Memoir

This Her Thing

Holding on in an age of letting go

I DRIVE PAST where Mum died and I feel the tractor beam of that place, the urge to pull in and stop. But I don’t. It’s off the highway, down a small gravel road with a dead end, and I know how country eyes work. I know they’ll look through their country windows and wonder who I am. I don’t want anyone to wonder who I am.  

Odd to think my mum died at a dead end. 

It’s close to the ratty tennis courts I played on as a kid. As I’m passing the place, on the way to meet someone, I think of myself as a kid – also ratty – with a pretty glorious mullet, swinging wild forehands and backhands. I think of how we snuck into the men’s public toilets and marvelled at the urinals, the pee-stain patterns on the brick, that startling yellow cake of soap – what on earth did they do with that thing? – and I also think of Mum dying. I think: What’s it like to take a last breath? Do you know? Did she know? 

 

IT’S PRE-COVID, the winter of 2019, and I’ve come home to Victoria from my other home in Perth. It’s twelve years since Mum died, and my brothers and I have finally gotten around to selling her house. She’d barely been in it a year when we were left with the unsettling almost-ness of it. There wasn’t enough time for the build-up of a life here, to truly accrue a shared memory to ache for. But Mum is in this house – in that gold light, that warm room, the window she wanted to put a reading couch by, the lawn she hoped to fill with trees. It was hers – her first own thing. No husband to look after, no kids to bring up. 

And to let this go, this: Her Thing. 

‘It’ll be so nice to write in Mum’s house,’ I say to friends and family in the weeks leading up to returning. I’m working on a novel, and have organised to stay at Mum’s for the month before settlement. ‘To say goodbye to it,’ I say. ‘Poetic,’ I add, though I don’t really know why it is. 

When I get there, I sit at Mum’s kitchen table and can’t write. I push paragraphs around like they’re nothing to do with me, like they’re in a foreign language, like they’re clumps of wood. I can’t imagine writing a good sentence ever again. 

I eat my breakfast and look around the room. Don’t you forget this, I say to myself. Don’t you dare forget this room. I run my hands down the walls as I walk to Mum’s bedroom every night. Don’t you dare forget this wall. I do a run up and slide on the hardwood floors in my socks. Don’t you forget this slippery floor. Don’t you dare. 

I’m staring at Mum’s rose bush one morning. I don’t know how long I’ve been doing it for when I realise I’m doing it. I call my brother and start crying at the sound of his voice. ‘I’m just very, very, very sad,’ I say to him, as if it isn’t obvious. He’s so kind to me in this moment. I find six pairs of Mum’s reading glasses. They’re the cheap ones you buy from the chemist. Mum was always losing them and so placed them in strategic positions around the house. I find her cheese knife with the duck handle. Her duck figurine. Her duck-motif bread box. My brothers and I still make fun of her for these duck things. I sell her furniture on Gumtree, one piece at a time, like they’re being picked off in a horror movie. I find an old book with the inscription: ‘To our dear little Jenny, on your tenth birthday, From Mum & Dad.’ I picture my mum little, my mum ten, my mum alive. My nan and pop my age – younger, even. The handwriting of the dead to the dead.

The neighbours are out one night and their dog whimpers, and I find myself listening intently to the sound of it, as if I’ll learn something from it.  

 

I WALK THE suburban streets in the early evenings. I don’t really know these streets. It wasn’t the area we grew up in, and I haven’t spent much time here. The lawns of her suburb are lined with gum trees, and the trees are splayed open, wild. I love them. They look like some compelling aunty, just returned from a distant land with stories to tell, dangling jewellery, hands high in the air – ta-da!

On my walks the sun lowers like it’s no trouble at all, in that steadying way it does every day. I’m used to the sunsets over the ocean in Perth now, the obvious beauty of the scene, how it brings a day into focus, people lining the beaches like it’s the second coming. I have to search for the sunset here, find the top of a hill somewhere, see its reflection in the clouds streaking out over roofs.

All those lives in there, I think, walking past house after house. All those loves and deaths and griefs. All those hopes and breaking hearts. Packaged up in brick boxes with warm lights and evening news and all that careful green grass. The streets are so quiet, apocalyptic almost, but the people with lives are in there, I know. I see them pull their bins in, wave to their kids in the mornings, jog out of their doors on the weekends. 

Sensor lights turn on like creepy magic as I walk by. The streetlamps bow down towards me, offering their light. There’s a kindness to their posture, a servitude, and I almost cry with the thought. And then the night sky: pop, pop, pop

 

I HAVE AN appointment with a doctor. It’s the first time I’ve been to this practice, so they need my medical history. There’s a form to fill in that says: ‘Mother: Deceased/Alive?’ and, next to it, ‘Father: Deceased/Alive?’. Underneath are choices to tick or leave blank.

Stroke. Heart disease. Cancer.

Here are the ways your parents can die – if they haven’t already, it seems to say. Oh, and the way you can die too, it adds. 

I circle ‘Deceased’ and tick ‘Other’ for my mum. ‘Alive’ and ‘Heart disease’ for my dad.

‘Your dad’s alive but your mum’s deceased?’ the doctor says. He seems kind and gentle, and there’s a framed photo of four smiling grown children on his desk. 

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘It was twelve years ago,’ I say. ‘In a freak accident,’ I add, knowing he’ll be curious, giving him enough information so we can stop talking about it. 

‘Oh,’ he says, not looking at me, squinting at the sheet of paper. ‘A car accident, or…?’

I don’t really know why he’s asked this. It doesn’t seem relevant. ‘Kind of,’ I say. I’m annoyed. ‘You might have heard about it at the time. It was in the news. She was crushed to death by her car door when she accidentally drove into a gate.’ 

I don’t usually answer this question as crudely as this. I realise that I want to punish him for asking, that I want to make him feel as uncomfortable as possible. 

‘Oh,’ he says. He’s flustered. ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ he adds, typing into his computer.

‘Thanks,’ I say. 

 

A FRIEND’S DAD dies unexpectedly. Their mum only died two years ago and the whole business seems outrageously unfair. When I arrive at the funeral there’s a large smattering of stunned people and I hug the youngest son – my age – and say, ‘How are you?’ His face when I say it, the quick change of it, as if I’ve delivered a round kick directly into his stomach. It’s an unanswerable, cruel question, of course, and it’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever said to a human being. I immediately feel terrible, shocked at my own social incompetence.  

‘I literally have a PhD in death and grief,’ I say to a friend later, using ‘literally’ in that redundant way American girls and Jamie Oliver first did, and that new way so many of us use for emphasis now. ‘And I still say the wrong thing.’

 

ONE NIGHT I sit on the floor in the spare bedroom, my knees crossed on the carpet, my back against the white wall. The floor is covered in my mum’s vases and trinkets and glassware, spread out in neat lines and rows.

‘Do you spark joy?’ I say out loud. 

I don’t know if they do, or if they don’t. 

I have a folder in my hand that reads lawyer stuff, coroner stuff on the front. It’s my writing from twelve years ago.

Inside, there are police statements: from the postman, a family friend, who identified Mum’s body; from the elderly woman Mum was visiting when she died; from my older brother, who was living with Mum at the time. And from the man who found her – who tried to save her.

It’s 10.30 in the morning and he’s driving home from work for a break. He stops when he sees a woman hanging out of a car door in his neighbour’s driveway. He describes reaching into the car, above her body, and around the doorframe to unlock the back door. Climbing into the back and unlocking the front passenger door. Putting the car in reverse and using his hands to press the accelerator. He has to move her feet out of the way.

When he rings the ambulance, they ask him to perform CPR. He replies that he doesn’t think there’s much point. 

I often wonder what I’d do if I saw a stranger, dead like that, and I often wonder about this man, who he is, how he is. If he’d ever seen a dead body before. If he ever thinks about my mum.

 

I LOST MUM’S wedding ring last year. It slid off my thumb and disappeared into the Indian Ocean without me noticing. My friend paced up and down the shoreline, his eyes urgently scanning the sand. Sometimes I imagine her ring on the bottom of the ocean floor, or that some tiny fish is wearing it out there as a crown.

I still drive her car, the one she died in, and it’s rusting feverishly thanks to the air from the same ocean. The petrol cap barely opens and closes. When I have to drive long distances I hire a car because I don’t trust it. My mechanic is so lovely to me about it. ‘I understand keeping a car for sentimental reasons,’ he says. ‘I still have my first car. And it burst into flames once.’ 

‘That’s a good benchmark,’ I say. ‘As long as it doesn’t burst into flames, I can keep it.’

‘Even if it does,’ he says. ‘That’s what I’m saying!’ 

I sit at her kitchen table, eating my breakfast, looking around the room. Where does she go, if I can’t sit in this car, can’t wear this ring, can’t be in this house? Where does she go if I forget her in my own head?

Where does she go?

It’s twelve years on, and still – the wrench of this. 

 

THE MONTH IS up. It’s the night before I leave. I’m just about to turn forty. I’ve organised a small party at my friend’s holiday house in coastal New South Wales and I’m starting the nine-hour drive there early the next morning. 

I’m sitting in Mum’s walk-in wardrobe, on the floor. It’s the most intimate part of the house for me, the room I’ll miss the most. My brothers and I sat in there for hours together when she first died – talking, our backs leaning into her clothes. Her smell, that tight space. How close we felt to her body in there. It was the closest thing to it we had. 

Fuck it, I think. I pull the inflatable mattress and sleeping bag into her wardrobe. It’s an odd, childish thing to do, but it’s what I want to do, so I do it.

I turn off the light. I don’t want to go to sleep. 

Don’t you forget this wardrobe. 

Don’t you forget this moment. 

Don’t you dare. 

In the morning, it’s still dark when I close Mum’s front door for the last time. I sit in the hire car and stare back at the house, like I’m at a very obvious stakeout and the worst detective ever. The streets are quiet, the houses dark. I know you’re all in there, I think. 

I don’t want anyone to die. 

You can die in three minutes, you can die tomorrow, you can die slow or fast, you can die in fifty years, you can die, you can die, you will die, you will. So what do you do with this? 

What do you do? 

Where does she go?

But I just start the car and drive away, like that’s the answer, like I’ve been leaving defining moments in my wake my whole damn life. I drive past the dark houses, past the buoyant gum trees, under the nurture of the streetlamps, through all that light and dark, like it’s nothing at all, like it’s everything at once, like I know exactly where I’m headed. 

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