Tropes of Hope

When I was a child a leech slipped into my brother’s eye, inside the socket where it had its fill and blood slid down my brother’s cheeks in place of tears. A familiar wave of terror washed over me. I could not have named it then. 

Even my father was at a loss. When leeches slid under our socks and down our legs on walks through the bush in Healesville, he whipped out a cigarette, lit the raw end until it blazed red, then took the lit end to the leech. It shrivelled into a tiny ball and fell off. 

This was the safest way, my father told us. That way no part of the leech remained. The danger of flicking off or scraping it from the skin’s surface. Its sucker left behind, embedded. Better to shock it into losing its grip.

With my bother we waited till the leech had its fill and came out for air. Then slid down my brother’s face. Not safe for the tip of a lit cigarette but necessary. My father’s aim was steady in those days.

The rush of relief when terror turns to joy. How we laughed. My brother’s eye intact. Blood wiped away and sanity restored.

I wanted to include the image of a leech, but the pictures available on Google made my stomach roil. So I settle for an image of the Healesville bush where leeches once lived in abundance. No doubt they still do.

To write about death is to take yourself to the edge. Clichés abound. A sick person on their death bed, gasping and sighing till they speak their last words into the ears of a significant person nearby, sigh and then drop back on the pillow to breathe no more.

It happens fast. Movies bypass the hours, days, weeks when a person is dying. When the slow creep of body exhaustion takes over and they slip into a coma, still breathing the slow shallow gasps of a body whose heart insists on kicking on even as the rest drops away, organ by organ. And then the hacking breaths of near death which people in palliative care recognise as a precursor to the end. The death rattle. 

The western world fears death. Not just for the loss of our loved ones, not just for the end of our own lives, but for the process of being here now and then no more. 

My four-year-old grandson is going through an experience where he begs his parents to stop death. To guarantee he will never die. They will never die. No one will grow old and die. Let all our birthdays stop. Even as he loves a birthday. 

Ageing terrifies him. Some deep anxiety about loss he cannot make sense of. He works himself into a lather of stress pleading for fake promises which no one can give.

‘Tell me, we won’t die.’

When his mother, my daughter, was fourteen she went through a time when she pleaded with me to prove I loved her. To prove I loved her by holding her tight and not letting go. The more she held to me and insisted I hold her firmly, the more my fingers loosened around her waist. She felt it as a sign of my lack of love.

She was onto something. I come from a long line of touch avoiders. A long line of people averse to hugs. The fear of such proximity it might take your breath away.

How do we do it? Reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of our death while still able and willing to go on living. To hold another in our arms without being so submerged in their desires we also cease to exist, or they might disappear in ours. 

How do we write our own stories even as we might create an illusion of living happily ever after? The cliché of striding into the sunset. The ascent into heaven for those who believe in an afterlife. Or a reincarnation into some other form to keep us going into infinity. 

Tropes of hope. Those marks of the human desire to stay alive forever rather than accept the inevitability of one day shrivelling up like the leech behind my brother’s eye and sinking to the soil, trodden under foot beneath my father’s shoe, a blob of red on the surface of the earth. No more 

Only traces remain. They too are washed away in the first fall of rain, under dropped leaves, the wind across the loose dirt. The ceaseless movement of time.

On falling in love with priests

‘There’s a cruelty easily available in mocking your younger self.’ Niall Williams.

I’m guilty of this, too. Though it’s one thing to mock your younger self, but to have another cast aspersions on that younger self can sting indeed. After all she’s part of you and although you might laugh at her folly, it’s harder when someone else takes up the cudgel. 

Whenever my analyst Mrs Milanova remarked on how much I had grown in understanding, I crowed inside with delight. At the same time I felt a pang of sorrow for my younger self, her puritanical and intolerant ways. 

I was on my way to gaining the wisdom of my elders, people like Mrs Milanova who had earned her qualifications through the process of her own analysis and training. She could help get me there, too, but still it pained me to lose something of the certainty of my younger foolish self. 

When Niall Williams narrator, Noe (for Noel) Crowe explains to his readers how foolish a young man can be when he falls in love, we travel alongside.

A young man who so falls for the local doctor’s middle daughter Sophie Troy that he elects to throw himself headfirst down a ladder to cause himself an injury that will bring him to the doctor’s surgery so he can once more cast eyes on Sophie, the beautiful. 

The doctor is unimpressed. Not that he knows why Noe has fallen headlong off a ladder, but he dislikes the young man’s propensity towards accidents. Noe had already tried to take the full weight of a falling electricity pole as it crashed over his head.

The young are like this full of bravado and self-confidence, in some matters at least. 

The past in decay

In others, my younger self, like that of Noe, has no confidence at all. Noe considers himself ugly. And so did I. Noe considered himself not much of a scholar. So did I. Noe took himself into the priesthood to atone for the untimely and early death of his mother following a series of falls when he was twelve. 

I can’t make similar claims, though I too toyed with life in a convent. Given my gender, as a nun. I’d far rather have managed to take a priest into my care and live happily ever after with one of the forbidden men. 

The priests were like that, off limits and alluring. At least the young ones.

When I was sixteen and boarding with a Dutch family in Camberwell after my eldest brother decided we younger children needed to be taken out of our parents’ care and shipped elsewhere to give them a chance to sort their marriage, I encountered one of the most delectable priests. 

Father John was still in the seminary when we first met. The eldest son of the family with whom my sister and I stayed. An olive-skinned man with four good looking brothers below him, one of whom, an accountant was married with a child. The next down was studying medicine. He too was divine with the bluest of eyes. The youngest son, around my age was a pain. He disliked the intrusion of two girls into his household, I suspect. Years earlier he had endured the arrival of the last child into this family, a girl. And he was always surly. 

They were a devout Catholic family like all the families in Williams’ story, but they were Dutch and Dutch Catholics are more sophisticated in their religious beliefs than the Irish, or so my mother believed.

Because John was a priest, I set my sights on the third brother, whose blue eyes sent my heart into raptures. I would most certainly have flung myself off a ladder to receive his administrations. But I hated it when he was studying gums and teeth and wanted to examine the inner workings of everyone’s mouth within his household. 

My teeth were rotten. It was bad I knew this, but I did not want him to see. Every time he asked to take a look, I made excuses and scurried off. I left the house and wandered to the local park on the pretext of learning my Latin texts. But it was to avoid the would be doctor’s scrutiny and the jealousy I felt for my younger sister, who was also well into adolescence at fourteen, and held no such scruples about her teeth. Nowhere as deteriorated as mine.

She was happy to let the would-be doctor poke away as much as he wanted.

How my young self pined and squirmed and suffered on the swing seat of a park intended only for toddlers but sometimes occupied by bored adolescents who came to kill time. But most days I was alone and pining for love. A love that never came.

Of all the ironies, as time passed, and a series of circumstances led us to leave from under the Dutch family’s roof and move instead to board at our convent school, the eldest son was ordained a priest. Within two years he sought a dispensation. He had fallen in love with my eldest sister and together they had a child even before he left the priesthood. 

It seemed priests could be seduced after all. And the third son, the one on whom I had set my sights, eventually graduated as a medical practitioner, and worked for several years as such. 

He never married. He had a religious vocation and decades later he left medicine and trained to become a priest. A more devoted a priest you could not imagine. 

What a strange world my younger self occupied. A world of mystery and awe. With rules that others broke and temptations they denied. A world where everything seemed in order but was not. 

Each family functions in their own way, by rules reinvented daily. The strangeness of each of us is somehow accommodated so that there can be such a thing as family, and we can all live for some time at least in the same house. Normal is what you know. Niall Williams

I must hold my younger self more gently; she was only doing the best she could with what was at hand. She did not see the folly of her ways.