Time to fly

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Just in case you were wondering what I’ve been doing since my last post in August, 2016, here is a little preview of my soon-to-be-published book, Amelia & Me. You heard. The job is nearly done and I’m ready to take it to the bank. Or the library. Seriously, I will bring it to your house.

I’m so proud of the final cover design which I think hits all of the right notes for our very personal story. It was really important that the main photo of me and Amelia should convey our closeness, our directness. We look at the camera the way we look at the world – front on and without flinching.

It’s been a wonderful process over the last ten months pulling over three years of writing together into a manuscript and working with awesomely clever self-publishing, editing and creative people to realise my dream. It takes a village, or at least a super cooperative hamlet.

So, watch this space like a hawk. The proof is in the, well, the proofs. I’m about to finish my final edit before I hand my baby over for printing. It’s scary and exhilarating and I can’t wait.

It’s time to fly, my friends. Don’t look down.

 

The kite runner

12794847_10154062443205127_6526109824158844762_oSHE ONLY let go of his hand for a moment, all the better to chase the colourful kite sailing above their heads. Her arms are raised, as though she can touch the clouds or pull the kite to her with an invisible string clasped in her hands.

The cool breeze brushes against her bare forearms, her face tilted skywards. There’s nothing so perfect as a March day when the heavens are smiling so wide you can almost see their teeth.

The kite is tethered but it is free and so is she. Tethered to her father standing close behind but out of view; free as the kite soaring into the blue.

She follows its path along the clouds, running to catch up but it is forever out of reach. No matter, the joy is in the chasing not the catching.

They had only planned on the park and slides and maybe swings, not kites. Nothing so special as that. They were a surprise bonus.

As was the wonder their simple appearance brought out in her. The thrill in her voice when she came home to tell me that, “We saw kites, Mum! It was a kite festival.” Festival. It’s a new word for her but her voice is clear and true. I understand perfectly.

And the happiness on her Dad’s face, “She held my hand for ages. She sat and painted her face with the other children. She made a little book inscribed with her name. And danced. We both danced.”

They both danced. The kite was reeled in at festival’s end but the magic went on in their heads. All night long.

 

 

The greatest show on earth

Trapeze girl

Super trapeze girl

WHEN I see Amelia swinging atop the trapeze, back straight, eyes clear and true, I think: “Anything is possible.”

I don’t think about the time I tried to take her to another circus class someplace else and they said no. No, because she’s deaf and autistic and it was all too hard. My daughter wasn’t worth the effort.

I don’t even think back to the day I took her to a soccer clinic and she lost it, running across the pitches to avoid me, screaming and yelling.

I kept falling over in my desperate effort to catch her, to get us out of there. My legs were grazed and people stared. Their eyes said, “Thank god that’s not me.”

After an eternity in hell, a burly, tattooed man helped me carry her away to our final point of collapse on the nature strip. I held that stranger’s hand so tight and cried enough tears to flood the street.

I forget his name but not his kindness.

My mind has moved on and carried me elsewhere, to human pyramids and balancing acts. To death-defying feats like the tentative first steps taken on a wire.

To a place where a young woman has learned some Auslan without being asked just so Amelia can be more involved. I want to hug her for the longest time.

To Thursday nights when we drop her off in the safe hands of her new troupe of friends and we don’t worry.

It really wasn't the greatest show on earth...

It really wasn’t the greatest show on earth…

We sneak a peek at her from the doorway, transfixed by her form sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with kids her own age.

She watches everything like a hawk and is not afraid to try. Suspending her strong body from brightly coloured sashes she looks weightless and free. So are we.

We don’t want a lot more in life than to see our child happy and healthy and safe. To be able to join in and feel included. They’re basic things but what else could be more important?

Nothing. In our world we’ve learned to appreciate the smallest of triumphs. Like the look on Amelia’s face when we pick her up at 6pm and she’s flushed from the fun of it all.

We dreamed of this for her and now we are here. Our little girl’s run away to join the circus but she has our blessing along with our hearts.

Soil searching

Up the garden path

Up the garden path, with rose petals

I have something shocking to report.

Something disturbing has happened to me in the wash-up of recent traumatic events.

I never thought this would happen to me as we put the pieces of our little family back together and started to breathe again.

Okay, here goes. I have become … an avid gardener. You heard.

I’m the newest green thumb on the suburban block. A woman with soil permanently wedged beneath her previously manicured fingernails and dirt marks smudged proudly on a rouged cheek.

Marks from the earth are my new war paint. I am obsessed and there is no stopping me now I have started.

There is still no cessation of the intense energy (mania) that drives me from morning to night, but you can’t have everything. And, after all, how much pruning could I achieve without such boundless energy?

The garden has never looked so luscious and cared for in the ten years I have nurtured and neglected it in equal measure.

It started with small steps out in the backyard. My husband was in hospital and after my daughter Amelia went to sleep at night, I’d find myself sitting on the cool ground outside, tearing out weeds and overgrown tendrils of grass.

My hands needed to work so that my rattled mind could stop churning, even as the daylight faded and I could no longer see the garage for the trees. So work is what I did, for days and nights on end.

My partner in garden crime

My little partner in garden crime

I rejected gloves outright, preferring to connect with the often harsh textures of the garden. I endured deep cuts, broken nails, rose thorn splinters, and the pitter-patter of arachnid legs down my arm (eek).

The abrasions on my body at the end of the day satisfied me somehow. They were a positive sign of the exertions that were holding me together.

From weeds, I turned to the wild native shrubs that had suffered from months of inattention. They were locked in a permanently coiled dance, branch arm in tortured arm, plant figures robbed of distinct identities.

I took up my gardening shears and hacked and slashed at these shapeless masses with violent zeal. Sweat ran down my back from the effort, from the sun beating down on my pale skin. But I didn’t feel anything. I was too busy to care.

Inside the frenzy of my activity there was always method, always control. A sense of creating something new with my bare hands and sharp steel. Of taming and cultivating. Surviving.

I was an amateur gardener but I felt like an artist. I stood back to survey the landscape; feral forms had been transformed into shapely bushes with breathing space to call their own.

One willowy tree, previously choked by an untamed knot of green mess, was now free to stand tall and swing high in the breeze.

At night I would stand at the back window and press my hands to the glass, looking out at the garden. My garden. I was changing it for the better; my influence was everywhere.

In the newly planted pots of blooming flowers in pink and blue. Or the water trickling down the path post an evening soaking session for my thirsty friends.

In the dark hours of wakefulness over the next few weeks I would imagine new garden beds. And then in the morning I would set about bringing them to life.

Hanging terrariums dotted with shells collected from some forgotten beach. Plans to convert an arid corner of our property into a secret succulent garden. The movement created by long-limbed plants covered in bright blooms, tucked beneath our Crepe Myrtle tree.

Once the garden had taken root in my imagination, I couldn’t let it go.

Amelia joined me on my intense botanical mission. She lovingly tended to her own little patch of green things; her strawberry plant, the flowers, the tomatoes, mint, kale and parsley (she is a child of Melbourne’s hip northern suburbs after all).

Blooming for the first time

Blooming for the first time

And all of this watched over by a cheeky little garden gnome and a solemn statue of a girl who used to care for my Nan’s own garden before she died.

Our afternoons of toil would usually end the same way – with us covered in mud and Amelia stripping off her clothes to play under the delicious cold spray from the hose.

We grew things, re-shaped them and made them come alive again. One native shrub received some much-needed pruning and water treatment. Weeks later I spotted glorious, bright pink flowers appear on its spiky branches.

In all the years since it was planted, I have never seen those flowers before. It made me so happy to see them, such a generous response to the love I had finally given it.

And though our world isn’t spinning so fast anymore, life is returning to something approaching normal, I feel forever changed by the experience.

I need to be in the garden now, not just to distract myself from pain or worry. It’s a part of me; I’ve poured my soul into it and so we are bound together.

At night, I am uneasy if I haven’t at least dug my hands briefly into the soil or splashed some water over the beds, tucking my plants in for the night.

I step out onto the porch and take my time to look out across the garden towards our worn-out picket fence.

I soak up the warm night air and gaze happily at recent nursery additions now flourishing, and frown over a young plant failing to thrive.

Tomorrow I will endeavour to restore it to good health and hope to find some peace for myself. Just for a little while.

For VR who shares my love of gardening and is a kindred spirit in more ways than one.

Shock and awe

Drawing strength from his little girl

I DIDN’T tell her everything.

How could I? It was hard enough to hold the trauma of it in my own head.

I didn’t tell Amelia that her Daddy had collapsed at the hospital, on the hard, cold ground of the car park.

That I thought he’d fallen over behind me until I saw the way he was lying, arched forward in a twisted ball of agony.

I didn’t recount for her the sounds coming from his mouth in that moment. His urgent struggle to breathe. Unforgettable sounds that escalated to a primal wailing that ripped through his body and ricocheted through mine.

What use to her would it be to paint a vivid picture of that night, flashing in my mind like a horror movie every time I closed my eyes?

I see it all in colours and let me tell ya, it ain’t no rainbow.

There’s the white of my tensed knuckles gripping onto her Daddy’s shirt as three of us tried to keep his convulsing body on its side.

The hideous transition of grey to blue as his face changed hue. That was the moment when his heart stopped. For one minute, then more. Seven all told.

To me, the time stretched into infinity. Seconds expanded into excruciating intervals of pain. I thought he was lost to me forever.

After that there was no colour at all, only panic and movement. Doctors and nurses running into the car park from the hospital corridor with life-saving instruments. I was dragged away.

It turns out it wasn’t our sweet man’s time to die that night. Maybe Lady Luck was smiling down on us. I’m part-Irish, vaguely Protestant, wholly atheist, but I thanked the Gods with all my heart.

Damn it, they owed me one.

Next morning, it was my own mother’s job to pass on the news with careful hands to her grand-daughter. I can think of no-one better for such an important task.

She said: “Honey, your Dad had a sore heart and he went to the hospital feeling sick but he’s much better now. He’ll be home in five days.”

Amelia paused over her breakfast, eyes suddenly shining with almost-tears but her internal dam walls held them in.

My brilliant Mum recognises that explaining time frames to our girl helps her to feel safe. Together they counted out the days on their fingers, reaching Monday as the likely date of her Daddy’s return.

Amelia nodded and her eyes cleared; she could cope with that.

The note from school the next day read: “Amelia seemed a little sad today.”

I watched her out of the corner of my eye, looking for signs of melancholy or worry. As usual, Amelia’s deepest emotions remained just that, buried in the subterranean depths of her enigmatic heart and mind.

But I know that just because she’s not asking questions doesn’t mean she’s not thinking intensely about the world around her.

So in a light voice, I asked her straight out: “Baby, are you feeling a bit sad that your Dad is in the hospital?”

Her reply was prompt and awe-inspiring: “No. I’m strong.” She followed this with a typical Popeye flex of her arms.

Conversation over.

No. I’m strong. You could have picked me up from the floor.

Her response signalled two things to me. One was that she really didn’t want to talk about what was happening. That her way of dealing with the sudden change in our lives was to soldier on as though all was well. I could only respect that.

On a more literal level, Amelia really was saying to me, “It’s okay Mum, I’m tough. I can handle it.”

This wasn’t some statement she’d heard somewhere and was parroting back to me without meaning.

At six, sometimes Amelia’s behaviour still resembles that of a three-year-old. But here she understood that strength is something intangible you call upon in the darkest moments to make it through.

I saw this understanding take further shape when she saw her Dad in the hospital for the first time. She didn’t speak but she held him in one of the gentlest, longest hugs of her life. His silent tears poured into her hair and she held him longer still.

So, I didn’t need to tell her everything, did I? There was so much she already knew. Talking was hard enough for me anyway. Eating and sleeping almost impossible.

Amelia’s very real strength rose up to bolster my own. At night, I held her body close to mine and she placed a hand tenderly on my cheek. She kissed me there with wet lips but I didn’t wipe the moisture away. It made me feel alive.

Remembrance of things past

Wonderful childhood days (Malaya, 1956; Dad at far left, his father at centre)

Wonderful childhood days (Malaya, 1956; Dad at far left, his father at centre)

A FEW months ago I was in the car with my parents when my Dad started telling me a story from his adolescence that I hadn’t heard before.

I thought I knew all of his stories, but that day I discovered there are some tales not so easily told, even some 50 years after they happened.

Even my Mum, who’s known him her whole life, had only learned about it the year before.

If you flew a helicopter over the landscape of my Dad’s teenage years, it would look a bit like a war zone in the aftermath of a most terrible battle.

Smoke rising from shattered structures once recognisable as buildings. Emptiness. Despair.

He grew up in a corner terrace house facing Windy Hill in Essendon, with his loving grandparents, parents and two siblings. By the time he was 14 years old, nearly everybody was gone. Dead, dying, disappeared, lost.

The disintegration of his family unit was startlingly rapid, most of it vanishing quickly in the space of only two years.

By the summer of 1965, my Dad and his younger brother were alone in that big terrace house once filled with the sounds of familiar voices and adult footsteps on the stairs.

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Dad surrounded by his grandparents and father (1951)

Within a few weeks they would be turned out of this home, but for a short time it was still theirs. An anchor to a simple family life already past, never to return.

Around this time, my Dad remembers a family friend would visit most days, drink beer and chat to him. He was an Army man like my grandfather and Dad began to regard this man as a father figure in the absence of all others who might fit the bill.

Dad told me that his family had a dog then who had become pregnant and had given birth to three tiny pups.

My Dad has a tough exterior but he’s actually a massive softy when it comes to animals. I’ve seen him hand-feeding magpies and worrying over the welfare of their young.

He watched over his little canine family too, taking special care of them. I can see him now, his sweet face hovering over their sleeping spot out the back of the house. He would have treasured them and wanted to make sure they were alright.

But they weren’t going to be alright. Not in this story, pulled from the wreckage of his teenage years. I couldn’t see his face as he told it but there was something in the tone of his voice that made me sit up straight.

I leaned in despite myself. I didn’t want to hear anymore but it wasn’t for me to stop him in the telling.

The family friend was visiting late one night. He went out to use the outdoor loo and came back with a story of his own.

He’d killed the pups, he told my Dad roughly. With the back of an axe. They had distemper, he said.

I’d known something bad was coming but hearing the worst thing is different to merely imagining it. Hearing makes it real and you can’t wash it away no matter how hard you might wish it.

My beautiful grandparents (1949, the year they were married)

My beautiful grandparents (1949, the year they were married)

My Dad can still remember reeling in shock and horror as he took in this news. That this man who he’d begun to trust and rely on should commit such an act of senseless violence was shattering.

He didn’t think that his pups were sick at all. Killing them was about something else. Something darker inside the man’s mind.

Looking back, Dad can see that during this period he was trying in small ways to survive the things that were happening to him. Going to school. Playing footy and cricket. Tending to the newborn animals.

But stripped of the protective forces of his family, he was as vulnerable to the impact of an axe-blow as those poor, defenseless pups. Who could he tell anyway? There was no one left to listen.

And we can’t ask the man why he did it, no matter how often my Dad has tried to understand; the dead take their secrets to the grave with them. Let them stay there.

Not for the first time, I wanted to reach across time and rescue that lonely, young boy. Take all of his pain away. I can’t fathom it, what his life must have been like then.

I wish that I’d been there to protect him, to help him somehow. But the past is the past and Dad knows and accepts that better than anyone.

Dad in 1961.

Dad in 1961

I’ve asked him so many times why he isn’t more sad or angry about this time and he shrugs enigmatically as though the movement could cast off all the hurt he experienced as a boy.

I project my own pain for the boy he was onto the man he is today. But it’s not my story to shape, I’m just passing it on with his blessing.

My Dad is passionate about family history now, collecting and cataloguing hundreds of wonderful ‘lost’ images for all the family to see. They’re a joy to him and a gift to us, so we can remember his people as they were and connect with his life before and after the reckoning of 1963-65.

It’s a more recent project for him, starting only in the last few years. I think he uses the pictures to reconstruct the life he once had and make it whole again.

The happy times, when all of the people he loved were still together and he could just be a boy who loved aeroplanes and playing sport and had his beautiful family wrapped around him, holding him tight.

* For my brave, wonderful Dad, thank you for trusting me to write about your life. I love you.

Desperately seeking ‘s’

HERE are Amelia and P, her wonderful speech pathologist, searching for that elusive ‘s’ sound. The mechanics of just one little sound like an ‘s’ can take years for a deaf child like Amelia to learn and master. It’s too soft, too secretive, for her ears to pick up clearly so she needs a lot of support to work it out.

I sit and watch while they practice making repetitive, sibilant, snake sounds. P elongates the consonant, drawing it out in a long, slow hiss at the start or end of a word. Or just by itself. Everything has to be emphasised so that Amelia can identify the sound and start to join the dots on how our mouth, breath and tongue collaborate to form a simple ‘s’.

So they sit together on a Tuesday morning and they hiss, and laugh and hold each others hands to feel the breath, the noise, made by each other’s mouths.They are gorgeous to witness, because there’s so much affection sitting alongside the toil.

Amelia’s ‘s’ is thinner, more tentative than P’s. She’s still not sure of herself and when P adds in tricky little vowel combinations, sometimes the ‘s’ disappears, falling away for a moment. But they’ll pick it up again next Tuesday when they meet.

And Amelia will retain a little bit more each time until one day, maybe this year, Amelia will unlock the secret of that slippery little ‘s’.