This is the story I never wanted to write. You, me, and a wound I thought the Sunshine State would heal with grandkids, barramundi and gallons of water under the Sundale Bridge.
I watch the Nerang River run to its mouth, where Southport spills into the sea, listening to the wind drive horizontal rain onto the window panes. Over instant coffee, my brother phones to tell me you’re dying and I write you the words I haven’t, for fear of rejection I’m overly familiar with.
It’s taken me time to understand the holes in my heart are where the love travels in and out.
The first time I remember you making fun of me was at the dinner table in Trinity Beach, when we lived in Cairns. I was thirteen and had gotten my braces tightened, the pressure in my mouth like a fire hose turned up full bore.
You teased me. Said I had a big nose and skinny hair. When I realised you thought I was ugly my chest collapsed in on itself. The fun you made stuck like a rusted butcher’s knife.
Later you’d say you were joking, but I checked my profile in the mirror every day, looking for reassurance I didn’t find. When I got plastic surgery years later, you said you never understood what led me to do it.
Disbelief is the sound of sneakers kicking up gravel, no words passed between pursed lips.
I avoided writing this story because I wanted it to end differently. Not with shallow breaths and water filling your lungs like a sinking boat too far gone for emptying.
It’s unusual, this rain, for the Gold Coast in October. The succulents soak in mud and I brought the orchid in so it doesn’t get waterlogged. I’m wearing a woollen jumper while the wind shrieks, wondering when you found out about the fluid in your chest. Curious how it wasn’t picked up before it became end-stage lung cancer. Questioning if Mother Earth is sobbing in empathy with you.
Do you want to end this story alone?
In the beginning, before Cairns was overrun with Japanese tourists and the tail end of Cyclone Winfred flattened palm trees for kilometres, you laboured with Mum to get your office supplies business up and running in Earlville, finding new reasons to hate where we lived.
Cairns feeds on frozen daquiris and sweaty tourists. Every year foreigners get stung by jellyfish and crocodiles edge closer to suburban swimming pools. You would drive us to the Gold Coast come school holidays to escape. You’d stop at service stations and walk away to smoke Marlboro Reds. Mum would shush my brother and me to lessen the likelihood of you blowing your lid.
Your revulsion for small-town, non-airconditioned spaces, where gum leaves meet wooden Queenslanders raised on stilts, meant that cane farms dotting highways like stars on a moonless night never held the charm for you they did for me.
In Mudgeeraba it rains rocks. I remove my Birkenstocks and run across sodden soil trying to avoid puddles on my way to the school gate. I’m not the only parent with bare feet but I’m the only one without an umbrella. I like the idea of heaven on my skin.
You’ve always loved the Gold Coast. It was me who said I’d leave for Europe. You blame me but you’ve been the one to put the distance between us.
The middle years were the best and the worst. Weekends at Lake Tinaburra you’d let me drive the speed boat, my brother a zinc-covered face in the back, you beside me, holding your hat, keeping an eye out for skiers and waterlogged snags.
Before I found my voice and you found your lungs, we quietly went for each other’s throats like starved pit bulls. You always said Cairns was a shithole. I always wished you would leave.
West of Karragarra Island, an X-ray shows you’re drowning in a sea of white dots spattered in a web of black. doctors tell you they need to drain the fluid that is sinking you from the inside.
I sing ‘Happy’ with the kids in the Hyundai Santa Fe, the volume up in an attempt to drown thoughts of you in a room thick with fear, the pounding of our hearts — hammers between closed ears trying to fill a hole that’s threatening to disappear us.
In Brinsmead Glen, plates hit walls and big hands found small necks. I locked myself in my room and prayed you’d vanish. When you wouldn’t, I did.
I don’t remember saying goodbye. Relief sounded like Kylie Minogue belting out ‘Give me just a little more time’, the distance between us growing as Australian Airlines flew me away from you and into Brisbane Domestic Airport.
In Surfers Paradise the kids read and I smoke Marlboro Golds knowing I shouldn’t. The wind rips through a tattered palm frond and I decide 4 o’clock isn’t too early to open a McLaren Vale Shiraz. The frayed frond hangs lifeless, alone, still attached to its trunk but unable to hold itself upright.
The doctors say you might not make it if they attempt to drain your lungs. That from a sterile surface made from stainless steel you are going to have to feel your way home to the island, back to the life you know.
When you moved everyone to the Gold Coast I took a bus from Brisbane to join you. Nothing had changed. City lights, sunsets over Tamborine Mountain and early morning surf swims were wasted on us.
Holidaying at the Coast, I remember Maccas runs, coconut oil and trips to Dreamworld.
But that was before I wrote in my diary that I wished you were dead.
Forty-five minutes. The time it takes to write the letter I hope you’ll read. A short drive to the ferry that carries your grandchildren and I across blue water to see you. A long time to be lying unconscious on your kitchen floor after experiencing a brain block.
I was home alone when I heard that you’d been rushed to Redland Bay Hospital after suffering a stroke. One minute you were seasoning perch, the next you were gone.
When I visited you on the stroke ward to find you cracking jokes about having to piss in a bottle, my breath deepened and my heart slowed.
You seemed happy to see me.
Hot and miserable is what you thought of Cairns, with its misfits, bogans and bludgers. Rockhampton would provoke similar disgust.
You came with Mum to visit me at UCQ where I spent my time playing starve, binge and purge whilst faking a Bachelor of Nursing. In the share house you were quiet. You ate the penne pomodoro I prepared but checked your watch three times.
I could have opted then to stop believing things would improve between us but hope is something I never want to outlive.
At home the rain stops. I read the letter I wrote you and I cry. Thinking of how I’m going to tell your grandchildren that their Gramps is going to heaven feels like I’m sinking under layers of saturated cement.
Our boy wants you to take him fishing. Our girl wants to show you her latest dance routine.
I want to make you a strong cuppa and talk shit the way we do.
The autumn I was thirty-four, I placed your granddaughter in your arms and watched your eyes soften. It happened again the autumn I turned thirty-six and you held your grandson against your chest. I watched love take you over; so quiet, not a word got by your lips.
Later you’d insinuate I was a bad mother and I’d feel grateful for the body of water between us. Then I’d remember the holes in my heart. I’d remind myself I’m not who you say I am. Tell myself you aren’t who you think you are.
For months I’ve worried about you. I head outside to watch the river water churn and fizz. A text message tells me chemotherapy is pointless. As is radiation. Instead the doctors might trial an experimental drug. If you last that long.
You’ll make it home but it’ll be for palliative purposes only. The doctors give you six to sixteen weeks.
I wonder if anyone has the capacity to comprehend a life measured in sixes, begin to hyperventilate and have to reteach myself how to breathe.
The last time we spoke was a Sunday in August. You’d driven back to Karragarra from a campsite in Ballina, south of the Queensland border.
I was watching a documentary on spending time alone in nature, and you were waiting for me to ask how you were. When I didn’t, you texted my phone. According to you, my life was a lie. I stood for bullshit. I’d abandoned you. I was gutless and you should have known.
When I told you I was no longer going to tolerate your abuse, you told me I was dead to you.
The kids in the bath, I’m back at my desk. The sun is setting behind the river atop the faraway hills, when my phone beeps and I hear you want to see me.
They say what goes around comes around, but contemplating prolonged torture feels wrong. Instead, I make a plan to drive across the Sundale Bridge, take the ferry to Karragarra, plant a kiss on your cheek and place the letter I wrote you in your hands.
In an ideal draft I would have written about a reunion — the one we’ll never have. I would be old. You would be ugly. Still as funny as fuck.
There’d be space, but not much between us. You’d live in Burleigh Heads by the beach and would drive to Surfers weekly to share beers and barramundi with us.
Lines in the river off the jetty, the kids would tell you about their day, and you would look at me with soft eyes.
Kylie Hough is an Arts student and writer. A VC Scholar at UNE, in 2015 Kylie received the Lucy Elizabeth Craigie Award, the Richard B Smith Memorial Prize, and the Australian Federation of Graduate Women Inc. (AFGW) NSW (Armidale) UNE ARTS AWARD. She was a finalist in the Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction 2018 and received a 2021 ASA Award Mentorship in Fiction. Kylie has written for Feminartsy, the write launch, Verity LA, Other Terrain and Posit.