You might have guessed that the last post would have a continuation. And yes, there were other, much more important things that put me in mind of leaving, and farewells. Too much to jam it all together into one ramble. I debated whether or not to mention this, but eventually I figured… anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will at least know of Mr Fox through our adventures. You’re probably even quite fond of him. Most people are. So, recently Mr Fox has been hit by a family tragedy, and he’s doing it very hard. I’m not much of a one for prayers and suchlike, but if you are, or if you believe in the power of good thoughts and good energy, send some his way. He could use it.
It’s a perplexing thing, this business of farewelling people, and all its attendant complications. The way that, when we learn of it, we always feel compelled to say something, though there’s no situation in life in which there is less to be said. The compulsion to mouth empty phrases. The way it becomes taboo, so hard to talk about, so frequently euphemised and glanced at and skirted around. All the tiptoeing. Like the incredible sinking foot-in-mouth feeling I remember so clearly when I once made a passing reference to a girl’s dad only to have her respond that he was dead. He’d been dead ten years, there’s no way I should have found my gaffe so cringeworthy. And yet I still do. It’s the same way that death so often seems like a shock, an anomaly, an injustice, even though it’s the greatest inevitability of each one of our existences.
I’ve seen the impact of that shock a number of times now, though to date I’ve never had to cope with it first-hand. I’ve lost grandparents, but for us grandparents have always been old. Their deaths are sad but mostly already accepted. Far different for their children who knew them in a different stage of life. When I see pictures of myself as a kid I’m continually stunned by how young my parents seem. Even as I’ve been preoccupied with my own changes from a fat-faced toddler with a bucket on his head to a lanky bearded arts vagrant, the changes in their lives have been just as substantial. And as my last grandparent died, it was impossible to shake the idea that now my parents’ generation is next, as the slow onward march continues.
The prospect of losing them and others makes me very afraid. I know how lucky I’ve been so far. Mortality has come close but never quite nailed me directly. By 26 my sister had already lost two of her best friends. Numerous friends of mine have lost parents, siblings, children. But my involvement with deaths and wakes and funerals has always been an exercise in helping others through their grief, in sitting awkwardly twisting my fingers and not wanting to feel like a sightseer, in trying desperately to avoid opening any conversations with “It’s good to see you.”
Just as I know how lucky I’ve been so far, I know equally firmly that this luck can’t last, and that much harder days are going to come. Not just family, but contemporaries, friends. At my generation’s age, especially with weddings a much less common part of our social fabric, funerals will be one of the few things that draw past social groupings back together. A couple of schoolmates have already died, but not anyone I was close to. Even at the time I thought it would be hypocritical to act sad. But with the number of people I do really care about in the world, soon enough they’ll start to go too. In one of those little quirks of life, right while I was thinking this over I received a poem from Chris Wallace-Crabbe for the Wordplay site. In part, a missive to his friends:
My particular joke was being healthy
But many of you have done the dirty on me,
Slipping away to death: I am displeased
At so many fellows giving up like that.
The life-spirit demands we call them back
Of childhood’s yellow beach and glaucous water.
The dream of me has grown up with its dream
Becoming the words it took delight in hearing,
Canny phrases from Kipling or R.L.S.:
Just murmuring them can make a bloke survive,
Or that’s my solar myth. It must be something
To have grown beyond the fear of melanoma
And its grim fellows. My birdsong world keeps ringing
With lots of tiresome jobs that must be done.
It’s terrible to contemplate, how to stand this slow slipping away, and keep pressing on. In some ways, the first one from a generation to go under a bus is the luckiest. At least their last sight of their loved ones is strong and whole and in their prime.
It’s something from my grandmother’s life that astonishes and terrifies me. She died last November aged 102. Her husband had died 30 years earlier. For three decades, she lived alone in the house he had built for them on a bush block outside Bendigo. Longer than the entire time I’ve been alive, on her own, in this isolated location, where every single thing about the place was a reminder of the man who was no longer there. The long workshop full of his tools, hung neatly against the silhouettes he inked on the walls. His rifles mounted in the study. His photo on the filing cabinet. His ashtray still waiting on the windowsill, although she never smoked. Locked in this stasis where that period seemed like the last chapter in her life, and she thought of it as such, though it went on and on, longer than all my chapters put together. She talked about dying a lot, and kept claiming she was on the verge for a good twenty years. Now moreso than ever I believe she genuinely hoped it was true. I can only imagine the depression of filling decades feeling like you were marking out time.
The kicker is, she lived so long that every single person she knew when she was young had died and gone. First her parents, aunts, uncles, as per the natural progression. Then each of her siblings, one by one. I think there were seven, though my various family historians can correct this. Her cousins went. The friends of her youth dropped off, the friends of her middle age followed them. By the end even her two older children were threatening they might go before her. I saw photos of this smiling young woman in her hockey gear in the 1920s and was slapped in the face by the realisation – everyone she knew and was close to had already died. Died before her, as she waited, and waited, and lived through the sadness of their passing, and ticked them off one by one as they grew from a handful to a huddle to a great mass of the pre-departed, them waiting for her, her waiting alone in her house in the bush, and in the last ten years, watching the garden she had worked so hard to build up dying bit by bit in the face of a decade and more of unrelenting drought.
By the last two years the drought had done its work. Water restrictions had tightened and tightened until nothing could be saved. The green oasis that I remembered from childhood, with the climbing rose over the trellis arch, and the frond-surrounded fountain full of Japanese carp, had become a cracked, brown, dusty crescent. The last truly coherent conversation we had was just after she’d broken her hip at 101. She said “When we were stood outside that gate when we were 20, [and again I was smashed in the chest by the gulf of time between] we thought we had the world in our hands.” She was impossibly small in her nightgown and the hospital bed, her voice very quiet, speaking almost as though I wasn’t there. “All that effort and all that work, and now it’s all bereft.”
She was right. When the fires came through on Black Saturday there was nothing to fear, nothing to be saved. Somehow they spared the empty house, skirting around it by a few yards each side, in a cruel mockery of all the ones they didn’t spare. They contented themselves with the disused horse shed down the back, a few tired gum trees in the far paddock. There was nothing left to burn.
When she was buried in November, at the other end of that year, the day summed up the decade. Forty-two in the shade, sun like an anvil, clear blue sky ringing with the heat. There had been a bad taste joke floating around for some time that the drought would end when Grandma did. She was buried next to Ron at long last. A few days later the rains came. And for the first time in so many years, they stayed. Now, nine months on, my parents tell me of the bush block coming back to life, the eye drinking it in as thirstily as the roots. “It is green all about. One dam is full to overflowing. There is a softness about the place which in the past decade has mainly spoken of harshness,” says my Dad in a letter. “Up there now the blackened trees are sprouting at the base, and eucalyptus seedlings are emerging in profusion – a rush for life as the conditions allow.” Which I guess is as much as any of us is able to do.