I left home at the age of 19. My parents were not particularly impressed. For starters, my timing was seen as rather poor. A couple of weeks earlier my paternal grandmother had died of thyroid cancer.
My mother, being a trained nurse, had taken on the role of carer in that last stage of the cancer, my grandfather being hopelessly out of his depth both emotionally and physically. As a result of my mother’s efforts, my grandmother was able to die with dignity in her own bed.
It wasn’t just my mother who waited out those final weeks. Our entire family, Mum, Dad, my three younger sisters and I, had decamped from Newcastle and were now living in the fold up bunkbeds and strange faux-holiday ambience of my grandparents’ caravan. Once the getaway vehicle for countless family adventures it was now permanently parked on the pebblemix drive, a few feet away from my grandmother’s bedroom window.
She eventually died after a few weeks of this strange sad caravan limbo and then Mum and Dad took us down the coast to spend some time in a friend’s beach house. The idea was to have some family time, some grieving time, some quiet reflective time.
The problem for me was that I had left a boyfriend in Newcastle and an active sex life, both of which I was missing. I understood the need to support my grandfather and look after my grandmother, I respected my parents' wish to spend precious post funeral days in a poorly furnished two bedroom fibro minus television and telephone, but when we got back to Newcastle I packed a bag and announced my intention to stay with my boyfriend in Sydney over the weekend so we could go sailing.
And my parents hit the roof.
Looking back I imagine they felt it was too soon to be enjoying myself so soon after such a sad event. My father, who had said little to me about his grief at losing his mother, was probably disgusted at my blatant desire to hang off the edge of a speeding catamaran not to mention my unspoken desire to hang off my boyfriend.
I argued that I needed a break, that I wanted a holiday…
But you just had a holiday, my father snapped back. We just spent a week in a beach house.
And I hated every minute, I wanted to say.
Because the thing is, the holiday I want is from you.
I didn’t say those things, some vestigal sensitivity must have held me back. Instead I began to whine to get my way, always a useful tactic when dealing with disapproving parents. In this instance, my piercing tones finally burst the emotional dam in my father, he was able to shout that I was an ungrateful bitch, which obviously went down very well with me, and finally he offered this ultimatum: if you walk out that door you’re never coming back.
It was a no brainer.
Fine, I shouted back. I’ll move out when I get back from Sydney.
My face was grim, my eyes hard and stony but as I walked down the stairs I suddenly heard my mother break down and cry. It was this more than any of my father’s threats that nearly propelled me back up the stairs but instead I kept going, knowing that a line had been crossed.
I would go to Sydney and have plenty of sailing and sex, I would come back and move into a friend’s place, close to the university. After a few months my parents would visit my new house bringing housewarming presents and hugging me close. I would return to the family home, we would move beyond the incident and never speak of it again, but on that day standing on the stairs that led to the front door, hovering between anger and regret I realised that for the first time I had knowingly broken my mother’s heart. I could have taken a knife out of the kitchen drawer and stabbed her and I knew it could not have hurt her more than the sound of my feet marching out the front door.
I had caused this pain.
I had done it willingly.
And I cried bitterly at the thought.
A few years earlier I had kept a diary and one particularly ugly day I had written about how much I hated my fucking parents, each of them, my fucking mother and my fucking father and how I wished they would both just fuck off.
I have no idea why I had written this, I only remember the words scrawled in pencil, jagged furious scribblings inarticulate with 15 year old rage.
And I remember coming home from school to find my diary open to that page on my desk, a pointed message that my parents had found the page and read it.
For several years whenever I thought about this discovery I became furious all over again at the invasion of my privacy. But then, not long ago, I thought about this incident and instead of feeling the familiar white hot incandescence of my teenage indignation I wondered how I would feel, reading those words, about me, in my child’s handwriting.
It was a strange sensation and oddly painful.
These and other memories came back to me this week following a phonecall from a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time.
I hear you’re pregnant, he said, congratulations, I think you'll be a great mother.
The friend asked where we were having the baby and we discussed the hospital, the same place his wife had her baby recently, except, I said, we're hoping to use the Birth Centre and be under midwife care.
My friend made a small derisive sound. His wife had had an elective caesarian.
Oh, he said, you’re having one of those ‘natural’ births.
Well, I said, we’re going to try. It’s very possible I’ll be wheeled screaming straight into the labour ward and the warm comforting arms of Mr Epidural but I’m going to try my best to have a ‘natural’ birth, yes.
I didn’t mention the stretches and the birth plans and the support team, it seemed pointless.
I just don’t understand why you’d put yourself through all that… and then with a Herculean effort at civility he changed his tone. Oh well, he said cheerfully, to each their own.
The word he had omitted was pain.
I understood that he saw pain as a needless exercise, as an unnecessary element of the child-bearing procedure. Nobody likes pain. God knows I don’t, I am after all the woman who, years ago, when my then GP had greeted my announcement that I wanted to have a baby with the news that I should start with a blood test, blanched with horror and shrieked a bloodtest!?
Pain is unpleasant.
Pain makes you cry.
Pain makes other people cry for you because there’s not much they can do to help and also because in an effort to alleviate one’s pain one might reach for one’s husband’s gonads and scream Breathe Through This, Cunt.
Oh yes, it’s all ahead of me.
I didn’t say to my friend that I’m afraid of pain too, but I am looking forward to the birth of my child. That I have struggled so long and so hard to bring this soul into the world and one of those struggles was giving up things like coffee and wine and painkillers and anything else I thought might possibly harm or hurt my baby. That to avoid pain in the way he preferred I would need to agree to the use of drugs that might possibly harm or hurt my baby. That I would perhaps undergo invasive major surgery.
I’m not inflexible about this. I know I might become exhausted, the baby may become distressed, there are a myriad of crisis situations that may necessitate intervention and I’m prepared to do what it takes. Including the drugs and the surgery and whatever else I have to do to ensure a healthy baby.
But just here, just now, with six weeks left to go, yes, I do want to have a ‘natural’ birth.
And the thing is, I should have said to my friend, that pain you can’t even bring yourself to mention? That’s just the start buddy. You’ve got a daughter whom you adore more than life itself. I saw the photographs you sent via email, the radiance on you and your wife’s face as you held up your precious bundle.
But amongst the many golden moments of joy, there will still be pain, blackly stitched in fear, in illness, in injury or accident, in anger, in rage, in death. How does a father feel when his daughter says she hates her family or she leaves home under a dark cloud with her mother crying beside him? And for some parents, the pain is overwhelming. Last week an 8 year old girl was found murdered in a shopping centre toilet. The week before that a father accidentally ran his toddler over as he reversed down the driveway.
There is no anaesthetic for parenthood.
In the last days of my mother’s life, we, her daughters and husband, were gathered around her bed day and night like moths drawn to the intoxicating glow of her dying.
Now it was my turn to have my heart broken, and not fast or cleanly, but slowly, in splintering fragments of grief. I was losing the person I loved most in the world and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
In one of my last precious moments with my mother, curled up beside her on the bed, while my sisters and father were getting dinner, or sleep, or simply walking their own patterns of distress around the hospice, she asked me to forgive her. I was immediately resentful at the thought that, now, with death twiddling his thumbs nearby, she felt the need for forgiveness.
Why, I said, my blind stupid tears welling up immediately, why do you need to be forgiven?
For all the times I made you cry.
Our faces were very close together, our voices little more than whispers.
Oh yes, I said, of course yes.
And, she continued… I forgive you. For all the times you made me cry.
We lay like this for moments or perhaps it was hours, this woman and her first born child, mentally snipping together at the black stitches of our past.
We had 26 years together, my mother and I.
When you forgive the pain caused by each other that’s a heck of a lot of gold.
The metamorphosis norton critical edition 1996 pdf
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