As part of each issue of Flourish Magazine, we release weekly digital content alongside our free print magazine, on the Artlift and Yes to Life blogs. This is often content we couldn’t fit into the magazine’s limited pages, or film and music, but loved and wanted to show the world.
This issue of Flourish Magazine was on the theme of ‘Movement’, with submissions from those living with or beyond cancer received through an open call for creative responses to the theme.
First up in our digital content is a longer, 5-part poem by Ellie Grace – part 5 of which is featured in our print magazine – which explores moving through grief and how movement itself helped her do this.
Read the print magazine online for free here, and watch this space for more digital content!
Content Warning: Please note this piece contains references to grief, which some readers may find difficult. If you are grieving and need support, please see the resources in our print magazine.
By Ellie Grace
There was a time
when grief lay heavy at the bottom of me,
its stone a mineral weight / weighted stone at the pit of my being
My blood – your blood – carried endlessly the message of your passing
each of my veins, every vital organ, touched by the news.
Daily, in each infinite moment,
from now… to now… to now,
your obituary wrote itself into my body.
That dying blood, the perpetual messenger –
around and around, a circuit without exit
so that my limbs could not move,
my eyes; they fogged,
my brain was rewired.
In bodies we live
And in bodies we must die:
There is no greater truth than this.
When I think of your greyness
and the life that once pulsed inside
Your hands and face, always flush with exquisite strength –
This is not him.
The paper for skin is not him
the nostrils, now cold,
No longer warm with fatherly breath.
We gathered the facts, checking on each part of you,
now stiff and lifeless on the hospital bed
which lay in our family dining room, under the windows.
I looked and looked
at the curvature of your skull
in just the same way I had over the two years,
forensic in my research,
trying to know if the tumour still lived there.
Our doctor friend said she thought it had died too.
I wasn’t scared to touch you.
What I wanted
was to pull down the metal rails, lie awkwardly
and pillow against your shrunken body
the way I had when I knew you were going.
I drank whisky and clutched at my hands,
Beyond, the summer garden in full and glorious technicolour.
Some short time after
– maybe an hour –
looking from bed
and back again
My mind a slowscape of facts,
the mantra repeating over and over,
‘My dad is dead. He is dead now’
None of it real, of course, because how could that be true?
the bed itself shifted,
the mattress giving over some unmeasurable weight to the air.
We all heard it.
I asked my mum, “What is that?” and without hesitation:
“It’s his soul, leaving his body.”
It continued for some hours
keeling, like a boat moored to a jetty,
a release not unlike the final sputtering of a gas flame on the hob.
The African nurses who had sat vigil in the dead of these nights
prayer books on their laps,
had not warned us.
I suppose they had seen it over and over,
the way we hadn’t.
We had preparation, however, for the way we were allowed to go from here.
So we kept you, prostrate, in our dining room for two days
until the funeral directors wheeled you out for the pyre.
You lay dead downstairs while we slept the sleep of mourners up above you.
And of course, I must say this:
it was never you in that time.
Your soul: it took departure
while your body we gave to the fire.
* * *
At first, there was wine, and plenty of it.
I asked my parents’ friends to bring cases and leave them in the porch.
So we drank.
The corkscrew made its way around the kitchen
exercising its legs in endless mock celebration as it pulled corks
and the doorbell was forever ringing
with the arrival of sorry-faced well-wishers bringing
endless pots of stew and pie.
I don’t recall eating.
Time was just an idea,
really a stringing together of barren moments
our eyelids swollen
and our gazes fixture-less.
Although I do remember this one meal.
It may even have been the day you died:
July 16th 2011.
Were you still lying dead on the bed
as we laid the table next to you, the summer light
just forcing its way in
while our family friends
nestled in and raised glasses in your honour?
Can that really be what happened?!
Once your body was gone,
we had a task:
My mum pulled out hymn books
and her reams of funeral service sheets
from loved ones
The four of us,
some focus –
a thing at last to discuss that wasn’t about the cancer ravaging your brain:
No longer a question of will he, won’t he?,
But OK, this is what we do now:
– We book the church (the one of course your professional peers will most likely applaud but to
which we, as children, have never visited: this will be something of a state funeral)
– There are July’s flowers to be picked
– The guest list to be sent
– And the photos, of course, for the service sheet
(where your love of Cricket and Family find equal representation)
– The music, both formal and familial…
Somehow, amidst the papery formalities of death’s bureaucracy, we slept
But mostly drank and talked and sobbed.
they were low and deep:
we were animal in our loosing of it,
a primordial, ancient grief that brewed and rose
from the very depths of our souls.
Our bodies, joined by death’s own clutch
were limp and yet alive – so very, very alive –
in the raw, strangulating power of your departure.
When I think of it now
there were no days or nights
but just moments, the past
its pearls shimmering like hallucinogenic light bulbs
one pearl after another –
these memories from another country
Fear the constant interloper that to see them was to lose them.
And so these days spun, the Earth and sun and moon
taking soft, unnoticed guidance of time
while our interiors rolled with plunging velocity
Our lungs wishing for more air.
The brain, you see, it works hard to compute
what it cannot accept.
And so it was.
* * *
The following Spring
once Earth had turned a quarter round
and the house had fallen silent to the doorbell and pots of stew
After Winter had laid out its fierce silence –
our first Christmas passed without you at the table head,
Our Father Christmas gone.
Now bluebells pushing up from their underground
the four of us drove our way out
to where you had been married
some 38 years before
under different skies and with no
knowledge of your fate.
Church spires piercing that low, dull sky
above the broads
There, under the nest of saplings
– the promise of the earth returning -–
we returned you to her dampness
scattering that urn of dust holding you and your mighty body,
just ashes as fine as human skin.
I think we joked – as is our way –
that we might have someone else’s urn.
We even smoked cigarettes and mingled ashes to ashes (which you would have liked)
and we laughed from the belly when some or all of us inhaled you by mistake.
I remember clearly rubbing you into the thick of my glove
Your grey remains merging pale onto my sheepskin fingertip
you will be in me forever.
Afterwards we smoked more cigarettes by the car,
unpeeled the silver skin of some Christmas chocolates
and drove to a nearby pub
for the laughter-tears of nobody knows what.
* * *
The dreams we once had
belong to another place now.
For this is a new time, a new country entirely.
Visceral and entire –
How can I ever find the words for what happened to us?
Just after, 7 months after,
I had my heart broken again,
this time by the person I entrusted my life to –
the one I was hoping to marry.
This other nameless beast
he took up residency deep beneath my skin.
only howls which woke me, wet-faced
in the middle of the night
My body drowning,
my mind not mine,
I found the void.
This loss we speak of
it is never outside of ourselves,
And so I died too.
And so I died to anything that knew my past or my ideas for the future:
a laughable concept, even now
that we may dare to dream of alright things.
Because there is no terra firma;
But I must go back in order to understand.
What happened was an unfurling
There was only the bigger picture;
there still is just the bigger picture
punctuated by moments of acute, present detail.
the act of sitting and observing the processes of the mind –
It found me.
Right at the bottom of that pitch-black hell
and in moment-to-moment awareness
(truly threading beads onto a threadbare string)
it stepped in oh, so gently, to deliver space and silence,
first of the mind
and finally, the heart.
But that is too quick for me to say
which forgets the blind pain
of felt experience.
To go back we must go back
to the silent Wednesday night classes
in a church hall
in south London.
To dark, rain-soaked nights
my body thin with worry
cycling hard against the traffic from my restaurant to this site
where strangers huddled in blankets over steaming teas
and lay on herringbone floorboards
to unfurl their stresses and loads.
I couldn’t admit why I was there:
I could not.
The shame of being twice smashed in the heart
had not yet found its way to my mouth.
And so I would follow the norm;
announce my work stress instead
Hoping no-one would ever know that I had lost in a way that
I just could not articulate.
Hoping, also, that this magic relief would appear and wipe away from deep within
what my doctor had suggested it might.
Weeks followed weeks and still, my bicycle would take me home
woollen layers buffeting my frame
to bed where
I would either roll madly awake
or sleep a sleep
from which I wanted never to return.
* * *
Dad / brain /
tumour eating reason and prefrontal cortex /
life slipped away / soul lifted and left /
my own brain diminished / traumatised it shrunk.
My circular thoughts,
heart-stirred and stomach-wrenched
held me in the narrow pit.
Once the rhythm of meditation occurred, though,
minute to minute guided by breath
a slim space opened at the forefront of my mind.
Up there, soothed by the tutorials of
in-breath / out-breath / in-breath / out-breath
I slipped in to find, on one occasion,
a lake as smooth as glass.
I do not recall how or when
a mat was rolled out.
It lit a candle and held sacred space,
Saying what no other landscape of the mind could say:
“You are safe.”
Opening my hips and heart
so that tears rolled
hot and wet
gulping from my gut and eyes at once,
The mat beneath soaking them in like dry earth.
Running through muscle and nerve,
Loosened from hip joint
The body took its time
to soften its grip
on grief’s great tenancy.
At the ashram they named me Kamala Devi,
Blue lotus flower,
A rare and exquisite beauty:
A bud that makes its way toward the light.
From the mud it grew
And so I followed the light in the way only mud weeds know how:
Through the cracks, just like Leonard Cohen knew.
My muscles they opened to it,
Merging this way and that
of how to stretch and merge out to where the sun might warm my face.
It took time.
And in between,
the chaos still
of not knowing, yearning and seeking.
Until some moments started to take shape that connected bodily pain with mental ease.
Moving meditation: it gave me space.
This is all in language now, however,
in a way that it couldn’t have been at the time,
for stories have a way of smoothing out the past.
Then, there were no words.
No words but breath and salt.
This yoga, it had a poetry all its own.
But, but, but!
I moved its bulk through me
that knotted hell we call grief
but which finds no real human name.
I moved and cried and sweated it in porous fashion
unsewing its vicious stitches
back out into the air.
These days I carry it privately
like a briefcase in one hand
knowing my hips still harness the final residue of something
that longs to stay within.
These last particles
have become me
which is to say it is a tenant on the inside,
Always a shifting space devoted to its history.
For no clean line will mark my healing
and scars are always changing
and time and hearts play tricks of the mind.
I see too
that your brain failed you
but your love, it persists
And my tools are mine and my body is my depth
for which I am always
always in awe
no longer scared
I will make a baby from it.
This is my Hatha Yoga.
~ May 2016