Stitch by Stitch: When a death in the family leaves a gaping hole

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Warm turquoise sea, coconut trees lush and tall, bats the size of owls, narrow village streets with sari-clad women, food vendors and stray dogs, a mishmash of Hindu temples and stone churches, long evenings talking and eating, gâteaux piment, curries, freshly baked bread with French cheese, visitors popping in all day, the standard question: ‘T’es la fille de qui?’ so that you can be placed on the vast, many-limbed tree of relations and connections… Mauritius is all these things to me.

Today, I sit in a quiet spot overlooking a beach on the eastern side of Mauritius. Small waves wash gently onto the shore, the turtle doves trill a languid afternoon tune and my cousins and aunt lounge about, some reading, some on their phones, others working on laptops. For me today, Mauritius my father’s homeland means family.

And when I was a girl and came with my dad on regular visits to his childhood home, I revelled in the readymade brothers and sisters I had in my cousins. I loved their easy banter, the funny stories, the sharing of our experiences. Back then, I didn’t realise how fleeting these moments are, how we need to live them as wholeheartedly as we can and then store them, tuck them away safely in our memory banks.

When, as a ten-year-old, I came over with my father on holiday, I didn’t know the bandaged lump under his arm would spread, that it would measure out the life he had left in months instead of years.

When I played on the sand as the grownups clinked glasses, I didn’t know my dad’s family and friends searched for words to fill the awkward silence that comes when death stands close. I didn’t know that forty years later, an older aunt would confide she feared my dad felt isolated on that visit. That she would shake her head ruefully and say, “But we were young. We didn’t know how to talk about those things then.”

When I visited the island after the death of my first marriage, shell-shocked and suffering from nightmares, I didn’t know I would return ten years later with a kind, gentle, funny man whose hugs calm my waters. When I swam in the Mauritian sea as a young girl, I didn’t know we would one day have a son whose eyes are the same blue turquoise as the island water.

When I played volleyball with my cousins on the lawn below my uncle and aunt’s beach bungalow, when I missed shot after shot because I was giggling too much and didn’t care enough about scoring points, I didn’t know I’d be back on the same grass, holding a glass of white wine, chatting with the same cousins about life, the world and Brexit.

When I went with my aunt Solange and uncle Jimmy to church one Sunday morning at Rivière Noire on the southwest coast of Mauritius, I didn’t know that decades later, I would sit in the same wooden pew as the priest led us in celebration of my uncle’s life and helped us mourn his death. When I sat on a bench in uncle Jimmy’s garden, our arms touching as he showed me an old family photo album, I didn’t know that one day I’d be back for his funeral.

When uncle Jimmy showed me around their new apartment, pointing out the view of the sea stretched out below the balcony, I didn’t know that the next time I’d see the flat would be to visit aunt Solange, his wife of 58 years, as she began to create new solitary routines between bedroom and balcony, kitchen and laundry.

Now I know a bit more about what it is to tread the familiar pathways of this world in the absence of a loved one. I know that the warmth and familiarity of family can pull closer the ragged edges of the large hole that is left after a death. And I know that each reminiscence, each funny moment retold, each souvenir, sews up the tear in the fabric.

And this is how, stitch by patient stitch, we mend the precious patchwork blanket of family.

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