Tag Archives: family

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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The sun also burns

Where to begin? More travels (to Canada and the US – blog post TBC), more questions, more sunshine? More indecision.

I suppose I should pick up from where I left off; that turgid post of doom in which I lamented a misfortune of my own making. Indeed, I felt horrible. I felt trapped. I felt stuck back in a city that I had longed to escape since childhood, and I felt physically and emotionally constrained by our choice of home. There were days where I cried and cried and missed my grandparents, and thought of all the stupid shit I have done in this town, and returned day after day to my trailer park home, where my boys were tanned from a day in the sun, and I was fatigued from a day of trying to wrap my head around laws that protect children from parents worse than my own, and systems that exist so that the State can be your parent when your own cannot.

I don’t know why I described myself in the above paragraph as struggling to understand the legislation I am tasked to review. This is something that is not difficult for me. The problem of course is that what we are skilled to do, and what brings us joy, are not always one and the same. This is complicated even further when a thing we are capable at, but which does not guarantee emotional satisfaction, also brings with it a steady stream of income. The choices are too many for me to compute at times.

Do something you love which pays little? Feel emotionally sated but perpetually poor?
Do something you can tolerate because it pays well and allows you the freedom to spend you income on things that satisfy you?
Do nothing but explore the world, funded by years of work at mundane jobs, in order to allow yourself to build bonds with your children and husband that 40+ hours a week in an office can threaten to erode?
Buy less, love more?

In an earlier post I wrote about finally figuring out – years later – that my reasons for studying law were always flawed. I was always one of those bright and annoying children, whose vocabulary surpassed my elders – a similarity I now witness in my son J. My personality and intellect, like everyone’s, was partly genes, partly nature, and partly situational (because my grandparents read to me often). I was always included in adult conversations and I performed on cue the role of precocious, entertaining child. I brought home certificate after certificate – art, writing, reading, public speaking (maths was noticeably absent from my skill-set) and my grandparents loved it. But while they heaped me with praise for my report cards that were littered with As, for every positive remark, there was a small jab. They were not happy with B grades. They were dissatisfied with the comments that always followed on my report cards about my apparent refusal to work to my potential. They were dismayed that I did not seem to take anything academic particularly seriously, and they asked me regularly what I planned to do with my life, suggesting along the way that with my love of words and performance, journalism or law would probably be a perfect fit (spoiler alert: it was not).

But why does all this come up for me? Why are all these issues at the forefront of my mind?

Because, Brisbane.

In an episode of the Simpsons, Lisa begs Chief Wiggum to not eat the clues. She appears to him in a backwards-speaking, Twin Peaks-esque scene where he is trying to solve the crime of who shot Mr Burns. Lisa appears to guide Chief Wiggum to the answer he already has. The evidence he needs is in his possession, he just hasn’t realised it yet.


Now, a month after my last post, I have figured more out about the evidence before me, and instead of eating the delicious, tropical clues, I feel like I’m finally making sense of them.

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This sunny, water-lined scene is the life I grew up in, with the islands of Moreton Bay my backyard (note: I have only been to Stradbroke Is AKA Straddie TWICE, such was my grandparents’ disdain for the Shire they called home). I grew up around families who went camping on these islands, whose parents threw barbecues poolside, and who spent their sunny weekends taking the family boat out on the bay. And now, as a parent myself, I see the cohort of names I remember repeating the lessons learned in childhood, played out before me on Facebook. Sand, surf, sea, sun. Rinse and repeat.

The life of sunshine and sea-spray could have been mine, but it wasn’t, and it was never going to be. My Nanny couldn’t swim. My grandfather despised the Queensland beaches, only ever surfing in Yamba. It was a shame I didn’t feel part of this scene because I was a reasonably good swimmer and I tanned beautifully in the sun. But I was so hell-bent on ruining my life before it even began, I didn’t pay much attention to all the beauty around me, and how lucky I was to call this place my home.

So now, some 20 years later, where I watch my children play every day in the pool, where my son turns brown in the sun as I do, and where I can walk to work from my apartment in South Brisbane, no longer needing to battle the daily commute, I am again trapped in this familiar sense of disconnection, because I could have everything I want here, but I can’t.

This place would give me everything familiar. Everything, except happiness.

I can’t stay in Brisbane, my home town. There are too many scars. The wounds are still raw in places, such was the force with which they were inflicted. I am re-truamatising myself continuously – with wonderings about the could-haves and what-ifs and the ongoing sense of guilt and shame for all I have done. And it’s not that I ever did anything particularly horrendous – I didn’t rob any one at knifepoint (or otherwise) or steal a car. I just view my past as all being missed chances to have been a better person, a kinder granddaughter, to have been more present, nicer, more caring. But I wasn’t that person. I’m playing catch-up now trying to become that person. So all Brisbane tells me is that I will never get that time back, and being here, in this place, is a constant reminder of what I have lost.

Family. Friends. A different kind of life.

I try to be kind to myself, and to console myself with words like, “Sarah, you were young when you were here. You didn’t know any better. You did the best you could. You didn’t have support or guidance. Everyone makes mistakes.” But the problem is that I am, and have always been painfully, frighteningly hard on myself. I have never understood the self-love movement as I am mired somewhere between dislike and apathy. I have tried for years to remedy this, but I fear that when you are told in your formative years that you are a burden, a mistake and a failure, a future in which you outwardly champion your own existence is asking a bit much.

As I alluded to in my last post, D and I decided to bite the bullet and make a financially stupid but psychologically astute decision to rent an apartment near the city and forego our caravan for a little while. A borrowed queen sized bed is our only furniture, other than a small coffee table and a little kids table for the boys to eat at. Our boys are sleeping on mattresses from the caravan; we have pushed the two single mattresses together and sometimes when we are lucky, little N will snuggle up to his big brother and leave us in peace for a whole night.
We borrowed a television from my best friend and a bar fridge from her aunt. While I am at work the boys hang out in the nearby parks playing outdoors or swimming the pool. Sometimes they will go to GoMA, or play in South Bank, or walk through the museum. The local public school – pretending I was to send J to it – is down the road, and I have heard coworkers speak of it glowingly. D’s boxing gym is a short jog away. We spend our weekends catching up with friends we have missed since moving to Melbourne seven years ago, or we drive to the beach. We are healthier than we ever were in Melbourne, thanks to almost endless sunshine and fresh air.

We could have been really happy here.

And, yet.
It’s me.
It’s not you, Brisbane. It’s me.

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There are days when I feel irreparably broken. When I believe with abject certainty that I will never be fixed, that I will never be ‘normal’ and that my father was right in all he ever said about me, and that my mother was right to flee. How could a parent not want to cradle the smooth, perfect skin of the life they created? My only answer for that is my own utter lack of worth, visible since I was merely minutes old. I can grow older, amass a new family, develop coping strategies and self-awareness, gain employment, earn a wage, buy nice things, but it means nothing if underneath it all I am undeniably ruined.

Does this come up more for me because I am back in Brisbane, the scene of so many crimes of the heart (and a few garden variety street offences)? Or is it because of something more sinister, something within me that I can never change? The creatives in the world are often the ones cursed with thoughts like these. I take comfort knowing I’m in good company.

But putting aside my oscillating thought processes, the other burning issue at hand is of course what we should do next. In no particular order, here are the options D and I have narrowed down for our family.

1. D goes back to work, I stay at home with the boys.  We want to be with them but the past 5 months of D being the stay-at-home parent have been fraught. He is a wonderful father and plays with the boys for hours. But he isn’t a great housewife, even if he looks good in an apron.  So if anyone is going to work, it will be him. And yet despite knowing this, and agreeing to it, I still complete job applications to random employers all over the world, because I am addicted to rolling the dice.

2. Stay in Brisbane. D would be happy with this. I would be happy for a few weeks before descending into some kind of psychotic break that paralyses me until I can be brought back to consciousness with a plane ticket.

3. Return to Melbourne. D is not keen on this idea, for reasons that make complete sense, namely that if it didn’t feel right a year ago it’s probably not right now. But yet, I do miss Melbourne. To me it feels like home, but that could be just because it’s the last place we were settled.

4. Find a smaller town somewhere and buy a big block of land. D claims he would love this. He wants to repair old motorcycles and have a shed again. We want our dog back. But I am terrified and unsure if my immediate response is a valid one or just one that has been honed from years of telling myself that I needed to live in a major city because that was the only way I would escape the small town mindset I came to view as normal.

5. We go somewhere rural. D is a country boy at heart, and assures me that the boys would have plenty of space and we could do cool stuff on the property to make it AirBandB worthy when we aren’t there. But how would we travel when we would have animals to look after? And how does a vegetarian get by in dairy and cattle farmer territory?

6. We try a new Australian city, e.g. Darwin. We like the idea of the tropics without the familiarity of the Eastern seaboard. We like the proximity to Asia. We like the multiculturalism. D could find work easily. Baby N could eat mangoes all year round. And we could have our crazy cattle dog Clancy back with us again. It’s an unexpected front-runner at the moment, though with everything we discuss, that’s subject to change at a moment’s notice.

7. We go overseas again and do some volunteer work. What better way to teach our kids about the world? We could find a villa in Bali, help with turtle conservation and help little kids to speak English. I have thought about doing post-grad study in education for years and for some reason I always back out. Maybe this would be a nice way to test the waters given that I did a 6 year double degree only to set foot in a law firm and realise I’d made a terrible mistake. But then I worry about the kids, and mozzie bites, and illnesses, and how we would manage it all. I want to challenge my children, but I don’t necessarily want to scar them for life.

8. In addition to all of this, I should add that D has a job offer in Vancouver. It would be a great job – perfect for him and would also let him work from home for most of the week. I love the idea of taking the boys out every day exploring a new city. But – Visas. We don’t think he can get a Visa without the assistance of the company, and for them to hire a foreign worker involves a lot of work on their part to illustrate that they tried to find a Canadian to do the job and could not.

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9. D could find a job overseas (Australian company with an international posting). But D will only go if it helps advance his employability; he won’t go if it is going to cost us money and makes no financial sense after you take away accommodation expenses/cost of living etc. I’m no mathemagician but he has a point.

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10. We pack up our lives again and just drive with the van. D is happy with this, and I am as well, although remembering how cramped I was in that tiny bed wedged between a sideboard, a toddler and my husband is not without its concern.

11. We go back to what is safe, D gets a job, I get a job, the boys go to school/daycare, we buy a nice house in a nice neighbourhood and we have a walk-in pantry and a big fridge and I drink wine in a coffee cup to quell the burning realisation that I had a chance to do something amazing with my children before they got too big, and instead I got scared, and returned to what is familiar. Maybe I could save turtles during school holiday breaks?

So there it is, Launderers. Now you know everything. Feel free to pass on your worldly advice because each day the weight of these decisions are eating away at the usually calm soul of my indecisive Libran husband, and are threatening to drive my erratic nature to doing something impulsive. Like, announcing to my employer that I will finish up in June.

Which I have already done.

But before I finish this post, let me stress that having options is a wonderful thing. We are blessed to have so many possibilities we could explore. We are fortunate to be educated such that we can find employment in various locations and forms. And above all of that, we are so very lucky to have two little children who are healthy and happy, and who could not care less where their crazy parents take them, as long as we are all together.

And that – that, I can promise, we will be.

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The good, the bad and the ugly.

I write this in January, on the halfway-between-a-double-and-a-Queen bed in our caravan, where all is dark except for the light from my laptop, and other than the sounds of my fingers tapping keys, the only noises are the snores of my youngest son who is asleep on my bed, and the whir of the air conditioner that is rarely, if ever, turned off.

It is 7.30pm. My children are asleep because they are overactive boys who need to rest, but who refuse to. They’ve both collapsed in a heap after tears and a tantrum and a cavalcade of books read to them by the parent who loves the sound of her own voice.

Soon, wine.

My husband is at the gym.

He needs to punch something.

He needs some alone time.

We are in Brisbane. We have been here for almost two months. We elected to stop here as I – on some strange tropics-infused whim – decided I would like to try my luck at being employed again. Just temporarily! Just to make sure I am still employable! So a few months ago from our van parked near Palmerston in the Territory, as my children slept I churned out a few job applications, and ended up getting a three month role in the Queensland government that was presumably to wrap up at the end of February. It has since been extended.

This will be great! We thought, for we are idiots. I can work and give D a taste of what it’s like to be a full-time stay-at-home dad! We can see if that set-up is one that might work for us! And we will only stay in Brisbane for a little while because, Brisbane. No we aren’t going to stay in Brisbane, are you kidding? As if we want to get stuck here again in the city that holds memories of most of my sins and years spent dodging bullets and firing even more.

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Lousy memory-ridden city with your glorious weather I WILL NOT FALL FOR YOU AGAIN! (Let’s do lunch?)

We will be fine, my husband said, as I went to work that steamy December morning, leaving him with the children. We will hang out in the pool, visit friends, do the touristy stuff.

We are two months in.
We are two months in to our three-month gig.
We are two months in.
And we are miserable.

Now, I could smack a lick of gloss over this crumbling conundrum and reassure all and sundry that EVERYTHING IS AWESOME! LIFE! YEAH! #BLESSED I could post photos of children playing with flowers, and me with my sun-kissed legs outstretched on a beach and of melamine cups and barbecues and sunsets and beauty and moments and gratitude.

It would be bullshit. That’s not reality anymore.

Before I elaborate I am at pains to explain that up until the Brisbane hiatus, things were awesome. Well, they were difficult (we do have two children under 5) but they were fun. Exploring new places, turning up in strange towns, making do in the surroundings, trying to be creative when cooking with a can of tomatoes, tuna and pasta for another night. It was challenging, but fun. We were a team, hubby and I. We rolled our eyes at each other when our boys screamed blue murder over misappropriated ninja turtles. We listened to podcasts as we drove through kilometers of nothing as our children watched episodes of Deadly 60 as our car sped along a highway. We talked about life on the rare occasions that both our children fell asleep as we drove – where we will settle? Is J ready for school? Where should we go next?

There are days, now, that we talk to each other in such a spitting, irritable way, you could be forgiven for thinking that we never liked each other, and that we are just inmates thrust into the same cell, trying desperately to get out of a prison of our own making.

How did this happen?

I don’t know. If I knew, I imagine I would be able to stop it. But I don’t know the cause. I know some contributing factors, but how relevant they each are is a bit of a mystery.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Bedtime.

Oh co-sleeping, you mistress of doom. You won me over with your promises of baby cuddles on tap, which I love, I do. And I have loved it for some time…the baby in question is nearly 2 and a half. The baby can sleep on his own, he just chooses not to. Oh, what’s that, unsolicited opinions? I should be firmer with him set some boundaries? HOW THE FUCK SHALL I MANAGE THAT IN A CARAVAN? The little bugger can simply roll out of his bottom bunk, wander up to us and scream until we give him what he wants (our bed). He slept in a bed on his own while we were housesitting; I was able to lie in bed with him until he fell asleep and then creep out. Do you know how hard it is to wedge oneself in the base bed of a triple bunk? Thank Christ for my years of yoga or I may have snapped a tendon by now, having to contort myself into place where I am resting half on the floor and half on a mattress that is supermodel thin, all the while cradling N’s enormous head in my bicep and trying not to swear.

So the baby ends up in bed with us. We try to make peace with it. We try to be sexually adventurous using locations other than the bed. Well, we try to try. Apparently my glaring and constant bitchy resting face isn’t sexy (who knew?).

Space

In families that are packed together like sardines in tiny apartments,  is there any data to show their quality of life? Because if I were a betting woman, I would wager that the proximity one is to one’s immediate family is inversely proportionate to the amount of affection felt for that family. In other words, I NEED SOME FUCKING SPACE. But I am the lucky one, now. I am at work for a glorious 8 hours a day. I get alone time on the bus, at the gym, on my lunch-break. It is absolutely marvellous and simply confirms to me what I always knew – that the stay at home parent has it much, much harder than anyone who gets to leave the house and go to work.

The SAHD

Poor husband. He is actually coping quite well as the primary caregiver and to be honest I never really doubted his ability. He is patient (though that quality is waning), he is engaged and he loves his kids. Plus, when we decided to have a family we were both VERY CLEAR on the fact that it would not be solely my role to raise our children. He could have found a woman who wanted to be homemaker. Instead he found me, a decision that I imagine he regrets far more than he used to of late.

So the problem isn’t so much him. It’s how I see him.

Imagine you are at work, doing your job day after day, a job that challenges you and one that you enjoy, and one which you are an expert at because you have been doing it for so long. Sure you might make mistakes from time to time but you know how to fix them and you know what works. You have it all figured out. You = boss.

Now imagine that you’re moving into another area at work, to take on a new role. Someone else has been hired to replace you. But they already know how to do your job, or at least they think they do. They might listen to a few tips you have, but they really want to do things their way. So when you see them about to make an error that you yourself have made and are now able to avoid, naturally you want to warn them. And when they ignore your warning, you want to slap them. Why aren’t they listening to you? This was YOUR JOB! But no, your words have little relevance now. It WAS your job. Now your job belongs to them.

And when, on a relatively easy day (by your standards), you hear your replacement moaning about how tired they are, how tricky the job is, how exhausting it can be, you feel some sympathy, because you have been there. But mostly, you feel annoyed, because you felt this way for years while you were in the role and WHO THE FUCK HELPED YOU?

Welcome to the world of watching your husband be the primary caregiver.

It is heartwarming to watch a dad with his sons. It is fantastic to have married a man who never believed that a woman’s place is at home. It is wonderful to finally be focusing a bit more on my career, having shouldered the majority of the parenting role for so long. But the bar is already set so goddamn low for fathers, that all they have to do is turn up and be affectionate towards their kids and immediately they’re nominated for Sainthood. So many people have said to me how lucky I am to have husband who is happy to stay home with our sons. Err, THEY’RE HIS CHILDREN! I didn’t create them myself on some journey of immaculate conception. And where was my parade when I gave up my career to stay home with the kids? Oh yes, that’s right, it’s just expected of us women folk, isn’t it?

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The love

Where is the love? The love that used to wrap me in its big strong arm and kiss me on the neck? Let me tell you where it is – that love has been squished into a wall by a baby who sleeps sideways. What about the love that stayed up late with me and drank wine, or let me read on his lap while he watched Game of Thrones and stroked my hair? That love has been silenced by small children who demand we tippy-toe around our 22ft can of a home, thus eradicating opportunities for conversation unless we wish to do so underneath our caravan awning, outside. Do you know what invades my senses when I sit outside my caravan? THE SIGHTS, SMELLS AND SOUNDS OF OTHER CARVANNERS. And I get attacked by mosquitoes. So no, there are no chats after dark unless they’re whispered, and no, there is no Netflix watching unless we can get the caravan park’s dicky WiFi to work and even then we have to aim the Ipad away from the baby because we have to sit on the bed where he is sleeping to watch it BECAUSE WE DON’T HAVE A COUCH.

Peace of mind

Oh yes, I did a course on mindfulness therapy. This technically means I should be espousing all manner of calm and soothing processes to chill one out. But I bet you couldn’t pick that now, could you? I have no patience and that is partly because I have no chance to just sit by myself and calm the fuck down. We have a fixed cabin looking down at us in our current van location; not sure I really want the glaring eyes of my transient neighbours watching me as I try to get some inner peace. I have been going to the gym regularly and THANK CHRIST for that outlet. I snap at the children. I yell at my husband. I use the word ‘fuck’ too much (and rarely as a verb, sob). And my husband is just as disgruntled. He shrugs at me, looks at me with a weird glare of incomprehension and occasional disgust. He wants to go back to work. He wants some semblance of normality back. But I am not kind about this; I am just angry.

Birthday

My stupid birthday is coming up and what is even worse is that it’s the day after a major public holiday so even if I wanted to forget about it, I can’t. What are you doing for the long weekend, Sarah? Oh I think I will just cry in a corner if that’s okay but as I can’t get any privacy I will just have to muffle my tears in the communal fucking shower block.

Nanny and Gran

I miss them, I miss them, I miss them. I always miss them. My friends complain about their mums being annoying and I find my immediate (internal) response not one of support but one of irritation. At least you still have her, I think to myself. I am not a nice person. I am probably going to hell. I will be easy to spot among the brimstone as I will be the one towing a caravan behind me as my penance for being a bitch on earth.

But…

If I have a talent (I don’t have one, I have many, the problem being they are fairly useless. For example: I have beautiful handwriting. What a blessing that is in this digital age), it is perception. I know this is temporary. I know that life comes in seasons and this is just where are at, for now. Et hoc transibit – this too shall pass.

There is a Japanese saying that goes something like “After the rain, the ground hardens”. Basically it means the soil is primed for growth after a downpour. Maybe this is our downpour? Or maybe we are just over living in a metal box?

When we started this adventure, we had no idea where it would lead. We didn’t know what to expect or where life would take us, nor did we consider a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to have this experience. Now, having journeyed for over six months, we have decided to take a break from our current situation and take a family holiday, a proper one. So we are off to Canada in March. Four weeks, six cities, including New York. While we are away we will stay open to new opportunities – will hubby find a role he loves overseas? Will we relocate and have new adventures abroad? Or will we miss Brisbane, that city we struck off our list so sure were we never to return?

Whatever happens, at the end of our holiday, I hope we will be ready to carve out our own little home somewhere. And while renting a house might mean our adventures have been curtailed at least temporarily, what’s the point of navigating the earth if you’re angry with your copilot?

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One hundred and thirteen days and counting

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. It has been 113 days since I started my new life on the road, unattached and unfettered, and the freedom has gone to my head such that I have not written as much as I should. Writing for me feels a lot like exercise – something I may not necessarily feel like doing at any given moment, but an activity I do for the feeling afterwards which is my reward. Right now, I am doing virtual burpees as I type this post when I would rather be reading. You see, the silence in this van of ours is so hard to come by thanks to two loud and crazy little men, that when the cloud of quiet descends upon me, it is all I can do from succumbing to the lull of rest.

As I type this, we are in Karumba. Karumba is a small town on the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland where the water is loaded with barramundi and banana prawns, where the ground is a pale, sandy gravel and the turquoise water stretches for kilometers. It is hot, very hot, and the flies are relentless. The people are friendly, the local café sells good coffee, and the owners of our caravan park will provide us with 1 kilogram of cooked prawns for the stately sum of $22.

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When I last posted, we were in South Australia and it was freezing. Our initial plan when we left Melbourne was to test-out life on the road for a couple of months before returning to Victoria in October for my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday. After that, we would travel to Tasmania for a month before returning to Melbourne and beginning the journey north, along the coast.

That is not at all what happened.

By the time we got to Victor Harbor in South Australia, and had rugged our children up in more layers than we thought we packed, and had trudged them out to Granite Island to peer at penguins who had more sense than we did, and who hid in their burrows out of view, we accepted we needed to change our plans. So on a Sunday morning, as our boys played Lego at our kitchen table, my husband D and I looked at each other, uttered the immortal words, “Fuck this” and decided to head north to warmer climes.

We flicked through a random South Australia/Flinders Ranges brochure we had picked up somewhere, circled a sheep station that sounded nice, and called the Spirit of Tasmania to change our booking. Then, we spent a frantic hour in the Victor Harbor mall, buying all manner of summer clothes because we had packed none, such was our certainty that we would return to Victoria at which time we would collect our summer clothes from storage. Our boys walked out of Target with fake Crocs to replace their gumboots, wide-brimmed hats to replace their beanies, and shorts to replace their track-pants. My husband walked out with a couple of t-shirts. I left with nothing but excitement at encountering heat for the first time since March.

We drove to Noarlunga, where we visited the local BCF and bought swimming vests for children who were no longer going to be forced to crouch in wet tufts of grass to play as their parents gripped their jackets tightly and asked them to hurry up, but who would instead float in the thermal pools of Mataranka, the place in the Northern Territory that we pictured as an oasis on that cold, dreary day.

Then, we drove.

Through Adelaide, through the Clare Valley, stopping at Burra for supplies, a kick of the football and petrol, on we sped along the highway until we reached Almerta – the antithesis to our grey, drizzly days in the city and suburbs. Located in the middle of the Flinders Ranges between Orrorroo and Carrieton, we pulled up our van and the beautiful Shane – who essentially runs the entire station on her own as her husband travels for 7 months out of the year doing shearing/crutching for sheep across South Australia and New South Wales – pointed to our space on her sprawling property.

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We were the only visitors there, and it was incredible. We had no power, no phone reception, and limited water. For four days we rode our bikes through the red dirt, navigating stony hills and tufts of saltbush. By day we spotted emus, kangaroos, wedge-tailed eagles and cockatoos, played lego and cars in the dirt, and hiked around the property to explore the natural springs that emerged from the ground. At night we ate by the campfire, and when the boys were in bed, my husband and I sipped wine, placed more logs on to burn, and wondered why we hadn’t thought to do this earlier. The silence, the stars, the colours of the dirt and the sky. It was bliss.

It was bliss? Yes, it was. I can say that with certainty, even though for most of my life I have been a camp-phobe. Being raised by the elderly can do that to you. My grandparents were never going to sleep on the ground in the middle of nowhere, so my experience of childhood did not include this kind of pastime. My husband’s childhood was the same – his family owned a farm so disappearing for camping trips was not something workable or even desirable. D’s experience of roughing it came directly from being in the army, and until I met him, my experience of roughing it was staying in a 3 and a half star motel. This is partly why this whole experience of travelling on the road has been so educational for us, because we are repeatedly amazed at what we are discovering about ourselves in the absence of any outer influence. As it turns out, we do like camping. We like being offline for a little while and just appreciating being connected with each other and our kids. And we don’t even mind the dirt. Who knew?

From Almerta we continued north, stopping overnight at Wilpena Pound before another random and unexpected win when we stumbled across the tiny, deserted town of Farina. Farina was once a thriving community and many of its local sons fought in World Wars 1 and 2. We know this because we stood in awe as we read all about Farina’s history on a monument that was a couple of kilometers from the highway, surrounded by dirt, but which lead towards a huge clearing complete with trees, hills, and families of emus huddling close to each other. We rode our bikes around, chatted with the grey nomads whose language we are fluent in, and taught J about war, about soldiers, and even about the Coat of Arms, and that yes, it’s true, emus and kangaroos cannot go backwards. Neither can we.

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From Farina we headed further north, along the Oodnadatta Track. This wretched patch of road is considered a highlight for some – for me, who had elected to share driving right at this very spot – it was hellish. For four hours I white-knuckle gripped the steering wheel and endeavoured not to slide our 4WD and 22ft van into a ditch. The corrugated dirt did a number on our van, with our shower screen door falling off the rails (but not shattering, fortunately) and a kitchen cupboard being loosened from its hinges and snapping off. The landscape was eerie and lunar-like – no towns for hours, few cars passing through, just a flat expanse of blue-grey that melted into the sky such that using the horizon as a reference point became impossible. By the time we slid into William Creek, we could not get to the pub fast enough.

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The next day at the crack of dawn we headed west to Coober Pedy. Without offending the local townsfolk, I can say with certainty that our one night there was well and truly sufficient. The mines, the holes, the life underground…well, it just isn’t for us. I’m not even that big a fan of opals. But kudos to the local supermarket and its impressive range of goods, including lemon tarts in the adjacent café that kept our boys quiet while we enjoyed a much-needed hit of caffeine.

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From Coober Pedy we continued up the Stuart Highway to finally – under drops of rain and a grey and ominous sky – cross the Northern Territory border. For one cramped and uneventful night, we hunkered down at the Kulgera Roadhouse. It is essentially a petrol station with space to park a van and connect to power. We left in the morning, heading towards Yulara.

Yulara is the home of Uluru, and the enormous rock in the middle of Australia did not disappoint. It is a special, sacred place, but what I found the most beautiful thing was not the rock itself, but rather, the prevalence of a small ecosystem on the rock’s periphery. I had imagined Uluru to be a big red boulder in the middle of nothing, but I was wrong. It is home to a huge number of plants and animals who have all made this space their home. We took photos of flowers as we rode our bikes around the base, J pointed out lizards on our way back to the car, and we spotted tadpoles swimming in puddles close to caverns. We felt so blessed to share in seeing such a special place which has for centuries been an important part of Indigenous Australia, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t angered and ashamed of my Caucasian roots when I watched incredulously as tourists mounted the rock for photos. At one point I may have shouted abuse in the direction of a pack of oldies wearing Queensland State of Origin shirts and who were not content with viewing the rock’s splendour from the ground and who instead hoisted their loud, entitled asses off the ground for a better photo opportunity. “Always speak up if you see something that isn’t okay,” we told J. “Sometimes you have to be the person who says something.”

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We stayed at Yulara for 5 days, including a day of hiking through the Olgas, a somewhat ambitious activity given that we had to carry a child each for most of the way. During our time at Yulara we sold our house at auction. A stressful, harrowing Saturday morning was spent with my husband on the phone to his sister who was in attendance at the auction, and me entertaining the crazy children with dirt, cars, and a football. But it sold, we got a good price, and finally the freedom that comes from having fewer responsibilities and assets became closer to being realised.

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From Yulara we detoured to Kings Canyon for a night. I have heard many people speak glowingly of this place but with two young children, a prevalence of dingoes and walking tracks that require more sure-footedness than my 2 and 4 year old possess, it was not a place of magic for us. We headed back to the Stuart Highway the next morning, heading towards Alice Springs where we made our home for 4 days. It was nice enough and I was grateful for the chance to clean out our van, do loads of laundry, and visit the local Flight Centre to book a quick sojourn to Bali.

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We continued north towards Mataranka, but the lure of the Daly Waters pub drew us into its grasp and soon we were drinking jugs of beer under heavily worked fans, while our children slurped ice blocks and coloured in their free activity books. The next morning we arrived in Mataranka, home of the aquamarine thermal pools. Our little N was not a fan, but J and his dad swam for ages spotting turtles and fish and relishing in the tepid water’s gentle current. Although it was a magical experience, my dislike of algae swimming against my skin freaked me out somewhat. The Bitter Springs pool was more child-friendly, and both boys had a ball, at least until J got swept over the waterfall’s barrier and remained upright only due to his strength at holding on to the rocks, and my own strength at hauling him one-armed back to safety.

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From Mataranka our next stop was Katherine, where we stayed at a sprawling property covered with shady trees, and where a large proportion of our days was spent in the shade-sail covered pool. We liked Katherine’s uniqueness combined with its quirky charms – J was amazed that the entire town had flooded so severely in the 80s that crocodiles were swimming through the middle of the shopping centre, and D couldn’t speak more highly of the lovely lady he met at the Tourism Centre, who not only guided him as to the most child-friendly spots to visit in Kakadu, but who also advised us to purchase Solicite from the Chemist to help with our sensitive little N’s reaction to mosquito bites. I too was impressed, albeit mistakenly, when I was asked for identification at the bottle shop. Apparently this has nothing to do with my appearing younger – it is a request asked of everyone buying alcohol.

Before we left, we took a trip on a boat down Katherine Gorge, marvelling at the rock formations, and the next day we left town via Edith Falls where the boys swam and I drank Coke Zero on the grass.

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After Katherine we drove to Litchfield National Park and for two nights we stayed in another green expanse of grass and trees, and where our neighbours had three boys who were all Port Adelaide supporters. J was thrilled to have met some like-minded souls and played with the boys constantly when we were at camp. We took day trips to Florence Falls and all around Litchfield, swam in clear waters and smelled the scent of the ground being quenched with an afternoon downpour. The tropics – oh how we missed you after our six years of living in Melbourne.

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Finally – after weeks since our decision in Adelaide to head north – we reached Darwin. We fell in love almost instantly – the heat, the sunsets, the seafood, the mangoes, the laid-back lifestyle, the existence of Casuarina Shopping Centre which but for a lack of a Myer/David Jones has pretty much everything someone who has been deprived of a shopping centre for weeks could need, our caravan park’s epic pool and the bar’s $20 jugs of Pimms, our proximity to the Palmerston library where I retreated to complete online job applications…Darwin had it all. We became regulars at the Mindil Markets of a Thursday night where we ate a smorgasbord of food on our leaf-strewn picnic blanket before heading on to the sand to watch the sun set over the water. We were in Darwin for over a month, and although we did spend one week of this time in Bali and another week in Brisbane (N and me, for a wedding and a job interview) and Melbourne (D and J, for D’s mum’s 70th birthday and to clear out our house prior to settlement), we could have stayed longer, and we were sad to say goodbye.

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Bali was of course as one would expect from Bali – relaxing and invigorating – but what was even better about our short vacation was that it planted a seed for a life we might be able to pursue now that we are free from material attachments. Why can’t we relocate there for a period of time and just enjoy life by the ocean, teaching our kids about different cultures and lifestyles? Why is that out of the realms of possibility? It’s not, not now anyway. And what does that mean for our kids? Maybe it means they get to see the world through another’s eyes.

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One night after we were walking back to our hotel after dinner, a woman begging on the ground reached up towards J with an outstretched arm, her hand gesturing for money. He asked us immediately why the lady was on the ground. This prompted a long discussion about poverty, about the act of begging, and about being grateful for the kind of life we have that means we do not need to ask others for money. J seemed to understand, but when we stopped off just before our hotel to buy water at a convenience store, he burst into tears and asked if we could buy that lady a lollypop. She doesn’t have any money for a lollypop and i want to give her one. The poor lady.

He cried and cried and cried.

And although I was sad to see my son distressed by what he had witnessed on the streets of Kuta, I was also grateful. How can I teach him to be thankful for the life he has if it is in a vacuum, if he has no context? If he has not seen that there are people in the world who are poor, who do not get a chance to become educated, who do not have the privilege of clean water and nutritious food, and who for whatever reason find themselves on the pavement of a thoroughfare asking strangers for spare change, how does he learn about them? That night, he learned something powerful – that the world is not just limited to his protected circle and that there are many other people living very different lives than the one he knows. I dropped to my knees and held him close to me, and I told him that he was a beautiful and kind soul for feeling sad about the lady he saw. I told him feeling sad about her situation means that he cares. And that sometimes caring hurts, but that having a caring nature is one of the most wonderful things in the world.

I will stop my recount of our adventures there – 3000 words is quite enough for one blog post. Suffice to say that after 113 days the experience has been unforgettable, the lessons learned innumerable and the connection with my boys even stronger than it was 4 months ago.

The journey continues.

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Lessons learned in a van

Sarah,

Remember when you were 14 years old and blasting that Garbage song about only being happy when it rains? You had your yellow Sony Walkman in your ears, the one constantly attached to your head as you wandered the sunny, bright, blue-skied streets of Cleveland, your hometown in the sunshine state? Remember how you longed for the grey, dreary, cold days where you could be for given for huddling inside away from the world? You ached for that weather, the kind of respite from the cheeriness of sun. And yet now here you are, some 20 years later, and guess what – you are goddamn sick of the fucking rain.

One month in a van, at least 75% rain.

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It rained in Melbourne, as it always does, all through winter, making cold, unpalatable days even harder to navigate, especially when you had two small children to entertain. You left Melbourne for Echuca where it was cold but sunny, and where you sat outside drinking wine with your husband as your children played (briefly) at your feet. I could get used to this! – or so you thought. Of course then it rained in Bright, the picturesque town at the base of the mountains, minutes from the snow. It rained so much the ground squelched under your every step. You wore gumboots constantly, as did your boys, and despite your best efforts, your caravan was soon streaked with mud.

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It also rained at the snow, your first trip to what you expected to be a powdery white wonderland. It rained so much you could barely see, your face hurt from the ferocity of the droplets smashing against your freezing cheeks. Your eldest son, J, cried from the sensation as his olive skin turned a blotchy red. Your baby, N, wailed as wetness covered his face, when even the warm embrace of his Dad shielding him from the onslaught could not abate his tears.

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It rained in Mansfield, that freezing little town at the base of yet another mountain. You didn’t even bother trying to entertain your children outdoors in these conditions – instead, you cleverly sought out a DVD from the local Target and played it repeatedly with the boys perched on your bed (God bless you, Zootopia).

It rained when you came back to Melbourne, literally dampening your efforts to prepare your house for upcoming sale. With every job performed outside, you trudged dirt and debris into your momentarily pristine home. Your husband sought refuge in the shed as he completed carpentry tasks with his knuckles clenched and his fingers frozen to the bone. You managed to plant flowers using your bare hands, scraping soil from a pile on the ground and filling planter boxes to line your deck. You didn’t have a spade; it had been packed away, so instead you used a random piece of wood to aid shovelling. By the end of the sixth planter box, your hands were numb.

It rained when your children succumbed to one of the worst colds they’ve had, a heaving, hacking cough your accompaniment to drizzly days of nothing but grey. It was perfect weather to curl up inside in front of a fire, snuggling on a well-loved couch with your sick little people. But you don’t own a couch anymore, and you couldn’t risk your kids damaging the hire furniture used to present your home in its most appealing light. You mooched at the home of your sister-in-law, taking over her lounge room and playing hours of lego with your boys, while your husband tended to last-minute jobs in preparation for your home’s advertising photographs. When the photographer arrived, it rained. It rained so much, they photoshopped in a sunset sky.


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You set off on the next leg of your trip, stopping at the beachside town of Torquay where finally there was sun. You inhaled the scent of the ocean and walked along the sand with your children. It didn’t rain once. In a typical response, you almost decided to relocate your family to Torquay permanently.


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You scoured the jobs in the area, noting one position with a past employer who has relocated to Geelong. You looked at the houses for sale in the area, marvelling at the serenity of life by the ocean, the four bedroom homes with open living areas and clean tiles. You told yourself that – after days of wrangling sick, cranky children in close quarters – you could be the one to return to full-time work, bringing in a generous wage that would allow your husband to be the stay-at-home parent. You might have even applied for this job, had your laptop been operational but alas, your husband had accidentally taken the battery lead to your storage shed, meaning it was packed away. By the time you reach Warrnambool, you are so desperate to tap your keyboard that you find the one Apple outlet in the region and fork out $130 to quell your angst. By then, the job applications for that role you were eyeing off had closed, which as you know, is a blessing.

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You drive to Port Campbell and a combination of your own onset of illness and entertaining your children in the cold has caused your already short fuse to be rubbed down to a nib. You think back to what you had imagined this journey to be like – mornings of sunshine, pancakes, smoothies and family bike rides. You wonder how you could have ignored the critical fact that you would not see summer for months. You want to fast-forward time so that you get to that place by the beach, the rolling waves and the yellow streams of sunlight. You want the ritual of slathering up chunky legs with sunscreen and affixing hats to not-so-little heads that try to wriggle free. You want the look of delight when your husband throws one of your children up in the air in the water, the splash of warm liquid on your face, the cool afternoon breeze that moves your maxi dress between your calves.

Dresses! Oh, you miss them too. You packed your corporate attire away so frantically you never even paused to consider you might miss the sensation of a zip running up your spine or sliding on a pair of heels. You live in tights and jeans, hoodies and sneakers. You didn’t bring anything else into the caravan with you. Why would you? You dress for practicality now, not style (although in your defence, you still have most of your jewellery with you because you know it is amazing how one statement piece can transform an otherwise pedestrian outfit).

You drive on to Mount Gambier, where there are shops, a library, cafes and even an art gallery. You quite like Mount Gambier, and how could you not – it is the fertile, stoic ground from which your husband grew. You can tolerate the rain – yes, more rain – because like Melbourne, Mount Gambier’s weather can never quite commit to what it wants to be. When the rain passes, there is a glimmer of sun. But it quickly disappears. You imagine living in a town like this and how you would cope with the extremes in temperature throughout the year. You know you would survive, but suspect you would probably complain constantly.

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You drive through the Coorong to Adelaide and the sun follows you the whole way. Since being in Adelaide it has not rained once. You’ve had bike rides into Glenelg, teaching your son about resilience when his little legs refused to keep pushing for the last leg of the 8km round trip. You have played lego and trucks and cars in a sun-filled annex that keeps you warm. But despite the reprieve of the elements, you finally succumb to the ache of your sinus infection, collapsing in tears as you beg for an ice pack to relieve the pain in your face. Your husband puts you to bed, closes the blinds and makes the space as dark as it can be in spite of the happy sunshine hovering overhead. In a brief moment of desperation you find yourself wanting to call out for your Nanny, for her to make you well again and to push the pain away. But she can’t, Sarah. She can’t.

You chat with the oldies in all of the caravan parks and you like them; they remind you of your own grandparents even though you realise your grandparents would never have considered life in a caravan. Your Nanny would never have agreed to bathing in a communal shower block, and besides, where would she get her perm set every month? “You know I don’t let just anyone touch my hair!” – her words ring in your ears even though it has been years since she said anything like this, to you or to anyone. You also think of your grandfather. The sun-chaser in him would be baulking at the thought of completing a lap of Tasmania in September, “You’re not driving north?” he would question, noting his own hatred of the cold; the boy from Goulburn for whom a winter in Queensland was barely tolerable.

Your children have grown before your eyes. Your baby N responds with a vehement “No!” when he feels like refusing something, his once angelic eyes narrowing to a piercing glare. He is no longer the chubby infant permanently on your hip, who only wanted you all the time. Instead he will squirm from your grasp and run after his brother, copying everything he does. But at lunchtime when N needs his nap, you will no longer have to sit in a darkened room, hunched over at his cot and patting him into sweet oblivion, all the while hoping that J doesn’t make a sound that will wake him. Instead, you darken the caravan and snuggle into him on your bed. He guzzles his bottle and burrows between the safety of your left bicep and your chest, and there he will sleep for an hour, maybe more. You will hold his perfect, plump little foot in your hand as the fine blond hairs on his warm skull tickle your nose. You will stay there for as long as he needs you, because you can. Your husband takes J out during this time – to kick the footy, to ride his bike, or today – to wash the car. So you still have your baby, but now you get him in one concentrated hit.

J has moments of baffling turdiness which you respond to poorly because you forget regularly that he is only 4 years old. He is the boy who asks you questions about the world and who offers suggestions for improving the space around him that never occur to you. He proposes that giant flying foxes be affixed to all street lamps, allowing pedestrians a new form of public transport. “The people could just swing from one to the other, and then they don’t have to worry about driving their cars!” You agree that this would be a far more enjoyable form of public transport than any you have experienced thus far. J accompanies your husband to a night football match and you take a photo of the two of them together that makes you swell with sadness at the disappearance of your chubby toddler, but fills your heart with pride at the handsome, smart young man you are helping to grow.

And as for your husband – that man with whom you butt heads, snap at or pester for an explanation for the occasional stressed, sullen mood? That man is gone, replaced with a relaxed, eager co-parent who tends to every one of the household duties for which you used to be (mainly) solely responsible. He takes the children solo for trips to the bouncing pillow in the caravan park grounds, he smiles at you across the table where you eat breakfast together as a family, and he sets up the barbecue to make dinner, allowing you to continue lego helicopter making duties with J. On sunlit mornings he goes for a run, returning with coffee for you both. Panting and sweaty, he removes his skin-tight running top to reveal the broad shoulders and strong chest you have  clutched for the past eleven years. You run your eyes over his physique, noting the athleticism etched in his muscles, his firm calves, his wide thighs and his ridiculously round derriere. You wrap your arms around his back, running your finger down the shallow trench at his spine, the place where two sides of his back converge. In your wedding vows, you wrote that you had never felt safer than when you were in his arms. You note that this is still true.

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It has been just over a month since you started this journey; since you said goodbye to your jobs, your house, your things. There has been tears, laughter, fury and delight. There has been life lived, edges explored, patience tested and affection shared. You wanted to shake things up, remember? You wanted to get away from the mundane, from labelled Tupperware and frantic Sunday nights. You wanted space and time together, and you must remember this.

Even when the children test you. 
Even when you long for a shower that doesn’t involve the need to wear thongs. 
And even when – ultimately – the rain comes back again.

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(The sun will come back too.)

-S x

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The road ahead

A few months ago I wrote a piece about my longing to get off the wheel. It was a watershed moment where I realised what I wanted my life to look like and what it actually looked like were very different things. In the past I have been reasonably judgmental towards those who complain about situations they have the power to transform, be they an unsatisfying relationship, an unfulfilling job or something even larger, for example, the very make-up of their beings. I am not immune to this malady – I lament a number of my own personal failings and repeat mistakes often; my only redeeming feature in this is that I try to improve the things I dislike. Slowly, much like a snail wading through mud, I am gradually propelling myself toward something more than the version of me I believed I was for so long. No longer am I the bratty, angry child who never thought much about her life, so sure was she that it was bound to end before she reached double-digits, presumably by her own hand.

Now being well into the double-digits and of (reasonably) sound mind, I find myself in a life that is both confronting and inspiring in its departure from what I believed my life would be. For most of my adolescence I did not consider what my adult life would look like, because I reasoned that the chances of me making adulthood seemed so slim, to gaze into the future was simply frivolous. As I got older I lived day to day, stumbling through in a haze of antidepressant medications that sedated me more than boosted my awareness, which I paired with nights of binge drinking to the point of blackouts. I cannot recount the number of times I woke up the next day with what can be eloquently described as fuck-all memory of the night before. And while this kind of experimentation can all be chalked up to youthful exuberance, for me it was always a shade darker, because deep within my soul, I knew that drinking really let me forget who I was, and how utterly futile my attempts at happiness would be.

Of course, the universe has a way of teaching those of us who want to learn, and for all my failings and self-hatred, I had an interest in unraveling the tightly wound knot that had formed around my soul. I wanted to understand who I was, and what had caused me to become all the things I despised. I wanted the anger to subside, I wanted the burning hateful rage towards my parents to at least be more akin to a manageable back-burning activity than a fiery inferno doomed to engulf me in flames. I wanted to be a better version of myself, but short of self-analysing in what was then the DSM-IV (and becoming convinced I suffered from a number of personality disorders), I had no other tools at my disposal.

It was a work of both luck and kismet that I started seeing a therapist in 2002. For fourteen years we have waded through my psyche, studying the blocks within my own foundation for flawed belief patterns and crumbling debris that leads to self-sabotage. And with a chance to unlock my own story, I have re-written the ending. So now, having overcome (most of) my own demons, I find it difficult to simply exist in an unconscious life. I cannot wed myself to the idea of working long hours, away from my children, in a job that does not satisfy me, so I can pay for a mortgage.

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All I really need is my health and the health of my family, somewhere to write, time with the loved ones I never believed myself worthy to have, and a chance to nourish my soul. And another twist of fate, I have found myself a partner in life who holds the same beliefs as I do. My husband D has been in the workforce for over 20 years and he has worked his ass off to get where he is. And guess what?

He has just resigned.

Why?

So that as a family, we can take 12 months off, away from the daily grind, to rediscover what motivates us and brings us joy, and most importantly, so that we can spend quality time with our children.

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We have bought a caravan that will be ready late next month, and have traded in both our cars to buy a 4WD that I struggle to park. I have commenced the culling process, donating scores of goods to charity, selling some bits and pieces, and throwing out what remains.

Our family will set off on our adventure sometime after July. We have no concrete plans; no itinerary. We have a rough idea of which part of Australia we want to be in at various months of the year, but that is it. We intend to sell our house, and most of our belongings, and commit to a life of minimalism. Instead of the frantic rush out the door of a morning, we will eat breakfast as a family. Instead of frenzied Sundays spent preparing for the demanding week ahead, we will take each day as it comes, without reference to looming deadlines. We will parent together and apart, ensuring we each have space to re-energize and decompress. Our children will learn about life not in a classroom but in the long walks we take as a family, exploring our surroundings and marveling in nature’s beauty. We will read books, play games and rest at midday, without fearing the flow-on effects of naps on bedtime.

We will create the type of life we want to have. And if during this time, we find that we hate being in close quarters and that the only thing that makes our family work is time apart from each other, it’s okay. We can re-jig our plans, because we are answerable to no one but ourselves.

This time away from the typical ‘9-5 hang out with the kids on weekends’ approach to life is also motivated by our combined desire to reevaluate how we interact with the world around us. At present, we live in the inner-west of Melbourne which has a strong community vibe but whose sense of neighbourliness has not graced the street in which we have lived for the past five years. Our neighbours think nothing of calling the pound if our dog accidentally enters their backyard; something that has happened three times in about four years. As an animal lover, I struggle to understand the course of events that sets off such a response to an issue that is part of suburban residential life (if I found a dog in my backyard the owners would be lucky to get it back). Likewise, a neighbour who lives across the road from me, thought nothing of marching over to my house at Arse Hour (i.e. the time between feral children wanting dinner and feral children eating dinner) to school my friend who was visiting on why it was inappropriate for my friend’s car to be parked immediately outside her house. On the road.

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My family got back from Fiji a few weeks ago and while we were there I looked into visiting one of the remaining villages where people still live traditionally. In the tour information booklet, visitors are advised to feel free to compliment villagers on their belongings, but to be careful not to be too complimentary as villagers will always offer the item as a gift, even if they cannot afford to do so.

In the space of two weeks, I went between engaging with people who would share with me even if doing so was to their own detriment, to dealing with the pettiness of someone who feels enraged by their yard or the public road outside their home being infiltrated by some kind of interloper.

I may not be able to move to a traditional Fijian village, but I can create a village of my own with my tribe, where we harness our energy to enjoy the little things in life. And while it means a huge departure from the norm and what is ‘safe’, what is less safe for me is to remain fixed in a lifestyle that no longer reflects the person I am, or the kind of role model I wish to be. I want my boys to question the norm, to be kind to the environment, and to know that there is more to life than exhausting one’s energy at work which leaves nothing to draw from once the work day is over.

I have no idea where this will lead us, but I know it’s the path we are meant to travel, and naturally, I will be writing about all our (mis)adventures.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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Farewell, wheel.

I am seated in the bustling, clinking coffee shop whose caffeinated beverages have sated me for the almost four years I have been a parent. As a baby, I placed J in his pram, snugly secured under a cotton wrap acting as a blanket, and pushed him with aching anxiety towards this cafe. Don’t cry, I whispered, sometimes loud enough for fellow pedestrians to here. Please don’t cry.

If I walked fast enough I could arrive at my destination before J’s wails of distress became bad enough to invoke my own physical uneasiness. Upon arrival, I could scoop him up from the pram and fold his curled little frame into my own, cuddling him with a bottle as he buried into my chest. As I nursed him, I sipped from the enormous coffee that gave me just enough energy to withstand the 3pm sleep refusal, the 4pm wails of discontent, the 5pm attempted (and failed) dinner preparation, and the 6pm reprieve when my husband walked in the door, arms outstretched for a cuddle with the boy who had broken my heart only to glue it all back together with his sticky, vegemite-covered little hands.

When I returned to work when J was seven and a half months old, this place similarly fed me with the fuel I needed to pretend to be competent at my job. On weekends as a family of three, we would stop here for late breakfasts, feeding J our toast and taking turns at eating our meals while the other parent entertained our rambunctious, headstrong, happy boy. We watched in awe as a mother with three children – twin 1 year olds and an older toddler – sat at a table surrounded by highchairs as her well-behaved children nibbled food brought from home, making barely a peep. By comparison, we held onto J as though we were wrestling a giant salmon, whose determination to do what he wanted, regardless of our instructions, made us baffled and bemused all at once.

By the time he was walking, J found entertainment by playing on the large astro-turfed cubes that sit in the courtyard of the café I consider a second home. When I was pregnant with J’s brother, I perched myself onto a bench and watched J play on these blocks, promising him a treat when it was time to go.

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After N, J’s little brother, was born, this place was where we caught up with friends. It is where we went as a family of four, feeling safe in the embrace of our surroundings, and enjoying the cooing over our littlest person from the staff. When J went to childcare on Fridays, I rocked N in the pram with my leg while I typed frantically, desperately willing my fingers to capture the thoughts that bounced through my brain. And when N eventually joined J at childcare, after I dropped the boys off (together, usually with N staying in J’s room for a cuddle with his favourite educators), this is the place I returned to, frenetically typing my stories onto the screen and realising my past was now in my present.

Today, I had a similar plan – to drop the boys at childcare and then retreat to the comfort of this space, where I could do some (paid) work and also some writing of my own. These Friday mornings I treasure; the ritual of writing in a coffee covered cove where the hum of conversation drowns out the sound of my fingers hitting the keyboard. It brings a joy I struggle to describe.

Usually it brings joy. But not today.

Today, instead of running into the arms of a friend and needing me to chase him down for a kiss, J cried when I dropped him off. Bawled, really. Mummy don’t leave, his words. J is not a crier, especially not at childcare, which occurs in a place he loves with faces he adores. N also cried, before his feet had even touched the carpeted, Lego strewn floor. I fled his room in such a hurry that I forgot to sign him in, and needed to creep back stealth-style in order to complete the requisite paperwork. I think N saw me; I definitely saw him.

So now, I ask myself, why? Why am I doing this? Would I derive not as much joy from ONE DAY a week that was truly my own, where I could write in peace and solitude? One day without my boys, one day to just be me again? Do I need three days out of a seven day week away from them?

I like work, in the sense that I like to use my brain and I like to get paid. But I like writing my own pieces more; I like being the master of my own output more than I have ever liked answering to others. I like the idea of leaving a legacy in some form, and I take little pleasure in thinking that my legacy might be summed up in the words “Public servant. Occasional writer.” That isn’t who I want to be.

So what does an ideal life look like? Perhaps I could start with describing what it doesn’t entail. It doesn’t entail waves of guilt at being away from my children so that I can do a job from which I derive little satisfaction other than financial, and which exists largely to pay for the childcare which I would not need if I was at home. It does not include frantic, stressful, angst filled mornings of trying to get non-compliant children to eat, to get dressed and to leave the house, all by a defined time with a ticking-clock soundtrack. It does not include a similarly pained evening ritual where overtired children lament the lack of food in the house but then refuse to eat dinner that I have prepared while holding one or both of them. It does not include snapping at my children for the missing lunchbox lids, for not napping during the day, or for generally turd-ish behaviour because they’re tired and cranky and they just don’t want to.

Maybe my ideal life entails both parents, or at least an extra set of hands, in the home to ready the kids for school. Maybe it involves a few hours of kindy and a couple of playgroup sessions. Maybe it involves N napping for longer than an hour during the day because he is home and it is quiet and his room is dark. Maybe we sit outside on the grass and play in a space that is so big and secluded that I don’t need to worry about a random stranger snatching them from my front yard while I rush inside to pee. Maybe I work from home and while I am typing my husband is with my boys, playing outside, or if he isn’t home, maybe a trusted friend/family member/nanny is with them so that I can get that crucial me-time, so that I can fit my own oxygen mask first without trying to breathe life into others when my own capacity is dwindling.

Maybe the legacy I leave for my kids is that they have a mother who just followed what she wanted to do, and who didn’t buy into the materialistic world that tells me I must earn money so that I can buy things that will make me happy, or at least happier than I would be without.

So when did I get on this wheel? Was it when I was a teenager and knew I had to escape my home town lest I suffocate underneath the mediocrity of suburbia? Was it when I was at university and reasoned that the only way I would rise above the sludge of my relatives was to succeed in ways they could not? Was it when I married and had a white wedding despite my disdain for princess brides? Was it when we bought a house, a beautiful, quirky, cosy house, parts of which I love and hate simultaneously? Was it when I reasoned that I needed money to buy all the things for the baby who had beautiful outfits but a mother with vacant eyes? Was it when I went back to work to prove to myself that I was still me, that I still had a brain, subconsciously reasoning that staying at home to child-raise would turn my mind to mush? Or was it when I returned to work after a glorious yet challenging 15 months of maternity leave, coming back to grey linoleum and fluorescent lit cubicles, sitting for seven hours a day so that I can be back at work?

I don’t know when it happened, but I know that I want to, I need to, get off the wheel.

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I have spent the best part of nine months distributing my grandfather’s estate, apportioning items of worth to family members lacking in such a quality. I have waded through paperwork, through things, looking for needles in haystacks and golden tickets, and at the end of it all, I will have more stuff. It will mostly be stuff that I want – some books, a vase belonging to my Nanny and my grandfather’s watch. They are small things with big sentiments; the sentiment being, the people who used to own these things are gone.

When I die, I do not want my boys to have to rummage through debris to uncover what I had. I want them to know what I had, because they shared it with me.

So, what to do?

My wise best friend gave me a birthday gift that shows that insight to and awareness of another’s struggles can transcend geography. Sensing my impending exit from a conventional life, she bought me books by Marie Kondo, she of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up acclaim. Although I am neither a hoarder nor a clean-freak, I feel something truly cleansing from the act of a good cull, and although I am yet to read these books, I have a feeling her KonMari Method is something that will resonate, because as I type this I know that the first thing I need to do is to get rid of the stuff. I will donate most of it and will be ruthless in my approach, knowing that memories are not fixed by holding on to mementos; they stay alive when we pause to remember and in the stories we share.

Next, the job. I know it has to go. I want to be with my boys, but I still need that space for my writing, the one day of uninterrupted time to create. J will attend sessional kinder; N will attend childcare one day a week. We will find a playgroup for social activities. We will figure it out.

Thirdly, the house. It needs to be tidied, finessed and sold. No mortgage means no responsibility for a house we are rarely in because we are both at work to pay for the house. Then what? In my dreams of adventure, we leave. We pack our necessities up and we drive. We stop at beaches and swim in the surf. We eat dinner made from produce I buy at the market. I have dedicated time to write while my husband has dedicated daddy-sons time. My husband learns to cook; I learn to stand on a surfboard. I freelance and consider ways in which I can share my love of words with those who need it most; disengaged kids and struggling mums being my target audience, mainly as I have been both of these people at various points in time.

Eventually, we find a huge block of land, surrounded by trees and a large expanse of lawn. It will be close enough to a city so that commuting as part of any work arrangements is not prohibitive. It will be a home I work from, the home my husband works from, and it will be the place where my children grow. J will go to a local school and I will feature in his days, popping up at sports days and swimming carnivals. We will go to the beach during the week. We will grow vegetables and run and play and kick the football and do yoga and laugh and sing and when I start to go a bit crazy from home life, I will take refuge by packing myself off to attend a course aimed at bettering myself. I will attend weekend yoga retreats in Byron or six week internships in creative writing at NYU, dragging my excited Yankees-cap wearing boys with me. We will travel and visit the world and if we don’t want to do it during school holidays, we will work around that. I will give my boys an education that relies little on conventional classroom techniques, surrounding them with creative free thinkers who challenge the norm, and intelligent aunts and uncles who offer conversation that sparks curiosity. Their father, the greatest role model they will ever have, will teach them how to kick a football with their left feet, how to craft items from wood, how to restore a motorbike, how to throw a right hook into a punching bag. I will teach them to be kind to the world around them, to water the flowers, to be gentle with our animals (at least one dog, a pig and maybe some chooks) and how to express themselves through music and words. I will also – inadvertently, and in a way that happens only because I cannot change my spots – teach them to be loyal to each other, to challenge the norm, and to speak up when they see injustice in the world.

In truth, part of me wonders how any of this could be possible. Don’t people just work hard, buy a house, live in their house, buy things, have a family, go on holidays and keep working? Isn’t this how it’s done? If I look around me, I would say that this is the norm. But I don’t want to be the norm, and I fear that if we stay here, stay put, we won’t do any of this. We will remain stuck, wheels spinning, trapped doing what is safe. We will not venture left of centre because we see no one else doing it. We see people working to pay off mortgages and we see parents tired after work and who spend less time with their kids than they would like. We recognise how they look because it is familiar – this is how we see ourselves.

I will miss this coffee shop. I will miss its walking distance, the buzz of community in my inner-west enclave. I will miss watching my sons point to the trains that whiz past the courtyard where they play. I will miss the view of the city on my walks with the boys. I will miss where my boys go to school, and the smiling friendly faces of the beautiful staff. I will miss the cinema where hubby and I used to watch movies weekly, and where I took J to Mums and Bubs sessions as a newborn, one of which I recall with clarity as being one of the most joyful experiences of my life.

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I will miss the Sun bookstore and its gorgeous little warm aisles of paper. I will miss the September weather where the sun shines after so many months of freezing grey days, and I will miss the twilight evenings where darkness doesn’t fall until 9pm. And I will miss the house to which I brought home two babies from hospital and in which I have experienced the brightest moments and deepest lows of parenting.

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I will miss it all.

But, and as I have been at pains to remind myself, leaving it doesn’t mean I will never return. Perhaps in years from now I will again yearn to feel part of city life and the buzz. And although it leaves me with a sad, heavy sense of loss, I know that I need to lighten the load now so that we can carry more joy in our lives for the future.

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My Christmas Gift

I look at the picture above and I dislike the little girl I see. She is the almost-five-year-old year old me, pretty in blue, cupping her little purse that held a few measly coins inside, not enough to buy anything of value or worth. A symbolic gesture, the purse was something that allowed me to feel a little bit more like my Nanny, she of black leather handbags, red lipstick and peep toe shoes.
I have long romanticised the memory of my Nanny. I have placed her on a pedestal where she is revered by all, the kindly old woman who nurtured the unwanted, who wiped tears and soothed aches, and who loved me like no other, but the truth is that this is only partly accurate. She was none and all of these things; someone who cared enough about me to take me to see Santa and who placed my photo up on a shelf, but who couldn’t protect the little girl in the photo from the parents who used her as like a serviette, wiping their sated mouths once they were full and then discarding her out of sight, out of mind, at least until the next time they were hungry for a fill.
So why the strong reaction towards this little girl, this innocent being on Santa’s knee? Because for the longest time, the little girl in the photo believed she was the cause of heartache and dismay, and instead of asking why she wasn’t guided by anyone around her to think differently, she accepted the blame as her own. And even the Bondi Junction Santa Claus couldn’t help her with that one.
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It is an eerie work of the universe that my son is strikingly similar in appearance to me when I was his age. My own likeness now lives in my home, the image of the child I have tried so hard to forget is next to me on the couch watching Toy Story, is refusing to eat his dinner at the table, is theatrically pretending to be a crocodile. Disciplining my own likeness is hard because often I want to punish more than is fair. I have to carefully put aside that pulsing urge that makes me want that little girl to suffer for all the havoc she will cause. But my son is not me. He will never be me, because I have vowed to never be like the family who raised me.
Separating myself from my old life and the one I have now takes a concerted approach. In a moment of clarity I see the younger me, alone, pushing myself back and forth on the metal swing in our backyard on a cold Canberra afternoon. But instead of shaking my head and lamenting all that this little girl will do wrong, I reach down to her, hold her close, stroke her shiny brown hair and tell her not to worry. That she will one day know love she never thought possible. That eventually she will meet man who will become her partner in life, and who will create a family with her that will finally make her feel as though she is home. And that although she may for years feel like she doesn’t belong – the unwanted side dish to an already satisfying meal – she can take comfort in knowing that this sense of isolation is in fact a gift. It is a blessing, because all those times she felt uncared for, she actually cared for herself.
I think of the older me, locked in her bedroom and smoking marijuana for hours, blowing smoke out the window and spraying Impulse through a fan to hide the scent. Instead of replaying the old tape, where my grandparents consciously ignore my increasing drug use and turn a blind eye to my frequent absence from the home and declining grades, I offer myself a new ending. In my new story, a caring, nurturing energy knocks on my bedroom door, asks if she can come in. She sits on my bed, looks at the paraphernalia on my carpet and instead of castigating me, she tells me my body is beautiful. She reminds me that my lungs are supposed to inhale the purest air because this is what I deserve. She teaches me that my face should light up from actual joy, not from the giggles that mark the beginning of a high. She explains that the epitome of true happiness is infinitely stronger than the artificial pleasure I have chased for years, and that this happiness is usually found in giving joy to another. The same energy follows me when my girlish teenage frame is handled in womanly ways. This energy reminds me that I need no validation of my worth, because I am important and special simply by being me, by being kind and loving and honest. She asks me if I think an act of passion will serve me, or send me further into despair. If I decide the latter, she helps me get home from dark nights and clumsy hands and puts me to bed, kissing my head and reminding me to love myself so that I never need to look for fulfillment from another. And when I am touched in ways that I have refused, she defends me, sends intruders away, and shields me from aggrieved responses. She tells me I am answerable to no one but myself.
As an adult, she teaches me to be kind when my instinct is to bite as I have been bitten. She is next to me when I face aggression or ill will, guiding me towards compassion whilst ensuring I remain true to self-preservation. I cannot be manipulated or harmed in her presence because she won’t allow it to happen.
When I parent, she seeks not to turn up on my doorstep unannounced with casseroles and new linen – she knows I am capable of self-sufficiency. But when I am at my limit, when the cries of babies and the petulance of children have peaked to a crescendo, she reminds me to breathe. She stops me before I say words I am unable to retract; she holds my hand firmly in her own so that I cannot use it to push or poke another. She gives me the gift of living in the moment, of accepting the chaos and embracing it, because this chaotic mess of motherhood and family life is a reality that little girl on Santa’s knee felt sure she would go without. She didn’t know it back then, but eventually this little girl would grow up to be free from the shackles that bind familial ties; free to explore the world with the band of beautiful men she is surrounded by – her husband and sons. She is not there yet, but soon she will celebrate her emancipation from the dark and the darkness, she will permanently sever the ties that linked her to those who caused her to doubt her worth. Soon, so soon she can almost taste it, she will think of it all as a mere memory; a speck of dust on an otherwise spotless mirror.
This Christmas, my gift to myself is listening to this voice more, because the beauty of this energy, this reassuring, guiding force, is that she is actually within me. Unlike my Nanny, I never need to fear losing her. Unlike my mother, I am not required to understand the illogical. She is just there, with me, always, a part of me that I just need to tune into in order to hear her words. And I don’t ever need to sit on Santa’s knee again, because finally I have everything I will ever need.
Merry Christmas x
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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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