A short play for two people

Scene: a kitchen.

Two elderly people – we’ll call these characters Mum and Dad, are seated at the kitchen bench looking through a pile of photos from their son’s recent wedding.

A third person, looking to be in her forties, is drying dishes nearby. We’ll call her Daughter.

Mum: (squinting as she peers closely at a photo) Who’s that?
Daughter (steps in and looks at the photo): um, that’s your husband of, what….nearly 50 years now?
Mum: (tone of surprise) Oh! (directs next question to Dad, as if trying to get her head around a complex scenario): So…..you were standing next to [son] and…….his friend was standing on the other side of him?
Dad (takes photo to verify): It sure looks that way.

 

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An Artist’s Impression of the unbelievable scene that took place that day.

 

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PS: on formatting – many thanks to Silver Tiger for emailing me with the tip on how to finally get a space to appear in the published version of this post, between the text and the image. I’ve never had a problem before but for some reason on this post, in the draft it looked fine but in the published version there was no space. Now fixed and I’m 100% happy with the result. I knew some lovely reader would have the required know-how. Hurray for readers! Hurray for know-how!
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5 years or no time at all

Writing

On 1st September this year, I happened to be in Byron Bay, a beachside location on Australia’s New South Wales eastern coast. I was sitting outside with a cup of tea, on a mild, sunny afternoon, that was not quite warm but definitely not cold, and therefore a vast improvement on Melbourne’s recent weather. From where I sat, I looked over a view of a permaculture organic garden and, beyond it, a clearing and behind that, the edges of a forest of gum trees that bordered the property I was visiting. Lucky me.

As a soft breeze rustled through the leaves, I pulled out my writing journal to do my easy, never-fail, writing exercise, “Today I Noticed….”

I like this exercise because I don’t have to think about it to get started. There is always something one will have noticed in a day, and often – if you are me, anyway – this small observation acts merely as the opening of a gateway, and usually a flood of abstracted ponderings proceed to pour out, filling up a few pages in a loose, unplanned way until the timer goes off.

Did I mention that for this exercise you are meant to time yourself and only write for 10 minutes? I like that restraint as well. This means that I don’t stop to rewrite sentences to make them sound better, but just keep going to get the ideas down. So, intermittently, I end up with a few pages of blurted-out thoughts, in a non-publishable form. Of course lots of it ends up being pointless but the theory is that I can mine the pages of this journal later on when I need something to write about.

Well, I’ll mine it today, because this is how my entry began on that breezy afternoon on September 1.*

 

Journal

01.09.16

Today I noticed, as I wrote that date at the top of the page, that it’s already the 9th month of this year. That Winter has ended. That it’s Spring. That it’s September. That it’s the month that my birthday falls in. That it’s 10 days until the 5th anniversary of John’s death.

And I notice, as soon as I write that last sentence, how quickly a heaviness can land in the stomach; when it was light only a moment ago. 

Of course, I can’t recognise that it’s September without also being aware of this anniversary. It’s just there; a heavy, sad thing, that adds some weight to the start of Spring, and to September, which was always my favourite month. In fact I wouldn’t even say that I dislike September now. I still have some affection for it, which maybe goes to show just how important our own birth date is to us. Even when my birthday is weighed up against the death date of my little brother, I still can’t hate September. But I wish he had died some other time – in the middle of winter, at the start of July – that would have been more tonally appropriate than at the start of Spring, a time when we are meant to feel hopeful and optimistic because the temperature is losing its chill and the blossoms are out.

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Anniversary

In September in 2011, the fact that my brother died was terrible and nothing else really mattered – but the terribleness of his death was still new and raw  two weeks later when it was my birthday, so that made my birthday an awful, sad affair that year. But after 2011, the closeness of this anniversary to my birthday matters very little to me.

There is a month long period where I think more frequently about John, and reminisce about the time immediately before and after his death, but that period of grieving, if that’s what it is, starts on August 13 and subsides after the anniversary of his death, which is September 11. It starts on August 13 because on that date in 2011, I was with my daughter in the Emergency ward at the Royal Children’s hospital, and John phoned me to organise to come and visit us that week. In hindsight it always feels as if that day, which, at the time, was quite distressing and exhausting, was just a taster for what was to come. And John’s phone call out of the blue that day led to his visit for dinner that week, and thus to the next significant date, August 16, the last time I ever saw him, hugged him, or, for that matter, spoke to him.

In reality, I guess there is no cosmic alarm that goes off to signal that it’s time to start quietly observing that month-long period of grieving, so in fact, it starts when I remember the significance of the date. This year, I was driving to work on 18 August when the significance of the date struck me. Suddenly, with dismay, and considerable sadness, I realised that the anniversary of the very last time I ever saw my brother had come and gone, two days earlier, without me noting it.

Grief

But you know what? While feeling sad that morning, at some other level, I also felt relieved – to realise that I could still feel that sad about my brother’s death – as strange as that sounds.

Because the worst thing of all when someone you love dies, is to think that at some time in the future you might reach a point where you’d never feel any grief when you thought about their absence.

Intentionally, or unintentionally, that is the concept that is conveyed by well-meaning people who try to comfort you when you’re grieving, by offering phrases such as you’ll feel better with time. In the days and weeks after John’s death, that piece of wisdom achieved nothing more than to make me very angry. Angry at the person who said it, and angry at the very thought of it. I didn’t want to feel better. I didn’t want to contemplate the possibility that I would ever feel better.

Last night, I went to see One More Time With Feeling, the film commissioned by Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave on the release of his latest album, basically to fill the role of publicity for the album. The artist doesn’t wish to do media rounds and answer questions about the album’s relationship to the tragic death of his 15 year old son just over a year ago. In the film, Cave remarks on the meaningless platitudes offered by others, who say things like he lives on in your heart. No he doesn’t, says Cave to the interviewer, He is in my heart, of course, but he doesn’t live anywhere. 

I am mindful of what I say to someone who is grieving. I refuse to buy sympathy cards that offers these kinds of cliched phrases. Grieving is important. It’s honouring the beloved person who has died. It ties you to the person who has died. Why would you offer comfort to someone recently bereaved by telling them that eventually they will lose that too, the grief that binds them to the person they loved?

Better, surely, to say what a wise friend who had lost both her sisters, said to me at the time: grieve for your brother!

Death

I’ve written a lot about the death of my brother – there are plenty of posts on this blog about John, and my grief when he died. There is one specific post that, due to the specificity of its title, must come up in search results when people search relevant terms, and every now and then on that post, I receive a comment from someone whose brother has recently died; quite often, in a similar way – in his sleep, from no known cause. Every time, it breaks my heart to hear this person struggling with immense sadness, pain and confusion about why this has happened. I received another such comment only a few weeks ago, and it was long, and filled with confusion, pain, and anger. My heart broke all over again. I read this young man’s comment and cried for him, and his younger brother.

And when I read his comment, I was reminded again, that all around the world people are dying. Someone dies every moment of every day. And that each time, other people are left behind, confused, angry, distraught, distressed, and anguished at their loss.

When I was a kid, my religious parents said a prayer (they probably still do) in which the world was referred to as a valley of tears. If I dwell for very long on the idea of death, I can see how someone came up with that poetic description for a place that, I now realise, is full to the brim with sadness. It becomes apparent that at any moment, there are so many people in the world either dying, or deeply affected forever by the death of someone they loved, that those innocent few who do not yet know how it feels to deal with the death someone they loved are in a distinct minority. I was one of those lucky few until September 11, 2011.

 

 

 

 

*Journal entry slightly edited.

Faraway, So Close!

Faraway

I feel a bit weird today. I can’t really put a finger on how I feel, but it’s a mixture of exhausted and deflated, that slightly empty feeling that comes when some intense and prolonged group activity (eg, a school camp) comes to an end, and you all part ways and go on with your separate lives.

I’m feeling that gloom because I arrived back in Melbourne at 7.45am this morning after a week away in the Philippines for my brother’s wedding. Traveling overseas to attend a wedding is a privilege, I know, and it’s because of the cost involved that my partner and daughter did not attend with me. Instead, I travelled with my father, who is 78 years old, and met my sister, who travelled to the Philippines from Dublin via Seoul. We were met and looked after there by my youngest brother, who is Melbourne-based, but works in the Philippines, and his wife-to-be, who is a Filipino woman. Add another two visitors to the country, friends of my brother, who joined us on Friday night, and that made up the wacky little gang of friends and family that I’ve been with over the past few days.

Where did the week go? Dad and I checked into Melbourne airport on a cold, grey, rainy Wednesday morning one week ago at 7am, and this morning at about 8.25am we stepped back out of the doors of Terminal 2 and onto a footpath bathed in glorious Autumn sunlight.

As always seems to happen on a trip like this, the time in between those two Wednesday mornings seems to have simultaneously stretched and contracted.

Time seems to become pliable when you are away on a trip. As the days unfolded, there were some lovely trips in the country, and time spent chatting around a few drinks, but there were also moments when I felt tired of all the time spent waiting for transport or sitting on transport, irritated by the lack of privacy, worn out from the constant need to socialise and interact with others, or just plain exhausted, and at those times, I felt as though I had a long week stretched ahead of me. On Wednesday morning as my dad and I sat on a plane heading to Manilla, and again on Wednesday evening as we sat in a 12-seater van in Manilla traffic for about 4 hours on our way out of the city and into the country, when I thought of Saturday – the day of the wedding – it seemed a long way off.

But Saturday morning arrived, and once it did, it seemed as if time sped up. The day itself was very full and a lot of fun, and then suddenly at about 10.30pm everything was over. Sunday we went for a day-trip with the new bride and groom and some new friends, and out to a dinner hosted by a local, then, barely before I’d had time to blink, it was Monday and we were leaving the province where we’d been staying, and driving back into Manilla for our last night in the Philippines. Already! Tuesday – just yesterday – was spent trying to fit in shopping, around making huge allowances for Manilla traffic when we planned the timing of taxis to take us to and from the shopping centre, which resulted in more time spent sitting around and waiting.

I can hardly believe that just this time 24 hours ago, I was attempting to cross a 4 lane intersection in Manilla with my sister and my brother’s intrepid friends, on our way to find somewhere good to eat dinner.

The whole thing already seems like a blur. Especially last night. And no, it’s not because I drank too much to celebrate our last night there! It’s because every day, every hour, every minute there were so many new things to see and experience, and take in and think about.

I’ve never visited a developing country before, but in many ways the Philippines was exactly as I had imagined it. Perhaps my brother’s very eloquent and descriptive emails painted an accurate picture in my mind, or perhaps it was a conglomeration of images I’ve seen of lots of different developing countries, on TV in documentaries and news stories. In any case, although it was the first time I’d been confronted with such sights, I was not surprised by the long narrow streets in Manilla, packed with tiny houses and shops that looked poorly made and maintained, or the long stretch of slums on the outskirts of the city that we passed around sunset, where we spotted almost as many stray dogs wandering listlessly around as there were people sitting outside structures that pass for homes.

As we drove outside of Manilla the houses continued. It was not until the very last part of our journey, where there was forest on each side, that we saw any stretch of road that did not have houses lined along it. Every house was different to the one next to it, and every now and then, right in amongst the decaying houses, shacks made of pieces of rusted tin and slums we would see a large, though usually still run-down looking house, suggestive of a wealthier population in the past, or of wealthier residents willing to live right in amongst the abjectly poor, something I generally don’t see evidence of in my own country.

I was not able to take photos of the houses I saw on these trips because we were always in the van and moving when I saw them.* We drove everywhere for a few reasons. Firstly, for most of the week we were based, as organised by my brother and his wife, in a resort-style hotel situated about 20 minutes drive out past a town called Tanay, and there was nowhere else to go that was within walking distance. Secondly, we had our 78-year old father with us, and he joined in most of our outings. Thirdly, a van and driver had been loaned to my brother and his wife for the week for the precise purpose of driving us around, and finally, once in the city of Manilla (without the van and driver), anywhere we wanted to go seemed to far for Dad to walk and we couldn’t expect a 78-year old to cross roads in the city by marching rapidly through lanes of oncoming traffic as locals do.

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Manilla public transport – a jeepney

For me, this trip was a mixture of observing and learning about a culture I’ve never visited before, meeting and getting to know new people – my brother’s wife, her three children, and two of his Australian friends I’d never met before – and spending an unusual amount of quality time with my brother, my father and two of my siblings. I always value time with my sister, since she’s my only sister, the sibling closest to me in age, and we get along well together, but don’t see her often as she lives a 24 hour flight away from me, in Dublin.

The most unusual aspect of this holiday, as far as the family side of it goes, was spending so much time hanging out with my father.  I’m pleased to say that he constantly surprised me. I did not anticipate that he would be so willing to “go with the flow,” and join in whatever plans we made, nor did I think he’d be willing to try any drink or food item that was recommended to him, and usually like it.

So what is affecting me the most today is that the time spent with family, particularly my sister, has come to an end.

Of course, the ending came gradually. The time spent with my brother ended on Monday night when he accompanied us to Manilla and then headed back to Tanay. The time with my sister, whose flight back to Ireland left much later than ours, ended abruptly when our taxi for the airport arrived at the hotel. After that it was back to the old team – just Dad and I – and all the tedious parts of international travel: the queuing, the waiting, and the sitting. We sat together for 3 hours at the airport (because the taxi had, after all, ended up getting us there faster than predicted), we sat together on the 8 hour flight, queued up together to get through passport control, baggage collection and customs. I walked him to his bus (back to the country town where he lives) and we said goodbye, and then it was just me.

But even as I finish writing this post, 13 hours later, my sister is still flying. According to flight tracking, her flight from Korea is about 26 minutes away from landing in Paris, but she still needs to connect with her flight to Dublin. So the trip is not quite over yet in my head, because one of the gang is still travelling. It never fails to bend my mind, when she flies home from Australia – or in this case, the Philippines – to witness how my life goes on while she is stuck in the twilight zone of a long-haul flight.

Time is a tricky beast. 24 hours is not very long: I just said goodbye to her at 5pm last night, hardly any time ago at all. But when someone is flying away from you, it’s far too long: she’s a whole day’s travel away from us now.

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*I’m not sure that I could have taken photos of the houses anyway as I would have felt like I was treating people’s homes as if they are novelties to post pictures of on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because I could not stop for death

There has been a gap in transmission.

It’s because everything I tried to write in the past fortnight was awful. The reason is that after the death of a woman I knew, I tried to write something reflective, but failed miserably. As it turns out, all I’ve been capable of writing about is my own anxieties.

*

I’ve been to two funerals in the last 7 days. In both cases, death was not unexpected, but I suppose death always arrives suddenly in the end, even when it is expected. Even when you think you are prepared for a loved one to die, the irrevocability of death after that last breath falters and fades away must take one by surprise, or so I imagine.

It’s always a sombre occasion when someone’s life ends, but if we actually measured and compared levels of sadness, then one of the deaths last week was immensely sadder than the other. My elderly aunt passed away, and the mother of my daughter’s friend died of cancer. The death of my aunt was not a shock. She was put into a high dependency unit about 4 years ago, after a very sudden and rapid decline into dementia that seemed to occur almost overnight. Her health had been steadily worsening since then. I heard that in the last few weeks of her life she was either asleep or totally zonked on morphine, and I think for her daughters, my cousins, there was relief mixed with their sadness. I don’t mean relief from a burden, but relief for their mother, because her suffering is over.

The other funeral was also for a mother, but in this case, her daughter is a teenage girl who has just started Year 10 at high school. That death created a lot of sadness around the local community and was constantly on my mind for the week between hearing about it and attending her funeral.

Now I know it seems as if we always speak well of the dead – but it’s true that this woman was a vibrant, joyous person with a warm, friendly manner, always ready for fun. We were not close friends, but when I did chat with her I felt as though we had a good rapport. I guess a lot of people felt like that around her, as she had a knack of making you feel as though whatever you said would be interesting and amusing.

That leads me to why I couldn’t write last week. It’s because writing revealed that my reasons for being sad about this woman’s death were not all selfless. I felt awfully sad about her death, and yet, when I tried to write about her death, it seemed as if my thoughts continually took a path that ended up at a very self-absorbed destination that was largely about myself.

I got sick of hearing myself feel sorry for myself when someone else had just died. I didn’t like where my writing led me, which was, repeatedly, to more thoughts about me, me, me. After a few days of this, it felt necessary to clear away those self-absorbed thoughts, and complete silence on the writing front seemed a necessary measure.

After all, to write, one needs to think. What a vicious circle it is.

Trees with moon and star from window

Pic: © Blathering About Nothing

Because it’s true. When I thought about this woman’s death, some of my sadness was for myself. In the course of the week I learned that mutual friends knew a lot more than I had, about her illness and how serious it was, and that confirmed what I already suspected: that I ended up on the outer peripheries of the adult friendships that were made through the time that my daughter was at primary school. That one friendship I will never have the chance to develop highlighted that I missed a lot of opportunities to make new friends while my daughter was at primary school, and those opportunities are gone now.

7 years – it’s a long time. When you are a kid, it’s enough time to make life-long friends. Lots of kids do that in primary school, and again in high school. But I don’t maintain regular contact with any friends from primary school or high school, unless you count being friends on Facebook. (I don’t).

This is how I am in friendships it seems: when the other person doesn’t make an effort, I do take it personally. So friendships from school days, including those I thought were lifelong friendships, dropped off along the way, usually when I realised I was the one keeping it going and decided to leave it to the other person to call me next time – and they just simply never did.

I’m always able to read a lack of follow-up as outright rejection.

Being thrown into some intense experience together – ie, school, university, work – is the ideal circumstance for making new friends. As a parent, you get another go at this when your child starts school, because – assuming you don’t move houses or change schools – you are about to have 7 years of regular contact with the same group of other adults. That’s 7 years of attending information nights, waiting outside classrooms, facilitating play-dates and attending kids birthday parties together. It’s only natural to hope and expect to make some new friends along the way – isn’t it?

I certainly hoped to make some new friends when my daughter started school, but as it happened, for a large part of my daughter’s primary school years, my work life, and new friendships formed in a new job, took up a lot of my attention. As a result, it seems as though I made it through 7 years of being a primary-school parent, and emerged with only one person in the local community that I contact frequently enough to consider a friend, in the real-life, non-Facebook sense of the word.

And now I feel a sense of sadness about that. After the death of this woman, I feel very aware of lost opportunities, because there were other parents who I really liked but never developed a friendship with. Invariably, I feel that it must be due to some lack on my part – either a lack of effort, or a lack of any quality that would interest someone else enough to make an effort.

Perhaps it was circumstance – I’d meet parents I liked and then our kids were never again in the same class, or schedules changed and we never crossed paths doing drop-offs and pick ups, or our kids stopped hanging around together, or their kids were boys, and my daughter stopped playing with those particular creatures from about grade 2 onwards so opportunities to get together with their parents dried up. As a parent, you are at the mercy of all these variables, over which you have no control.

But I’m left feel slightly depressed, fearing that maybe I can’t blame circumstances. I worry that it indicates there is something deeply unlikeable about me. All those conversations outside school rooms, at school concerts, at parent information nights, while walking kids to the car after school, at birthday parties, at various houses when picking my daughter up – but no roots put down; nothing to show for it all after 7 years.

*

I thought all of this before and after the funeral of the younger woman. At the funeral itself I just felt heart-broken for the loss of this woman, for her family and most of all for the weeping 15 year old girl following the coffin out of the service.

5 days later, I attended the funeral of my aunt. Her funeral was in the middle of the week and was very small, with probably only about 50 people in attendance, mostly in-laws, nephews and nieces and their children. Her husband, and most of her siblings have passed away; friends are too frail to travel. One of her three children passed away about 15 years earlier. (when he was about 30, in a tragic house fire.)

My aunt’s funeral seemed to highlight what I’d been thinking that week about losing friends and failing to make new ones. It’s the first time I realised that my own family and close friends could die before me, and I could be left with very few people to care about whether I’m around in my eighties or not. As one of my own younger brothers has already tragically died in his 30s, I know too well that you can’t just expect everyone else will be around when I die. I realise that actually, it’s likely that at least some (more) of my siblings will die before I expect them to, and leave me behind to grieve for them.

Thinking about this, and comparing these two funerals, I realise that the one compensation for those left behind when someone dies young is that, although their early death causes so much more pain and grief, at least that outpouring of grief from a large network of family, friends and workmates is a huge comfort to witness.

Wouldn’t we all like to think that our own funeral service would be packed to the rafters, as this woman’s was, and that the wake would take the entire afternoon because people felt so emotionally bonded to one another by their sadness that they didn’t want to leave, but preferred to mill around the very crowded band room, having another drink and listening to family and friends perform live music and reminisce about the departed, in a party-like atmosphere. We were at her wake for about 4 hours, leaving at 5pm, and it was still going strong.

As opposed to the quiet funeral and wake for my aunt, where, by the time I left after about an hour, at 1pm, there were about 25 people left.

*

So I’ve thought a lot, in a pathetic manner, about myself, but I have also thought a lot about a mother who 13 months ago received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. I’ve thought about her partner and child. I tried to imagine being in her place, and how I would approach the remaining time I had left; what I’d say to my daughter if I knew I’d be leaving her forever in about a year. I tried to work out who I felt more sadness for – the young daughter facing the prospect of losing her mum, or the mother who knew she would leave her daughter motherless way too soon.

I thought that perhaps the leave-taking is saddest for the adult, because the adult has a better chance of understanding that death is real and final. I can’t imagine how a 15 year old could comprehend how it will be when her mother dies.

But then, of course, I think of afterwards, and wonder how a 15 year old copes with the death of her mum after it has occurred. The only heartbreaking death I’ve had to deal with so far was unexpected and therefore shocking, but even with 12 months to prepare I’m not sure that anything could prepare you for that sudden and complete absence when someone is gone. That immense gap, when you see everyone else weeping, and them not there to be part of that sadness. How utterly final it is. How, despite all logic, it repeatedly comes as a shock that you can’t even tell the person that you miss them.

And I think it must be very hard to prepare for the fact that this person you love so much is no longer a presence in the world. Even if their death was expected.

*

 

‘I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual’ – Virginia Woolf’s diary, 17 Feb 1922

I’ve watched the children come and go

Notebooks. I have them all over the house. Notebooks from years ago, years before I ever started a blog, ideas scribbled down when I thought of them, as well as shopping lists, books to read, and websites I mean to look up.

There is no method to any of them. I need a secretary, to come and sort them all out for me, transcribe the ideas into an ideas book, look up the websites and tell me if they were worth saving, read the books and tell me if they are worth reading, and do the shopping. I’d love someone to do the shopping.

Last week’s post – about my propensity to write some very compelling blog posts in my head while busy doing something, but then totally forget the entire thing as soon as I think about writing it down – an event that occurred again this very morning as I cleaned the shower – has spurred me to action. This morning (after the shower incident) I implemented one small thing. It’s literally a very small thing: it’s a little notebook about 7 cm long, smaller than my iPhone – for scribbling down ideas. It’s so small, one idea pretty much takes up a whole page, and I quite like that. It forces the appearance of some kind of order onto it, at least.

I also like that it is disguised to look like a tiny version of A Room Of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf.

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Smaller than an iPhone, larger than an old-timey iPod.

I’m pleased to say that three pages are already filled, two with brief description of true stories I read in the news this week, and one with a sentence I heard the elderly lady over the back fence say to a child that I assume is her grandson.

I really must do more of that – capturing snippets of conversation, I mean.

The snippet I heard today was the little boy playing happily and the Grandma playing along with him, and then suddenly her tone changed. She told him that what he’d just done was naughty, that he “could have hurt Wilbur.” Wilbur is an unusual name, and I couldn’t see over the fence, but I hadn’t heard another child start crying, so at first I thought perhaps Wilbur was a rather fragile toy, or a pet, but it turned out that Wilbur must be a baby, because Grandma was very cross indeed, repeating to the little boy (I think his name was Fred) that he needed to understand that pushing Wilbur was dangerous. She told him if he did it again, she would have to take all the cars he was playing with. “You’re very lucky to have a little baby brother,” she said, and then tried to get him to repeat what she’d said back to him, that is, the part about that he must not do it again or Grandma will have to take all his cars.

I finished hanging out washing, and it seemed a bit creepy standing in the yard just to listen, so I went inside at that point, and can’t tell you if Fred was able to repeat that message back to Grandma or not. I suspected he was not old enough to do so.

The bit that I scribbled in my notebook (with brief notes explaining the context) was You’re lucky to have a little baby brother.

I hear the sounds of kids playing in that yard, and that woman interacting with them, whenever I’m home during the day, so I assume that she regularly minds her grandchildren while her kids are at work. It’s a lovely sound, the sound of kids playing happily, around an adult who has the time and motivation to potter around and play with them. (it feels as if that image is so much more likely to be a grandparent than a parent!) It’s inevitably a sound that arouses a bit of nostalgia, and as a parent, for me the nostalgia is on two levels, both for my own childhood, and for the time when my daughter was so young that she was pottering around in the back yard playing games.

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Pic: The Hoopla

There must have been times when I happily sat and played too, but when I think back to her pre-school days, in my memory I always felt under pressure to be “getting things done” and found it hard to give myself over fully to playing for indefinite amounts of time. Even though – or perhaps because – I was not working full time, I had an internalised sense that I needed to be achieving things, not just playing imaginative games.

If only I’d devoted as much time – and concentration – to playing with her as that grandmother seems to do with her grandkids. My daughter is 16 now, she doesn’t need me playing with her. Instead I find myself watching really bad TV (eg.Teen Wolf) so that we have something to bond over together.

The little scenario with the boys next door also made me think specifically of my brothers (I have four, all younger, one of whom has passed away) playing at home when they were young. By the time there were two boys in our family to replicate a scene like this, I would not have been around to see it, as I would have been in prep at school. By the time I was in grade six, the same scene could have been replayed again with my youngest two brothers in the roles.

The grandmother’s declaration that Fred was lucky to have a little brother held a lot of resonance for me. I’m lucky to have little brothers, a fact that I’m hyper-aware of since one of them died a few years ago. So I endorsed her sentiment: the little boy should cherish the little brother he has, while he has him. In some ways, he could be seen to be luckier than my daughter, who is an only child and therefore doesn’t have any little brothers. The grandmother was right, he has something that not everyone has.

Of course, as I well know, sometimes having a little brother does not seem like luck – quite the contrary. When you’re a kid, little brothers are most famous for wrecking your stuff. When there’s more than one of them, they fight one another. (I guess if you’re a bigger brother, they fight you. As the oldest, and a girl, I was exempted from physical fighting, however my sister did get bitten by the brother who was her immediate younger sibling.) If you happen to be the older sisters in a large family, your younger brothers compete with you as a team – for example, under the lead of the oldest boy, one year the boys spoil your tradition of being up first to see the presents at Christmas, by deliberately getting up even earlier, and then brag that they saw, touched, even moved or played with, all your presents from Santa before you did. You are filled with hate and wish your life was not totally ruined by having these shitty little brothers in it.

So I can understand that for Fred, over the next 18 years or so, there will be some challenges in his relationship with his brother, and there will be times where he will not rejoice that he has a little brother. But I hope that beneath it all, he remembers his grandmother’s words.

 

 

Should auld aquaintance be forgot

New Year’s Eve, 2009.

I remember a pretty country cottage sitting nestled in amongst tall gum trees, bushes and herbs.

To access it, you drove about 2 hours from Melbourne, into country that is increasingly greener and more undulating, although unfortunately on roads that are increasingly narrower, and more in a state of disrepair, until finally you are dodging cracks and huge potholes as you round the bends at 80kmph.

Finally, you turned right, off an asphalt road onto a loose gravel road, drove a slow, bumpy, dusty half kilometre or so along that track, and then turned in, where someone had to jump out and open a gate, and close it again, and jump back in, before you drove slowly down the long driveway, flanked on either side by the huge gum trees that were all over the property, the house still hidden from view until you were over the first few bumps.

I remember my brothers arrived separately, having taken a different route for the last part of the trip and approached the gate from the other direction. F. reversed his huge old circa 1980 Holden sedan (no power steering!) to park close to the house, and drove straight over a pot plant, smashing the terracotta pot.

I remember that I entered the house and immediately loved the cool, dark interior of the cottage, the deep warm brown of the wooden floorboards and the timber bench tops, the potbelly stove, and the cosy, homely furnishings.

I remember inspecting the second bathroom, complete with an old claw-foot bath that sat brazenly in full view of a window overlooking the garden, and the veranda encircling the entire house and facing straight out into bush that began only a few feet away, and thinking that this house was just perfect. Except for one thing, which is that in Australia, to be in a house that is literally only feet away from dense bush so dry it crackles when you walk through it, in the height of summer, is a slightly scary proposition, especially for city slickers. I don’t know why I mention that, since it’s of no significance in this memory, since there were no fires while we were there.

I remember that we played the Spics and Specs board game, and F. did a great rendition of the tune to Sweet Child of Mine, using text from some silly book to replace the lyrics. I remember just after sitting down for dinner, that I felt dizzy for no reason, and then felt fine again.

We were in that house for a week, and I remember that on New Year’s Eve, the five of us drove right down to the Promontory, into the National Park, to the point where you can’t take a car any further, ate our sandwiches in the camp ground, and then caught the bus to a lookout point we’d picked out of the tourist information back at the house, which described a scenic walk in that area. We jumped off the bus and took in the views from the lookout point. While some of us peered at the sparse tourist information supplied there and discussed whether to go for the walk which, we only now realised, was up the side of a mountain, my brother J. made his own decision, headed up the track and disappeared.

None of us could get coverage on our phones in this relatively remote area, so, as we were unable to call J, he basically made our decision for us. We started up the track, expecting we’d catch him at some point on the way, or at the top. There were no signposts anywhere, to indicate how long the walk up the mountain was, so we began optimistically, but our hopes didn’t take long to be diminished as the heat grew more intense, and large, biting “March” flies kept flying into our faces or landing on our shoulders, arms and legs, while there were no signs to give us any clues about how long the walk might take.

What the information we’d consulted had not explained was that the walk should have been categorised as “intermediate” at least – it was on a rough track up a steep mountain side, requiring hardy walking shoes and, on a day which was about 35 degrees, water supplies and sun protection! Not having planned such a hardy walk, most of us were wearing thongs, or Birkenstocks, on our feet, and we had half a bottle of water left between us. The day had been forecast to be in the high 20s but actually turned out to be in the low to mid 30s, quite a different proposition for taking  a mountainous bush walk.

I started to worry about the heat, and the lack of sunburn protection, on my daughter more so than myself, and contemplated that this unplanned mountain hike was probably quite foolhardy. It was not surprising when, after about 15 minutes of this, my 11-year-old daughter voiced her desire to stop a number of times. Her dad was all too happy to oblige, so they headed back down to wait at the bottom. My brother F and I persevered for maybe another half an hour, slowly trudging upwards, hoping each time we slowly rounded a bend, that we’d find ourselves close to the top, or find J. sitting and waiting for us at some half-way point. There were still no signposts anywhere, to indicate how far away you were from the top, and the winding track and dense bush made it impossible to see further ahead. We reached another designated look out point – but there was no sign of J.

At last, hot, bothered, and annoyed at not having any clue about how far we still had to go, we too gave up, and walked back down again.

At the bottom, all five of us sat in the afternoon heat, wondering how long it would take for J. to decide we weren’t coming, and then, to walk back down again. There was no tap to fill up water bottles, nothing but the ground to sit on, and barely even any shade. The bus back to the campground came only every 30 or 40 minutes or so, so as you can imagine, we desperately hoped he’d arrive before the next bus did.

It was not to be, so when the next bus arrived, my partner and daughter got on – at least back at the campground they could sit down, fill up their water bottle at a tap, locate a bathroom, find some shade, or buy an icypole at the kiosk. At this stage, all of those things sounded like heaven, but someone had to wait for J, so F and I continued to wait, and wait.

Now, you rarely ever got annoyed at J, because he was always very thoughtful, so it probably took until about this time for us to start directing any resentment towards him. Even then, we didn’t see his quick disappearance up the hill as an indication of thoughtlessness or disregard for us. We were more annoyed at the situation imposed by the lack of telecommunication signals in the area and the poor-to-non-existent signage for tourists that could have informed J. and ourselves about how long the walk upwards would take.

I don’t remember how long F and I waited. Maybe another bus came and went while we sat talking and waiting. What I remember is that we reached the end of our tether, and formulated a plan to scratch a message to J. in the gravel, to say that we had gone back to the camp ground, and after doing so, get on the next bus. We were reduced to employing the kind of desperate, pre-historic tactics one had to employ in the not-so-long ago days before mobile phones! Fortunately, there were so few other people coming and going by this point, that we were fairly confident our message would not be immediately walked through and rendered illegible.

I remember that I found a rock, and scratched out a message in the loose gravel: “J – got bus back to camp.”  Soon after, the bus arrived, as timetabled. Of course, just as it pulled in, J. emerged into view, sauntering down the mountain track towards us. If you are trying to picture this, you should probably imagine him smiling serenely, because that’s probably accurate. I also picture that he had an ever-present cigarette in his hand, but to be honest, I can’t really recall that detail so you can leave that out if you like.

The three of us boarded the bus – at least two of us gasping with relief – and travelled back to the campground, and from there, drove back to the holiday house. F. and I felt like sailors who had been stranded at sea for days, finally setting foot back on land.

That was a significant New Year’s Eve for many reasons, not least because the events of that day didn’t even end there, if you can believe it. A whole other story could be made from the remainder of the day but I’ll cut it short. I’m including this part to illustrate what an inauspicious start I had to that year.

After arriving home, I began to prepare dinner for ourselves and friends who were joining us to see in the New Year, but very suddenly –  and then very rapidly – began to feel more and more unwell. I finally ended up retiring from the party shortly after my guests arrived, and all I was able to do for the remainder of the evening was lie on the bed, with the room spinning and my stomach churning, until some time around 12.30am, when I violently threw up. After vomiting so violently, I immediately felt recovered. Of course, my guests had gone home long before, and all I had the strength to do at that point was to go back to bed.

What an ominous start to 2010.

Now, I’m not normally superstitious, but I remember wondering if that turbulent New Year’s Eve was a sign that 2010 was going to be an awful year.

As it turned out, it meant nothing, because 2010 passed without any major incident.  It was in 2011 that J died in his sleep one night. Yet I recall no omens occurring on that New Year’s Eve to suggest that 2011 would be a terrible year.  I can’t even tell you where I was at midnight when 2011 reared its head.

*

Those of us who have had someone we love die will forever have a distinct break in the timeline of our lives when we look back – there is the time before they died, and then there is the time after.

New Year’s Eve 2009 fell in my before time, so in my memory, the day has attained the rosy, soft-focus glow of an idyllic holiday, despite the less-than-ideal events of that day. Because of course, given the choice, I’d choose to be back there, stuck at that lookout point in the heat, waiting for J. to come down, or lying on the bed feeling violently ill, if someone could guarantee that those were the worst things that would ever happen.

 

 

 

Is that coffee?

I was early for my train yesterday morning, so, unusually, I decided to go and buy a coffee.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Let me start again.

Yesterday morning I was running late for my train, so of course I hit every traffic light between my house and the train station, missed the train by 3 minutes and thus had 15 minutes to wait for the next one. City trains run more frequently, but I catch a country train, because I commute out of the city for my current job.

Sometimes – in fact, frequently through the long, icy-cold winter that has only just come to an end in Melbourne – I board the train at 7.58am for that 50 minute journey, rubbing my gloved hands together to warm them up, and look with envy at the people holding, casually sipping, a warm take-away coffee. I don’t quite do the Homer Simpson drool, but I probably do stare a second or so too long, my mind drifting, imagining the brief joy of holding and sipping a warm, delicious coffee. Mmmmm, coffeeeee.

I rarely, if ever, buy coffee on the way to work, before catching a train, or, in fact, on any occasion when I would need to drink it while walking or driving. In fact, I rarely buy takeaway coffee anywhere, except when I’m at work, where the “take away” part refers to me taking it back to my desk.

Contrary to what you may be starting to suspect, I’m not building up an introduction to a witty anecdote about some halarious past accident with a hot cup of coffee. No, I don’t suffer from FOSHCOM (Fear Of Spilling Hot Coffee On Myself)* – although given my clumsiness, it would be quite rational of me to take that risk into account.

No, the reasons why I don’t buy coffee to drink in transit, is because of my attitude to buying coffee, and, now that I think about it, to values around what is a luxury. In that set of values, takeaway coffee is a luxury, or so it appears.

Let’s take a few steps back.

I can clearly remember the first time I saw – or registered – someone drink a coffee that was not made at home from a spoonful of [Brand Name Removed] Instant Coffee. That someone was my mother, on an afternoon in town with me, when I was probably about 7-8 years old.  I was the oldest of 6 kids, so any kind of time with just myself and my mum was very rare, and this annual “day out” was structured around the very prosaic activities of catching the bus together (my mother didn’t drive) and going in to town to buy new school shoes and school uniform to replace those that were outgrown. (Most of our clothes, including school uniform, were second hand, so perhaps this annual trip was to purchase the really essential items like shoes and underwear.)

Next to the bus stop in town, there was a little run-of-the-mill cafe. Picturing it now, I imagine chunky pine furniture and checked plastic table cloths, but even that “memory” could be a construction I’ve come up with. I think that cafe was gone a few years later when I was catching the bus in and out of town by myself so it really does exist only in my earliest memories.

It was Mum’s little treat, at the end of the shopping, to stop at the cafe, sit at a table and have a coffee before catching the bus home again.

For me, this stop for afternoon tea was significant in many ways. Not only was the time spent with Mum a rare treat, but in addition, this was probably as close as I ever got to “eating out,” or even setting foot in a cafe, throughout my childhood – eating out was not an option for a family of 6 children, living in a small country town in the 1970s-1980s. It was not until I was about 16, earning my own part-time income, and quite competently able to catch a bus to town and get myself kicked out of nightclubs for being underage, that I and my 16-17 year old friends would end up spending many dismal Saturday nights in [Brand Name Removed] cafe as a sad second option, staring into a packet of fries or a goopy ice-cream Sundae.*

Eating out, as an event in itself, was a concept that I was not aware of as a child.  I doubt that my parents ever ate out, even without us. Yes, we were occasionally left with babysitters, but I think this was so they could go to a “show” – some amateur theatre production, or to the “trots.” Take-away pies, or fish and chips, eaten at home, or [Brand Name Removed] fried chicken eaten in a park on the way to my grandmother’s place, were the most exciting food items I encountered for most of my childhood, and I suspect my parents’ dining experiences were just as limited as my own.

Anyway, at the cafe near the bus stop my mother ordered the standard Australian Housewife Special circa 1978 – a cappuccino.  I have no memory of whether anything was ordered for me, but we’ll pretend I ordered an orange juice, just to keep this moving along.

This is my first memory of seeing someone enjoy the indulgence of sitting in a cafe, sipping a coffee. It must have really had an impact on me; the pleasure my mother took in enjoying this little window of relaxing time to herself (well, as close to being by herself as she’d ever get) and her sense of treating herself – the extravagance of ordering, not merely a coffee, but a cappuccino.

"Cappuccino with foam" by Johnny Lopez - http///www.flickr.com/photos/jrok/267218761/

(These days, my coffee of choice is, unsurprisingly perhaps, a daggy old cappuccino. I like to think it’s because it’s less milky than a cafe latte – we all know how much I hate milk.)

Surely this memory is the reason why, despite the years that have passed since that shopping trip, many of them filled with scenes of me ordering coffees on morning tea breaks – first at art school, and then in the various jobs I’ve had – I still consider a purchased coffee as a luxury. It’s something to be savoured, sipped slowly, ideally while sitting down and able to be fully appreciated. To me, buying a coffee to drink while rushing on foot, or in the car, to be somewhere else, is akin to wasting the price of the coffee, and the whole experience of indulging in it.

Luxury has its time and place. A coffee as a treat each day at work is allowable – I deserve a small treat to get through the day, surely! But I’ve never been able to justify picking up a takeaway coffee at my local corner shop when I get the paper, only to bring it back home to drink. At home, I make coffee in a pot, or go without it for the day, because a luxury that’s taken for granted no longer feels like a luxury. Maybe my upbringing in a country town with no cafes is the reason why it has never felt right to me, the idea of paying for a takeaway coffee a block or two from home, just to bring back home to drink. Going out for coffee should be an event. That’s what I learned on that shopping trip with my mother.

So, on the morning in question, I was preparing to do something that I hardly ever do – buy a takeaway coffee to drink in transit, on the train. As it’s a 50 minute trip I figured that a coffee could be focussed on and savoured, along with the book I planned on reading. I ordered a takeaway cappuccino from a local cafe, and took it back to the station, where I stood sipping, waiting for my train. But, inevitably, the experiment was a disappointment. The quality of the coffee was nothing to write home about, and the experience didn’t end with me settling smugly into my seat on the train with a nice warm coffee. By the time the train arrived, I’d finished the drink and thrown the cup away.

On all counts, it failed the standard set by the cappuccino my mother ordered in that daggy pine-furnitured cafe, all those years ago.

*

 

Pic Credit: “Cappuccino with foam” by Johnny Lopez – http///www.flickr.com/photos/jrok/267218761/

*FOSHCOM – a term I’ve only just coined, but surely bound to become a familiar part of the lexicon once this post hits the airwaves.

*Actually,  I remember that in primary school I was once taken to dinner at the Pancake Parlour, when my friend won a dinner for 4 there. It was probably the most exciting night of my life to that point.

 

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