I have realised that time is an infinite concept masquerading as an endless commodity. This world of writing has been waiting patiently for me for a long time. And now that I have this emerging understanding of time itself, I find myself looking back as much as forward in an effort to be just where I am. And where I am is in a world of words – words waiting to be written. What I write is written for the purpose of being written, not necessarily read…..I hope that’s ok with any reader who stumbles across this rambling first leap into my wordy world.
I was lucky enough to be born smart and raised to be a high achiever. I toddled off to Uni as a wee green sapling and spent most of my time revelling in the fact that being naturally smart meant I had to apply very little effort to anything, which meant I had Loads Of Fun.
Then, just when I was getting to the pointy postgrad end of things, boom! My father, a rather complex character living alone in squalor and sadness, despite being very smart himself and having a very successful career as a school principal, died.
I say died, rather he was killed in a fire started by either the extremely old bedside table lamp, or the brand spanking new bedside alarm clock that I had helped him buy a week or so earlier. No one had the wits at the time to delve into anything more specific than that. It’s alarming how complicit people can become in the face of tragedy. It’s as if our brains decide that they have reached their limit and cannot accept any more. So the most I was able to discern from firefighters and hearsay was that the electrical fault originated from the place that his bedside table used to be before it became ash. I have never been able to decide which would be worse…to have been the cause of the fire by helping him buy the new alarm clock, or to be the cause of the fire by not helping him buy a new lamp as well.
It had only been two years since his first brush with a fiery demise. Although that, by his own private admission to me, was of his own doing and an all too familiar threat that I had heard many times in my short life. We kept that one quiet from police….and everyone else. Setting your car alight whilst you are in it is generally frowned upon by all and I had endured enough shame for a 17 year old girl in a small country town.
By this stage of life I had grown adept at the art of adapting the situation to prevent a tragedy based on a knowing…..a sense of what will happen. A sense of truth based on feeling only. For much of my life this was interpreted as melodramatic and over reactive. But looking back, I just knew stuff. Like I knew that it was time to get the gun out of the house. Back when it was common for people in rural Australia to have rifles lying around unsecured in cupboards, we had a rifle that sat in the back of the broom cupboard. One night, I spontaneously realised that it needed to be gone. Dad was having a particularly full steamed binge and had taken to walking around the house in the middle of the night. I lobbied my mother melodramatically until she relented and arranged to have the gun taken from the house and left with a friend. Two nights later I awoke to a very angry man looking or his gun. Angry and unarmed felt much better than the alternative.
It was from the same bed that I felt this gratitude and warped sense of safety that I also had the dream. I had dreamed of fire twice before in recent weeks, but this one was specific. I was flying above the flames, trying hard not to get too close to the intense heat. I flew over various people in my life, all male…past and present boyfriends and crushes, all watching me with sympathetic eyes. In my dream I knew that Dad was down there, not to be saved.
I awoke to the sound of mum answering the front door. It was 5am and I knew what had happened before she came to my bedside a few minutes later. All I needed to ask was if he was dead.
Smoke inhalation can indeed be a cause of death, but this was not what had happened. It was not peaceful. It was a screamingly painful and horrific end to a life. I quietly had this knowing, again dismissed by well wishers and people who prefer to cling to a clean and tidy reality. It was many months before the coroner’s report found its way to me and I was able to confirm to myself that I was right. Lungs clear of smoke at time of death. The man died alight. They found him face down, wedding ringed hand clutched to his heart, one metre from the front door. Again, my knowing….his last thoughts were how much he loved my mother.
The report also showed he had mixed up his meds that night….a double dose of one and a missed dose of another meant he did well to get anywhere near the front door at all….perhaps this was where he fell and stopped breathing that night as he walked to lock the door before bed. The neighbour couldn’t get in because to save him because of the heat, but I believe the door remained unlocked. Perhaps the fire was a ridiculous coincidence.
He drank. A lot. It was his largest and most human flaw and undoubtedly contributed to his fate. The Coroners Report showed lesions in the Wernicke’s area of the brain, so Korsakoff Syndrome was an eventuality had things been different. For those who did not get to postgraduate psychology studies as I did (yes, the irony is not lost on me) Korsakoff is a hideous form of dementia often caused by alcoholism.
We cremated him at the strong insistence of my half brother. I say we, meaning me – I had the dubious honour of Stepping Up To The Plate and organising the funeral. Choosing a child sized coffin for what little remained of my father only to have it be finished off in another incineration was NOT my first choice and to this day I will haunt anyone who dares to burn me when I die. It sickens me and had the rest of the family had my knowing, they would surely have chosen a peaceful, non-fiery version.
My sister spent the two weeks following dad’s death reading. I have no recollection of what my mum did. I wore a cap pulled down low every time I left the house for food and drifted around trying to make everyone and everything ok. This annoyed my sister to no end and we quickly settled into a pattern of steering clear of any communal grieving.
My father used to catch the train to Newcastle for day trips and go to this restaurant close to the station for lunch. Once I met him and my Uncle there. It was a strange restaurant – empty but for the waitress who was sleeping on the lounge near the bar. I remember she knew my dad and was so lovely and kind to him that day and he seemed so proud to introduce me.
After his death, I went back to the restaurant and found the waitress. I was surprised she remembered me and even more surprised by how much she knew about my dad and his life. She told me he talked about his family all the time and that I was his favourite. The penny of the situation did not drop until years later. I suppose we all crave the comfort of touch. I will always be grateful to that woman for showing love and kindness to my father, and I choose to believe it was about more than just money.
It’s funny what things stick in a memory and what is lost. It’s been 20 years, and what is pouring out of me here is not what I would have expected. It’s my version, but I hazard to guess my mother or sister would have different versions of these realities. And that’s ok.