My Father’s Affair

I remember the long, inky black evenings at the house, a modern split-level building of chocolate-chip brick perched on the edge of a cliff by the sea.  At the end of a long, winding dirt drive up-hill, it stood by itself in a defiantly untamed bush of dry schlerophyll forest, long tufts of grass and prickly acacia.

Inside were large, airy rooms, the walls painted white and rich, soft earth brown carpet.  In the two bedrooms, there were vast built-in wardrobes with wide, sliding doors of honey wood and there was a mysterious Paul Klee like painting of a woman with a pointed face hanging in the hallway.

The open-plan living room was long, with an alcove for a desk, chair and filing cabinet in one corner, then a generous fireplace fronting the lounge suite of black leather cushioned furniture all the way to the great French windows leading out to the balcony that overlooked the magnificent sweep of Avoca Beach Bay down the long, steep slope of the cliff far below.

During those long, inky black evenings, my parents would carouse with their friendly hosts with red wine and cheese on crackers and cigarettes and long and impassioned conversation about politics, philosophy and nature – after a meal of barbequed meats with tomato sauce, potatoes and coleslaw.  Us five children would be left to play and wander at will and I would look out through those great French windows and see the calm seas lying glistening under the floating moon and hear the gentle sighing of the imperceptible waves as they heaved themselves gently and languidly upon the shore.

Somewhere in the 1970s the McDowells were my parents good friends.  Frank McDowell was my history teacher at High School, a man of short stature but lean and wiry with deep-set grey-blue eyes in a long, bony face, bald head and red, bushy beard.  His wife Margaret was by contrast, a handsome looking woman with a hazel eyes and a straight bobbed light brown hair, who was taller than he was and of the solid and sensual kind – someone who had secrets.  In their large bedroom, Margaret had a dressing table and on it was an ornament.  A large sad-eyed china dog chained to two small puppies.  For some reason, it would remind me intensely of her.

The McDowells were more intrepid bushwalkers than my parents and when we camped in national parks and bushwalked in places like the Snowy Mountains for sometimes 10 miles in a day, their well-worn but good quality equipment outshone ours.

They had proper equipment from Paddy Pallin, tall back-packs of dun brown canvas and faded japara sleeping bags of goosedown that packed down into tiny bags.  They had the old black billy can and the perfect gripper for it, long-handled and firm, that I have never seen before or since.  The arrival of their two children barely stopped them in their tracks.  They promptly bought a papoose for the baby Mia, powdered milk and disposable nappies and the toddler Elaine soon learned that complaining about the long walks was not an option.

Together we all went to Kinchega National Park and camped by the Murray River where we swam in the muddy waters and I cooked a very well received damper in the iron camp oven, which we all had, tremblingly, fragrantly hot and slathered with runny butter and honey.  We watched thousands of yellow-crested and pink Mitchell cockatoos and galahs converge screeching at the edge of a wide lake at sunset while we lounged against huge, grey-white, bone-dry logs half-submerged in the soft, red-dirt sands.

We picked up pieces of chert stone lying in the dunes, chipped like stone-age flint and long abandoned by vanished aboriginal people.  We walked along the shores of the lake and saw a stunning diversity of water birds, fleeing grey kangaroos and trees covered with the matted clods of innumerable, tiny little mud and feathered nests inhabited by huge flocks of chattering birds.

I am alone in the inky night at home again, some forty years later, with a hasty meal of fried-eggs and tomato on bread, the last skerrick of ice-cream eaten from the tub and the large, crystal wine glass of some Barossa Valley shiraz.  Long cold winter nights have begun and my husband John and nearly adult daughter Veronique are out.  And thinking of the promising magic and beauty of those nights, I remember back then with a kind of impenetrable sadness.  What did, or didn’t happen that laid all those long years since with such a sense of unspoken waste?

My husband and I have laid the floors of our apartment in a quiet suburb in the city with bamboo, stained to warm, syrupy, variegated hues but nevertheless reverberating with a sense of echoing coldness.  The oil heater has to work hard to heat the large L-shaped living room with its bright, freshly renovated and painted open kitchen.  Our marriage of twenty years, unmarked by any infidelity, simple and straightforward.  We talk about politics, some history, issues.  But our full book-cases go largely unread and with the casualness that marks our relationship, the outings occasional and plans more often than not undone.

Back in the 1970s, the McDowells eventually moved to a neat, white weatherboard cottage with a barren, paling fenced backyard and Hills Hoist in town by the river.  We still visited and played with their two daughters but a mysterious sense of barely perceptible tension had pervaded the relationships between the four adults.  They shouted more suddenly and vociferously in their discussions with each other, there were terser leavings and goodbyes.  Margaret was talking of their family moving away to Canberra sometime, but she did not say when.

Then, one explosive night, it happened.  Our family had gone home and I was trying to sleep in the room I shared with my two sisters, but was unable to because Mum and Dad were arguing with each other:  Mum with at first low and impassioned tones, but with rising pitch and intensity, Dad like straws all at sea, helplessly remonstrative.

Then my sister Cathie came in to our room, bursting with the information she had gleaned with her assiduous eavesdropping.  ‘Dad’s been having an affair with Margaret McDowell!’ she announced at once to me and Berenice.  ‘Mum caught them kissing at the back fence in the dark at their house.  Dad’s admitted that it’s been going on for some time’.

In the dark, our whole lives whizzed into a garish, ugly focus of suburban frustration, disappointment and dull ordinary things happening like sordidly secret affairs between married people who should have known better than to hurt and turn upside down the lives of those dependent on them.  It was wrong, morally wrong, wasn’t it?  But none of this was happening to me.  Curiously I felt neither dismay, surprise nor the slightest bit of anger towards my father.  I felt calm, dead calm, almost numb.  I just listened and over the days and weeks that followed, thought only that my father was mortal and for that, I forgave him.

In their bedroom, Mum was hissing ‘I could see that you wanted to dance with her!  I saw you looking at her, with her swirling skirt and red lipstick and her come at me eyes…  ‘What are you talking about?’  Interjected my father faintly  ‘I never did any such thing!’  ‘Oh yes you did!’, screamed my mother almost manic with volcanic rage ‘You were looking at her, her, HER!’…

The next few days were lived in a kind of grey, uncertain daze.  I had breakfast, went to school, came back.  And then one afternoon Mum gathered us three sisters together in the lounge room and spoke to us with unusual candour about the whole thing.  This time she was so calm, that it was almost impossible to believe that she was the same person she had been that night.

‘Frank and Margaret are going away and your father and I are staying together’  She said ‘Your father realised it was only a temporary affair and he liked her because she was a good bushwalker’.  ‘But we all got together and talked about it last night.  Frank surprised me because he said he had known about it from the beginning.  He was watching them to see what happened and hoping to have a relationship with me.  I was taken aback and of course never would have done anything like that.  I find him quite repulsive, physically.’   ‘Then Margaret got in touch with me privately and confessed to me that she no longer loves Frank.  She was in love with someone else and married him on the rebound.  I don’t know what they’re going to do’…

After that episode, we saw no more of the McDowells.  Unseen by us, they had winged their way to Canberra or some such city to an unknown life somewhere else.  Mum and Dad never even mentioned their names again.  Except once.  They told me that Frank had opined that I was not bright enough to finish university.

A year or so later, we had gone on a camping trip to Carnarvon Gorge National Park.  A rocky, red place of ancient beauty somewhere in mid-west Queensland, where us sisters played in the quartz-strewn stony creek beds and ran laughing through the largely deserted bushy, dust-bowl of the camping grounds.  It was then that I noticed a familiar tent and Khombi van.  From a distance, Frank and Margaret had seen us.  A short while later I saw that they were suddenly packing their tent, camping gear and belongings hastily into the car.  Without a word, they drove off into the ether of the early afternoon…

Yes, I Regret Some Things…

To be honest, yes, I regret some things.  On looking over the course of my younger life, I made a lot of mistakes.  And I have spent a lot of time nursing the costs of those mistakes.

I regret not writing sooner.  Perhaps I could have avoided the mental breakdown I had that wrecked a vital part of my early adult life.  I would have had some kind of outlet, more of a sense of myself, a better sense of purpose in life…  maybe.

I regret leaving a boyfriend, a bad habit of smoking tobacco, leaving home to go to a university where a guy I was hopelessly infatuated with was also going to – with his beautiful girlfriend, not studying art and yes, I’ve done all these other things, things I’ve been ashamed of, things I wish I hadn’t done.

Damn right I regret stuff and most of all, I regret the lack of discipline and drive when young to search for the higher issues in life, to learn about the things of deeper significance in our world – of world events, politics, science and philosophy.  I regret all that time I wasted that I had in spades when young.

‘Non, je ne regrette rien!  Non, je ne regrette rien!’  Edith Piaf might sing amidst the majestic strains of her famous, iconic song.  But it exasperates me how others can so blithely say that about their lives.  Regret, they seem to say, is something only weak, inferior people feel.  It’s not something you should feel.  You should be happy with the course of your life the way it goes and be courageous about it.  Great people don’t ever regret things.  You should repress regret by denying that you ever feel it.  You should be like Piaf and go for the great, grand heroic swan dive before you die.  After all, regrets are the damnation in the shadow of your grave in a world where even the most religious believe that Hell may not exist.  Nobody wants to die with any regrets.  Dying with regrets seems to be a fate worse than death.

Scientists ponder whether the fabric of reality consists of a huge multiverse where one might be living simultaneously in literally countless numbers of them, except that in each universe one does things differently and thus there are countless different outcomes.  But somehow, we are conscious of only one life.  This one.  With each sunrise and sunset, waking and sleeping and doing and shopping we are trapped in it, day after day.

From Philosophy Quotes on Twitter came a missive one day remarking ‘there is no one best future’.  And yes that may be right.  Of all the possible outcomes the mighty multiverse may hold of the simultaneous courses of all our different lives so far, how do we know which is the best one?

Maybe if I’d married that former boyfriend it might have exploded in a mess of marital vituperative and custody battles at 20 paces in one life, for instance.  Maybe I would have had success as a writer and banged out a number of best sellers, only never to really understand what the process of writing really can do in terms of sense-making and discovery.

On the other hand, I could perhaps have had a brilliantly fulfilling life without the marring shadow of mental illness at all.  Maybe I could have a number of best futures out there along with the worst ones and this one I’m in right now is the middling, slogging, muddling-through one.  Ahh, subjunctive mode:  ‘If I had have known X, I would not have done Y’…

My life has been an unpredictable life of accidents, maybe of forces I am not entirely in control of.  Who does have total control over the forces of circumstances in their lives?  Some get lucky, others labour under the shadow of a sudden landslide who might have had similar if not more success by being in the right place at the right time.  Sometimes taking one’s perfectly good chances doesn’t pay off.  Is it healthy to measure oneself up to some ideal of the perfect, soaring, regret-free life?  Especially if there is no one best future.

I came across an old high-school teacher I had for Social Science on a Friends Reunited website.  On his profile, he said something like that he was glad he never had one single purpose in his life, that he’d gone wherever life accidentally led him, whatever he took an interest in at the moment.

But it is not easy to live the slow, winding, discursive, unpredictable life of accidents.  Regret is a raw, human emotion in the midst of attempting to look at things in a new light.  It can be a way of treating the hurt gained through the bad accidents and stuff-ups in life by revisiting that invisible cross-road, reflecting on it, trying to do something about it before it’s too late – to treat people better, to make the most of any second chances, to learn from past mistakes.

Regret can be an acknowledgement of responsibility too.  I imagine the regret one would feel in killing someone in a car accident would be acute and life-long.  No conscionable person would feel otherwise.  There would always be that sense of what might-have-been if one had taken more care, taken a different route, or not gone out for a drive at all that day.

Perhaps refusing to acknowledge regret, to suppress feeling regret could be the worst thing one could do.  Because after the initial pain, can come reflections, realisations, plans of action for the future.  Regret – painful as it is – can be helpful in the process of learning from mistakes, which is one of the important, life-changing lessons anyone can learn.  It can help one survive, make the most of what they have, live in the present and become a better person.

I had a number of personal convictions when young and one of them was to be free to make my own mistakes.  Now a litany of errors over the course of the last 30 plus years since then is staring at me.  Looking back maybe I said that too lightly, because I did not fully realise then how some mistakes can hurt, cripple, maim and even kill.  Mistakes were a romantic theory in my young mind – I who wanted to sally forth into the chaos of an uncertain future, take risks and repudiate forever, the dull, safe bet.

Regret has taught me that living is a constant act of becoming, that you should never be afraid of taking risks and making changes, but that you always need a Plan B before rushing off blithely off into Plan A.  That sometimes a dull, safe bet can be a good, responsible one and give much in the way of personal happiness.  Also that you should never, under any circumstances, go rushing off into The Blue without any plans at all.

So regret comes with the territory of a human life and frank acknowledgment of it can be a part of the process of living more wisely.  But also regrets can bring one back to earth and place one in a better position to take whatever other chances that come by in this strange, unpredictable and accidental life we all lead…

Depression – How to Cope

I’ve lived with anxiety and depression for all of my adult life – the last 30 years and counting.  It comes in tides and it is only fairly recently that I’ve come to understand the signs that it’s got me in its grip – when my circumstances feel like a trap I cannot get out of, when the me of that conflagration in my life long ago says I died back then and there is no other self, that fragile feeling of bungling through everything at work, of the painful memories that still trigger a deep, deep sense of guilt that I can’t talk to anyone about, ever…

When I get hit with an episode though, there are several things I do throughout the blackness and after a time, it eventually lifts.

I just walk through it and try to avoid focusing on the hell going on at the back of my mind.  I think about what I have to do next, and next, and next, all the way through the present to the end of the day.  I think about how to go about doing each necessary duty and then do the segments of the task bit by bit.  I keep on walking all the while talking to myself to keep on going.

It’s nice to lie down in the dark in the foetal position with the blinds closed and let the day and the night rock me.  But I don’t stay there too long or I’ll enter a land far away from here where there is no time.  After a while I know I must get up and get something done and lie there for a while quietly, visualizing the task that will take me back into today and then say ‘alright, let’s do this!’ and get up.

Go for a walk outside, into the open air and the sunshine (take a hat) or the rain (take an umbrella).  I like to walk for an hour towards my favourite park and observe what kind of bird-life is out and about today, admire the clouds, the colours in the street, the weather and try to describe what shifting colours of the water in the bay there are today.  Those lone moments can catapult me back into a reality that is fun and adventurous and there is no-one there to distract from it or complicate things.  Often I feel the black cloud start to lift on the way home and realise with relief it is the beginning of the end of it.

I talk to people about it.  I have a sister and parents I can go into detail about these things from time to time.  That helps.  I also see my psychiatrist every couple of months and of course the prescribed daily meds help.

I perhaps am fortunate to have a loving husband and daughter and so feel my home is a haven.  I fell in love with my husband at the beginning when we first met and went out together.  But after a long time, there came a time when I decided to love him, to share my life with him and that he is it.  Full weight.

God I’m having problems writing in this online medium.  It all comes out stilted and preachy whereas in my journal I sink into meditations and things have a natural conclusion.  And who cares what I fucking do?  How can this help someone with depression?  Maybe I’m not so depressed…  It’s undeniable that I have black moods, but can’t imagine it now since I’m comfortable at home at this moment and feeling relatively upbeat.

Right now I’d rather think of the moon like an uninhabited piece of rock that is billions of years old and that a piece of the oldest earth in the world has just been found:  the merest fragment of zircon crystal found on a sheep station somewhere outback in Australia.  How did they find it?  Were they looking for it?  Or did they accidently come across it when they were really looking for something else?  And it’s amazing how scientists have deducted the possibility that the earth was maybe not such a great, heaving, molten, restless, inhospitable fireball of volcanic activity way back then more than four billion years ago.  That actually conditions might have been conducive to life on earth much earlier than we think…

To Dr Geoffrey McKellar – Oral Surgeon

I was visiting my periodontist Dr Bannon today, a man of my age in his early fifties well versed in matters dental and who takes good care of me.  The appointment was a routine maintenance and inspection one to keep the periodontal inflammation of my gums at bay.  During the course of my visit, I was telling him about the oral surgery I had had nearly 30 years ago on my jaw to correct a dento-facial deformity.

‘Who did the operation?’  Dr Bannon asked, checking over my x-rays.

‘Dr Mackellar’ I told him

‘Dr Geoffrey McKellar, from Westmead Hospital?’

‘Yes’

‘He passed away not long ago, it was very sad’

I sat back in the dental chair, stunned.  Dr McKellar was a well-known and very reputable oral surgeon who had only been in his sixties.  I knew that because as a Customs Officer I had processed him a couple of years ago as he was going overseas to a conference and I had seen his passport.  That was so young and he’d seemed so healthy, an early 1960s movie-star handsome dark-haired man with a square jaw and a serious gaze, in the days before everybody went mad dancing around in cheesecloth with flowers in their hair and singing about love.  I can’t remember whether his eyes were light or dark, but that busy afternoon he had looked fine, dapper and conservatively dressed and not much changed over the decades before.

I asked Dr Bannon for more details, but there were few:  that he had died unexpectedly, that he had a daughter, that he was deeply mourned by his colleagues.  The work of a surgeon was very stressful, Dr Bannon opined, oral surgery particularly so for some reason.  He had heard of the loss of another oral surgeon in similar circumstances.

I had reason to be very grateful to Dr McKellar.  Back in 1988 I was back from the brink of a serious mental illness, but this good fortune was tempered with the difficulties of finding accommodation, getting my life back on track with education and training, getting into the workforce and off welfare and of learning to manage my medical condition.

Back then my jaw was giving me hell.  My bite for some reason had worsened considerably as my 20s progressed and so my jaw was painful, the sockets clomping and clicking every time I ate.  Often I would wake up with my jaw locked and stiff and it would take some time for it to work again.  The lower jaw was wandering, unable to find a place to rest and I was told that without an operation to correct the dento-facial deformity I would have severe arthritis in my jaw by the time I was 40.

Dr McKellar fixed all that in a major operation where he aligned my jaws to the correct position, drawing the lower jaw forward.  The recovery process was slow and painful, especially since my jaws were wired together for six months.  But throughout he was no-nonsense, supremely professional and competent and took care of my every need.

As a result, I felt comfortable at last and eating was no longer an issue.  I can’t express how much of a difference that made.  A year later I finished my TAFE courses and armed with these, got my first full-time job.  There were still problems, but I could manage them and muddle through.  I no longer felt like a freak with a painful, restless jaw.  A happy, productive life as an adult had begun.

Governments in this country pay scant regard to the necessity of resources for oral and dental health.  Good dental health is crucially important for the heart and the brain.  If they don’t want masses of people clogging up the health system and adding to costs, they would do well to make dental and oral health services refundable on Medicare.  But all we have is costly private health cover or a run-down public health system staffed with brilliant, kind but over-stressed professionals.  This needs to change.

And above it all, the silent, lightning strike of death in the midst of life shocks, frightens and bewilders just the same way the artist Hans Holbein depicted The Dance of Death more than four hundred years ago.  Now the old, old Death steps implacably into the 21st century and takes a surgeon working on the operating table.

I had sent him a letter thanking him and telling him how well I was doing after our chance encounter at the airport not that long ago.  He wrote back saying that was wonderful news.  So I mourn Dr McKellar’s tragic, untimely death and will remember his  great gift to me for the rest of my life.

Pompeii, Italy, 1994

John and I are in Old Pompeii.  The empty town square that tenements of crumbling tan brick surround and on a pedestal Apollo stands, his arm raised to Vesuvius – glistening black metal God of a sun that shone blackly that day.  That terrible day of apocalypse and pyroclastic flow as Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and killed so many people.

I try to envisage a pair of ancient eyes watching me as I wander aimless amongst the roofless ruins.  But that was all part of the tourist trade, where people flog their business as usual and many guides beckon to reveal behind tawdry curtains, what they know of the real Pompeii:  The love-making room in the town brothel being a climax.

Yes it is all big business, that apocalypse.

Movie extras in costumed togas and rhinestone diadems wander around the old round open theatre at will, pursued by cameras recording that endless fascination with so many violent deaths.  All at once.  And they didn’t know.

Now death agony can be viewed in perfect detail under glass.  The torturous twisted faces of pool attendants in the public baths.  They are somewhat smaller than people today, mouths agape in mid-scream of pain and terror – on that day.  Some day that black will be marble, honed and polished, slabs all ready for sale at the markets.

We wander in the Villa of Mysteries, in what must have been a secluded and affluent kind of cul-de-sac quite some walking distance from the town centre.  Only someone of supreme wealth would have caused such great, beautiful slabs to be laid – like the best playing cards in the deck.  Not showy, but brimming with silent quality and built to last a lifetime memory in an art-lover’s mind.  And that isn’t just the frescos.

But a heart-thumping wall of black earth bearing green weeds rises just behind the back windows and doors.  And on the floor the figure of a broken boy, face dove-peaceful in the greenish light…

Around Old Pompeii lies the tacky modern town feeding from its bones.  It has erected ugly concrete boxes of hotels and neon-lit shops and the main drag boasts cars bumper to bumper, moving at a glacial pace in the warmish early autumn evening.

Mount Vesuvius – imperceptibly massive – had defeated us that day.  It imperiously beckons, but its summit enticingly near, melts further away with each kilometre.  So we had given up and returned to the town debating pizzas for dinner as we griped our way through the evening traffic jam.

It was quite dark when we stopped at a club-house and then, there they all were, the entire town almost.  Men, women, couples, families with children, groups of friends, young, old and middle-aged.  They were all dressed smartly with the women in black and hair done just so, in Saturday night best all promenading the town square.  The people of Old Pompeii still live among us!