Posted on October 28, 2012
After my father and brother died, I reached immediately for words, in an attempt to wrest meaning from the abyss that I had been plunged into. When I say immediately, I mean that I asked my friends as soon as they could come to me in Rushworth where Dad and Grant died, to bring me my books and music, to bring me words, such as they were at the time, from Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave and Tennyson. For myself, at the time an avid journal keeper, it took me some time to be able to write anything at all. No, that is not entirely true. On the day that I saw Dad and Grant die, I was in the middle of writing a letter to my then boyfriend. I began this letter on New Years Day 1993, the day before what we have come to call “the accident”. It is a longish, rambling letter and it continues up until the hour of the accident, thus
Oh God I’m hot, I want to go back to the channel now. I want to see you now! But in any case, this caravan is very unpleasant so I’ll go and I’ll continue this later…
In between the end of that sentence and the beginning of the next, my life changed irrevocably. Between that gap of words, Dad and Grant’s lives ended (‘But I was bound, and could not go that way. But I was blind, and could not feel your hand.’). The letter, the first half of which was written in red pen, recommenced in faint grey pencil at 2 AM that longest night, and speaks already of the comfort of words and the ability to find expression through them
I was reading through my journal, all the poems and lyrics comforted me, and all your letters. I can’t talk to anyone else, my journal’s been my friend tonight, this horrible, cruel nightmare night. The Cure song ‘Untitled’, it says how I feel
‘Feeling the monster climb deeper inside of me
feeling him gnawing my heart away hungrily
I’ll never lose this pain’
I’ll bet I sound so calm, quoting, writing here in paragraphs.
It took over 2 weeks before I was able to write in my journal and that entry is so full of anger and emotion that the words refuse to be confined to the lines they were written on, some of the words are huge, and underlined. My anger was at the fact of Death itself, at whatever force allowed the events of that day to happen. In the letter to N- there is a direct mention of God having failed me. Of course, I hadn’t actively had any real faith in a higher power until events required me to invoke divine intervention, both when Dad and Grant were in the water (under the water) and then later, sitting outside my Grandparent’s house, watching the family gather, waiting out there, for my sister and brother to arrive, I prayed again, but for a miracle this time. I prayed that Dad and Grant would be found, washed up on the prickly banks, alive, somehow.
My Grandmother’s first words of comfort when I was delivered to her from the scene of the accident were that Dad and Grant were With Jesus now, the words and the notion both so incongruous, sign posts to a world and a family suddenly shattered into the pieces that grief herald.
In the aftermath of those, darkest days I scoured music and literature, looking for an avenue to guide my fear and loss. For me, fear featured largely, from those too quick moments on the bank and forever after. To have seen these two lifelong protectors taken so swiftly in front of my eyes, opened me up to the reality that true calamity could erupt at any moment, intersecting the contentment of my days in another direction, bereft of comfort or certainty.
Two or three weeks after the accident, my half brother Jim and sister-in-law Kristin returned from their honeymoon in Thailand to the awful news. For Jim, this presented an unfathomable gap of reality, between what he had left behind and the idea of two fresh graves side by side in Rushworth. Soon after, my mother and I travelled with him to Rushworth in Grant’s car. When we arrived, I re-traced the footsteps of the day of the accident with him, beginning at the block of land where the 5 of us had sat contentedly that afternoon, before 4 of us decided to go for another swim. Then we drove the short distance down Middle Road to the drop bar in the channel, and I tried to explain to Jim how the events had transpired. I have never since returned to that spot. After that we drove to the cemetery, to the place as close to the ironbark bush as we could get, where the bones of Dad and Grant rest.
We left Rushworth in the early evening and I laid down in the back seat with a blanket or a jacket over me. Somewhere between Rushworth and Murchison I thought I felt a light, gentle touch on my hand. I opened my eyes and saw that Mum and Jim were deep in conversation in the front seats. I touched the back of my hand against the upholstery of the car, against the back of the drivers seat, to see if it could feel anything like the fleeting touch of living flesh. It didn’t, and so I allowed myself to feel, or to imagine to feel, the absent presence of my brother, a last salve of impossible contact.
I don’t believe in ghosts.
I believe in memory, and words. What brings me to write these words today are the feelings that practicing reciting the poem Five Bells evoked in me recently. I first copied one of the verses from Five Bells in my journal on January 28, 1993 and I knew then that there were just a handful of lines which seemed to call to me alone, but reading these lines aloud over and over in the past weeks made their meaning seep (like the soft archery of Summer rain) into my bones, so that to read them was to feel them, was to ask the question ‘Might I not hear your voice? ‘
In fact, I don’t even hear their voices in my dreams anymore; they are silently plaintive dream visions now, on the rare occasions that they visit. And yet, in reading, and listening, and writing, I can make out my own understanding, and memories, and comfort from all of the words in the world.
(For anything experiencing a faint sensation of deja vu, this post was published by me on facebook notes early in 2011. I am republishing it here just to collate some writings. This version is slightly edited from the original)
Quotes from Kenneth Slessor’s Five Bells in parenthesis