Raw Grieving Days
Today has absolutely been my worst day since Mum died. Even as I type those words I simply can't believe it. She's dead, dead, dead. I'll never ever see her again and it's just so painful. I really can't bear it. My lovely soft Mum. I miss her beyond belief.
9th January 2018, 27 days after my mother died.
Had an appalling day yesterday. Dad's birthday. He'd have been 83. I bawled and bawled. I was shocked by the shrieking sound that came out of my mouth. I howled and yelled and bashed my legs with my hands. I cannot describe the depth of this pain. I feel incredibly alone. He died about eight months ago but I'm just too full of grief and sadness to ‘think of the happy memories’. It seems impossible to me. I just want him back. I want my Dad.
23rd February 2018, 7 ½ months after my father died.
Books hurl themselves out of an overhead locker and smash against the floor. I’ve taken the corner too fast, again. Dougal is under my feet but there’s nothing I can do about him right now. My knuckles are white on the wheel; these multi-laned thoroughfares of outer suburban Doncaster and Templestowe are like roller-coasters. I physically lean left and right as I crawl through endless roundabouts in first gear, switching on windscreen wipers then indicators, my progress punctuated by crashes.
‘Can stop, can stop…can’t stop… can’t stop can’t stop!’ I mutter as I approach traffic lights, and hurtle through another amber just turned red.
'Relax’, I tell myself, ‘You know how to drive. Just drive like you normally do'.
But this whole situation is not normal. My vehicle certainly isn’t.
Something in the side mirror grabs my attention. I stare wildly as the door of the external gas locker opens and closes and opens and closes in slow motion. There’s a bus stop half-way down the hill; I pull over, wrench on the handbrake, and fasten the locker with shaking hands. Traffic surges past. I clamber back into the cabin, glancing at the books. They will stay on the floor until I reach Kyneton. It’s getting late and I’m worried that I won’t get a spot at the Spring Reserve free camping area.
I’ve planned to stop for lunch at a large park in one of these outer eastern suburbs, but I can’t find it. In a split second decision, I lurch into a huge, empty car park and a man sitting in a lone car stares at me as I slowly grind up the slope. Rain starts. It looks like a hospital car park. Or some kind of institution. I can’t stop here. I indicate right, then left. I finally get windscreen wipers working as the rain eases. Now I can’t switch them off. It takes at least ten minutes to work out how to switch them off, to halt these sudden, unexpected swipes. I take a deep breath and head out of the car park.
'Pull yourself together'.
Donvale Sports Ground looms up on the left and I turn into it and park. With the exception of dog walkers on the other side of the oval, it is empty. Tea. I need tea urgently. I open the valve on the gas bottle and fill a tiny saucepan with water. I put some cheese on sliced bread and slip it under the griller. I fish about for a banana. I eat my lunch and stare numbly out over the oval.
I picked up my tiny home-on-wheels from the dealer a few days ago. It was a short drive to the Carrum Downs Holiday Park, on the Frankston-Dandenong Road, but the vehicle seemed a lot, well, bigger than the one I’d test driven around the Sandown Racetrack at the caravan and camping show six months before. I went to the show to look around, but perhaps I was kidding myself. Somewhere in my heart of hearts I knew that I’d be putting down a deposit.
Just days before I picked up the Van the settlement came through on my parents’ house; the house they had loved for thirty-four years. It was not my childhood home but I’d lived there since returning from teaching in China, through the years of my father’s decline into dementia and my mother’s increasing distress and infirmity. I’d spent my raw grieving days there. Now I needed something different; I wasn’t sure what exactly. A new environment, to get away. And I was going away to Kyneton.
The dog walkers have gone but more people have appeared. I bolt the banana and put away the cup and plate. It’s a group of teenagers and a couple of adults. I close the valve on the gas bottle and shut the locker firmly. I hop in the cabin and turn the ignition key. Nothing.
‘No, no, no!’ I murmur. ‘Please just work!’
The key doesn’t turn. I pull it out of the ignition. I put it back in again. I fiddle with the gear stick. I check the handbrake and the brake pedal. Nothing works. The motor refuses to engage. I glance in the mirror on the passenger side. The group is approaching.
'Why won't you start? Come on. Come on!!"
It doesn’t occur to me to read the manual. Sensible cognitive functions have eluded me for what seems like years now. Breathing heavily, I ring the sales people I’ve been speaking to almost every day since I picked up the Van.
‘Oh, we don’t deal with that’, Frank tells me cheerfully, one eye no doubt on beer o’clock. ‘You’ll have to call FIAT. Get them to send someone out’.
It’s late Friday afternoon. I’m somewhere in Donvale, or is it Doncaster? FIAT is not going to send anyone out. I lift my hand and slap my face. Hard. Then I do it again. I adjust the gear stick yet again, put my foot on the brake pedal and try the ignition. The engine roars but I have no idea what I’ve done. I am, however, determined to get to Kyneton. Pretending to ignore the teenagers passing by, waving cheekily, I somehow manage a tight three-point turn and leave the sports ground.
Ahead, there’s another vehicle like mine and somehow I feel the freeway cannot be far away now. Suddenly, magically, the on-ramp appears and the long, straight road north. My hands begin to relax. The banging and clattering in the back regulates to a steady rattle. Cars zoom by, huge trucks loom up behind me and pass in a rush of wind. I don’t care. I’m not in their way. I am finally getting somewhere. I sit in the left lane, doing eighty kilometres per hour, open my mouth and start to sing.
I sing almost all the way to Kyneton and then I stop. I was afraid there would not be a camping spot for me and I am right. It’s bumper to bumper. The open grassed area at one end is filled with caravans parked in a loose circle. I drive through the narrow parking reserve twice, scraping red painted bollards, scarring the side of my brand-new vehicle. I pull out and head up a random B-road, blinking through tears that are once again welling up. There’s nothing here but paddocks. I turn around. I park in the centre of the circle and check with my neighbours that I’m not in their way. Then I open a bottle of wine.
Gulping, I am convinced I have made a terrible, terrible mistake.
Who do I think I am, driving a twenty-five foot motorhome?
Next morning, I’m surprised that several caravans and a motorhome are preparing to leave and when they do, I move to the boundary of this open space, so that my door side faces out over a small grassy reserve, scattered with trees and picnic tables. I decide to keep the blind on the window above my bed down creating the illusion that I am camped on my own, ‘hiding’ any vehicles parked behind me.
I make a cup of coffee. I’m in the country. Making a cup of coffee in the Van at Spring Reserve feels very different to making one in the Van in the caravan park in Carrum Downs. I’ve slept well but I’m feeling at sixes and sevens, as Mum would have said. Am I really here, in a motorhome, in the country? I hear laughter from the campervan near me. Imagine that, imagine laughing. I feel numb again.
Dougal stares at me for a moment before yawning. He’s lying on the bench seat at the ‘café style’ table, known in the biz as a ‘dinette’. His litter tray is behind the passenger seat. I’m not sure how he’ll go in the Van. We’ve only known each other a few months. When we met I was living at Mum and Dad’s house, the settlement still a few weeks off. People said I was crazy to take a cat in the Van, that he’d freak out and run away. Well, we’ll see.
I’m really a dog-person. I think Dougal is like a dog and I want to put him outside the Van, so he can run and sniff the news and maybe chase a ball. Perhaps not chase a ball but nonetheless I think Dougal needs to be outside and so I put on his little harness and tie him up with a lead to one of the picnic tables in front of the Van where he can relax in the sun.
He crouches under the table and mews pitifully. I sit by him with a book, trying to look unconcerned. He slinks around the table, tightening the lead. I sigh and untwist the lead, straighten it up and reattach it. Maybe he would like to go for a walk after all.
I tug him gently away from the table. Reluctantly, he takes a few quick steps then stops, crouches again and refuses to budge. I tug him again and he takes a few steps and then huddles. I’m not sure what to do so I stand there, like a muppet. Perhaps if I just carry him over to the trees…I scoop him up and walk over to the line of trees growing along a dried-up creek. They are tall trees, the leaves yellowing, some kind of birch and they are thick and the branches grow right to the ground. Dougal heads for cover.
I can’t get under there with him and in split-second decision, release the lead, ordering him ‘Now don’t go too far’.
He slinks off under the trees, into the shadowy depths of the creek bed. He moves like a slug, a giant, hairy slug on short, stubby legs. I follow him from the outside of the tree line, catching glimpses of his tubular body as he wends his way through the slim trunks, hidden in shadows. I worry about the small road that leads into the reserve. There’s not much traffic but I hate to think that he might try to cross. Fortunately, he comes to the end of the line of trees, turns around, and disappears back the same way.
Women emerge from campervans and watch me try to retrieve my cat.
‘Have you caught him yet?’
I have a sudden thought and streak back to the van, returning with a crinkly bag of tuna flavoured dental treats. A little bribery and corruption might do the trick.
It doesn’t. Dougal the slug glowers at me disdainfully from under his spruce.
'Ok, ok, don't panic,' I mutter to myself. ‘Just leave him be’.
I sit on the grassy area near him and pretend to be taking in the sights.
Finally, Dougal leaves the cover of the low branches and I’m able to grab him by his little harness and pull him towards me. Then I pick him up and head back to the Van. He isn't keen and shows it. He struggles and presses his claws into my arms.
‘Ow!' I break into a trot, throwing open the door and flinging him inside before leaping in after him. We face each other off. Perhaps the key is not treating Dougal like a dog.
It’s Labour Day. I was born around lunch time and in England’s south snow was falling.
Mum used to say, ‘You leave your dignity at the door and just get on with it’, so my Australian Dad went back to the classroom and at the end of the lesson, announced to his pupils that he was off to meet his daughter.
‘Oh Sir, which flight is she on?’
I’m hopeful a café will be open in Kyneton because I’m going to take myself out for a birthday brunch. This is what I would have done with my Mum, when she was mobile, before the strokes; we’d have a nice lunch out, ‘girls together’. When I was little Mum would often take me to our favourite café, the Chocolate Box, reparation for long days of going around the Sales. Hours later we’d settle into our little table by the wall covered with old faded photos of Switzerland, near the register with the sign in blue and red texta that read, ‘We cuddle your coffee, our cups are heated’, and order fish and chips.
The tables at Duck Duck Goose in Kyneton’s main street are filled with couples or families. I feel very out of place. I blink at the menu and order corn fritters with a serve of smoked salmon, something special that Mum would approve of. She always said, ‘A little of what you fancy does you good!’
My mother should be here but won’t be, won’t ever be again. I tell myself not to be so self-pitying. I order myself to be grateful. I’m trying to be grateful and it’s not self-pity. It’s just plain ordinary grief.
I focus on the people around me, chatting and laughing and will myself not to cry. I’ve cried for years and I’m sick of it. An older lady at a nearby table takes a phone call and then plays with her iPad. The couple next to me, all loved up and cosy; her vegetarian patties are still frozen in the middle but she doesn’t want them heated up. An older couple on the other side order fresh lemon juice and full cooked breakfast.
My corn fritters are generously portioned and come with a poached egg on sourdough, the smoked salmon in lovely oily folds. I try to eat mindfully but I feel self-conscious. I am not filled with warm memories of birthdays past. I do not feel my mother’s spirit. I feel sad, alone and rather stupid. I revert my attention to my corn fritters and bolt them down, crispy bits scratchy in my throat.
The Van looms monstrously in the street and I’m filled with dread at driving to Daylesford, but I tell myself to get a grip. I have spent a lot of time packing: wrapping metal items in dish towels and ensuring every locker is firmly secured. There should be no random rattling.
Unable to summon up any confidence and with more than a degree of trepidation I take my place in the driver’s seat, insert the key and turn on the engine. I need to fill the tank so I stop at the small service station nearby. I pull up at the diesel bowser and pick the nozzle up and flick open the tank cover. I grasp the cap and… nothing.
'Oh for goodness sake... There's probably a knob or a button or something'. This time I find the manual. 'Oh, you insert the ignition key and turn twist the cap off'.
It works. I fill the tank as a farmer rolls up in his ute. I remove the nozzle, pressing the cap and key back into place. It will not secure. I’m getting really tired of not knowing how to do things. My fuse is short.
These days I can’t think straight, work through tricky situations, problem solve, even remember things. Getting organized is challenging, decision-making of any complexity beyond the next three things to do is well-nigh impossible.
I used to be resilient, resourceful, even reasonably intelligent. I don’t feel I am any of those things, particularly, any more. They all up and left with Mum and Dad.
With a kindly smile the farmer helps me replace the cap.
I drive into the famous Victorian spa town amid a sea of rainbow flags. It’s the end of the annual Chill Out Festival and groups of tired-looking men and women gather about the caravan park, up on the hill a little outside the town.
I’ve been on high alert all the way from Kyneton. Single lane roads mean I collect trucks behind me and there’s nowhere for them to overtake. I find myself scouring the shoulder for places to pull over. Rest areas all seem to be on the other side of the road; broad driveways pass in a flash. I imagine hefty drivers cursing and shaking their fists at my square back end.
Feeling frazzled, I check into the caravan park office, pay my fee and am allocated a site and a code for the boom gate. Half-hanging out of the cabin door while simultaneously keeping my foot on the brake, I input the boom-gate code and then slam the door shut and press the accelerator hard before the boom goes down again.
My site is located on a bend opposite the camp kitchen. I can almost hear people chuckling over their coffee and scrambled eggs at my attempts at reversing.
Bev the plumber watches as I eventually pull into my site and set up. I know she’s a plumber because she’s camping on top of her work ute. I wish she’d go away. I fit the electrical cable to the power point and then the hose to the tap. I turn on the tap and water spurts out of the connection. I can’t tighten the hose; my hands are not strong enough. Bev hauls herself out of her camp chair and waddles over with a spanner.
‘Here, let me’.
‘Oh, thanks. Appreciated’.
Red faced, I disappear into the Van and check the indicators on the motorhome ‘iPad’ on the wall. It tells me my freshwater tank is full. I can’t remember whether I have to switch on the pump.
A caravan pulls into the site behind me. An older couple with a little dog start setting up, extending the awning and putting down matting, setting out camp chairs and a table and wheeling out a BBQ.
I’m outside again trying to attach the big hose to the grey water tank outlet to let it drain. I bought the hose from the dealership in a ‘starter’s kit’ which included the freshwater hose and a packet of toilet chemical sachets. Oddly, the hose seems to be the same width as the outlet but I manage to force it on enough so that it holds. I pick up the other end and take it over to the tap and look around for the gully trap.
When I was a kid caravans didn’t have grey water tanks; Dad had a large jerry can that he’d empty every few days into a drain he called a ‘gully trap’.
I must have looked confused because the fellow setting up behind me says:
‘You can just put the hose on the grass’.
‘The grey water?’
‘Yeah, or maybe under that tree in front of your motorhome’.
‘But …doesn’t it need to go down the gully trap…err drain? But I don’t see any drain…’
‘No, it’s ok just on the ground’.
I’m a bit surprised by this. The grey water tank is large. It would leave a small dam if I emptied it on the ground here. I decide to open the valve now and then to let a little at a time over the small tree.
On the paved area outside the Van I put my folding chair and the little lemon tree I’ve brought with me. On Dad’s birthday, days before I left their house forever, a professional gardener helped me take six grafts from Dad’s lemon tree and from the smaller lime tree Dad had himself grafted years ago, onto a lemon tree root stock. Four of them survived. I think Dad would be pleased that I have a next generation lemon and lime tree, but he’d think I was mad to take it in the Van.
Hanging in the old lemon tree at Mum and Dad’s was a bird feeding tray that we used for years to gain the trust of a couple of lorikeets. They became so tame we could stand quite near the dish while they ate. One of them would also eat from my flattened palm, one claw on a branch, one on my finger. Sometimes they walked up and down on the exterior kitchen windowsill or sat on the door handle. They were so comical. I loved them. Apparently they mate for life. We called them the ‘Buddies’.
One morning in the January after Mum died I heard a crash. I rushed out of my room and looked down over the balcony. A Buddy was lying on the paving outside the kitchen.
‘Oh no no no’, I raced down and threw open the door. The little bird was lying motionless on its back.
Gasping, I bent down for a closer look. Not one of the Buddies….
I rang my brother and as soon as he answered I blurted,
‘Uh uh…it’s a Buddy…there’s something wrong…’ I can barely speak. My throat has seized up.
‘The dunny? There’s something wrong with the dunny?’
‘A Buddy!’ I squeak.
‘One of the Buddies! He’s lying on the ground! He’s not moving.’ I’m frantic.
‘Ok, ok. I see. He’s just lying there is he?’
‘Yesssss….Just not moving… what if he’s de….’
‘Ok, look. He might just be stunned. They hit the glass hard, but then they suddenly recover. They can be pretty resilient’.
‘Oh’, I gulp, ‘What should I do?’
‘He’ll probably just jump up and fly off in a moment’.
‘Ok’. I calm down a little. We finish the call.
I get a towel and approach the bird, picking up the still little body in the towel and laying him near the door. I look at him for a while then go back inside.
Suddenly I see a movement out of the corner of my eye. The little bird has leapt out of the towel and is staggering like a drunk across the paving. He gives himself a shake, straightens up and suddenly takes off. I burst into tears. Relief washes over me.
Something hasn’t died.
I fill the kettle and set it to boil. I recall the old caravan kettle; a three-footed, round-bellied bronze-coloured kettle which stood on the sink. I wonder what happened to it. When the family holidays were over, Dad bought a neat little caravan for him and Mum. Mum was thrilled that it had a tiny bathroom. They did the ‘half-lap’ of Australia; up the centre to Uluru and further to Darwin and then across to Broome and down the west coast and over the Nullabor back to Victoria. I think he sold the little caravan after the big trip. Perhaps they might have taken road trips after that, staying in country motels, had it not been for the Alzheimer’s.
I sit outside with my tea, Dougal tied to the chair. Dougal hates being tied to the step but he’s an animal and ‘animals must be tied up’. I hate it too. He’s crouching and looks uncomfortable. The men in the caravan next to mine close their blinds. I stare at the weird random streaks of colour which decorate their van.
Four or five years ago Mum and I came to Daylesford for a mini-holiday. James was in Melbourne for Dad’s six-monthly appointment with the neurologist so I booked a little getaway with Mum. We were horrified to find the apartment was up a large flight of wooden steps. Mum bravely struggled up. We spent three nights there, lazy mornings in bed, slow strolls around the town, drives to Clunes and Creswick and stopping to say hello to the alpacas, getting Chinese take away food for dinner one night, Indian the next.
All too soon we’d have to return to Melbourne. We drank cup after cup of tea; the ‘cup that comforts’. I was about six when I first started drinking tea with Mum. We drank tea together constantly, early morning tea, tea with lunch, tea mid-afternoon and ‘fly cups’ whenever we felt like one. Tea solved everything. I still have a blue labelled box of that loose-leaf tea the brand of which I now can’t recall. Something beginning with B. Come on brain…. Oh yes, Bushell’s. In my raw grieving days I drank the Bushell’s only on occasion because when it was gone there’d be no more tea that Mum bought.
I eked the out Bushell’s with Twinings Russian Caravan or Australian Afternoon Tea. I love the packaging, the softly coloured paper boxes that house each individually wrapped bag. The individual wrapping bothers me, but the boxes are pretty. The illustration inside depicts a vinelike stalk spouting leaves and tea pots and steaming cups of tea. You can cut away the back and use the strip as a book-mark. At the top it reads, ‘Enjoy every day’.
I blow my nose. I put my cup in the sink and take a stroll around the caravan park leaving Dougal snoozing on the passenger seat. In the camp kitchen people are beginning to gather for happy hour. They’re carrying trays of meat and bowls of salad. Music wafts from several directions. A man dances by me, a bottle of champagne in each hand. There’s shouts and laughter.
I head down the road to the amenities block and go into the laundry. I read the announcements about what mustn’t be put into the washing machines. There’s a small row of novels; thrillers and romances, on the bench.
What am I doing here?
‘Afternoon!’ A woman comes in and transfers clothes from the washer to a dryer.
I nod and smile. I’m observing this exchange from somewhere else, high above.
My parents are dead. My parents are dead. My parents are dead.
In those first few months of raw grief I was a little alien being. I stared at passengers on the train, people in the street, in cafes, in supermarkets, at story time in the library. Young mothers (sometimes fathers) with tiny babies, toddlers in prams, they seemed to be from another world. I stared at them and I wondered if the mothers had mothers.
In the supermarket and I stood paralysed among the fruit and vegetables. People moved about me, squeezing avocados, putting onions in a bag, leaning over the nectarines for the best ones at the back. They had a shopping list, a meal plan, a weekly menu. I stand motionless with my basket. Then I just reach out and take things. It doesn’t matter what I buy. I’m high above, looking down. I see myself at the checkout, moving in slow motion. Why did I come here anyway? What does it matter if I never eat again?
I wondered at their purpose, these people in trains and streets and shops; they seemed to know where they are going and what they need to do.
My parents are dead. My parents are dead. My father and my mother. They are both dead.
I reach the edge of the caravan park and peering through the fencing something jolts my memory. Is this? It can’t be, can it? The park where the Daylesford Highland Gathering is held every year in December? It is. For a moment I’m nineteen again, dressed in kilt, plaid and feather bonnet, tenor drum on my knee, the straps of my drum-sticks wound around my fingers ready to compete with the pipe band.
I put my hands up to the fence, curling my fingers around the wire. I press my eyes into my knuckles. It seems so long ago. Death seems to have catapulted me forward in years and I feel old at forty-nine. How is it possible I can even be of an age when I can talk about something I did thirty years ago?
This is the thing you learn from death. You suddenly become conscious of the passing of time and the ending of life. Oh, you know it before, we all know life ends. People are with us and then they are not. But you don’t really know it, what it means, that all those years and years of growing up and being alive are so very finite, that we are only important to those who are alive with us and when we are dead, nobody who is to be alive will know us, and then having been alive at all seems momentary and insignificant. This is the thing you learn from death.
I must have been in my twenties when Dad presented me with a manila folder.
‘There are some things families must discuss’, he said.
I looked at him in horror. ‘I’m not adopted, am I?’
The folder contained a number of handwritten sheets outlining what to do ‘When there are just V and J…’ The document outlined Mum and Dad’s directions for their funeral, cremation and scattering of their ashes. There was information about the house and furniture and financial matters. I skimmed it quickly and filed it away.
A few months ago it became ‘just V and J.’ I hear Dad’s voice in his writing and I pinch myself.
Obviously, I’m not the first person to lose parents but this is the first time it has happened to me and I’ve lost them both, quickly. With barely time to take a breath after Dad died, we’re meeting with the minister to talk about Mum’s funeral.
Go on, tell me it’s tragic but natural – parents die first, especially elderly ones, it’s the natural order of things – but, you see, it won’t make any difference. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that they died peacefully at a ripe old age. I’m sad because they’re not here. And I want them back.
My father is dead. And my mother. Really? Really?
These days of raw bloody grief.
I go back to the Van and feed Dougal who is protesting.
I eat my own dinner at the table, attempting to read a book but my eyes are drawn to the picture of Mum and Dad I’ve put under the window. It’s one I took several years ago, a close up of their faces and they’re both smiling straight at the camera.
I can’t bear it. I put the photo in a cupboard.
When the funeral was over, there was a kind of stillness. There were no more phone calls to make – to them or to services – and no more visiting aged care homes. There was no more worry about how they were going and what I could do to make the going better. Days loomed long and empty.
A month or so later I collected Mum's ashes from the funeral home. At the reception desk, I saw our funeral director. He was looking at an old-fashioned ledger with handwritten entries. I commented on its size.
'Yes, been around a long time this book, back to 1985'.
I looked at the signatures; so many people, so much grief.
The receptionist returned some moments later with a dark blue rectangular box. I leaned over the ledger to sign and caught sight of an entry dated some six months before and my brother’s signature. I tapped the entry.
'Oh? Someone you know?' asked the receptionist.
‘My Dad,' I whispered.
I put Mum’s box next to Dad’s up on the high bookshelf in the study. Dad’s Akubra hangs on his; I put the Mum’s headband with the furry ears – the ones she wore when she was a bear for the kindergarten children’s visit - on hers. I put a small vase with one of the dark pink lilies from her funeral bouquet next to them. I stare at the boxes for some minutes.
Then I sit, quite still, at the kitchen table.
The clocks tick.
Next morning, I wake just before seven and make a cup of coffee. In the months after Mum died, my waking thought was the same as my last thought of the previous evening, of all my previous evenings now – my parents are dead. Tears trickle out of my eyes and I press them into the pillow. I barely know how to start this day. I’ll just drink this coffee now. That’ll do for now. Way ahead, years from now, I’ll probably have a shower and dress and hope that inspiration for breakfast will come to me. Eventually I prepare something and eat it and then while I'm eating I feel horribly, horribly sad.
Then comes a period of indecision; sitting down, standing up, gazing around at my neighbours, watching caravans hitch up and pull out.
After the numb days on autopilot are over, a week or two after the death, when the business of death is finished and the left-over sandwiches from the funeral have been eaten and everyone has gone, time expands and the long, long days of raw grieving begin. The breath-taking realisation that life has changed irrevocably hits you like a cannon ball to the stomach, knocks the wind out of you, floors you, and just as you begin to slowly get to your feet it hits you again and again and again.
Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.
I go outside the water the little lemon tree.
That summer, the summer Mum died, was hot, the hottest I can remember for a long time with strong northerly winds, the type I remember from my childhood summer holidays when the days and weeks stretched out forever. I swept up the fallen leaves with Dad’s old rakes. I tried to take care of the garden.
The strip of land against the outer wall of the house had extremely poor soil but nonetheless Dad had managed to grow a few bottlebrush and other native trees there. I swept the leaves from the gum trees in the shared driveway which led up to another house, watered the shrubs and potted plants and peered up into the sky, ‘See, Dad, see how well I’m coping?’
I got cranky emails from the neighbours complaining about the bins and the state of the garden and one morning, I marched up to their house.
‘Hello. I see the bin is becoming a problem’.
‘Oh Vicki…it’s just so unsightly and our friends have to drive past it when they come to visit. Bins left out also attract burglars’.
This is ridiculous. People all over Melbourne keep their bins in their driveways. It’s normal.
I mention something about lacking energy and how things have been difficult and then she mentions my father.
‘And your father, he never did anything in the driveway. It’s a mess, not even a garden… a non-garden. And my friends…’
When Dad bought the house in the early 80s the backyard was paved with irregular slabs of slate between which determined blades of grass or jonquils or daffodils would push through. There was a camelia in one corner and a bird of paradise in the other, but the soil of the area was poor and it was hard to grow anything much in the raised beds my father created.
But he loved his garden and put in an underground watering system, timed to flow during the evening when the hot winds would not cause it to evaporate. There came a time when the hardy jonquils and straggling camelia gave up altogether and Dad replaced the pavers with fake grass. Sure, there was a certain sameness in length and colour, but with the fallen leaves from nearby eucalyptus and a bit of imagination it was quite realistic.
She mentions my father and I see red.
‘Stop right there! How dare you! How dare you? My father loved this garden, he worked hard at it for years and then he got dementia and…and…Mum couldn’t cope…and…’
I put my hand up to her and walk away.
I storm back to the house and I’m a little taken aback by the strength of my anger. I shout and slap the tabletop stinging my palms and then I go to my Dad’s shed and find a saw and I attack one of the branches of their stupid trees which hangs over our garden. They never cut it back. It’s stopping our trees from getting the light. The saw is a bit rusty and I’m not strong enough. I throw it down and pull down on the branch. It doesn’t give. I use the hedge clippers and take off smaller branches from the same tree. I grab the secateurs and snip all the pieces of ivy that are growing over the fence. The pestilential ivy they insisted on growing and which creeps into our garden and Dad hated. I snip and hack and yank bits out and then I fling all the branches and clippings over the fence. I hate them, I hate them.
I spent the long empty days over summer lying in the backyard, on Dad’s fake grass, thinking about what to do with myself.
When my parents were declining, I returned from China where I had been teaching English for three years. I got a casual job at an English language school in the city. It was never my intention to stay at my parents’ house for as long as I did, but I hadn’t been back long before it was clear that Dad’s dementia was more advanced than we thought and by then it was too late to move out.
I remember the deputy director of the school commenting how generous I was to give my parents so much of my time. Generous. That’s one way of putting it. An odd way. Not my way. I wasn’t generous. I was their daughter. Sure, I am unmarried, childless, in an undemanding job. I did have time, yes, and I made the time, but the point is I loved them.
As the years wore on, I spent many lunchtimes at work on the phone to one service or other: doctors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, the service accommodation where Dad lived, the dementia day centre he attended, my mother (when she answered) and when I walked up the driveway at the end of the day, I didn’t know what I’d find; Dad sitting hunched, unmoving at the table, Mum in a chair with her chin split open after yet another inexplicable fall in the street. Waiting for me to come home and sort things out.
They were very, very difficult, resentful, angry, anguished, miserable days. I stopped being available for teaching at all. There were daily struggles with Mum about how to ‘do this better’. I arranged in-home help, respite care, took them to appointments, shopped, picked up medications, took my father out when he still could, visited them with they were in care, wondered, negotiated, advocated, persuaded, begged.
Years of it. Day after day after day. I couldn’t picture when it would end. Or how. Caring, organizing, managing is a full-time job and it became mine. But I loved them and I wouldn’t, couldn’t abandon them in their need. And now all that horror is over and I find myself lost.
People said, 'Oh, it’s so dreadful about your parents. Both of them gone, imagine! So sad’.
Sigh, downcast look, slight shake of the head.
Then, briskly and too brightly, I was repeatedly asked, ‘So, are you back at work? What are you doing now?'
‘Well, the thing is, now that my parents are dead and I’m alone in their house, I’ve got this grief thing going on. I find myself wondering about what will become of me. I simply find it impossible to make decisions. I don’t know what to do and it makes me worry for a while and then I lose the energy to even worry about it. I cry a lot. I can’t focus on many ideas other than, ‘My parents are dead, I’m alone in their house and I don’t know what to do next’.
I never actually said this.
After breakfast, I take my ancient iPad out of the cupboard and sit at the table. I decide to make a few notes about this Van life. ‘Today I did this, tomorrow I’ll do that’ sort of stuff. During that hot January after Mum died, when the gentle numb days of auto-pilot had ended and the raw grief surged in, I tried to keep my head above water by journaling. I mostly wrote about my feelings but that was tricky too because it’s hard to find the words when there aren’t any.
‘I’m so sad, I miss my Mum, I miss my Dad. I want them back. I cry every day, I’m just so sad’. It’s pretty dreadful stuff and I never told anyone I was writing about grief.
The pressure of the question ‘what are you doing now’ became unbearable. I was sure writing about grief wouldn’t suffice as an answer, would set off alarm bells about ‘not coping’.
The caravan park is a few kilometres from the town centre. I decide to walk in for lunch. I did a lot of walking last year, the year after Mum died. I got a delivery job around nearby suburbs. I walked for six or eight hours each week, sometimes more. I walk into Daylesford and buy a pie for lunch and a fruit tart from the bakery. I cross the road to the butcher and buy some chicken kebabs for dinner.
I head back to the Van, feed Dougal, make a cup of tea and sit outside. Dougal is again tied to the step. Suddenly I can’t stand it and remove his harness. He immediately slithers across the road and down behind the camp kitchen. Now I’m worried (perhaps this is the moment when Dougal freaks out and runs away) and I follow him between the holiday units, thankfully mostly unoccupied by now, and down onto stretches of grass with permanent caravans, also empty. Dougal slinks under a holiday unit, backing himself into dark, cobwebby corners.
I kneel down and peer into the darkness. Dougal’s bright green eyes slow blink at me from his black mask. His muzzle is white and white fur extends down his throat flaring into a semi-circular white bib except for a patch of black fur just under his chin. He looks like he’s wearing a dinner jacket with a bow tie and white gloves. He has a magnificent set of long white whiskers. He’s a rather handsome boy. I find a bench and sit down to wait for Dougal to emerge. After a while I return, somewhat hesitantly, to the Van. It’s good for Dougal to be out exploring. I’m sure he’ll come back. He seems a resourceful sort of cat.
I keep an eye out for him and every twenty minutes or so I wander casually down to the permanent van and peer underneath. I can’t see Dougal but I’m sure he’s there.
‘Why would he run off?’
Dusk is drawing in when he finally responds to my call, stretching his long furry body as he emerges from the dark and we walk back to the Van together. I give him a bowl of fish bits in orange jelly. He wolfs it down, washes his face and settles into a perfect circle on the passenger seat for a snooze. I think he knows where home is.
I make dinner and the kebabs shrink to almost half their size. They are tasty but I should have bought a few more.
The following day, after lunch, I head down the hill to Daylesford Lake. There’s a chill in the air and the sky is overcast. I pull on Mum’s padded jacket. I remember walking around the lake when Mum and I were here.
The day after Mum’s funeral my brother and I went to a country market where he occasionally had an art stall. It was an hour’s drive into the hills just outside Melbourne and we had to leave early. I made coffee and ate porridge and we spent an hour setting up. All around us were craftspeople, hippies with old clothes for sale, two Nepalese men selling handcrafts, a chai tent. I knew Mum was dead, but it was nice to be out in the country, among the trees, in the open air.
And I got to thinking, perhaps spending a year in the country might be the thing?
I enjoyed going to the market so much that a few months later, in early April, I went up with a friend, Ros, just for a pleasant day out. We both had some bits and pieces to dispose of and we set up our little stall under a tree and drank hot spiced coffee. The air was fresh but the sun shone brightly in the blue above the eucalypts and we laughed and talked about how nice it was to be out of the city and the idea of going away started to take hold.
In the middle of the year my brother suggested I joined him on a road trip to Darwin. I was enthralled by the little Victorian towns we went through: Avoca, St Arnaud, Sea Lake, Ouyen, the names so familiar and evocative of childhood holidays in the caravan. We took six days to reach the top end, camping each night under the stars. and I thought, maybe not a house in the country, what about a little house on wheels?
Towards the end of the year we discussed selling the house and I was filled with dread and just a fizz of excitement. I had put down a deposit on a motorhome. My favourite show on television was Backroads and I knew I needed to be away.
And here I am in Daylesford, trudging around the grey old lake under slate-coloured skies. I shake myself and hurry along. I come to a bridge with dozens of little locks each bearing two names, sometimes with hearts or stars or other symbols, each a promise of a future filled of love and happily ever after. They must believe it, these couples who leave locks, at least in the moment.
I began to tell people I was going away. I wonder if they thought I was going on a holiday, on a big lap around Australia like the grey nomads. They probably thought it was a stepping-stone to the ‘rest of my life’, my real life, my life in the city. Maybe they thought it would help get over the grief.
I longed to be somewhere no one knew me. So I went away where I could hold my grief and declare to the trees and the sky and the animals.
I walk slowly up the hill back to the Van.
* * * * *
She comes bounding up to the driver’s window, clip board pressed to her chest, blond hair flying, a broad smile on her face.
‘Hello, hello! Welcome! Good to see you. Now let me just check (consults clipboard), your name is…’
‘Hi…umm...’ Confused, I look about the small picnic area. A bunch of people are standing about under the BBQ shelter. Recreational vehicles of all sizes are parked all over the place.
‘Welcome! Great to have you join us! If I could mark your name off…’
‘Oh, I don’t think…I mean, I don’t think I’m with you’.
‘Oh, I see! Well that’s OK. Let’s get you signed up then…Your name?’
‘No, I mean, I’m not here for an event. I’m just here for…you know…the night.’
Welcome Lady turns to an older man who’s approached us.
‘No, Ron she’s not with us.’ I feel I’ve disappointed her. ‘Just park anywhere, love, anywhere you like. I’ll come over and have a chat with you later’.
I nod, crestfallen. The drive from Daylesford has seen me yet again white knuckling it all the way down the Midland Highway and all I really want is a cup of tea.
I gaze around the little park. I spy a small gap between bushes near a pop-top campervan and pull in, grazing the top of the Van on a low hanging branch. I am disconcerted and spend an hour staring out the window at the other occupants, mostly older middle-aged women, and they huddle in the open sliding side doors of their campervans clasping mugs and chatting.
I’m at the Pioneer Park at Meredith just north of Geelong and I’ve gate-crashed a solo travellers meet-up.
Welcome Lady comes over for a chat as promised and she is very pleasant and tells me all about the benefits of the group for people who travel alone. It sounds like a great idea but I can’t think of anything worse; the thought of having to explain myself and who I am and why I’m in the Van and losing Mum and Dad. No, it’s not for me right now.
‘Thank you’, I say. ‘I’ll think about it’.
Welcome Lady departs to gather her flock for dinner at the Meredith Hotel.