Layers and layers

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, or if it’s a condition of my circumstances, or simply the fact that I’ve been around a while now and there’s a lot behind me, but more and more frequently I find myself pausing to recall things from long ago. On occasion, it seems the memories come to me randomly, without seeming cause.

I was reading a book in bed one night recently, and the memory came to me sitting in a bus in Turkey listening to Nick Drake on my iPod as the bus curled between woody hills on the way to Bodrum or Marmaris, one or the other, and it was like I was there again. You can see it, though it’s gone, and remember what you felt at such a time – anticipation, curiosity, a content tinged with melancholy. Surely all this means something?

A few weeks back, I wrote about my uncle. In the lead-up to that, I’d been reminiscing with a friend on the phone. We went to school together, and our journeys since have intertwined, though he lives in Sydney. We share many memories and often prod each other with recollections “hey, do you remember when…”

In that conversation, he recalled my aunties 50th birthday in the early nineties. She lived in Sydney, and the party was held at the plush home of a lifelong friend somewhere in the eastern suburbs. It’s funny the things you remember. I recalled getting my hair cut the afternoon before the party at a barber in Gordon. And I remember wearing an orange Country Road shirt to the party. I had forgotten, but my friend remembered how I gifted my aunt a walking stick for her birthday, as a joke – the jokes on me, these days. I have dim memories of the party itself, though I remember I was drawn to the host’s daughters, one dark and mysterious and vaguely provocative, and the other more conservative and shy.

After I hung up the phone to him, the residue of that memory remained with me and set off others. There was a particular memory that teased at me, so that I returned to the very early days of this blog, even though the memory pre-dated the start of this by a year. I think I just wanted to go back. It explains why I bother to write these things down. I want them recorded, aware that it’s self-indulgent and that it will mean very little once I’m gone. I’m still here, though, and I want these things captured, and so this blog becomes more than just a record of things happening – the stray thoughts and happenings, the hapless conjectures and ruminations. It becomes an aide-memoire.

It was my uncle I was thinking of. He died not long after his 50th birthday from lung cancer in the early 2000s. He was living with my aunt then, his elder sister, who had moved to the Sunshine Coast when she retired. He was a lovely man, my uncle, and I can still recall his gruff voice on the phone and his oddly emphatic ways. His life, or so it seemed to me, always hoping for more but ending up with very little, living in the shadows.

My father called when my uncle died and demanded that I go up and join them for the funeral. I thought nothing of it as I wanted to be there – I believed that I should be – but it stands out now as odd that he never made the same demand of my sister.

In the days before the funeral, the family gathered. There was a balmy night we all went out for dinner, sitting in the fading light as it became dark. My dad and I clashed. It was not unusual, and not unusually others had to step in. We were like the old bull and the young bull, always. I think he resented that I wouldn’t do what he said, let alone agree with him, and thought I was irresponsible and headstrong and probably disrespectful as well. I resented the fact he thought he could – or should – control me.

The funeral was a sad thing. No more than 20 people turned up, and my uncle’s children weren’t among them. My dad gave a eulogy for his baby brother, and, for me, it was a startling moment. Partway through, he broke down. He tried to continue through the tears and then waved it off, unable to go on. I had never seen my father like that – never in tears, never even vulnerable. He was always a man so much in control and hard with it. It was the first time I’d ever seen him unable to complete something, and it came as a revelation.

The wake was back at my aunt’s small unit, in the courtyard behind. Back there, my dad reverted to type, stiff and with something withheld, while I, much more socially adept (thanks to my mum), flitted between the family I didn’t know as if I was the host. The wine flowed, stories were told.

I think it was the next year that my aunt got sick with cancer also. This time I travelled up alone. I was her executor and had power of attorney. I don’t remember much of that visit, but what I remember is driving her tiny car into the car park of the regional hospital she’d been admitted to. It was a warm day, and I delayed a moment sitting in the car to listen to Makybe Diva win the Melbourne Cup (I’d backed it) before entering the hospital to visit my dying aunt.

She died about two months later. By then, she was in Melbourne, in a hospice, close to family. My memories of that are vague – my friend remembered much more. I remember I was in Fiji when we heard she had become critical. By the time I returned, she had passed away. I remember nothing at all about the funeral, nor afterwards. I remember visiting a doctor a few days later and being told I had contracted malaria, and I remember the fevered dreams that had led me to his office.

It’s funny the things you remember, and the things you forget. Is there any rhyme or reason for it? Is there a meaning?

These are scattered memories, but many of these moments are vivid to me. Some might well have been in the last year they’re so fresh. But you look back, and regardless of how vivid, you see them in a different light. These things happened. You were there, and it unfolded, but now you look back, and it’s done, and from these moments, other moments, unimagined at the time, sprung forth. And they too are history, as is everything leading up to this moment, now, as I type these words.

You see it all, the people who have gone, remember what you thought and felt and how you reflect on it now, like refracting mirrors. It must mean something? All this must count for something? How can it not? But then, you know it doesn’t. These are random moments and episodes in a universe of random moments and episodes. They just happen. You know there is no meaning, only that which you give to it all these years after. And when I’m gone…

What is the weight of living life? Each of us carries forward a lifetime of moments. They’re rich and diverse and magical in their variety. We share them, even with people who have gone – how vividly I recall living with my aunt in her Watsons Bay apartment when I was just out of my teens – the sunshine and the harbour and the cold drinks at night and the croissants on a Sunday morning. But it is long since gone, and she dead near 20 years.

Most of this is lost, ultimately. All the stories, all the memories, every poignant moment, each seminal decision, all the hope and fear, all the dreams and possibilities, terminated.

It sounds bleak, but it’s just a statement of fact – or fact as I know it. It feels such a foreign reality, though I suspect we all know it. What I remember is probably quite different from what my father remembers, for example, and I know that I remember different parts to what my friend does. All of it, abruptly, recalls Slaughterhouse-Five in my memory – yes, that is how the synapse zing – but specifically, the wisdom that “All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.”

I made an oblique reference to that yesterday, but all it proves, really, is that I overthink everything – but it’s true, when you’re like that, you can hardly imagine being any other way, and wanting to. I’m the type to wonder at the fantastic nature of life, of which this is a part. Whether it means anything or not, surely it’s incredible? And that may explain my need to explain it, futile as it is, and record it because I was here.

But then, there is another quote from Slaughterhouse-Five that is more comforting and gives a different perspective:

“…when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

I sit here writing about people who have gone, fully conscious of the weight of it all, and knowing – most likely – that one day I will be gone too, and someone else may write of me in the same way. I’ll be past caring, but at least, I expect, some of my words will live on, and perhaps these words, always exist.

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