November. There, she had a wonderful week, going for walks with a “rullator” – one of those walking frames with wheels, and enjoying the sun and food and dad’s company. One evening she felt unwell and collapsed and was sent to hospital in Benidorm. Hanne and I were contacted and flown in by the insurance company after the hospital reported multiple organ failure. We had a few awkward days together waiting for mum to come out of intensive care, days we used to talk about mum’s many plans, a little about life and death, and to eat and drink together. We don’t see each other anywhere near often enough. When she got out of intensive care and was transferred to an upstairs ward, I moved into her room – to the nurses’ dismay. But it was the only way I could see that mum would get any sort of stimulation – to them it was easier to just let her lie there, feed her occasionally, check her vitals and leave again. She could not really watch TV as her eyesight had deteriorated even further and left her with only a narrow field she could see. She could barely hear, and when her hearing aids were not in she was virtually deaf. Reading was thus no option, TV no option, radio another no-go.

I spent the next ten days nursing mum, trying to get her to move arms and legs to prevent bed-sores and help increase circulation, helping her in and out of bed, to the toilet, wiping her butt, cleaning her teeth, rubbing cream onto her legs. And helping her eat. I tried to get her to do things herself, but she impishly whined that it was soooo cosy being fed and nursed… I would sit on her bed, talk right into her ear so she could hear me, and we talked about life. About her many plans. She instructed me how to do this and that at the cabin, how to do things in our flat in Vienna, that she wanted to finish repairing a cardigan: could I help her find the yarn she had brought (but which I could not find anywhere). We talked about her parents, about dad and Hanne, about Anja and about Mischa, Kevin and Thomas (she finally forgave me for divorcing one and marrying the other). And she talked about how she was still so curious about life, always wondering what would happen next? My heart broke a little more with each day.

Mum with Anja in 1978

Mum with Anja in 1978

The doctors at the hospital were very reluctant to giving me a leaving-date. They kept saying we had to wait and see. It added to the strain as mum could only communicate with me: the nurses generally spoke no English, and when they did not loudly or clearly enough – or with the right accent – for her to understand. In return, her voice was very weak and she mixed her languages, dithering between Norwegian, Danish, German and English in one sentence, sometimes chucking in a “si” or “oui” for good measure. Eventually, I grabbed the Dutch cardiologist and told him with devastating honesty that they did NOT want her to die while in Spain, just think of the paperwork! and that I was perfectly aware that we were facing the end of mum’s life, there was no point in pretending otherwise. Finally the doctor worked up the courage to be honest, and he showed dad and me how mum’s heart worked.

We saw leaks. We saw her enlarged heart pumping away at high-speed and blood leaking where it should not go. The valves were leaking. Her days were numbered.

We got a leaving date set, we got an SOS air ambulance organised, and once it was all in place I told mum when it was all to happen. She was disappointed. How come she still had to wait three days? The explanation of the logistics of it all fell quietly on her deaf ears.

The day finally came. Mum was characteristically impatient, wondering at 5am why it took the nurses so bloody long to arrive with breakfast and when on earth would she get a shower so she could get dressed and groomed a little? I tried in vain to tell her that it was 5am, that I could do with a little more sleep, that no one would come until 9am at the earliest, that her pickup was not until the afternoon. Totally in vain. We spent the morning fussing over this and that, packing and repacking imaginary items, I explained over and over that her big suitcase was with dad (“then what am I supposed to wear?!?”), that she had to wear one of the new nightgowns I had bought her in Benidorm as she would be lying on a gurney hooked up to oxygen and a catheter, that… she wanted OUT. Now.

She can be very stubborn.

A young Spanish-only-speaking doctor accompanied us to the airport in Alicante. By the time we got there it was raining, befitting the occasion. The ambulance plane was delayed. We sat on the runway in the ambulance looking at the rain for over an hour. I tried to keep mum calm as she could not understand why everything took so damned long. We ran out of things to say. We ran out of final things to say.

The ambulance plane arrived. A young, healthy-looking Norwegian doctor came onboard the ambulance to check on mum. He asked if she could walk up the steps to the plane – mum was all game but I said a sharp “No!” which startled the poor doc but with a little more information he understood. She was transferred from one gurney to the next, attempted kept dry under a couple of umbrellas and finally carried onboard the SOS plane.

Mum

Mum

It was the last time I saw her alive.

The Spanish-only-speaking doctor and the ambulance driver helpfully took me to the commercial part of the airport for my flight back to Vienna and there the doc hugged me and  I burst into tears.

Mum died in the early hours of 18 December 2012. She had been taken straight to hospital on arrival. I have little understanding of the new trends in healthcare in Norway, but it seems a little faulty from my angle. There seems to have been little attempt at communicating with dad, mum was shipped hither and dither with insufficient information being passed along between hospitals and eventually dismissed and sent to a care home closer to home. There she could only lie and wait. There was talk of sending her back to the main hospital, Ahus, to have her lungs drained properly as she could barely breathe and they had not fully drained them while she was there. But it didn’t happen. Dad had the feeling she was pushed aside as uninteresting due to her age. I trust him: he is not prone to exaggeration or hysteria. Ageism should not be an issue in a wealthy country like Norway. It’s sad that it is.

The funeral was held on 27 December – a cold, clear day. The small medieval church was almost full. But even with all the wonderful show of support and empathy from friends and family, nothing can fill the gaping emptiness left by mum.

Mum, surrounded by her grandsons and our cousins carrying her coffin, dad and Hanne behind

Mum, surrounded by her grandsons and our cousins carrying her coffin, dad and Hanne behind

I wonder how long it will hurt.

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Oh crap

This is about to turn into one of my worst years ever.

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Well, you may think that it has something to do with Orion’s death. And you’d be right. But he has in no way lost his appetite so no, he is not grief stricken to the point where he is refusing to eat. If he were, I’d be seriously worried. All it is is that he can no longer steal Orion’s leftovers.

Not that we are not all grieving, Mischa included. He is still searching for Orion in Votivpark and the dog zone on the edge of Arne Carlsson Park. And wherever else we go. I’ve seen him stare attentively at greyhounds, his tail going up and wagging in anticipation, only to sink down again at the realization that it’s not Orion. But his appetite is completely intact, and given the chance he still gobbles up any kind of crap he can lay his greedy little snout on. But with Orion’s passing, the opportunities are fewer and farther between. He now shamelessly waddles up to any dog owner and sits in front of them doing “Menchen” (“human” – both front paws up, balancing on his butt – well, sort of balancing on his butt) in the hope that their pockets will open up and reveal a horn of plenty of dog snacks. When they’ve never met him before they’re not quite sure what to make of it. When they know him, they cuddle him and proceed to pop treats into his mouth. Mission accomplished and not even remotely impossible.

Thomas and I are still absolutely dazed by the last few week’s worth of deaths. Gerard, then Orion and then Don. Oh, I guess I didn’t tell you about Don. Uncle Don. Not my real uncle, but Don Fenner who directed Christmas Carol the first time I came to Vienna in 2000 to play Tiny Tim at the International Theatre. Uncle Don who tried so hard to placate me – and succeeded – when I fell out with Marilyn (Wallace/Close) over the treatment of another actress and very nearly walked out in the middle of the run, even in the middle of the show (at the time, Pygmalion, spring 2002). Don. Don is gone.

I found out because Marilyn – I’ve never really revealed much about my time at IT – let’s keep it that way – has a dog-walker called Sam, and I passed him walking her dog WinnieII (all her dogs are called Winnie, it seems) and he shouted after me. Then, in a dramatic voice (are all who have something to do with IT total drama-queens??) that Don has died! and if I had “anything to say to those people” I should do it NOW! (background church bells and sounds of chains in a deep, hollow dungeon). Then he told me that Don had died  around the 25th May and been found “yesterday” which would have made his undiscovered and lonely corpse about two weeks old and his cat halfway starved to death.

I called Laura, the longest running IT actress and the one who would know, to find out what had really happened.

He had not turned up one night to run lights, so Osas, the barman/right-hand everything man, ran over to his flat to find out what was wrong – as Don did not answer his phone. Osas found Don dead in bed, most likely only hours after he had died peacefully in his sleep, and the poor cat ran and hid when the ambulance came to pick up the body. The short version thereafter is that the cat was picked up by the animal shelter in Vösendorf where they refused to release it again on the grounds that the interested parties were only friends of the late Don and not relations, Don’s body was handed over to medical research following his own wishes, and the cat was eventually handed over to his long-standing friend Ellis following the winding up of lots of red tape for its release.

Not wildly dramatic but even so: Don’s passing leaves another hole that just can’t be filled.

Oh, and just to top everything off, the International Theatre has finally been dealt its final blow and will not receive any more funding. It closes on Sunday, last show tomorrow night, Saturday 30 June 2012. Vienna is left another cultural institution short. No more Christmas Carols. There goes my chance of a glorious comeback as The World’s Oldest Tiny Tim.

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On Wednesday we, that is Thomas, Pascal and I, were having a “lazy day”, and in the afternoon we decided to head out for icecream with the dogs. I got bored waiting for Thomas to convince the teenager that exposure to fresh air and daylight would not turn him to dust, so I went ahead with the dogs.

Once outside, Orion trotted off in the direction of Votivpark while Mischa and I hung back. Orion kept trotting off in the usual direction, then suddenly realised we were not with him, turned around and stared short-sightedly at people around him as he headed back in our general direction. As his eyesight is rapidly deteriorating he was unable to spot us, got confused (again) and turned around (again), obviously thinking that we had overtaken him without him noticing. As I didn’t want him to get too far without us I started running after him – then I heard a familiar voice from behind forcefully shouting “What happened?!!” and Thomas came flying past me. Horizontally. He made an impressive roll in mid air, hit the ground, winced, and stayed down, while I carried on, yapping over my shoulder as I overtook “I’ll catch him, don’t worry!”

Which I also did.

Turning back, Orion in tow, I found Thomas awkwardly getting to his feet, moaning and whimpering sadly in the process. Pascal made an heroic attempt at carrying his dad in the direction of the flat, the dogs looked confused and disappointed at having been deprived of their walk, Thomas continued to moan, miscellaneous spectators offered help and were brushed off – and we all made our miserable way back home, sans icecream, sans walkies.

Thomas had ripped the muscles deep in the upper part of his left thigh which made him lose control of his left leg. He then overstepped and shot through the air (the aforementioned horizontal flight), ripping the tendons in his left ankle for the nth time. He was in enough pain to actually cry. NOT something he does on a regular basis. Cry, that is. Ripping stuff in his body is another story entirely.

Do you, like me, get the feeling this runs in the family?

We have gained some sort of bizarre local fame in our district with our gung-ho approach to dog walks and – well, life in general. EVERYBODY greets us. The local business owners and the bin collectors. Even the medical students smoking outside the medical department next door have come to realise that when we wish to walk down the pavement with our dogs we will do so, regardless of them taking up the entire space with their lung cancer experiment, and now move aside before we introduce them to a life-size game of ten-pin bowling, almost bowing before us as we pass in familiar disarray.

That aside, Thomas had to get his doctor to make an unscheduled home visit – home visits no longer part of the health service, but of course if you have had the same doctor for just about ever and he knows you don’t cry without reason, he can still be convinced – and the wonderful man had the audacity to actually laugh when he saw Thomas hobbling around with his grandfather’s bamboo walking stick for support.

I drove Thomas to work last night and picked him up after his nightshift at 6am this morning. If he can’t drive, he is ill and should generally stay home from work. I’m still glad he decided to go. I was getting flashbacks to when dad had his back problems when I was a kid and he lay in bed shouting orders at me and my sister in an effort to (helpfully) run the household from bed. Today, he decided he could get to work himself, using the MP3. I guess he doesn’t like my driving and was unimpressed by my botched reverse parking as we arrived home. Oh, come on – who, apart from him – is able to reverse park without problems at that hour in the morning? Especially with a tram impatiently trying to get you out of the way.

Thomas is now sporting an impressively purply-red-blue and swollen bruise on the back of his upper thigh, about 10-15cm across, but at least he is not crying anymore, only from time to time moaning a little in a sort of manly way. And suffering the pain and hardship of driving himself to work because his wife is such a lousy driver/parker he can’t bear the indignity of her reverse-parking failures.

Oh well. His pain. My extra sleep.

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Now you can no longer see anything of Orion’s brush with death.

Image

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