In Two Voices
It took me time fully to grieve … It took me more time to realise that, just as becoming
a father smashes one’s understanding of the world, losing a parent does the same:
you cross a shadow line, a boundary others can never or may not ever notice.
—David Miller, ‘The final goodbye to my father’, Guardian, 23 April 2011
I woke with the knowledge that something had shifted. There was a presence inside me, solid at the heart centre that quietly but surely told me I was in a new world. Death was coming into my life, and it had its own schedule.
I’d spent the previous week trying to ‘get things ready’, ‘tidy up’ the loose ends of the semester so that I’d be able to make myself fully available to my father’s dying, which the doctor had led us to believe was still some weeks away. But that Wednesday morning, words spoken by the palliative care nurse over the phone jarred with the doctor’s prognosis only ten days earlier. She thought my father had reached the terminal stage.
It was unusually still outside for us in the foothills, used to morning easterlies tapping at the back doors. The solid feeling inside me was just as still. It did not frighten me, but it arrested me. My work for the day ahead seemed very clear, and did not involve the list of tasks that waited for me on my office desk, nor the gathering for conference delegates that I’d organised with a colleague from a different university. I sent her an email:
Very unfortunately, I have to give my apologies for our gathering this afternoon. My father is seriously ill, and I need to be with him and his carer today, and may well be cancelling all appointments for the next few days.
And she replied:
So sorry to hear this, Helena. My very best wishes and hope his health improves.
It mattered to me that Rachel might think my father was simply unwell, and would improve. I worried that it didn’t seem reason enough to pull out of our event. But more than that, I felt keenly that my dad wasn’t going to get better. An awful thing was happening to me. My father was leaving me and I needed her to know. I sent back:
Thank you, Rachel … He’s on his way out. Not sure when. Thanks again.
• • •
On a Wednesday afternoon I sat upstairs in the Varsity Bar talking to writing colleagues from three universities about a forthcoming national conference. We were all distracted and confused, partly because of the loud music but mostly because it was the day Donald Trump was elected and we were trying to accept that the unimaginable had happened. In between times, I was thinking of Helena and wondering how her father was, knowing very well the worry about an ageing parent. Driving home, I couldn’t bear to listen to the radio and instead played a Bach CD.
It was the next morning that my sister rang me to say that our mother had suffered another stroke. It was not a surprise; she’d had several strokes over the years and had been increasingly unwell recently. But this time, it seemed more serious. Eight days later my mother died.
• • •
I had driven past the funeral parlour many times and never once contemplated that I’d have cause to go inside. That day, my two sisters were preparing to enter when I arrived with my husband and one of my sons. They came to me and hugged me from each side. We were in birth order, I in the middle, but as the largest of us I felt awkward, a trunk in the centre.
My eldest son was still to arrive, and I didn’t like the idea of him going inside alone. My sisters went ahead of me, but at the last moment I pulled the youngest back and gripped her arm. ‘Check him for me. What he looks like. If he’s the same.’
It was hot; a few seconds in the sun felt too long. And I was worried about the brief 30 minutes we’d been allocated. My husband nudged me. ‘Go inside. I’ll wait.’
The woman who came to meet me was small and slim. She wore a navy skirt and blazer and her hair was in a bun. When she smiled, I felt it was just for me. She offered me water, but I was anxious to go on. Like the horses dad had loved to back, I was at the gate and ready to bolt. She led us down a hallway and when the door opened and I caught my first sight of him relief tumbled out of me: ‘Dad, there you are!’
Then it was as if there was no-one else in the room: the woman, the son who’d come with me. It was just my father and I. He was laid out straight, and his lids covered eyes that seemed too large to be his, but he wasn’t too cold or too pale. He didn’t seem tampered with. And the blue denim shirt and dark jeans my sister had picked out were just right. He was recognisable. He was dad. I kissed his hand. I dropped my head onto his broad forehead. I felt the bristle
on his chin.
When I lifted my head there were damp stains on his shirt. I laughed and then, or a moment later, my husband was in the room too, and our eldest with his motorcycle helmet on his arm, and I was chatting like an excited child, never letting go of dad’s hand. And although I felt such joy, when I looked into my son’s eyes I knew that I wasn’t as together as I thought, because the pitying look that he returned to me said it all.
• • •
My son says, ‘I know you might not agree with this, Mum, but I think granny is in heaven.’
‘Well, she was a good person, so she’s certainly not in hell!’ I realise this is a sneaky way of replying: I don’t have beliefs about the afterlife and my mother was also agnostic. Just a few days before her death, she said she had no religious beliefs and was not afraid of death, even though she considered it final. But I want my son to make up his own mind about such things. And I’m very sorry he has lost his grandmother while he is still a teenager.
‘I’m glad you agree, Mum, it makes me less sad.’
‘That’s good, darling.’ I don’t know what sort of ‘heaven’ my son imagines, but I have an image of my mother having a cup of tea there, as she always did on earth, at 4.00 pm.
‘People in some cultures would say she’s walking with her ancestors now. That’s a good thought, isn’t it?’ I suggest.
‘Yes.’ He thinks a bit. ‘And she hasn’t gone, she’s still here in our memories.’ He touches his chest when he says memories and it reminds me of the time he described his heart as a treasure chest. ‘Don’t be sad, Mum,’ he continues, hugging me.
I don’t know why, but this conversation comforts me.
• • •
‘Dad, there you are.’ I called this out again, loudly, in the car going 100 k an hour as I drove to my workplace. In that locked capsule, I felt my father was near. Beside me. I had him to myself.
That sentence burst out of me many more times in the weeks following the time I saw my father’s body in the funeral home. In his dying I’d learned how vulnerable we are to the actions of others. How tenuous our rights and needs can be when reliant upon another’s good grace. How insensitive someone could be to the personhood of others. As her fear of losing dad gripped her, my father’s friend and carer ceased to see the person in each of his children. There was only one person losing dad. And it wasn’t me, or any of my siblings. When he died, she reneged on her promise to let us know that he’d passed. She called the night nurse instead, who visited, completed the necessary paperwork, and comforted her. By the time my sister, dad’s eldest child, was informed, my father’s body had been taken away from his home. We didn’t know where. And we couldn’t get to him.
• • •
My dear father passed away last Sunday evening. I’m glad that I listened to my heart and spent the extra time with him, even though it meant missing gatherings like our pre-conference drinks. It is a very sad time.
I’m so sorry to hear about your dad; my condolences. I’m very glad you spent time with him.
Strange and sad coincidence—my mother died on Friday and I took all last week off to be with her. Her funeral is this Wed.
• • •
The day after my mother’s funeral, a sympathy card arrives from a friend. The inscription is so kind that I pick up the phone to call my mother and tell her about it. Later the same week I buy chocolate biscuits as a treat for her. I keep hearing interesting things on the radio and thinking I must tell her about them.
Planning her funeral, clearing her house, she is so much in my mind, I don’t quite realise she is dead. It’s as if these final tasks are still services I offer her. I want to do them well for her, but how could it matter to her now? There is a kind of time lag; my mind hasn’t caught up with events.
• • •
Dying is, of course, the death of a body, the cessation of the active processes of living. But dying is experienced in the bodies of others as well. It is intimate, entwining. I was closer, physically, to my father in his last weeks than I’d been since I was a baby; I have a photo of him holding me, naked, against his chest.
Once when I was a young mother I woke in the middle of the night knowing that I’d lost my baby. He wasn’t on either side of me, he hadn’t fallen out of bed onto the floor. In my panic, I moved my foot and felt a lump deep under the blankets. My six-week old had wriggled to the bottom of the bed. Over the years I cared for small children there was no real space between their bodies and mine, even when we were physically separated. As if some part of my body remembers this sometimes, still now, when one of my adult sons walks past, my hand reaches out to him and brushes the air between us.
While my father was dying, I couldn’t get enough of his skin. I stroked his forehead, brushed his hair, pushed teaspoonsful of Greek soup through his lips. Once I accidentally jammed his hand in the safety rail of his bed. In his drug-addled sleep he hissed, ‘Fuck!’ It was three days between my father’s passing and the ‘viewing’ at the funeral home. For three days my heart had wandered, looking for him.
• • •
I kept some of my mother’s CDs and today I am listening to the English Baroque Soloists singing Bach cantatas. I play Bach because it is thinking music, the most ordered, least romantic of her CDs. It’s a family thing: we use our intellect to try to understand feelings, a hopeless task I know. On the back of the CD cover is a round sticker on which is written ‘Given to me by my children on my 80th birthday’. I’m trying to imagine what my mother would have added on a new sticker if she were me. Perhaps, ‘Inherited by me just a few months before my mother’s 90th birthday’. But she wouldn’t have liked the vagueness of ‘just a few months’; precision would have been required. She was always mildly amused and puzzled by my lack of precision.
This is one of the things I feel most: that she knew me in a particular and precise way that no-one else ever has or will and that is not the way I know myself. Now that knowledge, that knowing, has gone.
Now the initial tasks of letting people know and arranging for the funeral and death certificate are done, I feel a sense of vacancy. Dying and death is such an event, a happening, but the aftermath seems to be the opposite. Mourning, I suppose, is the absence of event. It is in some ways frighteningly abstract.
For eight years, since her first stroke, we have been looking after my mother. To offer that sort of care, to have it (reluctantly) received, to witness her struggle with living and then dying firsthand—these are privileges not everyone gets. It felt right, as well as confronting, to be with her in her final days, in her own home. Now there are no more jobs to be done for her. She no longer needs me.
• • •
By my father’s graveside we were a small gathering of the bereaved kept a safe distance, by evenly spaced funeral attendants, from the deep hole framed at the surface by wooden planks. The priest poured wine and olive oil onto the sunken coffin, and then it was our turn to approach. I wanted to kneel down beside the mound of sand and scoop it up with my bare hands, but an attendant got to the mound first and filled his gloved hands and stood between us and the sand. So we filed past him and took a pinch of soil to drop into the hole.
The priest left, then the funeral attendants and our director with the blue suit and bun, who approached each of us separately to say goodbye. And then my siblings and mother and uncle went ahead to the restaurant where we’d planned to have lunch. After the last car pulled away I went to the side of dad’s grave. The toes of my sandals poked over the edge. I knelt on the plank and looked down onto dad’s liquid-splashed and rose-scattered coffin. When I stood up my husband and three sons gathered around me and we formed a cavern in our togetherness that was a dark and quiet space in that bright, sunny day. It was a darkness, a shadow, that I’d never known before.
• • •
In some ways I think my mother was more present to me in her old age than she was in my childhood. Many years ago I wrote a short story called ‘Missing Presumed Happy’, which was about a girl whose mother left her without warning or explanation when she was seven years old and then suddenly reappeared at her doorstep 25 years later. When my mother read the story, I mentioned to her that it was, of course, fiction. She looked at me for a while and then said, ‘Maybe it’s true in one way. My work kept me busy when you were young.’ I was amazed, both that she would think this and also that she didn’t seem upset or uncomfortable by her interpretation of my story. (This is just one example of the way my mother’s clear-sighted intelligence often confounded me.)
I think many of us feel our parents were missing in some way, or less available to us than we would wish. Something about that long reversal of mother–daughter roles, though, has transformed any sense of abandonment that I might once have felt. It’s as if my mothering of her as she aged helped mother the child in me.
• • •
I have yet to pull my paper together for the conference, and am now relieved for the reduced ten-minute presentation limit. I’m also feeling on the back-step for not having met the other delegates at the drinks gathering, so I look forward to catching up at the conference. I’ll see you in Canberra.
I’m booked to fly to Canberra on the Friday (to have a weekend there before the conference)—I feel a bit shell shocked so I expect I’ll just go, as changing plans is too hard … Anyhow, I’ll see you there.
• • •
It was a small collection of mementos: a pair of binoculars, a pack of playing cards, a book of Greek recipes, several photocopies of a poem about dogs, and one box of books, about crime and history and war and Hollywood movie stars. He’d always wanted his grandchildren to have his books, but I have only a small selection to share with them. It didn’t take me long to divide what I had between my sons. I’m waiting for the right time to give these things to them. That will be soon, I hope.
• • •
A friend emails to me that losing a mother is ‘like losing a part of our foundation’. Another friend tells me that she felt lost for two years after her mother died. And one or two of my friends ask me if I’m going okay. But generally, there are few occasions for conversations about death or grief. Since for someone in midlife the death of an ageing parent is expected, in the natural order of things, it is not something people talk about or remember after the first week or so. All the same, the death of someone close to us is always significant. Now that both my parents have died, something fundamental has changed, though it is too early for me to know what that something is. Perhaps it is the ‘shadow line’ that Miller speaks of, an invisible boundary we cross without any understanding of our crossing. Perhaps it is that there is no longer a parent ahead of us, separating us from death: now, only time does that.
Now we wait. •
Helena Kadmos teaches literature and creative writing at Murdoch University. She has published creative nonfiction and short stories in Australia and the United States, including pieces in Westerly, Eureka Street and Indigo. Her research focuses on the short-story cycle and its re-emergence in Australian literature.
Rachel Robertson is a writer and senior lecturer at Curtin University. She is author of the memoir Reaching One Thousand and co-editor of the anthology of women’s writing Purple Prose. Her creative work has been published in Westerly, Australian Book Review, Griffith Review, Island and Best Australian Essays.