My own plays, personal, The Red Book Series

on death and grief and my grandmother

Today it is six months since a little old lady died in a quiet country hospital with her family surrounding her.  She meant the world to me.  Because of the date and because I’ve been thinking about it all weekend and because I dreamed last night that I tried to call her and couldn’t because I had deleted her number from my phone, I am posting this.  Back to politics and theatre shortly.  

This is a series I started back when I first studied at VCA: when I completed a journal I would go through and select extracts from them.  Usually they would be bits of plays and notes from classes but this one here is December 2012-January 2013 and my beloved Grandmother’s death became the dominant theme.  It just so happened that the play I was writing at the time for Quiet Little Fox, Unicorn is also a lot about death so this one has become a very special document for me, juxtaposing my fictional representation of two children dealing with their fathers’ deaths with my own experience of sitting at my grandmother’s death bed and writing a record for my sister on the other side of the world.  

Photos by Sarah Walker. She photographed and filmed the funeral for my sister on the other side of the world.

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The Red Book Series, Part Five

November 19th, 2012 to January 21st, 2013

–      Unicorn, driving to Kit’s father’s funeral (a bit that was cut)

KIT  We paused for three hours for mum to nap with her head lolling back against the seat. Without the car engine, the landscape was filled with the loudest silence I’d ever heard.  Insects and tiny creatures, seduced each other with chirrups and pheromones.  It was a sex-filled night.  A virile night. Two dark little rodent things chased each other across the car bonnet, their rice-grain claws sounded like the world’s tiniest rain fall on a tiny tin roof.  They fell off the edge in a bundle of fur and squeaking passion.  ‘That’s it,’ I thought, ‘that’s what God intended for dads: just one tropical night of frenzied lust and then they were meant to disappear back into the jungle.  If we knew this was the deal from day dot, we wouldn’t be here now.’

–      Unicorn, after Kit has become a girl

Cut to a cloud of insects rising into the air. The girl Kit watches their flight from the asphalt and counts herself lucky that there are no senior boys left and that children’s fists bleed almost as fast as faces and they file into the classroom and show and tell is shown and told and laughter is laughed and scabs scab and are picked and bleed and scab again.  So on to infinity.

Or-  Or it is geography and the Girl Kit sits in the front row and is so, so… aware of the bodies pressing in behind her and she pretends to study the map of the Northern Territory on page 46 of the text book.

And there she sits, tracing the course of the Stuart Highway with her finger, which makes the long trek from Darwin to Alice Springs in seconds and then skips across deserts and jungles to follow the Darwin River from birth to death.  And for that moment she is a giant of colossal proportions, not a skinny girl bleeding a little from here – and here – and here – while – a tiny teacher in front of her miniscule blackboard, pretends not to see.

–      Unicorn, Alba waiting for her father to die (a bit that was cut)

ALBA  Here is me, Alba, a nine year-old with a bowl-cut, roaming the halls of the Royal Darwin Hospital.  For a year, I am invisible.  Mum forgets she has a daughter.  She doesn’t send me to school.  Doesn’t feed me often.  I slip into wards.  I watch old men getting bathed.  Their skin hanging from their skeletons.  Their filmy eyes.  Their weeping bedsores.  I walk along corridors, peering into every open door.  I see people at their most undignified, caught standing with pants around their ankles as grumpy nurses change their damp sheets.  I am present at five deaths.  Three are quiet.  A gentle letting go.  Two are loud with doctors and nurses and defibulators.   No one sees me seeing.

–      Note to myself on Unicorn’s structure

Okay, so- okay.  We are getting to the part of the story that’s hard to explain… all those bodies that weren’t even bodies… breathe.

–      In Granny’s room.  December 21st, 2012. 

–      3.08am

There’s this smell in the room.  I keep smelling my clothes, the blankets wrapped around me and breathing into my hands.  It is so all-pervasive that I don’t know how my body and breath aren’t rank with it. To call it a smell of death makes it too significant.  Perhaps it is nothing more than the breath of an old lady who has not cleaned her teeth in days.  She tells me her mouth tastes like the bottom of a cocky’s cage.   Well told.  She is sleeping now.  On each wrist is her name, address and date of birth which was many years ago.  On each leg is pain relief….

I am writing this so that you might feel a little closer although, in many ways, I think nothing could make you feel more absent than reading this but, if you want it, it is here for you.

–      5.49am

So I was doing okay.  Light happened and I realized that outside our window is honeysuckle and roses.  But then I realized that the light means this night is ending and this will probably be the last few minutes I have alone with my Granny.  The nurse just came in and woke her.  She woke when her name was called.  But was pretty incoherent because of the morphine.  She went back to sleep as soon as she was able so the pain must be okay.  The nurse had night breath so maybe that is the smell of a hospital at night: not death but all of our collective teeth calling out for sleep and Colgate and sunlight.

–      8.33am

This is the face I am wearing today.  It is red and white and its mouth won’t work and its eyes won’t work.

There is never a moment when they say ‘this is it.  This is the last lucid moment she’ll have.  Say it.  Say it now. Tell her how loved she is.’  That moment raced past us because it was so full of pain.  Such a moment can only be full of pain because that’s what it takes to get that much morphine.  So much that lucidity disappears.  You only spot that last moment in retrospect.  I realized at about 6.15am that 2.30am had been that moment.  It happened and now it is gone.  I missed it.  I am so sorry for all that love I didn’t profess at that moment.  Or in the ambulance.  I kept thinking there would be another.

–      3.05pm

I am becoming aware of the multitude of textures that a breath can have. Studying the minutia of movements under the skin.  There are such big pauses between breaths now.  Each sentence I write is interrupted to listen.  Mum, Hannah and Lorraine are singing ‘Away in a manger’ and the little hospital continues to move.  Rough country voices, smoothed by love, rise and fall in the corridors around us.

In my sister Hannah’s handwriting: And Fleur is very pale.

–      4.21pm

9-10am was my breakdown.  Hannah took me home.  I showered, ate for the first time since midday yesterday, felt instantly sick and went a bit demented for a while.  I ended up bringing back photos and a letter from you.  It reads like this:

“Dear Granny, I like reading books with you.  I like having cake with you.  I like looking at flowers with you.  I like going to get a haircut when it’s a bit long.  I’m picking out pictures of flowers for you.  Nothing else.  Love Emily.  I’m sticking a bit.  I’d stick another bit just here.’  Mum’s handwriting.  Your beautiful words.

–      5.50pm

I was hoping it would happen in daylight.  The evening sunshine is still beautiful but I think she will outlast it.  She is actually breathing more regularly now although each one is an indescribable gurgle but she is in no pain.  She is definitely past hearing us now and doesn’t stir when touched.

Do it with the daylight, Granny.

–      Funeral Notice

Florence May Rogers, ourbeloved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.  She gave us the great gift of love.  With deep and endless gratitude, Nancy, David, Emily, Hannah, Fleur, Rosie and Roy.

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–      Extracts from her eulogy

It is so often said that in aging we become the very essence of ourselves. Our personalities are distilled to their purest form and this was certainly true of my grandmother.  In this last year her memory was beginning to disappear, her mobility decreased dramatically and she was in a lot of pain but she never for a moment stopped being Florence May Rogers: messy, hospitable, generous, mistrustful of doctors, stubborn, independent, warm and welcoming. As her grandnephew said this week “she was everyone’s soft spot to fall.”

In this last year her world shrunk.  It narrowed until it was the size of the kitchen table and her chair in the living room, the dog’s bowl, her seat on the bus at Probis trips, the kettle, the chocolate draw, the bed.  She ceded more and more rooms of the house to her aging but she accepted this with great grace because, more than anything else, my grandmother wanted to remain in her own home and she did what she had to to make this possible.   …

In the end, my grandmother both aged and died with grace.  She lovingly accepted the help that was offered and was so, so brave.   In the emergency room she held her hankie but never used it.  She said ‘I am ready to die’ and ‘they tell me I have a skin cancer on my nose.  I suppose that doesn’t matter now.’

Granny, goodbye and thank you so, so much and to mis-quote Dylan Thomas: ‘go gently into that good night.’

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–      Unicorn, in the cemetery

ALBA   I was thinking how – when you die and when you love your family as much as our dads loved us – how dying must be like – like you were reading this really amazing book and – like – you were really into the story and you knew all the characters as well as you knew yourself and then someone came along and tore out the ending.  Like, you know these characters – people you love – are going to go on and on into the future but you’ll never read it.  The ending. And I was thinking – if I were to die, that would be the thing I’d be most sad about.  Not knowing how they end.

Silence.

KIT   If you could – if your dad could hear you now– what ending would you tell him?

ALBA   I don’t know. I haven’t got to the end yet, have I? But I’d tell him I’m okay.

Dad, I’m okay.  I’m not spectacular – like, nothing special about me – but I’m –  And Mum.  She’s okay too.  And you. I’d probably tell him about you.

KIT   What about me?

ALBA   Just that you’re here.  Here with me.

Silence.  Kit takes her hand.

ALBA   And stuff.

KIT   Yeah.  Stuff.

–       Richard Dawkin’s quote from Unweaving the rainbow

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day out number the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

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8 thoughts on “on death and grief and my grandmother

  1. Pingback: on learning, listening and leaving the dead behind | School For Birds

  2. One other issue is that if you are in a situation where you would not have a cosigner then you may really want to try to wear
    out all of your federal funding options. You’ll find many awards
    and other scholarships that will supply you with funding to help you with school
    expenses. Thanks alot : ) for the post.

    • I got very confused here. I’m guessing you were posting this to the letter about arts funding. For some reason it has come up on a post about my grandmother’s death so I was extremely bewildered for a bit there.
      Awards are a tricky thing. They are great when you get them but they are nowhere near as good as commissions. I speak as a playwright and what we have to do is spend a year writing something and then hope that it wins one of two or three prizes that means we will actually get paid for our efforts. A commission on the other hand pays you in advance, which means you are able to support yourself and your research as you work. Unfortunately, these are very, very few and far between.
      Thank you! Glad you liked the post, which I’m guessing was on funding and not my grandmother. 😉

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    • I got very confused here. I’m guessing you were posting this to the letter about arts funding. For some reason it has come up on a post about my grandmother’s death so I was extremely bewildered for a bit there. But thank you! I’m incredibly proud of Dave’s work on this story (I was just the editor here) and am so honoured to have been able to share it.

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