Thursday, March 06, 2014

On losing someone from a distance

In loving memory of Nan Speirs: April 10th, 1920 - March 2nd, 2014


I spent the weekend frantically completing MA applications.  On Friday, I sat in front of my laptop for 14 hours and on Saturday, I ran around collecting letters of reference and desperately trying to find anywhere open on a weekend to print my forms, finally resorting to my boyfriend's kind offer to take me to his office and use a printer there.  I hand delivered one application on the day it was due and submitted the other online just one day in advance of the deadline.  I went to an incredibly powerful and upsetting show on Saturday night.  I had to be at work in Zone 4 of northwest London for an 8 a.m. start on Sunday.

That night, I crawled into bed at with my laptop at 7pm.  I was exhausted.  Monday was going to be a big day: I was hopping on the Eurostar to Paris for the night to see a cast & crew screening of a film that I am in.  I was terrified and exhilarated.  I just wanted to watch Battlestar Gallactica until I drifted off into the sweet embrace of slumber.

At 8:30pm, as I fought with my eyelids to finish one more episode, I missed a call from my mom.  My phone was on silent, and I picked it up too late.  I knew instantly why she was calling.  I rang her back, just as she called me again.  Crossed lines, straight to voicemail, finally I picked her up on call-waiting.  I was right.  She was calling to tell me my grandmother had died.

She said sorry for waking me, that she didn't think I'd be asleep and she didn't want to tell me over email.  I said it was okay, I was unusually exhausted, and that I thought that was why she was calling. We agreed to speak again soon.

I hung up and said to my boyfriend, "My gran died".  He responded with sympathy, asked me if I was okay.  I felt no sadness and turned to finish the episode that had been interrupted by the news.

I woke up Monday morning and immediately reminded myself that my grandmother was dead.  I felt bleary and drained, despite about 10 hours of sleep.  I did not feel sad.

I went and did my normal cleaning shift at the yoga studio where I work in exchange for classes.  As I rerolled mats and refolded blankets, my mind wandered.  How do I begin to miss someone I do not see everyday; someone I have not even been able to speak to on the phone since I last saw her because she didn't have the energy or capacity to remember who I was; someone who I've only seen in person once a year, at most, for the past five?

I picked up the two trolleys of towels from the laundrette and rolled them back to the studio before walking home.  I showered, packed my bag, and headed for the train station.

I arrived in Paris at 5pm, which I had forgotten is the worst possible time to find food in France.  Every restaurant in existence seems to shut at 3 and re-open at 7.  I found a natural food store, bought a spelt and tofu salad, a plunked myself on the ground outside the Centre Pompidou to eat.

I was nervous about seeing the cast and crew again.  My French was rusty.  I rehearsed little things to say about what I've been up to in the last year: "I've done the odd day of filming," and "I've started doing improv again," and "I've written a short film that we're shooting in April."

I finished up, binned my rubbish and hoisted my laptop and overnight bags back over their respective shoulders.  I made my way to the venue way too early, and after being sure I knew where it was, wandered in search of a cafe.  Within several paces of the cinema, I caught the face of the director's wife through the window and saw that there were several members of the cast, crew and their families inside.

I joined them, hugged everyone, used up my three prepared phrases, and then slipped into crippling social anxiety mode.  I knew some of these people well, but the presence of strangers that everyone else seemed to know and people that I recognised but whose names I had never learned on top of my brain trying desperately to keep up with my ears left me paralysed.

I sat mute at the table between a set dresser who I sort of knew and a three-year old child, feeling I had a better chance of communicating on a relatable level with the kid.

When my female friend and castmate arrived at the last minute, I rushed to greet her and glue myself to her effervescent side.  We embraced -- she hugged everyone in turn -- and she asked me how I was.  She said I seemed tired or upset.  I said it was just the language, and we joined the others who were now making their way to the cinema.

The film was beautiful.  As my first scene opened on the screen, my heart was making a mean effort to knock down the walls of my ribcage and make its escape, but I relaxed and stopped watching for my mistakes.  I'm so proud to be a part of it.

We all went to a bar afterwards to celebrate.  My friend once again remarked that I seemed upset and asked what I thought of the film.  I said, no, that I was just tired, that the film was incredible, as was she.

I wanted to say, "My grandmother died."  I couldn't remember how to say she had died versus that she was dead, or if there was even a difference.  That -- along with the sudden and acute knowledge that uttering those words out loud at that moment would undoubtedly trigger a tempest of uncontrollable weeping -- kept me smiling unconvincingly and nibbling on chips.

I persuaded myself that it was just the language that was putting my brain in a twist and the exhaustion of a full week that was slowing me down physically.  I socialised for a while longer, said my goodbyes, and took the Métro south to friend's flat, where we stayed up until 2 hashing out details of our film shoot scheduled for the beginning of April.

Tuesday morning, we were up at 8:30 and off to a cafe to finalise scheduling and book train tickets over strong espresso and pastries.  I headed back to London in the afternoon and straight to my evening improv class.

Almost first thing, the teacher told us how weird the other classes had been that week.  We were all in our final session before our show on Sunday, but he couldn't chalk it entirely up to nerves.  There was something in the air, he said.  Sure enough, our Harolds were good, but full of unusual mistakes we had never made before.

During notes after our first attempt, something -- I really don't remember what -- set me off, and I was struck by a hysterical fit of laughter.  I could not stop.  I could only grow louder, redder and less able to breathe.  My teacher asked if I was okay.  I apologised through my intensifying cackle.  He said it was okay, that everyone gets the giggles sometimes.  When tears started streaming down my face, I realised that if I didn't calm myself, I would momentarily be wailing wildly with grief.  I breathed deeply.  I finished class. I went out with everyone afterwards and had a nice time.  That small outburst had stirred something in me.  I felt lighter and more present.

On Wednesday morning, I went to my weekly therapy session.  I spent the better part of the session speed-explaining my week.  I said the words, "My grandmother died," out loud.  I cried.  I'm crying now.

In the same 48-hour period as seeing myself on the big screen for the first time, I lost the woman who so enthusiastically supported my aspirations and desperately wished for my success.

My gran and I shared many of the same interests.  She was a great lover of theatre and television and did some amateur acting of her own in her youth.  She loved the French language.  She had a wicked sense of humour, which she retained until she wasn't doing much but sleeping all day.  When I last saw her in November, she didn't recognise me for about five minutes, but when she did, she immediately laughed at herself for not knowing who I was.  She was a master of sardonic tones and pulled faces.

If she had not been born in Glasgow in the interim of two world wars; if she had not had to leave school like all girls and most boys of her social class to become a working member of the family; if she had not been expected to marry and bear children as her sole occupation; if she had been of a different time, my gran might have lived a life not so unlike mine.  She was an extraordinary woman.

This is how I begin to miss her.

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