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Thanks for being part of my Sunday Girl journey. X
Thanks for being part of my Sunday Girl journey. X
Newcastle’s Saturday soundtrack is the buzz of lawn edgers and the throttling hum of mowers. It’s the first sunny weekend after the April storms, the massive east coast low that wreaked havoc on homes and communities. There’s a welcome breeze drying out waterlogged yards and blowing a cloud of sawdust across my clean washing; our fallen gum was finally chainsawed into oblivion two days ago. The air is filled with sweet grass smells and the expectation of a sunny weekend, a fine Mother’s Day.
And on this fine morning, I found myself reflecting on what it means to be a Mum, all those moments that bring joy and exasperation in equal measure. Last year I wrote a little ditty in honour of Mother’s Day, my response to some of the over-the-top sickly sweet reflections on motherhood that peppered social media in May last year (you can read it here). This year I’m rolling a little differently, exploring some of my most memorable mother moments and experiences of the last 12 months. Here’s my take on my mummy year-that-was.
Making the grade. Making the 2014 preschool end of year concert with my partner and Missy Moo’s grandparents and great-grandmother. Full family representation at preschool’s final day followed by an organised afternoon tea at a cafe. Missy Moo was delighted we were all there and it showed. As someone who works long hours and often travels too, this effort in logistics paid off generously via Missy Moo’s smiles. I was pretty proud of that one.
Failing the grade. The very next night I received a phone call at 6.45pm whilst at work asking if Missy Moo was still coming. Pardon? To what? I listened to the daycare teacher tell me that the Missy Moo’s ‘graduation’ from 4 and a half years of daycare was imminent; they could hold off the ceremony for another 10 minutes. I rang my parents who agreed to drive her there as quickly as possible whilst I sped down the highway cursing the previous day’s smugness. Roadwork delays turned me into a sobbing mess. I made it to daycare as other parents and children were leaving. Missy Moo’s first words were a sympathetic “It’s OK Mummy”. Hmm. Mother-guilt cemented for at least 6 months.
Schools in. Missy Moo started school this year. Sheesh, where did the time go? Circumnavigating this new entity and all it brings whilst worrying that Missy Moo is making friends, spending time with nice kids, learning and coping. She’s still excited after Term 1 which is a good sign. Some minor traumatic moments but all in all she seems happy. And so we are too.
“You can go in now”. First meeting with the school principal. That feeling of trepidation when walking into a principal’s office doesn’t change with age. A tough conversation about school stuff-ups and a few tears and sniffles later I walk out reassured and hopeful that the problem will be fixed. Go Mummy-me!
Pass the pencils. Cafe colouring-in time with my girl. On increasingly rare ‘free’ days we search the web, source and print off black and white mandalas, grab her textas and coloured pencils and head off to a cafe together. We chat, colour and compare our artworks. Love, love, love this time with her.
Pass the bucket. This one goes to Missy Moo’s courage and how proud it makes me feel. My little girl is wonderfully brave when she is sick, really sick. She is the best young “bomiter” I have ever met. No fuss, no hesitation. She’s scared when she knows it’s coming but she’ll grab that bucket and bow that head, even when feverish, tired and sad. What a little trooper.
The best medicine. The sound of my little girl’s laugh is infectious, giggly and has a touch of madness about it. It’s natural and sweet and always makes me smile and laugh too.
Dance baby dance. My daughter and I sing and dance together all the time. I’ve embraced singers that will never grace my preferred station of Triple J’s playlist: we shake it off to Taylor, shake our booty’s to Meghan and I shake my head at Charli XCX. Nevertheless, we do it together whilst singing and flinging our bodies around. Glorious!
Nighty night. Saying good night to Missy Moo every night. Kisses, cuddles, sometimes lying in bed reading a book together. It’s special and I know oh-so-short-lived. She will grow up in no time and these moments will pass. I treasure them.
Last but not least. Each morning last week I was greeted with the number of days until Mothers Day, my own personal countdown . Sunday morning she had the same look on her face as Easter and Christmas Day, that gorgeous anticipation. I love the fact that she’s as excited by giving as receiving. It makes me hopeful for the type of person she will grow into and that is, without a doubt, the best Mothers Day present ever.
This week my little town of Newcastle has been battered and bruised. A severe weather event known as an East Coast Low traumatised us with its cyclonic winds and torrential rain. It was a tricky beast, rotating slowly, offering a ruse of respite in the short-lived eye of each of its many storms. The Bureau of Meteorology online radar became our dreadful focus as we waited for a sign it was over. The Low was vulture-like, repeatedly circling, ready to swoop. We braced for impact. Upstairs, our house shook. Water in the glass on my bedside table generated pretty concentric circles with each new gust of wind. The rain fell in great sheets, swathing the landscape in greyness. Rivers broke their banks, new lakes engulfed houses and cars, water surged and wilfully carved its way. Many lost homes, roofs, fences, trees, cars, belongings. People died.
And then finally, after two nights and a day, the Low left. There was still rain and wind gusts but nothing compared to what we’d experienced. It was time to assess the damage, to see what could be done, to prepare for the inevitable and continuing flooding. On Wednesday, Newcastle went into clean-up mode.
Disclaimer: I should probably throw in here that I’m a proud Novocastrian. We breed them tough in the Hunter Valley, especially in our town, and for all our apparent and sometimes-frustrating parochialism we are a generous and giving community. Bring on your worst because no matter what – the aftermath is when we shine.
We had a houseful of guests. We put out a call on Facebook that our little home was open for business. We still somehow had power and could offer food and hot water. We were better off than the majority of our family and friends. We fed cousins, showered kids, charged iPads and iPhones. Someone brought a thank-you bottle of red wine which was gratefully received by the grown-ups at dinner time. Others were doing the same; offers were all over social media.
At about lunchtime midweek I could stand it no more. The worst was over and I was itching to get out and see what was happening. I wanted to check out the big surf, grab some groceries, get back in touch with life outside the walls of my house. All within our home were fed and playing happily so I grabbed my camera and slipped out.
Driving into Newcastle was an eye-opener. My partner had been into town that morning to grab his lap-top so I knew a little about what areas to avoid and which roads were closed. I’d seen all the images in the media. I knew that many trees would be down; we’d had our own disaster with an enormous gum tree uprooted and resting precariously on our fence and neighbours shed. I knew that traffic lights were out, schools were closed, trains and buses were out of action. But I wasn’t prepared for the extent of the damage.
The trees. Everywhere, trees on their side, uprooted, branches, seeds, flowers, leaves, leaves and more leaves. Huge piles of greenery shaped by the force of the water and wind: a she-oak carpeted pavement alongside Newcastle High School; dark and heavy branches blanketing the walk at Customs House; piles of plane tree leaves along King Street. And the Banksias! May Gibbs’ big, bad Banksia men blown from their tree homes, all wet and muddy on the foreshore. Hundreds and hundreds of them spread mournfully on the ground, wet and unrealised.
I headed to the beach. There were many others, mainly families looking to entertain their house-bound broods while schools remained closed. And yes the surf was BIG. Messy, brown, frothy and just a little scary. A handful of surfers braved the waters at Nobbys Beach whilst pedestrians headed to the flooded Newcastle Baths, oohing and aahing over the surf-made waterfalls within its walls. The kid’s canoe pool was no longer visible save for a few rusty posts and chains on the southern edge. The Esplanade was closed to cars and strangely eerie to walk along in their absence. And Newcastle Beach – what was left of it – was a study in abstract art with millions of tiny pumice stones swirling in and out of the waves with noisy movement. The powerful surf must have broken up shelves of the stuff; there was more of it than sand.
The horizon didn’t disappoint, with heavy purple-grey clouds washing the skyline whilst the sun shone through cloud-breaks above. I saw some blue sky whilst I ran from the rain. There was 15 minutes of a gusty southerly preceding complete stillness on Newcastle Beach. It all felt other-worldly.
I spotted a family on Newcastle Beach ferreting through the debris and filling bulging garbage bags with…what? I asked. They were cleaning up the beach. The same surf that created all those tiny pumice stones had also pulverized the rubbish out at sea, creating a colourful confetti of plastic refuse. The father said they were happy to be photographed. The little boy told me they always cleaned up the beach after a storm. This was their ‘thing’. I wish I’d taken their names so I could publicly congratulate them.
During the first frightening night of the storms, my five-year old daughter snuggled against me seeking reassurance and warmth. I told her it was all OK, that we were lucky we were safe inside and could look after each other. She looked up at me and asked “what happens to the homeless people when there’s a storm?” A good question. We talked about it and hoped that they all found somewhere safe and dry to wait out the weather. On my afternoon excursion I saw a man in the foreshore park string up a makeshift clothes line to dry out his sleeping bag and tarpaulins. He’d survived the storm OK but all his gear was soaked. I read about a woman in Sydney who asked her Facebook friends to donate clothes and food for her to deliver to the homeless in her area as the storms hit down south. She and her sister collected the goods and distributed them among the city’s homeless community. Apparently they were easy to find, having gathered in large groups in any dry spaces they could find. This type of response restores my faith in humanity, just like the family on Newcastle Beach. Sometimes, people rock.
Not everyone was happy to talk. A fellow along The Esplanade was shovelling sand and sweeping out his garage. I approached him and asked if I could take his photo. “Why would you want to photograph this? What possible good could come from it?”. He was agitated and unhappy. I left him to it – I didn’t think he was in the mindset for a conversation about shared experiences. Perhaps the prospect of another huge high tide fuelled by flood waters was too much for him to bear.
And then there’s this. Someone who saw an opportunity. How better to put forward your climate change beliefs than use the enormous tree that’s crushed your car as the result of an out-of-control East Coast Low? Severe weather? Tick. Dramatic outcome? Tick. You can’t help but admire this person’s dedication to their cause.
There are many cafes and restaurants who’ve opened their doors to people without power. They all deserve a shout out, like the Newie Burger Company at The Cambridge who offered free tea, coffee and movies for kids to watch and the Euro Bar in Hamilton offering free pasta dinners to those in need. Of course, there’s so many more that could be mentioned – sandwich shops catering for emergency workers, pubs keeping isolated towns in good spirits, people opening their doors to strangers for showers, offerings of empty freezers so those without power don’t lose all their food. In a wonderful and usual show of Hunter Valley-ian ethos even those in need are extending their limited resources to others.
When in dire straits it’s good to have a sense of humour. Tuesday night’s 135km/hour winds wreaked havoc in many ways, not the least of which was the ‘flying trampoline’ effect. Many woke on Wednesday to strangely empty backyards, owners not sure what was missing but knowing there was an absence. In homage to the flight of the trampoline(s), there is now a Facebook page entitled “Where’s my Trampoline gone? April 2015 carnage”. Yes, you can upload your crazy pics of trampolines gone rogue. The page has 5,237 followers and growing. The things you do when you’re in lockdown and looking for the lighter side of a natural disaster.
And so in the aftermath of the storm, I offer the following:
Now for something I didn’t write. I love this perspective and think it sums up our East Coast Low experience rather well. These words belong to Paul Burke – dog owner, fireman and photographer extraordinaire:
“Now the wind and rain has stopped for a while, I can’t help but think Mother Nature has walked away from this excited conversation we’ve been having all day, shaking her head, thinking “…they thought it was all about them!”
Yes, I suspect she has.
Today’s blogpost is brought to you by life: rich and glorious. How quickly we can forget it.
So far 2014 has been quite the challenge. Health issues (you can read about it here), work restructures, applying for jobs, the start of preschool – busy, stressful, chaotic. In thinking about what to write in this blogpost I found myself looking at pictures instead. I take photos, lots of them, to remind me of beautiful moments and to catalogue the happy times. I can’t help it; I like to record things. And my most recent photos made me realise that for all the hurdles of the last 2 months, there’s been joyous times too. Little events that add up to some pretty funny and wonderful moments, captured in some of my favourite shots.
1. The Advent of Maxie
I’ll begin this story with a description of a wonderful, fluffy, old boy in our household, our kelpie-border collie cross Jasper. Jasper turns 17 (yes, that’s right – 17) in a couple of months. He’s a bit slow on his feet, a bit blind, a bit deaf, a bit wobbly. He sleeps for around 20 – 22 hours a day. He’s slowed down a great deal since we lost or other pup last year (you can read about Ripley the Unholy Terror here). He has doggy-dementia so every now and then relives his puppy years, bounding around the yard in springbok-like jumps that make our daughter Belle giggle with delight. We all love Jasper immensely – he’s the sook, the dog that always wants a cuddle, the Mummy’s Boy. He lives a quiet life of gentle snoozing on a soft cushion.
So imagine my surprise finding a scrappy cockatiel waddling about our deck, squawking belligerently in the face of poor old Jasper. To Jasper’s credit, despite being more than a little bewildered, he managed to haul himself up to sniff and stagger behind the indignant creature. I “rescued” the bird and put out some water and bread, hoping it would recuperate and fly home. Not to be. The bird seemed intent on harassing Jasper and/or flying straight onto my shoulder whenever I ventured outside. It was obviously someone’s pet, flown the coup. A little while later I saw a streak of yellow past the kitchen window and felt happy the bird was likely returning home. However, it was not long before I was again “rescuing” the vocal cockatiel from our front yard, the bird hugging the trunk of our gum tree with open wings, blinking against the southerly blowing up the street, bleeding and distressed (I don’t think the resident native birds took kindly to it at all).
This bird, now well-ensconced in a home with food and water, proceeded to ‘woo’ my daughter, my partner and my step-son. I borrowed an old bird cage from my Grandmother (who was rubbing her hands with glee at disposing of the large, rusted-metal object, having lost her Galah years ago). We bought bird seed, had a notice put up at the local vet surgery, did a letter-box drop and rang numbers in the Lost and Found. We even had someone come ’round to our house – still the bird was unclaimed. My daughter gave it a name. We bought bird seed, bird treats and a new cage.
And so Maxie became the newest member of our little household.
Well played Maxie, well played.
2. The Deviation at Nobbys
I have the luxury of taking Sunday evening walks on Nobbys Breakwall. I have 2 hours off from domestic life and I walk. I take my phone, I capture shots, I think, I listen to music, I tread it out – it’s my “me-time” (you can read about it here).
I hadn’t been for a while; surgery in January meant I was restricted for a few weeks. When the time finally came for me to resume my walks, I decided to do something different. I grabbed my partner and my daughter and took them with me. With the clouds threatening rain and windy conditions, we walked the breakwall. We threw stones in the water, we raced and chased each other, we played. We waited as the grey clouds grew close and the crowd thinned, then hightailed it back to the car. It was possibly one of the nicest Sunday walks I’ve had in a long time.
Whilst I highly value my me-time, on this particular Sunday I just wanted my family with me. I deviated from the norm and it was worth it.
Sometimes it pays to break tradition.
3. Nobody puts baby in the corner (dance, baby, dance).
February birthday celebrations for friends found me at a girly ‘High Tea and Tarot’ afternoon at Mayfield. Libby and Erica, friends and work colleagues, decided to combine their February birthday celebrations into one event. And so I arrived at Teresa and Erica’s home with cake and champagne in hand, ready for polite conversation and bubbles. The table was set, the eskies were packed and the fortune-teller/tarot car reader was ready and waiting.
I had a fabulous time. I knew very few of the 50 or more women but still I found myself chatting, bonding, laughing and having a bloody great afternoon. The tarot reading was quiet respite from the party happenings, although sharing the session with 4 other women ensured that any seriousness was kept appropriately at bay.
The party continued into the night: a drag show, dancing, more drinks, more dancing. As always, I had my camera with me so I captured the fun, frivolity and joy of an arvo’ high tea gone rogue.
My favourite shot? This one, which I think imparts the essence of the afternoon. It screams happiness, fun and joy as the birthday girls (in red and blue) shimmy and laugh their way around the lounge-room. Life is too short not to eat, drink and be merry.
I didn’t think much had happened in my life in the month of February, nothing worth writing about anyway. Yet these images tell a different story. Seems, happily, I could not have been more wrong.
The first week.
I was sitting in my car outside Lambton Swimming Centre with my family. Our daughter was learning to swim, so we were all at the pool for the morning. I made a quick phone call; I’d found a message the previous afternoon requesting I ring my doctor for test results. And so I was patiently waiting with the ‘phone to my ear, wondering how long they were going to take, wishing they’d hurry up so we could join the line to get into the pool. And then finally, this: “Doctor wants you to come in please. Urgently. We can fit you in this afternoon. Today would be best.”
I should note here that the test results in question were pap smear results, that I normally get results over the phone no problem, and that the urgency in the receptionist’s voice scared the bejesus out of me.
So I found myself at the doctors that afternoon, sitting in the waiting room feeling more than a little trepidation. My doctor called me in and after some small talk about her holiday (my doctor is my age, female, has kids and is great to talk to – we could easily monopolise 3 or 4 appointments with our chats) she cut to the chase. “You’ve had an abnormal pap smear result. They detected grade 3 squamous cell abnormalities, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia or CIN 3. I’d like to refer you to a gynaecological oncologist for further treatment.”
I think it was the word ‘oncologist’ that sent me over the edge. I cried a bit, then managed to ask some relevant questions. Abnormal squamous cells? Pre-cancerous? Grade 3? On a scale of 1 to 3, 3 is the worst. Is it cervical cancer? No, it’s ‘intraepithelial’ so the cells are contained and can be treated. Left untreated however, they will develop into cervical cancer.
OK. Upset but accepting, I leave the doctors with a handful of tissues and referrals.
The second week.
I couldn’t help it. I consulted Dr. Google. In the end, it was kind of reassuring, reiterating everything my doctor had told me. I had cancerous cells in my cervix, not cervical cancer – there’s a difference. The chances of arresting their nasty development via removal was very high. The chances of any sexually active woman having the same diagnosis was roughly 20% – 1 in 5 women. So…good to know…not dying just yet and not alone. I wasn’t experiencing something that no-one else had. I felt a little better.
My doctor had organised an appointment with a gynaecological oncologist for me – I said I’d take the first appointment available – so I found myself in Dr. O’s waiting room within the week. I’d been steeling myself for this visit; I was to have a colposcopy but didn’t really know what to expect, how it would roll or how it would feel. Lucky for me Dr. O was lovely. He patiently explained what would happen. A colposcopy involves an examination of your cervix after it’s been sprayed with an acetic acid and iodine mix. Squamous cells appear as spots, making it easier to determine how many there are and take biopsy/ies of the nasty little buggers.
The nurse held my hand, made small talk and then it was over. No biopsies for me; there was more than enough visual evidence of the squamous cells to warrant their removal. Dr. O spared me the discomfort, time and cost. I probably should have been grateful but instead was slightly terrified that he didn’t need to. Just in case there was any doubt, we examined a digital photograph of the offending cells on a large flatscreen TV in his office. I can now say I’ve seen my cervix. I should’ve been intrigued but instead I wept at the image of light pink flesh measled with squamous spots.
I drove home, explained it all to my partner and spent the rest of the day feeling sorry for myself.
The third week.
Dr. O had an opening for surgery. Last on the list, late in the afternoon, but I’d still said ‘yes’ of course. And I gained some perspective in the intervening days; what I had was nothing, really, not cancer, just “pre-cancer”. Like threatening clouds without the storm. I wondered how people who had cancer coped with the waiting – for treatment, for appointments, for results. I developed a new level of respect and sympathy for the people who wait. And in a not-unexpected development, I started thinking about my daughter and my partner. Because it’s in my nature to plan and roll out scenarios, to plot 5 courses of action at a time, I did just that. I thought about my daughter growing up without a Mum, what I could leave her by way of advice, what mechanisms I could put in place to support her. I wondered how she would get along with my partner when she hit her teenage years, how I could possibly ensure they remained close and loved each other. I couldn’t turn my brain off.
The day of surgery arrived. LLETZ (Large Loop Excision of the Transformation Zone) procedure. Under a general anaesthetic, the lovely Dr. O would use a loop of electrified wire to slice out the offending area of my cervix. The plan was this: cut out all the nasties, get the all-clear from pathology in a week, be happy. I wouldn’t need to see Dr. O for 6 months then, for another colposcopy and pap smear. If that was clear, then I had another 6 months reprieve, same tests again. Then, finally…I could pretty much breathe easy and return to the normal odds we all face. This was my best case scenario. Anything else would mean reassessing my options, my choices, my treatment.
I was admitted, operated on, released – all in a day. I don’t remember anything beyond the pre-op needle; I was asleep for it all. I was told to rest, take it easy, give things time to heal. I should expect bleeding from a few days to a couple of weeks. For one month use pads, no tampons, no exercise, no sex, no over-exertion. Fun times.
The fourth week.
And so we come to now. I’ve been waiting for the results of the LLETZ procedure, waiting to hear if they got all the cells, if the margins are clear, waiting to see if the discomfort and worry is almost over. I’ve been feeling OK, tired and a bit achy but generally…good. I went to the beach on the weekend and it was great; I felt alive and happy. We went to a 5-year-old birthday party last Sunday. My daughter started pre-school last Monday. I had a skin cancer removed from my arm on Tuesday, a not-unusual occurrence in my fair-skinned family. My daughter had a tummy bug and vomited all Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. My partner worked on the Central Coast on Wednesday. We had home-made Nachos for dinner on Wednesday night (well, my daughter had a recovery dinner of Vegemite toast, but the rest of us did). I worked from home, spoke with a bunch of consultants, organised some account payments. Life rolls on.
This morning, just before lunch, I rang Dr. O’s offices. Yes, they had my results. Yes, they were CIN 3 cells, yes they’d gotten all the cells, yes I wouldn’t need to see Dr. O for 6 months. Yes, yes, yes!
So my story ends well. I’m back in the pool of everyday women just going about their business, albeit with a little less cervix than others.
I thought long and hard about whether to write any of this down. I’ve composed elements of this blogpost in my head every day over the last few weeks. There are people reading this who will no doubt find it uncomfortable and others who won’t know how to acknowledge it when they next see me. There’ll be some who think I’ve overreacted, and others who’ll be worried and sympathetic. There’ll be some who are very familiar with this story, whilst some will think me indelicate, an over-sharer.
The only reason I decided to write this blogpost is because it would have helped me to read this 4 weeks ago. It would have helped reassure me that I wasn’t concerned without cause, that it’s not great but it’s not the worst. That it shouldn’t be isolating. That it happens everyday to all sorts of women. That it’s OK to be stoic sometimes and a mess at others. That just because it’s more common-place than you think, it doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s officially a Big F#@king Deal when it happens to you. That when you have no other benchmark, nothing to measure against, it can be terrifying. It just would have….helped.
If you’re reading this and you’re a woman, I have the following advice: make sure you have regular pap smears. I do and despite this, in the space of 12 months I went from being in the all-clear with no abnormalities to a cervix peppered with CIN 3 squamous cells. I’m lucky it was picked up. I’m lucky it was removed. Amazing and frightening and for now, over. I couldn’t be happier.
In my house there are unswept floors, unvacuumed carpets and untidy piles of unread magazines. I go to work early and promise myself I’ll leave at 4, then 5, then 6 o’clock. I plan to shop for groceries during lunch, after work, after I have collected my daughter. Late home, I face the spectre of cooking and serving an overdue evening meal to unbathed children while yesterday’s towels bunch wetly in the bathroom. There are dog-nose prints on glass sliding doors, finger-prints on the stairwell and a headful of unwritten blogposts. There are unmade phone calls, unmade beds, unrealised promises. I can’t stop thinking about things I should be doing and things I haven’t done. I want more time, more time, more time.
Lately it has been quite a struggle. And so I haven’t written for a while.
Today, with some precious writing time, I don’t want to dwell on the issues of madness and mess – suffice to say they exist and are unresolved. Instead I want to talk about something that’s saving my sanity and whose images are crowding my camera memory cards. It’s close and unexpected. It’s Newcastle, Newie, my home.
Most weekends I manage an hour or so to go walking. Originally unplanned and now pleasant habit, I head to the breakwall in town near Nobbys Beach, always an hour or so before dusk. It’s a beautiful time of day, my favourite time of day. It’s when sidewalks are being swept clean of daylight-muck and preparing for night. It’s when shadows lengthen, stark skies become shaded-colour and people pack up and head home. There’s a sense of completion and a touch of anticipation at dusk. It’s day’s end, the sunset winking in night’s welcome.
And the reason I’m walking here and not somewhere else is the landscape. I could walk anywhere; my gorgeous local park, my street, the bike track, anywhere. But I find myself driving into town, parking the car and treading the coastal breakwall with it’s beachy-backdrop, to its end and back again.
While I walk I listen to music. It soothes me more than the crash of waves, the cry of seagulls or the chatter of fellow-walkers. You might question why I don’t let the rush of water-on-sand be my soundtrack. I think it’s because I see these walks as a bit of an escape, a chance to clear my head of The Crazy, and so I like to set the tone for this time myself. It’s one of the few times I get to listen to my choice of music, that I want to hear, that I like.
Unexpectedly, these walks have changed my life. The solitary nature of them is soothing, and the exercise warranted, but it’s the stage show that’s taken my breath away. Incredibly, I’d forgotten about the power of it and how much better I am for it.
The air is fresh, salty, bracing. The ocean can be angry grey-green, mildly turquoise or glassy, crystalline blue, rolling gently or spraying thunder against man-made rocks. Recently there have been dolphin pods, breaching whales, quick and cheeky seals. There are try-hard tugs ushering in overloaded ships, their cumbersome bulk swaying ponderously into the harbour. To the side, over-excited dogs populate Horseshoe Beach, fetching sticks amongst the off-shore foam. People, everywhere, all sorts – families, kids, tourists, surfers, cyclists, walkers, lovers, strangers, even robed monks. There is sand, salt, marshy smells and flowering plants. There are bleached timber keepsakes, pock-marked rocks and swooping kites.
And then there’s the show. The horizon, the sunset, the end-of-day/beginning-of-night spectacle that demands its shaded-eye salute. The business end of the harbour looks delicately pretty in silhouette. The pink-tinged horizon urges you forward, faster, to beat the night-fall. Overcast days provide a gentler final act, a slower drop of the shadowed grey-on-grey curtain. Other times the harbour is angry and the only nod to the passing of time is the steely-blue boiling of the clouds as they roll into Newie.
Every week this event reminds me that nature is fierce and wonderful. I feel lucky to witness it, to be in Newcastle where nature is so near that I can always, always find it closely, quickly. That I can feel better and happy because of it. That it can transform me from darkly overwhelmed to clear-headed and composed; there’s something about facing a sunset that makes you feel special, amazing and even beautiful.
The sun sets and I walk a little taller, smiling. I drive home, sad for the moment just ended but grateful – grateful for nature’s show, for reminding me what truly matters, grateful I know how easy it is to feel better, and how unimportant an unkempt house really is.
I go home, kick aside the widely-strewn toys and hug my daughter.
When I first met her she was only a few weeks old. So small and gorgeous, eating and sleeping her way through the days. She cried and cried, sniffled and sighed her way into my heart. White with tan spots, she was a tiny Jack Russell, my first dog.
I’d had dogs drift in and out of my life as a child; we lived opposite a bush reserve which seemed to be a regular dumping ground for people’s refuse and unwanted animals, so I’d had a few puppy-pets in my primary school years. Each stayed for just days at a time before we ultimately delivered them into an uncertain future at the local RSPCA. I always tried to keep them, the undesired and unloved – their status endeared them to me even more. But it was not to be, and I promised myself I’d have the much-longed-for and four-legged friend as soon as I was grown-up and out on my own.
So here we were. My new gorgeous girl’s name was Lavender, the first of a run of formal names given to her by the breeder, written hurriedly on the top of her vaccination card. She didn’t seem like a ‘Lavender’ to me – she was all spitfire and boisterousness, leaping and pawing her way through our yard. She was demanding; her need for attention was boundless and her perseverance in seeking the same was impressive. She would literally cry and wail for hours and hours, with no respite, whilst simultaneously chewing her way through the base of the laundry door. She was strong-willed and fierce. She was a pocket-rocket-sized chick with attitude. I thought long and hard about her name and decided on Ripley – not for the ‘believe or not’ connotation, but after Ellen Ripley, the lead female character in the movie ‘Alien’. They shared so many characteristics, fortitude, guts and determination, it seemed appropriate.
And so Ripley continued to exasperate and delight us in equal measure. In retrospect, having a Jack Russell as my first dog probably wasn’t the smartest move – I had no idea how to train any dog, let alone a breed that needed strong direction. Jack Russells are just too damn smart and I was ill-prepared for the pre-emptive and complex nature of their thought process. Ripley easily assumed the title of ‘pack leader’ and lead us a merry dance for several years.
There was the time my grandmother ‘baby-sat’ Ripley at her house. Ripley was very young, still had puppy-teeth, and managed to corral my grandmother into the corner of her kitchen, nipping her heels whenever she tried to escape. She was still there when I returned a few hours later. Then there were the numerous times Ripley tried to escape – any gate, open for a millisecond, was an opportunity to flee. Her best effort was the afternoon before my 30th birthday party. She bolted through legs, out the gate, onto the road and straight under a moving car; I noted the tyre marks on her tummy as she was whisked away to the vet. I was so distraught, I wanted to cancel everything and yet – she was absolutely fine, back to engineering escape tactics within a week. And then there were the times when she simply needed to burn a little energy. She’d tuck her tail neatly under her bottom, pull her head in low-line with her back and shoot off like a bullet, lapping the yard. She’d run and leap into nothingness, off retaining walls and over hedges. One day, one overly-eager leap too far snapped her cruciate ligament – a footballer’s injury. The operation cost in the thousands; she chewed her stitches out twice.
Things changed for Ripley when we acquired dog number 2 – beautiful, gentle Jasper. He was more than twice her size and three times her weight. He was a rescued dog from the RSPCA. He developed pneumonia 3 days after we brought him home, and so disappeared again for 2 weeks back to the veterinary hospital. Ripley clearly thought she’d won; she never liked sharing and now believed she had somehow sent this new dog packing. She seemed….satisfied. Not so. Jasper returned, and with a case of nose-severely-out-of-joint, Ripley initiated a series of arguments, nasty ones. For a while we thought we couldn’t keep Jasper. Then, eventually, things were resolved when Jasper assumed his role as bottom of the heap, the last in the pack. Poor Jasper – such a kindly old soul, he was never a match for Ripley’s mischievous maneuverings. And so, finally, our dogs settled into life together.
I remember being (unnecessarily) worried about Ripley’s reaction to our expanding family. One New Year’s Eve, only just pregnant and still nursing the secret, I spent the night on our back deck with friends and family. I was tired – Ripley sensed my lethargy and jumped onto my lap for gentle pats and rubs. She nudged my belly more than once and eventually fell asleep curled into my warmth. I swear she was making the most of the now-dwindling opportunities for some alone time with me.
Life rolled on, and so we hit 2013. Both Ripley and Jasper were 15, turning 16. Incredibly old and happily ensconced in sunshine-y days of overstuffed cushions and soft brushes. Our dogs had lost the chase, and so now companionably shared water bowls and grassy lawn with pigeons and doves. Life became slower – filled with afternoon naps and sleepy tail-wags.
Which brings me to now. My best mate Ripley, my little terrorist, has gone. We had to make the terrible decision to put her down. She was so mightily old, and lost her dignity one morning in such a mess that her milky eyes bade me turn away. Her back legs lay loose and unwilling to move. I tearfully rang the vet and said “it’s time”. I held her face and stroked her head as she went. It was heartbreaking.
That was Saturday. The next day, Sunday, was a day of celebration. My grandmother, the one so richly rounded-up by my little Jack Russell, was turning 90. Quite a milestone. She still lives on her own, shops for herself and walks every morning to get the newspaper. She’s funny and smart and can source a sarcastic comment when needed. Our relatives were coming from north and south the be part of the afternoon. It was a lovely few hours of shared memories, champagne and laughter. I let myself enjoy the event and tried not to think about Ripley.
Then my grandmother began opening her presents. I was assigned the role of scribe, writing down the gifts on the corresponding card so my grandmother would now who-to-thank-for-what. Our gift was a photo book, around 150 pages of images of my grandmother from birth to now, and with family and with friends. I’d included 2 photos, one of each of our dogs. The caption under Ripley read “Moira’s nemesis”, a nod to the ongoing love/hate relationship they shared. It made me smile to think that even the day after she died, Ripley was still being remembered in all her rambunctious and domineering glory.
And so it came to be that within the space of 2 days I celebrated one long life and began grieving the end of another. Beginnings and endings. Life, overwhelming.