Bodily ills: One

Dear Reader, this section contains descriptions of the above, as well as a couple of creepy doctors.

In January 1993, I had my first close encounter with bodily ills which, in bringing me uncomfortably close to mortality, provided a new lens through which I saw the world.

I was working in a ski lodge in Dinner Plains in the high country of Victoria. During one of my free days, I had been placed on an ex-racehorse to take up the rear of a trail ride. I had blusteringly said to the owner of the trail ride company that oh yes, I had ridden horses before, not revealing that the horses involved were tough-mouthed nags on trail rides in the sandy plains of Perth, horses which would no more rise to a trot than they would begin discussing world affairs over the feedlot.

The ex-racehorse, realising it had an inexperienced rider lacking the moral force required for control of a large animal, took advantage by racing up the inside of the plodding trail horses the minute he was able, before bolting across an open plain and heading for the trees, most of which featured branches the exact height required for scraping off unwanted passengers.

‘Sit back!’ yelled the trail leader.

‘I can’t!’ I wailed back.

‘Jump off!’

I tried to un-wedge my Doc Martens from the stirrups without success.

‘Agh!’ I responded.

In order to get to the scraping-off branches, the horse first had to navigate a series of fallen logs. I’d always wanted to try horse jumping, preferably in a sandy ring with nicely painted Koppers logs, rather than involuntarily, in the middle of the Victorian highlands, three hours away from the nearest hospital.

The horse jumped. I did a backward somersault, which might have been okay if a) it hadn’t been over the top of fallen logs, and b) my foot hadn’t been jammed in the stirrup. Going by the resulting bruising and injuries, I landed first on my lumbar spine on one log, then pivoted onto a second with my thoracic, my ankle sustaining a clean break as it wrenched from the stirrup.

When I realised I was on the ground, rather than being decapitated by a branch or dragged along the ground like a papist during the reign of Henry the Eighth, I was, for a moment, relieved. Then the combination of being unable to breathe and pain of a magnitude I had never experienced combined to make me wonder if I was dying, or, if I wasn’t, whether death would be preferable.

The trail riders caught up with me. As soon as I was able to breathe, I began to moan.

‘Stand by,’ said one of the trail riders. ‘I’m a doctor.’

The doctor proceeded to prod and poke various bodily parts, including my back and my legs, prompting me to moan more loudly.

‘Be quiet,’ he said. ‘I’ve been in Vietnam, and I’ve seen men in real pain.’

I used all of my Kelmscott words to describe exactly what I thought of him and his opinion.

‘Her back’s not broken, but her leg is,’ he pronounced to the assembled.

‘The ambulance can’t get in this far,’ the trail leader said. ‘We’ll have to get the ute to get to the road.’

Being lifted into the back of the ute, and being transported on a bumpy bush track to the ambulance, took the pain to yet a new, piercing level. The ambulance then took some hours to wend down the mountain to what was less a hospital than a nursing outpost, which was not equipped with Xray equipment equal to the task, so I was bundled back into the ambulance and transported a further hour to the mainland hospital, by which time I was retching with pain unrelieved by a Panadol lozenge. The pain radiated around my ribs as if I were encased with barbed wire, and my foot and ankle bloated and throbbed.

The pain around my ribs was caused by compressed thoracic fractures, apparently to the surprise of Dr I’ve-Been-In-Vietnam, and the ankle was a Potts fracture which was pushed back into place by the orthopaedic surgeon after filling me full of pethidine.

Gwen flew over to Victoria, with a mixture of concern and annoyance, to return me home, an echo of the trip she had made in 1964, except this time returning with an injured adult child. It was the first time she’d set foot in Melbourne since relinquishing her son nearly thirty years before, and she hated it no less on this occasion. She wheeled me around the city, which was not especially wheelchair-friendly in 1993, all the while complaining about the cost of everything and how stressful it was and how she missed her husband. We arrived back in Perth, to my dismay and her delight: my wheelchair didn’t fit in the house, and neither did I.

I was admitted to hospital for a couple of weeks, in the hopes that my pain levels would subside long enough for me to use crutches. As I had been hospitalised interstate, I had a single room until they were sure I wasn’t harbouring golden staph. The room was abutted by a shower cubicle which had a partition under which one could see. Although it was supposed to be for disabled folk, it was not quite big enough to accommodate a wheelchair, nor did it have a working lock. Gwen got her GP in attendance, an ever-smiling man whose eyes kept dipping below my neckline as he spoke to me. One day I was showering, my casted foot wrapped in plastic while I sat on a plastic chair, having hopped over to it, when the doctor came and said he wanted to see me.

‘I’m in the shower,’ I told him, redundantly, as I could see his shoes under the door.

‘I just want to see how you’re moving,’ he said.

I turned the shower off and hopped toward the towel. ‘Just wait,’ I said.

He pushed the door open; I leaned back on it, hoping my wet, good foot wouldn’t slip.

‘I’ll be out in a minute,’ I said.

‘I don’t have time,’ he said angrily, and started shoving against the door while I, with my newly fractured back, held the door as fast as I could.

Eventually he gave up, and I shakily retreated to my bed. When they moved me to the women’s ward later that day, I was relieved, even though I was kept awake by my fellow residents, old women with dementia wailing, or snoring, or else trying to get into bed with each other. It was better than having my mother’s GP get into bed with me.

Sometimes I do not feel I have been well served by the books that I read as a child. They did not correctly inform me of the effects of the tragedies, or mere misfortunes, borne of bodily ills. You might find yourself getting wisdom through being forced to re-examine your life from the unusual prism provided by pain, illness, and life-limiting diseases in your close kin. However, you are much more likely, in my experience, to find your family fracturing in imitation of a crushed bone, or to find yourself preyed upon by those attracted by your vulnerability.

Before: Victorian High Country January 1993
After: Bairnsdale hospital

Connections/obsessions

Dear Reader, I was going to reflect a little on the process of writing the memoir thus far, but I thought you might instead prefer a laugh at my teenaged self’s expense.

Along with becoming a writer or a teetotaller, becoming a lesbian was not something easily imagined in the suburb I grew up in.

Any girls holding hands in high school, or walking too close to each other, or showing anything other than brief physical affection, would be met with jeers of ‘Lezzos!’ from passing boys. These same boys were often the ones who introduced us to the shiny contours and sometimes puzzling close-ups which comprised 1980s pornography, in which girl-on-girl activity was considered in quite a different light. The activity of the women in these videos seemed to involve a lot of manual work, like a housewife trying to remove a stain from a carpet, and a lot of moaning that seemed unconnected to the manual work. Neither of these were as stimulating to me as they were to the boys we were watching it with, so I concluded that I probably was not a lesbian.

I should clarify that I did not reach this conclusion because of any shortage of un-heterosexual feelings on my behalf. At fourteen, I had fallen deeply into unrequited love (normal) for a sixteen-year-old girl (not normal). The object of my desire was named Karen. Karen hailed from the north of England near my father’s family and was intriguingly Other. She seemed balanced, for one, a characteristic I was displaying less and less often as I careened toward mid-adolescence.  She was pretty in a Princess-Diana way, an excellent artist, could cook, and was at ease in social situations. She was the lead in our school musical, which was how I came to meet her. She was everything I was not.

I was never sure if I wanted her, in a romantic way, or wanted to be her. To attempt the latter, I started parting my hair the same way she did, growing a bob with a blonde streak in the long fringe, and started working in the same Hungry Jacks in the bogan heartland of Gosnells, where I began spending Friday and Saturday nights mopping up blood from the fights that occurred in the restaurant there. I saved up to buy a lime green (not my colour) mini dress (not my style) that was way more expensive than anything I’d ever purchased before, just because she had one. I tried to copy her way of being generous, inviting people over in northern English style. I even made sure I attended school, which had not previously been my strong suit. Even though she was in upper school and I in lower school, I knew I would see her because I had memorised her timetable and knew where she would be at every minute of the school day. In the days when the term stalking was connected only with game hunting, I engineered ways of bumping into her, found reasons to ask her about things just so that I could stand close to her, and spent sleepless nights wondering how next I could gain her attention.

I remained, however, stubbornly myself. Which is to say, I felt shy, awkward, comfortable only with my close friends, sensitive to everything, but wanting something More.

All my life, I’d watched adults cope with any feelings they were experiencing by drinking them down. I’d watched as they became louder, quieter, angrier, or sadder after drinking quantities of beer, moselle, port, whiskey, or whatever was to hand. So when I became overwhelmed by this desire for More, and Gwen’s friends were at our house with bottles of summer wine, a substance requiring quantities of sugar and carbonation so it could be imbibed without triggering the gag reflex, it was perfectly natural to be able to hold out my glass as the bottles were being poured for Gwen’s friends to initiate me into inebriation.

Before long, I did the 80s version of drunk dialling. This consisted of staggering to the local phone box and trying not to get cut on the smashed glass upon entry, dropping coins into the grey square object, weeping into the smelly handset about how terrible my life was and how wonderful Karen was.

Not content with humiliating myself over the phone, I went one better and staggered down the dark streets to Karen’s house. I cast myself down on the itchy doormat, dressed in a black and red checked teddy-girls outfit, still weeping. Karen’s mother heard these strangulated noises, flipped on the porch light and peered through the smoked glass at the side of the door. I heard her call in her northern brogue, ‘There’s something on the mat, Karen! It’s a big thing, it’s a red thing –’ and then, opening the door, she added, ‘It’s our Jewley!’

Karen showed preternatural patience with these and other visits, drunk or sober, reading my heartfelt, melodramatic manuscripts, tolerating my inquiries about her and her life. She let me stay in her house when nobody was home, listening to her Big Country, Culture Club and David Bowie albums. When she left school and then the country, possibly in part to get away from me, I was inconsolable and absolutely sure I would never love anyone again, regardless of their gender.

This is not to say I did not experiment with sex. Due to Gwen’s proclivities regarding Allans, Mikes and Steves, I knew better than to equate sex with love. Indeed, I regarded my feelings for Karen to be purer because there was no impurity of the flesh attached to it. With her, there would never be any chance of sex of such force it could have been recorded on a Richter scale, or that which would reach aural heights the envy of opera singers. I read Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 and it fitted with the sense of chaste devotion: the marriage of two minds seemed far less problematic that the marriage of two bodies.

I reinforced this perception by following Gwen’s lead and bringing home guys from parties and nightclubs as a fifteen-year-old. The sex was passion-less, mechanical, and allowed for a release of pent up feeling that was akin to purging. Tina Turner and Madonna were on high rotation that year, depending on which club you were in, and both of them projected the sass I wanted to emulate. What did love have to do with it, indeed.

I also, occasionally, kissed women in Perth’s one gay nightclub, and twice had had sexual encounters with other girls, to see if my Karen crush had been a sign of latent lesbianism, or, as all the guide books of the time promised, a passing phase. The kissing was nice – nicer than with the guys – but sexual encounters awkward, possibly because there was no expertise to be had on either side. It reinforced my conviction that sex and love were better left separate, and that the latter was ineffably more desirable.

All that changed with Boudicca.

My role in Dracula Spectacula was as an Idiot [see far left]. For this I took the method acting approach [see above].

Misapprehensions 1: Birth

Dear Reader, as my present week has been dominated by death, I thought it might be time for its opposite. Content warning: may contain mention of vaginas and the things that come out of them.

A vigorous easterly wind rustled the overhead canopies, bringing hot weather and sneeze-producing wheat dust from the recent harvest, as John and I trod the deserted footpaths of the co-op in the middle of the night, trying to hasten the contractions that remained stubbornly at a you-don’t-need-to-come-in-yet distance apart. Images of women rushing to hospital to immediately give birth in television shows bore no resemblance to the interminable hours we spent waiting. The child had already shown a reluctance to leave the womb by being ten days overdue: when I’d had a scan to make sure all was in order, the report came back ‘VERY active baby’. The baby’s in-utero kick-boxing and half pikes with twists, however, did not translate to any desire to exit its enclosed comfort. I began to wonder if the child would emerge at all, or whether I was having a very convincing phantom pregnancy.

All the things I had thought I would want at the birth – all my close friends, a masseuse, gentle music playing in the background, to be in water, to endure without pain relief – were the opposite to what I actually wanted when my body started the work required to expel the baby from its watery home and into the world. John eagerly responded to my demands for medicine balls, apple juice, a receptacle to vomit in, but I regarded him balefully, him being responsible for me being in this predicament in the first place, and was relieved each time he went off to nap on the couch. Gwen, in contrast, was completely present and knew exactly what words to say and when for perhaps the only time in my life, only once leaving the room to sob because the sounds I made birthing resembled the sounds Frank had made, dying.

There was no comfort to be had during labour: it was labour spiritual, emotional and physical. I entered the birthing tub only to immediately leave it: contrary to what it said on the tin, the still water intensified the pain of contractions and the warm water added to the already unbearable overheating. I vomited without caring I was vomiting, or where. I could not stop the diarrhoea which was no doubt worsened by the castor oil I’d taken to hasten this very event, so spent most of the second half of the labour alternating between standing in the shower and sitting on the toilet. When the midwife inserted her entire arm up my vagina, like a vet into the rear end of a cow in All Creatures Great and Small, to see how I was progressing, I could not have cared less. When she intoned approvingly ‘roomy pelvis’ upon retracting her limb, I felt re-energised with pride. I was built for doing this. I would never care about anything ever again. All the other activities and concerns of my life – writing, relationships, education, work, endlessly agonising over this thing and that thing – fell away. There was nothing beyond this. All human history and human endeavour, I was convinced, culminated in this act. I understood why men were obsessed with creating their own brain children, ideas of Uber mensch, of domination through violence and war: in the face of this, men were powerless and pointless.

These lofty considerations, as well as certainty and concern for dignity, fell away when the transition to the final stage of labour began and the pain took on an all-encompassing dimension which I had naively believed had already been reached. When I inquired, ‘Is it too late for some pethidine?’ I already knew the answer, and had a brief reflection on all the women before me who had died in childbirth. I understood now the extremity of being required for this ordinary act: these women were heroes. They fought and they lost, but the point was the fighting.

I was sitting on the toilet, resting in between the only thing that now existed in the world – the tense and release of pain – when the midwife suggested now might be a good time to stand up. I was surprised to feel, when I reached an inquiring hand down, a warm cantaloupe-shape protruding from my nether regions. As speedily as the preceding ten months had gone slowly, the baby was caught by the midwife and placed, bloody, purplish and whole, on my lap.

For second the baby was still, and then with a jerk reared back, took air, and yelled.

I stared at this fully formed human I had produced. I looked from the black-haired infant to John and Gwen, who were both crying, united in astonishment.

‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ Gwen asked, when she could.

‘Oh,’ I said. I lifted the chubby knee a little and said, ‘It’s a girl. I think.’

Some time later – after the afterbirth, the stitching, the first suckling – John and I gazed in wonder at the swaddled infant.

‘Ba-ba-ba-ba,’ John crooned, as he had been crooning at my stomach for months.

I tried to tally this curled-up collection of limbs, spine, shoulders with the unknown shapes I had felt under my stretched skin. Outside, I would have to learn the shape of this baby anew. Then I felt the side of her foot, and recognised what I had felt beneath my ribcage. I had massaged this nub of flesh and felt it push back in response. If I closed my eyes and massaged the foot under the swaddling, I found myself reassured by this edge, this relic of familiarity between one state and the next.

‘Baby Annie,’ I said. ‘Welcome.’

*

As foreshadowed by the ultrasound report, Annie came out a VERY active baby. She was alert, interested in all movement, and ready to be amused.

Baby Annie did not take to sleep, mostly because this interrupted her access to her supply of milk, which she extracted voraciously, and also because it robbed her of the opportunity to be involved in whatever was going on.

I would sit outside in the mornings with her on my lap, under the shade of the eaves, the scribbly gum drooping nearby, the nasturtium leaves a pillow of green. I found myself singing the songs Gwen had sung to me as a child: A You’re Adorable, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Close to You. She would smile and kick her legs, and I felt a comforting continuity with my female bloodline which I had never before experienced. In these mornings, breathing in clean air, staring in wonder at this miracle of flesh, I felt content.

This contentment was short lived.

Parent portrait by Annie Lawrinson

Prologue: the party coffin

It seems timely, dear Reader, to share this with you. Content alert: see above.

There is a photo of my mother in a coffin.


Her eyes are closed but her glasses are still on, indicating that she is, in fact, alive. She’s clutching a bouquet of fake red roses, and is surrounded by bunches of fake flowers in real (although empty) beer bottles. She’s managing not to smile.


The coffin belonged to one of Gwen’s ex-boyfriends. I think his name was John, but it might have been Allan, or Steve, or Mike. It was a great prop to bring to a Halloween party in 1990, and much hilarity no doubt ensued as people climbed in and out of it, pretending to be dead.


My mother no longer has to pretend to be dead. Just before she reached that inevitable state, we were discussing funeral arrangements.


‘Hey Mum,’ I said. ‘Do you remember that boyfriend of yours – the undertaker?’
‘John?’ she said (or Allan/Steve/Mike).
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Could he do your funeral?’
‘No, he’s dead,’ she said.


And then we laughed and laughed, until the cancer in her kidney gave her a pain in the stomach and she was reduced to wincing and giggling.


It was a moment of levity, taking place for her in the midst of three weeks of surprise suffering, belated and incomplete taking stock, and indignities; and for me, in the midst of surprise anguish, attempted and ineffectual resolution-finding, followed by a years-long eruption of feelings of abandonment hitherto under- if not unfelt.


My mother had been threatening to die since I was seventeen. Then, she’d been diagnosed with emphysema, but continued smoking and living until a series of strokes at the age of 56 put paid completely to the first, and curtailed the style in which she’d been doing the latter. For eighteen years she’d been a hemiplegic, sustained primarily by a diet of ham sandwiches and pies, increasingly confined to her loungeroom chair, her legs and feet distended with retained fluid. She criticised everyone and everything from this vantage point, softened only by offerings of stuffed or porcelain meerkats, or by beating her husband in the daily cryptic crossword.


Every time someone famous or heroic died, she’d say, ‘Here I am sitting on my fat arse, useless as tits on a bull.’


She was regularly taken by ambulance to hospital after falls, unexplained drops in iron levels, twisted bowels, or cysts. After each phone call, on my way to the hospital, I’d wonder if this really was the beginning of the very drawn-out end.


‘They reckon there’s nothing wrong with me,’ she’d say, sounding irritated. ‘But what would they know.’


She hated her doctor and said he was useless, but would not go to a different one. Her husband was constantly going to specialists and doctors: when I inquired why, she said, ‘How would I bloody know? He doesn’t tell me anything.’ When I pointed out she could, as a concerned wife, ask him, she looked at me as if it was a stupid question, requiring no response.


At work, after her actual funeral, I found language to be inadequate to explain to colleagues how I was feeling, or the nature of my relationship with my mother. As a shortcut, I displayed the picture of Gwen-in-a-party-coffin as a shorthand way of saying I was having a hard day.


When I was crying next to her bedside, close to the end, she said, ‘Remember the good times.’


You can’t remember the good times unless you’ve reconciled with The Rest of It. The Rest of It is never simple, linear, or confined to one’s own experiences. Grief, if you had a childhood resembling mine in any way, dumps The Rest of It unceremoniously on you. First, you’ve got to dig your way out of it. Then you’ve got to sort it – that lump there, that lump there – until you’ve got piles you can Marie Kondo, and only then, beneath all the rubble, you can find the things that give you joy. Or, if not joy, a sense of satisfaction that The Rest of It is in the past, and you, by some combination of luck, love, and sheer bloody mindedness, are here.

Not dead yet

The why of it

You have spoken, dear Reader!

This is the blog which will contain my reflections on the process of writing a memoir entitled How to Avoid a Happy Life. I did a straw poll, which heartily endorsed having a separate site from my website containing young-people-related bookish content. So, this is it.

For years I have had people saying to me: you should write a memoir. But I had no idea how I would form the wildly varied and chaotic and weird collection of experiences into something coherent. Then my mother died at the end of 2019, and the ensuing extremity of grief and the re-triggering of trauma meant that writing became a necessity. I had to make order of the chaos. And the only way I could do this was by adding liberal doses of irony to temper the ‘did that shit really happen?’ nature of it all.

I am undertaking this with the mentoring support of US writer and memoirist Howard Norman. He is a Vermont-based novelist and memoirist whose has twice been named as a finalist for the National Book Award in the United States and whose books have been translated into fourteen languages. He has received the Lannan Award in Literature and is Professor Emeritus of Literature at the University of Maryland. If that wasn’t enough achievement, he has also received a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, the Harold Morton Landon Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the New England Book Award.

Howard is also a great human. If you haven’t read his memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, I highly recommend it, along with all of his other books. They’re tricky to get in Australia, but worth your persistence.

I look forward to sharing the process of writing, re-writing, and reflection with you.

My mother Gwen with her piano accordion 1961-ish