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.



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!’



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...



At some point in my lengthy journey, strapped into my economy seat in the metal capsule and buffeted by at times alarming turbulence, I listened to the Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black on my iPod, and remembered another journey in a Laotian fisherman’s longboat that took us down the Mekong to the city of Luang Prabang.

Slow boat to Pak Beng, Laos.

The longboat had no seats. For eight hours we sat on our backpacks and ate potato chips and drank Coca Cola and peed, when we absolutely had to, in a leaky bucket behind a blue plastic tarpaulin. Occasionally, we were overtaken by more luxurious craft whose Western passengers sat in comfort beside large windows at tables covered with white linen cloths. They lifted wine glasses to us as we waved at them or stuck up our middle fingers, depending on our level of political awareness, or resentment.

It has been my fate to always travel economy class. It’s been my ambition to travel business before I die. On one occasion I did spend the last hour of a long haul flight in rarefied business class air, owing to the fact that we were very late, I was probably going to miss my connection, and the business class seat was nearest to the door.

It’s another world up here, I reflected as I occupied myself pushing buttons to see what would happen. I don’t think they even feel turbulence up here, I thought. The real business class people looked at me in disdain. Their seats turned into beds, and they had sheets and blankets and pyjamas. There is nothing in a Western democracy that comes even close to making one aware of the privileges of class and wealth as does the experience of flying.

The time that separates me from my death dwindles and dwindles…

At our destination there was no jetty, and we crawled on all fours up the steep  riverbank with our packs on our backs. The Laotians were not so interested in the comfort of Western economy class travellers at that time.

Later, having experienced the French colonial delights of Luang Prabang, we took a mini bus to Phonsovan in the north of the country. How we wept when we saw the Plain of Jars. The napalmed landscape, the bomb craters outside the caves where village families hid, collateral damage in the secret war. The children who are still injured today by landmines, as they play in the fields. That desolate, windswept Russian airstrip.

The Plain of Jars, Laos.

What will happen to us? Is death other than silence and nothingness?

All the way down the Mekong, wired for sound, I alternated between the Stones, Credence Clearwater, Dylan, and the Brahms and Mendelssohn Cello Sonatas. I tried to imagine a mind that thought to napalm jungles, in order to give its enemy no place to hide. Such a mind must fancy it owns the rights to the world.

The Mekong is a wide and swirling river, and the energies of the war had not yet been dispersed. In Vientiane, at dusk, I ate fish barbequed on the riverbank, drank Laotian beer, and watched the flaming sun sink into the Mekong’s muddy waters.

‘You ate fish?’ yelled my friend, who always travels business class, when I told her of my adventures. ‘You ate fish caught in the Mekong? Don’t you know what goes into the Mekong? What is wrong with you?’

I wondered then if a sense of adventure might indeed be nurtured by a mild lack of economic choice, and if the cushion of plenty is in some way a deprivation. I have as yet no answer to that question.



But I digress. Cancún, I discovered, is a city of sprawling hotels built on a narrow neck of sand between the sea and a vast lagoon. Many hotels were still in ruins after Hurricane Wilma wrought her havoc the previous year. During that hurricane, my entire family went missing for several days. Even The Adventurer was lost, as he was visiting his brother when the hurricane struck. Our foreign minister at the time said that people who choose to live in hurricane-prone areas only have themselves to blame. This did not endear him to us. An otherwise cagey fellow from Foreign Affairs let slip that there were some fifty Australians unaccounted for in Cancún.

Cancun. By Carlos Mejfa Greene via flickr

‘The foreign minister is an arse,’ I informed the cagey bloke on the phone. ‘Where are my children? My grandchildren? Two generations! What is the bloody embassy playing at?’

I had midnight calls from other mothers whose children were missing. An entire football team, no less. Complete strangers, we kept vigils together, and together we cursed the foreign minister.

We heard that our embassy staff in Mérida had no satellite phone, and had to borrow one off a media crew.

It was the media who found the missing. Very early one morning the phone rang and someone from the national broadcaster said ‘Would you like to speak to your son, Jennifer?’ and I was reunited with The Chef on breakfast radio. The Adventurer, it turned out, wasn’t in Cancún after all.

Mexican Caribbean

‘Tell him,’ I told The Chef on air, ‘that he’s in deep excrement for not letting us know where he is.’

‘Wherever you are, young man,’ the announcer chortled, ‘your mum’s Not Happy. Wouldn’t come home for a while if I were you!’

I recall the anxiety of those days and nights. The disbelief. The bargaining with any and every transcendental exteriority to let them all be safe. The certain knowledge that if I lost them, I would not care to live another day in this world.

Now, when I hear of terrorist attacks and natural disasters that claim the lives of loved ones far away, I think of those left to make a life after such unimaginable losses.

One does not know when death will come. What will come? With what does death threaten me? With nothingness or recommencement? I do not know.



The ruined structures of luxury Cancún hotels looked liked carelessly autopsied bodies, their innards swinging in the wind, their coiled intestines littering the white sand, their soggy internal organs of carpet, silk drapes, and ruined mattresses revealed half buried in the beach at every change of tide.I found these images of sudden disintegration disturbing. They activated some deep, inarticulate horror in me to do with the inevitable disintegration of all my personal systems: what use this liver, these arteries, this dead and silent heart?

Hurricane Wilma. By Brent Ozar via flickr

The newly built facades were painted in pastel shades, soft hued against the intense cerulean sky, elaborately decorated with white balconies, turrets and national flags. They sat alongside shopping malls that soared towards the white-hot sky like conquistador cathedrals, like the pyramids at Chichen Itza, imbued with spiritual purpose.

It was impossible to see the ocean beyond them. These temples were decorated with icons stories high of Uma Thurman and Nicole Kidman sporting Tag Heuer watches on their frail white wrists, spraying Chanel perfume on their fragile, milky necks, wearing Prada and vintage Yves St Laurent on their stick-like figures. The blonde-ness, the whiteness, the anorexic thinness of these Western movie goddesses could have little resonance for Mexican women, I thought.

Imported from a distant cultural cosmos, a twenty-first century colonisation, another Western invasion of the Yucatan landscape along with the pyramid-shaped hotels with their infinity pools, their manicured lawns and their beachside cabanas with wet bars and white-coated Mexican waiters serving exotic drinks in hollowed-out green coconuts decorated with gaudy miniature umbrellas and fresh tropical fruit.

It was just the kind of place I’d imagined the Lymphoma taking its holidays, I realised one day.





For some time in Cancún I was dogged by a sorrowful anxiety that could only be relieved by the presence of my grandchildren. Every day I walked in the garden with Jean-Paul, who liked to put his doll, George, in Lila’s toy pram and wheel him round the swimming pool.It was Jean-Paul’s habit to take several steps then stop, lifting his head as if listening for instructions from some invisible galactic being, then gently and wordlessly tugging at my hand as if to let me know it was time to move on.

Once I asked him what he could hear: he gazed at me from under his fringe and slowly shook his head. I was not to ask, he was not permitted to tell.

His sister Lila was of a more boisterous disposition and kept up a breathless chatter in a mixture of English and Spanish that I found difficult to understand. It was their touch that comforted me: their silky skin, their small hands confidently placed in mine, their baby breath on my face as they whispered secrets in my ear, their violent embraces around my knees; their sweaty night-time bodies that I carried to the bathroom where they peed, dutifully, with their eyes still closed.

‘Ganga,’ they sighed when I put them back to bed. ‘I want water, Ganga,’ then they turned on their sides and sucked the middle fingers of their right hands as they fell back into sleep.



It was in a Cancún shopping mall that I first thought, while contemplating the purchase of a pair of Mexican leather boots ‘I won’t live long enough to get my money’s worth.’ The notion didn’t alarm me: I felt a resignation that had the seeds of acceptance contained within it, the hope that I’d get past the dark emotions and into a more peaceful state. That was my intention: to die at peace.

Most of the time this prospect seemed highly unlikely: the rage I felt at the possibility of losing my life too soon consumed everything. I had no clear idea of what ‘too soon’ meant: before my grandchildren had children? Before I’d done all the work I wanted to do? Before I’d learned to dance the tango, grown in my hair, finished reading Proust, been back to London, swum in the South China Sea?

Tango Couple. By Raphael Koerich via flickr

Inside the shopping malls, water fountains high as the tinted glass ceilings played and tinkled, while tropical fish swam in backlit pools. Lush atriums provided relief for eyes stretched and wearied by endless displays of diamonds, Colombian emeralds, pearls, turquoise and silver. Such palaces are commonplace in all the world’s cities: one could spend a lifetime selecting and buying but what does it mean when Aladdin’s treasure-filled cave is replicated in every city of the world, and every dusty old bottle contains a genie?

I saw frivolity everywhere, and a defiant ignorance that I recognised as an aspect of my younger self. These sights provoked in me an envy I could hardly bear. Didn’t anyone think about dying? How could I speak with that woman in the dress shop, that man buying cheese, how could I speak in a language they would understand?

Once I was one of them, but now there was nothing in common left between us. In the desolate hours of one of my numbered mornings I read:

When he had retired for the night, Sextius would question his soul: What bad habit have you cured today? What fault have you resisted? In what respect are you better?

My courage failed me at the thought of the thousands of my days and nights yet to be accounted for.



I cut my finger. I observe the swell of blood. I exercise my right to temporarily renegotiate and open up the borders of my physical being and admit that threat, the infection-laden air. I can’t see the small, cleaved cells that voyage within and are the hallmark of the disease. The cells may enlarge, the white blood count become unacceptably high; the platelet count may drop below what is reasonable. This is an entity running its own race.  A life-form doing whatever it needs to do to survive. This disease has agency. It will act on its own behalf without regard to my wishes. It makes itself at home, circulates at will, takes free rides to all destinations up and down the river of my blood, polluted as the Mekong.

Cancer cell. By Michaela 33via flickr

Disease is spatial: a rapacious explorer of the body’s geography. Inside me, in places where no one has been, where the human eye alone can’t seek it out.

Sometimes, I imagine slicing open the veins in my arms and watching while my diseased blood flows out.

‘Go,’ I might say, ‘ you aren’t trapped in this body anymore. And neither am I. Go in peace.




One of the unexpected side effects of my diagnosis was an intense sensitivity to the use of figurative language about death. As I began the labour of ‘coming to terms with’ the incomprehensible finality of my final ending, I wondered how anything at all could be likened to that ending.

‘I feel like death,’ said a hung-over friend, and I pounced. ‘How do you know what death feels like?’ I demanded at high volume. ‘Nobody knows that. How can you say that, how can you be so careless and imprecise about death, for god’s sake?’

There can be no adequate signifier. The use of figurative language is a significant factor in the construction of implicit and explicit beliefs about death. But there is nothing in life for which death can be asked to metaphorically stand. Nothing.

Mute canary. By _Why via flickr

The metaphor translates death into mere absence, and absence always implies the possibility of return, but as Freud reminds us, life is a game in which there is no return match.  The attempt to tame death’s untameable exteriority is an attempt that is always and forever doomed to failure. It is sentimentality (in the sense of the mawkish, the shallow) that allows me to convince myself that death is at all manageable through language, but language struggles to deny death’s silence, to make banal its immense gravity.

A close friend died. I saw him laid out in his coffin, dressed in his favourite Hawaiian shirt, his face a healthy rose, as it certainly had not been during the last days of his life. I bent to kiss his cold and wax-like forehead. I drew back in confusion. He was present, and he was entirely absent. Is this what will happen? I wondered. Somebody will dress me in my best frock and paint my lips red, and my children will rear back in confusion from my cold and wax-like cheeks?

Because we’re alive, we inhabit the country of the living; that which is beyond, outside, we don’t have the heart to believe.



Head banging in the bathroom. By Marieke Kuilier via flickr


During the many moments when I’m overcome with terror, I have a favourite spot in the kitchen in the corner by the cupboards, on the floor. There I howl, or sit crumpled and silent on my haunches. I am losing my life. This is what I know. This woman, named Jennifer, whom I have been for all these years, will cease to exist in this world, and that is more than enough cause for grief and indignation.

When I was a child I wanted to be as good as an angel. My grandfather called me ‘our angel.’ But I’ve  fallen from the starry heavens and lost my snow-white wings, and my heart’s sense of its true direction. It was too big a burden, that name. Who could ever live up to it?

Wings of Desire. By late night movie via flickr

I’m losing my life. This is what I know.

I sit in the hot Mexican sun, beside the pool in the gardens of The Chef’s apartment building. I think about these serious matters and I gaze at my fingernails. These fingernails no longer seem to entirely belong to me. An unexpected distance has recently emerged between my physical being, and my sense of ownership of it. I’m struggling to understand that I will be parting company from these fingernails.

Not to mention parting company from my heart, which I can’t think about because that brings me utterly undone, carrying as it does far more emotional weight than any fingernail.

All I can find in the most hidden part of myself is the unsayable longing to love and be loved. Unsayable because I can find no way to express this yearning that doesn’t diminish it in the saying with fatuous simplicity, and the hollow echoes of the sentimental. But at bottom, that’s all and everything there is, and can ever be. And without it, what good is anything?

Who would have believed that we have so many tears?



It was the time of the football World Cup, and Jane had now joined me on Isla Mujeres, an island off the coast of Cancún. In every hotel foyer, café and restaurant, a television played and replayed the matches. We sat in a small bar hung with Mexican flags and watched the Italians steal victory from the jaws of the Australian team. The Mexicans were sympathetic, and gave us beer and coffee for free.

It wasn’t fair, they said, at least, that’s what we thought they said. Neither of us had much Spanish.

Virgin of Guadeloupe. By Abbey Hambright via flickr

That evening I took a walk alone around the village square. A large, blue-robed Virgin Mary sat atop the church, her arms wide open in welcome, her halo seriously askew from the hurricane. I went inside, sat in the back pew, and listened to the late mass. I cried, hard, into my hands. I had no handkerchief, and had to wipe my nose on the sleeves of my shirt.

As in many Mexican churches, the statues were clothed. Jesus wore white linen robes, the saints rough brown cloth. The Virgin of Guadeloupe sported red and green velvet, and showers of gold stars surrounded her dark hair. The priest sang sonorously in Spanish, the smell of incense hung heavy in the air and mingled with the scents of hundreds of flowers surrounding the altar. At the end of the mass I slipped out of the church and walked to the sea wall. I leaned my elbows on its rough surface and gazed out across the ocean. The light from a half moon cast a silvery path that led to the horizon.

By Chris Mitchell via flickr

I could walk on that path, I thought. In my bare feet, lightly, I could walk that silver path. I could sail through that calm and shining water in a small boat with a blue sail, alone at the tiller, save for a faithful dog in the bow looking out towards the future.

‘I am in Mexico,’ I whispered.

It had taken on the power of a mantra. A secret incantation that returned me to myself, and set me firmly in the present.

‘I am in Mexico.’



The Lymphoma is an entity to me, a separate being with whom I have had to develop a relationship. Initially I considered it to be an invader, but it hadn’t come to me from outside: I had nurtured it myself. Influenced by my doctors, I saw it as an enemy that had to be defeated through the combined efforts of oncologists, haematologists, chemotherapy and my own determination. I imagined speaking with it again. This time I found it lying in a purple Mexican hammock suspended between two coconut trees on the edge of an azure sea. Somewhere out of sight I could hear maracas, and a soulful guitar.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘if I die, you die. How about that?’

The Lymphoma was stretched full length with its legs crossed at the ankles, its arms behind its head. A large cigar protruded from the corner of its mouth. Up close, its skin resembled that of a crocodile, and its heavily lidded eyes were yellow with a dark centre. It leered at me.

‘So?’ it whispered.

The creature rolled its cigar around its mouth to the other side, revealing a glimpse of brilliant white teeth like the reconstructed choppers of a Hollywood mogul. Gucci loafers, without socks, I thought. If you were wearing shoes.

‘Honey, now you know you won’t do anything to trouble us,’ it drawled.

Louisiana Bayou. By J.R. Meeker via Wikimedia

Its accent was southern USA, maybe Louisiana, heavy with the humid languor of the bayous. It was a voice designed to bewitch, to entice the innocent into the enchanted swamp, where lichen-spotted trees, their branches swathed in Spanish moss, stood half-submerged in murky waters. A voice that could lull one into abandoning all sense and reason. A low, mellifluous, honey-sweetened voice that caused everything it said to be filled with portent, and delectable promise. How easy it would be, I thought. How easy to slide into its world, to relinquish all responsibility, to relinquish my very self. The prospect of such abandonment flooded me with warmth that was sexual in its intensity, in its promise of release. It is possible, I’d read, during one of my restless and enormously interesting nights, to transform the wish to die into an overwhelming and unspeakable feeling of love…

The Lymphoma was silent. Beyond its hammock I saw the turquoise sea, its depths marked by indigo blooms.

I do not want to leave this earth.  I do not want to tell it goodbye.

‘Well, fuck you and fuck you again!’ I yelled at last, as I turned and ran. ‘This isn’t over yet!’

But even in the midst of my flight I was forced to recognise that this was only bluster on my part, and in truth, I was much troubled, and lost in all my ways.





After this encounter, something shifted. I began to cry with ease. While this was surely a relief to my parched system, I didn’t feel any better. I was now choking on the liquids of despair. At the same time my fevers broke and I woke each night trembling, my bedclothes drenched, sweat pooling beneath my breasts, running down my thighs. This was as exhausting as the earlier aridity. I would burn or I would drown, it seemed, like the country in which I’ve lived my life.

But in the deserts of my country, what beauty flowers after the drenching downpours for just a brief, intense time?



When he was mastering his craft, The Chef went to culinary school in Paris. Here he learned how to spin boiling sugar into the shape of peacocks and dragons. To the peacock he added blue dye, and gave it a tail of many colours. The dragon, however, he left a transparent caramel. Light shone through the dragon, it glowed and seemed to tremble. For these marvels, The Chef was rewarded with gold and silver medals in international competitions. The medals hung round his neck on thick ribbons of blue and red and white. Nobody knew where his extraordinary talent had come from. But I remember the blond-haired little boy I discovered early in the morning when he thought everyone was sleeping, mixing flour and salt and vegemite and butter in a plastic bowl on the kitchen floor of our terrace house in Newtown and saying, as I knelt down beside him, ‘Look, Mum, I made a cake.’

Oh love, that will not let me go.

There are things I would like to say to The Chef and The Adventurer before I die. Protocols silence me: these things are perhaps too intimate for young men to hear from their mother.

When you were an infant,’ I’d like to say, ‘I used to hear you cry as I sat in the autumn sun under the peach tree in the courtyard your father and I built the summer before you were born. I’d hear you cry from your cradle in the yellow nursery, through the white window frames and the floating cotton curtains. When I heard you, milk flooded my breasts. They swelled and stung, my nipples rose up hard and spurted fountains: the front of my shirt grew dark and soaked. All this at the sound of your waking cry!’

The suckling child‘

(Ah! That was The Adventurer. So-called because of his penchant for getting himself embroiled in sticky situations in foreign countries. Once, working for the UN in refugee camps in Tanzania, he tried to teach the children to play football. ‘Their eyes, Mum,’ he emailed. ‘They are so scary, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’ Months later he came home, shaken in body and soul, and riddled with intestinal worms after a diet of goat. ‘There were dead babies lying on the side of the road,’ he told me after weeks of traumatised silence. ‘Nobody did anything. They just left them there covered in flies, dying like road kill. They were babies. Mum. Mum…’).

Everyone’s dying. It’s just that when you discover you’ve got a terminal illness, the notion of dying gets right in your face. What will I care about on the day that I die? How much I have learned? How much I have loved or failed to love? Is there any end to all these questions?



We left Cancún on election day bound for San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the mountains of Chiapas. In the bus station the air conditioning had broken down. Jane and I sat on blue plastic chairs, fanning ourselves with magazines.

Shortly before we left the city, my daughter-in-law, Amanda, discovered she was pregnant with their third child. She decided she wanted us to do what Mexican families do at such times: everyone, including the abuelas, accompanies the mother to her first obstetric visit. We dressed Lila and Jean-Paul in their best clothes, The Chef came home early from his kitchens and we trooped off to the American Hospital where we sat in the waiting room with middle class Mexican families, waiting our turn for the doctor.

When it came, we all filed into the doctor’s office and sat in a row against the wall while the linguistically gifted Chef translated for us. Jean-Paul and Lila investigated every inch of the room, crawled under the desk, untied the doctor’s shoelaces and made a lot of noise. The Mexican obstetrician took it all in his stride, and gave the children sticky sweets that they spat out on the floor, Mexican sweets usually being laced with generous doses of chili.

Johnny Rockets. By Rupert Ganzier via flickr

It was a glorious moment when we all crowded round the monitor and for the first time saw the new infant forming itself in Amanda’s womb. I understood then what it really meant to be an abuela, to feel the continuance of generation after generation, to be an elder with a part to play in the wellbeing of a young and growing family.

There wasn’t a lot of time to enjoy this feeling. Lila and Jean-Paul were at the end of their tolerance for adult concerns.

‘Give them to me,’ I said.

The Chef handed them over and the three of us went off to Johnny Rocket’s at La Isla mall where we ate American ice cream and watched uptown Mexican children dressed in cool Gap clothes in New York colours eat sundaes and drink Coca Cola. I thought about the coming baby, whose heartbeat I had watched on the grainy monitor. I thought about the unrelenting cycle of life from birth through to death, and where my place was now in this cycle.



Winter in Stockholm. By Martin Ptacek via flickr


I was once in Helsinborg, Sweden. It was Christmas. On a fine day I could see the castle of Elsinore across the strait. Take arms against a sea of troubles, says the Prince of Denmark, and by opposing, end them. My host was named Herje. He drove a black Mercedes. Why don’t you drive a Saab, I asked him? Herje told me that in Sweden everyone knows that each snowflake is different from every other. How can that be so? I asked him. Is the snowflake like a human life, each one different, each one unique, and lost forever when it’s gone? Herje laughed. He drove me to a forest of silver birch and there, in a shaft of winter sunlight, we saw a herd of moose, their antlered heads raised, alert to human scent, ready to flee.

After Christmas I returned to Stockholm. The city was a fairyland with rose pink palaces and gold spires, copper steeples and green domes, gorgeous beyond anything I could have imagined. Snow lay over all things, granting them the fleeting gift of beauty. The river had turned to ice. Boats were held captive. I was cold, cold as I walked across the bridges that connect the islands that make up Stockholm. The wind seared my mucus membranes. I was dressed in a long black wool coat, and a black faux fur hat. A lilac scarf covered my mouth. In the Gamla Stan I saw elegant women with high cheekbones, their slender bodies wrapped in furs. I ached with loneliness as I watched every little snowflake drift down the windows of the café where I had gone to drink hot chocolate, and warm myself. The unique little snowflake, one of a kind that in its brief but intense life makes even the ugliest object beautiful for a while.

It’s the totality of the loss that I find impossible to comprehend. Leaving my children and everyone I love. Taking leave of this great and good earth. And leaving my very self! Do we all take with us our unique handle on things, and then everyone left behind is a little less for the loss of our point of view?  Or is this just the idle fancy of a desperate solipsist, overcome by the horror of imagining a world without me in it? Who can contemplate all this loss with any equilibrium? Not this little snowflake, Herje. Not this little snowflake.

Our immortality is: not-believing-in-death. This doesn’t stop us from trembling.



Isla Mujeres, Mexico


We were on our way to San Cristóbal on the recommendation of an American woman from Texas, who we met one day in the cemetery on Isla Mujeres. Jane and I were draped like a bunch of wilting leafy greens over a tomb decorated with a lurid painting of Jesus’ bleeding heart and several jars of plastic flowers. A sea grape tree offered dappled shade.

Sacred Heart. N. Currier via Wikimedia

How stupid were we, we complained, to have decided to visit the Caribbean in July? My eyes ached from the adamantine brilliance of the sun on white surfaces. Little things were beginning to take on big proportions. Our stomachs were unstable, unaccustomed to the amount of chili we’d been consuming. We weren’t ill, but we were off our game and sniping at one another. A naval brass band began to play stridently in the street beyond the cemetery wall. We dragged ourselves off the tomb and went over to the wall for a look. A ceremony was underway beneath the quaint lighthouse. Men dressed in naval whites with gold braid stood at attention, accompanied by their female consorts, in high heels, pale hats, and gloves. The turquoise Caribbean shimmered in the background between the palm fronds. The band was painfully discordant.

We had wandered into a Latin American novel: I fully expected the dead to rise up and make ribald commentary. Instead, Bonnie appeared from behind a gravestone, and told us about San Cristóbal. As we listened, sudden rapid gunfire sent all three of us looking for cover. All the crypts were padlocked, so we threw ourselves on the sand, imagining a military coup as a consequence of everyone being aggravated by the election. But the sailors were merely firing blanks at the hot sky, and a battered helicopter soon alighted to take the dignitaries home. You never know, Bonnie said as we dusted ourselves off, feeling very foolish. You assume the worst till you find out otherwise in this country, she said. How smart would it be to stand around and get shot? She demanded. Not at all smart, we agreed.

Bonnie sang the praises of the mountainous cool of San Cristóbal, and we decided it was time to see another Mexico.

That night, our last on Isla Mujeres, I lay wakeful in my bed. Through the window I watched the moon, wreathed in a gauze shawl of light, lifting cloud. Then the English couple in the room next door began to fight.

‘For the last twenty years,’ the woman sobbed, ‘I’ve protected you. Twenty years of my life wasted, protecting you. And what have I got to show for it? What? What?’

Divorce cake. By Dr John Bullas via flickr

There was a long silence, broken only by her dreadful weeping. Then the man said, slowly, defensively:

‘But we only lived there because you wanted to. I could have done a lot more with my career if we’d lived somewhere else, a bigger city. We only lived in that backwater because you wanted to.’

‘Oh!’ shouted the woman. ‘Oh! How can you say such a thing! My God, my God, my God!’

Her lamentations sounded as if they were set to go on for some time. I crept out of bed and rummaged in my backpack until I found my earplugs.

‘Everybody thinks there’s something wrong with you, you know,’ the woman was now informing her partner. ‘I have to make excuses for you and nobody wants to come to dinner anymore because you hog all the conversation and never let anyone else have an opinion,’

She blew her nose.

‘Wait a minute!’ the man snapped to attention, on full alert.

‘Who is everybody?’ he demanded. ‘Who is nobody? Tell me. You tell me right now the names of the people who won’t come to dinner anymore! You tell me!’

The next morning, on my way to the beach, I saw them, stiff and tense at a table in the café. I waved, and they turned their faces away. The morning was still, the Caribbean blue-green glass. I stood at the ocean’s edge. I watched the blue and pink princess fish chase after tiddlers. I saw an ancient turtle swimming by. I concentrated on the rhythms of the sea, and breathed with its gentle surges. Gradually, I felt myself become one with the salty waters. Our pulses beat in time. Sunlight bounced off the ocean’s surface and spun into the sky like a million tiny spirits. I could see the air: minute, brilliant particles engaged in a vigorous and unceasing dance around one another. I knew then that I was in the midst of exquisite life, teeming life, life without end, life that could never end, glowing, glittering, leaping, shining, spinning, flinging and flying, in the eternal movement of the eternal dance. For a moment, I got it. For a moment, I understood everything.

Such moments are hardly bearable. They aren’t sustainable; their intensity is more than the human heart can contain. My human heart, anyway. I’m unused to bliss. That night I read: The soul stands on unassailable grounds, if it has abandoned external things…



Treatment. I take the fold of belly skin in my left hand and with my right I inject the colourless liquid.  At first, my squeamishness was hard to overcome, and I asked others to do this for me. But I quickly resented the indignity, and the lack of independence. I learned to self-medicate. I like that phrase. It sounds as if I am in charge. With so much out of my control, administering to myself a little needle in the belly counts as independence.

Injections. By Mayu ;P via flickr

The liquid is an attempt to rouse my immune system and persuade it to take some action of its own against the Lymphoma’s colonisation. This system has been too benign for its own good, welcoming the enemy. Now the invaders have pitched their tents, hunkered down for the long haul, scouted outposts, the better to further their colonising intentions.

I had intended to give up the metaphors of war. Disease is just disease. It has no meaning outside of that I imagine for it. The persona I’ve created for the Lymphoma is belligerent and full of bad intention. What I ought to be doing is considering it as wayward, and needing gentle correction. As ignorant, and needing wise counsel. As lost, and needing my redemptive love.

As merely disease with no needs at all, only my need to practically address it so I can live the life I want.

David explained, when he persuaded me to try this treatment, that it might achieve nothing. Unlike chemotherapy, which I have finally rejected as being in my experience worse than death (thereby falling into a metaphoric trap of my own making) this treatment seeks to encourage the immune system, rather than destroy it. The colourless liquid makes me ill, with flu-like symptoms that are debilitating. Over time, I will adjust, David says. Our relationship has improved considerably since I accepted something he offered without my usual complaints and interrogations.



The space where language cannot go. The threshold language may not cross. A profoundly solemn space, if it is permitted to be so, simply by virtue of its incontestably infinite silence. This space is beyond my grasp. It utterly confounds me. Metaphor demands truth, otherwise it is meaningless, or worse, misleading and complicit in disguising rather than revealing the nature of death. Metaphor’s task is to enhance my imaginative comprehension, not to obfuscate and deny. The linguistic charm that holds off death’s reality with its reassuring implication, made familiar through constant repetition, that by the metaphor’s very existence the qualities of death can be known, belies the reality: that the imagination cannot contain death.

Empty Rooms. By Gregory MC via flickrt

My daily life is conducted in the shadow of this false assumption of death’s knowability. The consoling metaphor seduces me with its promise of absence, rather than annihilation. Where in this living world will I find a place where I might dwell in the mysteries of death’s infinite silence, free from the imposition of meaning and description?

Death has no language that the living can know.

Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity.

That which we repress necessarily becomes our obsession.



On my desk there is a photograph of a print by Quint Buchholz. It portrays a tightrope walker in the moonlight. He has strolled off the steep gables of a house on his rope, and is caught in the act of taking his next step out into clear space. He holds his rope above his head and steps confidently towards the full moon with one foot, the other momentarily at rest on his rope. There is no doubt in my mind that he will walk on air.

Quint Buccholz. By true2source via flickr

The lemon moonlight shivers, silver on the underside of the rope and the soles of his feet. The night sky is grey and green, with traces of creamy clouds behind the houses. The moon’s face is softened and diffused, as if we are viewing it through a Vaselined lens. I look at this print and I think I will do that. I will let go of my tightrope and I will step off the gables of the construction that is my life and in blind trust, in full faith, I will walk towards the moon.

If I fall, I will not care. It will be the act of faith alone that is my salvation, not its outcome. This is my body. This is my soul. They will not yet be divided.




In San Cristóbal de Las Casas we visited the markets in the courtyard of the Templo de Santo Domingo. A crowd had gathered around a shaman who was milking a rattlesnake into a plastic beaker. Another rattlesnake lay at his feet, half hidden in a pillowcase. Jane whispered that the reptiles must be drugged, they were so compliant. A dead armadillo, its entrails beginning to stink in the midday sun, lay beside the shaman’s canvas bag. The shaman added water to the rattlesnake venom. Then he held the snake aloft by its head. It shook its rattle in a dispirited way. With a flourish, the shaman flung the snake back into its pillowcase.  He then offered the plastic beaker to his audience to sample. Nobody came forward. He berated them. The pillowcase undulated as the snakes got comfortable. Then a young Westerner, with long blonde hair in tight ringlets that hovered like an aura about his head, took the beaker and drank.

Zocalo, San Cristobel. By Leonardo Canon

A cry went up from the indigenous watchers.

‘He’ll die, or get sick,’ I whispered to Jane.

A snake eased its way out of confinement. We jumped, shrieking, and knocked into everyone behind us. The shaman threw another rag over the snake. We crowded back to watch the young man finish the liquid in the beaker. He returned it to the shaman, and walked off down the road. He wore canvas shoes with no socks, and his ankles were filthy.

The next day we saw him dancing on the cathedral steps. From then on we saw him everywhere in San Cristóbal. Like a jester, he strolled through the old town in a rainbow-coloured velvet jacket and ragged jeans, playing a tune of his own invention on a wooden flute, his fair hair flying about his head. Sometimes a girl was with him, beating a small drum that hung on a ribbon round her neck. Dogs and children followed them and settled at their feet when they stopped to rest in the zocalo. Once I heard them speaking to each other. I thought their language was Swedish, but I couldn’t be sure. I thought his mother must surely worry about him. I guessed he didn’t think to stay in touch.



It was time to leave Mexico. My journey was long, and full of terrible regret. When I boarded the last leg of my Qantas flight the steward said, ‘Welcome home, Dr. Wilson.’ I found my seat and wept my way across the Pacific. Home? When my heart had abandoned me to stay behind in Mexico?

It was August, and cold in Australia. I unpacked my winter clothes. I returned to the hospital in the city. I felt Mexico slipping further and further away from me. Gracias por todo, senors y senoritas. Nos divertimos mucho, pero ya me despido.

The new infant is born to us, and my heart opens to embrace a third grandchild. Is there really no limit to our capacity for love? Can it be true that love is infinite?

Baby just born

And now I have discovered this, will it be easier or harder to take leave of the loved ones?

After a combination of Western and Chinese medicine, I am in remission. We have now entered a calm phase of Watchful Waiting over the sleeping Lymphoma. I am as taken with the poetry of this phrase as I was with the poetry of the Indolence. Watchful Waiting, I whisper to myself as I leave David’s office. The phrase makes me feel cherished. I realise that I’ve left behind me the metaphors of war, though when and how I cannot say.




And the ship sails on. By Gerry D. via flickr

After I received the news, I took a night walk around Sydney Harbour with a friend. A white ocean liner had recently docked. Brilliantly lit, the liner’s reflection trembled in watery radiance. The yellow crescent moon, a diamond star cradled in its curve, hung in the sky like a jewel displayed on obsidian taffeta. Passengers in their cruising finery lined the decks. On shore, a band played songs of welcome. It was like a scene from a Fellini movie I once saw.

‘I wish I was one of those passengers,’ I told my friend. ‘I wish I was seeing this city for the first time.’

‘Do it anyway,’ he said. ‘Imagine you are seeing it for the first time.’

And so I did. The world as I’d known it underwent an immediate transformation. It became my own creation, to love or despise, to understand or disregard.

There is a pleasure, I read one night, that arises out of ourselves and within ourselves…given as a woven fabric and once given, no event can rend it.

As I gazed at the harbour with my newly-opened eyes, I felt this pleasure gently rise in me and settle itself around the chewed and ragged edges of my heart, as if it had been waiting like a patient animal for admittance and shelter from the night’s rains.

‘Hey,’ I whispered to my friend. ‘I think my ship’s come in.’

I write this as a dying woman. There is a foreign country that is my final destination, whose language I can never know. But I do not believe the love and beauty of that unknown country can be greater than that my heart has known in its brief time in this world.

I’ve found no answers to my questions. Perhaps the point has been in the asking. Whatever death presents me, be it nothingness or recommencement, I have had this time in which to live my dying, and who could ask for more than that?

And I am happy on days like these, and endings, even in the midst of their contemplation, seem very far away.

Our Father, which art in heaven

Stay there

And we shall stay on earth

Which is sometimes so pretty.


Harold Brodkey. This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death.

Emmanuel Levinas. Useless Suffering. The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other. R. Bernasconi & D. Woods (Eds).

Harold Brodkey.

Emmanuel Levinas.

Seneca. Letters From a Stoic.

Hélène Cixous. Stigmata: Escaping Texts.


Michel Foucault. The Passion of Michel Foucault. James Miller.

Christian Hymn

Hélène Cixous.

Seneca. Letters From a Stoic.

Walter Benjamin. Illuminations.

Seneca. Letters From a Stoic.

Jacques Prévert. Pater Noster.

3 Responses to “I must be alive ’cos my heart’s still beating.”

  1. g.oosterman January 31, 2011 at 4:00 am #

    ‘Un cri de coeur.’ Thank you.


  2. Michelle Fahy January 31, 2011 at 4:57 am #

    Jennifer – this is one of the most powerful and moving pieces of non-fiction I’ve read in absolute ages. Congratulations – and thank you for sharing it. I am so glad I have subscribed to your blog – you are an inspiration as a writer – particularly as I am embarking on a non-fiction project of my own this year. Do you know of the annual Calibre Prize (an essay competition run by Australian Book Review each year)? This would be a fabulous entry. Very best wishes, Michelle.


  3. Jennifer Wilson January 31, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    Gerard and Michelle,
    Thank you for reading this – and thank you for responding. I very much appreciate your words.


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