This morning on my way home from dropping my daughter off at her work, I travelled back through local streets. In front of a block of housing commission flats at the end of Munroe Street I saw a temporary sign pitched on the nature strip like a billboard, ‘Humanist Society of Victoria’, with its bold blue logo.
It gave me a jolt. Such an unlikely place for such a sign.
Somewhere inside one of the flats I imagined a small group of mostly older people sitting around with cups of tea or coffee in a cluttered lounge room discussing all matters humanist.
And this, against the backdrop of a radio program to which I listened in the car, where a woman described her husband’s struggle with lung cancer. This woman coped by sending out weekly emails to friends and family to keep them in the loop in all things ‘Russell’.
The emails helped Russell’s wife to sort through her own thinking.
I arrived home before the program ended and so I’m left with snatches of thought. The woman’s emails, the few I heard were lyrical and well written. She put in details that many other emails might lack.
She described the hospital smells and the way her husband grunted at her when she reminded him to take his salt/sugar preparation in order to keep his electrolytes in balance between chemo episodes.
After he had snapped at her one time to many, she asked, ‘Do you talk to the nurses this way?’
And he said, ‘No. I don’t love the nurses.’
A poignant reminder of how the people we love can at times treat us like shit because they love us and know we love them in return.
In one of her other emails, Russell’s wife tells the story of an elderly homeless woman who sits on street corners with a fluffy white dog in a trolley and asks for money. If you tell this woman you have no money to give she rails against you, as if you are selfish and rotten.
One day the woman of the white fluffy dog set upon the woman of the emails with such a tirade that the woman of the emails said to her,
‘My husband has cancer.’
And the woman of the fluffy dog responded,
‘I don’t even have a husband, you bitch.’
It puts me in mind of another story I’ve been following on Jennifer Wilson’s blog where she writes about a love affair gone wrong.
I had noticed that Jennifer had posted less of late. Her ex-husband had died and I figured maybe she was finding the grief too much. But it turns out there was more to Jennifer’s absence, including the beginning of an affair that had sent her spiralling.
It ended badly - as affairs so often do - when the wife of the man with whom Jennifer was having the affair, found out.
The secret was no more and the man elected to drop Jennifer for his wife.
A common enough story.
Stories, stories everywhere and my head reels.
I changed the screen image on my computer last night and for a minute considered putting up a picture of my mother some months before she died.
There on my computer screen I saw my mother’s eyes and they glared at me. It felt like a reprimand.
How dare you, she seemed to say, how dare you go on living while I am no more?
How dare you still have blood flowing through your veins, a heart beat that keeps the blood pumping and breath in you lungs, while I am dead?
I wanted to apologise to her for this, and for the way I might use my fantasy of my mother in my writing.
While she was alive, I did not feel that my mother was a mother I could rail against, a mother I could treat badly, which is not to say there weren’t times when I did treat her badly.
My mother of the fragile and low disposition that required she believe in goodness in everyone and shunned all that she considered wrong.
I wish now my mother had approached her life with a greater awareness of its complexity, that we could have talked about all things humanist, like the people at the end of Monroe Street, rather than avoid conflict and discussion.
My mother instead fell back on her religion and her belief in God and the wall came up and she shut me out, and shut out her doubts.
And where is she now?
Looking down on me from heaven, and saying I told you so? I’m up here with him and having a ball.
Or is she no more in all but her spirit and my memory of her, this woman who feared to go into the unknown and into doubt.