Me + my mum

I am an only child with only a mother, who wore all the clothes of both my parents.  She fought bears beside my cot as a baby.  All alone.  Just her against the bears that clawed at me.  I remember her battling wordlessly in the moonlight.  With unwavering strength.  Fighting all through the night to be my mother all through the day.  She is my hero.

I was a relentless child and she was slight and accommodating.  She hated herself for her quiet kindness.  For being unable to stand up for herself.  To her it was weakness.  So she stamped it out of me, maybe hoping that she could simultaneously stamp the reluctant shyness out of herself. 

At 3 years old, with a bold bowl cut, scabby knees and a sense of entitlement, she sent me in to the bakery while she waited outside.  She handed me $5 and announced:

“Kiri, please go inside the bakery and get us a loaf of multi-grain bread, toast slice”

I entered obediently and waited for someone to serve me.  My head didn’t reach the top of the counter even when I stood on my tippy-toes.  I heard the lady ask a thousand legs around me “good morning and how may I help you today” while I strained to be seen, leaving a trail of grubby fingerprints on the glass cabinet.

I returned to mum, defeated, “the lady won’t serve me!” I whinged.  Stamping my feet and turning in circles.  Wanting to go home and have a sandwich.  Why wouldn’t mum just get the bread, like all the other mums in the shop did. 

“Well,” mum said, all business, “you need to go inside and say to the lady, Excuse me, I’d like to buy some bread!”  I was unconvinced.  But, in a huff and with heavy feet, I stomped back inside.  Pawing at the pastries, I asked loudly, “excuse me, I’d like to buy some bread”.  

Minutes later I trotted out triumphantly, with a fresh loaf of bread in hand.  Seeing her beam down on me made me bashful.  I was never nervous to ask for anything again, as she hoped.  Her pride was big and warm.  Life was good when I basked in it. 

My childhood was uneventful. Our circumstances weren’t unique.  Money was tight and she was lonely.  42 years old, divorced, and with a demanding little Miss to feed and clothe.  I guess loneliness and financial hardship seemed the only predictable constant.  I provided a little light, and tried to offer myself up as a timid consolation.

But as her own self worth dwindled I found the blind love she had for me repugnant.  Her faith in my ability to do things better than she did scared me.  As her pride in me swelled she sunk into a consuming despair.  I woke up in the mornings to find her pale and terrified, eyes wide open after another sleepless night.  Something ethereal lingered at the edges of her fear.  Something other-worldly. Whatever was happening seemed to have no tangible edges.  It was too big and too brutal for me to understand.  I got scared and became despondent with her. Something was slipping.

By the time I was 14 she began taking pills from bottles with futuristic names: Tomazopan, Prozac, Diamox.  I hoped they were as magical as they sounded.  Her once voluptuous bosom began to shrink.  She woke me up in the middle of the night to hold me and sob. I hardened with fear.

The morning I found her paralysed with darting eyes I switched off, the way adrenalin lets you sometimes.  To save you.  I don’t remember calling the ambulance which arrived with furious urgency.  I remember choosing my mum’s favourite outfit to wear to the hospital, and dolling myself up like we were going out for dinner.  As if trying to convince her.  I put on mascara and squeaked all the way down the slippery corridors in my patent black shoes.  She was punctured by tubes and deflated with the guilt of her situation.  I looked long and hard.  My heart ached, eyes stung and I ran away from her bedside.  I couldn't see her like that.  It was the moment I realised I couldn’t save her.

On Friday 9 August 2002 mum dropped me at school.  I was happy because I didn’t have to catch the train.  She was happy because it was Friday.  I didn’t know she had an appointment with her psychiatrist afterwards.  I didn’t know she would tell him that she’d like to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital because she was a danger to herself.

“I love you darling,” she said, and gave me a kiss as I got out of the car.  It was just the way she’d told me a thousand times.  Genuine and absolute.  I love you my darling because there is no other way than this.  You are my dearest daughter.  My great project.  My legacy.  And even as I stand on the edge of the world I know you, my big, strong girl, will be ok.

“Love you too!”  I cooed flippantly and slammed the door.  On her short, curly blonde hair.  Diamond earrings.  Matching turquoise camisole and cardigan.  Button up jeans.  Pale, veiny hands gripping the steering wheel.  Green eyes, maybe a little tearful, maybe just shining in the sun.  Rosey lipstick, a little smudged on her front tooth.  

She didn’t come home that Friday night.  I didn’t worry, sometimes she had some drinks after work with friends.  I tried calling her mobile at 11pm.  No answer.  I guessed she might have stayed with her best friend.  It had happened once or twice.  I would call in the morning.  You can justify anything if you talk yourself into it for long enough.

After calling everyone I could think of my mum’s best friend called the police.  My brain turned off again.  They questioned me gently, tip-toeing around all the possibilities, asking polite questions about school and my hobbies.  Three of them took notes on the hopeless suggestions of a scared 14 year old.  One finally queried:  “is there anywhere your mother might go, any special place you two shared together, anywhere you can think of”.

I instantly knew.  A cold, hard bucket of memories we shared flooded me.  The tranquil Dandenong mountains where we used to go for scones and tea when we felt fancy.  The winding road.  Waterfalls of dense green foliage.  The dainty ferns that line the highway, unfurling gracefully onto the road.  The gimmicky shops named “shoppe”, in a bid to capture some ye olde glamour. Peaceful and always particularly soothing for my brow-furrowed, worrisome mum.  And her smiling face.  Small wrists.  Shy smile.  Strange fashion sense.  

She was there.

But it was so sudden.  And I still throbbed with hope.  I couldn’t begin to comprehend that she… 

The kind officers looked at me expectantly.  I couldn’t send them off on my strange hunch.  I was having a delusion.  She would come home soon.  She wouldn’t leave like that.

2 weeks later my mother was found dead in the Dandenong mountains.  Her car was parked near to a dirt road in the heart of the forest.  She’d driven straight there after being told by her psychiatrist that her public health insurance would not cover hospitalisation in her current condition.  He tried to talk her back to sanity for the duration of her hour-long appointment.  Instead he talked her into feigning sanity.

When he asked, at the end of her appointment: “are you still having suicidal thoughts?”  She already knew her fate.  It was not in her nature to argue or stand up for herself.  She couldn’t bare to put anyone out.  “Not anymore,” she replied, vowing not put herself through the ordeal ever again.

How dare she leave me?  I used to think, in the deepest corners of my heartbreak.  When I missed my person too terribly to think straight.  

What if I had been more attentive, more loving, more present in those final months?  I was just a child.  A selfish, scared child.  And I couldn’t comprehend the weight those months would come to have on the rest of my life.  But I don’t blame myself.

Suicide is a cowardly act.  Some say.  When they haven’t encountered depression or suicide.  Nor seen or heard anything of the pain endured by its victims as they battle on.  Wanting nothing more than peace.  Who genuinely feel like they are too much of a burden on the rest of the world, and that their only option is to quietly, helplessly, take their leave of it.

My mum took all her sleeping pills one day in her car in our happy, fancy place because she believed she was setting me free.  And she had already lavished enough love, kindness and care on me to survive in the world.  Her reasoning still weighs on me.  And I miss her hand on my back.  Sometimes I just want to ask her what on earth I should do?  How I should do it?  What does she think?

She left no explanation for her actions, but I trust my instincts and the note I found while cleaning up her stale room after I was able to tear myself away from sitting idly among her still-perfumed clothes.

My special girl is a writer.  Her flesh so pale her mind so true my special girl is a writer.  Don’t ever falter, it will always be there for you it will always be true to you.  My special girl is a writer, I know she will be.