Sophie van Waardenberg
Bustle and Hum
When I was twelve – when I had already started to worry that my brother would one day fall off a cliff – my brother fell off a cliff. This is a funny story now, but it wasn’t at the time. My mother’s face broke apart when they told her over the phone.
Alexander had been wearing a helmet. He had been with people who liked caves, and also with my father, who wanted to show he was brave enough. They were climbing through damp bush down to Mercer Bay, and Alexander, who was fourteen and knew everything, followed a path that was not a path but instead a dried up river and somehow even when that river ran down the cliff face my brother followed it, and he fell seven metres into a rock pool.
I have had to imagine this rock pool for myself. I have imagined crabs, retreating into their shells at the abrupt appearance of my brother’s head, which I have imagined half-submerged, facing the sky, which I have imagined slate-grey and sorry-looking, because I can’t remember exactly the weather of the day.
In Starship Children’s Hospital they use yellow curtains with crustaceans and starfish on them to divide beds. The rooms are too warm, or at least they were seven years ago, and the beds are too small, but everyone seems to know what they are doing and how to be friendly while doing it.
Alexander, with his newly interrupted eyebrow and his bloodless face and his white rock of an arm and his legs overshooting the mattress, was perfectly safe. If anything went wrong he would be fixed. I brought playing cards to the hospital and dealt them for everyone, and when they didn’t play, when they were busy in adult worry, I played for them, indignantly, watching rescue helicopters land on the roof outside the window.
I have done a lot of my growing up in hospitals: never in a bed myself, but always watching the beds, watching nurses trying to find good places for their needles, taking blood, inserting drips, pressing cups of water into shaking hands. It has all become comfortable. When I am in a hospital, I am able to believe in the absence of mistakes. Time stops and we are safe.
My mother was the one who introduced me to hospitals. It was she who, when I was five, was thrown into the air by a speeding car on a median strip somewhere in the city. She told me she bounced across the road – like a rubber band ball, I assumed. I visited her, the plaster woman, and then I went to school and wrote my weekly story about her and drew my picture of her in the box above, a white crook for a leg.
Over the years, my mother would make the hospital her holiday home. She had her spine fused twice and I visited in my school uniform. My grandmother, who had driven me, sat in the corner, expecting a show of love between us. But I talked to my mother as I had always done – in short, non-committal phrases concerning homework or choir.
Hospitals are slow and sure places. They do not lead me to express sympathy or bring flowers. My concern has been dulled by the sight of a grandmother in a coma, her heart still beating, her limbs intact; a grandfather with motor neurone disease but each day seeming to me no worse than the day before.
On my twelfth birthday, I sat on the edge of a hospital bed with chocolate cake on my fingers. A few days before, my brother and I had been shut in a small room with warm light, and a doctor, who seemed young, told us that our father would die. He asked us if we had any questions. My brother asked him how long. The doctor said that of course, obviously, they could not be sure. A year or two. There were things they could do.
I spent no time imagining what would happen when the doctors stopped trying to push life into my father. All I had was what was next: the next round of chemotherapy, the next complication, the next change of plan. And if death seemed to approach too quickly, my fear departed when the ambulance arrived, each time perhaps taking a month away, but taking all the mess away, too. The hospital had sterile instruments and clean sheets, and would solve things for the time being.
When the hospital was replaced by the hospice I would run from maths and social studies, unable to make numbers or words work, unable to talk to my friends about their hockey or their birthdays or our exams, and ask to be taken to see my father, even though seeing him did not comfort me. All I wanted was the bustle and hum of mending and going on, if only temporarily. I wanted to make visitors cups of tea and to be asked how I was by people who were paid to care.
When my father died, on a November Saturday in the sun, we did not call the ambulance, because we had made plans for all of this to happen: the home death, swamped by hand sanitiser inside and rotting grapefruit outside. Earlier in the morning my father had stopped asking silly questions, like, ‘Why am I wearing a skirt?’ His lips were dry, and he lay very still with his brown striped flannel pyjamas buttoned neatly. We counted down his breaths. When we were wrong, we started again, from ten, and then five, until we stopped.
I didn’t know what to do with my hands or feet. I didn’t know what to look at, because the vanishing point had, itself, vanished. There was no hum and no bustle, only flowers that bloomed and died and were not thrown out. I wanted a nurse to come in and tuck the dead man’s sheet and tell me not to worry. Instead, we called the family doctor whose practice was down the road, and he came round to write the death certificate.
So the hospital does not mean death. The hospital means stasis, and power, and life, because in most hospital wards there are people working to ensure life continues. At the age of thirteen, I believed, or wanted to believe, that as long as we called an ambulance, someone would arrive who knew what to do.
I know that if I had been expected, in these situations, to take charge, if I had been the one to organise children and husband and job, to ensure survival or comfortable death and still emerge intact, I would not think so fondly of hospitals. I have not yet held such responsibility.
For me, grief was where the terror began. You cannot poke needles into a griever and expect her to mend. After years playing the role of the observer, I did not understand how to cope with my own fragility.
I was addicted to the idea of resurrecting my father, with whom, even in his last quiet days, I had only grudgingly spent more than an hour at a time. It is not that he was boring; it is that I was thirteen and tried to pretend he was. I had been embarrassed by his illness and frustrated by his absence from school awards assemblies until it was impossible to ever have him back. Never mind that he only humiliated me; sang in front of my teachers; offered to lend his records to near-strangers; ran backwards at athletics to make the slow children feel faster; frequently almost-died and left me standing outside school for hours in the dark waiting for a ride home from someone not otherwise engaged in his survival. His return would have been – would be – my most perfect miracle.
And so while I had flourished in the steadiness of my father’s palliative care, and in the urgent but neat episode of my broken brother, and in my mother’s chronic mending, I could not teach myself to recuperate. There is no real system in place for a mourning teenager.
I should not complain: uncomplicated (normal) grief, the Official Journal of the World Psychiatry Association says, does not kill or seriously maim. I never went to a doctor, so it is hollow to assume a doctor’s uselessness. But, then at thirteen or now at nineteen, I would not know how to begin such a consultation. A list of symptoms would be short: my mind is muddy, it is making me dizzy; to remember a time before this is hurting my ears and eyes, but I want so badly to remember; I cannot exhale because I am afraid to shift any part of my father that remains.
I was invited to participate in workshops for grieving youngsters. The workshops were given names like Clouds or Seasons, and there was always a story that explained why. You are a tree, and your leaves have fallen off, because that is what autumn does to you, I was told.
In one of the workshops, we crafted birds out of felt and pillow stuffing and explained them to the rest of the group. My bird has no colour, I said. It is black and white. My father was colourful, and he is gone. After I had explained my bird, I decided that my anger had not been helped by the exercise. I walked to the bus stop, and as I waited with my bird in my pocket, one of the black felt wings came unstuck.
With my hands empty, I craved the bustle and hum that hospitals had provided, the surge of stethoscopes and syringes working to provide comfort if not life. There is no danger in uncomplicated grief, though the obsession it stirred in me, not only for resurrection but for accounts of others’ grief, might have been dangerous. I do not understand how to move on from it, or how anyone does. To dwell in one’s own sadness, turning it over and over until everything is wrung out for a while, is not recommended by many. It is the only thing I know to do as a griever. I do not know how to get better, except by immersing myself in this other bustle and hum of fellow mourners, their own losses incomparable to mine; their expressions of grief still so comforting.
Five years into my father’s absence, I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, about the year following the author’s husband’s sudden death, and how she tried to bring him back – how she fully expected him to return. ‘I was thinking as small children think,’ Didion wrote. She could not give his shoes away, because he would need them to wear on his feet when he came back. We could not throw my father’s shirts away, not after months, not after years, and although he wanted us to sell his viola to pay for university, we could not do that either.
We kept receiving calls from people – telemarketers, maybe, or collectors from various charities to which we donated – asking for my father. Each time, if the phone was in my hand, I stopped breathing, and if the voice on the other end kept asking, I would run my fingers over the mouthpiece as if I were answering from a wind tunnel, far away.
A week before my nineteenth birthday, I sat in the second row of the Civic Theatre to see Sufjan Stevens sing songs he wrote after the death of his mother. Mostly when he sang he stood still, lit brightly, encircled by unheld stringed instruments. ‘Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow,’ he sang. I was close enough to see his face. I felt as if I were intruding.
I didn’t mean to bring my father with me to this concert; he slipped in without a ticket. Though dead, he held my hand like he had when I was eight, when we sat in those seats together. And though the Civic is only a facade of hollow plaster, and though everyone in the audience held illicit snacks in their laps or dusty plastic wine glasses in their hands, in my undistractable grief I found my father everywhere – in the lions with their cheap green eyes and in the inanimate stars that smother the theatre ceiling. My father was the first to point them out to me.
It is difficult, or impossible, to go on living without everything reminding me of my father. I am bored of the memories. I am tired of the weight they carry.
The first death notice in the newspaper was written by my father himself. It said something like, ‘Hello from the unknown!’ This was frowned upon by his sisters and his closest friends.
After the funeral I wanted more funerals. I could not handle silence, the anticlimax from commemoration and celebration like a slow-wrinkling balloon. I wanted every day to be that full church – they had to set up a projector screen and lay chairs out on the wiry carpet downstairs to seat the overflow of removed cousins and estranged friends.
When my father was planning the funeral, he asked his best friend to perform the dead parrot sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the one with the shopkeeper who insists the parrot he sold, which is stiffly deceased, is merely ‘pining for the fiords’. His friend performed half of it; he could not finish. It did not help that the sketch calls for two people.
Sophie van Waardenberg is a University of Auckland student on exchange at King's College London. Her poetry and prose has been published in Starling, Ika, Takahē, Signals, and The Adroit Journal. In 2016 she was runner-up in the Monash Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize.