Two Years of Phenomena

I haven’t written much of late. I haven’t really had much to say. Well, I have. I had a whole rant fest about the plebiscite and Trump and racism ready and waiting to go, but I wasn’t saying anything that anybody else hadn’t already covered.

My mum died two years ago tomorrow. Two years is a relatively short time in the scheme of things. It still doesn’t seem quite real, although I know it very definitely is. I can look at a photo of her without crying now, although occasionally I get a flash of her face when she was dying, and my heart drops down into my butt, and I can’t breathe, and there it all is again.

My life changed inexorably when she died. I have had a leaden pall over my head since then, a feeling of greyness. My therapist calls it grief, and it is, but it’s also something else. It’s fear. Mum was my safety net. I may have hated her in my youth, but as I got older her value became more and more apparent to me. It’s that thing, you know, when you’re feeling like absolute shit, and all you need is a hug or a word from your mum and you suddenly feel better. I know not everyone experiences that with their parents, and despite the wounds of my childhood that still seep blood every now and then, I am distinctly aware of how lucky I was to have mended my relationship with Mum so I could have that.

Now I miss it. So, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of life without my emotional safety net. K tries, she really does, but she’s young and scared too. And really, let’s be honest, a partner is no replacement for a parent.

But, yeah. I’m scared.

Like, really actually scared. All the time.

I’m scared of being wrong. I’m scared of being not awesome. I’m scared I’m actually an asshole and no one told me. I’m scared of getting older. I’m scared of getting fat. I’m scared of losing my hair. I’m scared of randomly meeting my wife’s ex in public somewhere because I think I might not be able to stop myself from punching her. I’m scared I’m full of shit. I’m scared that people don’t like me. I’m scared of being pitied. I’m scared of my own anger. I’m scared that I’m not writing for me but for others to see how “human” and “awesome” I am. I’m scared that my marriage won’t last. I’m scared that BPD will ruin everything. I’m scared that my wife will wake up one day and decide I’m not all that because I’m too old/fat/lazy/stupid/ugly/fucked up. I’m scared that my Dad will die soon. I’m scared that I’ll never get over Mum’s death. I’m scared of never making it as an actor. I’m scared I’m damaged goods. I’m scared that sex work has left a smear on me that I can never get rid of. I’m scared I’ll never be well. I’m scared that I’m lazy. I’m scared of being stupid. I’m scared of men. I’m scared of women who are stronger and smarter than me. I’m scared of being wrong – have I said that already? I’m scared of being alone. I’m scared of expectations being placed on me that I can’t fulfil. I’m scared I’ll never love myself. I’m scared of injustice. I’m scared of change. I’m scared of demons. I’m scared this spirituality thing I’m into is bullshit. I’m scared I’ll never be able to have a child. I’m scared of not knowing things. I’m scared of people. I’m scared of needles. I’m scared of ambiguity. I’m scared of pain. I’m scared of being judged. I’m scared that women will never be equal. I’m scared of secret governments and big corporations. I’m scared of guns. I’m scared of being raped again. I’m scared of violence. I’m scared that I’m self-indulgent. I’m scared of you.

Here’s the thing: You are scared of me too.

And all of that other shit that I just purged all over the page.

At the end of the day we are all the same. We are all scared. Terrified. Of everything. No one is better than anyone else because we are all the same. The only things that separate us are constructs of our own design: wealth, privilege, education, race, etc. Put a cross section of us on a deserted island and sure, some of us will be cannier than others with ideas of how to survive, but we all need the same things: food, shelter, water. Therefore it’s kind of silly to be scared because we’re all in the same boat and we’ll all die one day, so stick a geranium in your hat and be happy!

Yeah, okay.

Fuck, I don’t have the answers. I turn 40 in a few weeks and I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I actually made it to this point, to be honest. There’s a term psychologists use for the feeling someone gets after they’ve attempted suicide, but they’re still alive: it’s called phenomena, apparently. I’ve felt it before because I’ve tried to die before. I feel it now, not because I’ve tried to die lately, but because in spite of everything I’ve subjected myself to, I’m still here. It feels … odd. What’s even odder is that I’m alive and Mum isn’t. I still can’t quite get my head around that one.

I miss my mum because I knew, despite everything, that she was always on my side. I said at her funeral that the stuff I have done in my life, the things I’ve thrown at her, could have caused her a great deal of shame. But it didn’t. She took it in her stride, she understood that shit happens, and she told me as often as she could that she loved me. And she did.

She visits me sometimes. I’ll smell her perfume, or a song she used to sing will come on the radio somewhere, or – as happened this time last year just before I was about to go on stage – she’ll just be in the room, and I and the people around me can feel her. A medium friend of mine did a reading for me recently, and she said that Mum has been unwilling to come forward very often because she was ashamed of what she did to me as a kid. She could see my mother, standing to the side, looking abashed. I’ve never seen my mother look abashed in my life, but I believed my friend because I’ve been feeling it. I never told Mum that I forgave her. I do. I do forgive her.

This is getting easier, this life-without-Mum thing. Actually admitting that I’m afraid has helped. Time has helped. Getting rid of awful, unsupportive people from my life has helped. But there’s still that piece missing; that scar that will never quite go away. Phenomena. This is life now. It’s never going to be what it was again.

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.