No moral compass

When my babies were tiny, I worried about the possibility each in their turn might be carried away in cot death. It kept me awake even after I had checked and rechecked. Until I told myself there was nothing I could do to stop it, other than take all the precautions we knew about in those days: Not too many blankets, a sturdy regulation cot, lie them down on their sides – these days a no-no. 

I checked their breathing in the middle of the night with a mirror to look for the tell-tale fog of their warm breaths when I could not hear those whisper soft sounds and then beyond a certain age, I stopped worrying.

I felt again last night the angst of those days in the form of my worries over the dog. She’s tall enough to stand on her hind legs to reach the kitchen bench.

Last night before dinner, my husband had left out two pieces of salmon to breathe before coooking. He left them in a sealed plastic bag on the bench top. A mistake we know because while he was elsewhere, the dog must have snuck them from the bench and eaten the lot.

‘Where’s the fish?’ my husband asked when he returned to the kitchen several minutes later. I had only just arrived. We looked in the fridge and the penny dropped. 

‘I found a plastic bag on the floor before’ my daughter chimed in from the stairs. ‘I thought it had come from the bin.’

My husband was furious about the stolen fish but calmed down in the knowledge you can’t blame a dog.

Dogs have no moral compass and there’s no point trying to discipline after the event. It would not make sense to the dog who can’t put two and two together. Nor can the dog realise the gut ache that follows excess consumption of fish is a consequence of stealing. 

‘They don’t learn from experience,’ I said to my daughter who rang the vet worried about her dog who tends on the sensitive stomach side of life.

The vet told her the dog might suffer some pancreatitis at worst, and at best we should anticipate some diarrhea. 

So, all night long I expected the dog’s paw on my face. The dog is learned enough to know to let me know she needs to go outside. And it was hot last night, so much so I found it hard to sleep alongside the hot breathing nearby of a dog who might at any moment be sick.

She was not sick though, and beyond two am after I took her out for a pee and nothing more, I settled into sleep.

There’s this burden to worrying about others seemingly more vulnerable than me. The children, the dogs, the people in my care.

I try to apply the same principles that let me go to sleep when my babies were tiny. I’ve done all I can, there’s nothing more I can do, dispense with the angst. Breathe deeply and let my mind rest.

But the thoughts rush back in.

I’m part of a research project on dreaming during Covid, which asks participants to record their dreams as best they can over a fourteen-day period and also every day, preferably towards the end of the day to allow themselves to stop for ten minutes and let their minds wander.

I have no trouble remembering my dreams, especially those in the morning from which I wake, but this ten-minute exercise of letting my mind wander is tricky.

I can stop and sit, then close my eyes to let my mind wander – up to a point. But I soon get caught up in thoughts of how I will remember where my mind has wandered. I need to repeat in my head where I’ve just been in order to record as best I can its meanderings. And this process interferes with the idea of letting my mind wander.,

I was telling my children about it and one suggested that I record as I let my mind wander but that’s a whole other exercise. That’s writing, and not musing. 

Over the course of the past week – I’m half way through my part on the project – I’ve noticed my preoccupation with things Covid as well as my increasing concerns over matters of life and death.

When my mother was pregnant with my youngest brother an older brother put together a photo album of our family, a page per child. On the last page he wrote a big question mark. That question mark comes back to me now. The thought that this question mark became a still born girl who never saw the light of day. A little sister who died in utero as my mother’s placenta withered away in the last days of pregnancy because of my mother’s age, the doctor said. Though how true this was I cannot say. 

I feel the ghosts of all the lost babies in my ancestry knocking at my brain, rattling my awareness of how fragile life can be.

The lottery of pregnancy, the ultrasound doctor said to me after the scans showed my ten-week-old foetus had stopped breathing. A private grief that I carried with me for the next several months until I fell pregnant again with my last baby. The relief of feeling ill in the first trimester a sure sign my baby was holding on unlike the last.

The pain of loss stays with me, and shifts my moral compass.

Brakes on the righteous

The Camberwell junction intersects in five directions like a star. These days movement across the various points is controlled by traffic lights, regular relentless and well-timed traffic lights that slow the process of moving through; along with restrictions on turning right in the centre. 

In the early 1960s there were no such lights, instead a huge red banner was suspended by thick wires running parallel with the tram lines.

DANGER. An intersection that needed courage and cunning and some unspoken cooperation on the part of the various drivers at all points, to get through. 

My mother learned to drive in her early forties and was timid behind the wheel. Made worse by the fact that whichever one of us kids sat in the front passenger seat beside her, we took delight in helping her along with the indicator switch.

We’d have done more if we could get hold of the wheel, but my mother shrugged us off and pleaded to let her drive whenever someone anticipated the turn ahead with the indicator light before she had decided herself. 

Try driving around this lot:

On this day as we travelled down the Burke Road hill past the gold-domed Our Lady of Victories church with the blessed mother holding her infant up high in her arms against the skyline, my mother went to slow down for the ascent.

‘The brakes have failed’ she wailed and kept pushing her foot down against the floor.

It was early afternoon and the car ahead of us was the space of three cars ahead, far enough to be sure we would not crash into it but the intersection was not something we could anticipate.

None of the cautious slowing down and gazing into the eyes of the driver on your right to decide whether it should be your turn to inch across or to check out the perpendicular where cars streamed in from Camberwell Road towards the town hall. 

We held our breath as my mother’s car sailed through. Not a single car to left or right and then we drove back up the hill at a slower pace as my mother kept her accelerations to a minimum.

Then she steered us onto Prospect Hill Road and into the car park at the back of the shops where she managed to slide into a spot uphill before she could put on the handbrake and we were safe. 

I drive through this intersection often these days, the ghost of my mother at the wheel beside me, as I push my foot against the brake and tense my calf muscles against the glorious resistance of the brake pads that tell me all is well. Not like my mother’s foot on the brake that gave again and again as if an elastic band had snapped and there was nothing left to hold us back from plummeting to our deaths.

We need our brakes to slow us down, to stop us mid motion, to protect us from too much.

The brakes are on at the moment big time under Covid and the slowness of our lives in lockdown stirs up another ghost:

The day a lunatic driver sped out from behind our car when my husband and I were returning from a school event on the other side of the hill and then mid lane on the other side of the road this driver sped beside and in front of a tram. Then he completed an illegal right hand turn onto Riversdale Road against the constant blinking of the crossed arrow that said ‘No right turn’.

Was it schadenfreude when my husband and I cheered inside our bubble of a car, when a minute later a police car sped through the intersection lights flashing and siren wailing? He was sprung.

The pleasure I felt when someone who had behaved badly was brought to justice or at least the brakes applied and he will suffer some consequence for his rush, continues in my memory.

I have a strong resistance to anyone turning right at that intersection against the forbidden sign.

If they put their indicator on in front of me when we are stopped at the intersection then try to make the move right once the lights change, I blast on my horn as if all my grievances against someone else’s wrongdoing is awakened and I become the most self-righteous person imaginable. 

Only for those few seconds before the person recognises the futility of their efforts and continues on in a straight line having to find a place further ahead where they can execute their right turn.

The satisfaction of the righteous one worries me. But I can’t stop myself at moments like these. It’s the only time I ever use the horn. Otherwise when someone does something that alarms me, I might threaten to push hard on my horn, the satisfaction on the movement, but I don’t go through with it.

I have been on the receiving end. The day I drove up the hill where a new round about had been constructed and I failed to give way to a car on the right which came into my view too late. The man in the car whom I had obstructed was furious with me, He drove close behind me and when I was next at the lights, stopped, I watched in my rear vision mirror as he climbed out of his car and came towards mine. I undid the window,

‘I’m so sorry,’ I said before he had a chance to speak. ‘I didn’t see you there till it was too late.’ The man was lost for words. I could tell. He had stored up a tirade in those seconds since my failure to give way to him and my apology took the wind out of him. 

‘Don’t do it again,’ he said and huffed back to his car. 

I had figured the safest bet was the apology but even today I wonder what might have happened had someone really wanted my blood. Road rage is a scary thing. Inside the bubbles of our cars we unleash all manner of feelings we normally keep the brakes on.

My apology put the brakes on this man’s rage. My mother was not good at putting brakes onto my father’s rage.

But that’s a whole other story.