These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You

My little brother died in 2011, but I think of him every day.

One of the reasons for that is because a strange, and, sometimes, seemingly random range of commonplace items can remind me of him, out of the blue. Here are some of them:

A pair of boots I own – because he was with me when I purchased them. He had stayed at our house overnight, it was a Saturday morning, and I had planned to buy some boots. In his typical easy-going fashion, John accompanied me by bus into town, and to go shoe shopping. He hung around patiently while I deliberated over boots, probably had a cigarette out the front of the shop, and even bought himself a cheap pair of black sneakers (trainers – his signature shoe) for work while he was waiting for me.

We hear that men are not big on shopping, and even less keen on accompanying a woman when she shops for clothing. Surely there are not too many guys who voluntarily go clothes shopping with their sister, but I also have a skirt that was purchased while shopping with John on a separate occasion, so it seems his good-natured personality allowed him to be unfussed about roaming with interest around a shop and then amusing himself as he waited outside and watched the world go by.

An old, dark green couch, that was ours, now given away to my youngest brother. This was a gift from my parents many years ago, and the purchase was organised by John, who held his first job, in a furniture shop, at the time. He was probably about 19 when I visited him at the shop and poured over the fabric samples, before selecting one for our couch.

A receipt, found amongst old papers, for removal truck hire – John drove it for us. From the time he held a licence until he died, I don’t think any member of our family ever moved houses without enlisting his help, usually to drive a truck for them, since he had a licence to do so, and was always so happy to help out.

The storage facility on a main road near our house. John drove our stuff to, and from, this facility, and helped us stack and unstack items into and out of it at the appropriate times. Perhaps because of his early career in a furniture shop, he seemed to be particularly skilled at judging spaces and shapes and knowing exactly how to manouvre a piece of furniture through a door or into a tight space without any mishaps.

My new nephew and niece.* That’s because, of all my siblings, John was the one who spent the most time hanging out with my daughter, his niece. His first job at the furniture shop had come to an end when the owner, an elderly man, had passed away and the business closed, and after that, there was a period where he found it hard to get any long-term employment, so he went from one short-term contract to another, working on jobs ranging from telephone linesman to doing maintenance on railway lines. This might not have seemed like an ideal situation for him then, but in hindsight, there was an upside for us, which was, that in between contracts he often spent time staying with us for a few nights at a time, and hanging out with his god-daughter.

A particular hoodie jacket I have, with holes in the sleeve, because John notoriously wore the same brown hoodie everywhere despite the state that the well-worn sleeves were in.

Other things that make me think of John:

Turning on the air-conditioning in the car – because I remember he had some theory about how to maximise the efficiency by opening the car windows first.

Hedgehog slice (he ate a lot of it)

Pear cake (he was so impressed with my pear cake that he learned how to make it – the sincerest form of flattery)

Satay chicken (his signature dish)

Sonic Youth (his favourite band)

Massive Attack (a band we both liked and should have seen together but fate intervened and I had to give my ticket away.)

Certain men, usually younger than me, both in real life and in films, can at times remind me of him.

and

My other brothers, for obvious reasons.*

 

*

*not commonplace items.

 

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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.

*

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.

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.

IMG_3883

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.

hillshoist

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.

 

 

Check it out now, the funk soul brother

For once, a brother-themed post is not about my own brothers!

Instead, it’s about three films I went to see recently for the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). Some friends and I get together every year to see a few films during MIFF and this always includes some of the music documentaries in the Backbeat program.

I didn’t realise ahead of time, but this year, all 3 music documentaries I selected turned out to feature brothers. It seemed a funny coincidence to me, so I thought I’d share these musical brotherly connections with you all.

Mistaken For Strangers – This was a documentary about US band The National, on their 2010 tour.  Matt Berninger, lead singer of the band, invited his younger brother Tom, to join them as a roadie for the tour, and Tom decides he will make a documentary about the band. I like this band, and the promise of an entertaining story about the relationship between two brothers added to the attraction.

Not surprisingly, this film was my favourite of the 3 documentaries.

As described by an interviewer at the start of the doco,The National is a “band of brothers” – there are 2 sets of brothers in the band, and Matt Berninger. The same journalist says to Matt, “what about you Matt? You’re the band member who doesn’t have a brother.” Matt replies “I do have a brother, but he’s more of a metalhead….he thinks indie rock is pretentious bullshit.”

Cue our introduction to Tom, possibly mid 30s and apparently still living with his parents. All I gleaned about his occupation is that he had made some really bad “slasher” films. As the metalhead  “no-hoper” brother, Tom was too good to be true – Jack Black couldn’t have played him any better. (See the link below to a review and trailer, and cut to 34 secs in, where Tom, driving his car, grins into the camera, and takes both hands off the wheel.) On tour, he proceeds to annoy everyone, forget his responsibilities, create mess, miss the tour bus, and is seen constantly sticking a camera in people’s faces and asking them what they are doing, or arranging to interview people and then waffling, with no plan of what to ask them. His older brother, and the other band members, appeared to be surprisingly patient with him, but the tour manager is less so, and finally (spoiler warning!) he is kicked off the tour. I couldn’t help but find that moment a bit sad. Tom seemed a directionless, disorganised person with very little insight into himself, but he was also genuine and enthusiastic, and therefore not unlikeable.

In the end, Tom finished the documentary off after the tour had ended, with the assistance of Matt and his wife. It is hard to know how much of the film was really spontaneous documentary and how much was scripted later, to fill in or create a storyline. For example, right after Tom is kicked off the tour, we see footage of him drowning his sorrows at a bar. If that footage was really filmed right at that moment, who was filming it and with what purpose in mind? But in the end that doesn’t matter. Tom was the real thing, and that was enough to make me believe that most of the scenes we saw were the real thing too. Add to all that, footage of live concerts, and this was an enjoyable film from start to finish.

You can read a great review of this film, and check out the entertaining trailer here.

The Sunnyboy – this film was a documentary about Jeremy Oxley, lead singer of an Australian band called The Sunnyboys, a post-punk band from Sydney, active between 1980-84. I knew nothing about this band before seeing the film. I don’t remember being aware of them in the early 80’s (although I do recognise the hit Alone With You). Apparently they were very big in Australia for a few years, but broke up at the height of their fame, due to Jeremy’s struggles with what was later recognised as mental illness (and later still, diagnosed as schizophrenia).

Jeremy’s brother Peter was also in the band back in the early 80s. Peter made efforts to help his brother around the time the band broke up and later on, but it is only in the past few years that Jeremy has started to take medication and get his life back on track again. Recently Peter, along with Jeremy’s new partner Mary, has been able to get Jeremy to take an interest in playing music again, and in performing in front of an audience. In the past few years, the Sunnyboys have reformed and played some gigs.

This was a lovely film because it was very matter of fact about Jeremy and his life, and also because of the hopeful turning point his life has recently reached. It seemed as though the director had been very open minded, and not approached the film with an agenda to portray Jeremy, or schizophrenia, in any pre-defined way.

ABC episode (takes about 5 minutes) on the documentary here.

Artifact  The final film was a documentary about Thirty Seconds To Mars, a band I knew nothing about. I chose this film because it was about the band’s fight with their record label EMI, who had sued the band for $30 million for trying to exit their contract. The “David and Goliath” aspect of a small band fighting a legal case against a giant like EMI sounded potentially pretty interesting.

Now, for those who, along with me, have been living under a rock, the band Thirty Seconds to Mars is led by Jared Leto. Leto is apparently famous as an “indie” actor, for films like Fight Club and Requiem for a Dream. (I don’t remember him in Fight Club and haven’t seen Requiem For a Dream.) His older brother, Shannon, is the drummer in the band. The relationship between the brothers was not a big feature of this film, but I noted with interest that Jared, the younger brother, was the frontman and singer/songwriter for the band, and, on film at least, leader in all creative decisions for the band, as well as in all talks with the lawyer and manager about the lawsuit. Older brother Shannon depicted his life prior to becoming a drummer, as filling time with “criminal” activity. Shannon comes across as bad-guy-made-good, a quiet guy who leaves the talking and decisions to his younger brother, and concentrates on practising his craft. As far as I could tell, he was a very skilful drummer.  Jared, on the other hand, came across as the penultimate metrosexual man: good looking, intelligent, articulate, able to play piano and guitar. The man can sing, write songs, drive a car while issuing directives on the phone to the band’s manager or lawyer about the lawsuit, and, when needed, muster up a very soulful stare over the lights of LA at sunrise, for the purposes of making his documentary that bit more heartfelt.

This film was my least favourite of the 3. This is not to say it’s not a good film, or that it’s not worth seeing, just that I personally connected more with the music and people in the other two films. It didn’t help that, as it turned out, I didn’t like this band’s music. But this film is worth seeing, whether you like the music or not.

Artifact was a really interesting insight into the music industry. Scenes of the band working on their next album in their loungeroom, with a lawsuit hanging over their heads, were interpersed with soundbites from interviews with music industry professionals.  These, and a graphic presentation, highlighted how bands who land contracts with major labels are likely to end up being totally screwed. The figures put forward, on how much the record company takes out of album sales, were outrageous. In summary I think they said that if a band sells 500 000 copies of an album, they can probably expect to end up with a debt of approximately $75 000. Because they are under contract, that debt is to be paid off with the next album. Only of course, if the next album sells the same amount, that means the debt will accrue to $150 000. And so on.

We also heard how availability to music and technology via the internet has disadvantaged bands. Record sales have plummeted in the past decade now that people can illegally download and burn music so easily. Add that to the fact that about 85% of sales will go to the record company. (see above). The reason Thirty Seconds to Mars had wanted out of their contract was because, despite platinum sales for their previous album, they had not seen a cent of royalties. This documentary really made me feel like buying some actual, physical albums, just to support bands. (I don’t do illegal downloads but I am definitely guilty of burning CDs).

Although at times I felt that parts of this documentary were contrived, who can blame Leto for using his skills – and profile – as an actor to create a vehicle to get this story heard as widely as possible. And also, perhaps, to help raise some funds.

The irony in the final scene of this film nearly made me a bit teary, believe it or not. (Warning: spoilers). After we’d witnessed the band’s struggle to create a new album with no finance from their record company, and under the stress of a lawsuit, Thirty Seconds to Mars had triumphed: EmI had negotiated a new contract, their album had been released by EMI, and they were touring the album. We see Leto, now sporting a mohawk, performing at a live concert. The audience is going off, Leto is going off, and the film cuts to an aerial shot. We can see probably about 2000 people on the floor, in a venue that holds many more. Jared calls out to the audience, “hands up who’s got our latest album?”. As one, 2000 hands go up, amidst screams of hysteria – YEEAAAAHHHHH!!! He calls out again: “Hands up if you stole it off the internet!”  More screams, YEEEEAAAAAHHH!!!! – and 2000 hands go up again.

(Idea for Thirty Seconds To Mars – set up a stand outside cinemas and sell your CDs there….I dare any fan to come out of the documentary and NOT buy one.)

(* Final note – if scheduling had allowed, I would also have gone to see The Punk Singer – a documentary about Kathryn Hanna, founder of the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s – I couldn’t make it to the session times. Not sure if she had a brother.)

3 days, 3 phone calls

Plinky writing prompt: Draft a post with three parts, each unrelated to the another, but create a common thread between them by including the same item — an object, a symbol, a place — in each part.

*

It’s Saturday August 13, 2011. I’m in the emergency ward of the Royal Children’s hospital. My daughter is stretched out on a hospital bed, wearing a neck brace, crying with frustration and pain. We are waiting for a diagnosis on whether the hairline fracture discovered on a vertebrae in her neck is going to require surgery.

Or at least, I figure that’s what we are waiting for.

Surely if the news could be any worse, such as that her injury was going to cause paralysis, and was inoperable, the staff would show more urgency about examining her?

We’ve been in the Emergency ward since about midday, and before that, we were 3 hours at the Radiology clinic before they decided to rush my daughter J here in an ambulance.

In the Emergency ward our patience is put to the test – clearly her case is not urgent enough to warrant immediate attention. (I realise that must be a good thing, even though the interminable waiting is frustrating, not least for my daughter, who hasn’t eaten since 8am.) Once she is admitted and settled on a bed in a cubicle, the pace slows. A nurse bustles in and does “Obs” – checks blood pressure, asks questions, makes notes on a chart, and bustles out again. We are left to ourselves. An hour goes by. A doctor comes in, introduces herself, asks the same questions, makes some notes, and leaves again. More time passes, rounds change – a new nurse comes in for the next hourly obs – the same questions are asked again. My daughter loses it. I’m trying to keep her spirits up, but there is not much I can offer that will improve her mood. She’s not allowed to eat or drink anything until a decision about surgery is made.

It’s at about this point that my phone rings. I look and see that it’s my brother John. This is a rare occurence: John rarely calls. I haven’t spoken to him for weeks. I know he’ll be a good person to talk to in a crisis: he’s calm and practical, and works in the health care system himself.

John: Hey Maria, how are you?

Me: Actually, I’ve had better days, John. I’m at the Royal Children’s Hospital at the moment.

John: What has she done???

John is my daughter’s Godfather. He was 21 when she was born, and he spent a lot of time with her when she was a baby. Back then, he was often between jobs, and free to visit us.  When she was only a few months old, he came to Melbourne at my request and spent a week with us, to help me look after her. He’s a tender, playful, and practical uncle.

On this particular afternoon, John is calling to ask if he can drop round to our place. He currently works as a Personal Care Attendant and he has decided to enrol in a Diploma of Nursing (to become a Registered Nurse) and needs to sit some tests to get into the course. This is great news, and even though I’m pretty distracted, I congratulate him.

He had been hoping to come around and use our computer to do some practice tests, but obviously we are not there, and can’t say when we will be home. I tell him what the situation is, and as much as I can about what the doctors have said so far, and he says he will call me again tonight.

John’s unexpected call is the only diversion in that long and draining day. The combination of high adrenalin levels caused by anxiety, and the tedium of spending so much time waiting for an end to the uncertainty, slowly saps all my energy.

At about 5pm, my daughter is finally discharged. It is decided that surgery is not required. By this time, she is beside herself with hunger, tiredness, pain, and the sheer boredom of lying in a hospital bed all day. The news that she must wear a neck brace for the next 6 weeks is greeted mostly with indifference at this point – she just wants to get out of here. We leave with a spare neck brace, and prescriptions for 3 different kinds of pain-killers.

*

On Saturday September 10, 2011, my Mum leaves a message while I’m out, to say that a friend of my sister’s passed away suddenly in the early hours of the morning.

Patrick, my sister’s friend, was considered a mate by most of my 5 siblings. My sister is a close friend of his sister, and his parents are friends of our parents – in short, there is a strong connection between his family and ours. He was a bit of a “character”,  an Irish-born Australian boy with a deep love of music, which was probably what caused a friendship to spring up between him and my sister when they were studying together years ago. He had died during the night, from a heart attack caused by a severe asthma attack. He was a few months away from his 40th birthday.

During the afternoon I make some calls to pass on the news. I call John, but his phone rings until it goes to voicemail. That is nothing new with John, and, as he rarely returns calls or messages, I don’t leave a voice message. My sister C, who was closest to Patrick, now lives in Ireland, so I wait until the late afternoon, when it will be a civilised time in Dublin, to phone her with the news. She is surprised, and saddened, to hear of the death of her friend.

My phone rings, and it’s my brother, P.  He has phoned to tell me the news about Patrick. We talk for a while, first about Patrick, and then I ask how John’s entry tests for the Nursing course went. P and John rent a house together in Melbourne.

We talk a bit about how pleased we are that John is going back to study. John is a favourite of both of us, and probably of the whole family – he’s by far the most easygoing, generous person in our family. It’s natural that we are pleased for him, because he has the least schooling and never completed any study beyond year 10. He spent years in temporary, contract jobs, usually labouring. But more recently he completed  a qualification as a Personal Care Attendant, and now works in a high dependency unit of an aged care facility. It’s clear from the way he talks about his job, that he gets a real sense of fulfilment in being able to assist elderly people who are sometimes classed as “difficult” by other staff, and that he has found the vocation that is right for him.

P and I are both certain that he will make a great nurse – he is gentle, but also cheerful and practical, with a no-nonsense approach to getting things done. The highlight of the conversation is when P. asks me to get a pen, and gives me the brand new email address he has set up for John. We both have a chuckle, because it is very amusing that John, who if he texts at all, generally texts in all caps,  has finally entered the 21st Century and got an email address.

*

The next day at about 4pm, I am at home, attempting to write a blog post when my phone rings. It’s my brother P,  but my phone is upstairs and I don’t hear it ring.

Shortly after, it distantly registers that A. is on the phone to someone.  I think I hear him laughing, so I assume one of his family members has phoned.

Then I’m interrupted by A, who asks me to come upstairs. I’m annoyed by the interruption, but I figure he needs to tell me something that he doesn’t want our daughter to hear.

As he walks upstairs, he starts to cry. I assume that he’s had some bad news about someone in his family, as his parents are very elderly, so I try to comfort him. He is shaking and sobbing now, and says the words, It’s so unfair. At the top of the stairs he tells me a piece of news that I’m unable to process. I scan my memory for someone who fits what he has just told me, but I don’t  know who he can be talking about. I say, John who? 

Another cog turns over, and my brain makes a connection between the level of grief in front of me and the name that A. has given me, I hear myself say, in a tone that sounds like someone acting as if they are distressed: Do you mean my brother John? 

At that moment, something is switched off. I am removed from myself. I grasp that I must behave as if my brother has died. A strange image, conjured by my suddenly scrambled mind – the black sandshoes he always wore, poking out from under a doona, like the wicked witch’s shoes under the house in the Wizard of Oz – rises up in front of my eyes. It comes back intermittently, and illogically, over the new few days and weeks.

In this newly-numb state I have a job to do: I must now pass this news on to my other siblings. In incredibly bad timing, my sister is flying from Dublin to Spain that morning for a holiday. I don’t want to give her this news while she’s about to step on board a plane, so I text her to ask when she leaves, and discover that she is, quite literally, about to step onto her flight. I ask her to text me when she is in Spain. This seems totally surreal – to let my sister leave for a holiday. I feel as though I am granting her a few extra hours of grace, a time-warp, an extension of the blissfully unaware era of her life that will come to an end with the news I’ll give her.

I have four brothers, so there are still other people to be told. P. was not in a state to tell them. I phone my brother F. Unlike me, he seems to comprehend what I’m saying immediately, but he pleads with me, not to tell him this news. F. lives with his girlfriend, and with our other brother G, a social recluse who sees few other people. He will go and knock on the door of G’s room and tell him in person. These two live closest to my parents, so it falls onto them, the hardest task of all, driving out to tell them in person.

(Amongst all the horribleness of this time I register some comfort when I learn that my brother G, who never visits or speaks to my parents, not only accompanies F out to tell them, but takes it upon himself as the older brother, to be the one to deliver the news. Although my heart breaks a little bit more when I hear how, unaccustomed to seeing him, Mum and Dad displayed looks of pleasant surprise when he walked in the door. My brother said they had some bad news, and my mother responded, “Yes, we know about Patrick already.”)

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for my sister to text. Finally, a text: she is at her accommodation in Spain. By now it’s about 10pm in Melbourne. I phone the hostel. The person on reception speaks fairly good English. I am put through to my sister’s room, or she comes to the phone, I don’t know which. She wonders why I’m phoning her so urgently in Spain but assumes I must have more news about Patrick. She doesn’t know yet that while we were all phoning one another the previous day about Patrick, someone even closer to us had died on the same night, or sometime during that day.

I ask her if she has someone there with her (she does.) I tell her that it’s about John. She probably braces herself for something – an accident, something that is not good. I say that John has died. She says, What do you mean? I tell her again. She says I don’t understand.

It’s Sunday, September 11, 2011.

You always take the weather with you

Is there anything better than beautiful weather? I’m sitting at home, on an evening that can only be described as beautiful, feeling as though nothing could be nicer. On a night like this it seems quite feasible that even being somewhere glamorous, involving hot springs, jacuzis and cocktails, would not be any nicer than just sitting here, looking out over rooftops at the pale blue evening sky, listening to birds chirping in the trees, and the intermittent chirrup of a cricket, while I sip on a glass of wine.

Sometimes I think that if it could just be light until 9pm every night, all year round, life would be constantly cheery. Even though I know that’s not true.

The silly thing is that only yesterday I wrote 3/4 of a post about how we were experiencing an early Autumn.

Ha! Welcome to Melbourne, where the temperature ranges from 40 degrees to 12 degrees within the same fortnight, and if you write a post about the weather, you’d better finish in one go or it will become useless! (Or, fiction!)

Anyway. While I’m on the topic (by the way, it’s great that you’re so keen to hear about the weather!) this Summer was predicted to be a scorcher. Last November, or thereabouts, I kept hearing rumours that “they” were saying it was going to be a stinking hot summer.

Tax_experts

After weeks of consultation, a panel of Global Warming experts in Melbourne today announced that if the weather gets any hotter, they will be forced to remove their jackets. (pic: Wikimedia)

Now, I don’t know who “they” are, but as far as I could glean from this third hand information, it sure as hell sounded like “they” knew what “they” were talking about. 

So on the basis of this relayed intelligence, I gritted my teeth, and tried to mentally prepare for an unbearably hot summer where I would feel as though I lived in an oven. I love my little house, and my bedroom with the view of the rooftops and the sky, but my room is upstairs, you see, (thus the rooftops, and sky) and on a 40 degree (Celcius) day it’s about 125 degrees upstairs.* 

But I need not have worried, for we are into our third (and, according to my scientific calculator, final) month of Summer, and so far we’ve only had to endure maybe 2 days that were a sweltering 40 degrees, and possibly another 3 that were around 38 or 39.  Yawn! We’re Australians –  that’s not a HOT summer! A HOT summer is when you cook your barbeque by just letting the cow wander out into the back yard for a while.

Photo: StickerEsq

I object to that part about cows.

I object to that part about cows.

In fact, it’s been a really nice summer – but WAIT!! How much can I say about….weather? At this rate, weather will become most used tag on this blog, possibly outranking even Nigella Lawson’s Ears, and making my blog seem uninteresting to anyone except desperate weather presenters who’ve left it till the last moment to put their report together. (Good luck!)

Well, strangely enough,  I’ve realised as I’ve been writing, that this post probably isn’t really about the weather. It’s about why the weather has been making me feel sad.

That’s because (until today),  it’s been feeling like a premature Autumn for the past week or so. So much for the long hot Summer. In the past week, temperatures at 7am have been as low as 12 degrees. 12 degrees??? Reminder – it’s still summer, and I’m in Melbourne, not in Reykjevik. After 3 ridiculously cold mornings in a row last week, I gave in and flicked the central heating on.

And even doing that made me feel sad, so I suspect that I’ve been affected by the mood that Autumn – especially a premature Autumn, arriving in the middle of bright, warm weather – brings with it: there’s a sudden coolness in the air, a different light, and a sense that things are changing, and dying, and that time is moving on. Turning on the heating reminds me of the first Autumn I spent in this house, and memories of times that are recent, but prior to September 2011, always come with the caveat that my brother was alive then. Not so long ago.

At least, that’s what I’m attributing to the fact that thoughts of my brother have been popping up a lot lately. It may just be that some more of the unconscious work of grieving has been plugging away, deep down underneath my conscious thoughts and has finally reached the surface.

It’s not new that I think about him, but lately, while I’m doing something mundane, like rinsing vegetables at the sink, his presence suddenly crosses my mind for a split second. I see him, exactly as he was the last time he was in my house, or the way he looked at the age of 14, in a photo I was gazing at 2 weeks ago at my parents house, and I can almost hear his voice, and smell his presence. At those moments, some part of me still doesn’t believe this person is dead.

Can I blame the weather for this, or is it yet another “stage of grieving” – 18 months later? Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. It doesn’t really matter. I guess I’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether I like it or not.**

In other words, it’s Melbourne, so it will probably be 38 degrees again by Friday.

*

(*No formal method of measurement was used to come up with that statistic. Any resemblance to a real measurement of temperature is purely coincidental and no correspondence will be entered into on this matter)

** This is a misappropriation of a quote attributed to the poet and critic, John Ruskin, on WorldofQuotes.

***Update, written the following day. Yep, folks, I had no idea what the forecast was when I wrote this last night, but it just so happens that today it’s 38 degrees!!! Call it coincidence if you like.  I would.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live

So it has rolled around to mid-August.

Those who’ve experienced grief will probably know I’m not exaggerating when I say: the last 12 months have gone by in a blur.

Looking back now, I think it’s safe to say that on September 11 last year, the day that I was told my beautiful little brother had died, my every day awareness of life, and sense of current time, shut down for a long period.

Outwardly, I began to function normally again not long after, going to work and seeing friends, but any second when it was not distracted, my mind was focussed inwards, and in the past. It had a lot of mental work to do. It needed to integrate the enormous chasm where my brother’s life had been. The enormous chasm in what? I hear you ask. Well….in the picture of the world, and my life, that I carry around with me in my head.

In order to do this, my mind began to obsess over dates and periods of time for every memory I unearthed, whether specifically of John or not of John – it didn’t matter. How old was he when this song was a hit, how old was he when I was at this college I’m walking past, how old was I, how long ago was this event, and, always the inevitable calculation: how much time had John left to live at that point in our shared history. Did he have 15 years left, 5 years, 1 month, or 1 day?

At first, this constant need to fixate on time in relation to any memory of John seemed a disjointed, jumbled thought process created by grief and not serving any purpose, but now, looking back, I suspect there was a purpose to my fixation on distilling my brother’s life down to numbers and fractions – it gradually enabled me to construct a timeline of his life.

I don’t mean that I’ve created a literal timeline dotted with the events of his life in a chronological order. I mean that all that mental work of thinking over dates, ages, time frames, etc, enabled me to come to a point, months later, where I was able to comprehend that his life was a finite thing, that had a beginning and an end – and – here is the crucial point – to grasp that both were in the past.

From this process, I’ve come to understand that we carry a kind of “story” in our minds, that is intrinsic to our understanding of ourselves and our lives. In a very fundamental way, I mean. I think that what we call “shock” is a huge chasm in our understanding of the world, that results when an element of this basic story is ripped apart through a sudden death.

For example, because I am lucky enough to live in a First World country, I expect that my parents will live to an age ranging somewhere from their seventies to their nineties. As they are in their early seventies, I’m awre that time is drawing closer but still hopeful that it could be a decade or more away. I don’t sit around consciously thinking about when my siblings, friends and family will die, but at an unconscious level I expect that I, and most of my siblings, friends and relatives around my age, will also live – on average – into our eighties or a bit beyond. I expect, and hope, that my child will outlive me.

Therefore, I have an unconscious understanding of my life as a fixed span of time, and of where and how it interconnects with the lives of everyone I know. I assume I’m approximately half way through my life. I’m aware that these expectations are based on averages, and that plenty of people don’t make it to those average ages, but nevertheless, when one of those people turns out to be someone you love, that awareness is no comfort. As much as you know that all around the world every day people die both young and suddenly, you can’t prepare for the sudden shattering of your life as you know it, when someone puts the name of your sibling and the word “died” into the same sentence.

So I realise now that although I probably didn’t spend a lot of time consciously thinking about my brother, his life was an intrinsic part of my own “story”. The story was as simple as this: that I am an older sister to 5 younger siblings. That amongst these siblings was this brother, born 8 years after me. That he would continue to be around, steadily 8 years younger than me, throughout most of my life. That, taking into account life expectancies for males and females, and our age difference, it was possible that he might live on after me. That  we loved each other,  and were bonded through love for the same group of people – the other members of our family. That’s it, at it’s most basic level. I didn’t need to think about those things. Our connected story was incredibly simple, but deeply, intrinsically, a part of my entire understanding of myself, my life and my world.

There were also other layers to the story, layers sculpted out of the details.  For example, details about our current lives, where we lived, things we’d done in the past, together and apart. A trip to Hanging Rock, a holiday at Wilsons Prom, the time we walked around Lake Daylesford at 1am, slightly stoned. These details formed layers over the top of the basic story, so that our interconnected story had depth and complexity, and currency.

I see now that after he died, the process of grieving caused me to continually confront little snippets of these layers, and, bit by bit, try to grasp that, not only was each separate memory – of the trip to Wilson’s Prom for example – in the past, but so was the interconnected storyline they were part of.  I felt compelled to do calculations, and to try and place ages, dates, and times, over and over – all so that I could grasp that the timeline of his life had reached its end, and reassess all my memories with that new perspective.

Without realising it, what I was doing was gradually chipping away at the top layers of our connected stories, the little memories of shared holidays and going to see Sonic Youth together, and working my way down, towards the deeper, basic story of our connected lives, the one that would be harder to shift.

I wonder if this accounts for the “waves” of grief that people talk about. I think perhaps each new wave of grief comes when you start (unconsciously) dismantling another layer of these densely interconnected stories. Or perhaps it comes at the end of having chipped away another layer. In any case, as each layer is chipped away, you come closer to understanding that your brother has died.

This is such a painful process to go through.  At first, and for months, every memory that popped up required analysing, calculating, and recalibrating. Every memory, therefore, was met with a huge sense of shock, swiftly followed by a new wave of grief, distress, and pain.

Whether the memory was about John or about the lino on the floor of a rented house 4 years earlier, it didn’t matter. I had to reassess the memory, and refit it into our previously interconnected story, to reconfigure that story into one where my little brother’s part abruptly comes to an end in September 2011, and mine continues on.

 

John (at top), probably about 15, or, nearly half-way through his life.

*

*Recently I read a post that mentioned a book by Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live. I’d been thinking about this “story of our lives” concept, so I immediately loved that title, and knew it would have to be the title of a post, if and when I wrote about this. Of course, I must also track down the book and read it at some point. Thanks to Goldfish for that piece of information.

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