The following essays were shortlisted for the Strange Days writing award. They were read and judged by Helen Garner.
Congratulations to all who made the shortlist.
Writing a Woman in Lockdown by Katherine Brabon
I have been writing a woman in lockdown. As in, she is a character of sorts. She is like me in some ways and also she is unlike the deepest untucked parts of me.
What are my small narratives? The days when I swim in the outdoor pool and those when I don’t; when I write well in the morning and when I don’t; when my job is a tight ball burden or when it’s fine oh not so bad; early evenings when I feel like cooking I love this and those when I really don’t; when my stomach is unsettled nausea like a personality and when it’s not; when my headaches cross a bad threshold and when they stay stay there behind it; when my body moves well and when it hurts; when I think I know my body and when it manifests some new malady or makes plain an old one; when I lived here and when I lived over in the Parkville sharehouse; when we knew these lockdown pandemic words as ones of our own and when we didn’t. They are my small significant narratives, in other words they define or ruin a day.
I was twenty two or three and I was let down by narrative. This happens, our shaky young certainties foiled by what we perceive to be a failure of story. I had recently had a surgical procedure, an operation on my knee, and the narrative I looked towards was recovery. Words like better and cure and learnt, I guess, by conceptions of medicine and TV shows and I don’t know, those toys that position the child as doctor, as healer. First you stay felled in convalescence, an old-sounding word, a good word, it rises and falls from the tongue like its meaning. The archaic arch to it, a cadence suggestive of rhythm slowed; the vowelled repetition on the way to cure. It is a temporary allowance of time during which we are healing, cared for and do not need to go outside. Then we pass a threshold to wellness.
Instead of cure I found continuance. I stayed in my parents’ house in the cold blue town where I grew up, at the base of the small mountain with views of Melbourne. I took awkward, slow walks between the garden beds, across the undulating lawn beneath the cavernous conifer trees of the neighbour’s yard and the acer and birches planted by my father which were now as old as me. I entered instead a continuity of illness. I share a birthday with those trees. My narrative is a wreath.
Continuance. I have written a woman. During lockdown I write her and I call her my friend, the woman I’m writing, and she might resemble me. I write about how I met her in the Royal Park and how she reminds me of me, the way she limps and the way she is young but walks in stiff and difficult ways. You are just like me, she says. And I say to her you are just like me. We get to know each other and soon enough, on a bad day, when I’m stuck in a small daily narrative of pain, I argue with this friend and I watch her cry. I tell her I cannot fix these bones and she tells me, touching my fingers and knees, I cannot fix these bones. I sometimes name her and sometimes get frustrated by her. We repeat ourselves and we talk about what’s happened. We remember the hospital together, the second operation, the persistent fluorescence and the way yes maybe we really did just want to lie with our palms turned up, as Plath writes, and be utterly empty. I was struck down by narrative and I wrote a woman.
Strange comes from Latin’s extraneus, originally meaning those who did not belong in the family, something that was external, strange or foreign, until the word shifted place in modern usage to now mean weird or odd. To be estranged is to be treated as a stranger. When I was disappointed by narrative I was estranged from it. I did not know the edges of the story I was in.
Rachel Cusk says about psychoanalysis: ‘events are reconstructed in the knowledge of their outcome: the therapeutic properties of narrative lie in its capacity to ascribe meaning to sufferings that at the time seemed to have no purpose.’ A slow coming aftermath is a creature of its own. With a protracted event, we lose the narrative border and we are estranged.
As the lockdowns blur into these times, these strange, odd times, we categorise them: the first, the fifth, the seventh. We punctuate them with recalled moments of freedom: in January, when we stayed on Mount Hotham and greeted the New Year thousands of metres above sea level. In July, those few in-between weeks, yes more naming, when we celebrated my sister’s birthday in a cafe, and easily convinced ourselves to drink wine with an early
lunch. But we were not yet through.
What I am saying by this is that I know the disappointment of a thwarted narrative.
The woman I am writing has the same illness as me. We were twenty one when it started and it is difficult to see it in our faces. She likes to frame experience as if standing back, looking at a picture on a wall and she says things like, We do not have a beginning or an end to this. There is no recovery like a brilliant sunset after rain. There’s no: ‘I am through this and I am changed’. I write her as the world is nothing like we’ve known it. Etranger, unfamiliar,
not of the family. Strange and estranged. The woman becomes familiar to me. I like returning to her presence. She seems to know more than I do. She says funny and poetic things: Autoimmune comes from autos, the self. The water is only your own, so bathe.
We moved recently, M. and I, to a house close to the Racecourse Road tram line leading into the city. I walk through the playground at the Crown Street Stables, deserted except for the zippered jumper, the small grey hoodie, the tiny doll that looks like one that dolls themselves are given to hold, and which all lie lost for now. Briefly, I construct the moment around the discovered misplacement of these things: the frustrated mother saying but where did you leave it? did you lose another jumper? and the surrogate tears of the child on behalf of their doll without a doll.
During lockdown I read Ali Smith’s Artful. A woman is writing in a time of grief. The penultimate section is about edges. ‘Edges involve extremes. Edges are borders. Edges are very much about identity, about who you are.’ Protracted narratives do not have edges. I am repeating myself, but maybe as a matter of narrative form this is appropriate. No sigh of closure. What I am saying by this is I think we all understand and as we look towards December, to January in Melbourne, we’ll call this the second January, in our heat that feels always surprising and inevitable, we are still largely edgeless in this narrative.
The woman I am writing likes to wear baggy woolen jumpers like my grandmother did. We remember the smell of perfume in the wool long after our childhoods are over. Some of her utterances I understand, others I can’t unstick the meaning of, I feel it attached to my sternum or the tip of my stomach. I write us sitting in the Carlton Gardens. We call the globular hanging flowers little carrara statues, we say they are hanging themselves and then she says no, no, they’re little girls on monkey bars. I cross out my words and write down hers. She turns her palms out and declares to me:
All I want is to be reeled in
from dangerous poses.
My hands sutured to goodness.
We formulate the body in position to our world. What I am naming is the need to explain a body as it experiences inexplicable havoc. It is difficult to interpret a storm in motion. The body in autoimmunity is attacking itself, confused about what is self and what is foreign. The bodies in the news are invaded by the virus; there are no natural defences for this severity. The line between pathology and metaphor is a coil.
The woman I am writing loves metaphors. The woman I am writing loves the pool. The day comes when we are allowed to swim again. We love it, this muggy, sunny, grassy November. I write this woman taking her first swim in months. I take a tram to North Melbourne for my first swim since July.
Metaphor from meta and pherin, or to transfer and to carry beyond. We lift the real thing, place it there, just there, just beyond the thing that happened. I decide that the word’s meaning is more beautiful than any metaphor. They say we are locked down, they say ignorance is a virus. This illness: you are too young for this they say, yes yes I know I am disrupting the narrative of arthritis. The body is at war with itself, they say. Maybe I will only say: I carry it beyond. I will find some coiled, wreathed, protracted story.
We step into the empty pool lane. Emptiness as mercy, as relief. I think that for now, I will keep writing this woman. I will take her places. We will swim and pause and breathe and we’ll swim again. The woman I have written will say something odd, like she often does because she loves metaphors, Look, the clouds are shoulder blades and the pool is an edge, and I will tell her it’s strange, what she says, and beautiful.
The Days in Between by Zara Gunadson
I’ve been thinking about a game Mum and I would play when I was a child called waitresses. I would get an apron and tea towel from the kitchen. Mum would order wine from the couch and I would run to the fridge and pour to the brim. I would take big gulps from the glass and top it up again before I took it back to the couch. We would repeat this routine and I wonder how much of my childhood I might have spent a little bit
01/02/2021: Woke up feeling awful. Slept in until 12pm, missed the gym. Have
spent my entire pay and have $30 to live on for ten days.
I start another diary to document a new attempt at sobriety. The note taking is an awareness that I am unreliable but by writing it down I might be able to learn why. I’m trying for one month. Two weeks is the longest I have managed in recent history and that was under coercion and duress.
Based on the responses you provided to the quiz questions here, it may be no surprise to you that you have a drinking problem. If you provided the same information you gave in this quiz to a professional alcohol and drug counselor, you would more than likely be diagnosed with a severe alcohol use disorder, another name for alcoholism.
I’m not an alcoholic because I've never been to rehab, or been hospitalised, or completed a 12 step program. I thought about it after watching Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot. I googled where the closest meetings were but I decided to just drink water instead.
24/10/2020: I don’t know if I used to be a better drunk. I could drink and maintain my sense of self. Now it is a license to self destruct, to behave badly, to hurt people.
25/10/2020: I talked to Drew about this because he called when I was in the middle of contemplating it. He said I need to get better at drinking more responsibly, maybe try eating before I get boozed and swapping wine for water.
It’s hard to sit still in this quiet house. Not even the fridge makes noise. To expend pent up energy I cycle eighty kilometres over three days. I stand on the scales and it says I've gained two kilograms. Muscle weighs more than fat.
I can never remember if extended family members are alive. We’re not the type of family to go out of our way to say goodbye. But I do remember that Great Aunty Marie was robbed when I was child and they took all of her jewelry. I remember because that jewelry was meant to be my inheritance. I called mum to check if she is still alive and
she said she is dead.
It is hot and I make plans to meet friends at a wine bar. We sit at a table on the street and drink a young chardonnay as trams shuffle round the corner. I smoke a cigarette. We part ways and I catch the tram home listening to music through one airpod. I lost the other on a night where I stepped on my new sunglasses and threatened to push a kid off a bike. At home I watch a movie and write, What I like about love is that you can’t consume it all. You could potentially kiss forever. It doesn’t end like a bottle of wine. Love doesn’t expire, it just changes faces. All I am missing is a face to kiss on a hot night with the balcony door open. I fall asleep with the air conditioning on and wake up cold.
03/01/2017: I went to a boozy staff lunch for the restaurant. My only memory is
screaming I hate you at the top of my lungs a couple of times to my ex before
bursting into tears and telling him I want to kill myself.
I go to a trendy restaurant in the late afternoon that only serves gnocchi. I’m trying to avoid buying hot chips and a potato cake. The waitress comes over to tell me to order at the bar. I avert my eyes from the wine list and they fall on the beer fridge.
07/10/2019: Not liking myself is central to staying in control because you don’t try
to control people you like. You don’t want to stop them having fun at a party, that
would be rude. What is also rude is having too much fun at the party and ruining
it for everyone else, so they start to dislike you and control your fun.
When I was 16, and drinking out of a goon bag, my older brother called me to tell me that I was wasting my life. I don’t think it’s possible to waste your life at that age. My brother still insinuates that I am wasting my life. He coerced me into signing up to a gym by promising to pay for the first month. I’ve only been a handful of times and I’m yet to see the money. Wasting your life is only relative to the person who says the words.
24/01/2021: I don’t know how to navigate the feeling between boundary and loss.
Everyone likes drinking beers and I like drinking beers too. On Sunday night I go to a picnic and we end at a club. I type in my phone notes while everyone is dancing and leave after 30 minutes. I cycle home in the dark without lights on my bike. There was only one person at the picnic I would be friends with and he spent most of the time showing us photos of his waxed asshole. He is by far the best dancer. I glimpse the light strobe over his bare shoulders as I slip out down the stairs. The feeling is between boundary and gain.
A migraine arrives on Monday at noon and doesn’t leave until Wednesday morning. It clutches at my head while I absorb hours of turned down RuPaul in bed with the blinds drawn. The flat feels like a fortress against light and sound. I cry when my delivery driver messages “I’ve arrived” which is code for “I can’t find your apartment.” He sets
the bag gently at my feet when he finds me sitting at the bottom of the stairs with my head in my hands. I bargain with a newly found god that I will get through a full month if they can just make it stop. They hear me in the night and I wake feeling mostly human. I let the world back in through open windows, strip the bed and tidy away the take out containers from the kitchen. I remember hearing a former child star say we’re all entitled to drop out so long as we tune back in. The flat feels like a sanctuary filled with light and sound.
22/02/2021: There is a hole that opens up when I am sober that pleads to be
I arrive at the second last day of what I can call ‘a concerted effort of thinking about sobriety’. I lay in bed reading, only leaving the house to buy ingredients for a shepherd's pie. I turn my phone on and off airplane mode, caught between wishing to be left alone and praying to be disturbed. David Byrne sings to me while I cook. It turns out that the length of Talking Heads ‘77 is the exact time it takes me to mash potatoes, chop vegetables and cook off the meat. The oven timer counts down the next 30 minutes before I can eat lunch.
I have been replacing drinks with food on the days in between. Cooking is cathartic and time consuming but more so, it is the pleasure I am seeking. Eating is interchangeable with drinking, smoking, kissing, snorting or laughing. I am constantly searching for something that feels good.
I start sitting down at my desk on Saturdays or Sundays and lamenting my hangovers. A brick wall sits right behind my eyes and prevents any thought from fully forming. All of the hours of the week spent looking forward to the weekend and the time I would have to write are back to being wasted on jugs of Carlton Draught and a few bumps of ket.
Undated: On the other side I realised that my life has revolved around chaos;
drinking, drugs, affairs, too many jobs and responsibilities. Everything to avoid
settling. So scared that I would be boring, unliked, wouldn’t make friends but I am
that on either side. Sober or not. Chaotic or not. Loved and unloved.
Grit, Grace and Groundedness by Violet Kieu
I see deep longing every day. So heavy, that sometimes it is a visceral ache. In his poem ‘On Children’, Khalil Gibran captures this notion as a universal sentiment:
‘Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.’
When I was applying for the fertility fellowship I understood it intellectually. In my head I knew that gynaecology was the science of women; that using this knowledge could create families for people who longed for it the most. If patients are textbooks that you learn from, then I have become privileged to be involved in some of life’s greatest lessons.
Everyday now I work within the IVF cycle: the medications, the scans, the egg collection, the lab magic, the sperm – all culminating in the final step: the embryo transfer. There is no guarantee that we get to this last step, though, no guarantee that we get through any of the steps at all.
This requires courage, and when Covid struck, I saw firm resolution from women and their families. As Covid eclipsed our lives, our days became akin to Escher’s graphic illusions – up became down, birds became fish. Lockdown was disorientating. The National Gallery of Victoria is iconically Melbourne: all stained glass ceiling, waterfall entrance and international exhibits. The NGV was closed. Hospitals, however, were still open.
In the middle of a pandemic, women brought the best of themselves. Despite temperature screening, symptom questionnaires, masks, they still came to undertake an embryo transfer without a partner or support person, due to contact precautions. Sometimes teary, they clutched their iPhones for a photo of the embryo to show their loved ones. This happened; this is real – it is worth more than a passing glimpse.
Amidst this uncertainly is where I began to address my own fears of IVF. Namely: wanting to do my best. Was I good enough? When placing the embryo back into the uterus, was I as accurate aiming for a bull’s eye?
I break bad news to our patients on a daily basis. For example, the canceled embryo transfer is the intersection of a Venn diagram of hope, shock and unspeakable loss, with the patient in the middle. This heart-sink conversation occurs on the morning of the planned embryo transfer. On Day 5 after egg collection the embryologists open the black box of the climate-controlled incubator. Here we have the paradox of Schrödinger's embryos: both alive and otherwise. If the answer upon opening is no viable embryos, then I call the patient to not come in. There is nothing to transfer. There is often a gasp, stoic silence, then a quiver in their voice. They feel robbed; I feel guilty. They hang up.
I call women too for low fertilization. If Day 0 is egg collection, where the eggs are placed with sperm, then the morning after is Day 1, where we can see if the eggs have fertilized. If less than 40% of the eggs have divided, I will call.
One quiet morning I called a woman N in her mid-thirties, who had 13 eggs collected the day prior. A baker’s dozen or unlucky thirteen? Only two had fertilized: fifteen percent. I had never met her before. I call patients who go through our laboratory, but are referred from different clinicians. Thus I cold-called her, a voice out of the ether. Not surprisingly, she was surprised.
‘That’s really low.’ She said.
‘Yes.’ I said. ‘But its not absolute fertilization failure. It is two fertilized eggs, not zero.’
‘Can I have a day 3 embryo transfer?’
‘I will have to check with my consultant.’
I spoke to the head of unit. She told me yes, however to explain to N that an early transfer may be false reassurance. That if we were concerned that the embryos would not reach Day 5, then we could do a Day 2, instead of Day 3 transfer.
That meant a transfer the very next day. I called N back. This was not her first cycle; in fact it was her second. Her husband’s sperm had been borderline – it wasn’t perfect for one of the criteria of count, speed or shape. As a result, the first cycle had been recommended ICSI, where a single sperm had been injected into each of her eggs. From that first cycle, she had had four single embryo transfers, which had all yielded no pregnancies. So this time, they had requested a conventional IVF cycle, where each egg is surrounded by the sperm and left to their own devices. This is a risk, given the borderline sperm results, but well within their reproductive autonomy.
Also, she had two embryos. I explained that we could do the single embryo transfer tomorrow. But what of the second embryo? The plan would be to freeze it if it survived to Day 5. However, if that second embryo didn’t survive, then N could ask me why I didn’t offer her a double embryo transfer straight up. So, I explained that a double embryo transfer exists, but is against medical advice – risks higher for mother, and babies. Babies born both young and small can be the very sickest.
The next day, I met N for the first time.
‘I still don’t understand. My husband is so healthy. He exercises daily, and he’s lost weight.’
Good people may have abnormal sperm. It’s not a reflection on them. Infertility is not an indication of a person’s moral worth. It’s a medical condition.
The procedure room held four people: N, myself, a nurse, and an embryologist, plus one embryo. N wanted to get pregnant, and we had 15 minutes to do so.
N’s embryo was perfect. It was a grade A with four clear distinct cells, flawless spheres in each other’s orbit with no fragmentation, no extra bits. It resembled a four-leaf clover – that symbol of faith, hope, love and above all else: luck. The other embryo had not progressed and had gone into cleavage arrest. Thus the decision was made for us, out of the 13 eggs only one embryo survived.
The embryologist handed me the thin tube, the catheter, which contained the embryo and I gripped with all my ancestral strength. She was passing the baton, and I would not drop it. I used all my fine motor control, hand eye coordination, dexterity, visual spatial awareness, and opposable thumb to pass the embryo through the cervix. As one patient said, ‘fingers crossed, but legs not.’ We watched on the ultrasound screen as the fluid containing the embryo lit up white, like a shooting star against an infinite sky.
N had already had four negative previous embryo transfers. The cumulative pregnancy rate increases with more cycles, however, the mental fortitude to keep on going, embryo after embryo is determination embodied. She had come in a pandemic for her 5th embryo transfer.
I debriefed with another consultant after her transfer. Should we have waited until Day 5? Should we re-suggest ICSI next time? He told me that if the embryo were good on Day 2, it would be good on Day 5.
The first Winter Masterpieces Exhibition I attended at the NGV, over a decade ago, was a sentinel event in my life, exposing me to beauty beyond medicine. It was 2009, I saw Salvador Dalí’s exhibition Liquid Desire, and my imagination cracked open.
Perhaps undertaking IVF is akin to stepping into a surrealist’s painting, then, like Dalí’s ‘Trilogy of the Desert: Mirage’, held in the public collection in Melbourne. In this painting, an ominous blue sky illuminates a journey that is not clear, not linear. A woman looks for her way in a science-fiction world, finding detail in a vast wilderness.
The goal of IVF is simple: one baby, born at term. In this fantastical landscape, the woman tries to separate order from chaos, seeking the opposite of entropy, more clarity and less complication. Her face is blurred, details obscured, she is every woman. She stands on shifting sands. She has to make a myriad of choices: keep going, pause, or stop the chase?
For N, her husband and her embryo, it worked. After multiple failed embryo transfers, it’s the one that stuck. At two weeks she had a positive blood test. Then, at seven weeks, finally, a heart beat.
In Chitra Ramaswarmy’s book ‘Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy’, she describes her fetus on the ultrasound as, ‘a tiny oval with a dot in the middle… the tiniest of black holes. It needed a professional eye to be seen, but one pointed out, it was undeniable. My own little Big Bang. The beginning of it all.’
N had her own little Big Bang. Covid be damned.
Another patient D, however, was still a woman in the wilderness. Similar to N, she was in her mid-thirties, had five embryo transfers, but unlike N, she was not pregnant. She now existed within the realm of recurrent implantation failure. We talked for a while, and I ordered a long list of investigations for rare conditions. D cried sweet-bitter tears, and between breaths asked for a letter.
I wrote for D a love letter (of sorts) to support her inquiry into adoption and donor eggs. We used writing as fighting – a eulogy to her embryos, an ode to her oocytes, which once were the brightest sparks in her universe. To remember the light of them, guiding the next.
Everyday now I work within the IVF cycle: to process it, I need the magnification of art to hold a lens to these experiences. Patient journeys and doctoring stories are, for me, the heart of Socrates’ examined life: words worth living.
Strange Days by Elizabeth Quin
The noise is what I remember most clearly. The splintering sound of crushed metal and shattered glass when two vehicles travelling at 100 kilometres an hour collide.
I had recently decided to leave my marriage after years of trying to navigate a path towards a shared future, a future I finally knew to be separate. My husband had been dumbstruck when I told him: I remember the jolt of his body, as if a current of electricity had gone through it. And now I was driving along a country road towards the family home we still shared to break it to our children. I wasn’t speeding when the other car shot out of a side road and T-boned mine. I had been in no hurry to get home that day.
My initial euphoria at having survived the collision turned to fear when I realised that I was powerless to change the car’s trajectory: the impact appeared to have rendered me immobile. The feeling of relief when the car finally came to a halt was soon replaced by terror when I saw whisps of what looked like smoke rising from the metal concertina that had once been the front bonnet. Out of the frypan, I thought.
The young man travelling in the car behind me told me it was the powder released from the airbags. His was a calming presence as I waited – still strapped into my seat – for the cavalry to arrive. He asked me to name the Prime Minister, and whether I wanted him to call anyone. I gave him my husband’s number. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me.
My rescuer and I lapsed into a surprisingly intimate silence for two total strangers holding hands through a shattered windscreen. I was both elated and resigned: I was going to live to see my children grow up and embark on a new life. It just wasn’t going to start today. Instead, in a stroke of perverse serendipity, I was being winched out of a twisted pile of metal and placed carefully onto a stretcher and into an ambulance.
I would spend the next nine hours in a regional emergency ward undergoing scans and comforting a weeping soon-to-be-ex-husband. With my diagnosis – a neck broken in two places – came another new role for him: that of principal carer. For the following nine months his job would be to care for me until I was well enough to leave him.
The Red Cross volunteer – a white-clad presence hovering in and out of my peripheral vision – witnessed his distress. She waited until he’d gone before offering me a cup of tea. The impossibility of my being able to drink it occurred to both of us simultaneously and we laughed. A light-hearted moment in a heavy-hearted day. We talked
about its symbolism. When she offered me a Reiki massage I accepted, touched by the gesture. I didn’t believe in it but understood that a virtual laying on of hands was the only kind of touch I’d be allowed for a while. I thought back to my young rescuer at the scene of the crash and understood that accepting help from others would be a feature of my life on my path towards independence. I would have to learn to do it with grace.
In the months that followed I experienced moments of elation, especially in the early weeks, when photo evidence of the wreckage showed that I had survived the impact by milliseconds. I also endured hours of frustration spent tackling the Transport Accident Commission paperwork and claustrophobic weeks spent permanently wrapped in the intimate embrace of an upper body Minerva brace.
Made-to-measure from aluminium and moulded polyethylene, my brace kept me immobile from the top of the back of my head to the tip of my chin, and all the way down to and around my waist. She remained on duty every minute of every day except for the five minutes she loosened her grasp as I lay, still wet, on the bed after my fortnightly shower while a nurse changed her linings. For ninety days, Minerva was my closest companion and
Strange then, that my memories of those times are infused with a warm golden glow. Dreams of solo travel and plans for future study helped ease the discomfort of nights spent lying – straight-backed and pillowless – in Minerva’s grip. But it was a benign grip: my brace was keeping my spinal cord intact so that I could fulfill those dreams. There was so much to live for.
Every day brought unexpected challenges. Not being allowed to lift anything heavier than a coffee cup for months brought on a case of frozen shoulder, necessitating a lengthy and painful injection of saline solution into a joint. It didn’t help that this condition was also known as ‘middle aged woman’s disease’. I was incensed: my age and gender had nothing to do with my affliction. My oldest son agreed. He helpfully pointed out that I hadn’t been
middle-aged for years.
During the saline procedure, the doctor distracted me by talking about the beauty of the Victorian west coast – the scene of the accident – and, every so often, asked ‘is the pain still bearable?’ My answer was never in the negative, but at times it came close.
Throughout those months of recuperation, my survivor euphoria never quite left me but it wavered whenever my husband entered the room. He appeared oblivious. He had taken on the role of primary carer with gusto and efficiency as if, by giving the best care it was possible to give, the balance of goodwill in the bank would wipe the ledger clean. How much easier it would have been not to tear asunder a life shared for thirty years: to convince myself that gratitude equalled love. I wished it could be so but knew it could not.
At regular intervals throughout my recuperation I told him that, as grateful as I was for his care, the outcome would be unchanged; that he should dismiss all hope of reconciliation. I felt it incumbent upon me to render him hope-less. And sometimes it hit home. If anyone had asked me then ‘Is the pain still bearable?’, I might have hesitated. On other days, it was the best of times. I got my chance to enact the near-death experience clause and guilt my children into watching Harold and Maude with me. (They loved it.) Neighbours dropped by with baked goods and bonhomie. The parents of my children’s friends became my friends. A school mate of my 22-year-old son made the biggest
lasagne any of us had ever seen.
In a radical role-reversal, my young adult children became my carers. My daughter had to get in the shower with me once a fortnight to wash my hair. My useless arms remained by my side as she washed, conditioned and gently brushed out the knots. The first time was excruciatingly painful – I had no idea what living in a brace could do to shoulder length hair – so from then on I wore my hair in plaits, like an overgrown schoolgirl.
All three of my children learned to reach for my hand as soon as we left the safety of home on our daily one-on-one walks. For who knew what wet leaves and dead camellias lay in my path waiting to bring about my downfall? My brace didn’t allow me to look up or down, right or left, so my offspring bore full responsibility for my welfare on forays beyond our four walls. I focused on the horizon: to do otherwise would have been my undoing.
My oldest remembers how much effort I had to make to look at him: how I would turn my entire body to face him. He told me recently that he used my lack of peripheral vision to his advantage on at least one occasion when he and his younger brother came into my bedroom, feigning interest in my welfare but actually checking to see if I was asleep so they could steal my Valium. Their secret Valium party for two was a huge disappointment – they lay down on the carpet and fell asleep.
My own drug regime was so extensive I had to draw up a schedule. With the exception of the saline injection, none of my memories of those days included any actual physical pain. During a home visit, my GP asked to look at the list of drugs the neurosurgeon had prescribed. She gasped audibly and reduced it by half, which must have been a great disappointment to the two petty criminals I had given birth to.
What began as a two hour drive destined to culminate in the shattering of a family unit turned into a nine month journey towards independence. It was a kind of reprieve for me, but a painful reckoning lay ahead for those most responsible for my recovery. The pain of the past is a barometer by which we learn to measure and appreciate what we have now. The art of living in the present has taken me a lifetime to learn. And the pain – or what’s left of it – is
When Night Turns by Jenny Sandercombe
Even on what will surely be Luke’s last day of life, I fear I will be late. My pattern of sleep or lack of it does not help. I have drifted in and out over many nights, trying to play catch up.
My phone mysteriously rings at 4.30 am – a flashing light against darkness. I fumble with the bedside lamp to answer it, except there is no one there. This is the call that I have surely been expecting. The anticipation has lain in the pit of my stomach for a couple of weeks ever since we received the news that Luke’s condition has seriously deteriorated.
This call rattles me – a harbinger. I wonder whether I should ring the hospital. Maybe it is my mind playing tricks. I try to settle back into the darkness, wrap myself in the doona but I am waiting.
Unsurprisingly, it rings again – this time at 5.10 am. It is the night nurse, I don’t hear all her words, all I know is Luke is flailing, and I am not there. He is all alone in this final battle.
‘I can be there in 30,’I tell her.
But will I really? This time in life, I can’t expect him to wait like he has so patiently in the past.
I fumble around for clothes and brush my teeth hastily. What do you wear on your partner’s last day?
I do not wear anything clean. All my clothing seems to have taken on the stench of the hospital – a mix of gravy, disinfectant, and chemicals. I shove the peridot ring on my finger and fasten a bracelet he gave me a few years before our children were born. The ring has dirt caked on the inside and does not shine anymore.
Do I wake our children? At 13 and 16 they have seen too much already in their young lives. I have told them over these couple of weeks that I understand what they are going through. Sometimes they get angry.
No, you don’t. You have your Dad; we won’t have ours!
I think about what Luke would do and wish he were here to guide me.
Let them sleep, he would say. I try to convince myself of these words. Besides, my youngest daughter Eve, detests hospitals and they are struggling to come to terms with the rapid decline of their father. They want to remember him well.
I’ve been given strict instructions not to drive to the hospital, so I start making phone calls. I ring Ray, Luke’s eldest brother. When he does not answer, I ring my sister, Lena. She breaks down on the phone and in staccato gulps says she will be there in 15. I get her to promise, tell her I can’t wait, and neither can Luke.
Fifteen minutes feels like an eternity.
When Luke came home from the stem cell transplant, smelling of egg, unsteady and delirious, he said things about the rice people, like I knew what he meant. He was so convinced in his own truth, that even I started to believe they really existed.
I wanted more than anything for his delusions to be real – for him not to face another challenge. To let him live in a reality that was his. I suggested he write some music, put his thoughts to paper.
After he went to hospital this time, I found bits of handwritten paper, notes scrawled in his schoolteacher cursive text, once so neat – showing all the pain he has been living with. The notes are written on the backs of medical appointment reminders – to remind me that his week is filled with more meetings than he has ever attended in his working week.
Composition titles like The Ice Man Cometh. I want to ask him what they mean, but it’s too late for that. My daughters found some unfinished compositions on his laptop – dirge-like and dark and I wonder if these are meant to sound like the scan machines and lasers that are so much a part of his weekly life.
Luke’s delusions scare our daughters. And as the cancer has invaded his organs and punched holes in his bones they have worsened. To make things lighter, the girls laugh and joke, there are no rice people, Dad, don’t be silly.
And we all chuckle – even Luke. It is nervous laughter though, stunted and made up. Our lives have become a series of side steps – like we are holding our breath, not daring to let it out because all we really want to do is breakdown and cry.
I contemplate calling a taxi, taking a ride with a stranger so I don’t have to make light conversation. But I know this is childish – I have responsibility for the girls. I cannot leave them alone on this day, to wake up to an empty house with both parents gone.
As I am about to ring a friend to come and look after them, I receive a text from Ray:
Going to hospital, Sandra is on her way over to look after the girls.
I wonder how he knows what is happening. I am not keen for them to wake up to his wife, Sandra, but I don’t have the capacity to talk to others and ask for help.
Lena finally arrives, but not in the 15 minutes she promised. I am furious.
She is flustered with the traffic. As we near the hospital she worries about parking. Instead, I jump out when the traffic lights turn red and run to the hospital.
‘Wait for me,’ she yells through an open window.
But there is no way I am waiting.
The automatic doors of the hospital won’t open, and I am forced to call security. I am out of breath and yelling into the intercom, ‘My partner is dying, let me in.’
I finally reach Luke’s room. And I am so late. Luke is still, no longer gasping for air or making sucking noises. A nurse is sitting on a chair and stands up when I enter. She is the night nurse I spoke with on the phone, and I can only assume she saw Luke die. I am envious of her time with him, that she got to be with him, and I didn’t.
I walk to the edge of the bed and hold my breath. Luke is now just a body – depleted, mouth hollow and open, eyes closed. His machines have been turned off. Jeff Buckley’s version of Halleluiah plays out from Luke’s iPod. I hope this is the last song he heard because it seems quite fitting.
‘Most people die alone. They don’t want to see their loved ones in pain’, she says.
A part of me thinks she is just being kind, telling me things I want to hear. I nod and try to convince myself that Luke would not have wanted us around, especially the girls, who he would have protected at all costs. She walks out of the room and I lean over the bed in disbelief – this is really Luke, my Luke.
Ray and Lena walk in making light conversation. Normally there is tension between them but today, their differences don’t exist. Ray stands next to me. This is the first time he is minus his notebook – an expensive bound leather notebook that was like a security blanket at all our family meetings. With the myriad of doctors and hospital staff we have met, he judiciously took notes and then typed them into emails. Clinical words, devoid of love, devoid of feeling, like he was an observer in his little brother’s downfall.
Eventually, he leaves my side and mumbles something to his little brother. ‘I’ll take care of them.’
He brushes past me, ‘I’ll leave you alone for a moment.’
Lena follows, and I hear the hollow tapping of her boot heels down the corridor.
I find myself sitting, leaning over the bed. Stupid etiquette makes me hesitate. Maybe it is from seeing too many movies of people dying. I am unsure what to do. I have never seen a dead body. Any feeling I have right now has been chewed up and spat out. I whisper in his ear, ‘I’m here now, I’m sorry.’
I feel breath through his open mouth. Even though they have formally pronounced his death, I swear that I feel some air escape. The tips of his fingernails are weirdly black. Hands together, in his lap like someone has placed them there – a nurse, or a doctor maybe.
Outside, night is turning to day – my first without Luke in it. I walk to the window and look down on the street below, a garbage truck is collecting rubbish. And a tram goes past. I am not accustomed to being up at this time and find the whole scene quite surreal.
We are given a little time together, the last for both of us. The night nurse comes back with Ray and Lena. I wonder if they need the room for another person whose life teeters on the edge.
Eventually, Ray and Lena lead me from the room leaving Luke alone again. ‘I didn’t make it,’ I mumble. But no one seems to hear me.
Ray and Lena talk to the hospital staff while the ward nurse embraces me. I am pleased to see a familiar face. She has tears in her eyes. ‘He was such a lovely man. We are all devastated.’
I stay in her arms and get snippets of Ray’s conversation – hospital morgue, death certificate, funeral.
Eventually, Lena and I make our way down to the hospital café. Ray has stayed back to make the necessary arrangements. The air is a mixture of coffee beans and toasted cheese.
While Lena lines up at the counter, I watch the café fill quickly. Doctors and nurses down their coffees like tequila shots.
Outside, the early morning outpatients are being dropped off. Some arrive in taxis or share rides for their appointments to battle the fight of their life. Like Luke before them, they hold the look of uncertainty – wearing hand knitted beanies that hide once thick, luscious hair or using wheelchairs, canes, or crutches, to aid movement for limbs that struggle to move. Many of their faces are grey, no longer filled with light.
I brace myself because I know today, I will go home and turn off the light from this place of safety, that has nursed my Luke for the past few months. I will hold my children and find the courage to tell them they no longer have a dad.
And Cat Makes Four by Nova Weetman
My parents were a particular brand of hippie. They built a house from recycled materials in the outer-eastern Melbourne suburb of Wonga Park and moved us there in 1974. They marched in anti-nuclear rallies, planted only native trees on their quarter acre block, and wouldn’t let my brother and I have domestic pets. We were supposed to enjoy the resident blue tongue lizard that hid under the bluestones in the backyard and scuttled away before we could interact. When I hit thirteen, Mum conceded and I was finally allowed to ride horses on the weekends, but they were always owned by the pony club and never by me. By the time I moved out of the family home and into share-houses in South Melbourne and St Kilda, I wasn’t a big lover of cats or dogs.
My flatmate Nelly who I lived with in many houses during my twenties, suffered through my anti-domestic pet rants, and then introduced me to her cat, Mika, a grey tabby who I attempted to ignore. Nelly and I had met at university studying psychology. She’d just finished her honours year and I was flailing around, writing anguished poetry and learning how to smoke cigarettes to kill the boredom. Mika the cat came to live with us in our Elwood flat, and would sometimes rub against my legs, almost like she was daring me to enjoy it. I held fast to my upbringing, complaining about the native birds Mika would deposit on our back step. Nelly was far more tolerant of me than I was of her cat and mostly found me amusing.
When I moved in with my partner Aidan, he admitted he was also a pet-lover. He’d grown up with all sorts of animals, including a cow that was slaughtered for dinner one year. But it wasn’t until we had children that the pet conversation escalated, and I ended up as the household baddie.
I was nowhere near as convincing as my parents had been about cats being killers. Everyone ignored me, secretly plotting against me. I succumbed to exotic fish in a huge tank that had been a prop in one of Aidan’s plays. Our daughter loved being responsible for the pH testing of the water, and the monthly cleaning of the tank that took most of a day, but despite her fastidiousness, the fish kept disappearing. It turned out that the large bottom feeding catfish wasn’t just snacking on the specialist dried food, it was also swallowing most of its roommates.
Renting a house meant I could always blame the landlords for why we didn’t have pets. And I managed that for some years. Then in April 2020, everything changed. We’d survived a month into the first Melbourne lockdown, and Aidan’s doctors decided that he wasn’t responding to the radical cancer trial he was on, and it was time to take him off.
The trial was our last-ditch attempt at stalling the cancer which by now had spread through much of his spine and into his sacrum. It was painful for him to walk and increasingly harder for him to find a comfortable way to sleep. He propped himself up with pillows so that he could sit at the dinner table but rarely managed more than a few
mouthfuls of food.
We both knew what this meant. If the trial had failed there were no further options. His body couldn’t cope with more chemotherapy, and radiotherapy would only be used if the pain spots hadn’t already been zapped multiple times, which they had. The cancer couldn’t be slowed, meaning he was in the last months of his life.
Without any way of healing my family or of bringing them together in their grief, I added a cat. We adopted a tabby kitten from the Lost Dogs Home. She’d been fostered by a friend who patiently delivered her to us for short visits, like she understood I had to test out the territory before committing. The day we collected her from the shelter in a borrowed carrier, both kids came with me. They waited outside in the rain because Covid restrictions meant only one person could go in. They fought over who would carry her to the car. My son sat in the back, talking to the kitten through the mesh grill. She miaowed all the way home, little gulps of air and worry, and I wondered what I’d just agreed to.
Online schooling stalled as both kids spent their days fighting over the kitten. They watched delighted as she raced around the room, tearing it up with all the fearlessness and stupidity of a young child. Aidan let her scratch his arms and play rough while I tried to train her. We battled over names and finally agreed on Beanie.
Beanie was a manic kitten style glue that kept us all from moving too far apart. At night we’d spread along the couch and take it in turns to toss toys in the air and watch her chase them. I still hadn’t quite worked out how I felt about having a cat in the house. But to Aidan and the kids she was a lifeline.
About two months after Beanie came to live with us, she skidded through the gap between the stairs and dropped six feet onto another staircase. She landed awkwardly and couldn’t bear weight on her front right leg, hobbling around the room.
Until then I’d tolerated Beanie’s presence in the house, frustrated by her clawing at my furniture and trying to eat the indoor plants. But that day, that moment when I thought she was injured, I did what I do best. I tried to fix it. I rang every vet in Melbourne until I found one who would see her instantly. I drove her to Collingwood with our son playing distraction in the back seat.
As we pulled up outside, I knew that I’d pay whatever it took for her to be okay. I’d crossed over from that neurotic adult who never touched cats or patted dogs, to someone who loved their household pet like a third child.
The vet was kind and understanding. He sold me anti-inflammatory drops and told me to watch her for a day or two before doing an x-ray. He thought she’d be fine, and she was. But I wasn’t. I came home and spent the day taping the holes between the stairs with gaffer and hand-cut cardboard lengths so she could never fall again. I fed her poached chicken and let her sleep on my bed. She was cold and disinterested in us much of the time like cats seem to be. But occasionally, and only when it suited her, she’d curl up on a lap, or hide under a doona, or stare at us with those green unblinking eyes.
My daughter told me that having Beanie meant she could take her to visit Aidan in his makeshift hospital room, and pretend the cat was the reason she was paying him a visit, not the fact that he couldn’t get up anymore. Beanie provided everyone with an excuse. To cuddle. To talk. To just be.
The day before Aidan died, Beanie left her usual sleeping place on the end of his bed by the window, where the afternoon winter sun shone through the glass. That day she curled up on the floor and stayed there, sleeping near the motor that powered the self-inflating air mattress the palliative care nurse had fitted to stop Aidan needing to be rolled so often.
When the nurse arrived to show me how to use the morphine driver, I pointed out Beanie’s new place of rest. The nurse smiled and told me that cats often knew when the time was close. Perhaps Beanie had worked out something we hadn’t.
Beanie was still there when Aidan died the next day. But for the days after, while I waited for hospital equipment to be collected and carpets to be steamed clean, she avoided that room, as if sensing his absence, and understanding her place was to now help us heal.
One year later and Beanie is our link to before. Before Aidan died. Before he was bedbound. Before he was a shell of medicine and sadness.
And now, in a claws-out, meowing sort of way, she has softened our grief and filled some of Aidan’s absence to become the fourth member of our little family.
Single File by Palwesha Yusaf
As curfew becomes imminent, I relent and make the call. My hands shake as I dial the number for Brunswick police station where a junior sergeant answers the phone. He is bored, a voice made dull from the inaction of answering phones. I tell the officer I would like to request a welfare check for someone and he begins by asking my name.
“That’s a strange name.”
I bristle briefly but decide to fawn.
“Ha! Yeah it’s a long one.”
“And who are you requesting a welfare check for?”
I spell the name for him through the line.
“That’s another strange name. Where’s that from?”
I know how much depends on this and so I humor him. I explain it’s origins with as much kindness as I can muster for the person I am making this call for. I am asked why I cannot check on him myself and I explain that I am escaping this person. A pause. A situation of intimate partner violence I say.
“But you want us to do a welfare check on him?”
Eventually, details are taken and I am told that a patrol car will stop by the house of this cunning man to carry out a welfare check. The junior sargeant asks nothing more about what I am escaping from before he hangs up. I am jittery, but eventually fall asleep.
At midnight I wake drenched in sweat. Staggering, I get up off my mattress on the floor and turn the central heating up to 31 degrees. Still cold, I pile on more clothes and burrow under the blankets. At 2:30 a.m I admit to myself that I have a fever and have had for most of the day. I tell myself to get up, get dressed and go to the hospital. I pack nothing, adjusting the mask around my sweaty jaw as I slide into the backseat of my Uber ride. We drive slowly through Royal Parade, empty of cars and fortitude. I thank the driver and walk to the entrance of the Women’s where I explain my temperature to the nurse in PPE.
“It’s not Covid, I think I have a kidney infection. Or I might be in shock.”
She lets me through and I sit in the waiting room surrounded by women in different stages of labour. They’re husbands and partners or other men wait outside, holding mobile phones, plastic bags and worry. One by one we are called and taken into the annals of the Women’s.
On the first quiet morning of Melbourne’s lockdown, sitting outside with two pigeon’s, I consider the edges of my balcony. Venti paper stuck to my bottom lip and tobacco pinched between thumb and forefinger, I consider my options.
That day I set out on a walk, something I would day almost every day of every lockdown. I trace the 5km radius on my google maps and plot a path for myself. At Gilpin Park, on the first morning of the first lockdown, the walkers fall into place. We walk single file, doing laps around the park. Every dog is on a leash. The parrots fill the trees, shrill and washed up from the ravenous fires of the summer as they jostle for real estate. I think about the man I love
and the web he has woven. I am just one of many things caught in it, giving myself over to this sticky thing again and again.
A friend from Sydney calls me to see how I am holding up. Something he says makes me laugh very loudly and a passing walker stares at me and I feel obscene, like I have laughed aloud at a funeral.
A young Somali doctor sees me at 4a.m and asks me what I think is wrong with me. I tell her I think I have a kidney infection from a UTI but I’m not sure. I could also be in shock I offer. I recount the earlier hours of the day when I see the cunning man at the park, refusing to get out of my car until he empties his pockets in front of me. I agree to come out and talk with him, sitting on the parched grass, one hand in my bag resting on a knife and keeping more than 1.5 metres distance between us. Wearing a mask, he dismantles me with his words as I sit slumped.
The doctor listens and squeezes my hand telling me that we will fix one thing at a time and that now I have a raging kidney infection that needs to be dealt with. I chew on ice as the nurses try to cool me down from the inside and beg for a blanket which they gently refuse. They check my temperature every hour and later gasp when it spikes again. They are tired. One of them misses the allergy information on my sheet and another gets the numbers the
wrong way around as she records my temperature on my chart. I am taken for an MRI to check for damage to my kidneys and I faint in my wheelchair while I wait my turn.
Twelve hours later I am transferred to the Royal Melbourne where a gaggle of medical staff assess me again and after bags of antibiotics I am cleared to go home. Before I leave, the doctor asks me if I feel safe going home. She apologises, saying this is a standard question they have to ask every patient now. I am taken aback but say no, I do not feel safe. She looks at me before gently saying she will send in the social worker.
After spending time on the phone to services and developing a limp safety plan, I am told it’s ok for me to leave. The ward is heaving but the doctor tells me to stay as long as I like. I sit for a moment crying quietly to myself on the hospital bed before calling an Uber and walking out into the pale, strange sun of the morning. Later, I discover that my abuser was four beds down from me in Emergency from an attempt on his life when I left him.
Rye back beach. I am sitting in my car, eating breakfast from a Peninsula café. The radius has ballooned after lockdown number 6 and I have left Melbourne for a few days. Beside me sits a quiet man who I meet in late January of this second year of the pandemic. His eyelashes curl up like tiny wood shavings and he doesn’t mind me saying too little most times and too much at others. My hands rest easy on my thighs, palms pointing up to the sky as we watch a seagull stumble around in a high Antarctic wind as the car shudders around us.
After finishing eating we decide to get out for a while and see the ocean. The brine and blast of the Antarctic wind jostles us as lean into one another. Our eyes squint against the wind and we laugh in shock as the Southern Ocean makes herself clear. When we have had enough we turn back to the car and huddle in the car and clutching each other’s faces. I ask the quiet man how far we are from Antarctica right now and he googles it. We speak sweetly to each other for a while before starting the engine and heading back to Melbourne.
When I get home to a high tide on the Maribyrnong, to the dinner traffic on Union road, to the Habesha men gathering at the Espo gallery and the neat lawns of the estate houses at dusk, I will climb the stairs to my apartment on the first floor and say hello to my neighbour smoking on the balcony and goodnight to the quiet man and his clean embrace and I will shut the door behind me. When I get home, I will count every step I have walked for the last twenty months along the Merri Creek, Dharug country in NSW last Christmas and the Maribyrnong this year. Together, it is 642km. It is also the distance from where I stand to the beginning of the Antarctic Circle.