Photo albums

Late last year I wrote a very personal, painful piece, mostly for myself. As it didn’t fit well with the content of my usual publication outlets, I kept in on-file, thinking it would sit there for a long while and perhaps be read by no-one. However, there’s something about public vulnerability that I find interesting, and upon it occurring to me (almost out-of-the-blue) to publish this on my blog I thought, “why not.”

I may come to regret publishing this, or you may regret reading it (warning: you may find some parts psychologically disturbing), but, if not purely as an exercise in experiencing public vulnerability, I will endeavour to keep this online.


I opened my e-mail on a colder than usual spring-but-not-quite-out-of-winter night. There was only one message, from my mother. “Lovely,” I thought. I love my mother dearly, like most children do. Though I’d moved out of home for the first time not less than twelve months ago, living a few suburbs away from her now. I didn’t want to move, but it had become necessary for complex family reasons which I won’t bore you with details of, except  to say that our family home was sold. It was hard, moving out of that old, living photo album. Every uneven patch of paint and slightly dodgy doorknob had untold numbers of memories attached to it. It was like losing a family pet, only to new owners. Shudder. What would they do to it?

So, delighted to hear from my dear mother (and missing her), I opened the e-mail without hesitation. “What’s news with mother?” I thought.

It was a forwarded message from my grandfather; an unusual occurrence. He lived many hours away in rural Victoria and we rarely got to see or hear from him, which was sad. But the message contained something much sadder.

“He will die soon,” he said of my step-uncle James, “he has wasted away and has big, fungating masses under his jaw.”

I had to read backwards. James is in hospital? (I’d innocently breezed over the mention of his admission to palliative care.)

“You don’t expect your children to die before you.”

It all hit me at once. “James is dying,” I verbalised quietly and slowly to myself.

I went back to the e-mail. I re-read it and re-read it and then re-read it again. Surely this was a mistake. How did I not know? Why did no one tell me?

I must have sat there for a while. My eyes glazed over. I was deep in the recesses of my mind. I was imagining my step-uncle, who was – is, as of my writing this – a tall, lean, and intimidating figure, lying in pain, in a hospital bed too small for his size (though everything was, is).

In that old living photo album, which from the outside still stands mostly the same as the day I left it (for now), James had once carried me around on his shoulders. He had to duck down even farther than usual to get under the doorframes. His impressive stature made him the centre of a child’s attention with ease, and he liked that. Though as the years went on, his height became less amazing and more frightening. A heavy dose of “you’re old enough to know now” from my mother coloured my opinion by many degrees. Him gloating one Christmas of appearing in court, for whatever it was, and recounting how he’d claimed Australia’s sovereignty and declared himself King put the nail in the coffin for me.

He was highly intelligent, no one questioned that. But he was also highly schizophrenic, and no one questioned that either.

Surrounded by a bleak, artificial environment, boring beeps coming from the machines to remind him he was still alive, IVs painfully dripping the last ounces of that life into him, I could imagine him berating the nurse with curses and impatiently demanding his demise by whatever pharmaceutical means available, though illegal – not that the legality of substances had stopped him before. He had refused treatment many months ago, I’d find out, after receiving an unfavourable prognosis for cancer of the jaw. Apparently he had tried several homeopathic remedies, but with no successes.

Having not seen him in many years, and frankly not missing him, it felt strange that I would be upset. The last person I knew who died was my step-grandfather, who was very dear to me – nearly as much as my mother – and closer than either of my grandfathers-by-blood. Was this reaction my ignored, leftover grief? Was it my unfamiliarity with death?

Nothing seemed to fit. Then, James doesn’t really fit, so perhaps it was fitting of his memory. He could never settle with a ‘normal’ social gathering, or squeeze into small cars, and probably hated the hospital bed he was confined to now. He was surely begging for it to all be over. But I, selfishly (I feel), was many miles away, begging for an understanding of my emotions.

I called my mother. She’s probably the only person I could call in such a mood. No matter the embarrassment or the emergency, she’d always be there, she’d always understand. And besides, why hadn’t she told me sooner?

She thought she had, she said apologetically, though slightly more flippantly than I would have liked. Had it been anyone else in her family she might have felt slightly more guilty about the mistake, not that I would blame her. It seemed that if she had dealt with any grief at all in this saga it had either been long ago or relatively short-lived; her coolness was initially a bit too eerie for me to process. I wasn’t used to her aloofness. Though in response to my gushy sentimentality she briefly remembered her unnatural capacity for empathy, to my reassurance of her character. That or she was just doing what any good mother would do and helping her child work through their emotions. Either way, it helped. We talked for a while, briefly joking about our family royalty.

***

Three days have passed. I couldn’t bring myself to finish this piece while James was still breathing. Somehow it just didn’t feel right. He is gone now, though, and no longer in pain.

I can’t say I’ll miss him, that would be an insult to his straightforward manner. What I can say, though, is that I’ve learnt something: All living photo albums have to die someday, but we can still take pictures.

If you are experiencing grief or distress, please seek help from someone you trust.

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