… and Back Again

I was soon to learn that Newcastle is a notoriously hard place to meet people.  Probably not so bad for my daughter’s age group as it is for people over the age of about 40.  It’s a University town and there was plenty there to keep her occupied and she made many new friends, but apart from work contacts and some family living outside of Newcastle but in NSW, I was pretty much on my own.  Coming from a small community where you can’t walk down the street without seeing someone you know, I was finding this hard to come to terms with.  I missed having proper friends rather than casual acquaintances, and I began to get homesick.  And then I began to get sick.

Sick is probably too strong a word for it.  But I was at the beginning of a long and very bewildering journey that led me down a lot of blind alleys and cost me a lot of money.  It started as a pain in my arse (literally) and one leg that gradually became weaker and weaker until I found walking very painful and difficult.  I went to four different GPs, three physiotherapists, two chiropractors, two Bowen therapists, two masseuses, an acupuncturist, an Orthopaedic Surgeon, a spinal surgeon and a neurologist.  I had two MRI scans, a cortisone injection, two x-rays, a nerve conduction study, and an ultra-sound.  Apart from ‘normal degeneration for my age’ everything appeared to be in good working order … except my bank account.  As I didn’t have any medical insurance in Australia all of this was self-funded, except the GP visits which I was able to claim on Medicare.

The adventure was over.  By this time I was well fed up and just wanted to come home and be re-united with my wonderful friends and family, not to mention my NZ Medical Insurance policy (which thankfully I still had) before I spent everything I owned (and didn’t own) on medical bills.  My daughter and I booked our tickets, the removalists (which I had to pay for myself this time) came and packed up our worldly goods and on 26 July 2013 my daughter wheeled me onto the plane back to Christchurch.  Within a week of our return I had found a wonderful place to live with magnificent views of the harbour in the community I had longed to return to, I found a job and I bought a car.  And yes, I did get to what I then believed was the bottom of the pain and leg weakness.  I saw a neurosurgeon in Christchurch who instructed an MRI which revealed that a bone in my back had slid forward over the bone below it causing the nerve roots to be squeezed.  In June 2015 I underwent four hours of spinal surgery which I was told would relieve the problem.

I will never regret the experience of living and working in Australia – there was plenty of laughter as well as tears, even if it was just to teach me how to appreciate what I have in the here and now, wherever that may be.  But I know that for my here and now that place is New Zealand.

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The Move to Newcastle …

I have never been one of those moaning Minnie’s who bang on about greener pastures in Australia at the first hint of a problem, but towards the end of 2010 I’d had enough.  I’d had enough of looking for work in New Zealand after being made redundant, enough of jumping through hoops at recruitment agencies, enough of the low wage economy, enough of the soaring prices, and I’d had enough of being woken up in the middle of the night to yet another seismic reminder that Mother Nature was clearly as troubled as I was.  As much as I loved New Zealand and particularly the community and space where I lived, I couldn’t eat it.  What I was eating was into my precious capital which was rapidly diminishing whilst I lurked without impact on the periphery of recruitment success.

I found the earthquakes a lot less alarming than the bizarre nightmare occurring in the Christchurch Recruitment scene at the time.   One job I applied for (an Office Administration position) required applicants to do six quite complex and time-consuming ‘tasks’. A little after the style of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire but without the dragons. I set about my tasks with grim determination and spent a whole day researching my material and presenting it in a way which I was sure would impress. And it must have done because I managed to get selected for the coveted shortlist of three. Only by this time the job specs had changed somewhat and they now wanted someone who could not only assist with accounts preparation and maintain their website but could also fix a leak in the plumbing, unblock the odd drain and do hands-on property repairs and maintenance. I imagine finding someone with such an eclectic mix of skills on the pay they were offering would have been the hardest task of the lot!

After that experience, I decided to look at jobs in a greener and less shaky pasture – Australia.  I found one instantly that seemed to match my criteria perfectly.  I applied.  I heard back (this in itself was quite an amazing turn of events), but it gets better … I heard back within the hour.  Unheard of!  AND they agreed I had that Royal Flush of Recruitment– a matching Skill Set!  But wait, there’s more – they were actually prepared to pay me reasonable money to do the job.  I nearly fainted.  And all this using the identical CV I’d been using in New Zealand.

After being flown to Auckland for an interview and without having to do any absurd ‘tasks’ that involving unblocking drains or doing a spot of rat poisoning, I got the job.  The company paid for my relocation and initial accommodation and by the end of 2010 I was shipping steel out of Newcastle to New Zealand.  That I had gone to the only place in Australia to have ever suffered a fatal earthquake was an irony that was not lost on me and although I was deeply relieved that my daughter and I were spared the experience of the February 2011 quake, watching it from afar and worrying about the family and friends we had left behind was heart-wrenching.  Because my job required me to have quite a lot of contact with New Zealand, I heard about it from one of our Auckland based customers and immediately went to the Stuff website and saw an unthinkable image – “the cathedral has crumbled!  I need to go home now!”, I remember saying to my boss in Newcastle.  He must’ve thought I was deeply religious and needed to take time out for contemplative prayer.

Settling into the job in Australia was easy – the people were great, I loved the job and particularly having the contact with the New Zealand customers and service providers.  Not long after I arrived we had gardeners come to our work, to whipper-snip the garden area outside our office. Two men in smart suits standing at the printer took a whiff of the warm breeze coming through the open window and simply said: “Aahh.  Two stroke”.   I couldn’t be anywhere else but Australia.

But settling into Newcastle life wasn’t so easy.  At first blush you could be forgiven for thinking that Newcastle is just another industrial town – hastily built around the steelworks and showing signs of wear, particularly around the steelworks where I was working at the time.  But Newcastle is better than that.  It knows it’s a bit bogan but it is what it is and it makes no excuses for it.  And what it has is some of the best beaches in Australia and some wonderful quirky places to explore in the central city.  The Hunter Valley wine region is only about an hour’s drive away and the Honeysuckle waterfront area which was rebuilt after the earthquake in 1989 is a lovely place to spend a lazy Sunday sipping a cold drink and people watching.

However at the time we arrived, which was at the height of the mining boom, it was not a great place to be looking for accommodation with no rental history and a large dog.  I was blissfully unaware before left New Zealand that Newcastle was in the grip of a housing crisis with just a 1% vacancy rate for rental homes.  Just getting to inspect the inside of one was a major mission especially since we were unable to connect to the wireless internet at our temporary apartment on weekends.  During the week it was OK as long as we put the laptop in the middle of the bed, turned it at a 45 degree angle, held our tongue in the right position and prayed for favourable winds.  Given that cyberspace is where you had to register your interest in a property to receive a text message as to when it was open for inspection, having a reliable internet connection was an absolute must.  So we initially spent an unfortunate amount of glorious weekend time sitting amongst groups of kids playing games like Zombies in darkened internet cafes that advertised LAN parties and lockdowns whilst we earnestly surfed the Ray White Real Estate website for a 3 bedroom villa.

The inspections weren’t that dignified either and  nor was the intrusive application process.  We had to provide a raft of pretty personal and confidential information, including copies of bank statements, payslips, copies of our passports, birth certificates, drivers licences and two or three references.  I was giving serious thought to throwing in a copy of my dental records just for good measure.  The one thing we had to avoid at all costs was to make any reference to the possibility that we might own a dog.  This would be worse than saying we were looking for somewhere suitable to manufacture P.

Through a series of happy coincidences we finally found a place to rent through a private advertiser rather than one of the over-officious agencies.  Like a lot of places in Newcastle, it was a bit run down, was on a busy road and didn’t have a particularly nice garden but we tarted it up a bit and it eventually became home.

The Winter of her Life

When Mum phoned me from New Zealand with the devastating news that she had been diagnosed with cancer and had been given weeks, maybe months, to live, I couldn’t believe it.  But looking back, I don’t think she did either.

The call had come on the Friday and the kids and I arrived at Christchurch airport from the Gold Coast on the Sunday. The day passed almost like a dream. The sleepless night. The early morning flight. Saying goodbye to my husband at the airport. Struggling with the children on the plane. Arriving at the airport without the usual excited Mum there to greet us.  Driving to her house without listening to her report of all the preparations she’d made for our arrival. Opening the front door and knowing then just how awful it must have been for her to have been so sick and so alone. Dozens of half-drunk glasses of water dotted around the house. Diarrhoea stains on her bedroom carpet because she had become so ill that she couldn’t control it. Little pieces of paper with next of kin and her solicitor’s name placed in strategic places.  She must have known. Why hadn’t l? She had been phoning me to say she wasn’t feeling well but why hadn’t I foreseen this? Where was my mother and her customary cup of tea and cosy chat?

I had forgotten how cold Christchurch can be in May. As I drove through Hagley Park to the hospital, I thought, as I had always thought when I lived there, how beautiful it was in the autumn. But I was surely avoiding the real issue. How was my mother going to be now that she was in the autumn of her life and how was I going to handle the winter when, just as surely as those leaves on the trees in Hagley Park would wither and die, so too would she.

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw her. Apart from the obvious loss of weight and some shakiness, she was still very much her old self and the next day I was allowed to bring her home. She had planned to move to Australia even before her illness and she still had her heart set on living out the few short months she had left at our house on the Gold Coast. Over the next month we made plans together for this but I felt as though I was riding an emotional see-saw.

There were times when I felt close to her. Like the time we went out shopping and she bought a jigsaw, supposedly for my son, but mum and I spent our evenings doing it when he was in bed. She was having difficulty keeping her food down so I would experiment with different recipes and we would both cheer and feel triumphant when an hour would pass without my culinary masterpiece reappearing in the bucket beside her bed. And the time we walked in Hagley Park and I told her how brave I thought she was and asked her if she felt afraid. She said she didn’t and that although there were things in her life that she would rather not have had happen, she had no regrets about anything at all. I thought it must be comforting to feel that way knowing that the end is near.

But the close times became less frequent and turned into heart-breaking times. She frightened us all one morning by announcing she was going to drive her car down to the mall to do some shopping. Horrified at the thought of someone on large doses of morphine loose on Christchurch streets, I quickly dressed and insisted on driving her myself and I think she realised then how ill she was as it was an effort for her to walk the short distance from the car into the mall and it took her some time to recover. Then there was the day she decided to do her tax return, something she always moaned about but secretly enjoyed doing on her computer. I felt so sorry for her as her addled brain would not function well enough to allow her to use the computer that she’d taught herself how to use and in normal circumstances, did so better than any of us.

But worst of all was the day I took her to see her oncologist and he told her that travelling back to Australia with the children and I would now be out of the question. I felt as though my heart was truly going to break, yet at the same time I was bursting with admiration at his bravery in telling her this and at hers for the way she took it, because I knew that for a determined and independent person who liked to plan things and see them carried out, this was a bitter blow. I felt angry and frustrated at my own inability to bring about her dying wish.

Whether it was a physical aspect of the disease, the drugs or a last ditch attempt to have some control over the situation, I don’t know, but sadly, as her patience with me and the children began to run out, it became obvious that her time was running out also. She had lost more weight, her eyes had begun to yellow and her morphine dose had been increased quite dramatically. The close times were long gone now, overshadowed by the dark days when the children and I couldn’t seem to do anything right, and I felt hurt, impatient and angry. She was desperately trying to keep a handle on normality by doing the things and behaving in ways that she had always done. But the illness was taking her over, magnifying what had previously been minor flaws in her character and the drugs that relieved her pain were leaving her frustrated and confused.

My sister arrived from England the day our mother had an operation to have a drain fitted which, if successful, could prolong her life by three months. But if unsuccessful, would mean the end would probably come in just a few short weeks. Mum was very vague and confused that day and I pity my sister for having the shock of seeing her like that after such a long and harrowing trip. On the way back from the hospital I pulled over to the side of the road and we cried in each other’s arms for a long time.

Although I had plenty of friends around me, I had felt very alone and I was so relieved that my sister had arrived and we could support each other. I wanted the operation to be a success because my other sister still hadn’t arrived from England and I knew it was important for Mum to see her while she was still reasonably well, but in the back of my mind was a hope that it wouldn’t be so that the pain and suffering would be over more quickly.

As it turned out the operation was a success, Mum was brought home and my other sister arrived from England. We were all together once again which was what Mum had wanted. “Treat this as a holiday,” she had said. “Just like when you were children.” But it was anything but a holiday. Three adults, two children and a terminally ill patient living together in a three bedroom flat designed for one person living didn’t make for a relaxed atmosphere and although Mum’s health had improved slightly, tensions were running high. The worst part of it for me was that I didn’t seem to be able to get close to her, and neither did my sisters. Of all of us I was probably closest to Mum and now I wasn’t. And she was dying. And it didn’t seem right.

Mum had a lot of friends and there was a steady stream of visitors to the house. I was surprised at how some people steered clear, not wanting to face it. Perhaps they were scared of their own mortality. But it was much, much worse for her. She had been vomiting up black bile after most meals, if you could call them that, and her urine was turning darker and darker brown. How awful it must be to know that your system is completely failing you and that your body has lost its ability to heal. To know that it isn’t going to get any better, but only worse.

Winter had set in. One morning the frost was so thick it looked like snow. I was so cold but it was so beautiful. I marvelled at the beauty of the majestic snow-capped Southern Alps in the background, thinking of the contrast between this and the balmy landscape of the Gold Coast. My mother too was now in her winter. The end had to be near and my sisters and I faced a tough decision. It was becoming too much for us. Getting her to the toilet was a two person job and, although frail, she was still heavy. Her medication was becoming a problem too because she wanted to organise it.

Eventually, amidst feelings of frustration, inadequacy, guilt and selfishness, we arranged for an ambulance to collect her and take her to a private nursing home for the terminally ill. She didn’t want to go. Even though I kept saying that we could bring her home on visits, I think she knew she wouldn’t see her home again. And I think I knew it too.

That night my sister and I went out and got very drunk. Although we inwardly hated our inability to cope with Mum at home, it was as though an enormous burden of responsibility had been lifted from our shoulders and the relief was immense. At last we could start organising things. It had been impossible while Mum was still in the house because she wouldn’t let us throw anything out. My sisters had to go back to England in less than a fortnight and I too wanted to return home as quickly as I could. We were in a frenzy of activity. We sold the house, started packing up and selling small pieces of furniture and clothing, sold shares and unit trusts and prepared ourselves for the inevitable.

Once in hospital she deteriorated very rapidly. Her voice became high-pitched and childlike, morphine had to be pumped into her at regular intervals and she wailed like a baby when the nurses came to turn her. I knew it was time to stop bringing the children in when I brought my daughter in one day and she didn’t know who she was. Her darling little Katie who she loved so much. Yet through it all her active mind was working. Always planning, always having a project on the go, always having more to do than could ever be done. She didn’t seem to know that now there was nothing more to do except wait.

It was in the final week of her life that I really felt that she was making an attempt to fight the illness and I wondered why she’d chosen to do that now when it was too late. I felt sorry for her and sorry for me. Sorry for me because I wanted to talk to my mother, my real mother and tell her all about this funny little old lady who had gotten sick. She wasn’t my mother. My mother was strong and capable and could cope with anything. My mother always made me believe I could cope with anything, but I couldn’t cope with this.

As it happened the inevitable came just eleven days later. My mother died on the July 4, 1995. She was 67. My sisters and I had left the hospital just half an hour before she died. We returned to find her laid out on the bed looking very peaceful, a dusky pink rose placed in her hands which were folded across her chest. I have never seen a dead body before, but it wasn’t gruesome or even that upsetting. Because it wasn’t her. All I saw was the shell of a body that had served her well during her life time, but had let her down so terribly badly in those last few months.

My sisters had to leave for England and I had to return to Australia with my family. Our lives were there waiting for us to continue. We quickly organised the funeral and finalised the sale of her house and possessions. It may not have been a particularly auspicious ending but at least we were all together at the end. It was what Mum had planned. She would have been pleased.

Desiderata for Dogs

• Go enthusiastically with noise and haste, and remember what boredom there may be in silence.
• As far as possible, without surrender, be on licking terms with all humans.
• Speak your truth loudly and clearly, and don’t listen to orders – act deaf and ignorant; you too have your life.
• Avoid loud bangs and fireworks; they can make you do wees on the spot.
• If you get compared to others, do not become angry or bitter, for always there will be some gay spaniel down the road doing exactly what its told.
• Flaunt your achievements and adopt your cutest look after embarrassing fuck ups.
• Keep interested in your toys however chewed; they are real possessions in the changing fortunes of time.
• Exercise caution in your dealings with cats, for they are full of trickery. Do not be blinded by their size or apparent lack of aggression. When cats are close by, life can be full of unpleasant surprises.
• Be yourself. Especially try to gain attention. Neither be fussy about food, for in the face of all hunger and disappointment, it is preferable to eating grass.
• Take kindly the cuddles of humans, gratefully slobbering their face with your tongue.
• Develop a fearsome bark to protect your home and family against intruders. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Some ‘intruders’ are actually invited guests.
• Encourage the wholesome discipline of walking each day. You are an energetic dog, unlike the cat or the bird; you have a right to your walk. And whether or not it is clear to your owner, no doubt they are not exercising as much as they should.
• And finally, always sleep on the bed, whatever your circumstances may be. And whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of doggy life, keep peace with your owner. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is a much more beautiful world when shared with a dog.
• Be cheerful. Always be happy.

Levi Brown
May 2010
Levi 2

A Most Frustrating Day

6:30am sharp(ish) – On the road from Newcastle to Sydney – need to be there two hours after Pacific Blue flight containing my dog (Levi) and my cat (Wanda) touches down at 7:30am.

6:40am – Wonder if Levi has thought to pick up a couple of bottles of Bombay Sapphire duty free on his way through. Hopefully Wanda will have reminded him.

7:30am – Take Gosford exit from Pacific Highway as had to deviate to pick up Serena (our GPS) which Kate left in Deb’s car. Certain to need Serena for negotiating Sydney streets.

7:35am – Meet Deb who was waiting for us at the Kariong interchange sliproad on the Pacific Highway to hand over Serena and also borrowed her E-Tag so we could go over Sydney Harbour Bridge which now has a no cash policy. Grumble about cashless society for longer than really necessary.

8:24am – Becomes evident that Serena is a total fuck up on Sydney motorways and has no idea whatsoever about positioning the vehicle in the correct lane in order to be able to turn at the correct intersection. Either that or she’s still pissed from the night before. End up going over the Harbour Bridge AND the tunnel.

9:20am – Arrive at Dnata Toll Cargo Office (wonder briefly how Dnata is pronounced and also where to park). Go into office and enquire about our little darlings. They have not left Christchurch. After much gnashing of teeth, realise I have got the day wrong. When the people in Christchurch were saying “We’ll send them on Saturday” and when their Australian agent phoned to say they’d “send me a map of where to go on Saturday”, they actually didn’t mean the ‘Saturday’ coming up. They meant the one after. (It actually transpired that what they really meant was the FRIDAY before the following Saturday but that’s a whole other story.)

9:25am – Turn around and head back to Newcastle.

10:20am – Get stuck in traffic jam on the Pacific Highway for the best part of an hour. Car in front of us is full of yobbos and guy in passenger seat keeps spitting out of his window. Kate and I have a reasonably in-depth discussion about how one guy can generate that much spittle.

11:30am – Kate needs to go to the Toilet – Stop at Mount White and have a Choc Shock Trumpet. Lots of motorbikes.

12:30pm – Arrive back in Newcastle and start to look on the bright side – it’s not really that late and at least we’ve had a full dress rehearsal and now know exactly where to go next weekend.

12:42pm – Decide to cheer myself up by buying a new lawn mower. (Didn’t really think this through as would leave no excuse for not mowing the lawn.)

1:20pm – Go to Charlestown Square and buy lawn mower from Big W for $240. Pleased with the bargain but Kate and I have difficulty getting it out of Big W store in its box on the trolley which also contains a Thin Lizzy make up kit, three rolls of sushi and a bag of potting mix. Decide to buy a couple of neck support pillows en route to the car. Transporting our eclectic mix of purchases proves to be quite problematic.

1:40pm – Have enormous difficulty getting lawnmower out of trolley and into the boot. Left arm nearly crushed in the process. Have quite a few laughs over this.

2:00pm – Do grocery shopping at Woolworths in Charlestown Square

2:45pm – Find outstanding Hunter Valley Farmers Market Local Produce Centre in the mall. Browse around for ages. Selling things like fresh Turmeric and Kaffir Lime Leaves at reasonable prices! Buy a lot of things we don’t need and that will most probably go off in fridge.

3:18pm – Car is full of lawnmower and fresh farmers market produce. The heady aroma in the boot is tantalising but the neck support pillows cause some stowage problems. Eat the sushi in the carpark.

3:30pm – Arrive back home and unload the car.

3:35pm – Assemble the lawnmower. Realise that I need to get petrol, oil and petrol container.

3:45pm – Go to the local garage run by Indians (not that this is a racial problem per se). Had the foresight to take the mower instructions to the local garage. Say that I’ve just bought a new mower and need petrol and oil and what oil do I need to get, etc. Seemingly over-helpful guy says that I need to buy a bottle of 2-stroke oil to blend with unleaded. I’m surprised by this as have never done this before but bow to his superior knowledge, give a small bow and thank him many times.

3:57pm – Rush home and put the blended mixture into my brand new mower

4:01pm – Not happy – there is a definite place for oil to be put into mower. Check instructions. Instructions say that “Under No Circumstances Should Oil Mixed with Petrol” be put into mower as will damage engine and void warranty.
Brilliant – have already done this on the say-so of the garage guy.

4:10pm – Go back to garage armed with instructions (again) and point this out. Feeling a little tense. Person who advised me on this has since left the garage and guy serving me is clearly useless. After much angst and gnashing of teeth find out from a very helpful member of the public (a customer) that my mower is a 4-stroke, therefore I need to add 4-stroke oil separately and unleaded petrol not mixed with oil.

4:20pm – Feeling even more tense. Go home and get the petrol/oil container I have just purchased and return to the petrol station. Ponder for a moment why they are still called ‘Service’ Stations, which presupposes that there might be some genuine ‘service’ involved. There isn’t.

4:25pm – Guy behind the counter cheerfully pours the petrol/oil mixture down the sink. Have to buy more unleaded petrol and a one litre bottle of 4 stroke oil. Another helpful customer happened to be buying the same thing and proceeded to give me much better instructions on what to do than either the instruction manual or the dickhead behind the counter. Am told there is no possibility of a discount/refund for what I’ve already bought. This isn’t a biggie as these products are pretty cheap in Australia compared to NZ, however there’s a principle at stake and inwardly vow never to use this ‘service’ station again.

4:35pm Arrive home. Feeling a bit manic. Turn lawnmower upside down and empty contents of petrol tank. Quite a lot of swearing taking place. Wonder briefly what neighbours might be thinking.

4:40pm – Fill mower up with undiluted unleaded petrol. Fill up oil tank with oil.

4:45pm – Switch on starter, pull cord and hold breath.

4:46pm – Starts first pop … praise the Lord.

5:45pm – Lawns mowed … agapanthas deheaded … crisis over….