Life after death

Neil Gaiman was asked how he wanted to be remembered.  His reply is here: in short, he’d like people to discover his works and find kindred spirits.

Alexander Stewart was my uncle.  I called him ‘Smart Alec’: it was partly because it was slightly rude and I could get away with it – a very rare event for me to get away with misbehaviour.  It was also partly because I idolised this uncle who was more like an older brother than an uncle, in his teens while I was starting school.

My parents had a very messy, bitter separation that ended with me being taken out of a school for the visually handicapped that was close to both parents’ homes and sent to a school over an hour away by public transport, where I used to have to get to the bus and catch a bus then walk a kilometre or so then wait for the teachers to arrive at the school – when I was five years old.  There was no disability access, no concessions to my difficulties with seeing at all.  After school my step-father regularly forgot to collect me, so the teachers took it in turns to wait with me, call my father then wait for him to collect me at the end of the day.

Things got worse.  Neither parent wanted me.  I went to live with my grandmother when I was 6, and started my third school in two and a half years, but this one was literally at the end of Grandma’s street.

My strongest memories of the next few months all revolve around Alec.  Alec, Donny, Beryn, Mary – my uncles and aunt, teenagers except Beryn who had a brain tumour and was a young adult – and I all went to the Bellerive fort, a 19th century anti-Russian-invasion defence post, to explore.  As teenagers with a child in tow are wont to do, we broke the rules.  We climbed down into a pit and they pulled the cover across the hole, then pretended they couldn’t open it again.  At first I was confident we were ok, but they kept playing.  Alec stood quietly off to one side after an interchange between Alec and Donny, Alec not participating, which helped me hold out for a while but eventually the others succeeded in making me, a 6 year old, absolutely terrified and hysterical.  Alec stepped in as soon as I started screaming and made them stop, even though Donny wanted to keep on going.

Alec took me fishing off the Bellerive jetty.  I caught a starfish and I wouldn’t touch it.  He told me if I didn’t touch it, he’d throw it back.  I refused to touch it, so he threw it back.

When we went to Grandpa’s shack, Alec took me fishing.  I caught a bass. We didn’t have a bucket so Alec said I had to carry it back to the house with my fingers in its gills.  If I didn’t, he said he’d throw it back.  I carried it back to the house with my fingers in its gills. I was so proud of my tiny fish I wanted to share it with everyone.  They said no, I could have it for breakfast, but I negotiated to share it with Alec.

That night Alec was ill.  Really ill.  He had a history of illness and hospitalisations, but this was a serious turn for the worse.  Alec started foaming at the mouth – literally.  I remember being still and quiet, terrified, just observing Grandpa and Alec. Grandpa was really worried and wanted to get Alec to hospital straight away.  I think he might have even talked about getting Alec flown out as we were several hours’ drive from the hospital.  Alec made everyone stop, he calmed everyone down.  Alec told Grandpa to ‘look at the child.’  Everyone became quiet and pretended to act like everything was ok.  I was sent to bed and held out for as long as possible, trying not to sleep while people were hovering and checking to see if I’d fallen asleep yet.

The next day I got up all excited about sharing my fish with Alec.  Grandma cooked my fish for breakfast but Alec wasn’t there to share it with me.  She told me Grandpa had driven Alec to hospital the previous night.

Shortly after that, we all returned to Hobart, where Grandma and Grandpa lived.  Not long after I was told Mum was coming, and I got all excited about seeing her – after all, I hadn’t seen her in months, not since before Christmas, not since before my 6th birthday.  Mum didn’t show up when she was expected.  I think this might have happened a few times.

One day Donny and Beryn took me to the school grounds to play golf.  I remember trying to swing clubs sized for adults and trying to control these teeny tiny balls.  At least you start with the club touching the ball, it increased my chances of hitting it.  (They didn’t bother trying to get me to play any other ball sports.)

After playing golf we walked back home.  Walking in the back door I found Mum in the living room with my step-father and their twin boys.  I was so excited, I rushed up to Mum for a hug.  Mum did not hug me, she told me to be quiet and move away because she was busy showing off the boys to everyone.  I went back to live with Mum and my step-father.

I discovered Mum and Jim had moved to St Marys on the east coast of Tasmania, then later that year we moved to St Helens.  We visited Hobart regularly.  Visiting Alec was always the highlight of these trips for me.

One visit I discovered Alec had been taken out of the children’s ward and put into a ward with old men.  I vaguely remember some kind of adult conversation between Mum and Grandma about that – Mum was concerned.  It wasn’t as much fun visiting Alec there, in a ward with 3 grown men and having to be quiet.  I liked taking Alec for walks even if we had to put him in a wheelchair, but I was always happy to just see him.

Alec asked me to pass him his records that hung at the foot of his bed.  He looked at them, flipping through his charts.  A nurse came in and caught us both.  She told us off, but Alec in particular.  He wasn’t supposed to look at his own medical records.

One day I went to visit Alec in the ward.  No adults were in the ward with us.  Alec told me the man in the bed opposite was dead.  I was scared; not as scared as when the others tricked me into believing that we were trapped in the pit, but scared nonetheless.  Death?  What was death to a 7 year old?  A vague thing that happened to animals that got hit on the roads…  Alec told me not to be afraid.  He told me to go and look at the dead man.  I loved Alec, I worshipped him, and I was used to being ordered around, so I did as I was told.

I walked across the room and stood between the bed and the window, facing the bed.  I wasn’t much taller than the height of the bed as the strangely coloured yellow-skinned man (not Chinese) was more or less on face level.  At Alec’s urging I looked at this man and kept looking at him.  He looked like he was peaceful, almost sleeping, although he wasn’t breathing.    I stood there until my fear had subsided, then Alec told me I could come back over and talk to him.  We talked, while I remained conscious that there was a dead man in the bed opposite.

A nurse came in to the ward, took one look at me and FREAKED OUT.  They didn’t realise a CHILD was visiting the ward with a dead man lying on a bed exposed to full view.  Suddenly the nurses were at action stations.  The curtains were pulled around the bed.  At least two nurses rushed in and begain fussing over the dead man, carrying on behind the curtain and flicking the curtain around.  Alec sat back, satisfied, then Mum came in and collected me.  I was rushed out the door.

In the September holidays shortly before my 8th birthday Mary and Donny came to visit, bringing me my birthday present from Alec.  Alec always gave me my presents himself and on time, never early.  Mary and Donny both looked really sad.  Fear struck my heart but I didn’t say anything, I didn’t ask any questions.

Later Mum told me we were going to visit Hobart.  My first reaction was to jump up and shriek, ‘Oh, goody! We’re going to visit Alec!’

Mum said no, we weren’t.  Alec was dead.

Stunned silence.

After a moment I started to cry.

‘It’s no use crying about it.  He’s been dead for six months.’

Mum stood with her back to a window in the north-east corner of the lounge room, silhouetted by the light, her features obliterated by the light around her.  In that moment Mum truly became a monster in my eyes.  That single callous act did more to damage my relationship than any beating Mum ever gave me, not even the time she whipped me with a plastic car track until I was a mass of bruises from my lower back to my knees.

I’ll skip over everything that followed, only to say that it took years before I realised Alec made me look at the dead man to prepare me for his death.  When I was a teenager I remember Mum saying she didn’t even know if Alec knew he was going to die, that Grandma and Grandpa kept so much of what was going on a secret.  Alec knew all right, and he gave me both the gift of knowing he knew, knowing that, to some extent, he accepted his death, and knowing that he looked after me yet again by trying to prepare me for his death.

Fast forward to January 2000, 24 years later.  One of my half-brothers rang me to tell me his son had been born.  His name was Michael Alexander.  My immediate response was delight that Sean named his son Alexander – and I told him that he had an uncle called Alexander.  Sean was pissed off. I was the last person in our shared family to have been told about the birth of the new boy, and every single person my age or older had said the same thing.  Sean insisted that his son was named after someone in his wife’s family, NOT after my Smart Alec.

Of course my brothers and sister didn’t remember Alec, but this was a rude reminder of how fleeting our existence is, how ephemeral memory is. I started to think about how few people in history are remembered, how inadequately and for how short a period of time.  If we’re not going to be remembered, then what is the point?  There is no form of immortality, not even in memory.  How then to justify this brief period of life, our brief time on this mortal coil?

I hope that, by making a contribution, making the world a better place, by making a difference in the lives of others for good and not for ill, that I can justify my brief existence on this fragile planet.  Not to be remembered but to have some kind of justification.

This is why I studied counselling and I tried to make a difference in people’s lives.  My career ended abruptly at the Salisbury Community Health Centre after being refused disability access and being replaced by a student social worker with no professional practice but who played tennis with one of the managers.  I tried to pursue a different path in life, including applying to universities to complete a social work degree, to do a creative writing, editing and publishing course.  I keep being knocked back.  I’ve been unemployed for 6 years – only 10 days of paid work in over 6 years – but I’m still here.  I’ve considered suicide as a viable option: it seems like every avenue is closed to me, every time I try to do something to make a difference, doors slam shut, echoing down the corridor of my life, but I’m still here.

I try to build Dark Matter, to work on something that will make a difference.  The stories I love best are ones that take us out of our humdrum lives, put us in far flung locations: deep space or alternate worlds.  By removing the emotional reaction intrinsically entwined with the here and now, these stories can discuss issues, debate ethics and philosophy in an attempt to exhort us to be better, more compassionate people, living more fulfilled lives.  When I find stories I think are doing this, I love to shout it from the rooftops – or from social media platforms.

I interview authors, to give them an audience outside their books, who may be interested in reading their books after listening to the interview.  This audience may be writing or creating themselves, and may be encouraged or may learn from these interviews.

In short, my goal is to make a difference.  I don’t expect to be remembered after I’m gone: my husband and two children will remember me, but I don’t expect anyone else to mourn my passing.  All I want is to make a difference in this short, brutal life to justify my existence.

 

 

Yeah… I know, ‘show don’t tell’.  But if I ‘showed’, it’d take a lot more words.  Would you have read a novella to get to this point? 😛 

13 Comments

  1. A remarkable story, and you’re brave for sharing. Thank you. I do not doubt that with that attitude, you will do more for this world than most people and will be remembered by more than just your immediate family.

      1. Kelly,My heart aches for you and your mums predicament. I know only too well the pain of hniavg someone with this exact disease. I had twin daughters and 1 got this hideous disease at just 28mths old. After 3yrs of treatment she relapsed & a bone marrow transplant from her twin was ordered. Alas, we were too late. Her disease was too advanced for a transplant to work. I urge everyone to register on the bone marrow donor list. Time is of the essence and people need our help. Thinking of you and your mumLove Jennifer.

    1. Alec died over 35 years ago, so the medical profession has changed a lot since then. He was treated in the Royal Hobart Hospital.

  2. A wonderful post, indeed. You’re definitely the kind of person that helps to change the world. With things like this, you change people, and when you change people, that’s when you change the world.

  3. I completely agree with the previous comments. A strong story, sharply written. Thank you.

  4. “make a difference ”

    I can’t understand how bad it was for you. 🙁

    But I am impressed by your positive attitude and having suffered through bouts of unemployment (just started another none) I know how tough that is – an as a white male with a degree I am playing on the easy setting.

    I am like you and what gets me out of the bed in the morning is that quote from favorite philosopher
    “make a difference ”

    1. Thank you. With your comment about playing on the easy setting, I’m assuming you also follow John Scalzi and possibly Jim Hines – I haven’t read their books yet but I love their blogs! I followed your link – Captain Kirk as philosopher? Mmmm :/ But he has a point. Stay where you can make a difference! 🙂

      1. I have 200+ on my TBR pile including Ursula Le Guin & Jack Vance, plus a wondrous prize that arrived in the mail. Scalzi isn’t even first cab off the rank, which is shame.

        I have a twitter list with neilhimself, jerirLyan, stross, doctrow, wilw & scalzi so I can follow them without my timeline exploding.

        “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.”

  5. Have you considered writing a novelization about that part of your life with Alex? Because I would buy it. I’m sure others would too.
    I’ll suggest a working title: follow in the dark
    You can make things up, or not. It’s your memory, and it’s beautiful and poignant. I Brought tears to my eyes.

    1. Thank you. Because I was not allowed to grieve for Alec as a child, I had to go through that process as an adult. During that process I put together a scrap book of memories and photos when I knew nothing about scrap-booking or what is available for that craft. This scrap book was way too big to be practical, so I started the process of compiling it into more of the size suitable for a coffee table book. It’s currently unfinished and in storage.

      I hadn’t thought about novelising the story though. I think maybe the combination of the scrapbook and the novel would work… Food for thought. Thank you very much.

Comments are closed.