Anatomy of an Arsehat

I think we human beings have a big problem. We spend millions of dollars every year in search of this problem, it is taught to us as children by our parents, by our religion, by our politicians, and it causes more psychological and emotional grief than any of us realise. It is the pursuit of perfection. For some reason, there is an unnamed paragon of virtue that exists somewhere in the world that we are supposed to live up to at every moment of the day, every day of the year for as long as we live. Some people call this paragon Christ, which is cool, except he was a human being just like the rest of us. Others call this person Gandhi, or Mother Teresa or some other such public figure that is held up to be superhuman in their goodliness. That’s the thing. We are supposed to be “good” all of the time, and one slip into not-goodness means we are crap human beings who should be forever vilified and tarred and feathered and left out to rot and be fodder for vultures and hyenas.

I’m sorry, but that doesn’t make sense. In fact, it’s a bunch of bullshit. We are not Prometheus tied to a rock. Our livers are not to be consumed on a daily basis by a Chianti-and-fava-bean-loving eagle because Zeus said so. I defy anyone to put their hand up and declare that they have never in their lives snapped at someone they love, or lied a little, or pushed in front of someone in a queue, or not let that car in that’s been waiting to pull out into traffic for 20 minutes, or any number of little not-good things. Okay, let’s raise the stakes a little. Who can say that they haven’t cheated on a partner, or treated a family member badly, or embellished a sickness for attention, or called someone names, or behaved cruelly or like a brat or like an immature douche bag? Seriously peeps, look deep inside yourselves. Every single one of us has done something – usually to someone else – that we feel bad about. If we allow ourselves to look back on that act, we feel a sick, prickly sensation behind our sternum, blood rushes to our face, we feel hot and twitchy. If you don’t feel these things, you’ve either come to terms with your humanness and therefore deserve some sort of delicious biscuit, or you’re a sociopath and don’t care. No judgement there. Good for you.

Something I hear from a lot of friends is this notion of “deserving” things. I don’t like this idea of a rewarding Universe/God/whatever, as if ticking all these boxes of good deeds will earn us the spiritual equivalent of a free toaster oven. The Universe gives us what we ask for. Period. It doesn’t care if we’re “good” or “bad” or indifferent because the Universe has no ego and neither will it get a free gift if it recruits more souls. Our behaviour is our responsibility, no one else’s. Whether we are “good” or “bad” is entirely our choice, and our accountability for that choice is what means something. As I’ve said to my partner, my friends, and anyone who cares to listen to me pontificate, I don’t actually care what you’ve done as long as you own it. And because we all have the capacity to be an arsehat for various reasons we all know the feeling of embarrassment and shame in the admitting of it. I have moments of looking back at my behaviour towards past partners and cringing at my assholery. The fact that I was very sick at the time holds no water as I still feel responsible for my actions – as I should. But bashing myself in the head because of past behaviours that I have admitted to and apologised for (when given the chance) serves no purpose except for ensuring I feel shit for longer and giving myself a headache.

Of course, there are people who actively abuse others. This is something completely different from people just being arseholes. Abuse happens more than it should and if it’s emotional abuse it’s difficult to prove. There is no excuse for abuse and those who abuse others for whatever reason, in my opinion, are people who desperately need help themselves. The definition of abuse is thus: to treat with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly; to speak insultingly, harshly, and unjustly to or about; revile; malign; to commit sexual assault upon. As someone who has experienced all of these things, I can tell you that abuse has the propensity to seriously affect and/or destroy lives.

However, there is a trend at the moment on some social media sites (tumblr, I’m looking at you) in which arsey behaviour from a partner, workmate or family member is being labelled as abuse, specifically a form of abuse called Gaslighting. Gaslighting is a term used for a form of emotional abuse. As a fellow blogger Alfred MacDonald states: “There are several definitions of this term, but in a nutshell it refers to the act of trying to deceive someone into a false reality by discrediting their emotions. Like most mental health terms, it describes something serious; also like most mental health terms, it is ubiquitously misused.” I’m not going to go into this too much as it’s a detailed and complex issue, but accusing someone of abuse when their behaviour is not abusive is as much of an arsehole act as anything else. Having said that, the accusation in itself is a cry for help, so like everything arsey that we do there should be a measure of understanding in how this behaviour is dealt with.

To recap: being an arsehole is not being an abuser. Being an abuser is waaaaay more serious than being an arsehole. Learning the difference between the two is advantageous for happy life-living.

Back to the issue at hand. In my little world view, if you are sorry for hurting someone, if you acknowledge your accountability in a toxic relationship, if you can raise your hand and say “yep, it was me, I fucked up”, then no one should use your behaviour as evidence that you are a horrible person. Because no one is infallible. No one really has the right to point the finger at any one else and make a judgement on their character because, let’s face it, everyone’s an arsehat at some stage of their life. Everyone. We’re supposed to be because we’re not perfect. And truthfully, as much as we’re all connected and have this shared knowledge of emotional responses, no one really knows what anyone else has experienced. We’re all equipped with different tools for dealing with these experiences, and some are better at dealing with this shit than others.

Of course, this knowledge by no means should be used as an all-access pass to the arsewipe expo. Running around being a dick on purpose and then saying “oh, I’m sorry. I’m just being human” is not cool. The point is, try not to be a dick. If you are a dick despite all your best efforts, own it, accept the consequences of it, fucking apologise, and move on. Here endeth the lesson.

 

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Being Silenced


I like to think of myself as a humanist. All people are equal in my eyes. Some I like, some I do not like, but in terms of race, religion, creed, sexuality, gender, or culture, I endeavour to respect that essentially everyone is the same and should be treated as such. If I don’t like someone, it will probably have more to do with how they treat me or others and much less to do with any discernible “difference”.

However, I am now going to vent my spleen on an issue that has been grating my goat for a while now. I grew up with two older brothers, one of whom would habitually talk over me, interrupt me, and contradict me from childhood all the way up to my late 20s. My father – until I pulled him up on it – would regularly respond to any opinion I had on any subject with “no” as the first word out of his mouth. I’ve had male partners tell me to shut up because I dared to intelligently argue against them and they couldn’t win said debate. I’ve had male bosses who hire male employees because they’re less likely to sue them for sexual harassment (this is not conjecture, this boss actually said that to me). I’ve had male bosses say to me that they prefer male employees because they don’t have “family problems” (my mother had just died and my female partner was unwell).

I’ve had male partners tell me what to wear, what to say and how to act in social situations. I’ve had male partners correct me in front of other people when I didn’t need to be corrected. I’ve had male partners undermine my intelligence in front of others, or make fun of me if I’ve said something funny (because women aren’t funny, apparently).

I’ve had teenage boys in classroom discussions challenge me on my feminist views of Lady Macbeth (“if she’s so happy being a woman and all that feminist stuff, why does she have to become a man to kill the king?” It’s called context, fuckhead. The play was written 500 years ago) just to get a rise out of me. I’ve had male directors dictate my actions to me, ignore my requests and concerns, and accuse me of bad acting because they’re The Boss, so I should just fall into line like a good girl.

I’ve had male partners rebuke me for crying, claiming that I’m trying to manipulate them with my tears. I’ve had male friends exclaim “that’s a big word for a little girl” if I use words with more than two syllables. I’ve had male police officers dismiss my claims of abuse because “women aren’t violent.” I’ve been told by more men than I can count to keep my mouth shut when opposing this treatment. I’ve been told to “go back to the kitchen”. I’ve been told to know my place.

Like many other women, I got used to it. I got used to it because it’s been happening all my life. My mother once said that she knew she wouldn’t have to worry about me in a man’s world because she knew I could look after myself. I shouldn’t have to “look after myself” in a man’s world. It shouldn’t be a man’s world. It shouldn’t be a woman’s world. It should just be a world, and I am really fucking sick of having to fight for my right to be treated like a human being in this world simply because I’m a woman.

The terrible thing is, most men don’t actually know when they’re undermining women. That’s because they’ve always done it and it’s never been a big deal and they’ve never been pulled up on it and that’s what they’ve subconsciously been taught to do since childhood. Fortunately, most of the men I know would be horrified to discover that they may have undermined a woman in their life. But there are some who get defensive or angry, even when they are gently chastised on their behaviour. There are some who even secretly believe that it’s their right because that’s just the way the world is.

The recent #YesAllWomen campaign (and the #NotAllMen response) is a clear indication on where the world stands. What I’ve described above has happened to every single woman I know, and I daresay it’s happened to every single woman on the planet, whether they’re aware of it or not. No, not all men are misogynist dickwads, but instead of getting all uppity and antagonistic at the women who’ve been subjected to this treatment, why not get angry at the men who are giving all the good guys out there a bad name? Tell them off for being the perpetrators instead of telling us off for being the victims. But that’s it, isn’t it? We live in a world that finds it easier to blame the victim instead of addressing the behaviour of the culprit.

Well, I’m done with it.

Look, I like men. I get on very well with most men. Most of my male friends like me because I’m upfront, honest, funny and open. But even those male friends fall into the trap of patronising me if I’m being a little too upfront, honest, funny and open. And I’m over it. I can take being treated like an arsehat if I’m behaving like an arsehat. If I’m not being an arsehat, however, I’d like very much to be treated like a human being.

My womanhood is not a disability. Neither is it a commodity, an affliction, a hindrance, or a hurdle to overcome. It is my strength, my mantle, my superhero cape, and my pride. I love being a woman. I love everything about being a woman. I reserve the right to defend being a woman until it no longer has to be something to defend.

And to the men out there? Treat me like a human being, whether you like me or not, and you will have my eternal respect. If not, well, be warned. I will not be silenced.

Fuck sexism.

The Lost Art of Compassion

My heart hangs low in my chest today. Eight people were killed by firing squad in Indonesia this morning as an attempted deterrent to drug smugglers everywhere. Eight people faced their killers, all of whom denied the offer of a hood. It is said they died with dignity, as dignified as being shot whilst tied to a plank can surely be.

I had a scathing post ready, full of zingers and well-crafted literary comebacks. I can’t do it now. My lowly opinion is nothing compared to the agony the families of these prisoners must be experiencing.

I have deliberately refrained from engaging in any online debate over the Bali Nine ringleaders and their fates. This is partly because up until recently I didn’t actually know a hell of a lot about it, and partly because I was afraid I’d end up getting into an argument with a friend or acquaintance which would eventually culminate in me losing respect for them and their opinion. But mainly, it’s because I can’t hide my disgust for the “average” Australian sitting in their comfortable suburban armchairs, yelling “kill the bastards” at their television. It hurts me how easily we can separate ourselves from others, how cozily we pass judgement, how ruthless we are in our dismissal of others’ pain, just because they broke the law. Just because they made a mistake. Who here on this planet has never made a mistake? I just wonder how gung-ho these armchair executioners would be if these men were their own family.

Yes, these people broke the law in a country that upholds the death penalty. Yes, they did the crime therefore they should do the time. I’m not arguing against Indonesia’s laws although I vehemently disagree with them. What hurts my heart is the callous indifference to the fact that these men are now dead. Dead by the hands of other men. Up until their execution I heard people give me all sorts of reasons why the Indonesian government should “kill the bastards”, including that the heroin they were trafficking would have claimed lives here in Australia. Okay, fair enough. But it didn’t. No lives were lost at the hands of Andrew Chan or Myuran Sukumaran with that heroin. (And please don’t lecture me on how heroin destroys lives, I know more about that than I care to. Even after my experience watching a loved one mess herself up with that drug, I still wouldn’t want anyone else’s death to be a payment for her life.) When discussing it with a friend few months ago, she told me she had no sympathy for Chan and Sukumaran because, irrespective of her own feelings about the death penalty, they broke the law. Pure and simple. I then said to her, “can you imagine what it would be like knowing you’re going to be shot in the heart by twelve faceless people?” She said she didn’t want to think about that. That made her feel horrible.

Yeah. Me too.

Truthfully? I don’t know what I want to say, other than I’m grieving for those men’s families. I grieve for those men who were by all accounts successfully rehabilitated and who took ownership of their crimes. I grieve for those countries who utilise state-sanctioned murder as a punishment, and I grieve for those who have died for their crimes in those countries. I grieve for those people who separate themselves from their compassion and empathy because it’s easy to do so from the safety of their own home. I grieve for those who are victims of crime and are still hurting so much that they feel someone else’s death will lessen that pain.

Sometimes people do stupid things for stupid reasons. They still do not deserve to die. To quote Professor Jeffrey Fagan who appeared as an expert witness for Chan and Sukumaran in 2007: “Executions serve only to satisfy the urge for vengeance. Any retributive value is short-lived, lasting only until the next crime.”*

That’s all I have to say.

*Quote from Fact check: No proof the death penalty prevents crime, published on 2 March 2015 on abc.net.au

Pain For Art

Around September of last year, one of my closest friends was hit by car in Berlin. I got the call early in the morning from his boyfriend, the words crashing into my head and bouncing around inside my skull.

“What? Oh my God, what? Are you okay?” It was all I could say, over and over again, my incredulity belying my shock. This doesn’t happen. This stuff happens to other people, not to my friends. I start to cry. My friend – the boyfriend – starts to cry. The voice in my head utters one word:

“Nope.”

That’s the thing about being a close friend but not the best friend. I couldn’t do anything except ineffectually offer consoling words and lots of ‘I love yous’ to my friend’s family and partner, and sit and wait to find out if he was going to come through the coma, then the brain injury, then the rehab, then the trip back home. Other friends wanted to send care packages full of cards, letters and photos; I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound trite and disingenuous, when all I wanted to say was “don’t die, okay?”

He didn’t die, and he has recovered like a boss, the only signifiers of his accident being the corrective glasses he has to wear (because one of his eyes was knocked out of place by the car) and two scars on the back of his head. He jokes about his accident all the time. It tickles me that he got hit by a car whilst very intoxicated, running across a Berlin road to reach an after-hours bakery. He almost died for cake. My kind of guy. He can still walk, talk, be funny, and most importantly, he can still write.

I’m rehearsing one of his plays at the moment, and, as always with his work, there’s something in my character which challenges the fuck out of me. The particular challenge of this play I’ll discuss later, but there’s an important piece of information about “Carol” that really didn’t hit me with any sense of brevity until last night: she suffers a brain injury. My friend, who’s directing, gave me a note about playing a particular scene in which Carol is on her journey of recovery, and he said dryly, “as someone who has a brain injury …” I must admit I stopped listening after that because the actuality of his situation smacked me in the face with such force that my mind went blank. And I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed for being a wanky actor trying to find the authenticity of this woman’s situation, congratulating myself on being such an intuitive and sagacious artiste that I could just pluck her emotions out of thin air, and here was someone I loved who experienced this thing sitting in front of me, all matter of fact and candid and non emotive and I had no idea how he got through it all, much less how I was supposed to convey that on stage. I was awestruck, and sad, and grateful all at the same time. I was humbled. Not only did my friend survive this incredible thing, he humbled me with it – no mean feat, let me tell you.

As an actor, my job is to reconstruct, represent, recreate, interpret and narrate a story; a journey, if you will, that one character goes through. This character is a fabrication, even if it’s based on an actual person, therefore one has license to embellish, colour and adorn that character’s personality. My goal with every character is to try to find the human in the fabrication. I try to make the character relatable, if not likeable (because sometimes I play really unlikeable personas), and I’m good at it. I know that. My wife tells me I’m a little conceited about it, and she’s right, but that’s only because it’s the one thing in my life that I’m 100% certain about. I know I can do this, whereas with everything else I only have a vague, hopeful surety that I’m kind of getting it right at least 50% of the time.

Having said that, even in the face of my own arrogance, I am humbled and blessed and thankful that my friend trusted me enough to give me the assignment of representing a small part of his story. He didn’t write this character based on himself, the play is based on several other true stories, but as fate, or divine will, or just a happy accident would have it, here is another opportunity for me to delve further into the mires of the human psyche and therefore learn more about myself.

So thanks, friend, for getting hit by a car so I can know myself better.

Christ, I’m such a wanker sometimes.

My friend has a blog. It’s very good. Check it out.

https://eisforestranged.wordpress.com

Love Isn’t Enough

Trigger warning: contains references to drug use, violence, abuse and rape.

I remember the first time it happened. We were in St Kilda East, opposite the cemetery. Stupid idea for two energetically sensitive people to live opposite a massive cemetery, but there you go. We were breaking up for the second time. I had confronted her about her return to drug use, and by confront I mean scream “fucking junkie” in her face. She punched me in the mouth, held me down on the bed and raised her fist to punch me again. She called me a dumb fuck, ugly bitch. I muttered for her to get out of my house. She did. I cried. I went in to work at the parlour the next night, my lip swollen and a blood blister forming. The girls took care of me, but all I wanted was her.

I begged her to come back. She did eight months later. By this time I had spent a few months living in a factory cultivating an amphetamine habit that I didn’t have to pay for, I had worked in Sydney for the first time and been anally raped by a client whilst there, and had been homeless for a while, bouncing from couch to couch. I had finally found a little flat to call home in St Kilda, and she came back. And then she left. And then she came back. Even when she was with someone else, she came back. This was to be the final two years of our relationship, this push me/pull you bullshit.

The second time it happened was at the flat. I had found needles and poorly written love notes from another woman. I confronted her again, this time adding “whore” to the well-versed “fucking junkie” routine. I slapped her because she called me stupid. She doesn’t remember this, but I do because she fractured my nose in retaliation. She slept in my bed that night, while I lay on the couch, sobbing. She was gone in the morning.

I punched the wall next to her head once because she stole my entire $700 pay packet to score some heroin. Then I took her to a Buddhist temple to be cleansed. She thought I was taking her somewhere to kill her. I guess she didn’t know how much I loved her, that regardless of how many fantasies I had of beating her up and throwing her off the balcony, I could never harm her. Love does that.

The last time was the last time anyone ever laid a hand on me again. I forget now what the argument was about. Probably drugs, again. I goaded her, that I remember. I pushed her hard with my words until she snapped. She held a knife to my throat and tried to smash my head through the kitchen window. Fuck, she was strong. I have strength, yes, but she was propelled by something more forceful. I couldn’t push her away. She suddenly let me go, grabbed her things, and stumbled out the door. I didn’t see her again for years.

I grieved for her for a long time. I thought she was The One for me because I felt so strongly for her. I didn’t realise until years later that the physical stuff was not the only abuse we heaped on each other. She lied to me constantly, about stuff that she didn’t even have to lie about. I called her names to hurt her because I couldn’t touch her. She stole money and jewellery from me. I read her private phone messages. She took drugs and worked at the parlour one New Year’s Eve instead of spending it with me, so I cheated on her with another woman – I was free to sleep with whatever man I wanted to, but I broke our one rule in spite. She shot up anything she could get her hands on. I cut myself. She’d proposition men for drugs. I laid on my back for her habit. We played stupid games with each other, her using, me enabling until we burnt ourselves out. We were like a supernova that imploded into a black hole.

The funny thing is, we loved each other fiercely. That’s probably why we lasted for five years all up. She still says that I was the perfect girlfriend. I beg to differ, but I loved her, there was no doubt about that. Sometimes, though, love isn’t enough. We were bad for each other. She lost herself in drugs and I lost myself in her. While we were together, terrible things happened to us and we weren’t in the frame of mind to get help. Our network was sex workers, brothel managers and drug addicts – people who had their own stories and horrors to contend with. We removed ourselves from our respective families because toxic relationships tend to make their inhabitants do that. Oh, there was love. In retrospect though, looking back years later, it is so clear that it wasn’t enough.

Ten years later, we’ve reconnected and we’re friends. Good friends. Some people raise their eyebrows at this. I guess I wanted her friendship because I refused to be the victim and I refused to make her the perpetrator. I’ve told very few people the particulars of this story because I still refuse to be the victim in this. I spent a lot of my life victimising myself because of the things that happened to me at the hands of others. I needed to, and identifying as a victim of abuse is very important for the healing process to begin. But by the time she and I were finished I was done with it, I was done with being the person bad things happened to. Therefore, I think, I was able to forgive. She and I have talked and talked and cried and talked about that time. She has apologised again and again, still does, to such an extent where I have to tell her to stop because she doesn’t need to anymore. I can see by simply spending time with her that she’s a completely different person now, as am I. I said my sorries to her too, as one thing this relationship taught me is that things are rarely one-sided.

I’ve suffered abuse. At the hands of my mother, at the hands of a child molester, at the hands of a few rapists, and at the hands of a lover. It does not define me, but I know more of this subject than I care to. No one can tell me otherwise.

If you know more of abuse than you’d care to, please get help. Talk to someone. Recovery is not about being angry at the person who hurt you (although that helps for a short time), it’s about finding a way to move on with love for yourself. Talk therapy helped me immensely. Maybe it can help you too.

This post is dedicated to this year’s Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, whose strength, resilience and bravery is an inspiration to many.

CASA
Support for victims of rape and sexual assault

http://www.casa.org.au

Family Drug Support
For families and loved ones of those with addictions

http://www.fds.org.au

ASCA
For adults surviving child abuse

http://www.asca.org.au

Victim Support Australia
Help for victims of crime

http://www.victimsupport.org.au

Child Wise
Help for victims of child sexual abuse

http://www.childwise.org.au

Domestic Violence Resource Centre
A very helpful site for those experiencing domestic violence, also caters to LGBTIQ

http://www.dvrcv.org.au/support-services/national-services

1800RESPECT
https://www.1800respect.org.au

Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association
Although there is no over-reaching national association, this page has links to other organisations that offer support and help to current and ex-sex workers. (Based in NSW)

http://www.scarletalliance.org.au

A Letter To My Mother

Dear Mum

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to fall from a great height and survive; what the impact of my body hitting the ground would feel like. Would I pass out? Or would I lie there, all the breath knocked out of me, at one with the moment?

Since you’ve been gone, I feel like I’ve jumped off a cliff and tried to fly. My back is fucked, I have a constant cough (probably more due to the amount of cigarettes I’m sucking down than anything else), my knee is giving out and I’m tired all the time. All the fucking time. My wife gave me a massage last night that left me in tears. In trying to fix my back, she released all this emotional garbage that was caught up in the muscles, sinews and tendons supporting my spine. I sobbed like a child, keening and hiccuping, like the world was ending. Something has to change.

Something has changed. The world has hit breaking point and I feel we are on the brink of a world war. This is what history has dictated since we have failed to learn from it. It may seem that all the conflict is oceans away from those of us here at the bottom of the world. Distance – usually a tyrant – is saving us from the immediacy of suicide bombs and guns and planes being shot from the sky. We weigh in our opinions on issues we know little about – not for lack of trying, but simply because what we are fed through mainstream media is homogenised, censored and spun into webs of carefully worded (dis)information. Those seeking transparency are labelled as kooks, naysayers and agitators. We as a people are being gently patted on the head and told not to worry, it’s too far away from us, here, have a free iPad!

A lot has happened in the world in the past two months since you passed. A man held up a chocolate store in Sydney. The country thought it was terrorism, when in reality it was one unhinged man on a rampage. Staff of a racist, xenophobic magazine were gunned down by religious extremists in France. Neither party was in the right as neither freedom of religion nor freedom of speech justifies such violence. Thousands of people were massacred in Nigeria. Nobody knew about it here because the victims weren’t white or Christian or American or important.

Evil isn’t so easily defined anymore. I’m afraid of what the world is becoming. I’m afraid of what I’m becoming. I’m so angry, quick to snap at anyone for anything, allowing myself to get dragged down by other people’s shit, hating on myself for getting a little bit fat, I’m publicly reacting to things I have no business reacting to, letting the little things become big deals. My wife is suffering; it’s been such a difficult year for her. She’s not been doing well; the pressure of the past year has finally gotten to her and the shit has hit the fan. She’s struggling with newly diagnosed depression, and I’m struggling to support her. She met you and you were a support for her and she needs you so much and now you’re gone.

Why aren’t you here? Why did you have to go? I am a child, because all I’m thinking about is my grief and what’s happening to me when all this stuff is going on in the world. The times I have thought how much I’ve needed you is triple the amount before you went. That’s funny, isn’t it? You were always there, always sending me cute emails, always ready to give help when I needed it, which in reality wasn’t often. Now that you’re not here, every time something goes wrong or a celebration is due, I feel your absence keenly. I’ve seen you no more than eight times in the last 19 years, but your energy was always with me. My brother assures me you’re now looking over me. I can’t feel it yet.

All I can feel is this emptiness. I’m lost. So very lost. Theatre, usually the saviour of my soul, holds no joy for me anymore. My home, usually my sanctuary, is threatened by malicious outside forces. My love for K, the thing I’ve fought for at the expense of friendship and my reputation, is buckling under the weight of somebody else’s hate. I want to run. We both want to run back home to the safety of you, but you’re not here anymore, and I’m so angry and sad and grief-stricken.

I needed to talk to you the other day. Not about anything in particular. Just to talk to you and hear one of your stories about Daisy the cow, or the crazy things you and your kin would get up to on the property, or the songs you would sing for Granddad. I wanted to hear more about your nursing days, about you parachuting out of planes and landing in the ocean, about the judo you learned so you could be safe and independent. I even wanted to hear the sorry story of you and my father, how you loved him, how you failed each other. I wanted to tell you that I’ve forgiven you for your violence towards me when I was a child, that I forgave you long ago, and that your death brought all of that shit back up again, and I had to reconcile who you were then with how you were before you died. Two different women. One I feared, the other I admired. One I grieved for, the other I celebrated. I wanted to tell you that I understood. I wanted to tell you how grateful I am that you saw and heard all the terrible things I did to myself and other people during those awful years of my twenties and that you loved me anyway. You never threw it in my face. You never told me you were disappointed. You just told me that you loved me, that I was your precious girl, and that you were so proud of me.

I had so little patience with you the last few years. You seemed so caught up in your pain and in your past. You would linger there, dwelling in all the things that hurt you, refusing to let go of that and see the present for what it was. I didn’t know, until you died and I was sitting on your bed in your bedroom, how hard you tried. I saw the symbols of your faith throughout your house: crosses, pictures of Buddha, your precious angels, notes to yourself reminding you to let go and be thankful. I saw those things and I felt so ashamed that I didn’t have more faith in you. My gods, you tried. You tried so hard. I’m so sorry.

I miss you. I miss you like nothing I’ve ever felt before.

I wish you were here.

My eternal love,

Missey

The Long Journey Home

Stepping off the plane onto the tarmac at Brisbane airport, I’m hit with a wave of sticky humid heat, like a slap in the face with a warm wet towel. My hair immediately responds with vigour, springing out from my head like little snakes, unruly and untameable. I am reminded one should never wear jeans in Brisbane.

Here ends the first leg of my journey home. I have a headache – a persistent sickly thud in my temples that has been present since the car ride to Melbourne airport. I have cried already today several times. My eyes are sore and the salt behind my contacts is making my vision fuzzy. I think back to the day already half gone: my brother Karl’s phone call at 7.30am (“get on a plane, sis”), having a bath to soothe an anxiety attack, phone conversations with my father, my cousin, my mum, the trip to the airport, K and I playing ‘spot the lezzy’ as we wait for me to board the plane. I think I cried as much for leaving her as I did for anything else.

Brisbane smells like salt; a sea breeze. The air is thick but fresh – an odd combination. I trundle my suitcase to the Airtrain while on the phone to K. This is my first experience of a layover itinerary. I had connecting flight jitters and needed the sound of her voice in my ear. I’m already thinking about the future and how lacking it will be without Mum. I feel ashamed, as if I’ve failed her somehow.

I board the flight to Auckland, my eyes puffy and red. The attendants take pity on me, asking if I’m all right. I smile that defeated smile of one who isn’t all right, actually, but has to be. They stow my baggage for me. I’m grateful for someone else taking control of that one little thing. In the plane, gaining altitude, I have the unexpected pleasure of witnessing an achingly beautiful sunset reflecting vaguely off the darkening Tasman Sea. It seems fitting, somehow. A last hurrah.

I knew Mum was going to go since I heard about the heart attack. When my brother told me of the plan for open heart surgery I got that cold prickly sensation in my chest. That knowledge and the acceptance of her impending death made me feel callous and cold, like I had given up on her already. But I know that feeling. I seem to have a gift for predicting doom.

K kept saying to me right up to the moment I left that Mum could pull through. My beautiful wife with her unending optimism when it comes to me; I wanted to jump on board with her. But I knew. My brother knew. Mum knew.

I sit, uncomfortable in the airplane seat, screaming kids everywhere, it seems. Their high-pitched whining is boring into my skull, and their mother sitting behind me talks too loud because she’s wearing headphones. The kid kicks the back of my seat. I want to yell at them to fuck off but I don’t because it must be hard mustering three kids on an international flight. I spill wine on myself because I’m clumsy and that’s what I tend to do without fail on any plane trip, so now I smell like bad South Australian Sauvignon Blanc. I’m starving, but I didn’t book the ticket with food, so I miss out. I begin to feel resentful and shitty, my weariness turning me into a brat. I just want to be there already.

Mum
I arrive in Auckland at silly-o’clock in the morning, met by one of my 50+ first cousins, Cleave. I’m already exhausted but I heave up my heart and am spirited away to the hospital. I am met at the hospital by a gaggle of my mother’s sisters. All these women, all eight of them, are alpha females. I can only imagine what that must have been like to contend with in a family of 13 kids, but at this moment I am glad of their staunchness. They prepare me as best as they can, but the sight of my mother hits me hard in the chest and my breath is knocked out of me. This woman, this strong, intimidating woman is now as fragile as a butterfly, her wings paper thin. She has been waiting for me. She cries as I take her hand. I cry. When will I ever stop crying? I sit with her as the aunties rally. They have stepped up to heights unimaginable. Their support and their love is as thick as syrup and I am enveloped by it. My mother has been safe in their care.

My brother, my poor, wrecked eldest brother walks into Mum’s room after catching a few hours’ sleep. He’s been here since yesterday, a constant presence. He looks like I feel: wasted, drained exhausted. Yeah, that is a word that will live with us for the next 24 hours. It will define us from here on in. Exhausted.

I hold Mum’s hand as my brother fills me in. My mother, weak but present, interjects.

“Missey, where are you?”

“I’m here, Mum.”

“What are you saying?”

“It’s okay, Mum,” my brother says. “I’m filling Kristina in on what you’ve been up to.”

My mother smiles benignly. “Misbehaving,” she whispers.

My mother is a crack up.

I sleep badly for two hours that night, curled up in an armchair in Mum’s room. My mother has restless leg syndrome, so my Auntie Doreen stretches her legs and massages them. Mum talks to her all night. I catch snippets of the conversation but I tune most of it out, my body needing my mind to rest. I know Mum is achieving catharsis in talking to her sister; I don’t need to know what is said. My eyes open at the sound of the nursing shift change and immediately they fly to Mum’s heart monitor. She’s been having VT episodes – Ventricular Tachycardia – which is when her heart rate spikes to upwards of 208 bpm, so I’m making sure she’s sitting nicely at 74 bpm. She’s alert, perky and engaged. My aunt is exhausted. I wake Karl and we go to breakfast and there’s that faint hope again that she maybe might come out of this. We discuss our dad, how many hours we’ve slept since Mum went into hospital, the outrageousness of hospital cafes not automatically serving real butter with their eggs and toast, a little about politics and a lot about my wife. We go back up to Mum’s room and she’s sitting up chatting to more of her sisters who have arrived to see her. The rallying of the family has amazed us. Their presence has kept her heart rate stable and the love in the room has made her cheeks rosy again. Karl and I decide after a few hours that we’re going to go home for a shower and a nap because we’re wrecked, despite the few hours of sleep we’ve had.

Ten minutes after leaving the hospital we get a phone call. Mum’s had another major spike and she had to be shocked twice with the defibrillator to bring her back. Karl and I look at each other and that inkling of hope we had earlier in the day has gone. Neither of us say it, but we both know this is not going to end with Mum walking out of hospital. I ring K and my other brother Hiran. Come now. You need to come now. Hiran is still in Kuala Lumpur, waiting for a flight. K is reticent because she’s a stresser. I’m tired and I just want them here.

I shower and go back to the hospital. Mum is quiet and faint again, her colour faded. More family turn up. My nana comes to see her daughter, another strained filial relationship that is now being resolved. I can only imagine how my 95-year-old grandmother feels about knowing her second born child is going to die. Everyone thought Nana would go before her children. No one expected this.

My mother’s heart rate suddenly spikes to 198 and she gasps. Nana is pulled out of the room as the nursing team rush in and I watch my mother lose consciousness. I yell for my brother. The nurses call all clear amidst the chaos of people running and machines screaming and Mum is shocked back to life.

I am shocked. And terrified. I can’t describe how it feels watching that for the first time. Karl has seen it before so he rushes me out of the room and I sob and keen like a child. Less than half an hour later it happens again, and this time I watch my mother die and be brought back. I see that heart monitor go to 0 and it’s clear my mother is not going to last the two days until Hiran arrives. The nurses are calling her name, coaxing her out of the darkness. “Cathy! Catherine!”

My mother’s eyes open. “What? Stop yelling at me.”

The laughter breaks the tension enough for us all to take a breath.

Mum insists that she must be kept alive until Hiran is here. Karl and I are asked to make a decision. Strangely, it’s not hard to make. Mum is feeling no pain during these spikes, but the damage these electrical bursts are doing to her heart and her body mean that it’s going to happen again and again and more frequently and none of us can do it. Despite Mum’s burning desire to see her middle child, it’s destroying us to see her die over and over again. The cardiologist has a chat to Karl and me, and then he has a chat to Mum.

The decision is made. No more resuscitation. The next spike that happens may well be her last and we just have to let her go. We can do that. We know we can. Mum’s been in pain for so long, emotionally and physically tortured by the circumstance of her life that her death will be a blessed relief. She has struggled and fought and been knocked down so many times, and although she’s gotten back up every time it has taken its toll. Her soul is tired. She misses her father, 50 years gone. She wants to go home.

We get Hiran on Skype; he’s still in KL. They say their goodbyes. My heart is breaking.

I am exhausted. Debilitated. Sapped, shot, wasted. I have walked from the cardiac unit to the car back to the cardiac unit time and again. I know the journey down that corridor like the steps to my own house. Everything is surreal, coloured in stark light like an over-exposed photo. I’m running on autopilot: have a cigarette, wash hands, watch Mum, talk to cousins, make huge decisions, be responsible. I feel like a child lost at the supermarket.

I sit next to Mum as they take the wires and catheters and IV tubes off her. I tell her I love her. She tells me she blesses my marriage, that she wishes she could be there to see me be married legally. She says she can go, confident to leave me in K’s hands. She says to tell K she loves her and she will be looking out for us both from above. She tells Karl to find someone who makes him happy. She wishes she could touch her son Hiran just one more time. We all fall silent, waiting for her to go. We sing Pokarekare Ana, one of Mum’s favourite songs. The aunties sing a waiata, we sing Amazing Grace, for my mum is a Grace and she’s amazing.

What feels like hours pass, but in reality it’s probably only 20 minutes. Mum stirs.

“Oh,” she murmurs. “I seem to be still here.” She breathes. “You must be so bored.”

Again, laughter. We disperse, Mum’s not going yet. Karl and I have a discussion, how are we feeling? Wrecked, tired, drained, sad. Karl says he needs a drink and some food. Cleave and I go on a fish and chips and wine run. We smuggle booze back into the hospital. The nurses don’t care. They’ve been so excellent, the care they’ve provided has been extraordinary.

I eat, sigh because the food is awful. I sit by myself as I need the space. I’m so tired. I announce to my cousin that I’m going to take a nap.

“Kristina.” There’s an urgency to the voice calling my name. “You need to come in now.”

Mum has a look about her, like she’s not quite behind her own eyes. There’s no longer the beep of the monitor to let us know the state of her heart. There’s just that look.

I sit next to her again and take her hand in mine. She’s still holding the rose quartz crystal I gave her when I arrived at the hospital. It gives her comfort. I tell her I love her. I can’t seem to say it enough. She whispers to me, “you have no idea how much I love you, my precious baby girl.”

Karl is standing on the other side of the bed, holding her other hand, stroking her forehead. The aunties, uncles and cousins are crowded around us, but all I can see is my mother. My strong, independent, imposing mother who taught me how to survive in a man’s world; who hit me as a child but loved me fiercely; who accepted every decision I made because she knew it was my life to live; who spent the last decade making up for bad mistakes; who tried her best, and despite the circumstances raised three good kids; who gave up dreams of owning her own home so that we could have music lessons; who did it all on her own.

My mum’s face changes – she’s going. My auntie Doreen says very quietly, “her pulse is threading.” Suddenly, Mum opens her eyes, queerly blue after a lifetime of hazel. She gazes directly at me, long enough to register my sad smile, then her eyes shift to just behind my shoulder. She has a look of wonder on her face and I know that she’s seeing her beloved dad. She closes her eyes again, her mouth slackens (oh shit, this is it). Her breathing becomes laboured and shallow, more time lapses between each gasp. It is disturbing to watch, but this is apparently a peaceful death. Doreen quietly informs us that Mum’s heart is fibrillating and then she stops breathing.

My mother is dead.

Something in me cracks and I sob like I’ve never sobbed before. A list of facts races through my mind: she’ll never see me marry legally she won’t see me on the big screen she’ll never get her house she’ll never meet my babies oh god what do I do when I’m pregnant I took it for granted that she’d be there I need her to be there what am I going to do what am I going to do? I’m panicking so I don’t realise I’ve said the last part aloud. Karl looks at me. “Karl, what are we going to do?” My big brother, who stepped into the role of my father when he was only 8 years old rushes around the bed and wraps me in his arms.

“It’ll be okay,” he murmurs. “We’re going to be okay. We’re all going to be okay.”

We may be. But we’re changed.

A few of the aunties and I wash Mum down and then the wonderful nurses help us get her into the shroud. We form a guard of honour as the orderlies wheel her to the elevator to take her downstairs to the morgue. One of the nurses comes out and stands with us. We sing again and then we escort her down. Mum’s gone. We say goodbye.

The next few days until her funeral are blurred into hours awake and hours asleep. I sleep simply because I can’t stay awake. I’m awake because things need to be done. K arrives just over 24 hours after Mum’s gone. Hiran arrives a few hours after that. Arrangements are made, people are informed. My father is coming over for the funeral. The boys (my brothers) and I prepare for the event. Mum wanted music so we have to rehearse. We play together like it hasn’t been 20 years since the last time. We sleep little, we eat little. I cry a lot. K is a rock, she sheds tears privately with me. She is trying so hard to be strong.

The funeral is beautiful and brutal. I can’t sing the beginning of our second song, but then I do because it’s Mum and all she wanted was to hear us kids play together again. My father breaks down and into applause simultaneously, leading the charge for the Benton kids. I don’t know how we did it, but we did. Karl and I cry. Hiran is as stoic as ever, but I know my brother. His heart is breaking as much as mine. Our fractured little far-flung family.

The next week flies by as quickly as the last. K and I get New Zealand married; a legal, happy celebration with a few of our aunties from both sides of my family in the midst of such sadness. Three days later, my grandmother dies. Mum’s 95-year-old mum. We reel in shock again. It was expected, but not yet. I can’t do another funeral. I know now what I can and can’t take, so K and I decide to fly home. The extended family step up again and my auntie Liz and uncle Pat offer to cover me financially so I can stay. The offer is considered simply because of its generosity, but I have to go home. I can’t escape my every day life – now without Mum – any longer.

I fly home with K with money given to me by another wonderful aunt Carolyn who has now taken a responsibility of sorts for my welfare. Our rent is paid because of that money. I can’t thank her enough. On the plane I finish this piece of writing because I need to. I am no longer what I once was. My mother is gone. I, ever the empath, the sensitive, can’t feel her. I get messages from her. I get information, but I can’t feel her. This scares me because now I feel so very alone, even though I know I’m not. But I’m too young to not have a mum. I know she’s happy. She’s no longer in pain. She has her garden and her house and her dad.

But I don’t have a Mum.

Catherine Mary Grace (Benton until she reverted to her maiden name by deed poll), born on 26 May 1943, died on 22 November 2014 at the age of 71 from Ventricular Tachycardia. She also had cancer in her uterus and liver. She is survived by her three children: Karl 42, musician, Hiran 39, musician, and Kristina 37, actor/composer. She is also survived by her sisters and brothers Anne, Bill, Rita, Mary, Elizabeth, John, Doreen, Marie, Patrick, Robert, Carolyn and Valerie. Cathy’s years of sacrifice enabled her children to follow their dreams and their art. She left behind a legacy of music, responsibility and accountability, which I will uphold to my dying day.

Her last word was my brother’s name. “Hiran.”

Young MumI love you, Mum.