The freeway is vacant of cars. I am relieved and can think about meeting my younger sister, Vivien, at the grave. The last time we saw each other was when we gathered at an old family friends for a New Years Day celebration. Since then another of our parents’ oldest friends had died. I experienced it as another loss. Those who knew Mum and Dad have become touchstones, associates who almost carry their DNA. Being close or conversing with those friends helps me stay in contact with the feeling that Mum and Dad are present; their memory is alive in many minds.
Vivien and I worked so closely during our father’s illness and our mother’s slow decline. Speaking with each other on the phone of in person once or twice a week. Then, after Mum’s death, my older brother Ian, and younger brother Julian, helped Vivien and I clear the house. It was cluttered with over 173 years of memories, books, letters and artefacts. We sold it reluctantly. We rekindled our childhood friendship throughout this process and caught up on previously undisclosed memories and emotions.
Sadly, since then, we have gone back to our separate lives; released from our parents need. Ian returned to Glasgow, Jules back to his isolation, and Vivien, where had she gone? I missed her calls. It’s as if we have reoccupied an emotional distance that began after we stopped sharing a house all those years ago. Was it only Mum that kept us linked?
Vivien says she has visited the grave early in the morning alone or with her daughter. She lives on the other side of town and finds the traffic bearable when the cemetery opens at sunrise. The times and days I visit are when I hope to talk to Mum and Dad alone.
I remember how proud I was to have my parents engaged with life and fiercely independent up until their early eighties as the gates of Northern Memorial appear. I drive the short distance to Edendale, where my parents are buried. Getting out of the car I am hit by the smell of eucalyptus, the wind swirling and the clear blue sky. I walk across the small bridge, glancing over to their plot. Have more people moved into their section? There are spaces for seven graves and three have been filled, slowly encroaching. I imagine my father arguing with the neighbours and Mum trying to placate him and befriending them behind his back.
The gaudy marble headstones, hearts and angular shapes jarr with the native landscape and there are flowers in all states of colour and decay mixed with ugly tattered footy paraphernalia. I walk over to the secluded grassed section and stand in front of my parent’s red-grey rock and read the small brass plaque.
JOHN ARTHUR SPINK 28.1.1926 – 9.4.2011
LORNA KATHLEEN SPINK (nee HART) 3.1.1926 – 18.3.2013
I had wanted to say more but I was out-voted. Now I wonder what I would have said. John and Lorna married for 65 years, engaged with life passionately, they had strong social consciences, a belief in good education, humanitarianism and the arts. We miss them terribly and they will stay in our hearts and memories.
We don’t have a rehearsal for living or dying so we can only do the best we are able. I believe Dad and Mum did that. They explored all the possibilities of life delighting in it and teaching us to also.
I smile as I remember the funeral. The four of us, now in our fifties and sixties, standing around the open grave, we raised and drank whiskey from small bottles, saluting our parents, their full lives and then poured the remains onto the sunflower-covered coffin, hoping it would seep through.
After the funeral, three of us went to a rockery to chose a rock for the grave. Julian was away, but we sent him photos as we explored. It reminded me of childhood holidays at Flinders. Dad would get us hunting out fossils from the cliffs and shells from the beach. Once I found a seahorse caught in the seaweed. It was a prized possession for years.
Back at the rockery we were skilled adventurers and carefully investigated hundreds of rocks until we found the one we thought encapsulated our parents best, respecting and acknowledging the thoughtfulness of their lives. We have always been good at working together for our parents and also vying for their attention and approval.
Will this connection stop now they are gone? How will we know each other? How will we parent ourselves? We are orphans and although we had slowly begun to nurture our parents we could always rely on their unconditional love, anxiety and interest. We chose the plot together, tidied and sold the house together, but these were tasks related to remembering and burying our parents not our adult relationships.
There is creek opposite the grave, with frogs, birds and undergrowth. The indigenous gardens between the rows of graves provide a natural habitat for all sorts of native life. I imagine Dad wanting to find the frogs, identify them, list them and mum being happy at his pleasure and, after nearly two years absence, having his enthusiasm and company again. She did not want his ashes in the house but agreed to have them in her coffin. I could never understand this. She said she only wanted to remember him alive and had a photo of him next to her bed. A few days before she died she told me that she had a dream about Dad coming to see her and saying there you are. I like to think he came to collect her.
I pull out the thermos from my bag and pour a hot cup of tea and then some on the grave. Mum loved a hot cup of tea it seemed to revive her. I begin to talk to them. There is no one around so I speak aloud. Once when I was talking to them the grounds-staff turned the sprinklers on and I got soaked. They were very apologetic, but I felt our space had been invaded and I left. The tea and talk comforts me. I image I am in the kitchen at Rathdowne Street Carlton visiting Mum and Dad, we have hugged and now we are catching up around the table with the yellow sun flowered tablecloth and clutter. Dad has cooked fresh fish in his meticulous way. Food was so important to him—even as an adult he remembered when he had been hungry as a child. We eat slowly and talk.
Now I am back to the funeral and I imagine the open coffin, and my mother dressed in her favourite clothes, empty of soul, breath, face bruised from her final fall, induced by a sudden heart attack. Her hair is brushed the wrong way (why didn’t I fix it?) with Dad’s ashes at her feet. I put them there for all the years she had put up with him. She has the small fabric daffodil bag I made her and placed in her cold hands filled with Werther’s Original Caramels, Linz chocolates, Strepsils, photos, paper and pen, tissues. Then I remember, I forgot the coin to pay the ferryman. Maybe they could bribe him with chocolates or entertaining argument. My son and his wife had placed a photo of the yet to be born great-grandchild, who Mum had been so looking forward to meeting. We decided to decorate Mum’s coffin with Monet’s Water lilies—she so loved that painting. Painstakingly we glued the photographed canvas around her plain pine coffin.
Then my thoughts shift, I imagine her now, rotting in her coffin and the decaying box of ashes at her feet. What does she look like? Why do I have to think of her this way and her last passive two years, rather than all the years she was dynamic and full of life, love and enthusiasm, experiencing what life had to offer? Then there was her sometimes-embarrassing over-engagement with politics, education, history, music and the arts. I wish I had taped the voices of my parents or bottled the conversations, the hugs, the moments of love, humour and joint understanding. All I have is my mother’s perfume and my dad’s books and old plum preserves.
When will I remember them more for their living than dying?
It doesn’t scare me to image her skeletal remains, but it does remind me she is dead and her memory can only be in my head. The physical body is more powerful in my imagination than the box of ashes. I can’t image Dad rotting back into the earth he is already ash. I remember him as he was at his funeral. Well dressed and silent. Was that deliberate on Mum’s part to leave her body to return to the earth in its whole state? Her image stays with me in a more powerful way than the ashes of my father. But then I had a different relationship with her.
I am pulled back from my thoughts when I hear a sound behind me and I see Vivien approaching she asks, ‘So how are you?’ I say ‘OK thanks’ and ask her how she is.