That time I almost didn’t cry.

The room was still and quiet. My sister was dozing again, or maybe just closing her eyes against me so she could think. I felt the tears spill out and their tracks down my cheeks. I felt them drop silently off my face and wet my neck. I turned my head towards the window and the view which was no longer spectacular.

I hadn’t cried.

I hadn’t cried when I’d arrived and seen my sister, gaunt and stretched, three days out from yet another major surgery.

I hadn’t cried at her voice, weak and soft, as she told me the latest health news and then said let’s not talk about it anymore now.

I hadn’t cried when the oncologist came to see her. I didn’t know how rarely he visited these days, that now other specialists and surgeons trekked to her bedside and inside her body. I didn’t feel the alarm that she must have felt. We were introduced, I stepped out of the room.

I hadn’t cried while I waited outside.

I hadn’t cried when the oncologist came out the door and instead of leaving, asked me into the room.

I hadn’t cried when he suggested I sit in that nice comfy chair there, although a bolt of terror ripped through me as I did what I was told.

I hadn’t cried as he told me what he had just told my sister, that the cancer was back, that it was everywhere, that there was nothing they could do, that she only had few weeks left. I felt the blows as if I were laying on the ground in some television show and my head was being kicked again and again and again.

I hadn’t cried when my sister said no, she didn’t want me to hold her hand and the oncologist said to her ahh, you’re the tough one, she’s the softie, before he left us.

I hadn’t cried as I sat there listening to my sister’s first thoughts, random thoughts, questions, as she lay there trying to absorb the news. Dozing, waking, talking. Her telling me she would wait for her husband to come after work as usual and not ring him. Me saying I was staying, I wouldn’t leave her.

I hadn’t cried when I stepped outside while nurses did the wound dressings and began inexplicably to photograph the view from a small waiting area. I hadn’t cried when a woman came up to me and offered to take a photo for me so I could be in it.

I hadn’t cried when the nurses said they were so sorry to my sister and later, in the hallway, to me, offering hugs. When they asked me if there was anything I needed and I asked for a cup of tea.

I hadn’t cried when my sister woke, pointed a finger at me and said, don’t you dare put my birth date in the death notice.

I hadn’t cried when the questions began to crash around in my brain. What does a few weeks even mean? Why had they kept saying the cancer was gone and now it was suddenly everywhere? Where was everywhere anyway? How could this be happening to us, to my beautiful baby sister?

I hadn’t cried when I thought of her family, each of them going about their day unaware of the tsunami that was heading towards them. My brother-in-law, my niece, my nephew. At work, at school, doing normal for the last time. I had almost forgotten to breathe, but I hadn’t cried.

But now, tears were falling. Streaming, soaking.

I heard a noise behind me and when I turned and looked, my sister was pushing a box of tissues towards me.

words

 

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Have you been waiting long?

You look away and it’s just for a minute, really that’s what it seems like, and then you look back again. And when you look back again, for no other reason than the idlest of curiosity, you see it’s been so much longer a time.

There’s an embarrassingly wide, almost enormous, gap between the last time I wrote a blog and this time when I’m trying to write one. So long a time has elapsed that the composition page has been substantially revamped. I notice that, even though I can’t quite remember what it used be like back in the day when it was a familiar place to visit.

I’ll worry about finding the spell-check later.

Things have been happening, life hasn’t stopped whizzing and churning and leaping and heaving around.

There’s been Mondays and Christmases and birthdays and mornings after death and rain and supermarkets and good books gone unread and good and bad coffee drunk  and sledgehammer shocks out of the blue. The bathroom tap dripped, a tree died, long journeys were undertaken because people moved, babies were born, laughter was heard, the dog got bathed, there was nothing to watch on television.

The usual things, right?

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But I haven’t been writing about them here. I write sentences, sometimes, in my head,  quite by accident. Sometimes I’m impressed, but I don’t take them out and write them down. I don’t come briskly to this keyboard and tap them in.

I have been still, mostly. Standing still, sitting still, laying still. There hasn’t been a lot of waving going on.

Maybe that’s a subject to write about one day. But right now, this getting back on the saddle is enough of a thing.

At least I’ve learned something for my efforts. The spell-checking red line pops up as soon as you make your mistake, not when you invite it to or when you’re at the finish line.

What a useful life tool.

 

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…there are people who stay and people who go, and people who are taken away against their will.

You construct a conversation from the small things. Just as you do in everyday life.

How are you feeling, what’s the food like, are they looking after you well, are you sleeping alright, do they know how long you’ll be here.

Questions. Answers, most of the time.

You’ve looked away and now you look back and see to your surprise that he’s become an old man in your absence. Which indeed he is. So close now to 92 he could reach out and touch it.

Pneumonia. But he’s recovering. Being rehabilitated when all he wants to do is go home.

His wife is here again after a short absence caused by a wintry bug. He is so happy to see her. She’s taking control, signing papers, watching the staff closely, clicking the remote control so they won’t miss seeing if that chap gets the $50,000.

The meal tray comes and it’s all wrong. She is scandalised because baked beans cover the main plate. “Who ordered this?” she demands, but it seems no-one did. “I don’t eat baked beans,” he says, because not a one has passed his lips since the war. “You can eat the Mornay and the potato” she says, re-organising the plate, steering him away from the dessert he’s lately come to love the best.

He’s not quite up to the small bottle of red that will, in time, come to grace the tray and cheer him up, a little.

They have always been in our lives, this couple who are a few years past celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. Like rocks, steady and strong, like a lighthouse, standing firm and safe and true. The umbrella for my generation, protecting us from all the things, and now, as well, from being the oldest ones. We’ve never been in the world without them there, happy to hear from and about us, interested in our health and well-being, listening to and witnessing our lives.

Encouraging, supporting, celebrating, sympathising, welcoming.

Always, unconditionally, loving us.

He has his good days and his bad days here in this place. He wonders whether he’ll make a full recovery. When he came in he bought his walker but he couldn’t bring his whizz-bang chair, the one that goes backwards and forwards almost to a standing position.

He knows about hospitals. He’s been in quite a few. A back damaged dreadfully when he was a too-young soldier, cancer, major heart surgery and some lesser ailments, in between.

He and his wife have had a big, but not always perfect, life. Reared children, worked, made a home and many, many friends, suffered loss and shocks and setbacks, welcomed grandchildren with overjoyed arms. In their always welcoming house, your glass is never empty and your plate is always filled. Their RSVP to my sister’s wedding simply said, “We’ll be there with bells on.”

They have loved a good laugh, told a good yarn, driven their car great lengths to be where they’re needed, rolled up their sleeves and gotten on with it. Generations of children have played on the floor with the over-flowing contents of their toy basket and known there’d be an ice-cream found, just for them, in the back freezer.

And now, here we are.

He tells me about a recurring dream he’s been having, about the war ending, about being in the city as a civilian, celebrating. We talk about where he really was, as a soldier, that day. I ask him if he celebrated and his head snaps up. He gives me one of his looks, straight face but eyes full of twinkle.

“Celebrate? Celebrate! I’m still getting over it.”

He always tells the best stories.

He has always been the master of the punchline.

old

*Title a quote from “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”, Karen Joy Fowler.

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Shedding off one more layer of skin.

By the time all the tests were done and all the blood was taken, the nurse and I were good friends. We exchanged information about alternate heath practitioners. Her chiropractor, my osteopath.

We hadn’t begun like that. She gave me an obviously well-rehearsed and oft-repeated spiel. I noticed she didn’t make eye contact. She asked if I was afraid of needles and I said I would just look away. That’s fine she said, and I didn’t tell her it was the blood I especially didn’t want to see.

My doctor has requested I undergo what this nurse calls an absolute slew of tests. Partly because he loves a test or two or six, and partly because he is still looking for a physical explanation for this malaise that has accompanied me now for so many – too many – months. Strangely, I find myself not even on the edge of worry. The truly difficult bit has been getting here.

But here I am, so things are definitely looking up. Giving blood, drinking ghastly fluids, having heart tests, reading in the waiting room, smiling at the baby.

Just like a normal person.

I think what I have been doing, these hard, nerve-wracking, depressing, unreliable, bleak, uninspiring, unproductive, relentless months, has been about skin. I’ve been shedding a layer, slowly and quietly. I’m not sure why and I’m not even sure I’m done yet. I guess I didn’t need it anymore. I guess it’s time for a change.

You can almost see it now, the place where the skin used be. It’s still raw, but it’s getting a bit better.

Because look! I’ve written a whole blog post and the box said, “No writing errors were found.”

Back in the day when I was normal that never used happen.

 

skin

 

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That side was made for you and me.

Dark times, inside, and out there.

Sigh.

PeteSeeger

But somehow the reports of Pete Seeger’s death make it through unsullied by the Twitter outrages, the political maelstrom and the everyday cruelties stacking up in the world. His was a clean death, a nice death, a rightful death. Cause of death was recorded simply as old age.

He was 94, and was described, mostly, as “an American folk singer and activist”.  For decades, Pete Seeger believed that song had the power to bring about social change. He wrote, he sang, he recorded, he performed, he sat, he marched, he stood. His support for civil and labor rights, racial equality, international understanding, peace and harmony, was legendary. He seemed unafraid and optimistic. Things could, and would, change.

Amidst all the favourable words written about him after his death, there’d sometimes be a recent photo or a video. Pete singing at Occupy Wall Street. Pete holding a placard in support of mothers against guns. He never retired or sold his songs to be used in commercials. He didn’t seem overly fussed by stainless steel and marble kitchens or rooms with a view that only he could see.

I wonder how he kept doing it. I wonder how he kept the faith and the enthusiasm in the face of life and politics and apathy and conservatism. One step forward, three steps back. Desegregation in the south of America was a long and torturous time coming and a lot of people didn’t believe in it or accept it as law. Read the history, learn the carnage. We shall overcome, one day.

It’s the way of the world, that change is a struggle, that leadership is lacking, that what is right and proper isn’t a given, only an opinion. This is what we’re finally doing but wait! Change of government, change of minds, change of beliefs. We’re not doing that after all. In fact, we’re smashing and burning and staying the way we were 50 years ago. The poor will drag us down, people of colour are lesser, women are useless don’t get me started, we don’t want just anybody coming here.

Anyway.

When I was looking at the Pete Seeger things, I came across this video. It’s the day before Barack Obama’s officially sworn in as the president of the United States of America for the first time. There are thousands and thousands of people outside in the January freezing of Washington Mall. A new president!! A black president!! A Democrat!! There is so much hope, so much optimism, so much faith, so much emotion.

And on the stage there’s a choir and there are three men. The one in the centre wearing the beanie is Pete Seeger and he’d be around 90. Bruce Springsteen is on one side and Pete’s grandson, Tao Rodriguez, on the other.

They’re singing This Land is Your Land, and they’re singing the verses that were often excluded because they were thought to be, in the once upon a time, too dangerous and subversive. See if you can recognise them.

It’s an extraordinary performance on many levels. It’s an almost hackneyed song injected with the gusto of the moment. There’s the generosity and respect between the performers. There’s the notion that so many people who fought so hard for civil rights have lived to see this day.

But the one I almost trip over every time is the joy, most especially Pete Seeger’s. He’s 90, he’s seen everything over and over and over again. The good, the bad, the ugly. But here we are, today, this day, and everything is possible.

And at this moment, captured on film, here’s this old, active man joyfully proclaiming.

This land was made for you and me.

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More years.

I have been singing the praises of John Safran’s book, Murder in Mississippi. Recommending it left, right, and center, almost as if I was back in my working life and this was a part of my job.

I’ve been lost in the reading of it, too. John Safran went to Mississippi to research the murder of a notorious white supremacist. A young black man had been charged with the crime and was in prison, awaiting trial. But nothing was quite as it had first seemed and as Safran investigates he paints very fine word pictures of the people and the places and the institutions and the history that make this what it is. He is also, at times, very funny, which helps calm your mind when you’re almost becoming exhausted by the awfulness of everything.

I was coming towards the end of the book the other morning. It was 4 a.m. and reading was a reasonable thing to be doing in the state of insomnia I find myself in these days. I had been chuckling aloud at the retelling of the story of the murder victim and the church members he went into battle with. It was a moment’s respite. Things in the story were terrible and I had just passed through some shocking facts about Mississippi being the poorest state of America and the Mississippi Delta being the place the poorest of the poor live, “mostly black and in permanent recession.” Someone mentions in passing that there’s no icy poles in the Delta, because the electricity is down so often the corner shops can’t rely on refrigeration.

Safran-murder-in-mississippi-bookAnd then I was struggling with the young murderer, the prison system where he was sentenced to stay for some 65 years, and his verging on lunatic behaviour in the face of all this.

It was grim indeed. I needed a diversion.

And I got one.

Almost at the end, there’s a story of a meet-and-greet the candidates day being run by a white conservative group. Safran has met with one of the organisers on another matter. The other matter relates to an incident that the man was involved in when he was a  15-year-old boy and it was 1967. “He’s now an old man,” writes Safran.

Wait.

I stop thinking about power and colour and education and poverty and inequality. I do the math and it’s quick and easy. This old man, at the time being written about, would be somewhere in the vicinity of 55, 56 years of age.

That’s not old John Safran. Especially not because it’s younger than I myself am, at the time of reading. Alright, it was old once, when I was in my teens and twenties and thirties and such. It was very old. But now, let me tell you, when I am sitting with a group of my peers and someone tells us about someone who’s died, somebody else will ask immediately, “And how old was she?” and if the answer’s say, 70, we will almost chant as if to ward off evil spirits, “Why, that’s not old at all.”

I know it’s not middle-aged, either. I’ve come to like the lyrical description of an age in Chris Womersley’s book, Cairo, “Most likely I have lived more years than remain to me.” That would do nicely.

Forgive me. It was hot and I was sleepless.

As I re-engage with the tragic story I am about to finish I do attend to the fact that maybe – with the poverty, the bitterness, the lack of education, the lack of hope – you are an old man in Mississippi before you’re 60.

That maybe it’s not life, and the number of years you have at it, that ages you, but rather the life you’re living. The life that, by circumstance and luck and chance and paths taken or not, you find yourself in.

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At christmas.

At Christmas, the halls must be decked.

At Christmas, the roads are full of cars and the parking spaces are at a minimum. The shops are clogged and the salespeople preoccupied at the cash registers. In the supermarket, trolleys overflow precariously and take some careful pushing.

Christmas-Lights-turned-o-007At Christmas I came home and found it was in the mail box, waiting for me. The unexpected card, from the old old friends since lost touch with, reclaiming the connection at the very last minute.

At Christmas, you need all the sleep you can get, even if you can’t get it.

At Christmas I packed the car for the fairly long drive ahead. I went over and over the presents, checking and double checking I had them all. It felt as if it would be the worst thing possible, to forget someone.

At Christmas we watched the carols. When it came time for one of my favourites a beauty pageant contestant stepped up to do the singing. But she was a beauty pageant contestant playing a singer and I was disgusted.

At Christmas my sister peeled and cut potatoes and I did the same with the pumpkin. I cut the ham from the bone with an electric knife and when my shift was finished, I handed the instrument over to my brother-in-law.

At Christmas there is much opening of presents and shedding of paper and grateful exclaiming. There is happiness, there are oohs and aahs, and there is my daughter saying she doesn’t really like the photo I have put into a frame for her.

At Christmas you need extra tables and chairs and the plates are – and this is the word you can use here, now – the plates are groaning with food. There are vegans, vegetarians and carnivores to feed. There is gravy, cheese sauce and mustard to add. There is quinoa.

At Christmas, there is a lot of conversation.

turkeyAt Christmas, even though only a small percentage of the takers will accept a slice, there must be pudding.

At Christmas there are paper hats to be worn and you cannot eat another thing.

At Christmas the plates must be collected, scraped, stacked, washed, unpacked, put away. Leftovers must be stored, spills mopped, pans scrubbed, rubbish put in this bin, recycling in that.

At Christmas, you wake up the next morning and it’s Boxing Day.

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