Sunday, August 24, 2014

The stuff of grief

The weather’s on the turn.  I’ve seen the first of the pink blossoms out in the neighbouring streets.  My mother’s body is decomposing in the ground near to where we had buried my father but my life goes on. 

On the day of my mother’s funeral I looked into the deep hole in the ground where her body was soon to rest to look for signs of my father. As if the gravediggers would allow for that, but some part of me hoped to see signs, bones perhaps, some testament to my father’s existence where we last put him over thirty years ago.   I saw none.  

These two, my parents, united in marriage in 1942, their bodies together again in the earth, despite all their trials while living.  

This morning I needed to use a long stick to dislodge the newspaper from out underneath our car.  The indignity of it all, me in my dressing gown on all fours poking underneath the car as far as my arm could reach to roll out the newspaper that the deliverers insist on chucking in over the fence.  But that’s small indignity compared to illness and death.

Still my mother is not far away and images of her during her last few weeks pop into my mind unbidden.  When I find myself clearing sleep from the corner of my eye I see my mother’s pointy finger nail on her index finger as she tried to brush aside the conjunctivitis gunk that had built up in her eyes as she lay dying. 

Is this the stuff of grief? 

Somehow I do not imagine myself grieving for my mother anymore.  One of my brothers sent an email and called it something along the lines of ‘Closing the file on our mother’. 

Closing the file.  As if it were so easy.  But grief is at the other end.  When we grieve we cannot let go. 

I sense a too-easy ability to let go.  My mother comes in and out of my thoughts, but she is not there at the surface most of the time. 

I run into a friend for the first time since my mother’s death and she asks me meaningfully with a special tone in her voice, ‘How are you?’ and for a minute I go to say ‘I’m fine,’ but then I recognise the intent of her question and I have to modify my tone.  I go back to the week of my mother’s death and talk about how hard it was then, but for now it seems I’ve entered a protective bubble that tells me I have too much to go on with to grieve for too long. 

It was different when my mother was around and I sensed my deep obligation to her, especially in her last few years, unlike it had been from my early twenties through to more recently.  Now I am free of her, and yet it jars. 

For the past two Sundays, the day on which I visited my mother regularly during these past few years I factor in a visit to her, only to remember I will not go to her any more. 

I will make one last trip next week to my mother’s old room in the retirement village to help my sister and whichever other of our siblings might show up, to move out the last of our mother’s belongings. 

And thereafter, my sister, one of the executors, will distribute my mother’s few possessions to which ever of the siblings most expresses a need or desire.  

We will divide up my mother’s belongings as best we can, much as we did when I was little, when on Sunday nights we shared a rectangular block of Neapolitan ice-cream for dessert.  Strawberry, chocolate and vanilla in three tight layers.  My older sister took a knife and divided the block into ten, if we were all at home. My father, a diabetic in those days, missed out. 

I’ve ordered Helen Garner’s latest book, This House of Grief, about the Farquarson murder.  This is the story of a father who has been found guilty of murdering his three sons by driving them in his car into a dam.  According to court and news reports, Farquharson claimed he had suffered a coughing fit and had lost consciousness at the wheel. He managed to get himself free from the car, but his sons were trapped inside and drowned.  The event took place on Father’s Day during a custody visit.  There is evidence from witnesses that Farquarson had said he wanted to pay back his wife, and that he knew she would remember every Father’s Day for the rest of her life.  This is yet another story that ranks among the particularly spectacular examples of revenge enacted.  After two trials, including an appeal, the jury held that Farquharson was responsible for the death of his three sons. 

Helen Garner’s a brilliant writer I reckon but she turns people into characters   Should there be a ‘but’.  Isn’t this what writers do?  Isn’t this what I do when I write about my mother as though she is now only so much decomposing matter in the ground and for the rest she is a memory, a fiction, a fantasy, a person who once lived but is now no more.

My mother, and those three little boys drowned in the dam, like ghosts they hover over us.  The skies are filled with their invisible spectres. 

I cannot figure out the maths but I imagine there are many more ghosts in the sky above than living people on the ground. 

As for me, still alive, I have a day to meet; a daughter who complains jut now that some unknown person – not me – has bought ‘caged’ eggs.  We do not eat caged eggs here.  We abhor the cruelty shown to hens kept in cages. 

‘The cat food stinks, too’, my daughter says.  The food I serve the cats first thing in the morning a mixture of dry and wet from a can - pilchards and something else - offends her sensibilities.  How can she eat breakfast with that smell up her nose?    

And I skulk off to write.
Life is back to normal 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

Before my mother died, Esther Helfgott invited me to join her on a writing process blog tour.

 Two others, Amanda Pearson and Kath Lockett have agreed to join me.

Here's my response to the four questions, Esther raised.   Wade through if you will.

1. What are you working on?
At the moment I have two major projects in my sights.  The first, a book, I have been working on for the past twenty years.  Its first life came in the form of a memoir, which formed the basis of my time in a novel writing class in the early nineties.  In those days it was not the thing to write memoir unless you were a person of some note and so I tried to represent my writing as fiction. 

I never completed the initial memoir but have plucked from it whole chunks that then fitted well into essays I have written over the years in the fields of trauma writing, autobiography and psychoanalysis.  The memoir shifted then into a hybrid form: part essay, part memoir with an academic edge when I began my PhD on the topic, ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’. 

Despite my PhD, I have neve considered myself an academic.  I want my writing to be accessible beyond the narrow confines of academia and so after I finished my thesis I began this second version of my book, which contrasts my life as a child with an experience I had within the psychoanalytic institute in Melbourne where I once undertook training.  After I completed this memoir I began the process of getting it published.  But after five rejections from mainstream publishers I have decided to seek further editorial help and advice.  Mary Cunnane has read the book and made suggestions about further improving it.

So this is my current aim to get this book as good as I can and eventually published. 

My second project, which I began in June when I was at Varuna on a weeklong writing retreat, is an essay that explores the nature of anorexia.  This work is still percolating in my mind.  I have memoir sections that I might well include but I am also reading more deeply through the analytical literature to add to my theoretical understanding of this state of mind and body, the state we call anorexia.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I think of my work as a hybrid form.  It is not simply memoir, but incorporates elements of the essay form, in a struggle to sort out issues that trouble me and of the theoretical, but only with a lower case ‘t’.  I’m not interested in highbrow academia but I am interested in difficult ideas about what makes us tick. 

3. Why do you write what you do?
I write into my internal world when I find myself struggling to make sense of events both from the past and present.  Things that niggle at me: experiences and people who stick in my head and imagination and demand some sort of fleshing out.  I write because it helps me to escape the confines of emotional experiences that can be too much for me.

As soon as I begin to shape experience onto the page it loses some of its sting.  It’s as if the very effort of taking something from my mind, my memory and imagination shifts the event into something new.  Maybe it’s akin to what I’ve heard fiction writers describe as their ability to create whole new worlds and characters who will not so much bend to their will – as much of this is an unconscious process – but characters and events that come alive only through the writing process with this one writer. 

I write to get some sense of power over my life, a life in which I can sometimes feel strangely powerless, as a woman, as a mother, as a wife and as a therapist.  All these roles lend a certain authority to a person but they also constrain.  The writing allows me to transcend some of the boundaries of my day-to-day life.  To play around with my identity even as I seek always to stick to the truth as best I can – whatever the truth is. 

Even as I try at all times to be authentic there is something of the fictional about the process of writing non-fiction for me that becomes the thrill.  Whenever I put words down on a page I’m struck by how many choices I can make in how I position myself in relation to this writing.  I can emphasize the people involved, the setting or my own internal state.  Whatever I decide to emphasize then affects how a reader might interpret my writing. 

The element of the reader and the space between the writing and the reading also adds an unpredictable dimension, including an element of unpredictability, both thrilling and terrifying. What will my reader make of what I have written?  What sense will readers make of the story I tell? 

These things matter to me but they are not primary.  In the first place, I write for myself.  For the pleasure of putting words and spaces onto a page and creating something new for myself and maybe for others to read that will add to the volume of imaginative prompts available. This to me is what makes a writing life worth living.  It adds to the colour of my world.  It bursts open the constraints of the day to day.  That’s why I write what I write.

How does your writing process work?
I write Freefall following in the steps of the writer Barbara Turner Vesselago.  I write into my mind.  I start without any preconceived ideas of where I might go.  I see what comes up for me.  I rarely if ever plan.  Planning for me is a no-no.  I prefer to go into the unexpected.  I prefer to go into places when I have no idea of where I might end up.  I might tell myself that during the week I fiddle with a question that’s niggling at me or a scene that I want to explore, but that’s the extent of my planning.

It makes for unwieldy writing and a need for much shaping and shifting after the event, but initially I need to write without the so-called parachute.  I need to Freefall.  I try to write at least on weekends first thing in the morning during the working weeks.  On holidays, I try to write every day.  It is frustrating because I would enjoy more time to write but I have acclimatised to this life of catching words in the nooks and crannies and it seems to suit my messy nature. 

I write reams and reams of words, images, ideas and thoughts and then if for example I’m working on an essay, I try to pull these disparate pieces together.  I try to find a beginning and I build on that beginning, dipping back inside my compost bin of words until the essay begins to take shape.  It’s a long and slow process but it gives me pleasure.  I like to juxtapose disparate ideas together.  To see how these ideas might connect.  Parataxis they call it.  Chunks of information or ideas can sit together in uncomfortable union.  The gap of white space on the page between each chunk becomes the bridge that readers use to make connections over different themes. 

I am a messy writer.  I create chaos in the first instance and refuse structuring until late in the piece.  I have the greatest difficulty with structure because I prefer the image of the moment, which is why I might require more of my readers than some are prepared to give.  I might put too many disparate things together but other times they work. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Memory is a testy beast

Three days before my mother died, I lost my watch, and not for the first time.  It is a watch I have worn for at least fifteen years.  When I could not find it in any of the likely places, I took this loss as an omen, a sign of change ahead and bought myself a new watch in honour of my mother. 

Three days after we buried her, I found my old watch again, this time in the freezer.  It must have slipped off in the action of lifting the freezer lid and it rested there on top of the puff pastry until I saw it again last night when my husband was making lamb pies for dinner.  

The watch was still ticking time, if not a little cold, as cold as my mother’s body when I had leaned over her coffin and touched her hand the night before her funeral. 

The funeral parlour people had laid my mother out for a viewing in a blouse and skirt my sisters had chosen for her.  My mother's hands were interlinked, as if in prayer, in a way they were not the day she died.  Then they were stretched out in front of her on the patch work quilt the hospital had provided in a bid to make her look as if she were in an ordinary bed at home.

My sister told me later that they massage people’s limbs after death when embalming them into more fitting shapes.  But the woman in the coffin was no longer my mother.  Her smile, stretched tight across her thin lips, looked too wide by half and her face had been compressed. The sight of her left me cold.  

I could not shed a tear for my mother then in the funeral parlour because the wax work figure in her place reminded me of someone I once knew, a colleague, whom I was not fond of, and so I chose not to stay too long with my mother’s body in the coffin, but to enjoy my memories of her as she had lived.

I last lost my watch a few years ago in Brighton, England, when I was there for a conference.  It seemed an omen then, too, to lose a watch among the brightly lit stalls along the Brighton pier or down among the pebbles on the beach, so different from our sand here in Australia. 

I found my watch again that time, too, this time in the bottom of my bag.  But I will never find my mother again and it takes some getting used to.  This sense that she will not return, that I can never again ask her questions about her life or mine. 

And memory is such a testy beast.  The week before my mother died I went to collect some items from the drycleaner, most of them were ready but a few had not been completed and so I said I’d collect them on my next visit, which I did. 

I now find my trousers are missing, loved trousers, black with an embossed check in the fabric.  They must still be at the drycleaners, but no, the drycleaner reckons today, I must have misplaced them at home.

I tell the drycleaner – I’m a long term customer and know him well, as well as anyone can know a drycleaner – my mother died and this past week has been unsettled. 

Then I regret the telling.  He might think I’m a bit unhinged.  It lets him off the hook.  No longer his responsibility to look for my trousers among the rows of plastic coated offerings, all attached to a number.  None attached to my number. 

I tell him, I’ll look again at home.  Maybe like my watch, but unlike my mother, my trousers will show up soon. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A world without my mother

My mother died at ten to five on Saturday morning in Bethlehem Hospital in Caulfield.  For so long now I have anticipated this event, my words seem over-rehearsed, almost theatrical. 

Ever since my older sister rang, soon after the hospital had called her to report our mother’s death, I have been in a strange place of going-on-living in the usual sense of the word, and of floating about in a world of impossibility.  

A world without my mother. 

For so long now I have anticipated her death, from when I was a little girl of eight when it first occurred to me with any coherence that one day my mother would die. 
Then I could not bear the thought of her death, until three years ago when it became clear my mother’s actual death would happen sooner than later. 

My mother never made it to one hundred, as she so often told us she had wanted.  She could go on living as long as her body held out and she was comfortable and without pain, but these last three weeks have seen her stop eating, stop drinking and eventually lose all will to live.  But even then, she held on for as long as she could. 

I did not hear her spirit fly away across the sky like a comet.  Nor did I hear her tiptoe past my door in the still of the morning.  I woke only to the insistent ring of the telephone.  When I came to find my mother laid out in the day room at Bethlehem she was still warm to touch.  My older sister reckons our spirit stays with our bodies for some time after we die. 

I wanted to believe this.  I was first to arrive at the hospital and when I walked into the room and saw my mother on the bed I found myself like a small child pleading with her to wake up. 
‘Wake up, Mum.  You can’t stay asleep, not now, not forever.’ 

My mother to me is as timeless as the sun and she lives on in me, as traces of her exist in my children, and further traces exist in their children into the future. 

I did not spend much time alone with my mother before my older sister, who had further to travel, arrived and then my younger sister and two of our brothers – the five of us who still live in Melbourne – and together we sat around our mother’s cooling body and talked about her and us and all things significant and temporary in this quiet time. 

We made phone calls to the four others who live interstate or too far away to come in at that moment. 

I can see my mother now.  Her face was fuller than I remembered, her skin almost golden.  She always had olive skin, a throw back to some Spanish ancestry she liked to imagine.  Olive skin and her grey hair combed around her face pageboy style.  She wore a white hospital gown that did not show its strings or tags and looked as innocent as a christening gown and the people at Bethlehem had tied a flower and a sprig of leaves in a tidy bunch on the pillow near to her head. 

The flower at first glance looked almost artificial in its perfection, petals of dark pink in tight packed layers around a darker centre.  A peony rose tied to acanthus-shaped leaves. 

This peony would not have been my mother’s chosen flower I suspect but the staff had picked it from the hospital garden as a tribute to our now dead mother.

They had laid our mother out on her back with her arms visible over the pastel quilt on top of her bed.  It could have been an ordinary bed, not a hospital bed, white wood panelled bed ends and moulded frames. 

The nurse talked of putting on the air-conditioning after we had been there for a couple of hours for fear of the body’s slow decomposition. 

I did not realise this.  I should have known this, but my sister explained and one brother added information about the way all the fluids in the body begin to drain under the pull of gravity and slowly leak out. 

Even alive, my mother’s body has been leaking for several weeks now, on its way back to the earth.