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.

 

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

A Kiss With a Fist

Contrary to what some of my posts may make you think, I don’t live in a bubble.

Although most of the posts on this blog may paint a picture of me as an air-headed creature who floats around thinking about nothing more compelling than Air Supply, moustaches, and how much I hate milk, long-time readers would be aware that there is a thinking, feeling person behind the posts, who gets stressed out at work, suffers from insomnia at regular intervals, and experienced grief at the loss of her brother a few years ago, a topic that filled up this blog for some months. Sometimes, that person feels angry and depressed when reading or watching media coverage of certain local social and political issues, and occasionally she will exercise her perogative to vent her thoughts and feelings on those issues on this here blog.

So I’ll let you decide whether you care to read further, because this particular post is not a fun post. This weekend I feel as if something has to be said, by anyone who has the ability to draw attention to this issue, on any public platform, about a crisis in Australia at the moment. It’s a crisis in violence against women.

The reason I’m motivated to write about this topic is because of a family in country New South Wales who should have been celebrating their daughter’s wedding yesterday. Instead they held a memorial picnic commemorating her life and mourning her death one week prior.

The young woman in question went into her workplace on Easter Sunday, to finalise handover notes in preparation for taking leave for her honeymoon. A normal-enough activity that any of us might do. She was never seen again. Since then a male person, known to her through her work, has been arrested and charged with her murder.

There is a lot of media coverage of this case at the moment and, just as when I was moved to write about another horrible case of violence against a woman that caught the public’s attention in Melbourne and beyond 2 years ago, I’m not interested in trying to capitalise on all the attention currently focussed on this case, so I won’t name this latest victim or say too much about her case here. If you want to find more information online I’m sure it won’t be hard.

Since the tragic death of Jill Meagher, the woman I did not name when writing that other post 2 years ago, there has been increased media attention, and, I think, increased realisation by the general public in Australia, myself included, of the unacceptable level of injuries and death of women from violence in this country. (It’s perhaps important to note that in both of the cases that have motivated me to write a post, the woman was killed by someone other than a partner or former partner. These are in fact the more unusual cases – a higher proportion of deaths by violence are at the hands of a partner or ex-partner.)

A few years ago, a feminist group in Australia, Destroy The Joint* began to address the silence around violence against women as an issue, by keeping an annual count of women killed by violence. When they started this count, I think DTJ may have been responding to the fact that a widely-discussed topic in the Australian media at that time was the issue of random drunken violence against young men – specifically, a spate of tragic, senseless deaths caused by drunken “king-hits” at parties, hotels or nightclubs. A report in 2013 stated that 90 young men had died in the past 13 years from “one-punch” hits fuelled by alcohol. There was talk of toughening up the laws around hotel closing times and introducing tougher penalties to those supplying alcohol, and some changes to those laws have been passed since then.

Without lessening the tragedy of those lives senselessly lost, I think DTJ wanted to address the imbalance in the lack of attention given to a similar issue. Women were being killed by violent attacks but there was no count being reported, no overarching “issue” of violence against women being discussed in the media. So they started the grim task of keeping an annual count of women killed by violence. Their count so far is 31 women killed by violence in Australia in 2015 thus far. As we enter week 15, that makes an average of over 2 women per week, or potentially 104 by the end of the year if the rate does not decline. I have no intention of belittling the aforementioned issue of deaths by king-hits, but have included that article to illustrate that if 90 deaths over 13 years constitutes an issue that requires changes to legislation, then violence against women is an epidemic.

As someone noted in the past week on social media, when a woman is killed by her violent partner, a common, and misinformed response is, “well why didn’t she leave him?” When a woman is killed walking home alone from the pub at night a common question is “why was she out walking alone at 3am – particularly after she’d been drinking?” Even recently, when a young Melbourne girl was randomly stabbed to death while walking in a park near her home at 7pm, while it was still light, the response from the Victorian Police and others was that women should not walk in parks alone.

Well, if we follow the line of thought that says that in order to be safe, women must narrow down what they do, what does this latest incident tell us? That women should not go into their workplace on the weekend unaccompanied? Or basically, that women are not safe anywhere they go, unless they have a chaperone? That being a woman is not safe. That women should live in a state of fear when they are out in public, and also, in way too many cases, in their own homes.

I’m motivated to write about this today, through empathy for the shock and grief felt by the family of this latest victim, and her grieving fiance, and her whole small-town community. I’m also motivated because I am a woman myself, and mother of a daughter. I am angry that so many of these incidents occur that it causes me to worry, particularly about my daughter, who has a whole life ahead of her. If my own life is anything to go by, it seems likely that hers will involve walking in a park on her own, walking up a street late at night in the dark on more than one occasion, probably after having a few drinks, and even, going into her workplace on the weekend when no-one else is in, to finish up some work.

According to Vic Health, Australia has reached a point where the largest single contributor to the ill-health and death of women between the age of 15 – 44 is violence.

People have different ideas about the way to tackle this problem. I think that it goes back to deeply-rooted sexism and misogynistic attitudes – which can be held by women as well as by men. I don’t think there is any quick fix to that – I think it would take generations to change sexist and misogynistic attitudes, the same as it would to change racist attitudes, because we learn these things most profoundly at home, from parents and other elders. Kids learn most profoundly by example, and that’s where little, insidious, allegedly “harmless” sexist jokes and misogynistic attitudes will undermine any attempts to “teach” the “right” attitudes. I think more support services are needed for families having difficulties, and desperately needed for men who are separated/divorced and feeling as though they have no rights. Otherwise lots of young boys will continue to observe angry, bitter, disempowered fathers, and learn from them how to think about, and treat, women.

In  the past few weeks, we’ve seen the beginnings of some action around this problem. One State government has announced a Royal Commission into Domestic Violence and another has introduced a Minister for Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. It’s too late for all the women who’ve already died but I hope this is the beginning of some significant changes.

When my brother died (not violently) I recall thinking to myself how horrible it was, to feel so shocked, grief-stricken and numb. It occurred to me to wonder then, how much more could a loved-one bear? It struck me that some people have to deal with a loved one dying suddenly, but also violently. And for some, there is more to deal with than merely violence – how do families of women who are sexually assaulted and killed, or murdered by a partner, deal with the knowledge that in their last moments, their loved-one was being brutalised and terrorised? I thought to myself, back then, that there must be someone dealing with this knowledge for the first time, somewhere, every day. I had a brief insight, at that time when I was in shock and grieving myself, that the world must be overflowing with people who will be forever damaged by the violent death of someone they loved. And I wondered how on earth they go on.

So I guess this post is my little attempt to help to raise awareness – as there is nothing else I can dedicate to the woman who died in NSW last week.

 *

 

Destroy The Joint: formed some time in 2012, in response to a growing weariness with the sexist attitudes that were coming to the forefront in Australia back when Julia Gillard was our first female Prime Minister. The name of the group was supplied by an obnoxious shock-jock radio personality who publicly (and rather hysterically) stated, in relation to the Prime Minister and other females in leadership roles in Australia at that time – that women were “destroying the joint!”

For non-native speakers of Oztraylian, a “joint” is, in this context, a “place” – ie, Australia. In other words, women in leadership roles were destroying Australia.

 

I Should Have A Better Ending

It’s happened again. That thematic accident – some might say serendipity – that occurs when I choose a book to read, from the plethora of books lining our book cases, and lo and behold, find that a major theme of the book turns out to be grief, death – even, in this case, death of a sibling.

On this occasion, the book was Demonology, a collection of short stories by North American author Rick Moody. Moody is a fairly well-known author, perhaps largely because two of his novels, The Ice Storm, and Garden State, were successfully adapted into popular films. I really enjoyed both those films, particularly The Ice Storm, (which sometimes even makes it to my ever-changing list of Top 10 films!) and subsequently read The Ice Storm, but I had not made an effort to read any more of the author’s work until now.

A few weeks ago, I was laid up in bed with a head cold, and pouring over our bookshelves for something to read. I suspect that I chose this book because the combination of the rather ‘out-there’  title, and the cover picture of a large, rather creepy-looking chicken mask, made a strange contrast with the quote across the cover from Time Out, describing the book as “Honest, raw and deeply moving.” The words “deeply moving” and chicken masks are not paired together very often so I was intrigued to see how that combination would play out.

Moody novel

Reading back on the blurb on the back of the book now, I guess there were some hints of what was to come: Moody’s new collection of short stories digs deep into American society and reveals the loss of connection that lurks under the surface. The stories are about language, grief, car crashes, love…..

It’s likely that the mention of language, grief, and connection or loss of it were the final enticement to me (on top of the chicken mask), as all are topics I find interesting. It seems that quite a few of the books I’ve recently read, have entwined ideas about language, and our ability to communicate, into stories of love and loss.

As I reached the end of this collection of stories, it became apparent that indeed, a large portion of the stories in Demonolgy include a death. The reason that this fact sneaked up on me is because often, with the exception of the first and last stories, the death in the story is incidental to the narrative, a small shock for the reader perhaps, but not dwelt upon by the narrator, who merely mentions it as a side-note and then ploughs on with the story.

Now that I’ve noted that, I can’t help but be reminded of Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel, To The Lighthouse, which consolidated her reputation as a writer who experimented with form. In that novel, a central character from the first part of the novel, Mrs Ramsay, disappears about a third of the way through the novel, and the reader only learns that she has died when that information is imparted in a set of parentheses in the next chapter. There are other reminder’s of Woolf in reading Demonology: Moody’s style of writing in some of these stories, where he crafts a sentence that goes on for pages, or constructs a story by building it up from sentences about the same unnamed characters, perhaps also makes a small nod to Woolf’s experimental writing, such as in The Waves.

One of my favourite stories in this collection, Boys, could be described in this way, as a string of sentences. What ties them together is that they are all about the unnamed “Boys,” most beginning, or ending with, Boys enter the house, and it becomes apparent that the sentences are taking us through the lives of two brothers as they grow up, and come and go from the physical place that unites them, their family house.

….Two boys, one of them striking the other with a willow switch about the head and shoulders, the other crying, enter the house. Boys enter the house, speaking nonsense. Boys enter the house, calling for Mother. 

Moody sketches their lives out with the barest detail. There is just enough information given to allow us, for example, to work out that they have a sister, and then, as they get older, that their sister is very ill:

Boys enter the house, having attempted to locate the spot in the yard where the dolls were buried, eight or nine years prior, without success; they go to their sister’s room, sit by her bed. 

Time seems to be condensed. We don’t know if the boys have entered the house once, a few times, over a few weeks, or over a year or more, in-between each little snippet of information that we receive about them entering the house yet again.

…Boys enter the house carrying cases of beer. Boys enter the house, very worried now, didn’t know more worry was possible. 

As readers, we are left to work out for ourselves the events happening around the boys, based only on the information that we receive about their behaviour.

Boys enter the house weeping and hear weeping around them. Boys enter the house,  embarrassed, silent, anguished, keening, afflicted, angry, woeful, griefstricken. 

Based on only these snippets of information, and the sudden absence of any further mention of the sister, the reader is left to draw her own conclusion, that the sister has died. Meanwhile, the boys’ lives continue on at the same pace. Boys enter the house, on vacation, arguing about politics, with new girlfriends, announcing new professions, bringing with them their children, carrying out their own father. Life, Moody seems to be saying, continues on after a death, and life is not sentimental, it doesn’t stop to mourn.

There are other stories in this collection where the death of a minor character is just an incident in the larger narrative. The collection, however, is bookended by two stories, each told in the first person by a narrator who is deeply affected by the death of his sister. Reading the first story, The Mansion on The Hill I understood this collection to be fiction, but after reading the final story, Demonology, I was less sure where the line between fiction and fact merged. How could I consider this to be fiction when, in the final paragraph of this story, the narrator turns in on himself, saying I should fictionalise it more, I should conceal myself (…..) I should make the events orderly, I should wait and write about it later, I should wait until I’m not angry, (….) I should have a better ending….

I suspected that there had to be an autobiographical element to the recurring motif of a brother experiencing a sister’s death.

So I did some online research, and very quickly verified that Moody’s sister had died suddenly, when he was an adult and already a published author. She died in 1995, while he was writing another of his novels, Purple America. I found online a number of reviews of this short story collection, all of which referred to this devastating incident in the author’s life as the catalyst for the prevalence of sudden deaths in these stories.

It’s fascinating to see how a person with creative talent can take a devastating experience like the death of a sibling and incorporate all the emotions and memories that experience brings up, into a body of creative work. These stories were strong, sometimes funny, and experiment playfully with form and content – some stories take the form of traditional narratives while others do not. One story is presented in the form of a list of books and another is a chart showing brief notes on a character’s life accompanied by a list of the music he was listening to each year.

I feel glad for Moody, that after the death of his siter he was able to continue to work, and channel his anguish into creating something which we can all share in. These stories commemorates his sister but also offer us all a glimpse of ourselves and how we react as we encounter the deaths that happen around us every day – from being held up on our train journey by a fatal accident, to hearing of the death of an old school aquaintance that we were no longer in touch with, right through to experiencing the death of a beloved sibling.

For anyone interested in further reading:

Flirting With Disaster – New York Times (2001)

Up Close and Personal – A Death as Fiction, as Fact – New York Observer (2001)

Author Rick Moody speaks at Saratoga College (2013)

Random Access Memory

A combination of having all my time taken up with work, end of year socialising, and an overseas visitor staying at my house, means I’ve had no time to write on my blog lately, so I just grabbed a moment this afternoon to go through my drafts, trying to locate a post that I could tinker with a bit and post.

I came across this one, which was almost complete and last updated in July 2012. I don’t know what stopped me from posting it at that time, but since I still think about my little brother every day – I decided to made a few small edits and post it today.

*

It still happens. A random line in a song, or a casual remark about anything at all, can change my mood from light to heavy, or start  tears welling in my eyes.

It would be impossible, on many of these occasions, even for someone who knows me well, to grasp what the tenuous connection is that my mind has conjured in less a fraction of a second, from something that has just been said or heard, to the fact that my younger brother has died. In the blink of the proverbial eye, I will have tracked, as though I had mapped it out with a piece of string and a pin, the indirect link from a casual remark, to the point on the map that says, “John is not here anymore.”

It’s a point that so much still comes back to.

Recently it was a Spandau Ballet song, Chant No.1. It was on in the background while I was working, and  suddenly a long forgotten memory floated up to my consciousness. I remembered that once, as a teenager, I sat in a cinema and heard this song playing as the credits rolled on a film. I had taken two of my younger brothers in to town on the bus, to see a kid’s film. This is the sort of thing you do when you are the oldest of 6 siblings. I had 4 younger brothers, but it would have been the youngest two,  John, and my youngest brother, P, that I took to town with me that day.

That is all I remember of that day: the final credits rolling, and the Spandau Ballet song playing. Who knows why that little 10-second snippet of my life stuck somewhere deep in the back of my brain, to rise up again some 25 or so years later?Perhaps it made me feel sophisticated and knowledgable around my little brothers, the fact that I recognised the song and even knew the words. Perhaps it was the rock music that played over the closing credits that I liked the best out of the whole outing.

In between the millions of distractions in my life I think frequently, and am reminded just as frequently, of my brother, who died 10 months ago. So it is with a tinge of sadness that I take note when someone lands on my blog after entering a search term like the one someone searched today, “my brother died early will I ever see him again?”.

Dear reader, I’m so sorry that your brother died.

In answer to your question, you will see him again, in your dreams, which will sometimes stay with you for a little while after you wake, causing you feel as if his presence is still around you. You’ll also see powerful images of him that will pop into your head suddenly and unexpectedly during your waking hours, often in the strangest, most incongruous places – such as when you are standing in the supermarket staring at the tinned tuna, or at the gym, staring at the weights you are pulling up and down. Suddenly you will almost see him sauntering towards you.

This happens to me quite often in those very places, despite the fact that he never came to our local supermarket with me, nor to the (ladies only) gym I attend. I suppose it’s because those are moments when my mind is not focussed on anything in particular, and while it’s in that open state, he comes wandering in.

But the answer is also, no. Although I’d be very willing for someone to correct me on this, everything seems to suggest that you and I will never see our brothers again the way we want to see them – corporeal, and alive.

Final Break

Like many people, I suffer from a condition known as fear of bad poetry. It’s not an irrational fear. Bad poetry has a lot to answer for. It’s responsible for making those of us who love other forms of the arts, steer away from one little subsection – poetry. Too much bad poetry can make us forget that there is actually good poetry out there.

Occasionally, however, I recall that there is good poetry out there. At school, and university, one of my favourite subjects was the study of literature (I studied both English and Russian literature!) In year 12, our literature studies included a unit on poetry, and I recall now that I did like at least some, if not most, of those poems. My favourite was “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” by Sylvia Plath, but we also studied Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sonnet number 116 by Shakespeare, and other poems I no longer remember, by William Wordsworth, Ben Jonson, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Lowell, amongst others. At university the only poem I remember studying was The Wasteland, by Yeats. (Clearly that year was worth every cent of the Higher Education Contribution I am still paying off.)

But in two years of studying what was broadly termed “English” (but clearly, as seen in the list above, included American and Irish) literature, one poet that I did not come across was Irish poet and Noble Prize winner Seamus Heaney.

I discovered Heaney via his poem, Mid Term Break, only in the last two years.That was when, after the death of my younger brother, I was searching the internet to see what others had to say about the experience of losing a dearly loved brother. When one undertakes a search to find what others have written about grieving –  dare I say it?  – there is a lot of bad poetry to be found. Perhaps, in the hands of those who have not yet mastered the form, poetry, more than any other artform, lends itself to an uncontrolled outpouring of emotion.

Surprisingly perhaps, a lack of emotion is probably the strength of Heaney’s poem about the death of his younger brother. On the surface of it, there is no outpouring of emotion at all. I could go on to surmise what makes it a powerful and moving poem to read when grieving the loss of a brother, but I don’t want to spoil the experience of reading it, for anyone unfamiliar with the poem. I just want to share it with you, and say that, after reading this poem, my search to find a shared experience of someone else grieving at losing a brother was complete – I didn’t need to look any further.

What prompted this post, you may ask? Well, sadly, Heaney passed away on Friday.  And, in a fortnight, it will be the 2nd anniversary of my brothers’ death.

 

Mid-Term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying–
He had always taken funerals in his stride–
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble,’
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

Seamus Heaney

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.

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