It is at once an ordinary and extraordinary Sunday. I am at home in Toowoomba with my girlfriend, and most of the daylight hours are spent assembling an IKEA flat pack bed. A task not to be underestimated. There are sore muscles and coffee cravings by the afternoon. There is a much-needed trip to a café, two mocha frappucinos and a triple choc muffin. Then there are Mum’s missed calls, the text, the urgency of them that makes me afraid to pick up the phone. The feeling that something bad has happened, the feeling that I can’t find out what, not here, in this ordinary café in an ordinary town on an ordinary Sunday afternoon.
I wait until I’m no longer in public—until I’m in the car, driving home with my girlfriend—to call Mum back.
‘Mae died,’ Mum says, through tears.
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ It comes out quickly, both surprised and not.
‘When can you come down to Sydney?’ Mum asks.
I cry into my frappucino the whole five-minute drive home. Oddly, this isn’t the first time I’ve cried into a frappucino. And I know it won’t be the last.
My life has been steadily punctuated by the loss of loved ones, and still, this will be the first funeral I’ve been to. I was too young when Mum’s dad died. I was too in shock when my stepfather died. My experiences of loss up until this point have been private showings.
Later, my girlfriend sits me down and talks me through what will happen at the funeral. She knows loss as deeply and profoundly as anyone I’ve ever known. Her advice is practical, helpful. There will be a casket, there will be flowers, it will be more about the people who are left behind than the person who has left. This makes sense, in a strange, complicated way. There’s a chance family will fight, people might have a little too much to drink, there may be arguments over property, money. Grief does something to people and it is never what we expect.
The week is lost to work, negotiating days and times, flights, and long messaging sessions with my teenage sister. This isn’t her first loss, but she feels it just as keenly as if it were.
The day of the funeral comes and my girlfriend and I are awake and in the car before dawn. I’m flying out from the new airport, just out of town. My girlfriend waits with me until the security gates open, and as we’re saying goodbye, I say ‘Drive safe,’ and then, ‘Will you let me know you get home okay?’
She looks at me seriously. ‘Bec, I’m not going to do that. It’s a twenty minute drive.’
‘But the roads are dark and unfamiliar,’ I say.
She smiles, kisses me goodbye. When I land, there will be a message.
I leave on a plane too small to contain my nerves. I sit next to the right wing, and as we take off I watch the propellers spinning, the smoke rising from the small wheels, thinking that surely, these wheels will catch fire, with this friction and speed, surely these small wings will not lift us up, keep us there. I think about the way taking off feels so much like something safe being pulled out from under you. How many times I have felt that exact feeling. How quickly it can all change.
We fly into the sunrise and I see the view that I had missed earlier. The airport is surrounded by mountains—or hills, depending on your perspective. As we cross the border, I watch the early morning mist snake through the valleys of parts of the landscape I have yet to learn the name of.
When I arrive in Sydney, I catch the train west. Mum and my sister are waiting for me at the train station. The car ride home is quiet; Mum asks about my trip, how early I woke, what I ate on the plane, how small the plane was. These are easy questions to answer.
My sister sits in the front and sometimes she catches me watching her watch herself in the side mirror. We both smile when this happens. She takes the gum out of her mouth and drops it out the window. I shake my head at her, but she isn’t looking. She turns up the radio and sings along to a song I’ve never heard before. After a minute or so she changes the station and starts again.
When we get home, Mum and my sister both go to their bedrooms to dress for the funeral. Mum asks me to wake up my teenage brother, Shaun, and tell him to get dressed too. I walk into his dark bedroom and nudge his shoulder lightly until he wakes. He pulls me into a hug when he sees me and I wonder how this has affected him.
I stand in the kitchen and make a piece of vegemite on toast. The butter here is soft, even from the fridge. At home in the winter, the butter hardens, refuses to yield.
Mum comes out holding up two black jackets.
‘Which one?’ she asks.
I look from one to the other. I can’t tell the difference between them, so I ask her to try them on. She goes into the bedroom to do this, even though she’s wearing a shirt underneath. When she comes out wearing one of the jackets, I nod, ask her to show me the other. When she comes out wearing the second jacket, I say ‘Can you show me the first one again?’
‘Michael is meeting us there,’ Mum says. Then she picks up the phone to call him. To make sure that is what he is actually doing.
The four of us pile into the car and it could be any other day, we could be going anywhere, perhaps to the local shops to pick up groceries, or a little further, to the Westfield. We leave fifteen minutes earlier than we mean to. It doesn’t rain as predicted, but that will come, later.
My sister keeps her window down the whole trip and I shiver beside her. Mum is playing AC/DC’s The Live Album at full volume. As we speed down the highway ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ plays and I keep getting hung up on the line ‘knocking me out with those American thighs’, thinking, it’s such a great line. My sister complains the whole way through the song, begging Mum to play some ‘real music’.
Mum sighs, switches over to the radio and complains about never getting to choose the music she listens to in her own car. ‘Cheerleader’ comes on the radio and my sister shouts, ‘Turn it up.’
The first time I heard the song I was convinced that the singer was actually saying ‘Oh, I think that I’ve found myself a jellyhead,’ when really, he had been saying ‘cheerleader’. I was in the car with Mum and my sister at the time too; I had turned to my sister and asked her if he was saying jellyhead. My sister fell into a fit of laughter, and then embarrassment. I had become the uncool older sister. When the song comes on now, on the way to the funeral, my sister and I look at each other and start laughing. It feels strange to laugh like this now, but it doesn’t feel wrong.
We’re all quiet for a while, and as we navigate through the Sydney traffic and the erratic drivers I think about how small the lanes feel. Every time we pass by a car in the next lane I bring my shoulders in, as if the lanes are too tight, or the car too big for us to pass unmarked.
Our family doesn’t talk. We prefer the music loud and the windows down. We talk most when we’re worried about something, like when Mum asks my sister for the third time if she has turned the hair straightener off.
‘But what about the electric blanket, Olivia?’ Mum says.
My sister sighs, ‘Yes, Mum.’
This happens every time we get in the car with Mum.
My sister takes car selfies with me in the background looking miserable. Mum tells me I look nice and I think that my great-grandmother would have wanted that, for me to dress nicely. She loved to dress up, even if she had nowhere to go. Whenever we visited her in the nursing home, no matter the time of day, she was always waiting in her pants suit, with her best jewellery on and freshly sprayed hair.
When we get to Bankstown we drive straight past the turn-off we would normally take to visit my great-grandmother. I look back as we pass and think of my previous visit. How I somehow knew it would be the last.
I had seen her only weeks earlier, visiting Sydney for Mum’s birthday. We had dropped in on the way home from the airport. Marnie hadn’t been expecting us. She hadn’t been expecting us to see her like that, lost in the bedsheets, in her nightgown, her hair uncombed and without hairspray. We hadn’t stayed long: there were too many of us, overwhelming the room with so little to say. As we were leaving, Marnie uttered, ‘Where’s Rebecca?’ She had always insisted on using my full name, she thought it nicer—proper. But we had never used her full name and neither had she.
I moved closer to the bed. ‘Hello pet,’ Marnie said, reaching for my hand. I saw that she still had the framed newspaper article of me next to her bedside. Every time I saw her, she would tell me, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ She was the only person in my family to tell me that I could do good things. She saw something in me, something that even I couldn’t see.
Marnie squeezed my hand with what must have been all her strength. It was like saying goodbye. Perhaps she knew then what we wouldn’t know for weeks.
We are one of many cars that drive into the cemetery grounds, and as we pass the gravestones, my sister remarks, ‘Wow, so many dead people.’
Mum finds a park and turns off the engine. We are half an hour early. Who gets to a funeral early? It feels wrong. It’s cold outside so we sit in the car and wait for the rest of the extended family to arrive. Mum opens her door and lights a cigarette. The ash occasionally blows back through my window and settles on my jeans. I realise I have cat hair on my jacket and it feels disrespectful somehow.
‘Imagine if the coffin opened?’ my sister laughs.
I turn to her and attempt a serious look that immediately fades into a smile. It’s so like our family to be early for a funeral, sitting in the carpark making inappropriate jokes about dead people.
It’s nearly time for the funeral to start so Mum shuffles us all out of the car and we walk over to the chapel. The rest of the family are already there, making acquaintances with the funeral director. I can tell this makes Mum unhappy, left out somehow.
This is the first time the extended family has been together in a long time. We stand gathered close together in our own family groups, making small talk about the cold, the venue, our plans for afterwards.
‘I’ve been reading your blog,’ my aunty says to me.
‘Oh yeah?’ I say.
‘Yeah,’ she smiles, ‘It’s really interesting. Are you going to write about this?’
‘I don’t know,’ I reply. But I do know. I had already been writing in the car on the way to the chapel. What else is there to hold onto, if not these moments?
The funeral director approaches us; she tells Mum that the ceremony will be filmed, burned to DVD, sent to the family. In what circumstances would I ever find myself wanting to watch such a thing?
The ceremony goes much like I had expected. It is, after all, just another ritual. There are parts of it that are exactly like what you see in the movies. The speeches; the laying of flowers on the casket; yellow gerberas—Marnie’s favourite—this I had never known; reminiscing about the person who has passed; speaking of them in good stead; the carefully curated playlist. These are all markers of this ritual, moments that can be planned and played out in procession. We cannot plan for our own reactions, our own grief taking shape inside of us, the small details we will learn about the dead, the many things we could never have known, or never had the chance to know.
We knew my great-grandmother by many names. The adults in the family called her Dolly, or Mae. Us kids preferred the more affectionate ‘Marnie’. Her parents called her Dorothy, so in some way, Dolly seemed a natural progression, a mark of ownership perhaps. Some attempt to shift closer to the identity she had shaped for herself, closer to her own sense of belonging in the world.
‘Hello Dolly’ plays as the funeral concludes and all I can think of is how none of us will ever say those words again. I think of going home and downloading the song, downloading all the songs they played at her funeral. This is something I have done before; my own private ritual. This is the way I mark loss; the carefully curated playlist; the yearly, almost devotional listening.
It isn’t until I’m forced to grieve with others that I realise how private an act of grieving is. But perhaps I have always known this. I have always grieved privately, in my own time, on my own terms. Funerals feel so public, even when they’re not. You’re asked to lay yourself bare in front of others, all the while grief is turning you inside out.
As we leave the chapel, walking solemnly one behind the other, there are other families gathered outside. All around the funeral grounds, in fact, are families, waiting to play out their own rituals. I think about all of those people and who they might have lost. And all of the people after them, all going through what we have just been through. The endless cycle of grief and remembrance playing itself out over and over every single day.
In the carpark the talk is of directions and logistics. My grandfather is attempting to organise our procession, working out where everyone has parked their cars, where we will all meet to follow behind him.
‘I have no idea where I’m going,’ Mum says, lighting a cigarette.
‘Just wait there,’ my grandfather says, ‘I’ve got some timber to give to Shaun before we leave.’
‘Go help him,’ Mum says to Shaun, who lopes off after my grandfather in search of his car.
My older brother Michael stands by our car, waiting, then says, ‘What’s this doing here?’ and points to a piece of chewing gum stuck to the car door.
I smile at my sister.
‘Bloody Olivia,’ Mum says.
Shaun comes back with a grin and an armful of timber offcuts, motioning for Mum to pop the boot so he can unload them. Every time I fly down to Sydney to see my family, Shaun has a new project on the go. Years ago I helped him build a mini skate park using Paddle Pop sticks and a hot glue gun. He’s moved on to more sophisticated projects now. This time he’s building a small replica of a Boeing 747, using wood, cardboard, and—to Mum’s dismay—power tools.
Mum follows behind the other family members to the Bankstown Sports Club for the wake. We are going to lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the club. This had become Marnie’s favourite place to eat. Before the oxygen tank, before she could no longer leave her room except to go to hospital, before she became bedridden. We form an unconventional funeral procession; two 4WDS, a ute and Mum’s black Commodore with the pink numberplates.
My sister takes a grieving selfie to post on Snapchat. I look over and see myself in the background again, both of us looking miserable this time. I stare out the window as we rush through suburbs I’ve only ever known as names of train stations. I see a man carrying a small, yellowing mattress, hoisted up on his shoulder. Behind him walks another man, carrying a wooden bed frame.
Lunch is civil, respectful. There is a toast to my great-grandmother and her fondness for an afternoon shandy; a table full of Chinese food; a plate of fortune cookies—mine says ‘make the most of time with family’. There are photo albums passed around the table—even a few family portraits taken of our own; there is talk of future reunions that we’re all too polite to admit will never happen; and a final course of deep-fried ice cream.
My grandfather settles the bill and we all slowly leave the restaurant. Mum and my cousin slip out quietly for a much-needed cigarette, my older brother lags behind the rest of us, answering the third phone call in as many hours from his girlfriend, my sister checks in on her Snapchat selfie and my aunty tells me again that she’s been enjoying reading my blog.
We all stand in the club foyer, waiting for Mum and my cousin to finish what must by now be their second consecutive cigarette. There are the obligatory hugs and kisses from everyone, and when Mum and my cousin come back inside, we do it all again.
‘Well, have a nice life up in Toowoomba,’ my grandmother says, and it almost feels final.
‘You better not write about me,’ my cousin says, grinning but not joking as he waves goodbye.
As we’re driving home, the rain starts, just as predicted.
‘Yep, here it comes,’ Mum says.
‘There’s a Hungry Jacks, Mum. Can we stop?’ my sister asks.
‘You just ate,’ Mum replies.
When we get home I help my brother unload his timber from the boot. We take it out the back and leave it on the outdoor dining table.
‘We’ll put it in the shed tomorrow, okay? When it’s not raining, cause I don’t want it to get wet,’ he instructs me.
Inside, I see Mum place the single yellow gerbera from the funeral in a vase with no water. I know that by tomorrow, it will have wilted.
Rebecca Jessen lives in Brisbane and is the award-winning author of Gap (UQP, 2014). She is the 2015 winner of the QLD Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award. Rebecca’s writing has been published in The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging, Cordite Poetry Review, Tincture Journal and many more. Rebecca is currently studying her Honours in Creative Writing at QUT. She is writing poems about the queer future. Find more at Rebecca Jessen.