The Notebook

A while back, I wrote a post about the pile of books next to my bed, and where they sat on the continuum of not having been opened/being partly read/being almost completely read/will probably never be read. But did I mention the notebooks that were also in that pile of books? There’s about 5 of them. (Honestly, the pile of books next to my bed is the saddest pile of books anywhere, in as much as it’s an indication of a wanna-be writer who never does anything more than write a post on her blog.)

Anyway, after looking through one of them, today’s post is this:

All the Ideas listed in one Yellow Spirax Notebook. (2007 – 2011)

I first used this very ordinary, spiral bound notebook to take notes in when I started a new job back in 2007. It opens, therefore, with some uninteresting notes: which printer prints in color, procedures for locking up, file paths to certain files – information I no doubt quickly came to know by heart, as I spent the next seven years working in that same organisation.

A few pages later, it’s become a writer’s notebook. Perhaps there was nothing more I needed to write in a notebook in the course of my day-to-day job. In any case, the diversion to a writer’s notebook is intentional, because I’ve used it for an exercise from The Memoir Book, (Patti Miller, 2007, Allen and Unwin) called Brainstorm Circles. The instructions in this exercise are to start by drawing a circle in the middle of a page, and writing in it a topic you want to write about. Then, creating a visual kind of “flow-chart”, you write the first word that comes to mind from that one, and then, the first word that comes to mind from the second word, etc. Importantly, the author notes, you are free-associating each time from the previous word, NOT from the original word. When you reach the edge of the page, or run out of ideas, go back to the middle and start again. Spend about 20 minutes – this will give you an idea of how rich your idea is.

Writing exercise from The Memoir Book, by Patti Miller (Allen & Unwin, 2007)

(I like this exercise and employ it every now and then. As it happens, from this very first exercise, I developed a piece of writing that I liked and have sent to a few literary magazines in the past ten years, but so far no-one else has liked it enough to publish it.)

The next few pages contain my ambitious ideas for books (never started) and more versions of the same writing exercise, using different topics. Book ideas under consideration were: a book about an organisation I was volunteering for at the time, a book on people from regional areas now living in the city, or a book about careers in the arts. Next are pages of research for an article I was writing about the value of arts education in schools. (That article was published, at least!)

Abruptly, this train of research is interrupted with a note scribbled down when I received a phone call from ANZ bank in 2008. Some of my siblings were travelling overseas, and the bank called me out of the blue to say that my brother’s credit card had been the subject of fraud and had been stopped. I’ve scribbled instructions about calling the bank using a reverse charge number, and below that, credit card cancelled.

That innocuous little memo signifies drama for others, although that mostly played out in Berlin. My part was done with after I passed on the message.

Underneath this, there are notes to myself on possible chapter ideas for a non-fiction book on arts education (never written). Then some research on funding opportunities for the organisation I was volunteering with.

Turn another page, and there’s another sudden shift in the function of the notebook. We were moving houses, (dating this to late 2008) and my use of the notebook has become purely pragmatic. Instead of writing, or even thinking about writing, my spare time, as well as the notebook, were used to keep track of what needed to be done. The evidence: an extensive, hand-written, checklist of all the companies (phone, electricity, etc) I’d need to inform of our change of address when we moved. Judging by a few boxes left unchecked at the end of the list from seven years ago, it appears that the local library and Dinosaur Designs may still have my old address. Woops!

In the chaos of packing and moving house it must have been the only paper we had at hand. That’s the conclusion I come to when I turn the next few pages, which contain lists of words written by my daughter, who was about 8 years old at the time – apparently spelling tests, corrected by me.

Seems pretty good for a grade 3 speller!

Next: a scribbled quote from Budget Truck Hire, on the cost of hiring a truck with a hydraulic lift. The truck was to be driven by my younger brother John. Back then, John was the go-to every time one of his siblings moved houses, as he had a licence to drive trucks and was always only too willing to give up his time and help out. It would have been his instruction to make sure the truck had a hydraulic lift, as I would barely know the difference between a hydraulic lift and a hydroponic tomato. Following on this theme, next comes a list of items to be put into storage.

Perhaps the notebook went into storage too, because on the next page, it’s apparent that at least a year has gone by. It’s now a writer’s notebook again, and I’m drafting ideas for a blog post about Beckett. This signals that it’s now late 2009. We were settled in our new house by then, I started this blog around October that year, and one of my first posts was about Beckett. Following this are more notes, on a book called The Lost Art of Sleep, by Michael McGirr (2009, Picador, Pan McMillen Australia), perhaps thinking I may refer to them in a blog post, or maybe just because I had a strong personal interest in the topic, as I was still, at that time, a constant insomniac. It’s a memoir of sorts, and passages I copied down include this lovely paragraph:

We fall into bed. We fall asleep. We rise in the morning. That’s what we do. Over and over. Falling and rising. Rising and falling. We fall in love. We rise in it too. The rising takes longer. (p248)

After this, the notebook must have been misplaced or left aside again for 2 years, as the next turn of the page reveals a list of scribbled descriptions of photos of my brother John. I guess that, once again, I grabbed the first bit of paper that was at hand, and this particular notebook seems to have been in the right place at the right time whenever that was required. On this page I’ve written headings, indicating different photo albums, and under each, a description of each photo of John taken out of the album. This means it’s September 2011, because I took those photos out of those albums to compile them for my brother’s funeral when he died suddenly on 11th of that month.

At the time, I scribbled that list with the intention of putting the photos back in each album after his funeral, but then after his funeral, it didn’t really seem important to bother putting them back. I think those photos of him remain together in a folder with other papers related to his life.

Following that is a scrawled first draft of the eulogy I wrote with my sister and youngest brother.

Incredibly, straight after the eulogy – surely the most significant and heartbreaking thing I’ve ever had to write – the remaining pages full of mundane notes are a testament that the small details of life relentlessly carry on even after someone dies, and require attention.

These final, trivial notes include log-in details for a student portal, reminding me that I was actually studying part time at RMIT when my brother died. Then, prices of various options for holiday accommodation follow, because I had a strong desire to go away over the New Year break that would fall only a few months after my brother’s death and would also overlap with his birthday.

The rest of the notebook – only a few more pages – is taken up with similarly utilitarian notes: a confirmation number from a bill paid, a quote from a telephone company.

In my pile of notebooks, I’ve got writerly-looking notebooks, with luxurious, leather-bound covers, or floral designs and beautiful soft writing paper inside them. This one is the notebook you get out of your office stationery cupboard. It’s cheap and functional and not made to look like a writer’s notebook. It begins and ends with practical, trivial, and mundane memorandum – but it’s inadvertently also a missive that demonstrates how, in between the mundane, and in the course of four years, lives were irrevocably changed.

 

Don’t judge a book by its cover

 

 

Kool Thing

via Discover Challenge: Song

I’m slow off the mark at times. It must be nearly two weeks ago now that I saw a prompt on the Daily Post,  just one word, song. I was already 3/4 of the way through a different post, however, and I chose to finish that and let the other idea sit in the back of my mind, where I knew there were at least 100 different posts I could write with the word song as a starting point. After I’d published that other post and sat down to write something on song, it seemed the idea that had made its way slowly to the top of the pot was to write about this song, or more specifically, why I can’t listen to it any more.

When I hear Kool Thing, by Sonic Youth, I feel a sort of cold chill run through me. It’s not a chill of excitement. It’s the chill of a complex mixture of negative emotions I can’t quite pin down. Let’s say that in that mix there is embarrassment, mortification, and anger, too, probably.

Those feelings, embarrassment, mortification and anger, are directed at myself. They are directly squarely at an image of myself, five years ago, on the night of Sunday September 11, 2011, standing at the sink, peeling potatoes, and listening to the Sonic Youth album, Goo.

Taking a step back, about 2 hours earlier on that same day, I had learned that my younger brother John had died suddenly, in his sleep, some time that weekend. Conversations had been had, phone calls to other family members had been made, and now I was left, alone. My partner had gone out, to drive across town and pick up my youngest brother; it was he who lived with John, and it was he who had phoned us with the news. My daughter was only 11; instinctively she kept herself busy in her room.

If my daughter had come out of her room she would have seen me in the kitchen, and to her everything would have looked normal – I was moving and functioning – but in fact I was not completely present; there was an invisible bubble around me, keeping me at arms length from reality. I had stopped somewhere, but I had a dim awareness that time was still moving on around me, and this told me that dinner needed to be made, so that we could eat something when the guys got back from across town. In this state of reality/unreality, I put on Goo, to listen to as I cooked.

I chose that album because John had always been a huge Sonic Youth fan, and I thought maybe that was what you do when you’ve just found out that your brother has died.

Or did I? I look back now and wonder what on earth I thought. Did I think that the most appropriate thing to do was to put on music that the deceased person had liked? Did I think that it was no different to fondly thinking about someone who was merely absent? Did I think I lived in a fucking movie?

Because if I had been an actor in a movie, an appropriate soundtrack would have swelled up in that scene of me peeling potatoes at the sink; music representing my brother, music that he had liked, lyrics that encapsulated something about him. And the music would be accompanied by a montage of snapshots, images of him throughout his life, existing in the head of the character I was playing, but visible for all the viewers at home, the way that TV and film can do.

But if I’d been an actor in a movie, it would all have been acting; my “brother” would be played by another actor, neither the actor or my brother would really be dead; there would have been no reason to totally switch off my emotions.

So, mistaking real life for a movie at that moment – maybe because everything suddenly felt so unreal – I put on Goo, as if for all the world I was putting on the album because my brother was on his way over for a meal. I did what it seemed that someone in a movie would do in this situation: put on the album, let it be the soundtrack of that night, let it honor him, while I cooked.

Of course, inevitably, I have never been able to listen to that album again. But it’s not because the tracks off that album evoke such sadness in me. It’s embarrassment, mortification and anger at myself for what seems now like a display of insincerity, that have become attached to the songs from Goo after that night.

I picture that moment at the sink and actually blush, from a deep sense of shame, at what a stupid thing it was to have done. Looking back now it seems disingenuous, as if I was playing out the role of a grieving person, learned from TV soap operas. Here in the present, I’ve felt mortified to be the person that did that. It seems as if I thought some kind of celebratory move was required, when it was way to soon for that. And I’m annoyed that I spoiled that album for myself, because it was an album that John loved.

Of course when I look back now, my action in putting on one of his favourite albums to play while I made soup highlights how the news of his death had only broken through the surface of some very outer barrier of my mind at that stage, it had not yet really penetrated my understanding, and shock was already playing its part in making me feel like a robot going through the motions: make a nourishing meal. Ring your sister.

Rationally, I know that it is not worth feeling humiliated, mortified or embarrassed about. I realise that one doesn’t know what the done thing is, when someone dies suddenly. But these irrational emotions are surprisingly effective at blocking out others. When I’m filled with the heat of embarrassment, I’m not also able to feel sad at the same time. I cry at all sorts of things nowadays, and certainly at plenty of songs, but not at songs by Sonic Youth.

 

 

 

 

*

Note: this prompt encouraged the writer to post links or multimedia; but in keeping with the topic, I don’t want to.

The things about grief

I have a plastic A4 sized folder that sits on a shelf in my wardrobe. It contains papers that I threw together when we cleaned out my little brother’s room, after he died, 4 years ago.

Some of those papers include a signed annual leave form, for annual leave that began on 11 September, the day we found out he had passed away. There is a work review, with comments written by John and his supervisor, and incident reports John had kept copies of.

These may seem like odd things to keep, but I had a strong desire to keep these pieces of paper on which my brother had written, because I don’t have a single piece of written correspondence from John that I could treasure – no hand-written letters, no emails, not even a text message. (I got a new phone about 4 weeks before he died, and old texts did not transfer over.) He had only just set up his very first email account, a day or two before he passed away, for purposes of the course he was to start on the Monday.

I kept these pieces of paper also because of my writer’s love of the little incidental details that make up a life – again, something I have no other records of, in the life of my brother. These pieces of paper give me dates – the date he signed his leave form, the date he had his worker review.

What’s more, I can interrogate them for evidence of my brother’s personality and character. I detect these traits in the criticism he – someone who had left school at 16 – wrote in his work review (“my PD says in part exactly the opposite of what it is intended to convey”) and in the incident reports he filled out. These reports are, in my opinion, concrete evidence that my brother was a compassionate, thoughtful person with integrity and personal ethics. He took the trouble to fill out an incident report, to formally raise it as an issue that the elderly residents in his care are not given hats to keep them from being burned in the sun when taken out into the garden. And when I read his incident report outlining in great detail an event where a staff member subjected an elderly resident to taunts and humiliation, until John kicked his co-worker out of the room, I can sense his level of anger and disgust at that behaviour, as well as his determination that the elderly man be treated with dignity and respect.

There are other papers shoved into this folder: a photocopied page of the local newspaper of our home town in the late 1990s, featuring a fresh-faced John in a promotion for the business he worked in at age 17, and the obituary pages from the days following his death, torn from the same local newspaper some 16-odd years later.

In addition to papers, I collected some of his CDs and books, but I can’t name the CDs and books, because they are all still in a box in our ceiling storage. At that time, I couldn’t bear to look at that box of his things, but I didn’t want them to lose their identity as “John’s” by integrating them into our CDs and books, so up in the ceiling they remain 4 years later. Up in the ceiling also, is a bag with his work shirts in it. I took that because they smelled like John.

When you are left with so little of someone, outside of your memories, you’ll grab anything you can.

*

I have written many posts about my brother’s death, and about my thought processes when I was grieving, but when last Friday came round, and it was 4 years since he had died, I suddenly felt a strong desire to not write a thing. I just didn’t want to sit down knowing that I was going to scrutinise, analyse, and write about my grief, all over again.

Because it seems to me as if focussing on how his death made me feel requires me to actually distance myself from the immediacy of those feelings. As we know, you can’t be in the moment, and also be writing how you feel about the moment. As soon as you start observing how you feel about the moment, you are no longer in the moment.

I guess this tendency to observe and write about my feelings is probably a curse that comes with having the urge to write in the first place – because of course the flip side is, that to write about your feelings, you need to be able to take a step back and observe them! This makes me ponder what causes me to be inclined to step back and observe my own thoughts and feelings – something I’ve done since I started a diary when I was about 11. It also causes me to scrutinise my motivations when I write posts about grieving.

When my brother had just died, I constantly felt a desire to tell complete strangers – the waiter in a cafe, the client at work, any one in any trivial interaction – that my brother had just died. And on any occasion when I did tell someone, including friends who didn’t know my brother, I wanted that person to reel backwards in shock. I wanted tears to come to their eyes. I wanted them to be speechless with emotion. I wanted their eyes to well with tears. My sister expressed something similar at the time, writing in an email that she felt like she wanted to accost strangers and say “look, this is the gist of it….”

What drives that desire to scream the news to the world when someone you love dies? AT the time, I felt like I understood why people in other cultures wear black arm bands, or something to indicate to the rest of the world that they are mourning.

Back then, I definitely wanted other people to also be devastated at the loss of my beautiful brother. I wanted others to fully grasp the enormity of the situation, so that they could empathise with me. But also, I’m sorry to admit, I wanted to inflict the pain that I was going through, onto others.

Last Friday, I felt weighed down by all the posts I’ve already written about my brother’s death and my own grief. I knew the answer to what my motivation is in writing them – it is always, to try and convey the depth of the shock and grief that I felt. And, yes, there is also a desire to make the reader feel some pale imitation of that grief – at least, to make the reader feel sad, as I’ve felt moved to tears when reading others’ writing.

I would like to think that, at least as time has passed, my desire to move the reader is not motivated by anger and hurt, and a need to pass on the pain, but by the hope that my writing might occasionally be good enough to illicit an emotional response in a reader.

In any case, after 4 years, last Friday even that noble literary-minded goal did not motivate me. I decided I couldn’t sit down on the day of John’s anniversary to write about the milestone. It felt contrived – wallowing in grief for the purposes of writing a post. I decided instead, that I’d just be in the day, instead of writing about it.

(This is not to say I won’t write any more posts about grief – I suspect that I will – but for some reason, on that day, it felt important not to.)

As it happened, it was a glorious, sunny day last Friday, and that seemed to confirm that after 4 years, it was time for me to celebrate John’s life, instead of focussing on my sadness at him being gone. So that’s what I did. The day held a mixture of mundane, pre-planned chores, as well a few indulgences to mark the day (enjoying a coffee at a favourite cafe by myself, buying a bunch of flowers). Of course, there were a few moments – buying the flowers, listening to a particular song – where I choked up with tears for a few moments, but strange as it may sound, I had a lovely day, and in the back of my mind all day was John.

*

Since John died, I’ve started a new collection, based on my new interest. It’s a collection of words – words that make up lists:  lists of songs, poems, stories, and plays, with a common theme – grief.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that collection another time, but today I thought I’d end this post with some lyrics from a song from my “Grief” collection. It’s by Clare Bowditch, an Aussie singer/songwriter, who was 5 when one of her older sisters died, and it’s titled The Things About Grief.

*

The thing about grief is

It knows what I did, and it knows what I did not say

it sentenced me to a long, long life of excavating

things my little head can not yet understand

but I patch it all together with string and rubber bands……

(….)

The thing about grief is

few people know if the i comes before the e

and it’s hard to give away cos it’s the last thing you gave to me

One will die before he gets there

Hi, she says, somewhat shyly. It is a strange situation, after all. I don’t feel completely comfortable myself. Then she says, half-jokingly, I hope you’ve got some good news for me.

I take a deep breath, because a lot of what I’ve got to tell her is good. But one small, but significant part of it is very, very bad.

I’m in the lounge room of a house I lived in 10 years ago, having a coffee with 10-years-ago-me, and she wants to know what’s happened since 2004. As you would, if your future self came to visit.

So I start to fill her in. In those 10 years, my daughter has gone from being an innocent little child to a year 9 student at secondary school. That transition from cute little pre-schooler to gangly teenager had its good and bad moments as a parent.

I tell 10-years-ago-me that of course she will miss aspects of having a little child around who asks adorable questions, and thinks her mum is the bees knees. I describe instead, the teenager she will find herself with in 10 years time. This tall, self-absorbed, long-haired creature will be capable of displaying very clearly, with a roll of the eyes, her annoyance when she is bothered with pesky questions about homework and chores while she is busy texting her friends. I tell 10-years-ago-me that she has a few broken bones to look forward to as, in a few years time, her darling child will have fractured an ankle while jumping on a trampoline, fractured a wrist playing volleyball, and sustained a hairline fracture on her C7 vertebrae while…. standing up suddenly underneath a jutting-out ledge. Ouch! On the plus side, I tell her, none of the injuries turned out to be serious, something that may be nice to know a few years from now when you are in that ambulance and she’s laid out on a stretcher, in a neckbrace.  

Not co-incidentally, in the past 10 years, I’ve gone from working 2 days per week while my child was a pre-schooler, to working full time. Back then, 10-years-ago-me felt stuck in an unskilled rut in the workplace, doing part-time frontline customer service jobs that were not terribly interesting or stimulating. I tell her that the job she will take in a few years time will initially be very challenging but will provide valuable experience, a boss prepared to promote people who work hard, and also a few new good friends.

I don’t mention that one of these new friends will have died before the 10 years between us is up.  10-years-ago-me has not even met this woman yet, so that information won’t have any emotional impact and why let that knowledge hang over her when they do meet and become friends?

She asks me about the run-down, falling-down house she is currently living in, and I tell her that she will finally make a decision on it – moving out and selling it, and moving to a house where she is now very happy. She looks like a difficult decision has been made for her. Which it has.

She asks about family and friends. I falter. It’s easier to start with friends.

I name some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while in 2004 who are now completely off the radar altogether – and list others that I was out of contact with in 2004 that are now back in regular contact. I tell her which of her current close friends will still be as close in 10 years time and which ones will just be aquaintances that occasionally email and mention the idea of catching up without ever following up. I assure her that she will continue to make new friends, some through her daughter’s new school friends, and others through those new jobs looming on the horizon.

Then I get to the only topic left – family.

Mum and Dad are still going along fine in their mid 70s, I tell her. And what of her siblings? C. turned that extended holiday in Ireland into a permanent thing – she now has citizenship and a house over there. G. quit another job, or was fired, I can’t recall which. He lives at home with the parents and h’es probably in danger of being long-term unemployed, although, on the up side, he seems much happier than when he was working! I tell her, you’ll be really happy for F., who found the love of his life a few years ago, got married in 2012, and is now expecting his first child. And P has forged out a successful career in training staff, and recently travelled to the Phillipines for work. 

I hesitate – it’s already obvious that something is wrong, because in going through the siblings in order of age, I’ve missed someone, our second-youngest brother, who comes between F and P. 10-years-ago me doesn’t let me get away with that. What about J, she asks.

Suddenly I wish I wasn’t here. The idea of travelling back in time to chat with 10-years-ago-me doesn’t seem so great any more. I look down for a long moment.

Up until now, I had thought it would be good to give her the opportunity to know, ahead of time, so that she could spend more time with our little brother J, hug him harder, and tell him that she loved him. It’s only now that I recall that back in 2004,  J, who was often between jobs around then, has been a regular and frequent visitor to her house, and has spent more time with her daughter than any of her other siblings have, so he is probably the sibling she is closest to at this moment in her life.

Now that there is nothing standing in between me and those awful words, I feel a lot less sure that knowing in advance will be a good thing at all. Surely, in fact, it will be awful! What was I thinking? Why did I think this would be a good thing to do?

But what can I say, now that I’ve skipped over any news of him, now that I’ve hesitated and made it obvious that if there is news, it is bad news? I have to tell her.

J was doing great, I say, hesitantly. He stayed in Melbourne, living with P. (In 2004 he had only recently moved to Melbourne from the country town where we grew up). For a while he worked in a car yard. Then he got the idea that he’d like to work in Aged Care, and it was like he’d found his vocation. He took up cleaning in Aged Care facilities while he studied to be a Personal Care Attendant. He got work as a PCA at a facility in the Northern Suburbs, and loved it, and took great pride in the quality of care he gave to people in the high dependency Dementia ward. It was as if he’d found his calling. After about 2 years there, he applied to study nursing and got in. Around the same time he moved to a better house than that dump he’d been living in for years with P. Things were going well for him.

My rather rushed delivery comes to a sudden halt, and I look  up. She’s waiting. But when I meet her eyes she looks down – now it is she who is unsure if she wants to hear what I have to say. I wait.

I could hold off on delivering this piece of news forever.

Shall I keep going? I ask.

She hesitates. I think we are both wishing that I’d never come.

No………Yes. Tell me.

My voice comes out as a whisper when I say it. He dies…..He died.

She doesn’t want to take this in. She isn’t able to. I remember that response. Whatever she had been anticipating, this news was more extreme. More absolute. But I’ve gone too far to back out now, so I plough on, trying to soften the blow by mentioning things it’s taken me weeks, months, or years, to take any comfort from.

He died in his sleep, at home. He’d just gone on leave from work, he was about to start a new course. If you think about it, it’s a pleasant way to die, and he was at a happy, optimistic point in his life…..

I falter again. It’s not helping, just as nothing anyone said to try and comfort me ever helped me when my little brother first died. She doesn’t respond. She is thinking this through. She is trying to distance herself from it. Her best denial mechanism is that, after all, I can’t really be here, back from 2014, telling her things that will happen to her in the future. For her, it is currently 2004. I don’t blame her for being skeptical. But I also know that her little brother has only 7 years left to live.

 *

 

*The title of this post is a lyric from the song Youth, by a UK band called Daughter.

This post was inspired by the WordPress Daily Prompt, Good Tidings, from 2 days ago. I never seem to get these pingback things right but here goes: Good Tidings

 

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)

3 Days (remembering John)

It’s a bummer when you are not sure what date to remember your deceased little brother on.

On reflection, this dilemma is probably not as uncommon as it sounds. A family member is found, passed away, and the question is, did they pass away on the day they were found, or on the day prior, on which they were last seen about 1am? A coroner’s office can provide a letter with a date in it, but when they are unable to provide the cause of death, it’s easy to also assume that their guesswork includes the time of death.

So when this time of year rolls around, I remember him on 3 days in September.

Day 1 is 9th September. In 2011, 9th was a Friday. It was the last day that John would ever get up in the morning and go to work. The last day that he was seen alive, going about his usual business.

On 9 September, he did an early shift, at the residential care facility where he worked as a PSA (Personal Services Attendant). After work he travelled home on public transport. He didn’t earn a huge wage, and couldn’t see the point of paying for the petrol, maintenance, registration and parking permit required to have a car in the inner Melbourne suburb where he lived. He probably arrived home and had a shower, and then relaxed, listening to Sonic Youth, or Depeche Mode, or reading, or watching TV. I can picture hi sitting outside and smoking, tobacco or other substances, as he frequently did.

9th September 2011 was not just any old normal working day for John. He would have been in a pretty good mood. It was his last shift before 2 weeks of annual leave he’d organised in advance. He had been thinking for a while about training to become a Registered Nurse, had recently sat the required tests, and enrolled in the course. As someone who left school at the age of 16, without finishing Year 10, never undertaken any further study, and worked at many different unskilled jobs for the next 16 years, I’m sure there was a great sense of achievement and pride for him in getting into this tertiary course.

So on that Friday night, John was about to have a rare weekend off, and then, on Monday morning, embark on a 2 week intensive course, followed by weekly evening classes, and eventually a career as a Registered Nurse. He had a few drinks, made dinner, for himself and my youngest brother, and after hanging out until late in the night, he went to bed.

That’s as much as is certain. After that point, in playback mode, time slows down.

10th September 2011 came and went without incident, but in my mind now, it is the twilight zone. It’s the hazy, not-quite-real, in-between date. It’s the gap in-between my brother being alive, and being found in his bed, dead. It’s the day that seemed normal at the time, but in hindsight it’s an abomination, because it’s the day where the rest of us went about our Saturday assuming all was still right with our world, totally oblivious to the fact that a terrible chasm had formed, at some point on that day, between our imagined reality and real life.

Played back in slow motion, I see myself that morning doing all manner of frivolous activities. See, there I go: taking my daughter shopping for shoes and to the local op (thrift) shop. There I am again in the afternoon, sitting at home, phoning my sister, who lives overseas. In a strange turn of events, given what was to come, I was phoning my sister to say that a friend of hers, from our hometown, had passed away suddenly from an asthma attack at the age of 39.  After that call, I phoned John with the same news, but he didn’t answer, and he rarely ever responded to messages so I didn’t leave one.

I will never know whether my brother was already dead when I waited for him to pick up the phone.

We don’t know what time on 10th September his sleeping state was disrupted by something – perhaps, (as suggested by the coroner), a seizure – that turned out to be catastrophic. We don’t know when whatever-it-was changed normal sleep to something else, perhaps a coma, or perhaps death in moments. I don’t know if it was in the wee hours of that morning, or at the exact moment that I locked up my car in the cark park at the local shopping centre. Perhaps it was just as his phone was ringing next to his bed.

We will never know, and I don’t spend a lot of time wondering, because no answer to this question is any more satisfactory than any other. The greater mystery, so it seemed to me at the time, was that there was no announcement. No bell tolled, no sense of suffocating dread overcame me. No sound, no thought, no feeling indicated to me that in one particular second on that weekend, something catastrophic had taken place.

I said that the 10th was the twilight zone in the middle, but in fact, we do know that he was alive at the very start of the 10th, because he was seen by our youngest brother, P who lived with him. P was still up past midnight on 9th, watching TV when John got up to get a drink. P decided to go to bed. That was the last time he would ever see his brother alive.

This brings us to 11th September.

It’s a date already overloaded with images of grief and death for those of us living in Western countries, where the date is synonymous with the World Trade Centre attacks of a decade ago in the U.S.

On 11th September 2011, the airwaves and the media were particularly heavy with collective memories because it was the 10th anniversary of the attacks. That Sunday, I was out shopping yet again with my daughter – in the morning at a local shopping mall, and in the afternoon at the supermarket to get groceries. Apparently I shopped for most of that weekend.

There I am on the Sunday, driving and listening to people call up the radio to share memories of 9/11 from 10 years earlier. Their stories make me feel particularly bleak this year, and for the first time, I decide my daughter is old enough to hear an edited version, so, grimly and a bit cruelly, I explain the bare details of what happened on 9/11. She cries.

Later on, there I am again, back at home in the afternoon, sitting at the computer with writer’s block. I’m trying to think of something to write about on this blog, and I don’t hear my mobile phone ring upstairs. I’m still agonising over what to write as the landline rings downstairs and my partner answers it. I take no notice, registering only that he’s talking to someone he knows, and assume it’s someone from his family.

As I sit there at the computer screen, I’m unaware of the significant moment that is drawing close. I see myself in that moment, blissfully ignorant that a devastating turning point in my life is now only a few minutes away. Those last minutes tick by, as that phone call comes to an end.

And there goes the last full minute of innocent unawareness that I had left, slowly disappearing, as I follow him up the stairs because he “needs to tell me something.” When he starts to sob, I immediately assume one of his elderly parents must have had a stroke or heart attack.

I see myself, rushing to comfort him, in the second before he tells me why he is crying.

Replaying it in my mind, I hear those final few seconds bang loudly and ominously past me, like a goddam drum section in a symphony orchestra. Like the cracking of thunder before a deluge.

So there I am, as that last innocent second ticks past, standing at the top of the stairs. Mistakenly thinking I’m comforting my partner. It’s the last second of my previous life, the life where I thought everyone I loved was alive.

That was 11th September.

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.

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