Tag Archives: family

The cupboard under the stairs

29 Oct

A combination of illness and heart carnage has resulted in weight loss that has seen me holding myself together for the last few months with safety pins, and belts with new holes gouged in them by Mrs Chook’s screwdrivers. I knew that somewhere I had a store of thin clothes but I’ve lacked the energy and interest to look for them. I always hurl everything I don’t immediately need into a vast cupboard under the stairs that has no adequate lighting so a torch is required, or one of those reading lights that fit around the head. Having light doesn’t stop me forgetting that at some point I can no longer stand up in the cupboard, and I always crack my head on a beam. Nothing is stored in any kind of order so I have to trawl through all kinds of stuff to find the one thing I need. The whole process drives me mad, but seeing as I couldn’t stand safety pins for another day, I had to do it. I found my thin clothes, which are probably vintage by now but that’s all right, vintage is good, it’s like having a new wardrobe, and the pleasure of wearing something that actually fits me is great.

In the cupboard I found my husband and me a long time ago on Bondi Beach

Arnie and me

Arnie was a very unobservant Jew, except for Passover feasts which he loved, but I never acquired a taste for gefilte fish and matzah ball soup and fortunately, he delighted in cooking them. He loved as well getting into vigorous arguments with the man from Jews for Jesus up at Bondi Junction, and if he could, he’d bale up the Hasidic Jews who lived round the corner from us and have a robust exchange with them about the Talmud. Very occasionally he would go to the synagogue, and in his seventies he started Hebrew classes. I used to say he was conflicted about his tribe, to which he invariably responded “Ah, conflicted, schmicted,” with a rabbinical shrug. When I first met my mother-in-law in Hartford, Connecticut, she said, “For a shiksa, you’re a doll.” He always said that when we die we become energy in the universe. I don’t know in which part of the universe he has become energy, but I hope I can find him.

I discovered all kinds of things in my rummaging, including Mexican kitsch I’d forgotten all about. While living there a few years ago I became fond of the Virgin of Guadalupe, not least because she is also known as the Woman of the Apocalypse, “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” I found her on a handbag in a market

Virgin bag

I found her in another market on earrings made from beer bottle tops

virgin earrings two

I found her on a postcard that I’ve put in a frame beside my bed

virgin photo

I found her on matchboxes and scarves, and in beaten tin that I’ve hung on the sitting room wall where she can watch over me while I sleep on the couch. She comforts me, and there are times in life when we must take our comfort wherever we can find it.

virgin guadalupe

Then I found my hair, cut off when I was twelve

Hair aged 12

And then I found this

In labour

The child I gave birth to that April day is now the father of these two

farm boys

And after being in that cupboard I like to fancy that we are all women of the apocalypse, clothed with the sun, and the moon under our feet, and upon our heads a crown of twelve stars, and if I can remember that when I go into the universe perhaps my husband will find me, and I won’t even have to look for him.

What a woman wants, what a woman needs…

28 Feb

Yesterday I visited a place on the NSW south coast that once served as a sanctuary, a place to which I fled after an almost terminal encounter with cancer left my whole being drastically weakened, terrified to live and equally terrified to die. Daily life had become impossible, I no longer knew how to fulfil its expectations. I needed solitude, away from city life, I needed to escape the claims and demands of human interaction, even with those I loved and who loved me, and I needed this so desperately I think I might have physically attacked anyone who tried to hold me in place. Fortunately, nobody did, I was reluctantly let go when I promised to allow visits, as long as nobody stayed too long, and how long was ‘too long’ was to be determined by me.

DSCN0892

It was also fortunate that we owned a caravan behind the sand dunes on a largely deserted beach. You can’t live in a caravan, they said. You can’t live there all by yourself, you’ve been so sick, look at you, you have no hair and all your bones are showing. Fuck off, of course I can, I told them, unkindly. Any attempt at what I perceived as thwarting me made me frantically distressed, as if I was being pinned down by a body stronger and more powerful than mine that I had to fight off, or suffocate.

The caravan was in one of those old-fashioned parks where families spent their holidays year after year for as long as anyone could remember. When I arrived, exhausted from the four-hour drive and the emotion of goodbyes, the place was largely empty, being out of holiday season and in the middle of autumn. It was cold. The south coast climate is at best fickle, I have known us wrapped in sweaters and blankets on Christmas Day. The caravan, unoccupied for months during my illness and initial recovery, was musty and damp, a habitat for spiders and insects. The day was overcast, adding to the gloom, and while our spot beside the creek in a grove of melaleucas was idyllic, it allowed for little light under such a low grey sky. I had a panic attack. I couldn’t stay in the spider-infested gloom. I couldn’t go back to our light-filled Bondi Beach home where I suffered anxiety attacks every time I went out the front door into the neighbourhood I had, prior to my illness, loved to inhabit, with its cafes where I met my friends, ate weekend breakfasts with my husband and whoever else happened by, where we swam or walked the winter beach hand in hand talking as we always did with such energy and delight, even at the times we disagreed with practically everything the other said.

DSCN0889

After the cancer, I couldn’t talk about anything anymore. The ongoing blows inflicted by the illness, so unexpected, so unpredictable, they seemed unending in their variety and persistence. After cancer is a time largely underestimated in its power to disrupt. Generally, people think you ought to be relieved, happy you got away with it this time, determined to embark on a recovery regime that will get you back in the swim of things just like you were before. In reality, at least for me, it’s when the horror of the experience actually hits home, something that is impossible when you’re going through the treatments and your world has become medicalised to the extent that it overwhelms all other realities. Post cancer, every little twinge in your body is noted with alarm: is it coming back? For months I woke in the night drenched in sweat, from nightmares the details of which I could never remember, and a debilitating weariness dogged my days. There was nothing that did not leave me exhausted, and tearful. I couldn’t manage all this, and human beings as well.

I walked along this same beach yesterday, under a similar low, soft grey sky, the familiar smell of kelp, the haunting cries of seagulls, the gritty south coast sand between my toes. At the end of my beach there’s a broken wooden jetty where I used to lie on my stomach, peering intently at the stingrays gliding through the clear water beneath me. The rhythm of those days and weeks and months of solitude came back to me. In the mornings waking up sweat-soaked and panicked, climbing out of my single bunk bed to make tea on the gas stove, cold, even if the day was warm, because what I remember from those months is how I could never warm myself, even under piles of blankets, even in the hottest sun, it was as if I had a frigid core that nothing could reach, it was as if I had entirely lost my previously automatic ability to regulate even my body temperature. The trembling of my body, most especially my thighs, and the cold sweat drying on my skin. The fear of moving. The terror of putting one foot in front of the other. The utter loss of everything ordinary.

My husband and my adolescent children would visit and though I loved to see them, the relief I felt at their departure, at the resumption of my solitude, made me ashamed. I remembered yesterday the feeling of my starved gulping, my greedy devouring of nourishment not from my loved ones whom I invariably felt I had to reassure, but from the solitude of the natural world in which I was immersed. That was my healing. My guilt at abandoning them was great. But my need to be alone in this wild landscape overwhelmed it. I wanted nothing except what I needed to stay alive, some books, some music. The hurt I caused them did not become fully apparent till some years later when my eldest son, beside himself with unexpressed distress from that whole period of our lives, shouted at me, You didn’t need any of us! You just left us! You didn’t let us help you, you are such a fucking loner, Mum, you don’t fucking need anybody!

Which left me speechless. And reaching out for him and he came into my arms, grown up, so much bigger than me, and sobbed.

DSCN0891

I don’t know how it is for others, but I’ve always had a dreadful struggle between what I need for myself, and what others need from me, and what I want to give them because I love them. Sometimes I think I will die if I don’t have time absolutely alone. Sometimes I cannot bear to engage in one more conversation about, essentially, nothing, the kind of conversations that make up so much of our daily discourse, the words that serve to weave the binding threads between people, and that is their purpose. Sometimes I think if I am not able to sit in silence in the natural world for as long as I need to, I will start breaking things. It’s as if the healing never really finishes, needs to be topped up from time to time with a return to the inner self who increasingly becomes more solid, more real, than any outer persona and whose needs are so far from anything found in the everyday world with its constructed conventions, and its claims that largely require almost incessant, low-intensity interactions for their fulfilment.

For a woman to do what I did, leaving home, husband and family who cared for me through the desperate and dangerous phase of my illness, insisting on solitude rather than accepting their love was seen largely as selfish, and it was, there’s no denying that. It had a price, for all of us, but yesterday I understood that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong or frightening about paying a price for something deeply desired, these are deals we strike every day, choices made, choices rejected, and almost every one of them has some effect on someone to a greater or lesser degree. I still don’t know, after all this time in this life, how much I am allowed to take for myself, how much selfishness I am allowed, how many choices I may make that cause another hurt or discomfort, how responsible I must be for protecting another from disruption in the pursuit of my own desires and needs. With every situation this must be weighed up anew, and I have made some horrible errors. It seems that the important thing is that I continue to bother to attempt these fraught calculations, even though my sums may be dreadfully wrong. I hope that is the case, though I don’t expect I shall ever know.

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

In praise of modern families, and bickering.

27 Mar

For some years now, Mrs Chook and I have shared a house, The Dog, and a domestic life, for the most part, harmoniously. At first we were the subject of  some salacious speculation in our village, especially when my separated second husband came to visit one Christmas because he was lonely in Sydney, got sick, and thoroughly overstayed his welcome.

At the time I was unaware of the gossip because I didn’t care. It always surprises me that anybody would be interested, but unconventional domestic arrangements still frighten and confuse some people. This is why we can’t have gay marriage. Frightened and confused people are preventing it.

Our main method of dealing with domestic tensions is to bicker them out. We are perfectly comfortable with this, though a friend recently refused to travel in the car with us because she said our bickering reminded her too much of travelling with her parents.

Real bickering contains no malice. Indeed, it demands love and affection as a prerequisite. In their absence, it ceases to be bickering and becomes acrimony. I concede, though, that for some, the demarcation line can be obscure.

 

We have complaints against one another, mostly small, but they can be the most aggravating. For example. We never eat breakfast together. I eat mine at peculiar times, and usually at my desk or roaming. This morning I ate the last two caper berries before Mrs Chook got round to food. I had no idea they had her name on them, and frankly, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference if I had, because I wanted them. Mrs Chook informed me she had been looking forward to those berries, and there was a brief and futile dispute, because, eaten.

This goes the other way, usually with chocolate. I only feel like chocolate sometimes, while she likes it all the time. So when I finally get around to thinking I’ll have chocolate, I go to the cupboard and it’s all gone. I keep meaning to hide some, but I always forget.

Yesterday she “accidentally” wore my blue Speedos (the same colour as hers, we bought them at the same time in the sale at the Speedo shop) even though there are two sizes difference between her and me. She swears she didn’t take them out of my swim bag and that I left them on the washing line but whatever, I got to the pool later with no cossies, and the pool is 30 minutes drive away.

The week before she got around all day in my bra, same situation, bought together cos sale, again, two sizes difference between her bra and mine, but did that stop her? She didn’t even notice. I had no other clean bras and she’d gone to work.

Some winters ago she put my favourite blue jumper in the washing machine and shrank it beyond all redemption. That still hurts.

A few days ago I completely forgot I was boiling eggs, until I heard something that sounded like gunfire, ran upstairs to see what was happening, and found four eggs exploded all over the kitchen walls and ceiling, and a saucepan that went into the tip pile. Mrs Chook did not remonstrate with me for my carelessness. She even helped me clean up, though this is not the first time I’ve done that.

One day last year, she didn’t turn the gas off properly & when I lit it there was this explosion and all the hairs on my arms were singed. She then put up an enormous notice on the kitchen wall that read “TURN OFF THE GAS.” I added “FUCKING”, twice.

She says I don’t listen. She says I look as if I’m listening but she can tell my head is somewhere else altogether and sometimes, to test me, she asks me half an hour later what she’s said. I usually make something up. She says she has to make an appointment with me to discuss domestic matters because I’m always too engrossed in something. She says I am very difficult to live with at times, and that she gets sick of me never paying attention.

On the occasions when we go shopping together, we almost always get into a fight. I loathe shopping. My idea of shopping is to throw everything I think we might need into the trolley times two, so I don’t have to come back anytime soon. Mrs Chook, on the other hand, likes to read the labels and see where everything is coming from and what’s in it. This shits me to tears.

We have successfully bickered our way through every one of our differences, even big ones, every time they arise. There have been tears, and occasionally someone throws something, but it has always been negotiated down to bickering, if at times with tissues.

The best bickering always ends in Shut up. You shut up. No you shut up. I said it first. You fucking didn’t, I did. Well I’m saying it now. I don’t care. Shut up. You shut up. Don’t tell me to shut up…until The Dog bites somebody. There is much to be said for allowing the inner child out at such times.

Three of my dearest male friends have also successfully shared living arrangements for over two decades. Some years ago the five of us took an apartment together in Barcelona for a few weeks. Three of us were giving papers at the Universitat de Barcelona, & the others came for support and the fun.

We’d never stayed together for longer than a night or two. We had no idea how it would work out, but the apartment was just off Las Ramblas, a ten minute walk from the Universitat, cheap, and we had enough faith in our good natures to feel reasonably certain we could pull it off.

Mrs Chook and I thought we would have to curb our bickering, given we were all in close quarters for several weeks and not everybody understands our method of loving one another. For the first few days we took it outside, and bickered away happily while we gazed at Gaudi’s architectural feats, and ate tapas at various bars. Then we gradually became aware that our friends were tossing good-natured abuse at one another, going much further than we had yet dared, and we were amazed. At dinner one night, we brought the subject up. We admitted we’d been afraid they’d find our manners unseemly. They admitted they’d feared the same. They said most people didn’t understand how they talk to one another, and they had to be careful. They said they felt they’d taken a great risk, shacking up with us for all this time, and worried that at the end of it we might not like them anymore.

On the contrary, we assured them, we were learning so many new ways of bickering, and it was wonderful! By the end of our stay we were just one big happy bickering family, hell, we even learned to bicker in Spanish.

It’s such a cliché, to claim that there are many kinds of love. If one is open to the experience, it seems often to come from the most unexpected quarters, inconvenient, disturbing the settled, demanding acknowledgement and expression, dangerous and confronting, as well as offering  happiness, safety and refuge.

There as many kinds of families as there are kinds of love, in my experience. I love the family my friends have made. I love the family Mrs Chook and I have made. In neither situation has marriage or children played a part in the creation, but in both instances the original units have expanded until they contain many more sentient beings.

Next Wednesday, our family’s latest baby will be born. Mrs Chook and I will be there, as will her or his two other grandmothers. The baby’s grandfather and me, divorced now for more years than I care to consider, will drink champagne together and congratulate one another on the family we made. He will get a little drunk, and as usual hug me too hard for too long when no one is watching. He, his second wife, Mrs Chook and me, will be sharing the care of  our grandchild Archie, while his parents have a few days in peace with the new baby.

Never in my wildest dreams could I have foreseen this kind of life.

Love, actually.

Mothers who say F**ck

30 Dec

I recently engaged in a robust exchange of views with one of my sons. This particular adult child has long-held a reputation for forgetting to tell anybody things, unless we happen to be in the same room as him when something that might need to be told to us occurs.

On this most recent occasion, the stuff he forgot to tell me was totes important, and my lack of knowledge caused me untold aggravation, and the rest. So I rang him up and let him know where he currently stood with me. As he’s always thought of himself as “the good child,” this came a something of a shock.

First we had to deal with the “oh, it was just a misunderstanding” meme. No it wasn’t, I told him, I didn’t misunderstand anything how could I when you didn’t tell me anything I could misunderstand?

Then we negotiated the “Mum you’re losing control” meme. I’m not losing control, I told him, are you? And by the way, you really need to learn the difference between expressing emotion and losing control. The two are not necessarily the same thing, I told him.

I was also thinking of his wife when I said this. I thought, I bet he says this to her when there’s a disagreement, so I better bring him up to speed about women expressing ourselves. This “you’re losing control” thing is an attempt to shut us up, a projection, and a put down. In my experience it is usually said by males who fear they are losing an argument, though it’s not necessarily gender-based.

Finally, I was reduced by his wilful obduracy to foul language. Fucking hell, I said. “Don’t swear at me down the phone, Mum,” he demanded. Oh my! I cackled, in capital sarcasm font, so in your moral universe me swearing is a bigger offence than you not telling me stuff I really needed to know?

“We’re going round in circles,” he bleated. Indeed we are, I replied, taking pity. Let’s sleep on it and talk again in a couple of days.

My sons taught me foul language. Since becoming husbands and fathers they’ve turned on me. I can’t swear, and I’m reprimanded every time I do something they consider the least bit edgy and that is quite a lot of stuff I do and say. Last time I took Archie out and stopped for coffee, his father asked me if I’d left the baby in the car while I went into the cafe. I looked long at him, and shook my head in a WTF kind of way.  Archie’s mother then stepped in and reminded her husband that he’d survived my mothering quite well, and he should perhaps pull his head in.

I am extremely fond of Archie’s mum. I see a lot of me in her. Archie is also showing signs of a possibly anarchic personality. On his recent first plane trip, and though only fourteen months old, he stood up on his seat and hurled peanuts at the passengers sitting behind him till his dad grabbed him by the nappies and hauled him off to the toilet where he gave him a stern talking-to and probably told him he was losing control.

I’m considering forming a group called “Mothers Who Say Fuck.”  I’m sure I’m not the only mother who overnight finds herself dealing with a role reversal initiated by her adult children who for some reason, and without consultation, have cast her as the irresponsible adolescent and themselves as long-suffering adults who are burdened with keeping an eye on her and monitoring her language. I can’t quite get my head around this phenomenon. All things considered, they have some nerve.

This attitude does, however, make for a special bond between grandmothers and grandchildren. We share a common cause – defying their parents. We will both be instructed to mind our mouths. We will both be exhorted to act responsibly, and to act our age. On the positive side, we can sit at tables and roll our eyes at one another when their parents issue yet another fucking edict. We can slink off and comfort one another when we’ve been reprimanded and given time outs. We will always know we have each other, when everyone else is pissed off at us because we’ve thrown the metaphorical peanuts. Oh, yeah. I see only good times ahead for Archie and me.

Me and Archie

 

 

 

When children become weapons

19 May

Broken heart

As children continue to be murdered by parents caught up in divorce, separation and custody battles, courts and counsellors struggle to establish environments that put the child’s needs first. This can be an impossible task when some parents, blinded by their own emotional turmoil, use their children as heavy ammunition to win a personal battle against a spouse they perceive as the enemy.

Murder is the extreme point on the continuum of co-opting children as weapons. Far more common, though regarded as contentious among some mental health and legal professionals, is a concept known as Parental alienation syndrome. This is a term used to describe a situation in which a child is encouraged to identify with one parent and alienate the other. The child’s behaviour reflects the emotions and perspective of the alienating parent, rather than his or her own feelings. It’s thought to emerge as a consequence of separation and divorce, however it’s apparent in some on-going dysfunctional relationships in which the mother or the father attempts to garner support for his or her position against the other parent from the child. These are general PAS criteria as defined by some psychologists:

Children who succumb to the pressure and ally themselves with one parent against the other often exhibit a set of behaviors that have become known as parental alienation syndrome: 

(1) The first manifestation is a campaign of denigration against the targeted parent. The child becomes obsessed with hatred of the targeted parent (in the absence of actual abuse or neglect that would explain such negative attitudes). 

(2) Weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the depreciation of the targeted parent. The objections made in the campaign of denigration are often not of the magnitude that would lead a child to hate a parent, such as slurping soup or serving spicy food. 

(3) Lack of ambivalence about the alienating parent. The child expresses no ambivalence about the alienating parent, demonstrating an automatic, reflexive, idealized support of him or her. 

(4) The child strongly asserts that the decision to reject the other parent is her own. This is what is known as the “Independent Thinker” phenomenon. 

(5) Absence of guilt about the treatment of the targeted parent. Alienated children will make statements such as, “He doesn’t deserve to see me.” 

(6) Reflexive support for the alienating parent in the parental conflict. There is no willingness or attempt to be impartial when faced with inter-parental conflicts. 

(7) Use of borrowed scenarios. These children often make accusations towards the targeted parent that utilize phrases and ideas adopted wholesale from the alienating parent. And, finally, 

(8) The hatred of the targeted parent spreads to his or her extended family. Not only is the targeted parent denigrated, despised, and avoided but so too are his/her entire family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are suddenly avoided and rejected. When children exhibit these 8 behaviors the most likely explanation is the manipulation of the favored parent.

On the other hand, accusations of PAS are seen as frivolous and dishonest by some opponents of the syndrome. Some go so far as to claim that a court’s acceptance of PAS causes children to be exposed to on-going abuse from the so-called “targeted” parent. In reality, they claim, the “alienating” parent has attempted to protect the child from the parent perceived as harmful, and the symptoms of PAS are also consistent with those exhibited by children who are enduring real abuse from the targeted parent.

There is no clinical research into the syndrome, and it remains anecdotal.

I’v seen situations in which children have lost contact with a “targeted” parent, and that parent’s family. I’ve seen situations of dysfunction when the parents don’t separate, but the hostility and hatred of one for the other is conveyed through the indoctrination of the children against one parent. The “target” parent is alienated from his or her offspring within their own household, usually most acutely during the process of an adult dispute. Children take the alienating parent’s part, and when the fight has been temporarily resolved and the parents have made up, they are then permitted to re-engage with the targeted parent. The emotional chaos this causes in the children is enormous and long-lasting.

It’s surprisingly easy to persuade children to take against a parent, particularly when they’ve been taught that the “alienating” parent is the only one who really loves them, and the only one who will look out for them. The target parent is constructed as anything from incompetent and unreliable to dangerous and threatening, while the alienating parent presents as their competent and loving protector.

However, distinguishing between so-called PAS and abuses actually perpetrated by the “target” parent can be difficult. Evidence of abuse can be hard to establish if it isn’t blatant. Too often it comes down to which parent is the most articulate, can tell the most convincing story, and has the best lawyer. Children are collateral damage in such circumstances, as the parental focus makes it “all about me” with scant if any regard for their child’s well being.

I’ve known circumstances in which a “targeted” parent has walked away from his or her family rather than fight the wrath of the “alienating” parent, and continue to live with the acute distress they experience when a child or children turns against them on a regular basis. As well, the targeted parent can feel that his or her continued presence in the family will only serve to confuse and distress their children, and in an effort to prevent their children being further emotionally torn, they give up and leave the alienating parent in total control.

The targeted parent is then described as having abandoned the family, and as confirming the alienating parent’s position that he or she is the only one who really cares about the children. After years of clinical practice there’s no doubt in my mind that these are relatively common practices to varying degrees, between parents caught in conflict and dysfunction.

Parents don’t have ownership over their children. We have a responsibility to do our best for them, but we don’t own their feelings and their hearts and minds. Children are entitled to form and enjoy relationships with their family members, especially both parents. To sever the connection between one part of a child’s family is to do violence to that child’s knowledge of him or herself, and to their sense of belonging. Alienating a child from any family member without good cause is emotional abuse and emotional violence, regardless of whether it is identified as a legitimate mental health syndrome or not.

While the murderous extremes of parental manipulation make headlines, children daily suffer greatly in ways that go unrecognized and unacknowledged. The tragedy is that this suffering has long term consequences, and can be generational. One manipulative parent can tear an entire family apart, leaving children without access to grandparents and extended family members. It’s tough being a kid.

I must be alive ’cos my heart’s still beating.

29 Jan

Some time ago I was told that I have an indolent lymphoma, a death sentence, the specialist implied. But so is life, I said. The moment I’m born I’m old enough to die. David stared in dismay, as if he found my attitude cavalier. As if he feared I hadn’t been listening.

Dying Rose. By lovestruck via flickr

After receiving this dismal news, I left David’s office and went into the hospital bathroom, where I stood looking in the mirror for a long time, talking myself down from the ceiling and back into my body.

Who am I, I wondered as I stared at the pale woman in front of me.

Where am I going?

This sudden loss of self- recognition and purpose spooked me. Get a grip, I advised myself. I adjusted my old leather backpack on my shoulders. I washed my face, put some balm on my cracked lips, and left the hospital.

I was wearing jeans, brown boots, and a white shirt. An emerald green silk scarf, a gift from my youngest son whom we all call The Adventurer, was thrown carelessly around my neck. The scarf was stiff with tears and snot. I’d lost my bravado when David insisted on repeating his diagnosis. I’d held up both palms in protest, as if to keep him and all his words away from me, then I’d sobbed like a little girl who’d been unjustly punished, that it wasn’t fair.

David pushed the tissues across the desk. I’d used my scarf instead. It smelled, still, of my child.

This is how my life ended, and my dying began.

 

GET OFF MY CLOUD

After leaving the hospital I walked carefully down the familiar Newtown streets,leaking vital energies like a dying alien.

Dog in the forest

To return to the city after a long absence is to invite a serious assault on the senses. My senses were attuned to the ocean, and the secret scents of the rainforest.To the distant chug of trawlers as they crossed the bar at sunset, heading out for the night’s fishing.

My senses were used to the sounds of the whistling kites nesting at the bottom of the garden, and the sorrowful cries of the black-capped terns on the winter beach. Calmed by the blue heron absorbed in picking its delicate way across the mud flats in the wispy grey of an early morning river mist.

These senses were ill-prepared for traffic fumes and the roar of trucks; the hot sun glaring off shop windows, and dog shit in steaming piles around my feet. Neither had they managed well with the hospital’s chemical odours, and the sight, through an uncovered window, of a purple-gloved hand preparing a large syringe.

Purple. The colour of bishops, martyrs,and feminism, and now of cancer.

I was much taken with the name of my illness. It sounded refreshingly non-medical, even poetic. In.do.lent. Having or showing a disposition to avoid exertion. Sluggish, I read when I looked it up, the better to get a handle on the nature of the intruder.

I imagined the Indolent Lymphoma loafing on a Caribbean beach in a Panama hat, sunning itself under a striped umbrella, with a pink cocktail in its hand and a bag of weed in the pocket of its board shorts. I imagined myself confronting it.

‘We need to talk,’ I’d begin. ‘You’re on my cloud. You need to get off. Your attitude is costly for my life, and it cannot be allowed to continue.’

When I got up close I saw the creature had reptilian eyes and a self-satisfied leer. It winked at me and sucked on its roach. It didn’t speak, but roused itself enough to adjust the umbrella to keep the sun off its face. Then it idly threw the last of the roach into the warm turquoise sea. I lost my temper.

‘Well fuck you!’ I yelled.‘This isn’t fucking over yet, you know!’

 

STUFF FUCKING EVERYTHING

For a long time I slept with my teeth clenched, and woke each morning with an aching jaw. I couldn’t rouse myself enough to talk to anyone. I dreamed I was swimming in a turbulent sea and when I sank beneath the waves, my skirt became trapped under a rock.

I told no one I was ill. I thought that by telling someone I would make the diagnosis real. I lived alone then. My children were scattered across the world, and I was bereft of husbands and lovers. It was easy to keep a secret.

The dreams became worse. Apocalyptic, with tidal waves; angry wolves, soldiers, and smoking theatres of war littered with the limbless dead. I became afraid to fall sleep. I sat up at night watching infomercials on television and drinking red wine. In the early hours of the morning I’d swallow non-prescription calmatives. I didn’t consciously consider suicide, though I had it in mind if things became too bad, if pain became too bad further down the track.

A frightening aridity then took hold of me. My fevers were dry and wouldn’t break. My skin shrivelled. My eyes felt full of grit. My salivary glands reduced their output and my tongue, deprived of normal lubrication, became unwieldy and attached itself to the roof of my mouth as if both were lined with Velcro. I craved fluids and drank frequently and in large quantities. But the liquids brought no relief.

My spirit is burning itself out, I thought. I hadn’t anticipated this deathly dryness, this burning up, this slow progression towards grey ash.

Grim Reaper. By Brave Heart via flickr

‘I don’t know how long I’ve got,’ I realised in a rare moment of reflection and assessment. ‘What do I most want to do?’

I had infant grandchildren as yet unmet on the other side of the world. Why not take a trip and visit them? At this thought I was immediately afraid. Fear has always been my Achilles heel.

‘What if I get sick, really sick in a foreign country?’ I worried, as I walked the winter beach with my black and white dog.

‘But why does it matter where I get really sick?’ I argued back.’Does anywhere feel like home to me? Where do I belong, where have I ever belonged? Does it matter at all where I die?’

I considered these questions mostly in the abstract. As generalised philosophical meditations, as a scholar rather than a sufferer, and got nowhere.

There are times when knowledge fails to make the necessary journey from the head to the heart.

‘Stuff fucking everything,’ I thought one day, overwhelmed by circumstances of such magnitude that my mind rebelled against admitting them. And besides, I was beginning to bore myself. There is only so much time one can spend contemplating one’s death. It was now a time for action, not stasis.I also wanted very much to start smoking again after twenty-four years of abstinence, and that urge had to be resisted at all costs.

So, with what felt like my last reserves of self-care, I decided I would go to Mexico. My son the Chef lived on the Mexican Caribbean coast with the grandchildren I had yet to meet. What better journey could I make? And my best friend, Jane, agreed to join me there later in the year.

I stored my winter clothes in boxes. Where I was going it was always summer. I packed my bags and boarded the 10am Qantas flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, to Dallas, Forth Worth, and on to Cancún. A thrilling optimism took me over. No regrets! No tears goodbye! Hola! Buenos dias, senors y senoritas!

Flying into...

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