I’ve watched the children come and go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pic: The Hoopla

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Weight(less)

When we headed off in December to Airey’s Inlet, a little beach-side town in Victoria, Australia, about 1.5 hrs from Melbourne, our car was jammed with stuff.

This stuff included: a suitcase full of sheets, bath towels, pillowcases, beach towels, books, phone chargers, bluetooth speaker, magazines, crossword puzzle books. Bags packed with clothes, underwear, shoes, thongs, bathers, sunblock, shampoo, soap. An eski full of perishable food that would be wasted if we left it behind. A laptop, our mobile phones, and our three human bodies, filled up the rest of the small Ford Focus hatchback.  There was probably just enough space left for the oxygen required for three people to breathe for 1.5 hours.

As always, I had underestimated how much we would take. As is also the norm, I also underestimated how long we would take to pack it all.

I should have remembered that we’ve are not the sort of people who, when going away for a week, pack everything the night before, set alarms for 4.30am, hit the road at 5am with a thermos of coffee, and then drive until we break for breakfast in some charming little country bakery at 7.30am.

We are very much like the type of people who set an alarm for 7.30 in the morning, but when it goes off, hit the snooze button a few times because we’re on holiday. We’ll reluctantly rise at 8, have a leisurely breakfast, and then finish our packing, since, the night before, we went to the effort of getting the bags out, which counts as starting the packing.

While packing we’ll also intermittently spend time watering the garden and the indoor plants, paying a few bills, and texting a friend to see if they can collect the mail. When we are close to being packed we realise it’s almost lunchtime, and it seems silly to leave right when we need to eat, so then we stop and and have lunch. Then we spend time cleaning up the kitchen after lunch, at which point we decide we must really get a wriggle on. 1-2 hours after lunch, with luck, we are usually ready to run back into the house one more time to check that the upstairs window is really locked, and then off we go, almost always no later than about 2.30pm.

 

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Sunset, (no filters!) from Airey’s Inlet beach, looking towards Lorne, 30/12/15 (fire still burning)

Given the amount of time we took to pack for 1 week, and the volume of stuff we brought with us, when I was down at Airey’s Inlet, I thought of the people living or holidaying a few kilometres further down the Great Ocean Road, who did not have 6 hours to plan their departure and think about what to take, when the police knocked on their door on Christmas Day. According to reports, people had only minutes when they got the evacuation warning, or smelled the smoke from the approaching bushfire just as they sat down to their Christmas lunch.

On Christmas Day 2015, in the towns of Wye River, Kennett River, Separation Creek, and Lorne, people fled, with their kids, with their pets, with their passports, with their mobile phones. They didn’t take much else.

On that day, the Lorne – Jamieson Track bushfire that had been burning for over a week destroyed 116 houses in two tiny towns. Some loved animals on country properties were not saved; talking to reporters later on, the owners broke down in tears. They had to make decisions in an instant, and grab the things dearest to them. In many cases, they now have nothing but the clothes on their backs, their pet, their passport and their phone.

I look around me as I write this now, a month or so later, in my room at home. What I see everywhere are possessions: a bed, a chest, a pile of clothes, an old mannequin draped in a scarf and handbag, a CD rack, a stereo system, CDs, pictures, a chest of drawers. A chair, a bedside table, a pile of books, right in front of me is my laptop, and next to me, lying carelessly on the bed, my phone, my purse, and my glasses case. The room is filled with things that function to provide comfort, to entertain me, and to facilitate my activities and hobbies.

I try to imagine how I would react in an evacuation, whether I would make rational decisions, and what I would take, and I kid myself that I am imagining it accurately, but I have never been in that situation so of course, I can’t know the palpable fear that you must surely feel when you can smell the smoke of a bushfire, see the sky darkening, and the police have just told you that if you don’t leave within the next 5 minutes emergency services will be unable to help you.

Then I try to imagine something different – the aftershock. How it would feel to have all of this taken away in a day, after having 5 minutes to salvage whatever I could. I can remember how it feels to be in shock, and I guess it would feel like that – surreal, as if I was walking around in a dream; too difficult for the brain to make any sense of.

There is a kind of weightlessness, almost, in that state, as if you are floating: because you’ve heard the worst thing imaginable, nothing else can hurt you now.

In the hypothetical situation where I had lost my home and everything in it, naturally I would be upset about the loss of all the physical items – clothes, books, CDs and furniture, but I’d be most devastated about the loss of my memories. I am a hoarder of memories, and they are stored chaotically, all over the place: in boxes of photo albums that chart my life from the age of about 12 until about 10 years ago when we finally got a digital camera; on the computer, laptop and portable hard drives that hold all the photos we’ve taken since then, and, only occasionally in frames scattered in the living room. There are copies of the few articles I’ve ever had published, and all the writing I’ve drafted and never had published or never finished. There are boxes stored in the ceiling, filled with the diaries I kept continuously from Grade 6 until about 10 years ago; and other boxes full of old letters, birthday cards, and drawings my daughter did when she was little; and there’s the folder I put together after my brother died, filled with mementos of him.

Together, all those material possessions and all those mementos of the past accumulate into a very large volume of stuff that I feel is a part of my life.

So it’s easy to imagine that it must feel quite unreal when you come back to your former home after a bushfire, and discover that everything you thought was solid and stable – your house, and all your material items, and all of your memories, have all just blown away in a puff of smoke. Weightless.

 

Airey's Inlet beach, looking towards Lorne, morning, 31/12/15

Airey’s Inlet beach, looking towards Lorne, morning, 31/12/15, fire still burning (and this was another high risk day)

 

*At time of first drafting this post in early January, the fire was still burning in the Otways and still not under control. It had, at that point, burned 45km or 2500 hectares. 

*PS, this post was pretty much drafted in full a few weeks ago, in response to a Daily Post photo challenge with the theme of weightless, but then David Bowie died and I decided to write about the lyrics of his that the theme of weightless brought to mind. Then I forgot I had a drafted post ready to go!

Should auld aquaintance be forgot

New Year’s Eve, 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What an ominous start to 2010.

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

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

*

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

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

 

 

 

Everyday we’re shuffling

I’m looking out my window, across the red and silver Colorbond (R) rooftops. The sky is pale blue, and although it’s sunny, a soft, cool breeze ruffles the leaves of the palm tree in a neighbor’s yard.

Listening, I hear the steady swish of traffic about a kilometre away, on the highway, the chirping of birds, the high-pitched chattering of a small child in a yard nearby, and the distant droning of what sounds like a light airplane – the kind that make their way through the sky on a lazy, sunny, Sunday afternoon like this one.

And I’m thinking, because I can’t help doing so, that it was a pleasant, sunny Sunday afternoon exactly like this one, 12 months ago, probably at this very time of the day, when I walked up the stairs, into this room, and was told that my brother had died.

When I think of this, I wonder if it’s possible that all moments in time still exist, just in some other reality that we don’t have access to, and that on some other co-existing plane of reality, I’m always still coming up those stairs and about to hear that news.

I guess they do, at least in one sense, because they exist forever inside our heads, in our memories, where they can feel as real as the moment that they happened. Particularly if, in that original moment, reality was pulled away from underfoot, and felt like a dream anyway.

The date of my brother’s death is actually 10th, or 11th – there is differing opinion amongst family. Some of us choose not to believe the autopsy report, which left a lot unanswered, and remain convinced that it must have been the 10th. So today, the 9th September, is not the anniversary of his death by calendar dates, either way. But by days, it’s the anniversary of the Sunday afternoon, almost identical to this one, 11th September last year, when I followed my partner up the stairs wondering what he needed to tell me, and, as Joan Didion discovered, I learned how life changes in the instant.

Believe it or not, though, today has been a lovely day. I’ve caught up with 2 friends, one planned, the other  unplanned. I’m about to go and hang out with two of my brothers, have a few drinks, and probably talk about John. Tomorrow I’ve taken time off work to go and see my parents. It has been on my mind for the last month now, that the one year anniversary of my brother’s death was drawing closer and closer, so I suppose I am as prepared as I could be.

There has only really been one moment today that caught me off-guard, and served as a reminder of how grieving works. No matter that overall you are coping so much better, there will still be moments that remind you that you are only taking baby steps. Apparently even a year later, any time I experience, for the first time since John died, something that I had done or somewhere I had been before, I will need to register that fact.

This morning, it was at the gym, a place I sporadically visit. At the end of what could only loosely be described as a workout, I went to the usual room to stretch, but it was so busy that there was nowhere to set up (or lie down, to be more accurate). I recalled an upstairs room that I had used occasionally, but not for a long time. I walked up the stairs – and as soon as I walked into that room, emotion swept over me. I immediately registered that it must be because the last time I’d been in this room, John had still been alive. My unconscious knew this and was telling me quite clearly: I hadn’t needed to do any conscious calculations. I struggled with tears, which threatened to start seeping out my eyes, mindful that there was a spin class in the room next door to me.

The moment was all the more incongruous because of the awful, loud music coming from the spin class – Party Rock Anthem. I hasten to say that I am only familiar with this piece of music because it was a big hit with the 11-year-old crowd last year, and my daughter’s grade 6 class chose it for their performance at her final school concert: they all learned to “shuffle”. You may also know it as “the song that goes everyday we’re shuffling“.

Now, I’m the sort of person who gets teary at sad scenes in movies, and milestones like her child finishing up primary school for ever. For a large portion of last year as my daughter headed towards the end of grade 6, I had fully expected to be one of the parents bawling at the final school concert.

But  when the time came around, due to the circumstances, I found myself going through those last months of her primary school years in a state of shock and numbness.

Hearing Party Rock Anthem, at that moment this morning, served to take me back to that period  – to the end of last year, and my daughter’s enjoyment and blossoming as she finished up primary school, shuffled on stage with all the other grade 6 kids, and looked forward with excitement to high school. I was painfully reminded of how those few short months had happened around me, and yet passed me by as if I hadn’t been there. I’d been physically present, I’d looked like I was taking part, but my emotions had been squeezed into a box and the lid had been slammed shut. I should have been excited for my 11-year-old, and simultaneously sad about her leaving primary school behind, but I wasn’t able to feel any emotion over it, or shed a single tear about it, because my brother had just died. Having just experienced a death, how could I feel anything resembling sadness, for something as commonplace as a child ending grade 6? Conversely, if I allowed myself to feel some sadness about it, that could lead me down the path of recalling that John was not around to see her finish primary school, would never see her go on to high school, and focussing again on how I could never have imagined that would be the case.

I was scared that if such thoughts were left unchecked in public, they could lead to an outpouring of grief that would be out of proportion to the circumstances.

So in those final weeks of grade 6, at the last primary school concert and the Grade 6 speech night, I was just an observer, with dry eyes and a slightly dazed expression on my face, as though looking through a window at something I was not part of.

I remembered all of that now, standing still amongst the stretching mats and the weights at the gym, my eyes welling with tears, while Party Rock Anthem blared out from the room next to me. It was disconcerting to feel moved to tears in a gym, by such an unemotional piece of music. I briefly wondered how I would explain to someone, if spotted, how such a formulaic piece of dance music could evoke emotions that would have me fighting back tears.

But there was no need. No one saw me. I managed to put aside the sadness – for that moment – wiped away the stray tears, and got on with my stretches.

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