My Evan, painted by Kellie Marian Hill
What has dawned on me lately is that maybe the worst things in life are not the big terrible shocking events, but the niggling, irritating trivial events. Whereas the former is like a pesky mosquito in your room, the former is akin to a snakebite, which may knock you unconscious but you awaken, grateful to be alive, cleansed and even rejuvenated, a detox for the soul.
Seven months on from the loss of my son Evan, I decided to list some things that this painful but enlightening experience has shown me. These are not just vague fluffy things I feel obliged to say, otherwise I wouldn’t bother saying them at all. These are real, strong things that have the power to dry up hot volcanic tears. They are seven wonders of adversity, revealing true unconditional aspects of my life.
1. Food does nourish the soul, or simply ‘I do love cooking’
In shock and through grief, it is common to lose appetite and motivation to spend time in the kitchen. My diet went from meticulously organic, to choix buns from Asda and boxed convenience foods. Who wants to cook when your world has fallen down? The treats helped pull me through at first, but when I got out my Woll pan again and smelt the aroma of fresh chopped onion and garlic going into the hot seasoned olive oil, and slice a crisp pile of pepper, I realised my own fresh cooked, healthy meal was far tastier, better and even easier. The cream eclairs became sickly, and soon I was becoming my old discerning self that would rather start ordering from Riverford Farms again than battle with the aisles and aisles of endless processed choice in Tesco. Adversity showed me that my healthy eating is not a fad that depends on my happiness. Healthy eating supports happiness.
2. Creativity never stops
If I were to fall victim to polarising motherhood and career, I’d tell the universe it can take back every single wonderful photography opportunity it’s given me lately and return me my son at once. But I know it doesn’t work like that. There is energy in making art and energy in making new life: everything is made of energy and creativity comes in many forms, we are diversely creative creatures.
During the worst parts it helped to spend time making things, not just as a distraction but as a channel. I did not feel like going out taking pictures, but creativity goes beyond your one usual medium of choice. I kept busy editing video, writing a fresh blog with new zest (this one), as well as private journalling; I released a new website even though I felt like putting myself on hold. Life does not stop. ‘Whatever happens in your life… make good art.’ (Neil Gaimon). Adversity showed me that art is not dependent on my happiness, but on all kinds of powerful feelings. See all of life as an opportunity for expression. There is always a way to express.
I found a painter online and commissioned the painting of Evan you see at the top of this post. Seven months down the line I cannot share pictures of my baby as other mothers can, but I can share this beautiful painting to thoroughly mark my child’s existence. I also choose delicious words for his memorial stone, words like ‘victory’ and ‘voyage’ (I could write a whole new future article on the the healing power of language I am discovering). No matter what, a child of mine deserves my full expression. I make sure Evan gets the full brunt of my creative energy so in the future I can concentrate on my children to come, with an equally whole heart. And with our attention drawn to the brevity of life, the calendar has been stacked high this year so Matthew and I can continue living life to the full just as we’d want to show Evan.
3. I can appreciate simple things
Adversity has shown me the power of simple, sensory things. Movement. Breath. Birdsong. For a while after the shock, I found switching from my usual frugal toilet roll to scented paper, it was as though I needed the distracting pleasant fragrance just to get through the banality of a bathroom visit. Adversity teaches us that there is great power in being present in the moment, for it’s the only way to escape the fear of what is happening or coming. And then we realise the futility of that fear, for we only ever have ‘the moment’. When we engage with our senses: look up to the sky, smell a herb, take time out to properly taste our food, have a long hug, make love, exercise, laugh, sing, dance – all these things feel good because we are forced into mindfulness of the moment, not the daily tension of wolves painted by the mind.
And as I wrote in a previous post, memories and the things that we savour through our senses are ours to keep forever. Not all that we cannot physically keep, do we lose.
I’m still getting the hang of trying to be mindful. Too often I fail epically. It’s something I am learning, as is the case for all these points. Knowing something, and actually feeling / doing it, are two separate things. Persistence of practice builds the great power of habit.
4. That death is not the worst thing
Death is scary because we don’t understand it, but it doesn’t stop the bond from a loved one to another, and I learnt this amazing truth from being forced to experience the bond from mother to child undefeated by the diagnosis and event of death.
“Death isn’t as serious as you think it is. It’s actually very enjoyable. Couldn’t be better really. And saying goodbye to the people you love isn’t as serious as it seems either, because you will meet again”– (a message purported to be from a passed sibling, from “9 things you realise after you die”)
You do not have to be religious to take comfort that death is not the end. Religion is after all a particular version of spirituality. I cannot imagine how I’d deal with family deaths if I believed that death was terrible, and is the blunt end of everything. I have entertained many theories and read mind-stretching books that I may have never opened if it were not for Evan’s passing. It is proven that all energy moves on, the many theories of what and when and how and why.. are yours to explore. In our human form we can’t wrap our heads around it, we are too physical. But I do believe our abilities as humans are much more than our everyday, humdrum mainstream society even cares to consider. Freed from the shackles of habit, peers and fears, we can go beyond and discover. Visit other channels of culture and knowledge for a different take. Turn off the TV, find new friends, pull at the playdough of your mind. We build our minds bespoke to see what we want to see.
Death has also put life into perspective. Before the Evan episode I was stressed about so many world issues. I have not lost my concern for them but I’ve refocused on the wider universe beyond this relative toy-town of a world. We make our own reality.
5. How important it was to have good wellbeing in advance
Losing a child has not torn me apart because I’d already made a healthy habit of happy and honest living. I’d suggest that the longer you avoid living true to your dreams and feelings, then the harder you make life when adversity strikes. Start being true to yourself about anything that bothers you in life. It does not mean making sudden, rash decisions – for example to exit a relationship or job right away today. But air your feelings, think without self-censoring, and plan for a well aimed leap of faith. Maybe you dream of living in another country but you fear leaving your relatives behind, a fear that suffocates your dreams in pursuit of the ‘safe’ option. Maybe you stay in a relationship because you fear the world outside. Or maybe there is person you want to reveal your love for. Don’t be pushed around by fears, be led by your true desires. The day I left a relationship with immense difficulty but honesty, I’d got a text from my sister: ‘listen to the voice inside. She knows’ (except ‘knows’ was spelt ‘kno s’ in some strange text speak)
By cultivating the habit of listening to the ‘voice inside’, you will weather yourself for the storm of life crisis. No problem will be too heavy for the muscles of positivity, and the lens of good attitude that you built.
6. ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’
That quote from Hamlet rings truer all the time to me. We are all obsessed to some degree in saying whether we like or dislike, love or hate something or someone. I’m slowly realising the pointlessness in fixing or stating my like or dislike of anything. Everything just is. Everything serves a purpose. In an argument between two people, they usually both have a point, hidden behind tangled semantics and a bypass of compassion. Everyone has their own constructed reality, inflicted on each other to become one big muddle of misunderstanding and unnecessary offence – partly why I avoid almost all mainstream media as much as possible, for it thrives on drama and tension.
So I’m even doubting that what happened to me was ‘bad’. Why was it bad? A child lived a life, shorter than we expected, shorter then we wanted. Who said life gives us everything I expect or want? And who’s to say I didn’t get what I wanted: a child, who would live, and I would love? And then we might be thankful if our loved one does not suffer, but no-one can be fully protected from suffering, and suffering serves a form of purpose in this human experience. What would be the point of this mortal coil if we do not feel it all? When we decide to feel it all, it can make everything extraordinarily easier. Much of pain comes from resistance.
7. Female strength is the biggest kept secret in this world.
It’s possibly the greatest strength in the world.
In a world built for man, woman is a mysterious misfit, her intuition a thing of legend or obsolescence for its frequent incompatibility with pound for pound productivity. And nowhere is the misunderstanding of women’s power clearer than in the vast normalisation of medicalised childbirth. Woman, in the most powerful moment of her life, subdued by hands of hindrance and by her own self-sustaining belief that her body does not work without interception, when in fact it – most often – works supremely when left without distraction. In medicine, in agriculture, in science; man meddles with nature in pursuit of domination and commodification instead of seeking to understand and respect the exquisite inherent design.
How empowered I was giving birth to Evan with zero fear in my bedroom, pain absent and melancholy nowhere in sight, was nothing short of a miracle. Now I know the impossible is possible and it’s up to me to be inspired by that night for the rest of my life.
It makes me even more avid to enlighten others to know women’s real strength in childbearing. Rise up and sing your own long, strong, mould-breaking song; instead of chirruping along to the rhyme of fear you’ve been taught by teachers, media and small minds all your life. Sing your song alone if you need to, before long you might start a choir.
So there we have seven things, but my mind is a jar of kefir grains already making seventy seven more. Sometimes I think forlornly that Evan could have taught me all this even if he were alive. And then I remind myself, that’s the point: death doesn’t stop him. Alive or not, this child has changed my life.