Bodily (and other) ills: two

Dear Reader, If you’re following along at home, you’ll notice that there is another bodily ills excerpt, which post-dates this one. So two should be one and so on, but no matter. I am tempted to re-name this section: How Reading Led Me to Incorrect Conclusions about The World, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring, and besides, the main subject is illness and its close companion, suffering. Howard Norman has observed that I have the tendency to compress events, amply demonstrated here. TW: see above.

As a child I was fascinated by tales of life-altering illness. In the books I read, such illness was accompanied by the development of moral courage and heroism, and most importantly, it attracted the admiration of others for one’s staunch attitude in the face of suffering.

Gwen had kept a volume of medical encyclopedias from the early sixties she’d acquired during one of her aborted attempts at becoming a nurse. I pored over its descriptions of illnesses, injuries and abnormalities of all stripes. There were colour transparencies showing organs, bones and blood, as well as engrossing pictures of suppurating sores and skin diseases. A whole section was dedicated on how to prepare for and survive a nuclear attack. I felt mildly envious of the pictures of children practising their responses to an H bomb: hiding under desks, their hands covering their necks, or with their neatly attired families in their bomb shelters, the mother in her immaculate dress preparing meals from their tinned supplies. I understood little of world affairs, but I understood enough to know that Kelmscott was so quiet and boring that I would never have reason to participate in such a drill.

I was particularly affected by the illustrations of the onset and development of polio, beginning with a girl having sore throat and a fever, being taken away by an ambulance, and emerging with callipers. As a child growing up in a household of smokers, I was always getting sore throats, and wondered, each time, if this were the day the ambulance would come for me. I pictured my parents standing worried over my hospital bed, hoped I wouldn’t need physiotherapy like Alan Marshall in I Can Jump Puddles, but was sure I would emerge with wisdom and patience, like Katy in What Katy Did.

If that weren’t enough, I was introduced to the consequences of child blindness caused by disease, first in Scholastic books on Helen Keller and her fascinating teacher, Annie Sullivan; and then by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House series. In the latter, the scarlet fever which had beset the Ingalls family when Laura was thirteen resulted in her annoyingly perfect older sister Mary first having to have her long blonde hair shorn off, and then becoming blind as a result of the fever ‘settling’ in her eyes. This tragedy galvanises the family: makes them close, forces Laura to work hard in school to become a teacher to help contribute money to send Mary to Iowa School for the Blind, and (it is implied) causes Laura to become a writer, as she is suddenly required to be Mary’s eyes, narrating everything for her benefit.

How I longed for, and feared, a similar tragedy! I tried (and failed) to teach myself Braille, or even the raised alphabet, from the back of my Helen Keller book. I wandered around supermarkets behind Gwen, eyes squeezed shut, pretending to be blind, just in case.

When I was seven, my youngest cousin, Lara, was born. She was a chubby, healthy-looking child, at first, with halo of bright red hair, but she had a bronchial wheeze and developed a hacking cough. After being told she was a neurotic mother by a raft of GPs, my aunt happened to have two-year-old Lara with her at the children’s hospital while getting her son seen to after a playground accident.

‘I’m not worried about him,’ the treating doctor said, ‘but does the baby always breathe like that?’

Later that evening, my aunt and uncle were told that the suspected asthma was in fact cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that at that time had few effective treatments and a high fatality rate.

I understood from the grave tones in which Lara’s condition was discussed that her health was poor, and her prognosis serious, but to me she seemed mostly normal for a long time. She had a sunny and sweet temperament, and didn’t seem particularly interested in the excessive attentions she was given by adults, nor the indulgence allowed her if she wanted extra lollies or ice cream, denied to the rest of us not suffering from a life-limiting illness. She didn’t want to go on the below-ground trampoline that was my greatest envy: it had been bought in the hopes it might loosen the mucus in her lungs better than the physiotherapy with which her tiny ribs were hammered morning and evening, and which developed admirable arm muscles in my aunty. So my cousins and I took advantage instead, while Lara waited around inside, wanting us to play more sedentary games which, I am ashamed to say, I often avoided.

As a teenager, I sometimes resented that Lara was tolerated for things I had been criticized for: that is, she wasn’t smacked, or told no (very often), and if she complained, she was not informed she was a whinging child who needed something to really whinge about. Her food fussiness wasn’t a sign of moral degeneracy. I thought she was being spoiled, the way everyone treated her. She didn’t even seem that sick.

Until she did.

When she was seven, Lara started getting sicker. She was skinnier than I had been in my most extreme anorexic phase, and the kids at her school teased her about her knobbly knees so relentlessly she was taken out of school altogether. She became lethargic, watching her older brother and sister squabble and laugh and play without the longing she used to have: now she was too tired. She found drinking the powders and pills she took to help her digest harder to stomach.

And then, in January 1985, just after her eighth birthday, she died.

Gwen and I drove to my aunty and uncle’s house. I was scared of seeing my cousin’s dead body, but she seemed less dead than very, very still, neat in her bed. Her forehead was cooling as we kissed her goodbye. At her funeral, the coffin she was placed in was tiny, and it was not the effort of the weight of it that made the funeral directors lower it slowly down. Her brother and sister were considered too young to attend: only my cousin and I, being both fifteen, were allowed. There were prayers and the prayers did not comfort me.

I expected, based on all the books I’d read, that this type of tragedy would galvanize the family. As it was a time in my life where everything else seemed to be disintegrating, not least of which a reliable sense of self, I was keen for our family to unite over this terrible and unfair event. It seemed particularly galling to me, as someone taken to fervent bouts of Christian belief from time to time, that it befell the most religious of my mother’s family. The sufferings of Job were not incomparable: after losing Lara, my aunt and uncle’s only son, Konrad, developed the epilepsy which was the symptom of a to-be-fatal brain tumour.

But the loss of Lara rent the family, the increasing illness of her brother a further demonstration of the unrelenting unfairness that had befallen us. My grandparents raised the pitch of their mutual ire; my mother retreated into beer, cigarettes, and misery, and my aunty and uncle doubled down on the religiosity that promised that Lara wasn’t gone, just waiting for them in heaven.

Against their incomparable suffering, my own, which was chiefly mental, was not of a scale deserving of attention from my family. The primary events which had caused the mental suffering, such as my parents’ sudden separation, incidental molestation, and Gwen’s conga-line of men streaming through our various rented houses, were not recognised by my family as being any cause for comment. Indeed, I felt their criticism of me increased. My alternative dress now included stare-inducing dyed and radical hair; taking Gwen’s lead, I regularly drank myself into oblivion and took up indulging in more-or-less consensual sex with neighbourhood boys; and I found an outlet for my unnameable angst through epic episodes of binging and purging which left me with detailed knowledge of the least smelly public toilets adjacent to food courts in the metro area.

When I did finally land in an adolescent mental hospital later on in the year Lara died, this was not mentioned at the Sunday lunches I was allowed to attend on weekend leave; instead, the usual teasing or mocking I received from certain relatives morphed into a watchful silence. A person was meant to deal with unpleasant feeling through acceptable methods such as imbibing quantities of home brew or flaying oneself into martyrdom. A person was, above all, meant to keep it to oneself instead of putting on a show, or making a spectacle of yourself, or in any other way making the invisible visible to all.

One happy result of my multiple mental hospitalisations was that I finally stopped thinking there was something wrong with me, and started thinking there was something wrong with the family I’d grown up in.

Cousin Lara, November 1984

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 order of things

So far, I am arranging the memoir under these chapter headings:

  1. Get Yourself Born into Intergenerational Misery
  2. Experience Vicarious Trauma through Your Friend Being Raped and Murdered by a Japanese Serial Killer
  3. Marry Your Ex-Girlfriend’s Brother
  4. Surprise! Mr Hyde in Suburbia
  5. Find Out Why Your Husband is Urinating in the Kitchen of an Evening
  6. Find Yourself and Your New Partner Being Chased Down the Street by a Phalanx of Reporters

You’ll note, dear Reader, what I was referring to vis-a-vis the dose of irony. But despite that, I am deeply serious about the writing, and of honouring the people I have encountered along the way. This is no small matter. Reflecting on my life in this corner of the world, there is almost as much that I can’t write about – or can’t do justice to – as that which lends itself to shaping through language.

I am reflecting on this in particular because I am in the midst of losing a dear friend: by in the midst of, I mean at any moment. I do not know how I would include her in the above, although she has been there for most of it. Maybe I will yet find a way.

I recognise that the desire to record is also a talisman against the void beyond being. And because Walt Whitman was right: What invigorates life invigorates death.

Even if we understand that dying is the token of our existential luckiness, even if we understand that we are borrowed stardust, bound to be returned to the universe that made it — a universe itself slouching toward nothingness as its stars are slowly burning out their energy to leave a cold austere darkness of pure spacetime — this understanding blurs into an anxious disembodied abstraction as the body slouches toward dissolution. Animated by electrical impulses and temporal interactions of matter, our finite minds simply cannot grasp a timeless and infinite inanimacy — a void beyond being.

Maria Popova at The Marginalian
In happier times