Non-fiction

For all we do in the dark

A story for my mother

I DEAL WITH grief the way I deal with most trauma. I keep it locked away in a dilapidated archival box – one of the brown ones from Officeworks that you have to fold together yourself – only to be opened during my darkest moments. When you experience death and loss during early childhood, you deal with your grief by mirroring the people around you. My mirrors taught me that stoicism and retreat were acceptable forms of grieving and that crying was for your pillow in the night. Drugs and alcohol were normal coping mechanisms. Violence could, in fact, be an answer, especially in a small coastal town where fighting was our only constant. I learnt to turn my emotional dial to the lowest setting and find comfort in the numb. This is a precarious foundation on which to build a life.

In her 1986 poem ‘Every Morning’, Mary Oliver recounts her experience reading the morning paper, where ‘death / combs everything into a gray rubble before / the camera moves on’. Oliver glimpses these fatal tragedies from a place of warmth, bathed in sunlight. And yet she remains emotionally distant in the poem: ‘What / dark part of my soul / shivers.’ This line encapsulates the idea that you can remove yourself from tragedy. It also leans into the notion that each time you do this, the horrors you’re trying to avoid affect you more in the long run. This reaction to tragedy is not uncommon, even when that tragedy happens closer to home, to you or someone you love. Throughout the poem, Oliver states facts but is never fully connected to the tragedy she reads about ‘with my cold, sharp eyes’. This removal seems taciturn, but it could also be a coping mechanism. How much tragedy can you endure, even from the safety of your own home, before you just…switch off?

 

MY BROTHER DIED when I was four and I have never grieved him. We were living with my stepdad’s parents in their three-bedroom home. One room for Nan and Pop, one for my uncle and one for us – me, Mum, Dad and my soon-to-be-born baby brother, H. The only item in our room that wasn’t blue was the Chicago Bulls team flag that acted as a curtain in our always-open window. I have vague recollections of a white cot in one corner of the room. Fresh paint still permeated the air and soft toys covered every inch of the small, warm mattress. One day, Mum, pregnant belly swollen and aching, was driven to John Hunter Hospital. She came back, still aching, without a baby in her arms. What remains is the shadow of a boy I feel I know but whom I have never met. This cataclysmic moment in my family’s history taught me the existence of death and how it comes hot and hurried like an expelled breath. This death, my first one, taught me how to process all those that came after. The concept of dying, therefore, has never seemed frightening – only inevitable. Often, I find myself wanting that non-existence to come sooner rather than later. It’s an itchy feeling, like when you wake up too early and have to wait all day for your birthday party to start in the afternoon. I’ve never been a patient person.

a frail man who smelled of tobacco and caffè

handed me a pocket bible after bingo

hands warm and worn, like the grey gilet holding him in

he spoke a handful of raspy italian

don’t let your heart be troubled, his grandson translated

and they departed with little more than a pax vobiscum

three days on, i listen to the bells of chiesa di san francesco

from the bar in san gemini they ring like a tocsin

i can’t remember the last time i entered a church

peace i leave with you; my peace i give to you

i stroll the cobblestoned via roma, hesitate on the church steps

the bible burns a cavity in my back jean pocket

i extract the book, flick straight to the gospels, read 

do not let your hearts be troubled

a familiar and smoky grandfather voice

do not be afraid

 

WHEN I WAS five or six, I became a Christian. Not at the command of any person in my life. My interest in the Christian church was birthed from curiosity about a man who died and rose again. This resurrection was seen as phenomenal by the rest of the congregation. A miracle created from everlasting faith in the Almighty. I saw in it the impermanence of death. However, I soon found that my curiosity was not welcome at the church. My innocuous questions around Jesus’ resurrection and the virginal mother were seen by others as heresy. The Bible, to this congregation, was law.

The Christmas after my brother’s death, my parents bought me a Baby Born. It was a boy with dark skin, and he would urinate whenever I fed him a bottle. I loved him and, gaining inspiration from church, named him Mary after Jesus’ mother. I grew apart from the church and religion, officially leaving at the age of nineteen. I went to university and studied ancient history, including classes in early Christianity and theology. Understanding scripture and spirituality academically has helped me work through the hold grief has on my life. After all, what is the Bible but a collection of stories passed down, used to encourage or to caution?

The Gospel of Matthew (King James Version) recounts the Massacre of the Innocents, where every boy in Bethlehem under the age of two was murdered by order of King Herod. This story does several things. When Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, wakes to an angel telling him to flee Bethlehem with his family ‘for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him’, the reader understands that Jesus survived the massacre through divine intervention. ‘Then Herod…was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem,’ and thus Jesus’ enemies are painted as unholy folk who would end innocent lives to further their own twisted agenda. When I was a child in church, this story only served to remind me of H. Nobody – no angel or god – had come to Earth to save my brother. Some blamed my mother for his death. If only she had come to church or if only she had waited until marriage. Others supplied a vague adage they’d read in New Idea – something like, ‘bad things happen to good people’. This was a sympathy that lacked empathy. We were to be pitied, but we had brought this tragedy on ourselves. Re-reading the Massacre of the Innocents through an academic lens, I see our grief – mine and my mother’s – reflected in the image of Rachel ‘weeping for her children’. In implanting maternal grief within this story, the Gospel of Matthew shifts the focus of the Massacre of the Innocents from biblical evidence of Jesus’ existence as Messiah and instead lets linger the loss of children and the impact that loss leaves on those left to grieve. While the Massacre of the Innocents had my congregation in tears, outraged at the death of innocence itself, the death of the newborn son of a well-known local family was met with condolence over morning tea, and c’est la vie.

My mother attempted suicide rather than face another day without her son. This is a turmoil I can never know and one I would never wish on anybody. I was not old enough to know the woman Mum was before this grief took hold of her. She has never known me without this grief either – another type of loss. Our suffering, though different, brings us together every March when we tidy my brother’s grave. As we rejuvenate the tiny cross over that tiny grave, the smell of white paint brings back memories of that tiny room from my childhood. It is the only day out of the 365 of each year when I pray. My two living siblings, both born after H, know we have a deceased brother, but his death doesn’t seem to affect them. H is from before their time. He is an idea. To me, H was a fully formed person. It’s challenging to share my experiences with them. The loneliness when they have only known comfort. The emptiness when they have only known fulfilment. The anguish when they have only known ease. It’s like spending a day with your best friend and then trying to explain the events of that day to a stranger – there’s no context for the person to grip. That emotional isolation is what drove me to a crossroads not unlike Mum’s: where non-existence felt like an unburdened release.

chrissy teigen trends again

steely-eyed strangers telling her how to grieve

as if she doesn’t know grief lasts longer than the click of a camera

there are days my mother can’t lift head from pillow

where the sun is too bright, or not bright enough

where the act of breathing is knives in the chest

they say a picture says a thousand words and those days

exist as still frames, holding space for thoughts words can’t express

where woe makes its welcome in a small shutter

and strangers hang like window dressing

unable to turn away

 

WHEN I WAS officially diagnosed with clinical depression at fifteen, I expected everything to change. A diagnosis meant I could be fixed. But nothing changed. No magical cure was conjured. ‘You can’t be fixed,’ my doctor said, ‘because you aren’t broken.’ Not that he understood anything. After all, every fifteen-year-old is unknowable. He prescribed off-brand sertraline and I left his office with an armful of pamphlets and worksheets that were supposed to be alternatives to self-harm. This period of my life reminds me of Anne Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay’, where ‘grief is a long process’. Where every movement is monotonous. ‘I watch the steely April sun / jab its last cold yellow streaks / across a dirty silver sky. / Okay Ma. What’s for supper?’ Where nobody knows what to say. ‘Why hold onto all that? And I said, / Where can I put it down? / She shifted to a question about airports.’ Where I felt isolated in a crowded room. ‘I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë, / my lonely life around me like a moor.’

Unlike the narrator of Carson’s essay/poem hybrid, my sadness didn’t spring forth from losing a lover. It was a slow build. It was like I was piling junk food into a shopping cart until it was so full that I had no room for anything good. Like Carson’s narrator, however, I did immerse myself in Emily Brontë. Her way of writing the gothic provided metaphors for my moods. I have never seen a moor in real life, but suddenly everything reminded me of one. Brontë grew my fascination with unhappy endings. The build of angst and tension helped me relieve my tear ducts when the medication had me emotionless. Hating Cathy and Heathcliff left little energy for me to hate myself.

While storytelling is not catharsis, it is a way to share context. One of many the psychologists I saw handed me a notebook during our last government-billed session. Through these notebooks, I found my voice – or a semblance of one – that helped me generate a type of context for myself. I performed my first poem a decade later in a bookstore in Brisbane, where I vomited afterwards. I’d call that event a rousing success compared with prior public speaking attempts, which often ended in fainting spells, anxiety attacks or tears. Literature has a way of using a few words to speak to the masses. It’s a form I’ve continued to lean on to organise my thoughts and emotions. Standing in front of that small audience and sharing parts of myself I had seldom shown outside of therapy was equal parts invigorating and terrifying. I don’t subscribe to the theory that suffering breeds creativity. All I know is that creativity has bred in me confidence, perspective and purpose. My depression isn’t cured – and I doubt it ever will be – but filtering the perpetual darkness that shadows my everyday through the end of a pen is a power and a privilege for which I’m forever grateful.

morning comes like grief

sheet-covered mirrors

duvet shrouds, cobwebbed faucets

bodies echo through this cracked-bone home

in the window, a faded picture

at the exact angle the sun arrives

we do everything in the dark:

moon-witnessed rituals

tv dinners in different rooms

until morning comes like grief and the picture

of two people in a hospital bed is replaced

with a fresh one of you and me

morning comes like grief

you close the curtain

and go to bed

 

I GRIEVE LIKE my mother. That’s to say, we push things down until we touch the comfortable collision rock bottom offers. I know nothing about my mother’s relationship with my biological father. It’s not a topic she shies away from. It’s more that it’s a non-issue, and who am I to police my mother’s feelings about a relationship that ended more than two decades ago? I do feel a bit of resentment about this, though. Some of that is aimed at my mother, even though I know anything she could have done to foster a relationship between my father and I would have been wholly one-sided and to the detriment of her own health. Much of it is aimed at my father and his unwillingness to be the man I needed and at his family for following his direction.

The day of my Aunty J’s funeral was the first day my biological father, K, soberly acknowledged me as his child. I was exiting the church as he walked in, and I wondered if he remembered who I was. I’d grown up since he’d last seen me: I was a foot taller, my hair was short and I held all my exhaustion in the bags beneath my eyes. We stood in the doorway of the church and he exclaimed, ‘This is my daughter.’ I had to look behind me to make sure I didn’t have a long-lost sister nobody had told me about. Instead of a secret sibling, I was engulfed in a tight hug. I’m not sure if our various onlookers were as uncomfortable as I was – all would have known our precarious family dynamic. Maybe they looked on and saw a could-be reconciliation between father and daughter. Whatever they felt, I only felt anger. As if death was the only time this man seemed to clock me.

As we held one another, I couldn’t help noticing how small and fragile he seemed. His voice had always been husky from smoke and drink, but now it held a tremor I’d never heard before. Usually short, he had now begun to curl into himself. His hair was thin and greying, his eyes were black and tired, and his skin felt like paperbark. His neck, wrists and biceps were narrow and bony. It was this fragility that allowed my anger to settle and, not for the first time, permit hope to flourish. I saw him briefly at the wake but mostly stuck with the family members I knew as they reminisced about my childhood through memories only they remembered. After the sorry business with Aunty J had ceased, I went back to Sydney, where I’d been living for two years by that point. I’ve not seen nor talked to K since.

When my paternal grandmother died during the coronavirus pandemic, I couldn’t return home to Newcastle. I was stuck in Brisbane in lockdown, and I told no one what had happened. My mother and grandmother never saw eye to eye, and my grandmother didn’t like to acknowledge me as her own. But she was one of the last threads that held the knowledge of my culture. And I had left it too late. Upon her death, I sat with Ali Cobby Eckermann’s 2015 collection Inside My Mother. One of the poems I kept coming back to was ‘Seeds’, and specifically its final line: ‘shall I remain to die broken from home.’

Through it, I saw myself being carried away from my history and heritage by the wind.

While the poem is soft and sad, full of forever-unanswered questions, this line encapsulated the anger that swelled red and hot in my belly. Anger towards the global pandemic that prevented me from saying goodbye before I could ever say hello. Towards myself for not making more of an effort. Towards my parents for letting the tides of time tear our family further apart. Towards the system that ripped intergenerational holes into the hearts of my people, the same system that continues that cycle to this day.

The seeds in Eckermann’s poem are transcendent, flowing through the wind from the bough of one tree to the earth, where another sapling will soon grow. Transference of information from one generation to another. I dreamed of Eckermann’s seeds floating around my body and myself fighting the force of a hurricane to grasp a single one. I wondered then, as I do now, whether my anger would ever ease. If my grandmother’s spirit could forgive me for not trying harder. If my last memory of my father would be veiled in black suits and mourning. I wondered if I might share one happy moment with him before he or I pass on to the ancestors. 

in this place

river red gums bow and birth

each new generation

there is spirit here, I hear

wind-whispers, ghostly hand on arm

pulling me deeper

ancestors wash grit from bone

ash from soul, in this place,

secret place, where river bank melts

into freshwater melts

into me, where we

have birthed and mourned

where our old people

may finally rest

 

MY COUSIN, C, died when she was fourteen. Drowned. It took two weeks to find her body. We grew up in the same town, only a few streets apart, but I never met her. I’d been compared to her several times throughout childhood: our shared features, our tenacity. She was the daughter K always wanted. I never resented her, as many adults thought I should. I always thought of her as the sister I could’ve had if my father stuck around. Her death is an event I only experienced second-hand. Through kinship. The eyes of family who knew and loved both C and me. The white rose I placed on her coffin. The brief exchange between K and me – the last before our final goodbye beside Aunty J’s grave. The tears shed on my shoulder by my mother.

In his poem ‘After the Funeral’, William Virgil Davis witnesses a stone falling into a pond. The water is disturbed, but the reflective surface soon returns to its usual state. ‘[B]eyond the blurring, my / face came back together in the mirror…trees grew again, the sky held fast / in place.’ The pond is disturbed further, first by wind and then rain. Each time, the surface of the pond returns to its restful meditation. This cycle of instability and serenity parallels the emotional journey of the narrator, whose life has been disrupted by death and who carries the expectation that life will return to the way it once was. Toward the end of the poem, I was unsatisfied when peacetime comes. ‘The sky / cleared, the waves shrank down again.’ This dissatisfaction stems from the fantasy of grief being a moment in time that can pass with the tick of a clock.

In the final stanza of the poem, Davis is redeemed. The narrator drops another stone into the pond. The pond ripples again before returning to its calmed state. Still, the reader leaves with the understanding that, like the narrator, the pond appears collected, but, in its depth, it is full of sorrow. Years after C’s funeral, I sat under dark clouds by the lake that took her life. I sat alone in silence, feet submerged in the icy shallows. I stared at my reflection in the water until C’s eyes, not unlike my own, stared back at me. Her smile, my smile, lapped at my legs as the tide came in, no different to her missing poster plastered on every street corner, in every local newspaper. My oesophagus tightened. The back of my throat was sandpaper. My face was warm and wet before I even noticed the tears.

The lake is as still and dark

as an abyss. A kookaburra’s call echoes

off the rim. My shadow peter-pans across the surface, dives

off the crescent moon. The way down goes on

forever, a journey without an end.

In the black before dawn,

a tailor comes down from fraser

to gobble everyone up.

In the sprinkling of early morning,

in the kookaburra calling for the rising of the sun

the abyss laughs back.

 

I THINK OF my brother almost every day, of the man he could have been. I think of my mother, how her lessons on grieving soaked too suddenly into my four-year-old mind. I think of my father, still alive yet seemingly unobtainable. I think of my grandmother, whose spirit lingers more than her physical form ever did. I think of Aunty J holding my body close and providing me with the essence of a grandmother’s love. I think of C and her eyes so much like my own. I think of myself and how grief is selfish: more about what I have lost than the lost people themselves.

Audre Lorde’s 1978 poem ‘Coping’ feels grey, melancholy and overwhelming. Lorde calls the world ‘a round puddle’ that is ‘only beginning / to cope’. In this phrasing, Lorde takes the onus of ‘coping’ from themself and places it onto the earth, simultaneously making their emotions universal and deeply introspective. This trauma response is one I’m well versed in. I’m often guilty of turning pain into poetry or a punchline to distance myself from dealing with emotions. However, the true message of the poem is indicated in its second half, where a boy is trying to stop his flowers from being overwatered. This metaphor reminds the reader to take necessary steps towards healing – no matter how difficult they might be – lest they drown in their sadness or grief: ‘young seeds that have not seen sun / forget / and drown easily.’

I shared this poem with my mother. How easily grief can piggyback. Her words to me were, ‘I hope this sets you on a path to healing.’ In telling my story, I’m telling hers. She – we – I have a lot of grief to unpack. There will be days where the rain comes in storming gales, and I won’t be able to bail the water out fast enough to keep from drowning. Sometimes, I’ll make a wrong turn and wind up back where this all started. But grief isn’t linear. The opposite of being engrieved isn’t being healed. The path will be winding and difficult. Anything worthwhile usually is.

the news tell us: predicted snow in brisbane

i press thumb to wrist, check if i’m still breathing

already older than i ever dreamed i’d be

the world is ending, so we perform rituals in the dark

anything to conjure a semblance of purpose, like

getting high in a homemade hammock

bedding down in a sunflower field for that perfect insta shot

we baptise ourselves in whatever water we can find

a pool, a creek, a puddle in the middle of the road

my thoughts are too loud to be contained in my body

they wake me from daydreams, or drown me in them

i think of how meaningless these things we do are

how i never want us to stop

the late nights that last ’til morning

the way we curl around one another in your king-sized bed

the way we hold out hope that these tiny hits of dopamine

will add up to a full dose

the world is ending, and we will expire with it

like wisps of smoke in shadow

like snow melting under the gaze of a queensland sun

what will we resemble then

This memoir was commissioned by Grace Lucas-Pennington as part of ‘Unsettling the Status Quo’, thanks to support from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

 

 

References

Carson, A. (1994). The Glass Essay. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48636/the-glass-essay

Davis, W. V. (1973). After the Funeral. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=32455

 Eckermann, A. C. (2015). Inside My Mother. Giramondo.

 King James Bible. (2017). King James Bible Online. https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/  (Original work published 1769)

Lorde, A. (1995). The Black Unicorn. Norton.

Oliver, M. (1986). Every Morning. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=36384

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