It could not have been more ugly. A grey Remembrance Parks no-brand urn. To cater for/cancel out all tastes. Trying so hard not to be what it so clearly was. Modern death is all about discretion. Your name and d.o.d. were printed underneath.
I held it. I held you. The weight surprised me.
It was also impenetrable. We needed a range of kitchen implements to prise the stopper out.
Ash is a misnomer; it is more like fine gravel. A device called a cremulator grinds the bone fragments into tiny shards. If its function were to make perfume from wild flowers, would I find the word beautiful? In Japan, where they do death so well, family members use large chopsticks to separate the bones and arrange them the right way up. This is why the Japanese never pass food between chopsticks.
I would like to have clearer memories. I try to remember the last film we saw together; the last book we discussed; the last photo; the last conversation. Writing offers me a firm surface in a shifting landscape. You were our memory bank. Your memories are gone and ours a mere palimpsest, but they are all we have. I read somewhere that all memoirs should have a metaphorical container. It is not a word I like. I think of Tupperware and shipping. ‘Contained’ suggests restraint, shadows of violence. The Latin origins, however, are poetic. Con (altogether) + tenere (to hold). We held you. Altogether. I remember the containers that held you for 30 years: a coffin, an urn, the wheelchairs, your bed, my body.
In the funeral parlour, the array of coffins provided an illusion of control over death. I felt an inappropriate urge to laugh. We chose a plain pine coffin with rope handles. It was environmentally sound. It cost more. We couldn’t imagine you in anything glossier.
We gathered for the funeral—con/tenere. Lopsided shoulders of friends lowered you onto a trestle table your pa had made. A Joe Pug song lifted the bush silence like a backyard cantor: ‘I am the tracks we laid above. / I am the tunnel running under.’ The bees hovered above the gum blossoms on your pine box.
Life as we know it would cease if all the bees died. It seemed fitting that a few stray ones chaperoned you inside the hearse as it was driven down the track. I stood by the mailbox and watched your last dusty ride.
We were told the exact time you would be cremated. We sat beside the quiet reflections of the dam. I imagined it as described by George Bernard Shaw: ‘the feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet colored lovely flame, smokeless and eager’. You too, my son, became ‘that beautiful fire’. The body that had lost faith with you, untethered. Looking for symbols in everything, I glimpsed an eagle circling high above.
My niece’s little boy asked at your funeral if the wheelchair had died too. In a way it has. You have left it. It is an inanimate empty machine. It stands (is that the right word?) in the garage surrounded by a peeling wardrobe, wood heater and paint cans.
A sad still life.
A succession of bright-blue electric wheelchairs embraced you from the age of seven. You experienced gravity with your feet on the earth for only five years of your life. Such white, soft soles when you died. You were diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (always a medical mouthful) at three years old. I had nightmares about the future wheelchair. It was what I feared most. How to speak of it. I hated it. But the wheelchair was not the enemy.
As the sun rose each day, like Helios you drove your flaming chariot from east to west, batteries replacing gleaming horses. You were not wheelchair ‘bound’ or ‘confined’. You could not move without it but it could not move without you. A co-dependence but an enabling one. It took you everywhere. If the wheels had been permanent markers, there would be bold lines crisscrossing continents. It was your command centre.
You wrote in primary school ‘what I would like most to do is walk’. Later you wrote, ‘The thing I would most hate to lose is my electric wheelchair because I could not move around.’ Where you ended, the wheelchair began. As your muscles deteriorated, the wheelchair grew new and more elaborate parts. In the National Gallery a group of bemused Chinese tourists circled you. Emboldened and with halting English, they asked me if you were a robot. You laughed.
Your brain, unlike your heart, lungs and so much of your body, was not a muscle. It did not waste away. Your body was ballast but your mind soared. We trailed behind on the drag ropes, until you let us go.
A green, fading, patched rubber mattress. Air filled, plugged in and humming. At night, for years, I unfurled your body onto it. I still feel your phantom weight. Alternating air cells massaged your frail body and dreams. It enfolded you. In the blissful prelude to sleep, the ego is quiet. Your mental travelling began. Thank God (or whatever) you could always talk when there was so little else left. The Japanese believe the voice box bone is special because it is in the shape of Buddha sitting in prayer. I found the image comforting. The times spent beside your bed. The best of times—singing aloud to Nick Cave; pondering philosophical questions; listening to Late Night Live, and—the worst of times—4 am. A time the Polish poet Czełosz Miłosz describes as ‘when even the ants are unhappy’. The bed I stood beside stroking away pain. The bed I watched you die on.
My body was your organic vessel with no hard edges. I enjoyed being pregnant; I loved the sense of complicity. I wonder at what point a genetic mutation—‘sudden departure from a parent type in one heritable character’—occurs? It conjures horror movie mutants. I picture myself, smugly unaware in my maternity denim overalls; it was the 1980s after all.
The night you were born, I clambered into the Holden, my dressing-gowned bulk constricting deft movements. The dashboard lights were overly bright. I was greeted with a wheelchair. The irony is not lost on me. I refused. The country doctor had dirt under his fingernails as if he had just come in from gardening. An ‘assisted delivery’ that didn’t feel like assistance. Forceps: ‘smooth metal objects that look like large tongs, curved to fit around the baby’s head’. You were pulled violently from your cosy pouch. Dark hair dark eyes wet eyelashes.
A beauty you bore for life. The crowded faces above me looked unhealthy, too friendly and too close, anticipating thanks. Closing my eyes, I shut them down. I felt only your warm smooth downy head against my
It is nearly a year since you died. You died. You did not pass away. You are not lost. ‘One great use of words is to hide our thoughts,’ wrote Voltaire. I don’t want to hide my thoughts.
When you died I held your face again. Bearded now, it scratched against my face. You were there half my life. You took up so much space. As your sister said at your funeral, ‘We are a little family now.’
We return to the place you were/are contained, in the sense of ‘included as a part of’. You wrote your thesis about Wilsons Promontory. Your last time there you drove your wheelchair, with difficulty now, along the firm sand of Tidal River. On Norman Bay you didn’t glide along the low-tide mark, scattering blue crabs. On the verandah of a continent you watched the waves over and over in the act of becoming.
I thought of you on that last shore when I read a few months later: ‘The newest island on earth has bubbled from the ocean. There are thousands of seabirds laying eggs … it is not named for fear it will sink back into the sea again.’
There is something humbling about a newly created island. It comes, flourishes and is gone. It seems superstitious and disrespectful to leave it unnamed. I thought of a baby stillborn, stillnamed. I thought of you. A briefly erupting island—named, fiercely mapped, loved—before sinking back (softly) into the sea.
Marg Hooper lives among the ironbarks in country Victoria. She has always been an avid reader.