Never Getting To Touch Someone Again Is A Big Thing
My Dad died last January on the day before my older brother’s birthday.
The night I heard I’d been stacking the dishwasher: I saw three missed calls, glowing in the dark on the kitchen bench a few feet away. Earlier in the day I’d been standing outside his apartment on the footpath when the heatwave we’d been having had conceded—sun behind clouds, cool wind racing through the streets, rain falling out of nowhere. He’d been missing a few days, and police were coming to forcibly open his door.
Drying my hands in my boyfriend’s kitchen after dinner my phone had rung again in its place, it was my uncle Keith in Sydney. Four calls from Keith on a Monday night meant Dad was dead. I knew it, anybody would know it, so I’d watched it ring for a bit before picking up.
Those few seconds between gut-knowing it and actually-knowing it lasted years.
Those few seconds between gut-knowing it and actually-knowing it lasted years. Inside my head was a football stadium of likelihoods, some hysterical, some sensible. Outside my head was nothing, time drooling along so that I might steel myself for what was coming next, like the brain’s version of a standby, technical difficulties broadcast. Time crawled long enough so that I could do more than just steel myself, though. I even had time to think about what it might be like if I didn’t get time to think, and about how I’d describe the moment later if I had to (like having blocked ears and waiting for them to pop).
Mum and Dad separated when I was too young to know it. All the memories I have of the four of us together—Mum, Dad, Jack, and I—aren’t in fact memories, but bits of wibbling videotape that I’ve archived in my brain in their place. Piles of autumn leaves in the gardens, learning to ride trikes out on Gore Street in the sun. After they divorced it was just me, Jack, and Mum. Dad visited occasionally from Sydney or Clifton Hill (wherever he was living), picked us up from school some weekdays and took us out to lunch on weekends where we ate back-to-front, banana splits followed by sandwiches or lasagne. Though I missed him, and asked after him, not knowing your Dad in our neighbourhood was nearing cliche: kids whose parents were still together were usually the subject of schoolyard fascination and analysis, and so it never came across me to question it. On my ninth birthday he appeared outside our house in the rain. I’d spotted him on the street, Jack had gone to tell Mum, and a few minutes later he was standing in the living room, dripping from the rain and holding a plate of pavlova and fruit.
Over the years and incidences we’d come to see the heartache he suffered exiling himself from us, how fucked up it would make him. Some nights he’d call the house and apologise to us. Other times he’d just cry into the phone. I’d spend much of my coming life thinking about men who choose not to father, and what it does to them and the families they leave. But eventually things fell into place. Dad remarried when I was six and Jack was seven. We built new families and new traditions, and recovered. I was around thirteen when it became properly clear what he meant to me—that I loved him like I loved Jack, or Mum, and that it didn’t really matter where he’d been. We were sitting on the carpet in his Thornbury house going through his records together when I noticed it. He was showing me songs, recommendations for knowing all you need to know, and putting them in a pile between us. It felt like sitting across from myself.
I took the phone call in the bedroom thinking if you’re going to have a mental breakdown do it somewhere the light is warm. My uncle on the other end had said my name and told me to sit so I sat on the end of my boyfriend’s bed. When I’d listened to the words—I don’t remember them now, not specifically—I’d stared out the bedroom windows. At the rain spilling over the side of the verandah (he told me he’d been found), at the tops of trees curling in the wind (he told me he was dead), at the streetlight in the back lane that I was always mistaking for the moon from bed (he asked me not to hang up). I sat and waited for the psychosis I was always sure would follow news like that but instead it rained, I sat there, Stef came in and I told him, and that was it.
He drowned, on a beach somewhere between Bangkok and Rayong. This is the part that hurts me the most. Not just that he had been ripped away, or that he had been alone, but how he had gone. The moment I heard it I began pushing the feeling it gave me somewhere else, into a dark corner deep inside me, where I’d never have to think of it.
The week that followed the news was, of course, a blur. Like real life was buffering.
The week that followed the news was, of course, a blur. Like real life was buffering. The night we heard, Jack and I had met in the rain outside his place and inside he and Stef and I worked our way through a bottle of scotch. Liv, who was pregnant, poured. When I was starting to see wobbles in my peripheral vision Stef drove me home, where I forgot to close the window and got rained on in my sleep.
In the morning Liv drove us to Mum’s to tell her in person. My head was glued to the passenger window. On the roads there was still traffic and people waving to friends from across streets and I’d been sickened by the whole thing, as if everybody were walking about in bathers during a snowstorm. Life was just carrying on and it felt perverse, reckless.
At Mum’s house I stood on the step outside the back door, going through a pack of emergency cigarettes in quiet with my Uncle Pete. Vague images were dripping in and out of my mind as I listened to the crying coming from the kitchen. Mum and Dad marrying each other, and the two of them in Europe with a four-month-old Jack (scenes I knew from a series of photographs I’d kept); Dad’s apricot shirt. The two of them and Uncle Mick in the South Yarra apartment, sitting by the window, candles lighting their faces.
I was under a bit of roof overhang hiding from the drizzle.
After Mum’s we drove to Thornbury, a longer and more painful drive still. When we arrived the front door was already open and waiting for us. The five of us—our stepmum Kirstie, stepbrother Angus, Jack and Liv and I—sat around the kitchen table not drinking our tea, and staring into space together. I had thought of Kirstie and Dad in Adelaide, in the two front seats of the car during Summer.
The calls began coming from interstate.
Every morning after the first morning I woke and responded to text messages that said are you up yet and how did you sleep this time, and then Jack or Liv or Jack and Liv would pick me up, and we’d go to their couch. I started writing things down so I wouldn’t forget—I was already developing a fear that time would pass without my knowing, and that soon it would be too late to mourn in earnest. Jack and I watched Floribama Shore and NBA, in the sense that we looked at the TV and occasionally through it. While Liv fielded calls from friends and embassies from the other room. My housemate Emily cleaned my room whenever I wasn’t in it, arranging flowers and making my bed, and one afternoon I cried about it sitting down in the shower. Ella gave me a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, the book Joan Didion wrote after her husband died, and I read the first few pages over and over. John had a heart attack at the kitchen table, John was pronounced dead. John had a heart attack, John was dead. I did that partly because it felt good—less like time was slipping away from me—and partly because I couldn’t focus long enough to get any further. I woke most days around 5am. Waited for others to wake, too. One early morning I sat at the kitchen table alone in the dark and watched the sky to go from grey to orange behind the tree in our yard, and sent a message to my friend Ingrid. I don’t know how I’m supposed to say this but my Dad fucking died. Izzy flew home from Mexico and late at night we sat on my couch and talked about death, and my Dad. She said “this isn’t like a hangover, it won’t be linear” and I thought about what losing someone might be like if you were on your own.
The days were rushing by of people and bouquets—never bunches of just the one flower. MTV and The Super Bowl were gently interrupted by hulking decisions that needed to be made, now: did we want his body embalmed (no), where did we want to hold the service (the library, because the footy club was booked), how would we have his things sent home (however they suggest we do it). Lunch kept appearing, or at least to me it did. People came by with condolences and cake, orchid plants. Dinner became an unspoken ritual, always five or more people around the table, filling spaces and silences where grief might otherwise slip in, and bringing with them bottles of booze. Wine, vodka, beer, whiskey. He’d be proud, I’d thought. Ella brought a pot of her chicken and sweet corn soup over, and nine of us slurped it up between stories. It was raining again—what everyone referred to as ‘appropriate weather’—and I needed it to stop. I did most of my crying in the bathroom, and sometimes while we were talking I was sure he could hear us. People were already speaking about him in past tenses, they were looking up the beach where he’d been found on Google Maps, calling it “a nice place to go”. Everyone grieves differently I was telling myself to keep from going crazy, while I tried to shut out the picture of him drowning. Someone said there were photos of his body on the beach, and I’d left the room to cry. When Jack had found me on the porch he’d said “we’re not going to look at that” and I’d agreed.
And just like that a week went by.
In a conversation we had years ago, Dad and I agreed that “The Mission” by Ennio Morricone was The Saddest Song There Is. We’d tossed up between that and “Deborah’s Theme” from Once Upon A Time In America, but “The Mission” had won. In the second week after his death I was walking from my place to Jack’s because the rain had finally stopped. It was the first I’d been alone since the news. I took the back streets so I wouldn’t see anybody, and so I could walk in the shade of the trees because it was hot. Watching people filling up their cars at the petrol station I hadn’t felt real, but when I crossed the road I passed the Archdiocese on Nicholson Street and there’d been a funeral—guests trickling out of the church doors like a little black creek. For a minute I was pulled from the world in my head out into the actual world. I realised there were other dead people, and other people missing them. I thought they must be everywhere, the grieving, Earth was crawling with them. It had disturbed me. I wasn’t ready to do it in context yet, wasn’t ready for horror on a worldwide scale. I needed something to localise the grief, so I took York Street and looked up “The Mission” on Spotify. I listened to it on repeat the rest of the walk, past The Newry and through the gardens, and on the last listen I felt better, back in my own head, but the song wasn’t as sad as I remembered. And so I was thinking maybe I’m sadder than The Saddest Song.
Jack and I drove out to Tullamarine because Dad’s ashes and suitcase were back. In the car we’d talked about practical things, things that had nothing to do with any of it, like careers and planning ahead. I’d been listening and saying things in response but most of me had been somewhere else, wondering where do they put urns on planes? And do they even know it’s a person? I’d thought of him not in cargo or on a special plane for couriered things but in coach, in a seat with a seatbelt on, and a drink (I couldn’t decide which) on his tray table.
A few minutes before the airport turnoff there was a small maze of business district cul-de-sacs and roundabouts in the middle of nothing. Like a village of building blocks but big. This was where they sent people to pick up freight deliveries. Couriers mostly, collecting antiques and eBay purchases and bulk plastic goods from China. Everything looked like half-rendered CGI, short grey buildings with little blue windows, and unhappy trees plonked beside things. One of these buildings was the customs department—where you declared your delivery before driving somewhere else to pick it up—and inside it was like the set of an office sitcom. Bits of A4 paper with Word Art as signage were taped to walls and partitions, and paper clips were arranged in shapes on desks. Fans blew and chairs were set out in rows and a video about custom declarations played just quiet enough to ignore. One person, Kimberley, manned fifteen desks. She called our number and we sat across from her in quiet while she picked staples out of a yellow envelope. She processed our documents and stamped our pick up as ‘approved’, and before she excused us she said “You don’t expect that when you go on holiday do you...” in the kind of voice you’d use when talking about basically anything else. I’d imagined pounding my giant fist on her desk like The Hulk, and it splintering into hundreds of thousands of pieces. I imagined throwing chairs and emptying cups of pens onto the floor. In my head I’d leave a path of Hulk-shaped cut outs in every wall and window between me and the car, but instead Jack and I had said nothing and we’d taken the lift.
At the freight pickup window there were two women working. One of them looked like JonBenet Ramsey grown up and the other had been just regular-looking. When the regular-looking woman told us she’d “retrieve the item,” JonBenet had stared at us for a bit before saying “the ashes?” through a grimace. I’d said “yep” and watched her turn back to eating loose grapes from a zip lock bag, pinching each one between the tips of her acrylic nails and dropping them into her mouth like an arcade claw machine. When the other woman returned, she’d handed Dad over to me through a gap in the glass and I’d said “thank you.” I chose not to cry there because a line of couriers was forming behind me. I’d tried to think about how if Dad were there, he’d probably have found it funny.
On the drive home he was in my lap in a cardboard box the size of a pickle jar. We were listening to Triple J, they were playing some indie rock, car-ad type song, so we’d tuned the radio to Gold for him. The Counting Crows’ cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” was playing, which was funny because Dad had loved Joni Mitchell—loved her—and that cover is absurd, so we’d turned it up. He was heavier than I thought he’d be in my lap between my hands (but not as heavy as I’d hoped he’d be) and somewhere between the airport and Fitzroy I noticed that time wasn’t buffering anymore, but that everything was happening in fast-forward now.
Dad’s urn went on the top of a bookcase at Jack’s house. He placed photos of Dad around it and I picked some gum leaves from a tree outside and put them at its base.
I began thinking of myself in two parts: the inside me and the outside me. The outside me was a person in control, a person moving in the world and seeing it, processing hardship and managing—well enough for people to even remark on it. I didn’t know who she was. It was like I’d been unable to perform and so an understudy had taken over, reading all my lines and doing all the movements. I could hear her, see her. She was courteous and patient, she listened and responded. She texted back. Showered, dressed, and brushed her hair. I don’t know how it happened, it just did. The inside me was in chaos—wilting, anxious, guilt-ridden, resentful. Sore, sleepless, and stomach sick. Not listening, not responding, not managing. She didn’t care what anybody had to say. I read about coping mechanisms somewhere and this, I learned, was the body surviving.
On the day of his funeral a table of pictures of him looked at me, and his urn among them beamed. I drank a lot. I could feel the two versions of me wrestling for control. I read a eulogy I hated off the notes in my phone—it was too soon to be doing this, I wasn’t ready to distil him in writing, I wasn’t capable of remembering anecdotes. I sat with people and pretended we were at a party until it was time to pack down. When it was all over my friends and I went to a bar across the street. One of them met a girl who came to sit with us at our table. She said “so I heard you guys were at a funeral?” in a hot girl voice and it had made me laugh. It kept making me laugh for weeks.
I read a eulogy I hated off the notes in my phone—it was too soon to be doing this, I wasn’t ready to distil him in writing, I wasn’t capable of remembering anecdotes.
I was trying, very deliberately, not to think about all the emails and texts Dad and I had exchanged. What they said, how many there were, and how they were going to make me feel when I eventually went through them—the thought of them there in apps and inboxes waiting to be revisited unnerved me. But on a hot and dry day in mid-February I needed to hear from him, I could feel it like a physical thing in me, like being painfully thirsty. So I searched him in my Gmail and iMessages and I read everything. All texts, all emails. I read the good ones twice. Like the day he heard he was going to be a grandad: I’d texted congratulations!, and he’d texted back Wahey! I just got sprayed in confetti! And even though I knew he’d been talking about the little animated confetti pieces that fell across the screen when iPhone users were sent the word “congratulations”, I’d always pictured him on Little Bourke Street in the sun for some reason, standing under a shower of colourful bits of crepe paper, like he’d walked onto the set of a movie or something. Reading phrases like My darling daughter burned like getting pinched or hit. I wasn’t even sure where it hurt, it just did. But still I’d wanted more, so I searched through shelves and cupboards and drawers, and I read birthday cards and letters and notes. I read where he’d written his name in the front of books I’d borrowed. I listened to the sound bites he’d made when he found out he could record his voice and send it in messages.
When I’d gone through everything at least once, I was sitting on the floor surrounded by things, and I thought I’m going to have a panic attack. Because one day none of them would make me feel. It was only week three. I thought about them now as used up. Watered down, as groups of shapes and spaces I already knew by heart, like homework, where the letters just floated and the words didn’t form. And there would never be new ones. I hated myself (myself from a month before, myself at fourteen) for deleting voicemails and not texting more. For losing phones which had messages and notes and photos and videos and for not backing them up before losing them. For not asking more questions, not recording him when he spoke. For not filming him. I had never filmed him.
I had gotten into bed and slept, past the afternoon, all the way through the night, and when the next morning came I put all the cards and books back. Opening my computer I saw an email from me to him. I’d sent it two days before he died. It said Hi. Tried to message and call but nothing, maybe your phone is off or something? Let me know how to contact you if you can. Hope everything’s ok.
The week after the funeral I found myself in his apartment. ‘Finding yourself somewhere’ was beginning to mean something new to me, it felt realer. Most days were like waking up again and again from a nap.
We were moving him out and taking his things to Mum’s. The real estate agent had stood in the doorway, and the couple Dad rented from were up from Mount Martha to give their sympathies, and to point out things they owned that were to stay. The husband had stood with the agent and said nothing. The wife had rattled around, moving things and touching things and whispering about scuffs on door handles. She’d brought me a card covered in lilacs that said Forever Remembered on the front. As we pulled suits from the closet and toiletries from the bathroom sink, she asked “Where could it beeee?” from other rooms (just loud enough for us to hear) because one of two chairs that came with the apartment was missing. Its twin was in the bedroom and it was grotesque to me. I looked at the rattan cantilever stool at the kitchen counter that belonged to my Dad and felt a pang of pride in him. “Maybe it’s in his storage” I’d offered, promising to track it down. She’d carried on labelling things that were hers so we didn’t pack them by accident, and as I’d put books into boxes—Rothko, Julian Barnes, Gore Vidal, First Tests: Great Australian Cricketers and the Backyards That Made Them—I’d fantasised about telling her the odds of us mistaking a pot of her miniature plastic lavender for my Dad’s. I fantasised about telling her that her decorating called to mind all the warmth of a funeral home and I should know. I fantasised about telling her that if I’d had to list all the things in the world that I cared for, her chair would come last, very last, after Twitter comments and UTIs, and walking in the wind, and people who pull on their dog’s lead while the dog tries to wee.
Eventually she and the husband left, and soon after so did we with all of Dad’s things in just five or six boxes. Sliding the last of his stuff into Mum’s Subaru I’d gotten a heavy sense that he no longer had a place on Earth. Nowhere that wasn’t borrowed for his things and the life that he’d made.
On the morning of March tenth I broke my promise to Jack and googled Dad.
There were photos of his body just like they had said, and of ambulances and small crowds. I’d scrolled quickly past them. There were headlines and URLs and bylines. Names and locations and summaries of his life, and I’d thought of of interns at spare desks researching him, submitting something to an editor and waiting for the next task. In the comments section of a news article on Facebook there were people with opinions about what had happened to him. Daniel had thought they’d find five stab wounds in his back. Just waiting for the follow up report, he’d written. A lot of people agreed: When is someone going to investigate all these deaths in Thailand! All articles finished with we have reached out to the family for comment and for the first time since it happened I remembered someone—in the haze of day two or three or four—saying that the consulate was “fielding press.”
I’d closed all tabs and carefully turned my mind instead to Miles Davis and summers in Aireys. Amatriciana at Il Solito Posto. To laughing and wrestling. Pacts and movie reviews. To the Tankerville at 3am. To plays and birthdays and international phone calls (the time he’d walked me through sunny Rome on FaceTime, from the dark of his study in Melbourne). His cups of tea, his dressing gowns, his cigarettes in the garage, his poems. His DVD box sets. His impressions. His deafening shout at the footy—“Gooo you demooons!!!!”—that was a mystifying meeting of in-joke and involuntary tic. The gold of his wedding band against the brown of his hands, and the bits of psoriasis that arrived on his knuckles in winter. His insomnia. His openness. His generosity. His wit. Memories of him were beginning to have smells and temperatures and time stamps, like the saturation had been turned way up: Dad playing his pop songs on the guitar in the Clifton Hill house, sun coming in the window behind him. Dad watching Jack from the sidelines with a sausage in bread, cold winter wind blowing, beanie pulled down tight. Dad leaning over the side of the bath, washing our hair, plastic boats and bits of Duplo crowding the water. Dad asleep on the couch on a Saturday with his mouth open, the footy playing on the radio, and the washing machine buzzing in the laundry. Dad, and me at four, riding the ferry round the Sydney Harbour. Dad with a hot flat white and the paper on Lygon St. Dad in the front seat of the Honda Legend, Otis Redding on the car stereo and the sunroof open. Dad in the aisles of Readings, Dad putting my head in his armpit, Dad dipping his TeeVee snacks in his tea in front of the telly.
Memories of him were beginning to have smells and temperatures and time stamps, like the saturation had been turned way up:
Of course, then, against my own will I was thinking about shouting at him in his apartment. I was thinking about not returning his calls, taking days to reply to messages. I was thinking about late December, standing him up for dinner.
I pulled out a jumper from a cardboard box of things I’d brought home from his apartment and it still smelled like him. It smelled like everything that had ever happened to us. I packed it into a box of its own and I taped it up, wondering if the smell would last. The thought of it escaping out the folds and past the tape—the thought of losing the last of his smell—made me sick over the toilet.
The inside me was slipping out in late March and I began to feel crazy, which my therapist said was normal. I thought I could feel him near me as I waited for the lights to change on a city street corner in the early evening. I started smelling him on the air. I wondered if people were maybe right about energy and afterlife stuff—not heaven or hell but just everything still being there—and there were moments (increasingly more of them) where I was inclined to believe: Grass rippled near the Merri Creek where we used to ride our bikes and I thought it was him; I was awash with calm and comfort for no reason at all in the middle of a patch of particularly crushing grief, and I felt sure it was coming from The Other Side; Stef adopted a cat and it took to me, and I couldn’t help but review my feelings about reincarnation, as internally and shamefully as possible, usually while Stef slept next to me in the middle of the night.
It was when I started to feel him that I started feeling the absence of him, too. I would think of having him round for dinner, then I’d remember. Walking to the train I’d think I’ll call him, then I’d remember. I’d hear something I knew he’d want to hear too, and I’d remember.
Soon things everywhere at all times began setting me off: Mondays, Sundays, dads with their kids, dark clouds, rain, men his age. Little Bourke Street, cigarettes, Wonderwood, and a poster in the window of a travel agent that said “visit Asia!”. Paperback Books, because we’d always go in. “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, the Aretha Franklin version, because he loved it, and so did I, and who wouldn’t. Most music I used to like abruptly became a special kind of unpleasant, because most music I used to like I liked because of him. All the good stuff was ruined, at least for a while: Steely Dan, Talking Heads, Billie Holiday, Elvis Costello, Earth Wind and Fire, Oscar Peterson, Stevie Wonder, Crowded House. “Better Be Home Soon” had played in the car one afternoon and though I’d wanted it off, that felt like a betrayal somehow, so I white-knuckled through it instead. The one song I found I could listen to was “Someday We’ll All Be Free”. I even liked to listen to it. I couldn’t figure out why that would be, but still now I think maybe it meant something.
Sunlight on grass felt ominous. Birds seemed symbolic of something but I didn’t know what (I still don’t know what). Wind in trees and twilight and That Streetlight In The Lane were all sharp reminders of loss and death, while other things just prickled: The entire suburb of Thornbury; The MCG and around it; The Brunswick Street Oval; Pellegrini's. And, like I’d expected, the spot where we’d sat on New Year’s Eve—the last time I ever saw him—where we’d cheersed to life, and the sun had gone down on us (an image that isn’t lost on me).
One afternoon, while waiting for a tram, I’d overheard two friends talking about chicken and leek pie (Dad’s specialty) and I’d been livid. Even eavesdropping is ruined, I’d sulked.
I was, all of a sudden, every day, walking among landmines of things that made me think of what had happened (and the mistakes I’d made that had lead us there) and every single one of them—it felt—went off. Once I was reminded, it was like a fall down a set of stairs: How did this happen? Why did it happen this way? What did he feel? Who did he call out to? What if it happens again? Bam bam bam bam bam.
This is what I’ve heard so much about: you experience grief and you are never the same. Stronger sort of but weaker mostly. “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” And so I have to think of this now as Chapter Two.
The second Sunday in April was Greek Easter. I was standing waist-high in water at the beach in Portsea, everyone else was done swimming and it was nearly home time. I’d just gone back in to pee. The sun was going down but the sky wasn’t pink or orange, it was going from grey to pale yellow into navy—a sunset with no sunset. Some shy but biblical light fell down through the cloud and onto the pier and the cliffs, and onto my friends who were laying up on the sand near the brush.
And I wasn’t thinking about lungs filling with water. I was thinking: they were right. This isn’t such a bad place to die.