Certainty riles me, even as I can sometimes slip into its treacherous grip, the one that says, ‘I know for sure’. Yet the only way to hold onto memory is to trace back through the years and clutch at the certainty this happened, when for all the world it might not.
A life without memory is not a life worth living, despite the British philosopher Galen Strawson’s belief there are those of us who do not enjoy narrative lives, but whose lives are episodic. For them memories can slip away as though they’re visitors who have overstayed their welcome.
Strawson ‘has absolutely no sense of [his] life as a narrative with form or indeed as a narrative without form’ and he holds no ‘great or special interest in the past.’ While for me, the past carries the heart of meaning, and helps to shape our future even while impacting on our present.
Sister Dominic took her class of six students to the University of Melbourne for a Latin seminar. An opportunity for Latin students throughout Melbourne during the late 1960s to get a sense of the way the Latin language could be adapted to contemporary states.
‘Hey tu, Georgica…’ we sang alongside the musician at the front, a Latin scholar with a mellifluous voice who led the Latin translation of the Seekers’ classic, Georgie Girl.
Singing in Latin took me places I had not been before. The way it blended with the clackety desks in the central lecture theatre at the university’s Old Arts Building. Who would have thought there could be so many people studying what most others at my school considered a dead language?
In the frontispiece of my copy of The Aeneid – a hand-me-down from several of my brothers – someone penned the words,
‘Latin is a language as dead as dead can be. It killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me’.
Latin was a mystery to me. Try as I might, I could not get my mind around the language’s six cases: the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative and vocative. References to the way Latin uses its verbs. Its way to speak.
An oratorial style and deeply patriarchal I observed but in those days I felt no distress at the way in which the language was full to the brim of warring men on the battlefield.
Elsewhere tall men in white togas stood among the colonnaded buildings of their leaders, while women languished at home tending the fires and cooking food as though they were ornaments on the shelves.
We never talked about this as we sang the words of Judith Durham’s Georgie Girl and chanted lines from Catullus, Oh mea Lesbia. A mystery woman who lived on the Island of Lesbos and about whom we could not think too long for underneath every word there were hints of the salacious.
The other day as my chiropractor man-handled my body from side to side with all the confidence and certainty of a mechanic wrestling a bolt from a car’s engine.
’There must be people who come here,’ I said, ‘who’d find this experience confronting.’ He’d already apologised for giving me an oversized gown which fell off my shoulders.
‘We need to get our washing off to the cleaners,’ he said, by way of apology.
The chiropractor tilted my body from side to side and then tipped me forwards as he inched up my spine with a probe to measure movement. ‘In and out,’ he prompted me to move my torso forwards and back as he checked off each vertebra until he located the point of pain. Most often L5, the fifth. Close to the base of my spine. Though on this day he also detected discomfort higher up. He made a joke about people in our professions, his and mine, who work to do ourselves out of work if indeed we give people what they need. In his case a better spine. In my case a clearer mind.
Mind and body.
I had hesitated to see this man, but my regular chiropractor was unavailable, and my back was causing me to walk at an angle as if overnight I had developed the walk of a woman in her nineties. A woman who had lost all cartilage from her hips and could no longer keep herself upright.
‘The people you’re talking about,’ the chiropractor said, ‘don’t come through my door.’ For several minutes he pressed down hard on the point of greatest pain on my lower back and held what I imagined was his finger.
The pressure at first relieved the pain but as he persisted and time passed onto thirty seconds, a minute, more, the pain intensified. As if to distract me, the chiropractor told me the story of his father.
It came out of nowhere as my mind focussed on his words against the pain radiating from the point where he pressed.
‘I read recently,’ my chiropractor said as he stood to one side of my body for ballast against the pressure he needed to press on. ‘By the time we reach twenty-five, most of us have learned to use logic and reasoning to help us with decision making. Whereas until the age of 25 most people make all their decisions based on feelings.’ He pressed into my pain
‘Unless there’s been significant trauma,’ he said finger in place. ‘My father, for instance.’ He went on speaking as the pain seared into my brain and I resisted the impulse to respond, holding my breath as he used all his strength to push on that sore spot.
‘My father is such a person. He bases everything on his emotions. He broke his ankle and was in a private hospital recovering. From one day to the next he changed his mind. Then one day in rehab he’d say how much he’d miss this place when he left. The next day he’d tell you much he hated it. The staff were all butchers. Same with selling up and moving into care. The other day he said to me, “Let’s get down to selling this place.” The next day he’d changed his mind.’
‘What was his trauma?’ I asked trying hard resisting the urge to sigh as the pain peaked.
My chiropractor then described his father’s experience as a child born with deformed feet who spent many episodes undergoing surgery. His parents sent him to a private boys-only school, and whenever he returned from a bout of surgery the other boys would jump on his feet.
At this moment I let out a cry of anguish at his father’s horror, and the chiropractor released the pressure on my back.
Later as he explained why my hip was slightly twisted. We examined my Xray on the screen. To me it looked like a storybook Xray of a human spine, only my name was attached.
When he pointed out the discrepancy I recognised the minuscule difference on the left and right sides, which means I lean more heavily on the left and put pressure on that hip.
‘Your cartilage is wearing away,’ he said. ‘But you never know. You might need a hip replacement by the time you’re 94, but by then you might be dead.’
I had told him earlier about my mother’s three total hip replacements from the time she was 59. Three decades apart. She had endured eleven pregnancies. These must have caused extra strain.
She died at 94. What a lucky number to fall upon. How did the chiropractor know, by the time she reached 94, my mother was dead?
When he left the room at the end of the consultation, he apologised for loading me up with the story of his father.
I did not mind. Such stories, as much as they hurt to hear are also essential to my survival. They connect me to my pain and that of other people who inhabit my worlds.
The faint whiff of my chiropractor’s aftershave stayed with me as I drove home mulling over the state of my back and his father’s feet. The cruelty of children who attack the deformities of another.
And all the time behind these stories, the chiropractor, my Latin teacher trying to keep a language no longer in regular use alive, like my old bones, the words of the past lose their intensity, fade, and die.