96 days

When someone you love dies – especially when your mother dies – you lose yourself. And time stops. And if you’re an immigrant, when you’re the child – who for whatever reason left their family, their homeland, their siblings & friends – the moment of your mother’s death stops at the last moment you saw her, when you she hugged you until your arms went numb, the last time she covered you with her favourite blanket, the last sandwich she made for you, the last time she kissed your cheek after telling you how much she loved you.

When someone you love dies – especially when it’s your mom – you are faced with “firsts”. The first time she has a birthday: my mom passed away three weeks before her 82nd birthday, and the birthday card I bought for her remains on the desk in my home office…if I bin it, it will be admitting something I am still struggling to deal with. Somehow, I managed to get thorough the first birthday of my Mom following her death. I made it through Mother’s Day, too.

A summer baby, I was facing a particularly painful “first”: my first birthday without my mother. And as I live abroad, it means Mommy sent my card and present through the mail. Aware that this birthday would be hard for me, all my birthday cards and presents from my family and friends arrived early this year except for the card from my brother, which arrived on the day. And with each clang of the mail slot, my heart leapt, thinking, “That’ll be from Mommy” before my brain caught up. So in the run-up to my birthday, I was wired – which understandably had my BF and many of my friends worried.

But something amazing happened that day. The morning of my birthday I woke up and I felt light – like a happy balloon floating across the sky. That morning, I awakened to sunshine. All the rooms in my wee flat were awash in sunshine. And I thought, “Mommy.” I knew that was Mommy, giving me a sunny day for my birthday. So I hurriedly showered and dressed and went out into my garden.

And I could feel her. My sisters had told me they’d felt Mommy’s presence since her passing, but I had not; I only saw her in my dreams, so I had been fervently praying to God to let me feel her, too. On my birthday, standing in my garden, I felt her all around me – in the sun on my face, the wind on my bare arms and legs, the flowers gave off my mother’s scent. I felt her inside of me, in my chest and my stomach and my heart, and for the first time since her death, I felt calm. Peaceful. Even happy.

This year my birthday was on a Friday – Saturday and Sunday were hot and sunny days as well. My Mom – perhaps working through or with God – seeing that her child was unhappy, gave me the gift of a beautiful weekend for my birthday. Sunshine as warm as her arms around me.

And it was a good birthday. I sang and danced and pigged out on the special meal my BF had made for me. I remembered my mother without tears, reminded that as her firstborn, the day she had me was one of the proudest moments of her life. I realised that Mommy’s love will never leave me – it and she will always be with me.

That feeling has remained with me, even as I ache for my brother and sisters, who are facing a “first” without me: the first family 4th of July barbecue and attendant celebrations without Mommy present. The 4th is the biggest of the summer celebrations in the US. I can feel their pain, because – even though I live in Scotland – I still celebrate the 4th with my partner.

But not this year. This year, I will get no letter from Mommy with the usual photos of the barbecue – my sister will not share photos of Mommy enjoying the barbecue surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren on Facebook.

Still, Mommy is with me. So although I’m not celebrating the 4th, I am remembering and celebrating the love she dispensed to her children and everyone who was fortunate enough to know her.

 

the wages of grief

I’m wide awake. It’s 5:30am, and sunlight is streaming through my heavy bedroom curtains. The light turns the edges of everything in my bedroom into soft wavy lines; I get up and make my bed, moving zombie-like through dancing shafts of early morning sunlight like liquid butter.

My mother is dead.

There, I said it. Well, wrote it. And seeing the words so starkly written like that has given me a severe stomach cramp.

My mother has been dead for 47 days.

Not that I’m counting. It’s like I’m helpless to not count – my brain makes an automatic tally each day I awaken. Like the way I can tell people when they ask exactly how long I’ve lived in Dundee…my memory has always been good with dates like that.

Right now, I’m being tyrannized by memory and experience. I made spaghetti for tea this past Monday. I love spaghetti. That question if you were on a desert island and could only take one book, one friend and eat one thing? I’d eat spaghetti – my spaghetti, it’s one of the few things I make amazingly well.

So I’m making the spaghetti: chopping the green peppers, the onions, the courgettes, the mushrooms. Preparing the sauce. And suddenly I’m in my Mom’s kitchen, a few days after her 80th birthday. She’s making me fried chicken and teasing me: “You’ll be cooking for me tomorrow night – I want some spaghetti.” And suddenly I was crying, my tears falling into the spaghetti sauce. Hey, tears are salty – added flavour, right?

I ate it. “Don’t you waste that food,” I hear Mommy saying. “Plenty of people don’t have enough to eat, so don’t waste food.” I ate my spaghetti – it tasted like dirt. An hour later I threw it back up. Wasteful.

Yesterday morning I was walking to work. As I passed the High School of Dundee, a white van with a plumber’s logo parked alongside the curb. A beautiful girl in a hijab climbed out one side, and a woman who was obviously her mother climbed out the other side. The mother adjusted her daughter’s uniform, smoothed her daughter’s hijab, planted a kiss on her child’s cheek, then drove away. The daughter stood there until the van was out of sight, then she pulled the hijab off her head, stuffing it into her backpack and shaking her long hair out before disappearing through the doors of the school.

And I remembered my mother: “You’re 14 – you are not wearing make-up. You can wear make-up when you’re 16, not before. And don’t even think about wearing that halter top to school!” And I grumbled and muttered under my breath as I kissed her goodbye. Arriving at school, I headed straight to the bathroom, where I removed the halter top and the make-up from my book bag and put them on, along with other girls lined up in front of the sink who were doing the same thing. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

My grief is a live thing; anaconda-like, it constantly strangles me. It affects me in myriad physical ways. I’ll remove an item from my purse, a dresser drawer, a kitchen cabinet, only to stand there for 10 minutes holding the item in my hand: why did I remove it – what did I want this for? In conversation with someone, I’ll suddenly stop speaking, having totally forgotten what it was I was saying. My sleep patterns are all askew: sometimes I’ll sleep through the night (usually with the aid of the sleeping pills my GP has given me), sometimes I’ll sleep 1-2 hours only to awaken, bolt upright in bed, unable to get back to sleep. Box sets come in handy at those times.

People don’t want to talk to you when you’re grieving. They avoid you, as if grief is a communicable disease. My friend Roz (now sadly deceased) once described me in a letter of recommendation she wrote on my behalf as “brutally honest”. This could be a factor in why some people avoid me now, as when they ask the question, “How are you doing?” I tell them the truth: “I am all fucked-up…I can’t get my head around this and I have no clue what I’m doing…I barely know what day it is.”

My partner of eight years recently told me that grief affects other people. And I realize he’s right. But how am I supposed to stop grieving? And why should I stop – her loss is still so new – she was my mother, surely I have a right to grieve?

Grief is not contagious. Sometimes, for people who are grieving, talking helps them. When you can’t talk about the person, when you can’t feel that person’s loss, then you are prevented from moving through the pain. And if you can’t move through it, you can’t begin to heal.

In an odd way, I thought I would find comfort in Dundee. I thought, when I returned to Dundee following Mommy’s funeral, that I would feel a little better. America has become a foreign landscape to me, especially now that 45 is in power (blog for another day). I was sure that when I returned to Scotland – the hills, the River Tay, the quality of the light in the early morning, my wee flat and my garden – would all act as a balm on my shattered soul.

Instead, the memory box opened. I walk past the McManus Galleries, and remember taking Mom on a tour when she visited. I take a shortcut through the Overgate on a rainy day, and remember the day we went on a shopping spree. I see a box of Weetabix on a shelf in Tesco’s, and remember Mom eating that for her breakfast: “This tastes just like Shredded Wheat!” she marvelled.

“Give time, time,” people tell me. “Time heals all wounds,” they say. Clichés that may be true. Right now, time is torturing me.

One of my friends – I can’t remember who – sent me a sympathy card not long after Mommy died. In the card was a slip of paper, with typed words which read:

“The angels are always near to those that are grieving, to whisper to them that their loved ones are safe in the hand of God.”

I like that. I want to believe that. Sadly, I find I am unable to believe in anything right now…not even myself.

copyright (c) 2017 KPM

a little walk

There’s a lot in the news just now about the events of January 20th, when a man many people in the US and worldwide regard as racist, xenophobic, misogynistic and even mentally unstable was sworn in as the President of the most powerful nation on earth. So I tried to write a poem about my feelings regarding what I personally view as not just a heart-breaking but frightening turn of events – but nothing would come. So I thought, “Fuck it…my voice can do no good. There’s enough anti-Trump articles out there, what difference will one more make….who will care about what one immigrant has to say?”

But I kept remembering.

I am an immigrant. A legal immigrant from the USA – which I say not to disparage illegal immigrants, cause I don’t know their stories or what caused them to flee their countries and therefore I have no right to judge – to the UK, who immigrated for love. And though the man I originally moved to the UK for dumped me, it turned out to be a good thing, because meeting him led me to my adopted country – Scotland – and it led me to my current partner of eight years, who is the best man I’ve ever known (father and grandfather excepted).

So on January 20th, the day Trump was inaugurated, I found myself walking down to Dundee’s City Centre, where I protested in a demonstration against the new US President.

I am not a person who protests as a rule, in spite of being voted Most Radical Senior in my high school newspaper my senior year (much to the dismay of my parents). I can recall protesting three times in my life: the year Lt Calley was being court-martialled for the deaths at My Lai: it was Easter 1969, I was 11 years old, and my ‘protest’ consisted of writing “Free Lt Calley” in that invisible crayon pen that showed the letters on the egg once the egg had been dipped in dye. My father – who had served during the Korean conflict – was livid.

My second protest was in 1975. I was in junior high school – the UK equivalent of middle school. Rat turds had been found in the school cafeteria, so I encouraged the students who ate there every day to protest by bringing bag lunches. By my recollection, perhaps 20 students joined me.

The last time I protested was in 1988, when I called in sick to work on Nelson Mandela’s birthday to attend a protest march against his continued imprisonment.

I tell you this to show that I am a person who cares. That said, in the almost 30 years since my last protest, life – as it does – intruded. I had friends who died: some by natural causes, some my misadventure, some who were sadly murdered. And I had my own personal problems to contend with.

But on 20th January 2017, I remembered.

I remembered watching on telly as the election results rolled in the night of President Obama’s first election back in 2008. That night – having wisely taken the next day as annual leave – I had four friends watching the election with me: Tutu, a female student at Dundee Uni from Namibia, Ayo, a male student from Abertay, Myriam, my Muslim friend from Pakistan (the first Pakistani I’ve ever known), and Grace, a woman my age on benefits from Lochee, who admitted that until meeting me at a bus stop, she’d never had any interest in people of other cultures.

We were up until 5am watching as the election results rolled in. I remember the hope and the joy and the gaiety of that night: Myriam’s insistence that the smokers and the drinkers need not go into my kitchen to have a fag or a drink even though I’d told them to do that out of respect for her as it was my house and she was a guest and I smoke and drink myself, Myriam was insistent that we not leave the room on her account. Ayo’s somewhat drunken delight at finding himself the only male in “this roomful of beautiful women!” The way all my friends hugged me when Hilary made her concession speech. Halfway through the night, Grace hugged everyone and proclaimed us “the Rainbow Tribe.”

Fast forward to 20th January 2017. And I’m walking to Dundee’s City Centre on a mild January evening to protest against the Trump presidency.

Were thousands in attendance? No. Perhaps 200-300 were people gathered. But they were all people who – like me – viewed this new President with alarm and distrust.

What right thinking person mocks the disabled? Who publicly disrespects women, stating “you can grab them by the p**** and they’ll let you when you’re a celebrity” – this from a man with a mother, and daughters. One can only wonder how he would react if someone were to sexually harass or assault his mother, his sister, his wife, his daughter. This is a man who boasts of his Scottish heritage when it suits him to do so for the purpose of advancing his hated golf-course in Aberdeen whilst bullying those people who have refused to sell their homes to him. A man who denigrates immigrants while promising to “Make America Great” again, apparently indifferent to the fact that America has always been known as the “great melting pot” – it is a country founded and built by immigrants, a country that was greatlong beforehis ascendance to the office of President and whose greatness lay in her diversity.

So I proudly protested on inauguration day. Before leaving to attend the protest, I turned my TV to the Comedy Channel and left it there in solidarity with the many people who protested by refusing to watch televised proceedings of the farce in Washington. When the organizers of the Dundee protest – upon hearing what was obviously not a Dundonian accent – thrust the mike in my face and asked me to say a few words about how I felt, I was more than happy to oblige.

“But why do you care?”some of my friends back in the US have asked me. “You don’t even live here anymore!”

To them I reply that I was born and raised in the US. And though I have made my home in Scotland for the past 14 years, it doesn’t mean I love the land of my birth any the less. Like many immigrants who have moved for whatever reason, I am constantly torn between my homeland and the country where I now happily make my home. My family is in the US. My dearest friends are in the US. Also, I’m an honourably discharged veteran of the US Army, who sadly learned whilst in the Army the reality of being black in America.

Where I live now, I don’t have to worry about WWB or DWB. I can wander around any shop I choose without having a security guard follow me around because I’m black because “black people steal”. When I am hired for a job, there are no whispered, spiteful remarks about Equal Opportunities and quotas. I can go anywhere with my white partner without fear or apprehension.

My fear is that all the things I currently enjoy will dissipate under a Trump administration. The rights of gays will be eroded. The right for a woman to choose what to do with her body will disappear. All the gains of the civil rights movement will be undone under the administration of a man who worships nothing but himself and mammon.

So for the next four years, I will protest whenever possible. Hopefully it won’t take four years.

I had a friend ask me the day before I posted a link on Facebook about the Dundee protest and my intention to attend it what good marches would do….what would a walk in Glasgow or Dundee accomplish? Too distraught at the time, thinking of what the new administration would mean to my family and friends back in the States, I was unable to respond to him clearly. But now, I would say to this friend:

Remember Gandhi and his followers – they marched.
Remember MLK and his followers – they marched.
Remember Mandela and his followers – they marched.
Remember the kid in Tiananmen Square and his followers – they marched.

But I won’t just protest. As a believer, I will pray for the land of my birth. And I will pray for those friends I have who are Trump supporters, that they are not too badly hurt when Trump lets them down.

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a little kindness

Wednesday. No spectacular sunrise this morning: my beloved Dundee sky is cloudy, interspersed with patches of murky blue-grey. For a change, I did not awaken early – I had a good night’s sleep, untroubled by anxiety and nightmare dreams of sleeping on the street. This is probably down to something nice which happened to me yesterday, which I’ll get to in a bit.

I’ve entered my seventh week of being unemployed and on benefits. Thankfully, I was awarded the full council tax and housing benefit, so maybe those dreams of living on the street will stop now. I’ve spoken with all my creditors, who – surprisingly – have been very kind and have agreed to put my various accounts on hold for the next month.

I’ve submitted 41 job applications since I was made redundant, and – I admit it – cried over the 17 “you’ve been unsuccessful on this occasion” letters/emails I’ve received. I’ve been on six job interviews since November 1st, and I’m certain I’ll be attending more, as the closing dates for some of the applications I’ve submitted have not yet arrived. So although some days are harder than others, I keep filling out those applications, praying, and trying my hardest to remain positive.

My sixth interview was yesterday. It was a panel interview with a company I’m familiar with and would love to work for. It’s not a permanent post, just an 18-month contract, but I’m cool with that. The day before the interview I did my hair and nails, and got my eyebrows done, raiding my holiday jar for the £7.99 – the holiday jar is something my boyfriend and I put all our spare change into so we’ll have extra money for our summer hols – and thank God for that jar, because it’s also been providing me with bus fare so I can go on interviews. I ironed the outfit I planned to wear, assembled all the documents – passport, uni diploma, etc. – I’d been asked to bring with me, and read up on the company so I could impress them with my knowledge. I was prepared.

The interview went well. I could tell they were impressed because they told me they were: “Wow,” they said, “Your store of knowledge and your skill set is impressive!” It was a good interview, and after telling me they had more candidates to see and hoped to let everyone know the outcome by Friday, they shook my hand, wished me Merry Christmas, and I departed.

I had planned to walk home, as the company was only a 25-minute walk from my flat, and I needed the exercise. I used to walk to and from work every day, as my previous job was not that far from my home, and I missed that daily walk. But as I was walking, it started to rain, and of course while I was making sure I’d packed everything I needed for the interview, I’d neglected to pack my brolly. A quick check of my wallet showed I had the money, so I decided to treat myself to a ride home.

Chatting with the taxi driver on the way home, when he learned I was coming from a job interview following a redundancy back in October, he shared with me that his wife had been made redundant from Angus Council just last week. He was really reassuring…“You & my missus are both smart & beautiful,” he said firmly. “You’ll both get something soon.” When we got to my flat, I opened my wallet to pay him, and he patted my hand and said, “On you go, doll. Best of luck to you.”

I was gobsmacked. But I don’t know why….I’ve learned in my 14 years here, that’s just the way the Scots are.

I never planned to be in this place: unemployed at Christmas time, on benefits, uncertain over the future. I don’t think anyone ever plans to be in such a place. Which is what makes kindness so important. That taxi driver might have seen a “smart and beautiful” woman – he might even have seen a confident woman. But on the inside was a woman who was deeply depressed – even close to suicidal, and he will probably never know how that small act of kindness renewed and restored me.

The internet meme is true. We should all be kinder than we need to be, cause you never know what someone is going through.

a-little-kindness

just another girl on benefits street

I’ve got a job interview in a couple of hours. This will be my fourth interview since being made redundant last October.

I’m as prepared as I can be. I’ve done some research on the company. I got a good night’s sleep last night. I had a good breakfast this morning. I’m nicely dressed, my hair and my nails are freshly done.

Job interviews make me nervous, though, happily, the nervousness does not show and it doesn’t affect my performance whilst being interviewed: I don’t get all red-faced and sweaty and inarticulate. No, it affects me in unseen ways….my heart pounds in my chest and my stomach cramps and churns.

As this is the fourth time I’ve been made redundant since 2010, one would think I’d be an old pro at this by now. But one never gets used to this: the wait for the invite to interview, the wait for the results, the hope that you’ll get the job you really want, and then having that hope become a desperate prayer for any job at all.

Various factors come into play when you’re job hunting. Will the potential employer think I’m too old? Because, sadly, ageism exists. Will I they trot out that tired old “you’re over-qualified for this post” line again? This is something I’ve heard a lot, and it infuriates me. Why should I be made to feel bad for having gone to college, for having worked hard in a variety of sectors? All the work I’ve done, all my employment experiences only adds to the store of knowledge I can bring to a company.

I hate being unemployed….it wreaks havoc with my self-esteem and my mental and emotional well-being. I hate hearing the slam of the front door as the other tenants in my building leave for work. I’ve always been proud of being self-sufficient, and now I am forced to ask for help from uncaring government agencies: help with council tax, housing benefit, and Job Seeker’s Allowance. I have never in my entire life been on benefits on either side of the pond, and I have found the whole process draining and depressing. Mind you, I am grateful to have been awarded the help I’m currently receiving. But I would much rather work.

Being jobless at Christmas time is the worst. Big SALE signs in shops and TV adverts which remind me that I have limited funds and most likely won’t be buying any presents for anyone apart from my Mom and my BF this year. Everyone who knows me that Christmas is my favourite time of the year; as an American, my tree always goes up the day after Thanksgiving, which I still celebrate even though I live in the UK as my BF likes the whole ritual of Thanksgiving. But in my current jobless state, the thought of the looming holiday season makes me want to crawl into bed, pull the duvet over my head and not move.

The days all run together when you’re unemployed. My whole comforting routine of get up-eat breakfast-shower & dress-go to work-work-come home-have my tea-make lunch for work tomorrow-iron clothes for work tomorrow-watch a bit of telly and then go to bed was destroyed in a 30-minute meeting.

My sleep pattern has been destroyed as well. I sleep more when I am depressed, and although my GP has increased the dosage of my anti-depressants, they help little. Thus my new routine is:

• get up at 6:30 like I still have a job to go to
• check email for invites to interview and/or “you’ve been unsuccessful” messages
• fill out job applications online until 10 or 11 (unless there aren’t enough suitable ones that day)
• shower & dress
• force myself to eat something (I skip this step 2-3 times a week)
• clean the flat (which seldom needs it)
• lie on sofa with Eeyore & the duckie blanket to watch TV only to fall asleep for 1-2 hours

This routine changes on those days when I’m fortunate enough to have an interview or on Tuesdays, when I am required to attend at the Job Centre to prove I’ve been looking for work. My “work coach” is a nice woman – she thinks I’m “great.” She’s used my CV (details removed) as a model for the other clients at the Centre, and raves about the spreadsheet I created as a tool to keep track of all the posts I’ve applied for: a detailed seven-columned, colour-coded wonder that lists the name of the company, the post applied for, date applied, and all the requisite contact and follow up details. She’s shown my creation to all the other work coaches at the Job Centre, and they all marvel at my “inventiveness” and Jenny’s luck in having a client like me.

But I don’t want to be a “client”. I’d rather be an employee.

I’ve got two friends on benefits – neither of them have worked in years. They don’t understand my grief and depression over losing my job and what I see as my failure to get another job quickly. They keep telling me to “relax”. “There are benefits to being on benefits,” they laughingly told me. Because they’re my friends, I laughed along with them, realising they were only trying to cheer me up. But truthfully, I found their attitude distasteful – the entire benefits culture that exists in the UK is appalling to me.

Luckily, it’s not an attitude I have to share, and I don’t. So as I get ready to leave for this interview, I say a silent prayer that I will soon be blessed with a new full-time post. It’s the only Christmas present I really want.

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