Free will

First person experience is the closest we get to the truth, writes WG Sebald. Or at least to our own personal truth.

I want to qualify again. For as much as I agree with Sebald I rankle at the word ‘truth’. I fear its fragility. 

‘Truth’ and ‘reality’, two words we bandy about as though they’re ‘facts. Another word that bugs me, unalterable facts, when ‘in fact’ they too need qualification. But there’s also the notion of truthfulness and there are limits to reality.

We see it every day in the consequences of human endeavour, like climate change and the way money slips from our purses unless we’re careful. And even when careful, it costs to live.

My father was 43 when he took to drinking water from gallon sized jugs he carried in the car on his way to work in the city. He slugged from these jugs as he drove the hours long trip from Healesville with his two college aged sons in the back. 

After the doctors diagnosed type one diabetes, he began the daily shooting up with insulin while my mother bought a set of weigh scales which she used religiously in the kitchen to measure every portion of food she offered my father breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

For her it was a ritual of control. For him, another variable to dictate the contours of his life while he struggled to juggle the books and manage the holiday shacks he had bought earlier with his brother-in-law.

These shacks lined the low rise of hills at the foot of Mount Donna Buang. A ramshackle set of wooden boxes against the grey blue haze of the mountain. 

My mother stood sentinel in the shop after the tinkle of bells over the café door signalled a customer. The bells hardly ever rang and most days she spent looking after the baby and two small children of whom I was one. This shop sold bread and milk, cakes and coffee, tea served in cups on saucers and mugs of hot chocolate for weary travellers. 

It was a mistake to buy this establishment. My father and uncle were hoodwinked by the books, cooked to look as though Healesville, which had once been a favourite holiday destination for the well-heeled people of Melbourne, was still so.

The shacks stayed empty and my aunt whose job it was to change the sheets and toiletries, and flush out baths and toilets while she too cared for her babies had little to do beyond the care of those babies.

The babies and boredom drove her into states of rage. It was nothing for her to scream at her infant son, his cries echoing through the crisp Healesville air. In desperation she slapped him.

‘She should not hit her baby like that,’ my mother said. ‘She’s too young to be a mother.’ My aunt married at 18 years old after a childhood on rubber plantations in Indonesia where nurse maids cared for children and Indonesian servants tended to the rich plantation owners.

She found the transition to life in Australia almost unbearable. To be charged with the care of two tiny babies while she longed for a life of fun and frivolity back home in her beloved home. It was more than she could bear.

It was not his fault the business failed. Nor my mother’s, nor my father’s or uncle’s. But it took no more than a year for them to realise Sunspot was not able to drag them from the lowly status of newly arrived migrants, new Australians, to that of successful businesspeople.

And so we moved into a rental in Camberwell.

All the while my mother measured my father’s meals in ounces and pounds, keen to keep his body free from the hypos and hypers that are the lot of any person with serious diabetes. 

One day after a trip to Myer where they were shopping for new beds to accommodate the new arrivals in our family, my mother told us our father had begun to perspire and shake on the escalator.

Once on the ground floor, he raced across to the cakes counter and ripped open a packet of jellybeans from the display then threw them down his throat. My mother paid.

Only later when the dizziness settled and his hands stopped shaking was he able to explain. ‘He needed a sugar hit,’ my mother said as though it was okay for adults to eat the forbidden lollies that I craved.

We saved lollies in glass jars from Shrove Tuesday till Easter Sunday when we were allowed to eat the lot. Along with the Easter eggs my mother struggled to afford in honour of Christ’s resurrection. 

I marvelled at my younger sister who could open a pack of fruit tingles, eat one or two, then put the rest away for later. For me an open pack begged to be eaten in one hit. There was no stopping until the last piece of foil fell away to reveal the final pastel-coloured tablet. It looked like granite but tasted of the sugar sweetness of ripe fruit. When you licked it with your tongue the colour deepened from pale pink to red, from the pale yellow of a fading moon to the deep gold of a setting sun, from the misty green of a new hatched fern to the deep green of grass after rain. 

I wondered that my father could bear his life without sweet things. My mother must have done likewise. At times when she bought each of us a foil wrapped chocolate egg – whatever was on sale in the newly formed supermarkets that dotted the suburbs close to home after we moved to Camberwell – she bought a block of sugar free chocolate, concealed in its white paper wrapping, with barely any advertising. As if to hallmark the austerity of a block of chocolate devoid of sweetness. Aiming to trick the tongue into believing it was onto something.

And why not? During the Second World War when my father hid from German soldiers as an able-bodied Dutch man who did not want to work for Hitler, he worked with a chemical laboratory where he helped develop an artificial sweetener to offset the shortages of sugar. They sold his saccharin on the black market. The money he made my parents used to buy furniture for their first ever house in Haarlem after they married in 1942. 

The irony: the man who contributed to the invention of saccharin should one day rely on it for his sustenance once his pancreas stopped working and he could no longer consume the sweet things of his childhood. 

Diabetes did not stop him drinking brandy and no one told him about the sugar content in the alcohol nor did my mother adjust her scales to accommodate to his weekend binges.

On Sundays when he was sober and aunts and uncles visited with their many children, I handed round the plate of biscuits my mother bought from Mr Brockhoff’s grocery store on the corner.

When I reached my father’s chair I wove a wide arc around him. As I might have wanted to do every day of my childhood for reasons other than that he could not eat the sweet biscuits on the plate, but that’s a whole other story.

My father and the way he compensated for an insatiability that could not be comforted by sugar alone, at a time in my life when to feast on biscuits, chocolate and lollies, was to find myself in heaven even as the sweets filled my teeth with cavities. A word I came to hate as much as I hated the words impure and sins.

By the time I reached secondary school the convent in Richmond where the nuns taught us concepts like that of free will and the ways in which we needed to curb our desires to live good lives that might carve out a place for us in heaven, my teeth were yellow brown from the holes and my skin acne red from the hormones.

I thought it was the sweets and took to using saccharin in my tea. I spread my bread with jams loaded with artificial sweeteners my mother bought for our father who refused to eat them. 

I don’t remember when my mother stopped using scales to ensure my father’s food, perhaps after she had gone to Al anon, a derivative of Alcoholics Anonymous for the relatives and friends of alcoholics who aim  to get beyond the demands of their troubled loved ones. then she stopped providing him with the means of escaping the reality of what he was doing to his body let alone how he was treating the rest of us.

My father died aged 65, past his prime but by today’s standards, too young to die, and at his funeral my mother offered cakes and sandwiches and marshmallow covered biscuits, Iced Vovos, which we served on plates to our guests with their sugar laced cups of tea.

This time I did not make a wide arc around a single person except in my imagination, an arc around the memory of my father who is gone, unsweetened to the end.