Language and Memory

‘Language is a metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the chaotic images we call memory. But we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.’ Lidia Yuknavitch

When I was ten, I stayed home from school one day with a fever. In my bed with a book about a dog who travelled with its family and got into scrapes and adventures, I fell into the trance of other worlds. No longer in my bed at home alone with my father nearby. 

Why ever I fell ill with some unknown ailment at the time my father was home, I cannot say. But the two are linked in my memory. My father’s ailment had a name. Pleurisy. At times he could scarcely breathe. Even his beloved cigarettes became impossible. 

Alone in bed with my book I tuned him out. In this room which I shared with two other sisters, there was a stand-alone wardrobe, a skyscraper to me. When I was well, we sisters climbed to the top of the wardrobe and looked down at the puny world below. 

The dog in my book lived in the bush, surrounded by gum trees and the call of birds, magpies, whip birds and currawongs. From my bed to the top of the wardrobe I transformed my life into a series of magical kingdoms where people were under my control, in so far as I wanted to control anyone. At least they left me alone to explore the bush, to dip my toes into the ice-cold water of a stream, which my story dog leapt over in one stride. All thought of my father in the room next door disappeared. 

When I tried to throw my legs over the edge of my bed and tiptoed to the outside toilet for a pee, my head spun as though it had lost its anchor. I held onto the side of cupboards and walls to make my way outside. 

The air had an ethereal haze as if I had gone through one of Alice’s mirrors into another place where the smells were different, and animals could talk. The ants crawling up the weatherboards of the outside toilet shone in their blackness as if they wore suits and shiny shoes and the birds squawking overhead spoke their own language. Foreign to me, but as familiar to them as the morning sunshine. 

In childhood, before the rot of understanding sets in, our lives are ruled by sensations, the smells, the touch, and taste. A visit to the toilet, for all that it stank of stale cigarettes and urine, held magical possibilities there among the cobwebs that fantailed across the ceiling and in the dank corners where toadstools spouted, a home for goblins. They scared me under my bed, but here outside they took a different form as if the very fact of living out of doors gave them an authority and sensibility lost to them indoors. 

Here on the concrete floor of the toilet which I could barely make out once I closed the door and could only make out shapes from the light cast under the cut off slats I conjured a dream.

Another toilet at my school. One in a row, each identical, black plastic seats over white porcelain bowls that dug into the ground as if they grew there. I sat on the toilet and listened to the sound of my pee as it crashed like a waterfall into the pool below. I worried someone might be outside my door, another kid, a teacher perhaps, and they would hear my insides running out. My face reddened as if these matters were shameful and the fact that toilets held such solid doors to block light and noise suggested no one needed to hear your bodily explosions even when you could not help it.

Then at the door I saw a pair of black shiny shoes. Priest’s shoes, my father’s shoes, a man’s shoes. The hand attached to the shoes further up a body I could not see rattled at the door handle. I slid off the toilet and stood on the seat. I fiddled with the slats behind high up on the wall. Frosted slats that moved under the pressure of a silver mechanism to let in air or to block it. I imagined myself sliding through these slats as a way of escape, a way of slipping back outside and away from this toilet, now the most dangerous place in the world. 

The shoes stood still. And waited. The shoes waited. I could wait them out. The shoes on a man who stood at the toilet door and wanted to reach me. I woke to a beating heart and the clammy skin of a person unwell, and unable to engage in coherent thoughts. The panic I could escape in my story of the dog who lived with a family who loved it. 

When I was a child in bed with a book, I had no idea my life would unfold as it has. I had no idea that the making of babies is such a fraught process even as ten days after my tenth birthday my mother gave birth to still born daughter. 

Born dead, as Lidia Yuknavitch writes of her own first-born daughter. No life, no pulse. A dead being in your arms whom you have carried to term only to discover this child could not make it beyond the safety of your womb. And the grief that follows for women who lose a baby in this way, including my mother, cannot be spoken out loud for fear it will wake all those babies born dead and they will wail their grief out loud. They who have started on the journey but were not able to get through the first hurdle of finding breath. 

One thought on “Language and Memory”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *