It was my birthday recently and it’s always hard. Hard in the traditional sense that it marks another year where goals have remained unachieved but for me it’s particularly hard because seven years ago I watched my mum die on the morning of my 28th birthday.
It was 7.31am. The skies were insanely blue. I had walked back to her hospital room and taken a look out of the window. There was a beautiful jacaranda tree, its pale purple blooms standing in contrast to the spectacular cobalt sky.
I thought about how it was such a beautiful day. I took a look over at my mum and she had taken her last breath and just like that, she was gone. To this day, the sight of jacarandas flooding Sydney streets every November takes me back to the most painful and beautiful moment of my life and I find myself suddenly weeping.
Once a woman caught me crying on public transport. She was sweet. She gave me her handkerchief and told me she understood the pain of loss after the passing of her husband. She told me, “The pain never really goes away - you just learn to live with it better.” She was right. The anniversaries themselves you can prepare for. I’m a florist and so I always have to work on Mother’s Day and on my birthday which falls during wedding season. Sometimes keeping busy on those days actually helps you get through them better. It’s actually the small things that catch you off guard.
I was in the butcher once and I wanted to make a simple stir fry dish my mum would cook with rice but I couldn’t remember the cut of meat she used. I found myself crying in the butchers trying to work it out. The answer is scotch fillet. I can’t even remember if that was what I got.
When mango season rolls around I think of her. She would always give me the seed to gnaw on when she cut the mango up, even though that was also her favourite part. When I’m sucking the flesh off the seed, my face glistening from my mango facial, I remember how much she loved me. Sometimes my whole body aches with the memory of her, even just at the sight of Kensingtons in the fruit market.
She was an amazing self-taught cook, recreating meals from her homeland of Vietnam. She’d always make my favourite which was a vermicelli noodle soup called bún thịt bò cà chua rau răm. I can’t find it in restaurants so I’ve taught myself how to cook it through taste and from years of watching her. I make the stock from scratch and although it’s not a hard dish it’s packed full of flavour and sometimes when I’m making it, the taste of it reminds me of her and I find myself crying into my soup.
I inherited my love of food from her so when people compliment me on a delicious meal I think of her. I inherited my love of flowers from her so when people say how beautiful my arrangements are I think of how I used to help her with church arrangements when I was young. My handwriting is lovely as was hers and I think of her when I hand write card messages at work. When someone says that I look like her I completely lose it.
She was an incredibly stylish lady and although we weren’t rich, the woman knew how to put together an outfit. She had a fake fur coat that she loved and although didn’t live to see me on my wedding day, I wore her coat. While wearing her coat I could feel her hugging me. She once saved her money for these beautifully soft black leather gloves. I still have them and when I wear them it feels like she is holding my hand. I’m so terrified of losing them when I take them off indoors I clutch onto them so tightly and am constantly checking to make sure I still have two.
There was one time I was delivering flowers to a hospital and the smell of the antibacterial hand wash had taken me back to the halls of my mum’s palliative care unit and I found myself crying. As a florist, we deliver flowers to hospitals all the time and I have to remind myself that plenty of bunches go to newborn babies, to patients who will be released in time to spend Christmas with their families. Although my mum wasn’t one such patient seven years ago, 28 years before that, she was one of the lucky ones to go home with a bunch of flowers and a brand new baby. There’s something beautiful and poetic in that I got to watch her take her last breath on the same day many years before she was there for my first.
When I think of how painful it is remembering someone who once so wholly and completely loved you, I have to remind myself, that for every second of pain I feel now, it’s because my life was filled hundreds of thousands of moments of pure joy. If you asked me whether or not it was worth the pain, I would tell you yes, a thousand times over I would pay it to have that love in my life no matter how briefly.
Madalene Chu is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Instagram @madalenechu.