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Rebecca Jessen

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grief

‘Hello Dolly’ now online at Verity La

The lovely people at Verity La have published my memoir ‘Hello Dolly’ which is about dealing with grief and the eccentricities of family. You can read it in full here. Like Tincture Journal, Verity La publish challenging, courageous, and thoughtful writing by a diverse range of emerging and established writers. So while you’re there have a look around and read some of the other brilliant work on the website.

 

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(TWENTY-FIVE) the body has memory

‘The body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness.’ Claudia Rankine, Citizen.


this is how days are spent. the briefest moments of hope. punctured by despair. can you despair at nothingness? can nothingness be a sign of despair? how often in the last four weeks did you feel hopeless for no reason. you would like to believe there is always a reason. but numbers aren’t a good measurement of pain. or experience. or despair.

it’s the memories that stop you. does the future have memory? is past performance an indicator of future performance? you never know you’re in it. until you’re in too deep. you don’t yet know when to fight. and when to walk away.

you are a self-fulfilling prophecy.

there are already others. circling. waiting to swoop. and you say there is nothing left. not even for me. but someone has found something. and my skin still smells like you. and you keep saying I’ll hold on I’m hanging on I will be held here.

this is how days are spent. each morning there is a torturous moment before consciousness. each morning there is a moment where nothing has changed. how often in the last four weeks did you feel hopeless for no reason?

every morning she said.

every

single

morning.

and on a scale of one to ten? always a ten. always.

these streets don’t exist without us. and last night I dreamt about our wedding. you wore a dress. but that can’t be right. can it? you took my breath away. and isn’t that how it’s always been. how do you erase the intimate knowledge of someone? is that what happens now? will the contours made for these hands wear away over time?

the body has memory.

and these streets. they don’t exist without you.

this is how days are spent. you are dressed for a different season in a different city. this city that was once your own is now the prickle of heat on your neck. and will it be yours again? and does that mean you’re no longer being held. just holding on. hold on.

there’s something comfortable about being in the crush of people. here in this space you are nobody. you are not the person who has lost everything. twice. you are just a girl in a stripy shirt wearing a banana necklace. here in this space you are nobody. and for a while. this is the best you can hope for.

and you keep thinking. but there was a ring. and you keep thinking. but we were making a dream home scrapbook. but you were a ghost. and now you’re ghosting streets that don’t belong to you anymore. these streets that belonged to the person you once were don’t exist in this time. these streets exist in the past.

but you say you’re holding on. just holding on for one more day. and you’re in danger of becoming a 90s pop song. but we agreed that life is a musical. so hold on anyway. just for one more day.

these bodies have memory. and mine will remember yours.

TWENTY-TWO (Yesterday)

There was a time there all those years ago, in that old house, that old suburb, there was a time there when I saw you in everything. Wherever I went, wherever I looked, there you were. They say, after a person dies, it’s not uncommon to still see them, in places you might have once seen them, often in the most ordinary of places. Then it’s not uncommon to see you riding down the street on your bicycle. Then it’s not uncommon to see you in the supermarket, stepping off a bus, turning back and catching my gaze.

I don’t really know if people say this, but I imagine it to be true. Otherwise how to explain this seeing you, when I know you are gone. Of course, this was many years ago. I don’t see you anymore, not like that. I’ve moved away now, to a different city, with its own haunts and hauntings. But I still go back, I am always going back.

Ten years is a long time for someone to have passed. I remember it like it was yesterday. Isn’t that what most people say about the moments in their lives where grief is found balled up inside them like a fist.

If I don’t remember it like it was yesterday then there is the danger of forgetting. There is the danger that I could pass through time unmarked, unchanged. If time is not a construct designed to change us, then what is it? If time and grief are balled up inside you like a fist and you refuse change, what happens to that fist? Does grief spread inside you like a roadmap, unfurled, sprawling and unknown.

I remember it like it was yesterday. You were always leaving, even before you left for good. You were always leaving, on a Saturday evening, crashing forward into the night. You were always leaving, on a weekday afternoon, hiding in a nearby empty lot. You were always leaving and we were always left looking. I remember it like it was yesterday.

 

NINETEEN (The Live Album)

This is a short excerpt from a piece of memoir that I’m currently working on.

The four of us pile into the car and it could be any other day, we could be going anywhere, perhaps to the local shops to pick up groceries, or a little further, to the Westfield. We leave fifteen minutes earlier than we mean to. It doesn’t rain as predicted, but that will come, later.

My sister keeps her window down the whole trip and I shiver beside her. Mum is playing AC/DC’s The Live Album at full volume. As we speed down the highway, ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ plays, and I keep getting hung up on the line ‘knocking me out with those American thighs’, thinking it’s such a great line. My sister complains the whole way through the song, begging Mum to play some ‘real music’.

Our family don’t talk. We prefer the music loud and the windows down. We talk most when we’re worried about something. When Mum asks my sister for the third time if she turned the hair straightener off. She does this despite me watching her re-enter the house to double-check that it was turned off.

‘But what about the electric blanket, Olivia?’ Mum says.

My sister sighs, ‘Yes, Mum.’

We look over at each other and smile. This happens every time we get in the car with Mum.

We’re all quiet for a while, and as we navigate through the Sydney traffic and the bad drivers I think about how small the lanes feel. Every time we pass by a car in the next lane I bring my shoulders in, as if the lanes are too tight, or the car too big for us to pass unmarked.

My sister takes car selfies with me in the background looking miserable. Mum tells me I look nice and I think that my great-grandmother would have wanted that, for me to dress nicely. She loved to dress up, even if she had nowhere to go. It’s a mark of respect.

When we get to Bankstown we drive straight past the turn-off we would normally take to go visit my great-grandmother. I look back as we pass and think of my last visit. How I somehow knew, it would be the last.

We are one of many cars that drive into the cemetery grounds, and as we pass the gravestones, my sister remarks ‘Wow, so many dead people.’

Mum finds a park and turns off the car. We are half an hour early. Who gets to a funeral early? It feels wrong. It’s cold outside so we sit in the car and wait for the rest of the extended family to arrive. Mum opens her window and lights a cigarette. The ash occasionally blows back through the window and settles on my jeans. I have cat hair on my jacket and it feels disrespectful somehow.

‘Imagine if the coffin opened?’ My sister laughs.

I turn to her and attempt a serious look that immediately fades into a smile. It’s so like our family to be early for a funeral sitting in the carpark making inappropriate jokes about dead people.

TEN (Ghosts)

When I met Eleanor I was on the verge of becoming who I would become for the rest of our life together. She caught me on the cusp and held me there. It seems we spend so much of our lives looking back, on who we could have been, what we could have done. But for the longest time, Eleanor had changed this in me. I didn’t need to look back anymore, for there was simply nothing to look back upon. What I needed most was so achingly close that I could do nothing but spend each day, willing it closer still.

We were both without a stable home when we met, both passing between old lives and grasping at new ones. We dreamed up a little white cottage near the sea with high ceilings and white window frames. A bed of our own and crisp white sheets to slip beneath. I dreamed of never losing her, though I knew this with all probability, to be a false dream. I would lose Eleanor more than once in my lifetime. It was during these times, I would fall hardest, try hardest to learn and unlearn myself.

Since Eleanor’s passing I’ve returned to many of the places we had once haunted. Not looking for closure, but hoping to find some signal that she was still there with me. I’ve never believed in the afterlife but losing someone you love does strange things to you. Suddenly, you could willingly believe anything at all, as long as it didn’t mean standing at the end of the beach with your heart in your hands.

In those first weeks I spent each afternoon at what was, our favourite beach. I sat high up on the shoreline and waited for the coming of night. Watched with measurable intensity, the bringing of the tide and the turning of the light. I counted each wave that was brought in, only to be returned and knew one day, I’d have to stop counting.

EIGHT (On A Sunday)

Mum cries out from the bedroom down the end of the hallway, and I know he is gone. Her cry is one of a grief so complex it still haunts me to this day. My older brother is there with her, he was the one who answered the phone. I sit with my younger brother and sister in the lounge room. Tears start rolling down my cheeks and they won’t stop coming. My brother is playing Tony Hawk on the Playstation. My younger brother and sister have no idea their dad has just died.

Mum comes into the lounge room with my older brother. They say nothing. They don’t need to. The lounge room is dark, the blinds have been pulled shut all day. My little brother pauses his game and comes up to me, smiling. ‘Hey Becky,’ he says, ‘don’t cry, here do you want to play?’ He pushes the Playstation controller into my hands and urges me not to cry. The controller slips from my hands and falls at my feet.

My little brother turns to each of us, our faces marked by a grief he can’t yet comprehend. I’m sure he feels it too. They both feel it, maybe now more than ever before, now that they are older and fully understand the significance of their loss, our loss.

I don’t remember a thing after this moment. Did we have takeaway that night? Mum would have been too distraught to cook. We wouldn’t have eaten anyway. Did we go to bed early or stay up late? Were there hushed, fraught phone calls through the evening? Did we catch the other moments between day and dusk as they slipped through our fingers?

It happened on a Sunday in March, many years ago. I am now convinced that Sundays were made for leaving.

SEVEN (heaven help my heart)

Mum wakes us up early on Saturday. She tells me she’s going to the hospital with my older brother. That she’ll probably be gone all day. She leaves a twenty dollar note on the kitchen bench, kisses each of us goodbye and leaves.

It is March 2006. I’m fresh out of school and studying at TAFE. My little brother is nine, and my sister only five, a week and a half shy of her sixth birthday. Her birthday will forever be stained with this loss. I feel for her. I feel for them both. Their dad left so soon after my sister’s birth that she’d barely just learned to open her eyes before she noticed he was gone. Truth is, I probably knew their dad better than they ever had the chance to. I am grateful for those years, troubled and turbulent as they were.

They know very little about what has happened. They are both so young, how could they possibly understand. An accident at work. An explosion. A coma he may never emerge from.

There’s no food in the house so I take the twenty dollars and my brother and sister and we walk to the McDonalds close by. I get the kids a happy meal each and we sit in silence near the playground. After a while, my sister asks ‘Is our dad going to die?’

I shake my head and say I’m not sure. This is the truth, at the time, but it feels cruel to not give them any hope. I haven’t heard from Mum since she left. it could already be over. My chips have gone cold and I push them away. In the background I hear ‘Heaven Help My Heart’ playing through the speakers and this is what I will remember for all the years that follow.

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