Ease The Heart

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The funeral celebrant had been speaking for several minutes, but I wasn’t really listening. I could see his mouth opening and shutting, but my mind was elsewhere.

I snapped out of it as everyone else did, as the father of the dead young man rose to his feet and stepped to the lectern.

The bereaved family sat in the customary spot in the front row. Michael’s father was hidden from view until now. He hadn’t greeted the mourners and had probably been sitting on that front pew since the church opened some two hours ago. No one approached him. The force field of grief was too strong — it repelled all who would console him.

Dead silence greeted his opening remarks.

“When I became a father, I turned into a different person. I had a reason to get up in the morning. I went to work at a job I loathed, willingly. I was a father. My job was to provide and to protect. Everything I did had the welfare of my family at its core. I planned for the future for my only son.”

Michaels father stopped speaking and looked at the paper in front of him. Some of the gathered souls thought he would be unable to continue.

He struggled, through tear-filled eyes.

“Now, when I wake up in the morning, my day’s work is meaningless. I have no son to protect, and he has no future for me to plan for.”

Michael’s father stood silently for an agonising minute until the celebrant put his hand on the distraught father’s shoulder. He leaned in and whispered a question. Michael’s father gathered up his tear-stained sheet of paper and walked back to his seat and our hearts, which were already broken, ached even more.

The celebrant said a few more words, something about ‘gathering back at Michaels home after the burial’, but I’ve tuned out.

Funerals give me a headache, and this one is the size of eastern Europe. I want to be somewhere else, anywhere else, but good manners dictated that I wait for the family to follow the coffin out of the church.

Finally, I’m outside in the cold fresh air, and my eastern Europe headache has some room to move. I lean up against the bluestone walls of the church. This building would have been the centre of life for the local community some one hundred and fifty years ago. These days, it sees a bit of activity for weddings and funerals — mostly we have moved on from believing.

Conversations are scattered across the church’s forecourt. The mourners are deciding whether to go to the gravesite or head to the wake.

“I don’t like to get too close to an open grave at my age,” says the old lady next to me.

“Why didn’t you come into the service uncle?” says a young man, neatly and uncomfortably dressed.

“I don’t much like God when you get him indoors,” says the older man, opening a pack of cigarettes. He offers the pack to the young man who shakes his head.

I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn to see Michael’s father looking at me with dead eyes. Until this moment I have spoken maybe a dozen words to this man.

“James, I need your help.”

“What do you need me to do?” My mind went to the burial service — I really didn’t want to go to the cemetery or the wake. I need a drink, a large one followed by another large one.

“I want you to find who’s responsible for Michaels death. I know he respected you for all that you did.”

“You do know that I don’t do that anymore?” I was pleading with my eyes. If I hadn’t been jammed up against this bluestone wall, I would have been backing away.

“No one is doing anything. They all think it’s hopeless. You’re my only hope.”

I’ve heard this speech a dozen times, usually from distraught mothers or desperate siblings. Always the same hysterical tone, always the same wide eyes, hands clutching at my arms so that I can’t escape. If I get away, they know they’re doomed.

“I’m retired, and all my contacts have drifted away. Let the authorities do their job. It’s what they do, and they’re good at it,” I lied. I know it is hopeless, but I say the words anyway. His eyes are burning into me. He doesn’t speak, he’s said his piece, he’s just staring at me, his fingers digging into my arm.

“Look, the best I can do is ask around, see how the investigation is doing. But I’m not making any promises. I’ll just be asking the few friends I have left what they think. Best I can do.” My words are obviously thin and evasive, but Michael’s father sees them as hope. His eyes show a small sign of light, and I know that I’m being drawn back in. Back to that place that tried to kill what was left of me.

I understand, even if I know I won’t come up with the result he wants. This is Michael’s father’s way of being a protector, one last time.

Not that answers ever solved anything.

Not that knowing ever eased the heart.

I’ll go through the motions, ask all the right people, and when it’s all over, Michael will still be dead, and Michael’s father will still have no-one to build for. 

No-one to hope for.

  

Cousin.

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We grew up together in the way that cousins do.

We sometimes visited her house, but I don’t remember them visiting ours.

Mostly, we met up once a year on Christmas night at our grandmother’s house in North Fitzroy, just down the road from the Fitzroy Cricket Ground and even closer to the Lord Newry Hotel, although we were way too young to see the inside.

An added ‘meet up’ bonus would be the numerous weddings and christenings that my family were famous for, but mostly it was Christmas night.

While the aunties would do their best to outdo each other with a staggering array of food including cream cakes that were probably shortening our lifespan, we young ones would play and talk.

There were two waves of cousins.

The slightly older ones and us slightly younger ones.

One Christmas night sticks out above the blur of all the others.

It was probably 1968, and we were huddled in the small front room of my grandma’s double fronted Italianate Victorian house which, legend had it, was originally built for a doctor in the 1880s.

My grandfather bought it for his new bride from the profits generated by two fruit and vegetable shops. The house had two concrete fountains in the front yard which we climbed on when we were a lot younger. I harboured a desire to restore these fountains to their nineteenth century working glory.

Sitting in that small front room us cousins talked about our hopes and dreams and the phenomenon that was the TV show ‘Laugh In’. I was off to Teacher’s College the next year, and I was full of excitement, and I’m sure I spoke about my ambition.

Therese was a couple of years behind me, and of all the cousins she was the only one to go into teaching as I had.

Unlike me, she stayed in the profession and, by all accounts [her’s included], she loved her job. I can imagine the children loving her as well.

As the aunties and uncles died off, the family ‘jungle drum’ went quiet. Family news no longer reached me. Therese’s mum died quite young, and I missed the news of her father’s passing. He was probably my favourite uncle, and this made me sad.

I made an effort and tracked her down earlier this year, and we exchanged letters.

Yes, letters; she was distrustful of the internet and preferred ‘snail mail’.

Her handwriting was impeccable, as you would expect from a lifetime of teaching children how to write.

Unfortunately, our correspondence petered out after a while, and I left it at that as I felt that she wanted her privacy.

I planned to try again sometime this year, and possibly arrange to meet up for coffee.

On the way to visit our grandchildren, my wife noticed an entry in the newsletter that she receives from her old secondary school.

She did not want to leave it until she got home, so she texted me.

Therese had died suddenly in early November.

An email to another cousin revealed that she had been dead for three days when they found her.

This created a lot of questions which will only be answered after a Coronial inquiry.

I guess I missed her funeral and I could not find any reference to it in the newspapers.

The ‘jungle drums’ don’t reach me anymore, so my relatives live their lives and deal with their triumphs and tragedies without my participation.

In my head, we are still young and still sitting in that little room at the end of the 1960s, with our whole lives in front of us.

Therese never married and I have no idea if she had any near misses.

She leaves behind a brother and a sister, and she is reunited with her mum and her dad and a sister who died when she was twenty-one.

Sleep well cus’, I remember you.

 

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Life Goes On.

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After the First World War, small country towns in Australia were trying to come to terms with the dreadful loss of life. The people banded together and raised money for ‘memorials’ to those who served. Country towns felt the loss more intently due to their smaller population. My ‘little town’ which has become a suburb of Melbourne as its population expanded, has such a memorial park. The monument used to stand on the edge of the town but at some stage it was moved to this little park.

I have walked past this park countless times and I have sheltered in it on hot and rainy days.

The park looks a bit different now. This shot was taken in 2003 but the cockatoos are still around. They are not native to this area but they do enjoy being here. They come from an original population that was in cages at a local restaurant. They were set free during a particularly nasty bushfire in the 1960s. They drive a lot of people crazy but I like having them around, they are part of our fiery history.

The water tap you can see is a regular visiting place for me and my dogs, particularly in hot weather. We have walked a fair distance by the time we reach it and the dogs are often thirsty.

Sadly, the war memorial has been added to several times {Australian’s enjoy being involved in other people’s wars].

You cannot see it in this photo because it was not there then but the park has a poignant addition. It’s a small pine tree from the battleground that was Gallipoli. It’s a famous World War One battle that is Australia’s first major battle after we became a nation. The Turks were defending their native soil and fought ferociously. The little pine tree comes from a Turkish youth association showing that former enemies can be friends.