Sunday, April 13, 2008
the spare room
in my mind, there are two sort of unpopular (at times) writers who emerged from australia. one is germaine greer and the other is helen garner. maybe unpopular is the wrong word. i guess i am trying to say that these two women seem to polarise people; people either love them or hate them, and firmly and unchangeably divided into camps, then argue for them or against them.
helen garner caused a lot of hullabaloo when her book the first stone was published. i remember standing at a party, drink in hand after reading - and thoroughly enjoying - this book with a small group of people. all of them were damning garner for the stance they perceived her to have taken with this book. all of them accused her of betraying her feminist sisters (ie the young women at the centre of the case) and, when i asked, all of them admitted to not having even read the book. from memory, there were a couple of women, and one man, and it was the man who was the most aggressively vocal in his anti-garner tirade.
i stood my ground and said that i'd read the book, and that if anyone came off badly in it is was helen herself, who seemed to be continually berating herself within the text, for her unkind feelings towards the girls and her wonderings - or suspicions - about why they wouldn't talk to her. she also agonised over the very issue of whether she was betraying the femininist "code" and seemed to leave it unresolved in her mind. i remember it as an honest and direct book, and being convinced that garner had really tried to do it to the best of her ability, and had wrestled with its complexities and been almost unhinged by it in some way. it was a book, i thought, surprisingly empty of judgment - she didn't seem to damn anyone, she was sincerely just trying to understand what happened, how it happened, and find the truth. she wrote about her difficulties with telling the story, and admitted it was one-sided because the young women wouldn't talk to her.
suddenly, liking helen garner became a kind of dangerous thing to do. not unlike saying that you like and admire germaine greer. everyone seems to either fear the greer, or love her. i want to resist getting into things germaine here, but suffice to say now i have finished on chesil beach, another very compelling book (but with a somewhat weak denouement) next on the list is shakespeare's wife. it's there, perched on the edge of my bedside table, waiting for me.
but to the spare room. i read it in two days. i passed it to my mother. she read it in one. we are both big fans of garner's - going back years. my interest in her is buoyed by the fact that while she is my father's second cousin, i have never met her. i missed the funeral of my grandfather - i was overseas. should i feel shame at not regretting my inability to attend my grandfather's funeral as much as i regret not meeting helen garner on that day?
my father said to me 20 years ago, or more, when i first told him i was working on a story (a winsome and girlishly pathetic pirate romance, from memory) that he could get her phone number so i could call and see if she would read it. i'm so glad i didn't. that story wasn't a story - it was just some written down fantasy, exploring my love-lust for a certain english fop-singer who had a white line painted across his nose. best left behind.
so she's kind of like a mystery to me. she hovers there, in the family, distantly, but someone i feel i wish i knew. i would like to have met her once. maybe at my father's funeral. god i'm a bitch.
for me, the spare room, resonated with an awesome power. i have been the character helen, and her friend, nicola, was my mum. as i read the book, i made all the parallels in my mind. i didn't have the 3am sheet-washing or having to physically nurse her (only a couple of times did i have to help my mother get dressed, dried or wipe her bottom), but i had my mother live with me for 15 months one time, and the second time for about 6 months. i gave up my bed happily, i cooked and looked after her, taking her trays in bed, washing her clothes, ferrying her to peter mac. that was all easy. what was hard was dealing with the resentment, the anger, the rage that would build. and then the guilt - how could i be feeling like this when my poor, sick, cancer-stricken mother, with no hair, skin and bones, in pain, who gave me life, who gave me everything when i was growing up - how could i then repay her like this?
it was a more loaded relationship than the one the helen character in the book has with her friend. but alot of the emotions were the same. like the anger. like the suspicion that your loved one is being taken advantage of by charlatan health-gurus. my mother told me that she went to a clinic much like the one described in the book - the theodore institute - which actually had a fucking tepee thing for smoking you.
but i didn't want to go in there, she said.
oh my god, i said, i didn't know about that place.
the man there, the doctor, he was like she described in the book.
oh my GOD.
and the vitamin c, they wanted to inject me with it, but i didn't really want that, and they were too expensive, so i just took the tablets.
for me, for us i suspect, i was hard having the mother-daughter role reversed. i didn't want to be the grown up one, i wanted her to stay the same. always there for me, always the patient, kind, supportive mother that she'd always been. i didn't want to have to be selfless, and swallow my annoyances when her particular personality foibles bothered me. i went through a divorce, i had to work and earn money and rush around after a toddler. cook. clean.
and i worried that my mum would die. we had several crises - she had a stem cell transplant and wound up in icu for days. she got listeria and battled that with no immune system to speak of. she got a bad knee from the cancer spreading and it wasn't diagnosed or treated promptly enough.
but mostly i worried that i'd damaged our relationship beyond repair with my moodiness, and my snippiness, and my sharp tongue. that my mother's unconditional love might have become conditional upon the fact that i be nice to her, that i look after her with kindness, that i have compassion for a woman who was sick. isn't that the natural reaction to have when faced with the sickness of your mother?
at times the compassion was hard to feel. and even harder to show.
mum survived and now the cancer is gone. amazingly our relationship has gone back to mother and daughter, the way it was. but we have all learnt things. about compassion. about communication. we had the hard conversations, the ones you absolutely should have if you think a person you most love is going to maybe, possibly, might happen - no, surely it's not possible, yes it is - die. the words have to be said, where you tell them you love them, and this one is the hardest, that you will really really miss them when they aren't here anymore. usually this bit is prefaced with "whenever you do die, even if it's in 20 years" and accompanied with a wryly brave smile, because you are both thinking "it might be alot earlier than that" but you both choose to ignore that and pretend.
reading helen garner's novel made me think, fuck, perhaps i'm not the only one to have felt like this when caring for a loved one. maybe it's common? maybe it's normal?
you see, there's so much written about the sick people, not much about the carers. that's why i loved this book. because it was real, and it was true. and as for the arguments re fiction and non-fiction:
it just doesn't matter. i'm not interested. when something makes me feel, or validates my feelings, that's enough for me.