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.