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The Other Side of Everything

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Written on June 9, 2005, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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My maternal grandmother died when I was 10, and that momentous event cut me adrift from the heaving sweaty bosom of my family more than anything else. More than my parents divorce, more than being given barbiturates at age 4, more than having a reading age of 16 at age 7.

Ethel was a lovely woman, and she left us too early. Nana I called her. She was married to Fred, 12 years her senior. A marriage of both convenience and love, Fred married Ethel after it transpired she was through no fault of her own, the second wife of a bigamist. Fred’s first wife, Ethel’s sister, had died, and thus Fred rescued Ethel from social opprobrium and the life of an outcast, found a mother for his two children, and began a deep love that would last until Ethel’s untimely passing. Ethel died aged 65, suddenly, after a week, of meningitis, and Fred, so strong and passionate, started to fall to pieces. Without the centre of his world, Fred lost his mind within a few scant months, but his strong swimmer’s body lasted another 8 years. My mother, the child of them both, was the youngest, and she bore the brunt of the tragedy.

After a week of parental night visits to Croydon General Hospital, strained, hushed voices, telephone calls at odd hours, remonstrations to keep order, I came down in the morning, and my sister was crying.

“If you want to know why I’m crying, it’s because Nana is dead!” she declared rather melodramatically. I went through to the kitchen where my exhausted mother was silently leaking tears in a steady stream down her very tired face.

I was two years older than my sister, and I knew she didn’t really understand. I hated her for crying. I suspected that she was crying to show off, or sympathetically, without substance. It took years for me to accept that of course she was grieving like all of us, that her emotions were as real as mine.

I scowled. I went to the toilet and locked myself in, and tried to feel something. I could not feel anything. Part of me had turned cold and was shut away, locked in a mortuary freezer. This was the loss of the most unqualified and unconditional love I had ever received. I watched as my brain continued to tick along, regardless. It was the end of the world, but somehow, I was still here. Nana had loved me and looked after me when my Mother’s love life was at its most tumultuous, and the event of her sudden death confirmed a pattern of expectation in me, that people who love me always disappear, which I spent years discovering and undoing.

Over the following weeks, I came to understand that I didn’t just lose a grandmother that day, I lost my mother as well, so great was her pain, so overwhelmed was she by her mother’s death and the consequent strain of caring for Fred. Poor distraught unconsolable Fred, my main man, my hero, now enfeebled and in pain, parcelled up and shunted around the family, until his midnight rambling and advancing senility caused the family to find him a place in a home for the elderly. Mum struggled desperately with her own depression, locked into the battle of raising 5 children, of being in a relationship with her third husband, with this major increase in caring holding the entire family to ransom.

I read a lot. I thought about death every day. Like Yossarian, in all its glorious macabre detail. I developed morbid fixations. Bone cancer, I was going to die of bone cancer, like the Kennedy boy I had seen on TV. Cerebral aneurism. My brain was going to burst. Lung cancer, I would suffocate and drown in my own blood. Leukemia, a steady slipping away of life until a ghost replaced the real me. Accidents – a cut jugular, a severed arm.

And then, I did suffer an accident – returning a ball to the school playground, I climbed up on the street side wall, threw, slipped, and the iron railing spike stuck my left hand at the base of the middle fingers. I hung for a moment, nothing but the strength of my skin and sinew keeping me there, then pulled myself up with my other hand and pulled my left hand off the railing. I spread my fingers and looked at the hole. Before it filled with blood, I saw the other side of my skin.

A dinner lady had seen the accident, but totally underestimated the damage. “Come in love” she said, “and I’ll put a plaster on it.”

I didn’t even reply, I knew this wound required hospital, so I lifted my left arm up high and slowly jogged back up the steep hill to home, where I was greeted with sympathy and went to get stitches.

During the weeks that followed, I was distracted, depressed, lacked concentration. My studies suffered, I had regular intense migraine. Mum took me to see Dr Casey, who told her I had a virus from the accident, and prescribed valium. We are talking, adult strength valium for a ten year old. So for the second time in my life, my normal, understandable grief at life’s injustice was subsumed beneath chemical mind controls strong enough to nuke a horse.

I didn’t like the flat zone of valium, because I couldn’t read well on it. Before long, I palmed the valium, lied about taking it, and started on Edgar Allen Poe.

Over a decade later, I finally felt and expressed the pain of loss, and in the arms of a girl I had wronged, I shed the tears I should have wept that day Nana died. I remember the great sobs that shuddered out of me, as I was held by a kind and loving woman, us both realising that this was something much more than love drama, something buried unexpectedly deep shooting out like water, like magma, as I continued on and on, my face wet and dripping with snot, my voice cracking and howling, until finally I relaxed, and lay there, and let go, and started to mourn.

Even allowing for the unavoidable mistakes, the prescription drugs, and the many very wonderful and various fuck ups of my own, I think it would have done me a lot of good all those years ago if they had simply let me go to the funeral and say goodbye and express my grief with everyone else.

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This thing has 3 Comments

  1. transience
    Posted 9 June, 2005 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    that was an ode if ever read one.

  2. Blog ho
    Posted 9 June, 2005 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    touching. i still have morbid fixations.

  3. alix
    Posted 13 June, 2005 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    yes, dove, i agree.

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