July 2019. A magnolia bush near my home is in flower. It seems unseasonably early, but I figure that’s because it gets full sun in the afternoon. These magnolias have no perfume, but I love their beautiful waxy flowers. I love the pink and white against winter’s blue skies. I love the slow unfurling, promise of beauty to come.
I take a photo, just days before Kwajo dies.
Everywhere, through the long hours and days and weeks that follow his death, I see flowers. More magnolias. The first fragrant fluffs of wattle. My workmates send a massive arrangement in vintage tones: cream carnations with dusky pink centres, rusty callistemon and waratah, blue-grey baby eucalyptus leaves. Other flowers arrive, I don’t even remember who sends them. Vases cover all the surfaces in the lounge room at the place I’m staying (friends have opened their doors to me; home is too painful a place to be). I love them all. I deeply appreciate these expressions of love, kindness, care. I immerse myself in their colours and scent.
Flowers are a filter through which I can look at the brutal awfulness of what has happened without being consumed by the pain. My son’s suicide is devastating. I want to turn my back on it all and run without stopping until I can find a universe where he still exists. But I can’t. Somehow, I keep functioning. I walk deliberately, slowly. I breathe deep. I make decisions. I try and return all the love that’s coming my way. I photograph my flowers.
The day before the funeral I rope in a friend to hunt for flowers. We get to the markets too late even for coffee – rookie mistake – and instead have to scout the florists of Bankstown. We find a wonderful tall white spikey arrangement and order two. Kwajo could be very spikey, and the soft white blooms offer some sense of tranquility amid this storm.
We’re also seeking single stems for people to place on the coffin or in the grave. I’m looking for daffodils or freesias, but it’s too early in the season. The bright yellow of daffodils is so hopeful and joyful. When pregnant with Kwajo I bought a fluffy yellow towel to wrap my baby in. Kwajo at his best was as vibrant and full of life as daffys.
Lindy buys armfuls of pink and purple gerberas. I find sweet-smelling jonquils. Together they’re perfect. As a small child, Kwajo’s favourite colour was pink, and as a young man he loved to shock people by wearing ‘girl’s colours’. Some people thought he was gay, but he wasn’t, he was just confident and bold, not afraid of peoples’ opinions.
I’m still worried we won’t have enough single stems and put out a call to a few friends to bring more to the funeral. I want his grave to be filled with flowers. I want my boy to be covered in petals and pollen. If some far future archaeologist finds Kwajo’s grave thousands of years from now, they will find the evidence of flowers and be reminded that love is eternal.
On the day, there are enough flowers for everyone at the burial to throw one in the grave along with their scoop of sand. It is beautiful.
Afterwards, when most people have gone back to the hall for refreshments, someone’s preschooler is curious about the grave. We lie on the grass to look safely over the edge and talk about the flowers. I say they show how much everyone loved Kwajo. My eyes are dry. I’m so full of love I’m almost happy. It’s one of many precious moments on this day that I will always remember.
The next morning, I wake with an impulse to visit the grave. Just me. The pile of coarse clayey soil is covered with flowers. I go so early there’s still dew on them. There’s one of the spikey funeral arrangements, a massive white bouquet left by a family we were friends with when he was small, and a posy of white lilies and grevilleas, loosely gathered by a pale pink ribbon. It’s several weeks before I find out who left the posy. It turns out to be from the garden of a friend from my university days who I haven’t seen for years. So many people like her came to the funeral, showing love and support and bearing witness. It was overwhelming, and I am so thankful for their presence.
August 2019. Graves are the norm for the Ghanaian side of the family but on my side, no-one has been buried for several generations. Visiting a grave is new for me, but it helps my grief.
August is the month that I start developing this new grave-visiting routine, which over the months ahead develops as follows:
- I buy the flowers at the flower shop on the way into Rookwood cemetery – whatever is reasonably cheap and makes me think of Kwajo.
- At the grave, I tidy up the remains of the previous lot of flowers. Sometimes I leave them scattered over the grave to blow away or rot into the soil. I like the symbolism of it.
- I take photos of the old and new flowers. I document the flowers’ decay. Focusing on impermanence is helpful in some way I haven’t yet figured out.
Sometimes I cry, but usually my routine is very calming. I listen to the wind and the ravens, check out other graves, sit and reflect.
In August, I visit my brothers. I briefly retreat into worlds where Kwajo’s death seems less real and I can focus on the moment: wattles blooming among the snow on Mount Canobolas, canola flowering across the central western slopes, scarlet honeyeaters feeding on grass tree nectar in the north. They remind me of the beauty in the world, of reasons to keep moving, to find ways of living with my grief. I forget all pain in the moment of focusing on nature through my camera.
Each time, I rush back after a few days. I am consumed by an urgency to return to Kwajo’s grave, still so fresh. Anxiety pushes me forward across the mountains toward Rookwood. I hunch over the wheel, afraid it will be closed. I arrive in the golden late afternoon to find the mound of grave soil has subsided and stick daffodils and jonquils in plastic water bottles at his feet.
September 2019. Spring has well and truly arrived. I buy poppies for the home where I’m staying, and creamy daffodils and jonquils for Kwajo’s grave. I love their perfume. Pale purple wisteria flowers along the river, where I walk most days.
In the spirit of renewal, I prepare to reinvent my apartment. I invite Kwajo’s friends and brothers to come and help re-home his stuff. They discover their own clothes in the piles on the table. We spend the day laughing and crying and telling stories. Some of Kwajo’s school friends bring a pot of spikey white native orchids. I give them one of the picture books he loved as a child (Ten in the bed) for their toddler. Other, more recent friends arrive late in the day with more orchids, colourful hothouse ones that later brighten the bathroom at my home away from home.
A few days later, I feel driven to visit his grave again, but end up deciding that my time is better spent focusing on the present. I bake a cake for his youngest brother’s birthday. Recovery isn’t all about graves and flowers. I decide that baking the family’s favourite passionfruit cake is an investment in our present and future. It’s about love and making new memories. Writing in my journal that night, I list the things I’m grateful for. Kwajo’s dad, step-mum and siblings top the list.
October 2019. This month, I start taking other people with me to visit Kwajo’s grave. I upgrade from plastic water bottles to spike vases, to accommodate the extra flowers. We take yellow freesias, orange ranunculus. I continue taking photos of the flowers’ decline. The ranunculus are pretty even when wilted. As the heat sets in, watering the plot becomes part of the grave visiting routine. The grass is patchy and brown. This is not symbolically good; I need it to grow!
On my walks I see fragile mauve iris that remind me of my childhood.
Friends help me repaint my place and refurnish Kwajo’s room. I start experimenting with moving back home. I stay a night or two at a time. It works better with friends there. I spend hundreds of dollars on pots and indoor plants. This feels necessary. I need to fill the space with life and growth and greenery to help cancel out the bad memories. I also buy a steampunk skull. There’s a de facto shrine now, on the cupboard where Kwajo used to leave his keys: skull and roses.
November 2019. I come down with my second head cold since Kwajo’s death. I abandon the plan to move back home and recline on my friends’ lounge, overlooking the Cooks River Valley, and watch the jacaranda flowers emerge. But they are barely noticeable against the smoky skies. It’s not yet the ‘Black Summer’ of 2019–20, but the news from the north is bad and every morning we wake to the smell of smoke. Illness stops me visiting the grave. The only time I go, I take native flowers that might survive the heat a little longer than more fragile flowers.
Kwajo’s friends help me clear my garage. It’s full of his half finished projects, obscure equipment. We record it all in one of the condolence books.
December 2019. It’s Ghanaian tradition to visit the grave at Christmas. We go a few days before, with everlasting daisies. We burn incense, Kwajo’s step mum leads prayers, and his Dad and I say a few words. I talk about how he brought us together. His dad says: ‘Kwajo, we will never forget you’. We water his grave. It’s looking pretty good considering the drought. His neighbours also benefit from our care. Another Ghanaian (a family friend) rests a few plots away so we water him too.
I’m living fully back at home now, with an old friend from overseas filling the empty space of Kwajo’s room for a couple of weeks. His calm presence helps me settle. I put a peace lily in his room that someone gave me at the funeral. I don’t remember who it was, but the plant flourishes.
I buy Australian native flowers for Christmas Day. The family and I decide to celebrate Christmas at my place, as we have the past two years. Keeping up our traditions holds us together. It’s a joyful day. The family gives me a framed portrait of Kwajo. It’s photoshopped with our names, a dove, the rocket a friend made for him to take in his coffin, and a purple gerbera. I add it to the shrine.
January 2020. A friend’s daughter is visiting from Europe and takes over from my previous guest to occupy Kwajo’s room. We sew wraps for baby bats orphaned during the horror summer and do yoga together. By the time she leaves, it feels safe to be home. Alia and Kwajo grew up together and she sent beautiful words for his funeral. With her mum and brother and his family, we visit the grave, taking gerberas, sunflowers and everlasting daisies.
February 2020. February is a difficult month. I can’t find any record of the flowers I kept at home, or whether I went to the cemetery. I struggle at work. Human Resources is still messing me about with my pay and my leave. Management are pressing down on me with unreasonable deadlines. At home, I’m mostly on my own, with friends staying over just a couple of nights a week. The nights I’m alone are ok at first, but after the initial calm comes despair.
In my journal I write about my problem with the concept of resilience. That it sounds like something bouncy and positive, but in reality, what it takes to get through this nightmare of loss and grief is just the sheer determination to keep going. Being ‘resilient’ feels like crawling uphill over broken glass. Up a long, steep, harsh road with every part of you in pain. You keep going because maybe the view from the top – or at a distant curve in the road – will be just a little better than what you’re feeling right now. You keep going because occasionally, on that long, slow crawl, you see tiny flowers poking through the shards of glass. They are signs that it’s worth continuing, that it won’t always feel this bad. I visualise them as star-shaped, bright orange and yellow.
Alia’s brother becomes a dad. I take his partner shopping for fabric and patterns a few days before their daughter is born. She chooses bright colours, floral prints, exactly what I love. On good days, I sew watermelon pants and a wattle dress for the baby.
March 2020. My niece visits from the US. By sheer luck she is here just days before Australia goes into COVID lockdown. It was hard not having her here when Kwajo died and she also suffered being so far away from me. She stays a few days. It’s such a relief to spend time with her. She’s so close to me in age we are like sisters. We talk and walk along the river and look at old – like ancestral sepia old – family photos. Hoping COVID will soon be brought under control, we plan a holiday together. She finds an old school photo of Kwajo and insists that I put it on display. I find it hard to look at his face, but eventually I put it n the sideboard.
We take pretty purple flowers and multi-hued everlastings to the grave. At home, I have peach gerberas and white carnations. Gifts from her daughters – a painted postcard and champagne gummy bears – are added to the Kwajo shrine (he liked gummy bears!).
April 2020. A positive side of COVID is that it brings an expat friend back from overseas and permanently into Kwajo’s room. Well, as permanently as anything can be right now; he’ll return home eventually. Despite the chaos in the world, this brings more stability for me. Regular meals, someone to chat to at breakfast or dinner. Someone to appreciate my baking and my sunny balcony.
I’m completely in the habit of buying flowers for home now, and the oriental lilies are spectacular. Flamboyant as my son, but sweeter smelling. At the cemetery, cooler weather means a return to softer flowers. There’s not a big range at the flower shop but I’m okay with that, the orange gerberas are still gorgeous.
I ride my bike a lot in April and everywhere I go, there are flowers – morning glory, roses, marigolds… Sydney in autumn is almost as colourful as Sydney in spring.
May 2020. My birthday – and Kwajo’s Dads’. It’s a big one for both of us, although different decades. I’d rather not know about it but as with Christmas, with a bit of planning it goes ok. Low key meals with close friends, more gifts than I would ever normally receive. I feel cherished.
It’s also Mother’s Day. The kids give me a rainbow box of flowers. Rookwood is crazy that day. I go to the cemetery with Kwajo’s best friend and by the time we get there, the only flowers (other than carnations, which I’m not wild about) are strange pink and purple bobbles. We look at each other, shrug, and decide that really, these odd blooms are soooo Kwajo: prickly, quirky and exactly the colours he liked.
Everyone who visits the grave has their own idea of what flowers to take. We’re all drawn to different colours and shapes that represent Kwajo’s character or bring special moments to mind. I think gerberas remind the family of the extraordinary gathering of love that was his funeral, and daffodils remind me of the hope that brought him into the world.
June 2020. Kwajo’s birthday. He would have been 26. I take time off work. I plan to organise catch-ups with friends to look at photos and reminisce, but only manage to do it once.
The family plan to go to the cemetery but I feel sick and have the COVID test, so they have to do it without me. (The result is negative). I’m self-isolating so with time on my hands, I create a Facebook memorial and spend his birthday sharing pics and looking at what other people post. Others message or call. I don’t feel alone. It’s a peaceful day.
When I visit the grave with friends a few days later, I find the family have left gerberas. We add more gerberas, dahlias, roses.
At home, the lilies are still going strong. In the streets, the magnolia up the road from my place is already blooming. Along the river, a succulent with bell-like orange flowers and stripy reptilian stalk contrasts with the muddy water. It flowers all winter. I take a cutting for my growing succulent collection.
July 2020. First anniversary. Due to COVID, we can’t do the traditional Ghanaian one-year celebration that we had planned. We are also still waiting for the cemetery to complete Kwajo’s headstone. I feel paralysed. I manage to organise two small visits: one with some of my friends, and one with some of Kwajo’s friends. Each time, we sit and talk. We laugh, cry, share outrageous memories. Because he was outrageous. Annoying, unpredictable, creative, brilliant, affectionate, wild. He made friends with everyone. He was generous and smart … and outrageous.
On the day that I go with Kwajo’s friends, his grave is flooded. One of them notices that two plots up – on dry, level ground – the headstone reads: Lorraine May Flood. We find this hilarious: she has flooded all over Dave (military gent next door) and Kwajo.
We burn incense and pour drinks into the grave. We eat the champagne gummy bears his cousin had sent me months before and leave Kwajo once again covered in flowers: iris, gerberas, daffodils, orchids, dahlias, chrysanthemum daisies. We leave the remaining gummy bears for him too.
A few days later, another friend visits the grave. She sends me a photo of the flowers they left, and that is how I find out that the inscription is finished. It takes another couple of weeks before the cemetery informs me, and it’s several weeks after that before they add the photo.
I take six months leave from work. There’s too much change, too much pressure. I think I pushed myself too hard, in those early months, to ‘get back to normal’. I need to rest.
I try and find the words to write about my grief. I hesitate to say that I’m ‘recovering’ or ‘healing’, one year on, because these words seem to imply an end point where everything is ok, back to normal, 100% happy – and I don’t know if that is possible, or even desirable. This sadness will always be with me. Scar tissue, while serviceable, can be tough and scaly. I think I prefer ‘rebuild’. With time, maybe, I’ll rebuild a life of value around the gaping hole of my loss. I guess that’s what I’ve been doing this past year, moment by moment, flower by flower: rebuilding.
August to October 2020. I walk a lot these days. It calms and refreshes me. I breath deep and take in the world around me. It gives me a sense of purpose. I have many walking projects: Harbour to Hawkesbury, the Coast Track, all the Blue Mountains walks I haven’t been on for years. In October, I add my steps to my walking log to raise money for mental health resources and research.
This spring there are masses of flowers in the bush and I rue my ignorance of what they’re called. The ones I know include hardenbergia, dillwynia, native fuchsia, boronia. One day I even see a young waratah. The trees drip with blossom and hum with insects. Everywhere, even in the burned bush, colour and life burst through.
My walks include a couple to Rookwood, which I can reach from my home, walking most of the way beside the Cooks River. I take jonquils and daffodils – ten-dollar bunches that are as bright and beautiful as my boy. The first time, ravens gather around me as I sit on the grass eating my lunch. There must be ten of them, all ages and sizes. I give them half my sandwich, broken in pieces. One has only half a beak, I don’t know how it can eat. Another jumps onto the headstone and pulls all the jonquils out of the built-in vase so that it can drink the water. When I share this on Facebook some people exclaim that it must be Kwajo’s spirit, but I think it’s just a thirsty bird. Another raven steals what’s left of the gummy bears. Perhaps that’s him?
The second time I walk there, I find that Kwajo’s photo has finally been added to the headstone. The tears start as soon as I glimpse it from a few metres away. It’s perfect. I take photos and share to his dad, his siblings, friends and family. His face is shaded with daffodils and the dark granite reflects a cloudy sky.
Finally, in early October our small family gathers at the graveside for a much reduced one-year celebration. We bring pink and white gerberas and chrysanthemums. We eat chicken skewers, which he would have approved of, and apple malt, which for him was acceptable but not as good as the original malt (a kind of non-alcoholic Guinness, blech!). One of his brothers pours a bottle of it into the grave. The drought has broken now, so this is all the watering he needs.
We talk about things we miss about Kwajo (like his spontaneity and playfulness) and things we don’t miss (like his messiness and his driving). His best friend Boo is with us and makes us laugh with his stories. We do the usual ritual of burning incense but when I’m arranging the flowers a stick of it burns my palm. We all agree that this is Kwajo up to mischief.
It’s been a long, hard year (and a bit). The hardest year of my life, without a doubt. But I can mark out, in flowers, the moments and the actions and the people that have made it bearable. Thank you.