Category Archives: Darks

Sink or swim

I don’t know how to start this post. Usually when I write it’s the ending that throws me – how to tie everything up in a succinct sentence that leaves an air of interest in further words. I am sorry, but there will be no foreplay. Today I just need to get this done. I don’t even have any graphics! Well, except the photo stock one I got from the net. Sorry, Launderers. I hope you’ll stay for the words even without the pretty pictures.

In my last post I was very touched to have had some people reach out and offer me some kind and reassuring words, mainly to assist with my self-perception. I appreciate this immensely. How lucky am I to have both friends and strangers who would take the time to put their thoughts into writing and share these with me. To those of you who did – thank you. Because of your kindness, I vowed to try to embody this quality more as well, and embarked on being more approachable, sending more Facebook friend requests and volunteering to listen when someone needed to chat (I won’t lie, there were mixed results and some of my friend requests have gone unrequited – I am not sure what this says about me or my Facebook profile but I am open to feedback). I truly hope no one ever feels that his or her kindness is wasted on me, but in saying that, I need to be honest and say that I rarely, if ever, believe what I am told when it is kind. And although I am sure I am not alone in that particular quirk, my reason for having this issue seem to always point to one annoying thing.

Irritatingly for me (and others, I imagine), the peak of my self-worth has historically been related to my upbringing. I have lived with a somewhat polarizing notion that people other than your parents can raise you and that the effect of this arrangement will not detrimentally affect your life. But I am just not sure I believe my own hype: On the one hand is the very valid argument that as long as a child has love, has its immediate needs met and has a permanent network of support to help shape them as they grow, then the fact that someone other than their birth parents raised them is largely beside the point. In theory, I absolutely agree with this argument. I say in theory, because although I have encountered through work and broader community links many people who have been raised under this kind of arrangement, and many children who are loved by their families and who love them in return, in my immediate social circle I have literally only met two people who were in a similar situation as me. They were both being raised by their grandparents.

One of those people is in jail. The other committed suicide.

I do not say this to be dramatic. The above should not be construed as a causal link. Plenty of people are raised families outside their birth ones and it is a blessing for all concerned. It was absolutely a blessing for me. But in my particular experience I have tried so very hard to believe the argument that I was lucky, and that it wasn’t that bad (it was great!), that somewhere down the line I started becoming uncertain as to whether I actually believed what I was saying. In hindsight, perhaps I had just been too eager to drink the socially acceptable Kool-Aid that would guarantee me a spot at the table for people who are respected by others because they do not possess that irritating quirk of feeling sorry for oneself. The people who just “get on with it”.

Regardless of how this all came about, there have in recent times been extenuating circumstances that all but prevented anything in the way of self-reflection on this topic, especially over the past six years. There was a time in my early twenties where once a week I would dutifully meet with the therapist who has helped to shape my emotionally lumpy ball of clay into something more clarified and beautiful. I worked hard to sort my shit out at the time – shit that was largely related to my absent parents and the effects of how their relationships with me influenced my relationships with others. It was important groundwork that allowed me to actually remedy some flawed belief systems in order to live more of an authentic, free life. And luckily for me, that also meant the chance to have lots of sex with lots of boys without the guilt of thinking I had to be in a relationship first. I was with a man who was 4 years older than me from when I was 15 years old until I turned 19; if this does not make me the poster-child for insecure adolescents then nothing will. I then did what any person with abandonment issues would do and found myself another relationship almost immediately, meaning that by the time I was 21, I had really never been single. I made up for lost time in the most wonderfully slutty of ways (and I say this without a shred of shame or regret, for if there is any time in my life where I can look back and say I felt at ease with myself and my choices, it was this). I loved being single. And I knew I would only ever give up this freedom for someone pretty amazing.

Enter: D. I was 23 when we met. By this time I had been in therapy for two years. A lot of the rubble had been swept away. The dust was starting to clear. There was hope.

My chats with my therapist soon became largely centred on my decision to give up some of my independence (and a large part of my social circle who responded with nothing short of disdain for the fact that I would no longer be the ring-leader on alcohol fuelled hook-up benders) so that I could embark on a relationship with D. And it was not without its challenges – D was (is) 8 years older than me. He didn’t have emotional baggage, a dysfunctional family or self-destructive habits outside of getting tackled at football. His calm, balanced demeanour was the antithesis of my own. And although now it is this pairing that has helped us to grow together, namely that our shortcomings become each other’s gains, at the time it was a lot to work through.

In 2008 we got engaged (during a fight – a post for another time), in late 2009 we married and we moved interstate in early 2010. During this time we were geographically and emotionally torn because I kept returning to Brisbane to be present for my grandmother’s worsening dementia, all the while knowing I had to stay in Melbourne because D’s own father’s dementia was avalanching into what would culminate into a premature yet drawn-out and distressing death. And in between the stressors of knowing you are each dealing with the same kind of pain, in 2012 a child enters the world. A sick child, the experience of which also helps to create a sick mother. We kept our heads above water, until we didn’t. But with therapy and medication, I caught my breath and rose to the parenting challenge. I had issues with patience as many people do, but simply by raising my own son with love and affection I reasoned I was in a way proving that I would not be the one to repeat history. My child was wanted and adored. I would not be my mother’s daughter.

In 2013 my grandmother dies in my arms. My head dips below the water but buoyed with love from my little family, I am now able to swim. Friends vanish because I change. Maybe I post too many photos of my children on Facebook. But all that becomes irrelevant when two months later I unexpectedly fall pregnant with N, the baby who would repair the pain from our first child’s birth and who would bring us a joy I struggle to describe. And we needed that joy; we needed those little chubby legs and those bright blue eyes, because by 2014 when N was born, the grandfather I adored with all my heart had cut off contact with me as the family members who were absent for most of my life had come home to roost. My grandfather is dead by mid-2015, and I am not there beside him when it happens. He never meets N.

For the following 18 months after my grandfather’s death I am mired in family litigation. I rarely contest anything. I am anchored to paperwork and phone calls. I want it to all be over. I want to float on the surface, eyes to the sky, free again.

Halfway through 2016 we embark on a quest to chase that freedom, deciding to sell our home, quit our jobs and go travelling with our boys. We love it until we don’t, then we seek out our next move, and can’t make a decision. I discuss with D my uneasiness at feeling as though the decision will come down to what I want. He promises to take over and make a call for all of us. I am grateful for his resolve.

But as these little ships of life – boat-like blips on a horizon that we each navigate – sail over the seas, edge past each other, avoid danger and signal for help if needed, all the while I sense an undercurrent brewing beneath the surface. I know it is familiar because old and unhelpful belief patterns start to jostle for room in my already overcrowded head. I try to drown them out with exercise, with meditation, with affection with my children and intimacy with my husband. But they tug, and before long it becomes a pull from beneath that drags me out past the safety of the harbour and into the waves, where instead of being a mother of a five-year-old who is trying to decide what school to enrol him into next year, I am instead back where I was a decade ago, back feeling as though I am fundamentally flawed, that I am irredeemably damaged, and – most frighteningly – that if given time, not only will I sink, but I will drag my family into the murky depths with me.

Why am I back here? I have a few theories. As postulated in my last post, I first thought it was place-based. I though that geography was conspiring to haunt me. But then I talked to a dear friend of mine who reminded me that one of the times I had felt the worst was in Quebec where I cried in the bathroom into a pillow for the best part of four hours in a quest to not wake my sleeping children and husband. “If you think you’re shit in Quebec, of course you’re going to think you’re shit in Brisbane,” she said. My friends are geniuses.

Another theory is that since the stress of losing two lives and gaining two in quick succession is now in the past, my brain has started to remember that it once had fundamental crack in its foundation that it needed to address, before it got sidetracked. So this is its way of sending me a reminder for a calendar invite to which I’ve not responded. Fix the foundation, Sarah. Your house is crumbling.

The third theory – and one I am hesitant to share because I would hate for it to be misinterpreted as endorsement of this kind of approach to mental health – is that for almost five months, I have been off medication. I very gradually stopped taking my antidepressants in November; by December I was down to one tablet every second day and by January I was off medication completely. It was not a decision I made lightly (I have been on these antidepressants since J was 3 months old) but I have been on and off medication since I was 19; the longest stretch was 6 years of haziness where I managed to somehow stay alive despite ignoring advice to not drink alcohol while undergoing pharmaceutical treatment. But recently I knew I had to come off these little squares of mine – it was time. I needed the mental clarity. I was sick of the dependence. And I hated the side effects.

I resourcefully used exercise and sexercise as a way to flood my body with happy hormones. It worked reasonably well, but was made infinitely harder by the constant headaches, tears, shakes, nausea, fatigue and dizziness that accompanied trying to encourage my body back into making its own serotonin. I also started a new job during this time, which helps to explain one of my earlier posts about crying at work. And to add further hormonal woe to the mix, on some sort of crazed fact-finding mission to try to uncover why I still was feeling pangs of psychological strain, I had my Mirena (IUD) removed. I became convinced there was an external cause for my malaise. I knew of anecdotal evidence to suggest the Mirena can impact a woman’s mood – so out it came.

I was desperately looking for an outward cause. I wanted my emotional distress to be linked to a physical ailment. If it’s the medication withdrawals, that makes total sense! Or it’s just hormonal, I’m normal. Women everywhere struggle with hormonal mood swings. Yay! Yay for science!

And yet, I was not convinced.

Today I went to a Buddhist learnings session at the Buddha Birth Day celebrations at South Bank. It was called “Liberation from Fear and Anger”. A female monk whose name I should have written down presented the session; she was Singaporean, warm, funny and engaging. Her words about anger were familiar to me, and I was grateful to be present for a reminder of how to let go of harmful thoughts.

Quite unexpectedly, she shared an anecdote. She told the room that she too has struggled with anger and resentment. She said for 10 years she cried every day, unclear as to why. Eventually, she figured it out.

“I had a chip on my shoulder,” I hung on her words, “because I was adopted.”

I believe, that at that moment, my heart stopped.

The monk explained that she always felt as though she was unlovable, and unworthy. If her birth parents – who she had searched for, unsuccessfully – did not want her, then there was something wrong with her. “Everyone had parents except me. I had my adoptive parents and they loved me, but I was looking for what I didn’t have. And I was so very sad, for many, many years.”

Predictably, I descended into tears, incredulous as a monk from Singapore used her words to convey a feeling I know all too well. At a time I needed to hear it the most, the words I struggle to articulate to my friends and family were being spoken by someone else who had a lived experience similar to mine but who had none of the trappings of my history. She didn’t grow up in the Redlands and use Jim Beam as a form of self-medication. She didn’t measure her worth by the hotness of the boy she was with. She was a monk, a woman who you would think would have all the tools in the world to understand, uncover and remedy her pain. And yet here she was, describing that for the best part of 40 years she was hurting, and baffled as to why. And if a monk can struggle to make sense of their upbringing, it made me feel like I have a right to do that too.

After the talk, I approached her. I barely got a word out before I started to cry. She held my hands and told me it was good to cry, because it means you are open to healing. “Like an onion, you take off one layer and it’s not so bad. The deeper you get, the more tears.” She told me she cried for years, but with therapy and her Buddhist beliefs, she was eventually able to put her pain and anger aside. I thanked her silently, nodding as I left. It was all I could muster.

So it is with a sense of exhaustion and commitment that I now accept that I have more work to do. I have wanted to believe for years that it’s all behind me; the memories of uncertainty with my childhood living arrangements, the damage of my parents’ involvement which was much worse than their lack of interest; I wanted to believe it was all sorted because I wanted to get on with my happy life. My blessed, beautiful life, where I have healthy children, a kind and strong husband, travels and adventure, friendship and laughs. I didn’t want to be labelled as someone seeking sympathy or being self-pitying. I wanted to be strong, independent and capable. And I was. I am.

I believed for years that the solution to my unease was to let go of the anger I held towards my family – mainly my mother and father. To this day I try to consciously think kind thoughts about them every so often, rationalising that if they are happy and content, they’re less likely to want to come along and fuck up my world again. Then I had a nightmare last week – that I received in the mail photos of my son playing at the beach. There was a letter enclosed. The writing was my father’s – all capitals: “JUST WANTED YOU TO KNOW I’M AROUND.”

The unease lingers. But it is enlightening, for what I think has happened is that managing to muffle the anger I held for my family members only relocated the rage. Like the ex-smoker who gains weight, I have misdirected my anger from my parents and onto myself. And unlike my parents, I am always with me. I can’t get away.

So with that in mind, it looks like I have some work to do. I wish I didn’t have to, but I know that I can. Like that annoying blue tang Dory, I will just keep swimming. And as always, I will write about it.

(Told you I suck at endings, so in conclusion, here is my favourite poem: I go back to May 1937, by Sharon Olds. It is beyond fitting.)

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

 

 

 

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Evergreen

“Isn’t it lovely here?” my grandmother says, her wrinkled hand gliding across a green, glossy leaf that shines with dewy droplets of water. She bends down to take a deep inhalation of the flowers that grow on the raised garden bed. “Gardenias,” she says, closing her eyes. She walks on, lighting patting ferns and shrubs jostling for space. “Remember we used to have them all over the garden at home?”

My grandfather sits on the edge of a concrete fountain, a two-tiered dome shape behind him from which dainty streams of water jump into the sky before landing in a pool. Briefly separated, this poetic choreography rejoins droplets of water in an aquamarine puddle in which their individual parts vanish, succumbing instead to the collective mass of liquid. Still with his gold-rimmed glasses on, he closes his eyes and lets the gentle sunshine warm his face. “Lots of them,” he says, crossing his legs at the knees, his olive skin basking in the stream of light reflecting from the water.

My grandmother looks at the ground and carefully studies the edges of her shoes. “Don’t you slip here,” she says to me, lifting her left foot off the ground in a delicate kick. The sounds of crickets chirp around us, the gentle rush of breeze rustles the plants, and the heady scent of dampness, moss and wood rush into my sinuses. I sit on the wooden park bench opposite my grandfather, and pat the space next to me, gesturing for my grandmother to come closer. She sits as close as she can, our legs touching, hers beneath a light cotton green and white skirt that blends perfectly with our tropical surroundings. I notice her white linen shirt with a scalloped neckline and roses embroidered at the lapel; her frangipani brooch – the one dipped in gold, clasps together what she considers an immodest plunge from her chest to her first button.

I remember this brooch vividly as an accessory to the outfit I buried her in.

She pats my thigh twice, “So, pet, what’s the news with you?”

I smile and reach for her hand, telling her about the baby born almost a year after she died. I tell her about my elder son and his cheeky disposition. I ask my grandparents if I was just the same, if, when they raised me as their own, I drove them to the point of madness with my argumentative ways. I ask them if I was a baby who slept well, explaining that both of my children have been hideous sleepers. I tell them that other than my husband, I receive no assistance, no meal delivery, no folded laundry, no babysitting on call.

“Well you didn’t expect me to do that, did you?” my grandmother asks, laughing.

A ladybug lands on my grandmother’s shoulder; its tiny wings come to a standstill as it navigates new terrain. I place my fingertips out like a bridge, beckoning the bug to walk towards assistance. It delicately treads across my fingers, up into my palm, and as I roll my hand in a circle, it takes flight and lands steadily on the tip of a fern, scurrying back towards the familiar.

“So, two little boys, that must keep you busy?” my grandfather asks, taking an ironed hankie from his pocket and wiping his brow. “I met one of them, didn’t I?”

I tell him about the two occasions he met my elder son, the only great-grandchild he would live to see. I tell him that he has deep brown eyes like my own, while my younger son has piercing circles of blue like his father. As we chat, I rub my own scratchy, weary eyes, explaining to my grandfather that since his death, my already minimal sleep has become fitful. I tell him I dream of him often, that I feel responsible for how his life ended and that I blame myself for allowing vultures to prey on him when protecting him with my scarecrow-arms outstretched became too much of a burden to bear.

“You never were real good with death, were you?” he says.

I nod silently. The pervading theme of most of my childhood was fighting against the only certainty of life, namely that the two people entrusted to care for me in the absence of my own parents, were sure to die. Each time they were sick, or late to collect me from school, or unable to answer the phone, all of these times pointed to what I reasoned was an inevitable outcome: I would be orphaned; of this I was certain. I would be alone in the world until I was able to leave it myself.

“But we held on, didn’t we?” my grandfather says, chuckling as my grandmother smiles proudly. I blink back tears with the bittersweet knowledge that he is right. They both survived until I was in my early thirties, and by that time I had made a family of my own, a new anchor. My fears came to fruition in that they both eventually passed away, but my resolute and anguished belief that they would abandon me to a world of street corners and sleeping bags was inherently flawed.

“But I still miss you,” I say, as tears spill down my cheeks. My Nanny, who has been unable to comfort me since dementia ravaged her mind in my early twenties, holds my face in her tiny hands, and instructs me to stop.

“Now, you know seeing that upsets me. We might be dead but we’re not gone. We are still around you whether you like it or not.”

And with that, she dusts off her hands on her skirt, rises effortlessly from the bench, and wanders further into the garden, my grandfather trailing behind her.

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You were loved

Tomorrow is your birthday, Nanny. I don’t remember the last one we shared together; the last birthday of yours that is clearest in my mind was when I’d just moved to Melbourne. I knew you liked flannelette nightgowns so I posted two new ones to your home – the home I used to share with you – along with several of those marshmallow filled chocolate bunnies that you stockpiled every Easter.

You didn’t receive them on your birthday, even though you should have; I sent them in time. By then, you didn’t actually know it was your birthday, which is probably a blessing, given that you celebrated your 82nd birthday with a fractured cheek bone and so much bruising to your face that by the time I found out you were in hospital, your husband told me emphatically, Don’t go, not yet. She doesn’t look very good.

You had woken early that morning – maybe you thought it was your birthday, and in your ever-present quest to locate your mother and find your way ‘home’, you had embarked on a search for your birthday gifts. For whatever reason, you left your home that day, sneaking out the side gate like a wayward truant, wandering down what were once familiar streets to you, until, sadly, you lost your footing and connected your face – your beautiful, kind face – with the corner of the gutter and the road.

We don’t know who called the ambulance; who got you to safety. Just like we don’t know who called the police when you were found wandering through West End one summer afternoon, or the name of the man who drove you home when you decided to walk to ‘the beach’ one morning. We don’t know the names of any of these people. If we did, I would tell them one thing.

You were loved.

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In a blood-stained nightgown with an unchanged adult diaper and hair that had not been permed for months, the person who found you on your last escape might have mistaken you for someone that had been forgotten. An old person condemned by her years, waiting to die; for whom life and the promise of living had escaped.

That was not you.

You were the brave non-conformist who divorced her first husband less than a year after you’d wed, because you discovered he had a violent temper.

You were the 5” ebony-haired spitfire who hurled abuse at two men while you were on holiday in Taiwan in the 1960s, such was your horror at learning that a monkey you’d talked to lovingly as you passed it in the street, was actually en route to have its brains removed for a delicacy.

You were the mother and grandmother to a scared little girl, who is now 34 years old and who at times feels consumed by loss, but who clings to these memories of you instead of the memories of your descent into darkness.

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It is your birthday, Nanny, but I don’t know what I will do to mark the occasion, because I can’t bake you a cake and I can’t buy you nightgowns and I can’t take you out for lunch. I can’t do those things anymore; those things – just like making you laugh,  driving you to the club, placing my head on your shoulder – died when you did.

So I will do what I can.

I will spend the day with my children and I will just be present with them. I will kiss their chubby faces, I will let them have another slice of cake (there will be cake), and I will tell them I love them. I will do all of the things that you once did for me. And although they cannot understand the ache I feel because of how much I miss you (I can barely understand it myself), I know they will hold me just as close as you once did.

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Sometimes when I think of you, I remember your intonation; your phrases. A few days ago, I was buying groceries. I happened to be wearing black pants and a black top, along with a hat (mainly because my hair looked bad). I’d picked up a bottle of milk and noticed the use by date was your birthday; I put it back.

Moments later I walked past an elderly woman who smiled at me as I wheeled my trolley out of her way.

“You look very smart!” she said.

Your words, Nanny. Your standard compliment if I had dressed up – better than being beautiful, or cute: Ooh! Don’t you look smart?

A couple of weeks ago I was feeling the loss of you more than usual, and after I had put my eldest son to bed I heard him making noise in his room. I went in to tell him to be quiet, but instead he called me over to his bed. I complied, and he wrapped his arms around my neck.

“Mummy, I always wanted you,” his words.

But they were your words, Nanny. The words you spoke to me every time I doubted my worth or questioned your role as caregiver: I don’t care what anyone says – you were my baby; I always wanted you.

If you’re around, Nanny, in whatever form that may be, I hope you know that I always loved you, I always wanted you, and I would endure every day of pain my upbringing gave me, again and again, if it meant one more minute of comfort from you.

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So happy birthday to you, my beloved, loved, Nanny.
Tomorrow, I’ll have your share of the cake too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Smile like you mean it

In four days, I will have been without my Nanny’s embrace for two years. Without the gentle pat of her soft dainty hand stroking mine as she spoke. Without the scratchy rubbing of her knitted cardigans on my skin when I clutched her tiny frame in my own. Without the smile; the baffled-by-the-end-of-it-who-is-this-nice-girl smile, that used to light up when she saw me, even if she had forgotten my name.

Two years.

In those two years without her, I have watched my son grow from a toddler to a small man. I have stopped having single word chats with him where he pointed to a train and said traingo. I have stopped hearing him sing the Thomas and Friends theme song using the words “Thomasischeekyway” (instead of Thomas is the cheeky one, believing that Thomasischeekyway was the full name for Thomas the tank engine). Now, he considers things as he says them, remarking “You know what, mummy? We never seen a talking train before.” My beautiful, rambunctious boy, who squeals with delight when I carry out the most important acting role of my career – the monster/crocodile hybrid that chases him around the house. Who responds to my questions with the conjunction actually. Who tells his little brother every day, “I love you, cute little baby!” and who similarly scolds his brother when he destroys painfully precise car alignments, shrieking “No, giant baby! No!”

Actual photo of giant baby being chastised by his big brother.
Actual photo of giant baby being chastised by his big brother.

In those two years without Nanny, I watched my body grow another human; the giant baby who is now twelve months old. Who has gone from gulping at my breast constantly to happily chewing on pears, cheese and bread. Who pats my face with his pudgy hands, squealing and drooling as he smiles; his eight little teeth like pebbles sticking out from sand. A little boy who is in awe of his big brother and the unexpected hugs he receives from him, even when the ferociousness of the embrace literally knocks him over. Who just wants to be cuddled, all day, by everyone.

In addition to these moments of exquisite joy, over the past two years I have also had the agony that tempers the ecstasy. Just three months ago I saw the body of Nanny’s life’s companion dressed in a suit and tie, somberly waiting to participate in the last ritual of death, the cremation of flesh and bone into dust. I saw the relatives who created the illusion of caring at death but who were noticeably absent from caring during my grandfather’s life. I saw the crows circle, their talons poised and ready to swoop, eager to ensnare any item of value left below. And in time, I felt the piercing sting as their claws ripped at the belongings, the mementos, the stuff, anything and everything that remained a reminder of the life he used to live.

Two years.
In two years, I have, it seems, seen it all.

Rare is the night where images of my grandparents don’t pervade my dreams. A few nights ago, I dreamed that my Nanny’s death resulted not from dementia and its associated ailments but from an act of violence at the hands of my grandfather. In my dream, my grandfather had grown impatient from years of stifled frustration at being the caregiver to a woman who no longer knew his name, and had snapped, strangling his wife of over fifty years in their marital bed. My role in the dream was bystander; unaware of my Nanny’s passing I visited my grandparents’ home, and upon entering the bedroom saw the body of my grandmother, her pink nightgown draped over the torso that bore two children and raised one more, her crinkled skin crumpled and pale, awkwardly stuffed between the sheets. And worse –  in the depths of my psyche, I created a scenario where my grandfather not only was responsible for his wife’s death, but had also been sleeping beside her body for days, so assured was he that she would wake from death, and literally come back to life. The image in my dream, of my Nanny dead for 48 hours, is not one I am willing to describe.

I went to a friend’s house last week and witnessing a seemingly benign act of affection between mother and child caused me a quickening breath and gulping of saliva in an attempt to retain composure. The scene: a mother walking past her adult daughter, who was seated on her lounge room floor. As she navigated alongside her daughter’s frame on the carpet, the mother reached down her hand, and lovingly ran her fingertips through her daughter’s hair; ruffling the follicles in a playful, friendly gesture. An acknowledgment that this woman on the floor, this adult, was still her baby, and a nod to the special bond they share, for to whom else could one conduct such a display of cheeky fondness without fear of reprisal?

My friend glanced up; smiled. Her mother stepped over her and smiled back. No words uttered; just a shared moment where words were unnecessary because the bond needed no description. And as I sat there, holding my enormous drink bottle in my lap, glancing around the room at unfamiliar but welcoming faces, it struck me that I will never know that expression of convivial, maternal closeness ever again.

One of our last embraces. Nanny rubbing the tummy that housed her first great grandson.
One of our last embraces. Nanny rubbing the tummy that housed her first great grandson.

What prevents me from truly grieving the loss of both of my (grand)parents is that I am still wading through matters related to finalising my grandfather’s estate. I now have confirmation that my aunt discharged her bankruptcy in 2008; conveniently enough the same year that she landed on my grandparents’ doorstep with a suitcase and an assurance that she wouldn’t stay long. There is a palpable sense of injustice I feel while making sense of all my grandfather’s financial investments; reading letters he had written to various entities with whom he held shares, unclipping bulldog clips that had remained firmly in place in his folders of information, the small square of rust at their corners a testament to their longevity. He was a man who was at pains to be self-sufficient, to master his own wealth and to fund his own retirement. Newspaper clippings from the Financial Review alongside letters requesting dividend payments be made in differing units of currency, buyback offers, scrips, dividend re-investment offers, proxy nominations for shareholder meetings – this was his life. After retiring he threw himself into mastering the stock market. This man, who never received a government handout, who never asked for help, produced a daughter who elected for bankruptcy instead of paying her debts.

My grandfather used to ruffle my hair. I think he did. I recall a photo that lived on the mantelpiece in the dining room of my grandparents’ home – a room no one ever used for dining because it was instead housing an inordinate amount of furniture and Nanny’s extensive crystal collection. The photo, my grandfather used to remark, was one of the few with the five of us. My father in the centre, shirtless and playing the bagpipes in my grandparents’ backyard. My Nanny stands beside him, beaming proudly as she looks up to her son. My grandfather standing squarely on the other side of my father, with my aunt to his left. And me in the front, all eight years of me, stuffed into this family photo against my will; my hands over my ears to silence the deafening bleat of the instrument my grandfather loved. My grandfather’s smooth, tanned hands, cupped around my face, attempting to get me to smile for the photo.

I am not supposed to be in this photo. If you looked at it, would you know who was the odd one out? Would you mistake my aunt for my mother? Would you think she was my primary caregiver? I am Nanny’s child – she told me again and again. She said I was like her half daughter.
“Is that because the other half of me didn’t come out properly?” I used to jest.
“Don’t be revolting,” she said with a smile.

I have come to physical blows with my aunt before. Looking back, and remembering the proximity to the kitchen at which the melee erupted, I am surprised that we did not reach for knives. Of course knowing my grandparent’s dislike of household maintenance in their later years, one can safely assume any knife I grabbed would be blunt and useless. I do not like weapons anyway; a fight should only be with fists. Better yet, don’t fight at all. In those moments of blood warming rage, walk away, as I should have done.

I don’t know how you can sleep at night, I said, in reference to her mooching ways.
“I sleep fine,” she said, “I sleep fine at my parents’ house. My parents, not yours. You wouldn’t know anything about parents, would you? Because neither of yours want anything to do with…”*

*Note: this is when I should have grabbed my aloo saag, a handful of naan, and left. I did not do this. Instead, I became consumed with rage, desperate to inflict pain on another. I pushed my aunt onto a chair, and essentially began strangling her. No time wasted with a punch or a slap; let’s just go straight for suffocation. Of course my Aunt fought back but I was unharmed. My grandfather broke up the altercation. I apologised to my Nanny whose dementia kindly allowed her to register very little of what was transpiring before her eyes, and then stormed off to my car; desperately holding tears back until I reached the privacy of my Corolla.

My grandfather followed me outside, imploring, “Don’t go; you haven’t even had any of your dinner!”
“You are my parents, right?”
“Of course we are.”
“She doesn’t think so,”
“She is an idiot. You were the last to the party but the best of the bunch.”

I hold onto these words now. I hold onto them; those words uttered under a starry sky with the smell of pappadums in the air. I cling onto the belief that he meant what he said, even though there is a part of me that suspects my kindly grandfather would have said anything to keep the peace. I choose to ignore that tug of negativity, instead telling myself that I was supposed to be part of his family, and Nanny’s family, because I was in some way, the child of my grandparents. No matter what the biology says, or the turmoil we endured, or any of the other shit that got me there, I was theirs.

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In the two years since I lost my (grand)mother, my role as mother has come to define how I respond to and act within the world. I would have loved nothing more than to go on an alcohol infused bender in the days leading up to my grandfather’s death. I can taste the shots now; all sweet and sickly, burning my throat as I throw them down. When my Nanny passed away, I wanted to sit alone in the dark and cry, pausing only to cradle a bong, or a bottle, or anything else that would just make the pain fade a little. Of course I didn’t do this; I couldn’t, and deep down I knew it would only make me feel worse. So instead I waited for my son to fall asleep, then I sat on the back deck, Malboro between my fingers, playing 10,000 Days by Tool in my earphones as the tears ran down my face.

I was meant to be in that family photo; the one with the five of us. Even though I look uncomfortable, as though I am desperate to break free, I still didn’t want to move away from my grandparents. Of course, then there came a time that I had to. And even when I fought what was best, just like in the photo, I smiled because I had to. They wanted me to.

On the 19th of October, the day that marks the day that Nanny’s heart beat for the last time, I will hold my boys, my family, close. I will ruffle the hair of my three year old and I will tell him he is loved. I will tell him that being mum to him and his brother makes me so happy, even if it looks as though sometimes I am not. And I will smile, proudly, defiantly, because that’s what Nanny would want.

10,000 days (Wings Pt. 2)
(MJK)

We listen to the tales and romanticize,
how we follow the path of the hero.

Boast about the day when the rivers overrun,
How we’ll rise to the height of our halo.

Listen to the tales as we all rationalize,
our way into the arms of the savior.
Feigning all the trials and the tribulations.

None of us have actually been there,
Not like you…

Ignorant siblings in the congregation.
Gather around spewing sympathy,
Spare me…

None of them can even hold a candle up to you.
Blinded by choice, these hypocrites won’t see.

But enough about the collective Judas.
Who could deny you were the one who illuminated?
Your little piece of the divine.

And this little light of mine, a gift you passed on to me
I’m gonna let it shine
to guide you safely on your way.

Your way home…

Oh, what are they gonna do when the lights go down?
Without you to guide them all to Zion?
What are they gonna do when the rivers overrun?
Other than tremble incessantly.

High is the way,
but our eyes are upon the ground.
You are the light and the way.
They’ll only read about.
I only pray heaven knows,
when to lift you out.

10,000 days in the fire is long enough.
You’re going home…

You’re the only one who can hold your head up high.
Shake your fist at the gates saying,
“I have come home now…!”
Fetch me the spirit, the son and the father.
Tell them their pillar of faith has ascended.

“It’s time now!
My time now!
Give me my
Give me my wings…!”

You are the light, the way,
that they will only read about.

Set as I am in my ways and my arrogance.
Burden of proof tossed upon the believers.
You were my witness, my eyes, my evidence,
Judith Marie, unconditional one.

Daylight dims leaving cold fluorescence.
Difficult to see you in this light.
Please forgive this bold suggestion.
Should you see your maker’s face tonight,
Look him in the eye.
Look him in the eye and tell him,
I never lived a lie, never took a life,
But surely saved one.

Hallelujah
It’s time for you to bring me home.

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Thursday Throwback #10 – R U OK? Seriously?

Today is R U OK day which, apart from it’s abbreviated text-friendly teen-speak name, is probably a good thing. I say probably because I do agree with some of the points raised by Anna Spargo-Ryan in this piece of hers. Today is a good day for awareness of mental health issues, but following through when you’re confronted with a less than palatable answer (e.g. “No, I am far from okay and the thought of leaping into the lion enclosure at the Royal Melbourne zoo has occurred to me more than once.”) is equally, if not more important.

Just to get it out of the way, I am okay. I have made sure of that. I take my medication, and I speak with a psychologist when I need to, and I am open with my husband about the headspace I am in. I am for the most part very happy, very grateful and positive and optimistic. I am excited about the future, which is in stark contrast to the years it filled me with dread. But like everyone, I have thoughts that tug at my psyche like an infant at a mother’s clothing; hassling, begging me to just give the irritating thoughts a little airtime. To open up some space for them in the real estate that is my mind.

The best way to do this is, for me, to write. It helps me make sense of things; it always has. The written word has long comforted me when the arms of another have been out of reach. My embarrassing attempts at teen poetry continue to mock me from my many journals, and even though most pieces are lame, there are a couple which even now I read with fondness. Maybe I did have a gift for manipulating words (and people!), even if I rarely shared that gift with others  given the often depressing topics my poetry would focus on.

Like the one I am about to share with you *takes deep breath*

I have already written a piece on this blog about the moon, and how I remembered its glare from above on the night my Nanny’s soul left the earth. The moon’s omipotent glare; its constant watch. But please do not expect any kind of subtlety or ennui in this next piece – creatively titled “The Moon” – a piece I wrote when anger and hormones created to produce both an epically intense personality for me, and a painful exercise in eggshell-walking for my grandparents. This poem is equal parts teenage angst coupled with stomach-churning co-dependence. I wrote it when I was 15 years old. It saddens me that I was already living with adult emotions and experiences much earlier than I probably should have been but gee, did it give me some good material for those lonely nights after midnight, when the deafening sounds of my grandfather’s snoring and the banging clinks of our kitchen fridge were my only companions.

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Be kind, readers. Be kind.

 

I have no idea why this image won't rotate. It makes me feel distinctly NOT okay.
I have no idea why this image won’t rotate in the main post. It makes me feel distinctly NOT okay.

The Moon

The rising moon has pain I see
That’s draining me, insaning me,
And all of which explains to me
The bitterness of love.
And how I yearn for constant caring,
Thoughtful sharing, love so daring,
All the while the moon’s declaring
Warnings from above.

 Our love was deepest from the start
He’ll break my heart, tear me apart,
Gradually I become too smart
And begin to doubt his trust,
Still hoping that he’ll never leave
Or deceive, for I shall grieve
And oh, such sweet death I’ll receive
As I fade away to dust.

 Yet while I treasure love we’re making
Gently my whole world is breaking,
I fear devotion he is faking
And dread that he’ll betray.
For I cannot live without him here
I need him near to cease my fear,
And so alone I shed a tear
As illusion fades away.

 And now detached I question who
Has made me act the way I do,
I know emotions once were true
Have now become a lie.
But my happiness I will doom
As I shatter beneath the rising moon,
My ill mind caused its return too soon
So I crawl away to die.

You still there, reader? Are YOU okay? Has the the image of me CRAWLING AWAY TO MY OWN DEATH because a boy was basically using me for sex caused you to shake your head in dismay? Don’t worry; I did the same thing. I read that piece and I feel a combination of shame and disdain. I feel like slapping my 15-year-old self across the face and saying “Get a grip, you delusional idiot. Have some self-respect!” but I suspect the 15-year-old me would not have reacted well to that. I can’t remember how I felt after I wrote that poem, but I can guarantee i felt better than I did beforehand, when all the words and imagery were trapped in my mind, circling like sharks in the ocean, desperate for a drop of blood.

Grief comes in waves, and just as the flatness of the ocean can mask the powerful current forming underneath the calm, so too can my smiles distract me from the very real sense that sometimes my feet are slipping as the earth shifts; the sensation of losing balance as the tide ebbs away. In my current situation of mourning the loss of my grandparents, I tell myself I am not entitled to grieve. I should not be sad. I should be grateful for the thirty-odd years we had together. Other people get less. Other people suffer worse. I shouldn’t compare. I shouldn’t, but I do. The internal monologue is mainly this, and then a conflicting and raging sense of injustice. How can both of my parents be gone? I asked this of my husband the other night (yesterday was – as any on the grief train will know – a “bad” day) and his thoughtful, simple reply left me speechless.

He said I didn’t need them anymore.

I know what he means. I have been independent; living an adult’s life, from a young age. Even so, I still feel the need to mourn the loss of the people who raised me. So as I navigate the death of my grand/father in July and the death of my grand/mother in October 2013, and the fact that it was just Father’s Day, and my grandfather’s birthday tomorrow, I thought I would pen a short piece to try to capture what’s running through my head.

It has been awhile since I wrote poetry; I am rusty, but I have been inspired by the work of a friend whose cleverness and creativity within poetry is remarkable. So bear with me as I wallow in sadness for this post. Let me get it out so I can carry on being grateful for what I have instead of mourning what I have not. Thanks.

 

Last words

Death under fluorescence
Left this message:
“Repair, repent, restore –
Return to what we were before.”
Before your light and life left
Before sight was blind from tears wept
The time my shoulders ached from burden
You passed onto me from them
Now an orphaned orphan
Who realises that she ought
To have known that she was never
As special as she thought.

Ahh, that feels better. Cathartic. Necessary.

I don’t need a pep talk, or commiserations, or pity, or tears, or a pat on the back and an uncomfortable exchange. For me, I just need to put pen to paper; fingertip to keyboard, and suddenly the world makes more sense, the thoughts disappear, and I am once again okay.

I hope you are okay too. If you aren’t, please speak up, even if you do so using only the written word.

 -S

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I know the pieces fit

There was a time that the pieces fit, but I watched them fall away.
Mildewed and smoldering, strangled by our coveting
I’ve done the math enough to know the dangers of our second guessing.
Doomed to crumble unless we grow, and strengthen our communication.

These are lyrics from the song Schism, written by what has been my favourite band since I discovered them shortly after starting high school, Tool (feel free to compare the eloquence of these words with, say, the cringeworthy ramblings of “artists” such as, say, Nicki Minaj, whose inspired and inspiring lyrics include: Oh my gosh. Look at her butt. I digress.)

Why am I starting this post with song lyrics? I guess it’s because I don’t know where to begin. How to I pick up from where I left off; from the trajectory of death being sped down by the man who was a father to me. How do I just carry on with writing about life? About babies, and annoying drivers who don’t indicate when turning, and Thermomix recipes and all the things that are part of my thoughts but which are so clouded now, it’s sometimes as if they don’t exist at all.

He died. The first man to love me. He died, alone. After weeks in hospital with occasional visits from family (one of whom – his daughter –lived less than a kilometer from the hospital), when it came time to take his final breath, he did so alone. Maybe he would have liked it that way; stubborn old bugger that he is, I mean was. I am still catching myself doing that – thinking of things I need to tell him; what card to buy for his upcoming birthday on the 11th (on what is now known world-wide as 9/11, my grandfather lamented the fact that his birthday was now understood across the globe to be a date associated with mass killings of civilians). I couldn’t sleep last night thinking of the dramas his daughter is creating and I thought, I will just give Gran a quick call tomorrow and see if maybe he can pull her into line.

He could say, “The house isn’t yours, daughter. I want my estate divided in three and that means you get one third, just like everyone else. No more, no less.”

But he can’t really say that, now, can he?

Two weeks before he died, I was in hospital with my little N. We were both exhausted after nine long months of stretches of sleep rarely longer than three hours. We had checked in for a week’s stay at another mother-baby unit and it was the first day of our admission when I received the call from beautiful Mrs P, my grandfather’s neighbour, telling me that all was not well with him.

I have always been an avid and intense dreamer, by that I mean that my dreams are often achingly realistic and frequent. And like Tony Soprano in the incredible episode Funhouse, I do pay attention to these messages from my subconscious. Even when I don’t want to. So for my first night in months of sleeping alone, without a baby in my arms, I snuggled under the covers in the MBU, and waited for the nurse-dispensed Temazepam to kick in.  Then this happened.

My point of view. My grandfather; younger – in his sixties perhaps. Walking towards me in his lounge room, his daughter behind him smiling scornfully. As he approaches me, his words:

“You left me.
Like a crooked limb you wanted to cut off but couldn’t.
You left me to die.
And I hate you.”

And then, I woke up.

Interestingly, around the same time as I was experiencing stomach-churning guilt and remorse manifesting in distressing dreams, my birth relatives were undergoing their own crises, namely, How do we keep this bitch out of Dad’s house? What I mean by this is that my father and aunt knew I was my grandfather’s executor under his will, meaning that they knew that upon his passing, I would be within my rights to (finally!) remove my squatting aunt from the home. So while I was trying to liaise (unsuccessfully) with medical and hospital staff to determine if I would be able to see my grandfather before his death, my aunt and father drafted this little doozie of a document:

Rental agreement page 1 of 3 Rental agreement page 2 of 3Rental agreement page 3 of 3

Ooh, what’s this? A rental agreement? Oh and look at that, it’s dated the 9th of July, a mere 8 days before my grandfather died! Talk about convenient. See, QCAT, this is what happens when you appoint dishonest, unethical assholes to make financial decisions for those who cannot. They use that position to furnish agreements with their allies, allowing their accomplice to stay in their father’s home for a further 6 months, and “dispose of surplus property?” Err, can the old bloke actually pass away in peace before we start pillaging his house? Can we actually get a death certificate before we start disposing of his things?

My husband flew to Brisbane and actually attended the property so that we could conduct an “inventory” of items within the home. You would be right in assuming that there are items of value that have seemingly disappeared, but I am reliant on my memory to prompt me to investigate where certain belongings are, so I don’t know what I don’t know. I do know that my grandfather’s wardrobe is completely bare; not a shirt, tie or pair of shorts remains. I suppose they are of little value to the ruthlessly greedy. And true to form, my aunt kicked my husband and the attending real estate agents out of the house when they visited to conduct a scheduled property inspection (I might not be able to do much with the rental agreement but I can engage real estate agents to manage the property on my behalf), wailing “ You can’t sell it! I’m a part-owner! I will be living here!”

beerbaron
No you won’t!

My mind wants to race to the lead up to my grandfather’s death. How did he get so sick? Could his blood/heart infection have been treated earlier thus allowing him to recover and enjoy a few more years of life? I learned from Mrs P that after weeks of suffering a virus he could not shake, my aunt eventually called a home visiting doctor’s service to treat my grandfather (not having a car or licence can be problematic in case of emergency or general independence), but while the doctor was in attendance, my aunt also asked for a check up given that her viral symptoms were “worse than his”.

How does this happen? What happens to people to cause them to become this way? Is there something I don’t know?

The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Perhaps my last paragraph suggests I am in the bargaining phase; wanting to uncover ways that this end could have been prevented or at least delayed. Delayed so that I had a chance to see him again, in a moment that wasn’t in a hospital bed, punctuated by his daughter’s ugly glare. Delayed so he could have stroked the pudgy arm of my baby who he never met. Delayed so that I could have prepared myself for viewing his corpse, the act I forced myself to do just so I could leave denial, the first stage of grief.

I didn’t know how to start this post, and I don’t know how to end it. Death is painful, but in my opinion there are levels of pain. The death of my grandfather is not the same as the death of a child. It is not the same as the traumatic, violent death of someone unexpectedly. It is not the same as watching a once healthy person wither away as disease consumes their body. But it still hurts. I lost the two people who were the most important in my world for the longest time, in the space of 21 months. Now I am left to divide my grandparents’ belongings between relatives who couldn’t even sit by their father’s side when he passed away.

Maybe I will end this post with a paragraph from a piece of writing my grandfather once enjoyed. It is verse LVIII from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

Maybe I am at a place where I am looking forward to the day that I can shut the closet door on the pieces that remain, even if it means saying goodbye to the pieces that once fit together so well.

 

 

 

 

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Sarah’s guide to suppressing murderous rage

I am standing at the precipice of death. Not my own, my grandfather’s. The man who held me in his arms when I was an infant, who raised me from the ground and popped me on the bonnet of his car for photos where my cheeky four-year-old smile squints at the camera. The man whose slender limbs wrapped tightly around me when he hugged me in a moment of excitement or joy; whose olive skin glistened with sweat as he toiled in his garden for hours, pulling mangoes off trees and repositioning paw paws so they would ripen evenly in the sticky Queensland sun.

My grandfather, who taught me how to body surf in the foamy Yamba waves.
My grandfather, who walked me down the aisle when I married my beloved.
My grandfather, who insisted on paying for the pram that pushed my children, one of whom he has never met.

Not just my grandfather; rather, my grand father.

This man is, for the most part, gone. My grandfather, who I lovingly called Gran even though this meant for years he was mistaken for a female (You have two grandmothers? I recall a shopping centre Santa asking when I told him I had been good for Nanny and Gran, no, not mum and dad). My grandfather, who visibly salivated over fresh prawns and fish and who writhed in pleasure as he gulped down his favourite dish, sashimi. My grandfather, who will never again enjoy the pleasure of a cold beer on a hot afternoon or sitting in his armchair to watch the cricket. Those days are gone; they remain my memory for they are no longer his; his memory is trapped in a place he can’t get to, a place miles away from his hospital bed.

My grandfather is currently in a purgatory where life has vacated his body, but where death is yet to invade. He is suffering from what I now understand to be endocarditis. He has septicemia. They have discontinued medication. He is on morphine. He is no longer eating. His fluid intake will not sustain life.

As I type this, I remain tethered to my phone, constantly checking for messages or missed calls that will notify me of his passing. It is the opposite of labour, when I have checked my phone incessantly to see if a friend’s baby had entered the world, to see if new life had yet joined us. Now, this constant wondering and checking is to learn of life being extinguished, ending as opposed to beginning. And for all the sadness and regret, my current reality is made crueller by my grandfather’s children who have their own agendas in mind as we collectively navigate what I hope is the final obstacle that binds us.

I have long imagined my grandparent’s deaths; when they would happen and what their passing would mean for me – an orphan alone in the world. In my mind, I would be notified of my grandparents’ passing while I was at school. I am sitting underneath the undercover play area on cold cement, and a teacher walks towards me, beckoning me to the office, with terrible news. Or I am in class, head propped up by my cold pudgy hand, and I look over my shoulder to see the principal whispering to my teacher, before I am ushered from the classroom. As I got older, I believed death would take them the moment I wasn’t there to protect them. If I went to school camp, they would die. If I slept at a friend’s house, they would die. If I slept at all, they would die. I would discover them in the morning when I woke late, realising that my plate of fruit for breakfast, up until this point lovingly prepared every morning of my childhood by my grandfather, was nowhere to be seen.

Any delay in them arriving to pick me up from school, from the train station, from the bus stop, returning home from buying groceries, to meet me in a designated spot during a trip to the shops, every time, all of the time, these delays pointed to their death. In an age before mobile phones, if any attempt to contact them was unsuccessful this meant, in my mind, that they had died. They can’t come to the phone, they can’t even reach the phone. They are dying on the dusty carpet and you, Sarah, aren’t anywhere you need to be.

Despite my complete certainty about how death would find the only people I had in my life to look after me, in none of these scenarios did I envisage the circumstance in which I now find myself. Thirty-three years old. Mother to two beautiful boys. Wife to a loving and committed husband. Living interstate. My life blooming while my grandparents’ lives wilted away (this is not without considerable guilt). Yet for the past couple of years my relationship with my grandfather has been very strained, to the point that I stopped making a positive attempt to contact him, instead wondering if he would contact me (he did not). After I asked to withdraw as his enduring power of attorney in 2013 (a position I only reached in desperation after a particularly awful period where my grandfather’s children’s threatened me with legal action whenever I made decisions in my grandfather’s best interests which did not accord with their own), my ability to love him as affectionately as I used to was hampered. For years I had watched my grandparents kowtow to the various whims and plights of their overindulged and self-entitled children but my grandfather’s gradual disregard for my wellbeing suggested a whole new level had been reached in appeasing his kids. My grandfather loved me, but has always been powerless when it came to his children. He allowed them to bully him, and in so doing, it drove a wedge between us. I could not offer him support and assistance when my aunt and father were always there to cloud his mind with doubt as to my true intentions. My grandfather’s children may have failed in every significant component of life (relationships, career, independence, personal growth) but they succeeded in poisoning my grandfather against me. So instead of a cheery hello and a chat about the day, my phone calls to my grandfather became a vehicle through which he would accuse me of theft, tell me he wanted nothing to do with me, and often simply hang up the phone.

The man who retired early so that he could be a stay-at-home-dad to me, was telling me thirty years later that it was fine with him if we never spoke again.

The anguish and sadness this caused me is immeasurable. I wept openly outside my work during one of our last phone calls, begging him to tell me why he was saying the awful statements I was hearing. I wanted to tell him I was pregnant with his second great-grandchild. instead, I stood on Flinders Street blinded by my tears and howling into my phone I don’t understand, I don’t understand why you are saying all of this.

“I put a roof over your head and this is how you thank me”, his words.
I am a stray dog who has been accused – wrongly – of biting its master.

Naturally after this transpired my feelings of sadness about this situation quickly turned to burning, hateful rage. My father and aunt were to blame for this. My grandfather didn’t know what he was saying. He was easily influenced. He was being manipulated. He couldn’t see that his children – whose sole interests have always been protecting their inheritance – were motivated by something other than ensuring his wellbeing. I have never been motivated by anything other than love (and an ample sprinkling of guilt), but attempting to convey this message to my grandfather was futile. The ears were deaf; my message drowned out by the collective ramblings of the children my grandfather helped to create, as opposed to the child he just housed.

Quick to anger, I have wrestled with my extreme desire to enact vengeance upon the people who seem committed to no other hobby than inflicting upon me the most harm possible. But these thoughts bring me no joy; they only tie me to the hate. So I have been successful in stifling my disgust for the children of my grandfather by focusing on everything I have in my life: A loving partner. Happy, healthy children. A reliable, caring extended family. Self awareness.

But even I – who can usually see the positive or at least the humour in even the crappiest of situations, am struggling. In a cruel, premeditated and deliberate act of vindictiveness, my grandfather’s children:
a) hid from me that my grandfather was unwell;
b) abused those who informed me that my grandfather was unwell; and
c) prevented medical staff from speaking with me about the severity of my grandfather’s illness.

This meant that although my grandfather was hospitalised almost six weeks ago with a condition that his own geriatrician recently informed me he was never expected to survive, I knew nothing. I only learned of my grandfather’s illness after my grandfather’s neighbour, a beautiful, kind and caring woman whom I have been fortunate to know since childhood and whom I will refer to as Mrs P, called me to say she had not seen him lately, and that upon questioning my aunt, learned he was in hospital.

I phoned the hospital to obtain information about my grandfather’s condition, but I was prevented from doing so. I am not listed as next of kin. Only my aunt and my father are; self-appointed and untouchable. No tales of how I used to make word puzzles and crosswords for my grandfather to enjoy on the weekends, or how he jokingly demanded I refer to him only as So Beautiful could convey his significance in my life to the hospital staff. I am just the granddaughter.

“You’ll have to talk to his daughter,” I was told.

I prodded further. Did the hospital have a copy of his advanced health directive, a document I know he drafted because I was with him at his doctor’s consultation some eight or so years earlier? The document that specifies exactly what he wanted in the event of his life coming to an end in a medical setting? The next of kin would have no knowledge of that because they had no interest in his life then.

Once again, I could not be told that information. It was to protect my grandfather’s privacy.

When I cried on the phone asking the puzzled nurse, do I have enough time to see him; I am in Melbourne, I need to make arrangements for my children, find a flight, come to see him, do I have time? I was informed I could not be given that information.

No information. Nothing. None.

Later, when I spoke for the first and only time to my grandfather’s geriatrician, I was told it was not his responsibility to deal with family dramas like mine because he only deals with one member of the family and that is my aunt; Speak to her, I was told. But when I asked about the advanced health directive, that is the document that gives my grandfather a voice when he no longer has one, I was informed by the geriatrician that he was unaware of the advanced health directive but that it was irrelevant as my grandfather was not expected to survive this illness anyway.

In all of this, I am trying to remain positive. After Dr Asshole so eloquently and kindly revealed to me the extent of my grandfather’s illness, I begged my friends to visit my grandfather at his bedside, just to give him a cuddle or offer a friendly chat. When I am angered about the time my aunt and father have robbed from me, I instead think how fortunate I am to have special, loving people in my life, who literally dropped everything to help me. Friends who changed plans, who put fuel in their cars, who spoke to nurses, who held my grandfather’s hand, who kissed him on the forehead even if he had no idea they were there, and who faced my horrible relatives and stared at them with contempt – these people, are my family. Not the aging, failing businessman. Not the socially inept and belligerent cat-owning spinster. I have other, better people in my life. These are the people who show me that I am not like my aunt and father because if I was, I wouldn’t have them.

On Sunday I was able to visit my grandfather for what I believe was the last time. His daughter was there, and I actually had to request for time alone with the man who raised me. When I asked for ten minutes with him, she replied “I’ll give you ten minutes. I’ll give you ten minutes, and then it’s my turn,” before she stormed out of the room but waited at the door. To say that this phrase triggered in me an almost irresistible desire to rip her throat out with my teeth, straddle her torso and belt her smug, selfish face into a bloody pulp, would be an understament. But I didn’t do this. I fought the urge. I muttered something under my breath, exchanged a look of disbelief with my best friend who accompanied me for moral support, and put my head down, closer to my grandfather. For a little while, he was able to engage with me. I rested my head on his chest and he said “Oh that’s lovely.” He talked of returning to Goulburn, where he grew up. He talked of cake making. I talked to him about food, and all the meals we had shared. I talked to him about my sons. I told him I loved him. I told him I was sorry.

I was given a gift when my Nanny died, namely that she hung on until I could be with her. The significance of that is not lost on me. Even in her dementia, stroke riddled body, some part of her managed to cling onto life so that when I arrived at her bedside at 9pm I had four hours of just her and me. I was on the bed with her for most of this time, listening to her breathing in and out, the soft thumping of her heart. I told her it was okay to go. Just as she helped guide me as a chubby infant in her arms while teaching me to feed myself, to use the toilet, to walk, to talk, I guided her through this last journey of hers.

And while I long to be able to offer the same support to my grandfather, the truth is, I cannot. I have a baby and a toddler who do not deserve to have their lives upended by my extended absence. I am still breastfeeding my baby, meaning that he would need to be close by to me during any bedside vigils, and I refuse to expose him to any of the toxic relatives from whom I have fled. So until I receive the call (a call poor Mrs P will have to make to me because, no, the hospital can’t even notify me when my grandfather passes away, as my father and aunt won’t allow them to), I will keep my mind busy by playing with my boys. By cuddling up to my husband. By patting my dog. Thoughts of my grandfather are never far from my mind, but I take comfort in reminding myself that he is almost 89 years old. He has been generally healthy and has not battled a long illness. He has led a full life, shared up until a few years ago with the love of his life before dementia ripped her away. He has travelled; he has worked abroad. He has enjoyed his life, and now, at death’s door, he is not in any pain. I am, but he is for the most part, pain free.

And as for the murderous rage that runs through my blood when I think about what I have lost because of the actions of my aunt and father, during my most anguished, stomach churning moments where I want to scream about the injustice of it all, I take comfort in knowing that my life is full of joy; a joy that my father and aunt are unlikely to ever know. The pleasure that comes with kissing the rounded, plump little toes of my children. The safety and warmth of feeling valued and loved while under the muscly arm of my husband, who holds me tightly against his solid frame and tells me I am nothing like the people with whom I used to share a surname. The comfort I take from the friendships I have made with people who have opened their homes and hearts to me, out of a desire to have me in their lives rather than a sense of obligation that binds familial bonds.

So it is possible to suppress murderous rage; you just need to replace the hate with gratitude. Gratitude for the friends who told my grandfather Sarah loves you. Gratitude for Mrs P and her impassioned pleas to the nurses for information, which she then relayed back to me. Gratitude for my three handsome men who anchor me when my birth relatives try to set me off-course.

No fury for my relatives.
Just thanks for my family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Blood moon rising

imageIn Melbourne last night, a blood moon could be seen in the sky. A red circle that loomed overhead, this lunar eclipse occurred when the Earth’s shadow fell on a full moon, giving the typically golden face of the moon an eerie red glow. People flocked to bridges with telescopes so they could catch a glimpse of this cosmic rarity; squinting to see the earth’s friend in a new light.

The light of the moon often guided my late-night thoughts of you, as well as my real-life visits to your bedside. The last time I came to see you, my plane landed from an ebony sky in which a full moon, ivory and warm, lit my journey as I crossed the tarmac. As I signed papers for the rental car and loaded my bag into a white Yaris, the light in the carpark was matched by brightness from a sphere above. This ball of brightness followed me down winding roads surrounded by bushland, where I was the only vehicle for kilometres. As I pulled into a service station to buy a packet of cigarettes – despite not smoking for years – it lit the path back to the road, and perched behind my head as my car sped onward towards your deathbed.

In the carpark of your nursing home, it watched me race to the intercom at the locked entry. As I fumbled with the security code and shut the door behind me, it was the last thing I saw from the outside; from the time before. Before you left.

Then, in your room, just the two of us. No moon watching; just the glare of fluorescence from the lights in the communal dining area floating nearby. I closed my eyes, rested my head on your chest, and waited. The moon didn’t see any of that.

As the minutes passed and one day ended, a new day began. It was the day I would come to know as the day you died. One moment you were there, just as you always had been. The next, you were gone. Like the ticking of a clock, one second in the present swiftly become a moment in the past, a point to which I could never return. But as time moved forward, I became stuck. Bound to your torso, not wanting to let you go. The moon still shone, even though you and I and our last embrace were hidden from its view.

It didn’t see the confirmation of death from the staff, the requests for instructions as to which funeral home you were to travel to, or which clothes you were to be transported in. It didn’t watch me hurriedly pack away your belongings, to clear the room for another. Life went on without you, and all of it happened out of the moon’s omnipotent glare.

Sitting in the rental car less than an hour after your death, the moon glowed full of life from the sky. Was it fuller than before? I sat in the car howling gutturally, and through my tears I was stung by the brightness of this satellite, some hundreds of thousands of kilometres away. Almost as far away as you are from me now.

While you were dressed lovingly in the outfit I had selected – blue suede pantsuit and your gold-dipped orchid brooch from Singapore, I wept alone, staring at my only companion in the sky. While your now purple feet were squashed into too-small shoes, the moon followed me as I drove to the place you once called home. While your doona was raised up to beneath your chin to keep your cold body pointlessly warm, I was frantically searching your home for photos of you for your funeral; the funeral I had been achingly planning in my head since the time I knew what funerals were for.

I can’t visit a headstone, nor sit next to a place that your ashes were buried into the ground. But on days like today – your birthday – when I need to be near you, I am drawn to the water. Maybe just as the moon controls the tides, determining wave patterns across the sea, the memory of the moon looking down at me from the sky on the night you left me is what lights my path on days like today, when tears obscure my view.

So here I am again, by the water, writing to you. Sitting and looking across the bay to a city you never visited; the place I now call home. The great grandchild you never met is asleep behind me in his carseat. The sun is obscured by cloud. And the blood moon from the night before, the moon that shone jubilantly in a blazing glow, is once again nowhere to be seen.

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With thanks, on Father’s Day

Father’s day can be hard for those of us who don’t have fathers to celebrate. This might be because a beloved Dad has passed away, or because the person who has the title of father has never behaved as one. For my husband, it’s sadly the former. For me, it’s the latter.

I made a decision several years ago after being filled with a burdensome, heavy rage, that instead of feeling perpetually angry towards my father for his complete lack of interest and involvement in my life and the lives of his parents (my grandparents, who raised me), I would instead focus on how his actions actually benefitted me. I would refocus my anger into gratitude for all the inadvertent gains I have made, despite my father’s efforts (or lack thereof).

So this father’s day, instead of ruing what could have been, I am embracing what is. And I am thanking my father for the top 10 contributions he has made to my life.

In no particular order, thank you, father, for…

1. Forcing me to be independent
As a teenager, I would lock myself in my bedroom and listen at my door to hear when you had left after stopping by to see your parents. Of course this would only happen when I was caught off-guard – if I’d had prior notice of your possible arrival I would make arrangements to go to a friend’s house. But I hated the feeling of being trapped in my room. What I really needed was a car…or more specifically, money to buy a car.

So, thank you, father, for giving me an extra incentive to earn my own money. It meant that by the time I was 16 years old I had a casual waitressing job that allowed me to save enough cash to buy my first car. Your impromptu visits also gave me added motivation to get my licence as early as I could. At 17 years of age, I owned a VL Commodore that was my most prized possession because it gave me a means of getting away from you. And I had just enough money for the petrol needed to fuel the many laps of my street I would do, as I waited for your rental car to disappear from my grandparents’ driveway.

So while kids my age were relying on their fathers to teach them how to drive, I was mastering the art of creeping past my grandparents’ house in darkness, with my headlights off, waiting for you to leave my home.
Thank you.

2. Showing me to expect more from men
Thank you for cringing with disgust when my six year old tummy was on display as I lay on the couch watching television during one of your rare visits, by saying that’s disgusting; pull your shirt down. Thank you for making fun of me when I wore my swimmers, pointing out my puppy fat and laughing hysterically at the jokes you made at my expense. Thank you also and for telling me you prefer it when girls wear their hair down after I’d asked you if you liked my hair, which your mother had fiddled with all morning so it would look nice for your birthday lunch. Your actions taught me that you would never be impressed by me, which meant I could stop trying.

You also allowed me to realise in time that you were one of those men, the kind who judge women solely by their looks, and not on their abilities or character. Your shallowness and superficiality helped me to avoid men of your ilk as I got older, meaning that the men I opened my heart to wanted me for more than how I looked. Because of how you treated and spoke about women, I learned how to spot pretentious, chauvinistic wankers with ease.
Thank you.

3. Inspiring me to understand my own flawed behaviour
By having the audacity to call me Sare, my grandparents’ pet name for me, and by calling yourself Dad during our infrequent communications, you illustrated your complete lack of insight and self-awareness as to the lack of relationship you have with me. This also helped to explain why your interpersonal relationships seem to have extended only to fleeting relationships with girlfriends who are younger than I am.

When I was younger, my own anger and temper created a range of problems for me. I hated the rage within me, but had no idea what to do with it, other than explode. This made me just like you. Which made me want to change.

Now, I don’t bully people. I don’t intimidate others until I get my own way. And I don’t have an inflated sense of entitlement as to what I can expect from the world. So this means I am not like you at all.
Thank you.

4. Your lack of involvement in your parents’ lives
Although it was difficult to juggle study, work and trying to have some semblance of a regular 20-something-year-old’s life while caring for your elderly parents, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. So while you lived free from worry or concern on the other side of the country, I spent years cooking, cleaning, driving to medical appointments and arranging for household services – all of which gave me time with your parents that I now look back on and cherish.

But as a side note, thank you for refusing to help me the one time in my life that I asked for assistance in removing your mooching sister from your parents’ home. When you replied to my letter of request by telling me that I was a spoiled brat who had always received everything she ever asked for, and that your help would not be forthcoming just because things were tough for me now, you showed me I had truly tried everything to change my grandparents’ living situation for the better. Your reply showed me there was nothing more I could do, and your clear disinterest gave me permission to stop trying.

More recently, thank you for having no involvement in arranging the funeral of your mother, instead letting me plan it over the phone, from the foyer of my work, where I picked out which casket would hold her body. Your lack of interest gave me complete control and final say over the occasion, meaning that her funeral was a perfect farewell to a person who was far too special for you – both in life and in death.
Thank you.

5. Encouraging me to find and create my own family
By portraying yourself as the victim of an evil and manipulative daughter to relatives with whom you are close, you caused these relatives to hold inaccurate and unsubstantiated views about me. Your actions even resulted in a couple of these relatives writing to me after my university graduation to say Congratulations; the only thing that would make us happier is if you made amends with your father. Thank you for this. It reminded me why I have chosen to extricate myself from my birth relatives, and to instead immerse myself in the love and support of the family I’ve made for myself. I was reminded of this yet again when – at your mother’s funeral – all but one of these relatives completely ignored me, despite the fact that I arranged the service and gave the eulogy. It was okay though – half of the people in attendance were my friends, there to support me. And unlike the family I was born into, these friends aren’t going anywhere.
Thank you.

6. Vindicating my memories and my opinion of you
Although I spent thousands of dollars and countless hours of my own time to enable your parents to remain in their own home for as long as possible, there came a time where this was not feasible. Thank you for offering no assistance or support when this occurred, opting to instead cause problems – both legal and otherwise – every time I attempted to pursue a course of action with which you disagreed. Thank you also for telling your father that I was a viper whose sole motivation in assisting him was to retain power over the family fortune. And thank you for furnishing such fear and anxiety about the aged care facility into which your father was set to move, so as to completely obliterate his optimism about relocating. Your scare-mongering caused your father to turn against me, and to blame me for forcing him out of his home. You may not realise that I heard you on the phone, telling your father that he would be locked away like poor old mum in a jail from which he would never get out. Your lies just confirmed what I always suspected – that your sole reason for keeping your father in his own home was so that the property would stay in the family, destined for your inheritance. And no pesky aged care residential bond was going to get in the way of your payday.

Thank you also for turning up to your mother’s bedside while she lay dying, to offer such helpful and compassionate words like threatening to start world war three with the staff of the aged care facility if she was not moved to a hospital.  You showed all the carers who had looked after your beautiful mother in ways you will never appreciate nor experience just how accurate my description of you had been, by illustrating for everyone that you are a bully with no regard for anyone’s interests but your own.
Thank you.

7. Enabling me to live my own life
Thank you for threatening to go legal (a cringe-worthy use of language if I’ve ever heard one) every time I attempted to exercise my powers as your father’s enduring power of attorney late last year. Thank you for then kidnapping your bewildered and confused father and moving him to an undisclosed location across the state border, where I was unable to locate him much less move him into the aged care facility where he was set to reunite with his wife of fifty-two years. Thank you also for requiring me to obtain police assistance to locate you both, during a week spent away from my husband and child.

What you may not have realised is that your sudden interest in your father’s living situation allowed me to step away from the endless drama and chaos that engulfs you and anyone you encounter. And as sad as I am not to have had any contact with your father in months, I have also not been subject to your abusive and threatening emails, text messages and phone calls during this time. Because you finally involved yourself in your parents’ lives, it gave me a chance to focus my energy on my chosen family, instead of trying to constantly repair damage you have made to your own.
Thank you.

8. Making me appreciate all I have
Thank you for having so little interest in me that your father would have to write in a card for my birthday and at Christmas, and sign it love Dad. Thank you also for noting the birthdays of work colleagues and family members in your 1986 diary that I found in a wardrobe at my grandparents’ home, but making no mention of my birthday, either because you didn’t remember it, or didn’t care enough to remind yourself. Fortunately, your parents gave me enough love on my birthdays that I almost forgot that it signalled the date in time where your world apparently changed for the worse.

Your parents blessed me in many ways – caring for me since I was a newborn by opening their home to your otherwise orphaned daughter. But as I got older, the tables turned, and soon I was the caregiver, as all health care, financial and personal decisions related to your parents became my duty. This meant that for almost 30 years you avoided responsibility of any kind, both because your parents raised your child, and because your child then cared for your parents.

Instead of feeling hard done by for this arrangement, I am grateful. Your absence allowed me to bond with your mother in a way that neither you nor your sister ever could. My relationship with her was beyond special, and is sadly one that you will never understand. So thank you, because instead of feeling bitter for what I missed out on because of my parents, I am appreciative for all I gained from my grandparents.
Thank you.

9. Encouraging me to prove you wrong
Thank you for telling me when I was 15 years old that I was a loser who would amount to nothing and that the biggest mistake of your life was keeping me. In doing so, you made me even more determined to succeed. My two university degrees, post-graduate diploma and significant employment history are clearly all testament to how I have completely failed at life. How ironic that it would be you who actually ended up failing, both in your ethically questionable entrepreneurial ventures and in your interpersonal relationships. I actually feel empathy towards you, because you obviously lack the ability to appreciate how your own actions have caused situations most people would actively wish to avoid.

So while you may seek to blame others for the issues you have faced, I have confronted my own failings head-on, in an attempt to learn from the past. And in so doing, I have grown as a person, to the point where I am happy, successful, loving and loved. Unlike you, I do not consider myself to be perfect, or even close to it. I have much to improve. But without you demonstrating how little you ever expected from me, maybe I wouldn’t have tried so hard to prove you wrong.
Thank you.

10. Showing me what to look for in a partner
Thank  you for giving me my first taste of violence at the hands of another, when you hit me across the face when I was four years old, after I had innocently slapped your face in a play fight. Thank you for then denying your actions, for telling your mother that it was you who had been hurt, and for smirking at me as your mother made me apologise to you. Thank you also for throwing me up against a wall when I was 16 years old, while threatening to hurt me for disrespecting you. Thank you for then trying to befriend my boyfriend at the time who came to rescue me later that evening. Your conduct showed me that although you were tough enough to push around a teenage girl, your bravado did not extend to attempting to intimidate the 20-year-old man who arrived to help me escape. That was the last time you ever physically hurt me, because after that, I refused to be anywhere near you.

Some twenty years later, I picked a man to share my life with who is your complete opposite. He has never raised his voice at me, much less his hand. He treats me with respect, as an equal, and his devotion and adoration towards his son could not be further from the apathy and disdain that you’ve shown towards me. So now, when I watch my son splash in the water with his father during swimming lessons and see my husband consumed with happiness and joy, I realise that this is how fathers are supposed to be towards their children. Unlike my mother, I chose for my children a man who is a wonderful father. And it’s partly because you showed me exactly what to avoid.

So, father, from the bottom of my heart – thank you for all these life lessons.
And happy father’s day.

 

 

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The end of September – Part Three

I have nightmares at least once a week. I wake up and I am always lying on my side, which is different from how I went to sleep, which is always on my stomach. That’s my first indication that what has just happened was a dream, and not real. I open my eyes with a jolt, and realise that I am curled up with my knees up to my tummy. Once I figure that out, I know that even though I am scared, what I am scared of isn’t actually happening anymore.

I shout out to my grandparents whenever I have a nightmare. Their bedroom is just up the hallway from mine and they always sleep with their door open, like I do. Nanny is a very light sleeper so I don’t have to yell out too many times before I get a reply. I say I’ve had a nightmare and Nanny always yells back the same thing:

Go to the toilet.

I don’t understand how these two things are linked. But I trust Nanny, so when she tells me to throw back my sheets and walk up the hallway to her bedroom’s en suite in the dark, I comply. I don’t turn a light on until I get to the bathroom because I can never find the one in my room, or in the hallway. Instead I just feel my way in the dark until I can sense cold tiles on my feet. Then I know I am in the bathroom, and I know where the light switch is.

My grandparents never come into my room when I have had a nightmare, nor do they help me to walk to the bathroom. They don’t cuddle me in their bed – in fact in eleven years I have never been in bed with either of them. They just offer reassurance from their bed like It’s alright, love, you’ve just had a bad dream, while I pee in their en suite with the door open.

Maybe my grandparents are perpetually worried that I will wet the bed if I am scared, so they think that by forcing me to traipse to the toilet after a bad dream, it will avoid a midnight laundry run. It must be working; I never wet the bed.

Maybe my grandparents think that shunting me back into reality through the mundane task of bathroom attendance will jolt me further back into a sense of knowing that the terror I just experienced in my bedroom was all in my head. That it was make-believe. That it wasn’t real.

Or maybe, on some level, my grandparents are teaching me a lesson. Teaching me to realise that they will not be able to come to my rescue whenever I need them. Teaching me to rely on my own strength to navigate frightening situations. Teaching me that one day, I will be alone, and I will need to look after myself.

A time when I will need to be resilient.
A time when the nightmare was real.

I am grateful for these lessons today.

***

My mother has turned her body to face me; she has moved 90 degrees from her previous position of being hunched over the steering wheel, fiercely speeding along the road leading away from the suburb I call home. She doesn’t have her seat belt on anymore, but I do. I am still staring straight ahead, determined not to move. I am trying to control my breathing but end up just holding my breath and making massive exhalations when I can’t hold it in anymore. I glance down at my chest, and I can see my shirt moving frantically up and down, as my 11-year-old heart pumps frenetically. I am convinced that my mother can hear the sound my heart is making; that the beats are audible to her. I hope they’re not. I don’t want her to know how scared I am.

My mother is talking, calmly and quietly. I don’t know what she is saying; I am not listening – I am too fixated on my surroundings. All that is in front of me is an expanse of bitumen with white lines to show cars where to park. There are pathways leading away from the car park, which disappear into the gum tree ridden bushland. I wonder if I could outrun Norman this time and make it to one of those pathways…but I don’t know where they lead. Plus, I can’t see anyone who might help me. Even if I found someone, would they believe my story? Or would my mother just explain to them who she was, smiling pleasantly as the stranger I’d hoped would rescue me hands me back to her?

To get out of this car, I will have to figure out which button locks the car doors from the inside. There is no way I can do this from where I am seated. I look at the side mirror again, and can still see Norman pacing around the boot of the car, keeping look out. Again I wonder if my mother is planning to put me in the boot of the car, and if Norman is standing by to make sure no one sees this happen.  For a moment, I hope my suspicions are right. At least it would make this all end.

My mother is now moving from her seat, advancing towards me. She awkwardly tucks her arms around me, pushing my body onto hers. At first I wonder if she is trying to suffocate me, and I am annoyed that I do not immediately fight back. Soon I realise she is hugging me. So maybe she isn’t planning on killing me and stuffing my body in the boot after all? Obviously, I do not hug her back. My body feels numb; disconnected from the reality of what is happening. My mind is spinning, but I need to survive this. I need to get home.
I need to see my Nanny again.

My mother is still talking. She asks me a question but I don’t reply. She gets annoyed and raises her voice again which makes me shudder.
Then it dawns on me – I have a plan. I know how I will make it home.
I will be polite. I will smile. I will pretend. And I will get the hell away from here.

I am jolted out of my silent strategising by my mother repeating the question What do you want?

I must tread carefully. I have to think my answer through. I end up saying I just want everyone to be happy. It is a perfect lie. I don’t care about my mother’s or father’s happiness, no more than they care about mine.

My mother says Do you just want mummy to only call you on your birthday and at Christmas?
I nod.

My mother hugs me close to her again. I am limp; like a rag doll. I can fake the verbal pleasantries but the physical is much harder. My mother pulls away, holding me by the shoulders, looking me in the eyes with a huge smile on her face. She is almost beaming; as though she has achieved something truly wonderful; something that has made her proud. But perhaps it’s not pride – perhaps it is relief. Because at this moment my mother has finally realised that she doesn’t have to keep fighting for a relationship with me, because I have given her permission to stop.

I am hopeful that this change in demeanour signals that my mother’s car park tirade has come to an end, and that soon I will get to go home, but as usual, I am wrong. Instead, my mother keeps me in the car, talking at me, for what feels like an eternity. She is trying to explain herself, I think. I can’t be sure. All I can focus on is the fact that she is still – much to my irritation – referring to herself in the third person: Mummy feels this. Mummy thinks that. I hate the word Mummy. So I decide to make a game of it – every time my mother utters the word Mummy, I will dig one of my fingernails into the palm of my left hand. Then I will count all the marks I have made. Minutes pass and I glance down to see a collection of half moons on my skin, each one representing physical evidence of my repeatedly stifled disdain. I want to count them, but I don’t.

Now that I am reasonably confident that Mummy isn’t going to gas me in the car, I just want her to hurry up her dramatics and drive me home. Fortunately, her performance doesn’t go on for too much longer. She unlocks the car and opens her door, yelling out to Norman that he can get back in the car. Predictably, he complies. I realise at this point that Norman really pisses me off. He didn’t help me at all, or tell his wife to calm the hell down when she was ranting like a lunatic. He just sat there like a mute while his wife unleashed on a child. You suck, Norman, you big wus! I think to myself, knowing this is a sentence that I’ll never have the guts to say out loud.

As Norman is closing his door, my mother turns to me and says And if you ever want to know anything about wearing bras or having periods, you can just give Mummy a call!
I cringe. I don’t want to know anything about either of these topics and I sure as hell don’t want to talk to my mother about them. I push my fingernail extra hard into my palm to ease my irritation.

My mother starts the car, and drives us back to the main road, where we begin the journey back to my home. The closer we get to my suburb, the sunnier it gets. It’s almost as if the clouds are lifting before my eyes, showing me that the worst is over and that there will be brightness where there was once nothing but grey.

We arrive out the front of my house. My mother hugs me in the car; Norman stays seated and smiles at me from his position in the back, saying it was nice to meet me. What bullshit I think to myself, in another moment of anger which I will never express verbally. I grab my bag, and slam the passenger door shut behind me. I don’t look back as I get out of the car, as I am too focussed on getting inside my house and collapsing into Nanny’s arms. As I make it to the top of my driveway, I hear my mother’s car drive away. I wonder if I will ever have to see her again.

When I get to the front door, I can see through the security screen that Nanny is in the lounge room folding laundry on the couch and watching Days of Our Lives. I ring the doorbell and yell out to her. She hurries over to me as best as she can, saying Oh hello, love, you’re home early! Nanny is right – it’s only 2pm, but I am completely exhausted. I give her the biggest cuddle I can manage, and I don’t let go. Nanny asks me if I am alright, but I am too tired to talk about what’s just happened so I say nothing.

I ask where my grandad is and Nanny says he is out the back, which means he is in his vegetable garden in the backyard. When I approach him with a wave and a smile, he looks at his watch, startled. He gives me a cuddle, kisses me on my cheek, then asks me about my day. I tell him that it was extremely rotten. He remembers these words, and later uses them in his own notes of the past 10 days:

G notes

My grandad says he doesn’t have much watering left to do, and that he will be inside shortly, so I return to the lounge room where Nanny is still folding laundry and ask her for a cuddle. She moves hankies, underwear and tea towels out of the way, freeing up space on the couch so that I can lie down. I want to hold Nanny so tightly and squeeze myself onto her frame, but she is so little and frail I am scared I might break her. So instead, I place my head in her lap, and let her stroke my hair and my face, and I close my eyes.

My mind is scattered, re-thinking the events of the morninh; wondering how accurate my recollection is. Did I imagine all of that? Should I tell my grandparents or would that just cause more problems? I hear the screen door open behind me – it is my grandad, coming back in the house after finishing his gardening. He walks to the fridge, gets himself a beer, and sits on a nearby couch.

So how’d you go, love? he asks me.

I don’t know how to answer him. So instead, I just say I am happy to be home, and I smile. It is a real one this time.

I smile because I have survived the “holiday” I have dreaded for months.
But most of all, I smile because somehow, I have made it home.

***

The aftermath of September 1993 resulted in even less contact with my mother, which of course suited me fine. I did not see her again for three years, a time I have already written about, here. After that, contact was essentially a phone call at Christmas or my birthday, but I would occasionally be caught off guard of a Sunday night when one of my grandparents yelled out Sare, it’s for you, it’s your mother, after answering the phone.

But then, shortly before my 20th birthday, I received a text message from an unknown number.
It started with the words Hi darling, it’s Mum.
It took my breath away. I felt as though she was behind me, waiting to see my reaction. I felt exposed and vulnerable, not to mention baffled. How did she get my phone number? Who gave it to her? And although my first instinct was to throw my phone against a wall, I read on.

My mother’s message revealed that she was coming to Brisbane for work, was staying at the Sheraton, and would love to catch up with me if I was free.

By then, I was free. Free from my parents combined histrionics and manipulation. Free from feeling powerless whenever I got into someone’s car. And I felt so buoyed by my own sense of accomplishment that I told my mother I would meet her in the lobby of the Sheraton – not to catch up with her; not to make small talk. The reason I agreed to see her, and which I kept to myself, was that this was my chance to look her in the eyes, and tell my mother to never contact me again.

As I waited in the lobby, I felt comforted by the fact that I’d dragged my then-boyfriend along for the ride. He was seated at a different table, just to keep watch of whatever eventuated. I told him I didn’t know how I was going to feel when I saw my mother; how I would react. If I collapsed into a incoherent, blubbering mess, I wanted someone in my corner to drag me to safety.

But I need not have worried. When my mother arrived, she looked just as I’d remembered her. She was white-teethed, blonde haired and slim, smiling jubilantly as she noticed me and made her way over to my table. I noticed the leather band of her watch was teal in colour, which caught my eyes as it moved in front of her white linen pants. She kissed me on the cheek, and sat down opposite me. A waiter approached; I’d already ordered a beer, but my mother asked  for a bottle of San Pellegrino.

What a wank, I thought to myself.

My mother wasted no time in saying how wonderful it was to see me; saying how I looked gorgeous, and saying all those other things that mean nothing to a person who is waiting for a break in conversation to deliver a message of their own. Finally, I got my chance.

Calmly and deliberately, I explained that the reason why I agreed to meet you today is basically to say I am really happy in my life. I have a family who love me; wonderful friends, and I’m at uni. So there’s really nothing else that you can give me. So please don’t contact me again.

My mother smirked. It was the same as the smirk she made at me in the coffee shop 8 years ago; the smirk she made just before telling me I wasn’t going home.

She let out a small sigh, raised her eyebrows slightly, and said Is this the work of your bitch grandmother?

And with that, my hair trigger fury was unleashed.

I grabbed the neck of the Crown Lager I’d ordered, and smashed the base of the bottle on the table, splashing beer over my mother and myself . Much to my dismay, the bottle didn’t break, so I instead pushed it and the bottle of San Pellegrino into the direction of my now damp and dishevelled mother, who did not even flinch as carbonated beverages toppled into her lap.

Fuck you, i said, storming away from the table, uttering the last words I would ever say to the woman who brought me into the world.
Oh that’s just lovely, my mother responded.

And for once, she was right. Choosing to leave my mother, and her drama behind me was just lovely.

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