Posted on September 5, 2016
Do you ever have a cluster of things that draw you to a certain theme in your life?
Last week I was drawn into grief through a number of different paths, both the memory of the strength of my own grief from the long ago loss of my father and brother in an accident, and to the global tragedy of what Australian writer Richard Flanagan has called the Great Exodus of Syrian refugees throughout Europe and the world, and finally to the centred, still terrible to witness grief of a father on the loss of his son. Though the ways in which I travelled to experience some perspective of these different griefs varied, yet I realise that all grief is also the same, or is familiar in certain ways to all who visit grief, be it up close and personal, or from a distance.
I had an afternoon and evening to myself on Thursday, because I was going to see one of my favourite writers, the aforementioned Richard Flanagan speak at The Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne on the subject Does Writing Matter. Just catching the train was the greatest release of joy for me. It’s been a tough few weeks, for a number of reasons. I sat and stared out the window, listening to music, and I took the hour commute to read the very slim paperback edition of Flanagan’s essay, Notes on an Exodus, illustrated by Ben Quilty. Both men had taken up the offer of charity World Vision to spend a month touring various points of the exodus and speaking to the people fleeing their homes in Syria.
I cried on the train, slow tears behind my sunglasses. I challenge anyone not to weep, should they read this series of interviews with a forlorn, forsaken, desperate collection of people. I wonder how hard your heart must be, not to cry, to be able to read Flanagan’s account of speaking to the family of a four year old boy who drowned on the wretched sea journey to Lesbos, the evil facsimile of a life jacket sold to his family at huge expense, cruelly imcompetent, and I don’t even spare you here, when I write that Flanagan says that he wished to ask what it was like to find the body, and to ask the question, who was it who held the still warm, wet body for the rest of the trip. He wanted to ask, knowing that his readers would want to know, but he found himself unable to. Of the small boys mother, he said ‘She says nothing and simply stares ahead. Her eyes are something you wish to look at and something which everyone avoids making contact with. The best you can do is steal glances.’ Copying those sentence out tonight, my eyes fill again with tears. Flanagan implores us at the end to do something now, that there is no other time. All of Flanagan and Quilty’s royalties from the book are being donated to World Vision. You can buy the book here. It is only $9.95 and it is one tiny way to make a tiny difference, but if you want to, you can also find the essay published online here.
That afternoon in Melbourne, before Flanagan’s lecture, I did something that I have been meaning to do for a while: I went to the State Library and looked up newspaper microfilm from the week after my father and older brother died. Somehow none of my family have ended up with copies of the media and death notices from the accident. I did once have cuttings of all of them, but they have drifted through the sands of time and mystery, and I wouldn’t know where to begin to find those originals, which is a pity, as there is something strangely poignant about columns of newsprint clipped from papers, smudged fingerprints and all. I sat in front of brand new state of the art microfilm readers that had only arrived at the State Library a week earlier, the staff member flummoxed by the process of loading the film as he attempted to demonstrate the process for me.
I reeled the film through the day that they died, skimming the predictions for heatwaves, and the day after, all of that news which may as well not have even occurred for my family, for whom time and circumstance had stopped in its tracks the afternoon before. I saw for the first time, that Rudolf Nureyev also died that week. In the newsprint of the days following, I found the front page with the small teaser in the bottom right hand corner, Drown Agony, and the snippet of the story, with police praising “a quick thinking teenage girl who battled to save her drowning father and brother,”, “However, it ended in tragedy.” The article that followed on page six used me for the headline, Teen’s Agony, I still recall how surreal it felt to read that title, wondering what the person who penned it knew of my agony, as though it was something that they had blithely appropriated from me. Almost everything in that article was incorrect. They even got my age wrong. I was 18, not 14 years old. They inserted a sentence about another drowned man, aged 41, in the middle of it all, plonked there as though, in the manner of their deaths, they had formed bonds of unlikely kinship, before continuing the inaccurate synopsis of the deaths that I witnessed.
I printed the several days worth of death notices, which included the broken-hearted words that my sister and I had sat down to pen in my father’s cousins house before our brothers body had even been found. Missing, Presumed Drowned, we wrote, knowing that there was no hope, but unable to bring ourselves to declare him dead while he still drifted, lost to us in the depths of brown water. When I read the notices, straining to read the tiny print on the train home that night, it was again with tears in my eyes, the freshness of the grief so apparent in the tributes printed there.
You put your grief away and move through your days. It took ten years for my grief to settle into place, and what I mean by that might surprise you. I mean that I was easily able to recount the story of what happened that day for ten years, because until then it never felt like something that had happened to me, or to people that I loved, and love still. It took ten years to sink in, and since then I have been unable to tell the story without great difficulty, without the full gravity and weight of the grief of it pressing down upon me. There was only a moment where it seemed real, on the afternoon that they fished my brother’s ruined body from the irrigation channel in which he had lost his life, while my Grandfather stood by as sentinel, if not as witness. I fell to the ground outside my Grandparent’s front door when I received the news, right through the waiting arms of my friend. Later, in my addled state, I thought that I was in the same hospital as the recovered bodies of my loved ones, and I was at peace with that. From my bed, I looked out the slats of venetian blinds at glaring sun as the heatwave continued, and I hallucinated (I had been injected with drugs to make me sleep) that a very old fashioned, shining black hearse pulled up outside the window, and a gleaming black coffin was transported inside, with my Grandparents walking sombrely beside it, in clothes reminiscent of those that they wore to my parents wedding half a century earlier. My friend quietly closed the blinds, and I thought that she was trying to spare me the sight.
Grief is so terribly pedestrian. Bad things happen to ordinary people every day. Simple deaths occur, and tragedies take place, so suddenly that you can’t hope to grasp what has taken place.
The following morning, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released the first single from their new album, The Skeleton Tree, which was written in the wake of the death of Cave’s fifteen year old son. Arthur Cave fell from a cliff in Brighton, England, where the family live, last year. Little to nothing has been heard from Nick Cave since then, until the announcement of the album, which will be released this Thursday, the day after a world premiere screening of a documentary about the making the album, One More Time with Feeling. When I listened to the single on Friday morning, yet again, I wept. It is a mournful song, in every connotation of the word. The pain inherent in the song is difficult to listen to, in the same way that I imagine it was hard to look at the eyes of the Syrian mother that Flanagan wrote about, whose child had drowned. Even worse was the film clip, with Cave’s posture and long face tortured and defeated. I wonder if he will be criticised for laying his pain out for all to see, making a performance of it, but I wonder if he could ever have continued his career without making this album. Then I think, why shouldn’t he be open with his grief, spewing forth the nihilism of fresh loss? Why shouldn’t he keen it for the world to see? There is no shame in it. Perhaps it is, for him, still the story of a tragedy that happened to another teenage boy at the height of promise and beauty. Maybe writing, maybe music will make it sink in. Because sudden death takes you by such surprise that you quite literally cannot believe your eyes.
Between the Syrian mother and her family, between eighteen year old me, and my family, between Nick Cave and his family, there is no distinction in our griefs, except that, for the first family, it might take generations to heal from that wound, which cannot heal, as things stand. The grandfather of the drowned boy intones, “We lost a child.’ ‘But we survived.’And they must continue, empty and destitute of heart, while the Cave family perhaps still exist in a barren place “in which nothing will grow”, as Richard Flanagan described grief in his first novel, Death of a River Guide, though at least there, there is the music.
I can’t speak for anyone in my family, but for me, grief has become an intricately constructed city within, filled with a thousand streets and lane-ways, rivers that are blue, and rivers that are brown, with rushing water and drop bars. There are grand palaces and rude hovels, public spaces and private places. It is a city that will continue to expand for the rest of my life, not in a terrible way, but in the complex manner in which loss changes you and runs through your veins forever more.
*Please note, the events as described in above newspaper article are almost entirely incorrect. If you wish to read the events as they actually happened, I have written about them here
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