The end days came so quickly. For months, the doctors kept saying there was something wrong with his heart. But it was the cancer, so laboriously excised, that had come back. Or perhaps it never left.
I pray, I cry. I am numb.
The community nurses do their best, but nothing seems to work. The flesh falls off him. He is so thin, his bones are showing. His features are beaky, beautiful in their way.
He spends his last birthday in the hospital. He is incredibly brave, even carefree, giving away books of his poetry to the somewhat bewildered staff. Finally he is taken to the hospice where they look after him really well. Thank God for the hospice.
‘I was lucky, having you’, he says at one point. He asks for his ashes to be scattered near the place where we met. So there was, all along, something there, but so complicated!
‘I am here for you’, I say. ‘Always was, always will be’. He is tired, his blue-gray eyes clouded. He chats on the phone a bit, acknowledges the friends who visit, argues with our son. But the room is mostly silent. Whatever we have not said to each other will now never be said.
He who wrote so much in his lifetime still can’t really communicate with those closest to him.
The air is full of smoke. The bush is burning to the south and east of us. He drifts in and out of consciousness. I am there for his last breath. A strange peace descends, but does not last.
After he has gone, my son and I walk the labyrinth near the hospice, searching for what is left of ourselves. My heart aches for our son. I point to the swirls in the path. ‘You have to go to the outside before you can get to the middle’, I say. He nods.
At times, I feel as though I have been flayed alive. At others, as though I have drowned in a river that does not flow. Where did all this come from?
We were married a long time, more than forty years. Long-lived marriages tend to be somewhat battered arrangements. There seem to be no words at all for ours.
We lived on different planets, my late husband and I. His planet was a pretty dismal place. It was a place he had made for himself, a citadel of implacable will that had taken him out of a traumatic boyhood through high school and into university, the public service and ultimately, me. He was different, he was a character, the sort of person people remember. I was mesmerised by him. I guess I still am.
I think it was John Donne who wrote that whatever dies is not mixed equally. There may be some relationships where love is equally balanced, but that is the exception. As the French say, ‘Il y a toujours l’un qui baise et l’autre qui tend la joue’ (There is always the one who kisses and the other who proffers the cheek).
I used to think that being the more loving one was the worse fate. All that effort for so little return. Always making excuses for the one we love, always hoping for better things. But now I am not so sure. Those who know themselves loved seem to be in a wonderful position. But I suspect it is not without its problems.
The one who loves, keeps on loving because she or he believes that love will somehow make everything right, that it will somehow create its own weather. For the other, who knows? They are possibly the more unhappy, thinking of others, longing for what might have been, feeling guilty, who knows?
Love does not make everything right. We make as many mistakes through love as through hate. Perhaps the best that can be said of love is that it can make failure bearable.
In any marriage, in every family, someone must supply the imagination. For a long time, ours was Tim’s. ‘I can’t believe he is dead’ said the postie when I told him that Tim had died. ‘He always seemed so alive’. A friend said my husband was the most intense person she ever knew. Increasingly, though, his life was a performance.
It’s said to be the key diagnosis that a marriage is in trouble – when communication breaks down. The thing is, when your marriage is weird enough, you do not even notice that communication has broken down. It simply becomes the norm.
He really did have an awful childhood. Was that the reason so much went wrong? I raised this possibility with a friend. ‘That’s what they all say’, she said, although blaming his childhood was not something Tim ever did. But it’s true, you can usually find the beginnings of what went wrong in childhood.
In Tim’s case, it was all pretty tough. He grew up in western Sydney in the 1950s. His little deaf mum struggled to deal with five kids and a Greek husband who worked on the iron-ore ships and was often away at sea. His Dad died when Tim was nineteen. He searched for the lost father all his life.
He told me once that working class life made you deal with the world as it was. He was the eldest, the charmed one, but the charm didn’t last. He had to create himself from the inside out. There were fights with his Mum, fights with the siblings, fights with his Dad. Once, his Mum threw his home-made radio into the street. His younger brother, who by the time they were teenagers was taller and stronger than he was, beat him when they confronted each other, so he stopped fighting, at least in that way. He loved music and played the piano well, but for the life of him he couldn’t dance. In fact, he never danced. He worked obsessively right through his adolescence. His angry Greek Dad made him study by candlelight. Was it then that he learned to manipulate? Not to trust?
I blame myself. I should have been smarter, stronger. I should have realised how much he was suffering. Why did I not realise this? The house-husband role seemed such a good arrangement, at least for a while. I worked to keep us all afloat while he did his writing, the childcare and the housework.
But he did not have enough contact with others. As the years went by, our conversations, once so rich, began to fall away. There was often only silence when I told him what had happened during the day, my observations on the trivia of life. As though the words had bounced off him, or that he heard them only from some deep internal obsession from which he found it hard to emerge. Any conversation he initiated seemed to be a means to an end. It was hard to know what that ‘end’ was.
There was constant stress in living with him, periods of calm followed by bouts of explosive irritation, or verbal attacks. He would make me so angry I could scarcely speak. It was only after many years that I realised that making me angry was his way of diverting my attention away from the many things he did not want to talk about.
Are all poets mad? Along the way, (as I discovered after he died) he would photocopy passages from my notebooks, which, never suspecting he would read them (he never seemed that interested) I had unwisely left on my bedside table.
Once, in agony after enduring another of his outbursts, trying to make sense of inexplicable statements, I wrote
All poets are bastards
Poets are not even writers.
Never marry a poet.
‘Charming’, he had written on the photocopy he made and filed away. He dated it, too, no doubt anticipating divorce. I had enough strength to stay, but not enough to leave.
I worked hard to confront the demons that were within him, until I realised I was in danger of making them my demons, too. I’m not sure what grieving the loss of the perfect partner, or even one that was more or less ok would be like. Would getting through it be easier, or harder?
How am I going to remember him? There is no sense of him around the house even though it was where he spent most of his time. Is this normal? It is hard to accept. How to think about, let alone mourn, a relationship so difficult, so complicated? But it is the truth that sets us free. And the truth, painful as it is, must be confronted.
The reason that there is so little here, apart from the files and the books and the memorabilia, is because for years, he was not really here. How do I want to remember him? A presence, a voice in the head? A feeling? The good times early on, preserved in photos? Going on trips together? We may crave deathbed words of healing and comfort. The problem is, it is the relationship over the years that shapes the relationship at the end.
The state is implacable and affects an infuriating precision in relation to notifications. After his death, I have to go to the solicitor to sort out some issues. I bring along our marriage certificate for the receptionist to photocopy. ‘It’s a long document’, she says, struggling to fit it onto the platen. ‘It was a long marriage’, I say. ‘That’s ok if it was a good one’, she replies. ‘Good and bad’, I say.
Perhaps all grieving is different, because every relationship is different, as all marriages are different. I recently met a lady in her eighties whose husband had died 23 years before. ‘What was it like, the mourning?’ I asked her. ‘Up and down’, she said. I wondered whether her marriage had been a happy one, a truly happy one. Perhaps then, particularly if (as I calculated) her husband had probably died in his sixties, the grieving work is a little easier, because there is so much companionship to cherish. On the other hand, maybe the process is all the harder, as happy times have come to an end. With my marriage, although we both (for different reasons) fought for his life, I have had to accept that, at least from my husband’s point of view, the relationship had died long before.
Ah, marriage! I am at a complete loss to know why, as an institution, it continues to be so popular. Why did the LGBTQI folk want to share with us heteros this basket of pain, this pannier of woe? I guess they just wanted the right to have their hearts broken in the same way as the rest of us. Good luck with it, guys.
Most of us want to marry of course. I certainly did. But in its current form, turned into the apotheosis of just about everything, marriage has become the receptacle of impossible expectations. Partners must be lovers, and helpers, and parents and carers and sympathisers – not only for short periods, but as and when required, for a very long time.
I really admire those who pull out of bad marriages, even when they know there is no hope of achieving anything better. At least they have made a statement, even if it is too late in the day to make another life. I have heard of marriages brought to an end, usually by the wife, after forty years, sometimes more. In each case, the husband quickly remarried, while the woman remained on her own. Was her freedom worth the price she paid for it, I wonder? Being an adult means taking responsibility for one’s own decisions. Even so, it is hard to know what to do for the best.
The writing of poetry
Whatever I said or did not say, I never impugned his poetry, for the writing of poetry was the task closest to his heart. He was, in his own eyes, Australia’s poet. Maate, I felt like saying, Australians don’t want poets. We haven’t suffered enough. Or perhaps we have, but in the wrong way.
Many of his poems were good, some very good. They were as authentic as billy tea made with sweet creekwater. Then, when the delusions started, they went off. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?’ Yes, I would. No authentic art can come from delusion. All that yearning for another woman so distant she may as well not have existed.
What does ‘wife’ say? ‘That was the way he was’? Not this wife! Such a waste!
Who knows about time? Einstein perhaps? I think he said that space and time are fused together. But he was referring to the cosmos. Our human time seems very different. We perceive that time ticks by, carrying our minds and our bodies inexorably forward into a future we may anticipate, but can never know. The only time of which we are truly aware is the past, which by definition, has gone from us. Yet we can, like Proust, go in search of lost time. When we do this, we learn that human time is not linear after all: our memory creates a new kind of relativity. Time folds back on itself and then, if we persist, it folds back on itself again. As we write about the past, it changes. We change.
I have many photos of my late husband, but am not sure what they mean. What was he actually thinking – then – and then? There he is, sitting on a bench with his walking stick by his side; it is the last day of the 2015 year. He is sad, I wish I could reach out to him. But when you don’t know what’s wrong, how do you do that?
On our own
There are so many of us, women on our own, I mean. We are isolated by divorce, by bereavement, by life itself. You will see us on bus trips, in churches, playing the pokies, doing volunteer work. I remember my Mum saying, after Dad died, that she was alone, but not lonely. Now I know exactly what she meant.
Sometimes, us widows just have to learn to be a man, or at least we have to be a man in the traditional understanding of the word, meaning we take it on the chin, tough it out. Equally, at times, men have to learn to be a woman, which means a different kind of toughness. (If they think that is a fate they don’t want to know about, then that is their problem).
At their best, there is a certain crustiness about men. Unfortunately, their training, at least in the Anglo world, robs them of the ability to communicate. They are (still) not allowed to cry, certainly not in public. They don’t talk much. Australian men of my generation are almost aphasic. No one has ever taught them how to make conversation, and now it is too late. I fear that many boys will continue to learn to hate and fear women. Why? We are people, just like them. Hmm, but then the boys have so many problems, don’t they?
Being on your own is not so bad. There is a kind of simplicity about it. There is no one to blame when things go wrong, no one to consult. If the phone or the car keys or the reading glasses go missing, they are exactly where I have left them. I have to learn to do the things my husband used to do. Like mowing the grass, clearing the gutters, operating the barbeque. I have finally worked out how to program the microwave.
I will never forget him, of course. He was both avoidable and inevitable. One good thing, is that I am understanding a little more about myself each day. Perhaps, by the time I die, I will be perfectly wise.
Is this, post-marriage, grieving state, a kind of freedom? Let me try out the idea. Freedom is like cold rainwater, like magpies singing. But all freedom comes at a price. We can never know whether that price is too much or too little. That is what freedom means.