A few of the portraits I took for a dreamer+writer named Mary while roadtripping across Europe.
There was a softness to the beginning of the year. A hopeful naivety. Within our little family everything felt truly good. We were invincible in our optimism. There was no hint of how the year would unfurl. No hint of the ways it was yet to break me open and the ways I’d stitch myself back together again, never quite the same as before.
It began in Perth. Candles flickering around warm baths. A chapter from The Never Ending Story read aloud each night. Chocolate smoothies and beach mornings and games nights with friends. An easiness broken up only by little things. A tantrum here and a sad day there.
One night we went to the arcade on the harbour. I was on a ride high in the air. Down below I could see the neon lights splashed over the water and my sweet little family waving up at me. My little family. I was almost knocked out of that ride by the love that swept over me. That love could have made me fly.
We went on a big camping trip for Alba’s 4th birthday, sleeping in a different national park each night. Bee took us to a beach he’d discovered on one of his adventures. We clambered over giant rocks slapped by waves, navigated thin paths hugging the bare faces of cliffs and came down onto an untouched beach.
I cooked pesto pasta on a gas cooker as they played in the water. I watched them in silence, my body warm with their joy. Then I took off all my clothes and I joined them in the water. The moon was full and for an evening everything in our world was perfect.
That beach had me dreaming of sun-soaked weeks spent by the sea so later we took a short flight to Indonesia, then a boat to a little island called Gili Meno.
But instead of sunshine and snorkelling, it stormed. Every day it poured and every day we trudged through deep mud; our repellent failing and our skin red with the itchy constellations of insect bites. Our money was stolen, we lost the dream house we’d applied for, working felt impossible and not being able to run around made Alba restless. So many tantrums. We all just wanted to go home.
I lay squished between Alba and Bee once Alba had finally fallen asleep and said something like, “This is okay. Life isn’t always easy. When it’s hard, we grow. If we can just stay positive we’ll be stronger for it.” So we embraced the rain, the mud, the chaos; mostly.
The sun came out to taunt us the day we left the island and we finally waded out into the water. We caught a boat to Lombok. Bee’s friend joined us and we travelled by scooter between crystal clear beaches, made even more paradisiacal by the rainy days that preluded them.
We ate vegetarian nasi campur and drank from fresh coconuts on the sand. I made the children on the beach laugh with my questionable Indonesian and Alba splashed with them by the edge of the sea. We lay on clean white sheets with salty skin and sandy hair and worn out happy bodies.
Seven years I’ve been coming to Bali. Seven years I’ve seen it change. Some of the changes are hard to bear because they are caused by tourism. Though I may be respectful and treat Bali like my second home, I had to pause when Bee asked if I’d be coming back anytime soon.
Bee was turning 24 so I organised a surprise party for him. When I apologised profusely for not organising anything (so he wouldn’t be suspicious) he replied, “That’s okay. Imagine if you’d thrown a surprise party, I’d hate that.” Oops.
I rented a beautiful apartment in the heart of Fremantle and I told him I had a photoshoot to go to. Instead I left to fill the apartment with the cheesiest party decorations I could find and all of his favourite people. When he came to get me, I welcomed him and Alba inside and as we all shouted, “surprise!” his smile was so big it reached his ears. He changed his mind about surprise parties after that.
We all had dinner at Little Creatures, where we first met. The days that followed were the kind of days I would like to press pause on and live forever. The kind of memories that were painfully sweet to recall in the months that followed. They seemed to mark a time when everything before us seemed only bright and filled with good.
When all of our belongings were packed into suitcases we left for Queensland. We were still without a home so we stayed in a jumble of cities and houses, from Kilcoy to Mount Tambourine to Brisbane to Toowoomba. We bought a car, a happy blue car that was old in a nice kind of way.
Then one day someone who read my blog told me her sister was renting out two houses on four acres of forest. We decided to live there with Jess and Raph. I didn’t know Jess very well, but she took lovely photographs and Raph was as sweet as she was so we followed our gut and decided they’d make great neighbours. They did.
Soon after applying it was ours. In the beginning all the furniture we had was a mattress. We were all sick but I remember laying on that bare mattress with my hand across Alba’s chest staring at the walls in complete euphoria. It’d been years since I had a real home and it felt incredible.
Our house floated in a sea of trees. During the day kookaburras laughed on our balcony railing. At night the stars were sharp white and the air loud with crickets. It was only a short drive to my favourite markets and a little further to Alba’s future school. We’d go to the local pub on Sunday nights with Jess and Raph. There was this big tree growing in the courtyard and fairylights strung through the air.
Bee would walk down to the creek whenever he could. He’d build shelters and teepees and make bonfires. Whenever he came up I’d wrap my arms around him, close my eyes and breathe in the smell of woodsmoke, forest and him. I’d watch him weave palm fronds on our lawn. His long hair spun into a messy bun, his bright eyes focused intently.
I’d never seen Alba so happy and settled. I felt pretty damn happy too. Like the luckiest girl in the whole world. Then shortly after moving in my little brother killed himself and everything fell to pieces. I wrote a whole story about that time here.
He was my only full sibling. The only one on earth that I felt really got me. Losing him was like losing a part of myself. I’d never known grief like that. My anxiety grew, suddenly death was only a breath away. Suddenly I had no idea how long I had with anyone I loved.
In turn it made me love deeper and take less for granted. His death changed me as much as his life did. Zake was the kind of person you never forgot, even if you only met him for a moment. I got to be his sister for twenty-two years. Maybe I am the luckiest.
I want to pause here to say there are often things I cannot tell you about my life. Things so wrapped up in others they cannot be untangled. This is a challenging aspect to writing so honestly about my life, not every story is mine to tell. No matter how important or how deeply they affect me.
We were flown to Europe for a photography gig. Two months road tripping across European cities shooting every day.
It began in London, I was visiting my father. My feelings towards my father have swung between idolisation and betrayal throughout my life. It’s hard to forgive a parent for never being there when you needed them.
But I wanted to forgive him. I could feel his regret as heavy as if it were a weight he held in his hands every day. He’d had a hard life. He’d watched his brother drown, his wife commit suicide and lost three of his children. Perhaps I couldn’t fully forgive him, but I could see he was human, he was sorry and he loved me.
I began shooting with Mary, the writer who’d hired me and my camera. A girl with long blonde hair, so tall her head was forever in the clouds. We were catching a bus to shoot in Oxford. I remember that bus ride, music in my ears and a blooming feeling in my chest for all the travel to come. I’ve always found such joy on buses and trains and planes just daydreaming.
We’d been out late and so I messaged Bee to say goodnight but he’d fallen asleep without replying. We always said goodnight to each other. Such a simple, silly little thing but it felt somehow momentous. A sign that things weren’t okay. I spent the bus ride home crying softly, my face toward the window so no one could see. That’s it, I thought dramatically, things aren’t going to work out. It was intuition I think.
Slipping that camera around my neck was like calling out the side of me that was fearless. Putting on the eyes that saw every detail, every light, every colour. The familiar ache travelled down my back, all the way to my wrist. My camera was my other limb again.
While I spent most of the day shooting, Bee would take care of Alba. Sometimes they had hard days. Sometimes I got home and they were spilling over with stories of adventure. Each time I returned, no matter how unfamiliar the city or the apartment, beside them I felt truly home.
Instead of stories, I have handfuls of moments from Europe. Those moments that remained like pebbles in my palms when the rest slipped through my fingers like sand.
The buttery croissants in Paris. The rain shining from the cobblestones in Lyon. Alba’s bright hungry eyes at Disneyland. Platform 9 and 3/4. Watching ‘Captain Fantastic’ in that cinema in Prague that smelled of old beer. Castles and tolling bells that made me dream of gone times. The bar I left early because I was afraid I was going to cry. Alleyways to get lost in and four scoops of gelato a day in Venice. Laura riding her bicycle to our apartment in Copenhagen with brownies for my birthday. Sitting on a swing in the sky in the oldest amusement park in the world, Vienna spread out like a painting lit by the full moon below us. Alba refusing to use the bathroom and wetting herself in an Austrian museum. Crying of joy eating pizza in Milan. Finally meeting Pauline on that rooftop bar in Berlin and almost bursting in tears when we had to part. Collecting ‘thank you’s’ in many languages. The new friend who dived into a lake and emerged saying, “You know when you’re so happy you can’t bear it?”
Unpacking, packing, unpacking, packing. The hours and hours of walking and driving. Alba and Bee standing at the door to whatever apartment we were staying in, waving and calling out “I love you!” until I was completely out of sight. A heart full of guilt and excitement and longing and wonder.
How beautiful it all seemed from the outside. How I smiled and laughed and skipped through the streets. Sometimes I thought I was a wonderful painting that was dark and ugly one layer beneath. If I only scratched the surface, perhaps in the dead of night or in a weak moment, it would all crack away and I was grieving and afraid and exhausted and anxious.
But at least Alba was content. We’d be in these magnificent places steeped in history and she’d be enchanted by all the littlest things. The ginger cat that slinked across the castle wall, the blue stone she found in the grass, a trinket she’d seen in a souvenir shop. I liked being able to see Europe through her eyes.
Bee told me she’d fallen in love with a toy pony from a gigantic toy store they’d visited in Prague so I went there myself and I bought it for her. When I came home from work that night I held it behind my back saying, “A little friend came home with me today.” When I placed it in her hands she shook with excitement and it was one of the happiest moments of my entire trip.
I’d host big picnics and sometimes so many people would come that I’d never get the chance to speak to them all. Sometimes picnics happened on days where I couldn’t be as loving and bright and joyful as I wanted to be. I beat myself up for those days. People travelled from other countries just to hug me. I was so grateful for them I wished I could give them more than just a hug back.
My Swedish blood has always left me with a quiet longing to visit Sweden. So when we’d crossed the border and Mary stopped for petrol I couldn’t help myself. I swung the door out and stepped onto the nearest patch of grass. As I stood there in silence I felt I was finally coming home after 24 years.
We were in Stockholm and I was most excited to see Klara. With her I felt like I was floating, like she took all the heavy things from my back. Even as I worked she was always by my side, holding my hand and reminiscing about touring across America. She’d lift Alba giggling onto her shoulders and make up silly songs as she walked. I saw her family again and I remembered they were my family too. It was painful in a way, we are all so far apart.
The last stop was Ölsdalen, Sweden. A red barn next to a green forest behind a blue lake. There was an old piano in the living room where Alba sat and played, her eyes closed and her fingers dancing. Klara caught a train and joined us. She played that piano too, her voice filling the room and my body. Leaving her was the hardest of all.
But in many ways, it was truly time to go back home.
THE SUNSHINE COAST
After arriving home Europe felt like a dream we could only recall the very edges of, like we’d been living someone else’s life. Our tiny town seemed small and silent after the loud bustling cities but it felt more real. The smells and the colours and the people. For a while we just breathed out and sunk in.
Alba started kindy two days a week. It was a beautiful Steiner kindy I couldn’t have afforded on my own so Bee helped us. The first time we dropped Alba off I cried on the drive home, worrying and worrying. But by the time we picked her up I realised I’d never needed to worry. She’s always been happiest surrounded by other children. I poured those precious free hours into my work and she came home with stories of friendships and birthdays and baking.
Bee got a new job. He’d leave in the evening and return in the morning. He’d curl up in Alba’s playroom to sleep so he wouldn’t wake us. A few hours later I’d wake him with kisses so he could drive Alba to kindy with me. The work was hard and he was sleep deprived.
I’d had this idea that Bee was invincible; this boy who hiked mountains in canvas shoes, whose favourite memories were working crappy jobs and sleeping in the dirt. But this was different. His eyes lost their spark. His silliness disappeared. He stopped building and photographing. He grew depressed.
I felt him becoming distant. His hands would stop reaching for me. He’d always break away from my kisses. I stopped feeling loved and no matter how hard I tried to communicate, no love came. It scared me, all the little things crept across my heart like strangling vines but I thought it would be all okay. I was used to big fights and drama within relationships, so surely this wasn’t so bad.
Then he told me he thought this life wasn’t the right life for him. It was like the time I was in that little car and that big car came out of nowhere and slammed right into us, sending us spinning. I didn’t see it coming. I was spinning between confusion and terror.
How pathetic it felt to plead. To try to explain it away. It’s the job, it’s the move, it’s my brother dying, it’s the chaos of Europe. He agreed he’d try and within a few days he said he was sorry, it wasn’t working and then the break in my heart broke all the way to the bottom.
My anxiety was consuming. How wide time stretches when you’re waiting to feel okay again. Waiting for a morning where you wake up and the weight doesn’t land upon your chest the moment you remember. Waiting for a time when you can think about the past without recoiling.
The hardest part was the beginning. My mind kept catching on all the beautiful things. I don’t know why I read those old love letters, it was like I was stabbing myself again and again in the place where it hurt the most. I got tired of crying. So much of the year was spent crying.
The world outside our home was full of white moths. Thousands of them. They swooped in and out of the trees everywhere I looked. I love moths, I can relate to moths. They are not immediately beautiful, they lack the splendid colours of butterflies but up close they are even more beautiful to me. My father used to tell me a dreamtime story about a moth who sacrificed all of her colours to a bleak snowy mountain so that wildflowers could grow.
One day a giant yellow moth landed on my chest, it had thick furry legs and glowed like the moon. I was at a cafe and it seemed every eye was on that golden winged creature. It had chosen me and I was a child again witnessing real magic. When it finally left I knew it’d changed something within me.
The full moon came and I decided to do a spell. I knew it wasn’t my place to ask for us to be together again, I can’t pretend to ever know what is best. So I asked instead for it to all work out for the very best. For us to stay close. As I asked I listened as if the moon could speak to me, which it has for as long as I can remember. It promised me it was all going to be okay. I let go. I told Bee that I trusted him.
The world outside became full with dragonflies soon after that. Strong, sure dragonflies darting here and there. I watched them from my deck and felt an unwavering trust in the universe. That this twist in my story was leading me right to where I was meant to be.
The prospect of being alone meant facing my fear of driving. One I’ve held for a long time, since I was a child and forbidden to ride the go-cart because I was prone to accidents. Even as an adult the idea of me driving was a joke to my friends and family. Our home was on a hill far from any buses so if I didn’t learn, I couldn’t get Alba to school.
I left my first driving lesson in tears. Not once did he tell me I shouldn’t be driving or that I was too clumsy to be behind the wheel. He told me I’d done well and perhaps he told everyone that, but he made me believe it. It was scary but I breathed deep and spoke to myself a lot. Bee was patient and gentle with me as I slowly got better and better.
Bee left for Tasmania for two weeks. I was terrified about this trip once. About being in our big house all alone. But in the days before he left it excited me. Georgia came to stay so I wasn’t alone. While we worked our children ran off playing and once they were tucked in bed we ate naughty delicious things and sat talking on the deck.
Some nights I shook beneath my covers. Some days breathing was a struggle. But mostly I felt this strength rush in. I felt myself step forward. It was like the universe had orchestrated the most badass single mama ever to be put on my path. Georgia didn’t make me feel like it’d all be okay, she made me feel like it’d all be great.
By the day Bee was coming home I was worlds stronger. I made up the spare bedroom for him, with a basket full of gifts and his favourite craft beer. I hung bunting outside our front door that read, ‘We missed you,’ and made raw snickers slice, his favourite. I was pushing Alba from the swing that hung from the tree in our yard when he got home. He was standing on the back of Raph’s ute, grinning and waving.
He hugged us tight for a long time. When we got to his room he said “family cuddle?” so we all lay on his bed cuddling. His skin still smelled of bonfires and him. He was a little sunburnt but he looked so beautiful. He was so silly and joyful, it was like having the real him back again.
The first night he slept in his own bed he cried. I’d joked that if he got too scared in the other room he could always crawl into my bed. So later that night my door creaked open, I held my arms out and we found our familiar places beside one another again. This was hard for him too.
We drove to my grandparent’s for Zake’s birthday. I was under the impression that something was happening, that something should be happening. But by the time dinner came and went I realised with a pang that there would be no celebration. No acknowledgement. When I brought him up the conversation was changed.
I cried on my mattress on the living room floor. I wanted to be home. I wanted to be celebrating my little brother’s birthday with a big bonfire and cheap wine and party hats. I couldn’t sleep so I woke Bee to talk about it. We huddled in the kitchen and I lifted a glass of water to make a toast, “To Zake. Happy birthday brother.”
Thirty people came to Christmas lunch at my grandparent’s. Children ran about our feet and Bee chased them across the yard barefoot. He handed me an enormous card he’d spent all night and all morning painting for me and I handed him a book filled with memories, a memento of us.
But I couldn’t tell my family what was happening. Just mum. She kept hoping aloud that it was one of my terrible jokes and making wildly inappropriate comments like, “he’s a keeper.” We were still so loving, dancing together in the kitchen and holding hands on the couch. I couldn’t imagine trying to explain it to my grandparents.
On New Year’s Eve we were sitting on a rug on the sand by the sea watching fireworks explode like flowers. Alba’s little hand was curled in mine and she’d make cute little sounds of surprise each time they lit up the sky. Bee sat cross-legged beside me. We were a funny little family, really, but we were still a family.
We were all fast asleep together when midnight struck. Impatient for 2017 to finally begin.
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Two fears have fought within me since my brother died. One is the fear of grief; that utterly unbearable darkness that hurts in places I’ve never known could hurt. The other is the fear of forgetting him. Forgetting the way his hugs feel or the way he loved Alba or all of our inside jokes. The first fear has ruled in the months that followed his departure from this world.
I’ve built a fortress in my mind around the very thought of him. I had to, it is such a delicate thought, as tender as a nerve. When I am reminded of him I let his name swim only in the surface of my mind. Deep down within that fortress I know there lays great horror I am afraid of, but there is beauty too. There is Zake. I picture a pile of treasure guarded by some fearsome monster. And so, with my wounds unhealed and the sound of his laughter still fresh in my mind; it’s time to dive.
I cannot pretend this is his story, the only stories I can ever tell are my own.
But these are some of the stories we lived together and the story I lived apart.
Zake was born into water in our home, just like I was. From the moment I saw him I announced to the world he was my baby. A declaration I will wear across my heart forever. Our father stubbornly refused to hold him for four days to punish our mother. He did not try to hide the fact that Zake was unwanted. A tiny helpless infant, days old and already treated in ways he did not deserve.
I have a hazy and perhaps imagined memory of the sound of our parent’s fighting and our dad’s van driving away forever. We moved north near our grandparents to live in a small house on Love Lane. Just Zake, mum and I. These memories are bathed in gold. The gold of light streaming through open windows, of ripe mangoes from our backyard tree and of bare skin honeyed by the endless sun.
I wonder sometimes if that period was made idyllic by what was to follow. All I know is I spent a great deal of my childhood wishing to go back to that little old house in Love Lane. Back to just us three.
Life changed when our stepfather came into the picture. The connection we had to our mother was torn by his jealousy. He was short tempered and violent. He sexually abused me when I was a child (though at the time I didn’t understand what that meant) and I hated him with all the fire I had in my little body. Most of all I hated him for how he treated Zake.
How many nights did I fall asleep to the sound of Zake crying until he lost his voice? How will I ever scour from my mind the memory of our stepdad dragging him across the grass like he was nothing? I wanted to pummel my fists into that man, to scream and scream and scream but I didn’t because I was afraid of him. It felt like it was us against the rest of the family and we could never win.
I learned to detach from my mother and brother, to become independent because the burden of their pain was too heavy. To escape into books and other worlds. It was selfish but it was what I did.
And yet there is always light. Our little sister Pixie was born, tender-hearted and covered in freckles. She would one day become the muse that led me to photography. There were five of us kids including our stepbrother and stepsister. We played on the street until late, climbing mulberry trees and building shelters to sleep in.
Zake would write novels hundreds of pages long and I’d love reading them even if I couldn’t care less about epic battle tales. When our stepfamily were away we’d sleep together in one bed like old days. We’d dream that our heroic father would swoop in and rescue us.
Then one day he did, for a short time. He was living in London and he flew us across the sea. I was eleven and Zake was ten. We’d hardly been on an airplane let alone out of our small hometown. We explored real castles, ate ice cream on windy pebbly beaches, rode double decker buses through busy city streets and chose any toy we liked from Harrods.
We had our elusive father in our grasp and we were in London. Far, far away from what waited for us back home. This may have been the happiest we ever were as children and it ended as suddenly as it began.
Mum had tried to make our lives stable. To find a man with a steady job, a home and a family. To tick all the boxes. Once she pulled us aside into her bedroom and asked us, “would you prefer if we left? We wouldn’t have pay tv or a nice house anymore, things would be different.” We said yes, of course, please. But he was unstable and she was afraid of him. The fighting at night grew worse. He told Mum if she left he’d kill us or himself.
He faked his own suicide, leaving mum to find the blood and send us running hand-in-hand to the neighbours to call the police. Zake was so afraid mum was going to be killed he began to cry. For much of his life, mum was the only one on his side. He loved her more than anyone else.
Then one day when we came home from school mum told us we were leaving. She anxiously hurried us to pack our things and I wondered when I’d ever see my step siblings again. Seven years in this house, I knew every inch of it and now where would we go? As I walked through the rooms they suddenly felt as unfamiliar as the day we’d moved in. I was leaving one world for another, swept up in relief and uncertainty.
Our stepfather came home unexpectedly. I remember the rage in his eyes and his voice, how mum handed him a handwritten letter and how he tore it to pieces. He laughed and he yelled. He began to throw mum’s books from the house. Everything went up in flames.
We moved in with our grandparents on a great big property dotted with fruit trees. A river cut through the land and from safe in the treehouse our grandfather built we’d watch the cows drink. Once when we were walking back I was bitten on the foot by a bee. Zake was so worried he’d tried to carry me home himself.
One afternoon on the long bus ride home from school I’d found a doll in Zake’s backpack and I’d pulled it out in front of all the kids. The bus was loud with cruel laughter. When I got off the bus I ran as fast as my legs could take me. It was like life or death. I managed to lock myself in a bathroom just before he caught me. Mum passed sandwiches beneath the door and it was hours before he calmed down.
It was not the only time I was trapped in a room barricading myself from his rage. My bedroom door wore deep angry marks from kitchen knives. My best friend stopped sleeping over. If crossed, he’d destroy anything you held dear.
Mum saw psychiatrists who told her he just needed harder discipline. One spelled out that it was because he didn’t have a “D.A.D”, while he was in the room. I was always sensitive to the way everyone saw Zake, the way they labelled him ‘difficult child’ and saw nothing else. He never made it past primary school and he wasn’t diagnosed with Aspergers until he was 18.
He wasn’t aggressive by nature, in fact he was calm and kind. He was delicate with curling blonde hair, laughing brown eyes and deep dimples. He’d sleep curled around his cat. He held a beautiful trust in the world that was slowly and surely lost. I cannot pretend I was a good big sister to him as a teenager. We were enemies mostly. Though our bond was unspoken it was unbreakable in every moment that mattered.
We had a secret tradition. Late every Christmas Eve one of us would wake the other and we’d quietly open our presents beneath the tree, careful not to rip the paper and desperately trying to stifle our laughter. Once we mistook a popcorn maker for a gaming console we were longing for. It was the most disappointing Christmas ever.
A man came along and promised to help Zake at a time when mum was struggling. She trusted him and he treated Zake like he was special when no one else did. He took Zake away to Germany for six months but when he came home he was even more broken than before.
He became severely addicted to online gaming, he stopped leaving the house and he barely ate. He was a ghost of himself. He lived in another world inside his computer and the real Zake was nowhere to be found.
He wouldn’t talk, so I’d sit on his bed and watch him play his games for hours on end. It was all I could do to connect with him. He never said it but I know he liked me being there. When I moved out of home at sixteen he didn’t come to the airport. I don’t remember if he ever said goodbye.
I was in Los Angeles, staying in my friend’s house in the Hollywood Hills when mum called me. At that point we weren’t close and she never called so I knew instantly something was wrong. She told me Zake had attempted suicide. I was in shock. I relived all the ways I’d failed him as a sister, blow after blow. I needed so badly to be with him, to apologise and to love him.
Then something extraordinary happened. I came back to my hometown to find my brother with light in his eyes. A brother who hugged me, who made me laugh, who couldn’t stop talking. I remember trying to act casual, trying not to cry at the miracle of what was happening in front of me. He told me that when he was in the ambulance he was struck by the realisation that life was just a big game and he got to choose how he wanted to play.
His change was a joy that rippled throughout our whole family. He went back to school and made more friends than I’d accumulated in a lifetime. He got a job at a fast food place where he was known for dancing as he cleaned. He became passionate about what it meant to be a good person. He questioned everything and wanted to be a stand-up comedian.
It became apparent how alike we were. In our sensitivity, our inappropriate sense of humour, our fear of being misunderstood and our way of seeing the world. He’d talk about Aspergers and his depression openly. During his first stand up routine he told a joke about how when he’d tried to electrocute himself in the bath our mother had complained that the short circuit would have broken her computer. It is a true story, our family have a strange sense of humour.
He made a list of his fears so he could conquer them. One was the fear of what others thought of him. So he walked through a busy shopping centre dressed in the most ridiculous outfit – a fairy dress, a spotted tie and a red cape with a colander tied to his head and a pirate’s sword tucked into our mother’s belt. He walked around until he could let go of what everyone else was thinking about him.
He asked me to come along when he got his first tattoo. It was a flying spaghetti monster. Later he would get a tattoo of a deer without eyes. People would ask him what it meant and he’d grin and say, “no idea.” No eye deer. He also got a gorilla with a unicorn in it’s mouth whose moustache read ‘be kind’, a dingo shooting laser beams out of it’s eyes and a rainbow that led to a pot of books. Mum designed most of them. He told me each one was a reminder he needed to be a better person. We planned to get matching tattoos on our middle fingers.
One night Zake told me he was sexually abused in Germany. I told him that the man who abused him had two cousins who abused me around the same time. Two much older men who took advantage of me when I was fifteen. There was something beautiful in being able to tell him he wasn’t alone. Even apart we were collecting the same scars.
He was the highlight of every visit home. He was such a skinny little thing but he gave the warmest hugs. When we’d walk down the street all kinds of people would shout out his name and cross busy roads just to hug him. He knew that every single person had something to teach him and so he treated everyone with the same respect and curiosity. He made a lot of people feel accepted. The broken days seemed to disappear from memory.
We held our hands together, standing on the sand by the sea beneath the stars on Magnetic Island. They were almost identical. Same fingers, same skin, same curves. We talked about how by blood there would never be a single human being as close to us as one other. I thought about the way that went for our histories too.
We’d have entire conversations in made up languages. We’d dance like we were dinosaurs and skype late into the night when we were apart. When his phone was stolen I bought him a new one because I missed his voice. I flew him to the Blue Mountains when I was pregnant and taught him how to cook. He was one of the few people I always had time for. I tried to make up for the years I wasn’t the sister he deserved and in return he was the best brother I could ever imagine.
Zake still struggled with depression. One bad day he rode his bike to a bridge with a rope in his backpack. He sat on the side of the bridge thinking for a long time before deciding he wanted to live.
As he was riding home a policeman stopped him for cutting across traffic. In an attempt to explain himself he mentioned he was suicidal. They told him they would have to take him to the hospital but Zake refused, eventually they held him down and sedated him. He broke a policewoman’s nose with his foot as he thrashed.
He was sent to acute mental care. Mum didn’t sleep that night. She begged them to keep him in there longer but they released him into the watch house instead.
When I came home for him again he was horribly depressed. He kept fretting about court and jail. I remember him standing in the hallway telling me that if he had to go to jail he would just kill himself. He said it so easily, as though it was the logical thing to do. I tried not to cry as I told him I loved him and needed him.
The policewoman took a liking to Zake and didn’t want to press charges. I listened to the interview and thought I could understand why. He sounded so unusually honest, like he was talking to his best friends rather than the police. It seemed so odd within the formality of the interview that I couldn’t help laughing. His lawyer told our mother that the police had had no legal right to force him to go to the hospital. He wasn’t going to jail.
Things got better again. Zake and Alba became inseparable. Every time Zake left the house Alba stood at the door crying, “my ache, my ache!” She’d curl up in the beanbag and he’d spin her around and around and her giggles would bounce off the walls. He told me Alba saved him.
One day Zake, Pixie and I spontaneously ran down the street under the pouring rain in just our underwear. When we got home panting and dripping Zake told me, “I see you’ve put on some weight Nirrimi.” And I just laughed, because he was the only one who could get away with that sort of thing.
He told me I was beautiful often, giving compliments as statements with no expectations or underlying motives; just as truth. When he said something kind you wrapped it up tight and tucked it away in your heart because it was precious and real.
Zake had a housemate who was a young single mum. She had a little girl called Willow who he helped care for from birth. When we’d skype she’d sometimes be sitting quietly in his lap. He’d read parenting books and buy Willow healthy food so she was eating well.
The last time I saw Zake I was on a photography tour with Bee. Our last stop of the east coast tour was my hometown. When we arrived we all sat together in mum’s living room. There was an air of joy about, like simply sitting in that room with my siblings and our mum was incredible. We were all together.
We caught a ferry to Magnetic Island. Zake brought Willow to give her mum a break. In Zake’s arms she was happy and content. I kept thinking about how wonderful a father he’d be.
I remember bickering unfairly with mum, running into the sea with Pixie and laughing with Zake until we both hurt. But mostly my memories of that time are lost and unrecorded. All I know is it felt indescribably right to be together with my family. After the trip Bee said to me, “I don’t think there’s anyone who makes you laugh like Zake does.”
We moved across the country to a beautiful place in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast. Closer to my family. Zake kept trying to call and I kept missing his calls. Days were full and I was distant. He told me that he needed to tell me something.
“What is it?” I asked when I finally called him back. “I just wanted you to know you’re the best sister ever and one of my favourite human beings.” I laughed, I’m not very good at accepting compliments. He told me things that had happened since we last spoke. When he was excited he’d talk so fast I could hardly keep up.
But he couldn’t tell whatever it was that he needed to. He’d start and stop and change the subject. He told me I’d be hurt and disappointed. I went through a dozen silly guesses before he eventually said, “I’ve been thinking about suicide lately.” And somehow that was a blow I didn’t expect.
Nothing was funny anymore. I felt upset but tried to be calm. He said he wasn’t really that depressed but it seemed to make sense, that every time he thought about it he’d get butterflies in his belly. I told him if he was dead he’d never get butterflies again. He said, “you’ve cured me Nirrimi!” and we both laughed. He made me promise not to tell mum. We spoke about life, death, perspective and meaning. He listened thoughtfully. It felt as though I’d changed his mind. That things might be okay.
I spent the night reading about how to talk people out of suicide. I was going to call him the next day. But by the next night I realised with pain I hadn’t called. The day had been so busy I’d barely had a moment to think. I could get out of this warm cosy bed beside Alba and call him or I could just call him tomorrow. I stayed in bed.
Alba and I wake to the sound of our car driving over the gravel of our driveway. Bee has gotten back from his first night shift at his new job. Outside our window is the forest and the birds are loud in the trees. Everything is beautiful and peaceful here. When Bee comes into the bedroom we pounce on him with questions and cuddles. “So what was it like? What did you do? Who was your boss?” He begins to unravel his stories when my phone rings.
It’s my mum. It’s so strange for her to be calling this early and things immediately feel wrong. When I answer she makes no noise at first and then she sobs my name. It’s a frightening sound, I have never heard anyone say my name like that. My blood runs cold and as she begins to speak I realise very quickly I don’t want to listen.
I hold the phone from my ear, screaming at her to stop. Yelling at her to not tell me because if I don’t hear the truth I can exist in this world a little longer. This world where he’s okay. Bee and Alba are staring at me and I’m someplace far away from our cosy home in the trees.
The only reason I finally let her speak is because I want to hear her tell me he attempted but it failed again. Yes, that must be it because he cannot die. Because that kind of thing only happens in films and this is real life. He can’t die because he’s my brother and he is the only one in the world who truly understands me.
She tells me he hung himself this morning. We cry together for a long time, the sound of our hearts breaking under waves of pain. With horror I realise I should have called him yesterday. But I didn’t. He warned me. The guilt is suffocating me. It’s dark and it’s unspeakable. Alba hugs me and asks me what’s wrong and I tell her Zake is gone but she doesn’t understand yet. Those words taste so bitter in my mouth. I thought I had more time.
I stand on the balcony. I can feel the cool breeze, the heat of the sun and smell the trees so clearly. Everything looks the same and yet everything is different. I have walked into a portal and stepped out into another dimension. I walk compulsively over the planks of wood on our deck, back and forth and back and forth. Careful to keep my feet between the lines.
I ask Bee to buy me a pack of cigarettes, he asks me what kind but I don’t know any types of cigarettes so I just shrug. I smoke on the balcony, pacing again. In between the horror are these strange moments of lucidity like euphoria. They flash for only a moment like my emotions are getting confused.
A song I wrote a few weeks ago plays in my head without pause. “If you die, I die too. No one sees the world like we do. If you die, I die too. No one shares my scars like you do.” A white butterfly lands on the railing and doesn’t fly away. My stomach makes hungry noises and I don’t recognise them. Time ceases to exist.
I search for portraits of us but there is nothing but childhood photographs. I have a terrible habit of hiding from cameras because of the stupid belief that I’m not photogenic enough. I vow to stop caring about something so superficial and unimportant. The first little lesson his death gifts me.
I tell my mum I wish I had a guitar to play. She tells me she wants to buy me one right now, I object but she asks me what the point of money is otherwise. That kindness means the world. Bee drives us to a guitar store and I tell the man at the counter I need a guitar because my brother committed suicide today. He must think I’m insane. I want to tell everyone. I want to scream it to the world. My little brother is dead. I loved him more than anyone and now he is gone forever.
We walk into a shopping complex and everything around me feels false. The glaring lights are too white and the walls are lined with advertisements for push up bras and KFC and 70% Off Everything. Shopping carts full of plastic bags full of stuff.
An old man walks by and I’m struck with the realisation that Zake will never grow old. That I will never grow old with him. I begin to sob as I walk and Bee squeezes my hand. A stranger stops me to tell me they love my blog, of course this happens today. I don’t tell her about Zake, I hope she will read it later and make sense of my red eyes and shakiness.
I can’t stop thinking about mum. On his last night Zake had made her laugh so much she’d doubled over with laughter. When the police came the next morning and told her he’d hung himself from a tree in the nearby park she asked if they were sure he was dead. Clinging desperately to hope.
They confiscated a suicide note that read, “they told me to hang in there.” Making inappropriate jokes until the end. Zake was always mum’s favourite though she’ll never admit it. They were best friends. Now he is gone. I can’t even bring myself to imagine what it’s like to lose a child.
I grow obsessed with how long it has been since he died. The sooner it is the more possible it feels to go back and change things. I imagine catching him in my arms as he falls and telling him it’s going to be okay. I imagine calling him and telling him to pack his bags because he’s coming to live with me. Or I’m going there. Or something. Or fucking anything. The guilt is a dark hand that forces itself down my throat and fills my body with black. It says the same thing over and over. “You should have called.”
The image in my head of his body swinging from a branch makes me sick to my bones. I want to know how long it took for him to be unconscious, how much it hurt and how he did it. I spend hours on suicide forums.
There doesn’t seem to be any point to doing anything. I barely eat and I don’t work. Georgia brings me chocolate, home cooked meals and sleeping pills; the latter of which helps on the nights when all I see when I close my eyes is his face.
Everything feels so fragile. He may have taken his life by choice but it seems to me that anyone could die so easily at any moment. Every time we get into the car I wonder if we will crash and die. I forget what life used to feel like before it happened.
Countless people message me to tell me their loved ones took their lives too. Suddenly it’s not some extraordinarily rare and horrific tragedy; it’s everywhere. It both reassures me and makes me sad. People are so kind it often brings me to tears. The tide of love from both strangers and friends carries me above the darkest parts.
I watch my hometown draw closer from the airplane window, so familiar and yet I’d never return if it weren’t for my family. It almost wavers under the tropical heat. At the airport I am crippled by a flashback of Zake picking me up. He was grinning ear to ear as he shouted, “hey sis!” and he hugged me tight, right here where I stand alone now. He wouldn’t shut up all the way to the house.
I expect to see him here. It seems entirely possible that he will jump out from behind a corner at any moment and yell, “surprise! I got you! I’m not really dead!” I lay awake at night fantasising about it like I used to fantasise about my dad coming home. This expectation stays with me my entire trip. But of course he never does jump out from behind any corners.
I watch his suicide video from his bed, it’s less of a goodbye and more of an explanation for why he’s doing this. There are times when I’m laughing. Damn it Zake, I think, suicide videos aren’t supposed to be funny they’re supposed to be serious. And yet there is an unmistakable darkness behind his eyes, like he is possessed. It frightens me so much I’m unsure I’ll ever be able to watch it again.
At the end he says, ”I’m really sorry for my sister because I have a really strong bond with her and she’s the person I respect most and want to be like most, except the dead part you know, but that’s my own thing,” he laughs, “well see you guys, I’m going to go hang out now. Goodbye.” He signs off by making dinosaur noises.
When I see Pixie she looks at me fiercely and only says, “don’t cry.” Mum hugs me for a very very long time. My grandparents are here and our entire family arrives one by one. I cannot deny the beauty in that, the fact we are all here together. And really, as strange as our family is, it is special how close we are.
Everyone seems so strong, planning the funeral and laughing about all kinds of things. “Zake wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad,” they say, but I am a mess. When I begin to cry in the middle of conversations hands reach for me and I’m so embarrassed that I disappear.
I stand in the shower tracing the lines between the tiles thinking about him standing there. Did he use this soap? This shampoo? Am I using his towel? I drink the almond milk in the fridge, grateful for the passion I gave him for eating kind. I remember him scanning ingredient lists in supermarkets and teaching his friends about sugar.
I meet Zake’s best friend Rumour. She was the last person to see Zake before he died. I’d heard many stories but never met her. The first thing she says to me is, “wow, you’re so beautiful.” And I can instantly see why they were friends.
She holds my gaze as she tells me how often Zake spoke about me and how clearly he loved me. I try not to buckle under her words. She is sunshine at our house, singing like a Disney princess and always smiling.
His friends are around most days. One boy tells me that Zake used to read my blog in class. I never knew he read it. I talk to his best friend from when he was a child, a sweet little boy who is now a grown man covered in scars who has been in and out of jail.
I sit in the same tattoo shop where I watched Zake get his first tattoo. Only this time I’m with mum while she gets her first tattoo. She has a phobia of needles so she’s taken three valiums and rubbed numbing cream across her arm but she is still nervous. She’d found a rough sketch in Zake’s journal of the next tattoo he wanted and that is what she is getting. She’s an artist herself but she doesn’t tidy it up. She wants it exactly how he drew it.
It’s a switchboard with two switches. One says go/stop and the other says life/exist. I read his journal while we wait for the numbing cream to work. I laugh aloud at the first page, ‘I will tell you the deal. Do not read this book, it contains all of my deepest secrets and most embarrassing moments. Just kidding, read to your heart’s content!’
The journal is a battle between light and dark. Some pages are full of advice to himself to be better, others are written in the throes of depression.
’My whole life has flipped around as emotions deceive me. Knowing this I still continue to follow them to the point where I want to destroy everything I hold dear and make everyone hate me. To the point of no return. This is my life currently. I don’t understand why I do what I do, I know where to go to get out of this but for some unknown reason I wish to stay.’
Next to the tattoo sketch he wrote, ‘This ability I have, I like to see it as a switch. Like an on/off light switch. But this switch does a bit more than a light. It gives me the power to be who ever and do whatever I please. The only thing it requires is strong willpower. The cycle has made another circle. This time I won’t lose sight of its warning that this will continue if I slip. I have too much potential to waste another day of this life.’
While she is being tattooed Mum says, “I know it’s selfish but at least I don’t have to worry about him any more. I don’t have to stand outside his bedroom listening for the sound of him breathing to make sure he’s still alive.”
I get a ‘Z’ in the place we’d planned to get matching tattoos. I like the feeling of the needle on my skin, the way it blanks out my thoughts. I wish Zake could see us here getting tattoos. Around my wrist is the bracelet he was wearing when he died, a braided rope I will wear until it falls to pieces. I wear his teeshirts and they smell like coconut oil just like he did.
In year nine I dated a boy called Deiter. He could have played soccer professionally but ended up in the army instead. He seems tough and blokey and yet he reads Paulo Coelho, listens to folk music and thinks deeply about everything. He is one of the few remaining friends from my youth.
I swim with him on the rooftop pool above his apartment. He tells me a story about a friend who he saved from killing himself. It’s a beautiful and heroic tale but it doesn’t end there. His friend ended up committing suicide anyway, just a few days later. He tells me this because he wants me to know that even if I’d made that phone call, it may have still happened.
I look up at the stars and I say, “I think he’s free up there now. He was so curious. He wanted answers and now he has them.” Sometimes I can feel that he is everything and that feeling is peaceful.
I call Zake’s phone, waiting for him to pick up. He never does. I listen to his answering machine and it makes me laugh. Then one day it stops ringing and I stop trying. I will never be able to call him again.
I go to my cousin’s house for dinner. My cousins and aunt are there and everyone’s drinking and laughing and I can feel the tears come but I bite my lip and grasp for numbness because I don’t want to be the crying one again. I just can’t stay and I’m saying sorry and everyone is looking at me with the pity I’m growing used to seeing and I am angry at myself. Angry that I can’t just act like everyone else. I can’t even walk to the grocery store because it reminds me too much of him.
On the day of the funeral I feel I am standing on the edge of a cliff. Like any little thing might set me off falling and so I need to dig my toes deep into the dirt and be strong. More than a hundred people sit in a wide circle in the park where he killed himself. People wear superhero capes and the craziest clothes they own. I wear my orange velvet flares.
A beautiful woman called Donna performs an unconventional ceremony, which is perfect because Zake would have never wanted anything traditional or religious. She places a branch in the centre of the circle and people come one by one to tie white ribbons and say aloud one word that reminds them of Zake. Mum first, then me. I say “teacher”, and as I tie another for Alba I say, “love” and my voice breaks. Colourful. Unique. Inquisitive. Inspiring. Kind. Honest. Silly. Philosopher. The circle is full of him.
I give a speech where I talk about the lessons Zake taught me and even slip in a joke about us all hanging out, which I know he would approve of. In his spirit we’ve all been making hanging jokes ever since he left.
Our stepbrother is here too. He flew over from the other side of the country, spent the night in a bar and hasn’t slept. He comes to sit by me in the circle sobbing loudly and telling me it’ll be okay.
Mum shows me where the tree is. It doesn’t look like the type of tree where someone would hang themselves. It seems like a happy kind of tree. When I hug it my face disappears into the spaces between the branches and from that little leafy pocket I talk to Zake.
I visit the tree every day. Sometimes with friends. I bring Elise one afternoon, a muse from the days I began photography. She tells me her aunt was killed by her husband. It’s as though I’ve joined some kind of secret grief club and suddenly I’m aware of how many of us there are.
Sometimes I feel like everything is fine. I laugh and I joke. Grief doesn’t always look like grief from the outside. Sometimes I feel a strange pressure to look sad when I’m feeling okay. To be how people expect me to be.
I don’t really feel I belong with the grown ups so I spend most of my time with my teenage cousins and with Pixie and Josh. Josh is Pixie’s best friend. A tall boy who hides his intelligence and kind heart behind a hard act. When I’ve decided to fly Pixie home with me, I realise I can’t leave Josh behind. It means so much to Josh that his eyes well up when he thanks me. He’s never flown interstate or travelled without his family before.
I’d grown fixated on this idea that coming home would be the answer to my pain. That once I was away from the triggers and in the arms of my own little family I’d be okay. But sometimes it’s worse. Being here with Pixie makes me wish Zake were here too. We’re always saying, “how much would Zake have loved this?” He never saw Alba at four. Could she have saved him again? The what ifs are constant but pointless.
Josh is always raving about my cooking and Pixie is always pushing the veggies to the side. I watch dumb youtube videos with her for hours on end and we smoke on the balcony late at night, a habit that ends when they leave. She’s the only sibling I’ve got left now. Even at sixteen she’s way cooler than I’ll ever be.
Mum visits Zake’s body in the morgue and makes a wish for his next life to be better. Before she leaves she slips my own bracelet around his wrist, a swap. Zake had asked for his body to be donated to science but the university said he was so young he might traumatise the students. He is cremated instead. Mum boards an airplane to us.
We’re in bed together when she shows us the photograph of him. It’s still burned into the back of my eyelids. His chin and eyes are sunken, his tattoos are so bright they burn against his bloodless skin and there are his hands, our hands. Only they look so wrinkled and empty now. It’s not Zake.
I hear mum crying in the other room most nights. She talks about Zake more than I can handle. I practice staying on the surface, like Pixie does. Mum tells us we should cry more. She says, “if only he could have come here,” and, “if only we took him seriously.” All these impossible things. She is a constant source of reminders but I also don’t want her to leave.
Then it’s just us. My anxiety gets bad. Easily set off by Alba’s tantrums or Bee leaving for work. I fall asleep with Alba so I don’t have to be alone with my thoughts but time is ticking and soon I’ll have to take those nighttime hours to work again.
Alba helps me without ever knowing it. I find peace in sleeping tucked around her little body, distraction in the games we play and magic in the way I see Zake in her smile. She speaks into the glass pendant around my neck, the one mum made with his ashes inside. “Hello Zake, I miss you,” she says. She points to the stars and tells me one of them is Zake. The thought that he won’t be around as she grows up is one of the most painful.
Sometimes I wish he’d come alive again for just one last phone call. Just to tell him how completely insane this has all been. To joke about how mum has been talking to his ghost over skype and to tell him that I’m finally writing that post about him. I just wish it had a different ending.
The despair of not having portraits and the tales of tragedy I hear every day make me realise I need to do something. I offer ten free portrait sessions to those who need them. Emails come in by the hundreds and in the end I choose nineteen.
For two weeks I photograph stranger after stranger. They bear tragedies I can’t fathom and yet they smile, because they carry hope too. My days are full of them and my nights are full of editing so I’m too busy to sink into sadness. When people thank me, I thank them.
I’ve gotten good at pretending. Good at hearing his name and not flinching. I can go hours without thinking of him. I’m scared I’m writing him out of my heart in return for numbness like some pact with the devil. Everyone calls me brave but I’m a coward. I’m scared I’m forgetting. I have such a terrible memory as it is. The only times I cry now are when I’m playing my guitar and singing about him.
I’ve always thought of my past as just a story I know, it’s easier that way. But I don’t want Zake to become another story. The pain is there because of the love. People say he’s still here in an attempt to reassure me and I know what they mean but it doesn’t help because he’s not here. He’s not going to answer his phone or be there in his bedroom reading books or send me any more stupid memes on facebook. He’s gone.
Jess and Raph come over from next door unexpectedly with limes and a bottle of tequila. By midnight the walls I’ve built around the thought of my brother won’t hold. I am sobbing on their living room floor, crying about how unfair it all is. I feel terrible for ruining their night. They tell me they love me, that this is what friends are for.
A few months after his death we are flown to Europe for a shoot. One of the reasons I accepted this job was because it started in London, where dad lives. He’s 80 now, he’s battled cancer and recently had a heart attack. He keeps telling me he won’t be around forever and since Zake died there is poignancy in those words.
I want to forgive him. For abandoning us, for hurting our mother and most of all for not being there for Zake. But with the wound of his death unhealed I cannot do it. I feel I’m finally taking off the rose-tinted glasses we wore in our youth. I feel anger and rejection and disappointment but I keep it all inside.
And yet dad’s heart is good. He is full of pain and regret. He stays up until 4am every night editing a tribute film to Zake. He sings songs to Alba that he used to sing to me and tells me how much I mean to him every day. At night he is hooked up to a machine that helps him breathe. Anger is replaced by love. Late or not, he is trying.
Dad puts on a DVD. It’s a video of Zake and I on skype. The last time I’d spoken to Zake we’d laughed about the way dad had to record every single skype call, now here I am bursting with gratitude at dad’s obsession. I laugh and I cry and I think, this is even better than a portrait, it’s us.
Months later I’m editing little pieces of the recording to share when I notice another recording of just Zake. He talks sweetly about meeting Bee and about the last time we saw each other and how grateful he felt to be there. I cry grateful tears, because even though I lost him I had him.
His death has brought profound clarity. The loss opened my eyes to what I have and to the knowledge that everything is truly temporary. Even in the worst storms I hold tight to a silent gratitude for my family, my friends, my readers, my life. I’ve taken a vow to never take anything for granted. A vow to love loudly.
I am a seeker of silver linings. From the moment Zake left my heart was stretched painfully wide, allowing me to love in depths I never have. Like love is shining out through every single crack in my broken self.
Resources for depression.
13 11 34
1800 55 1800
1300 659 467
1300 22 4636
1800 273 8255
Text START to 741 741
1866 488 7386 (LGBTQ)
0800 068 41 41
https://twloha.com/ – Online Resources
https://smilingmind.com.au/ – Meditation App
http://www.thetrevorproject.org/ – Support for LGBTQ
http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/ – Online Resources
http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html – International suicide hotlines
These organisations do incredible things, if you can donate (or even volunteer) you can help them continue to save lives.
/// After ///
The closest thing I have to a portrait of us. Little pieces of recordings dad made of us on skype in all of our glorious dorkiness and love.
I devote this month to my music. I’ve held this passion close since I was a child but never given it much attention. I wasn’t born with an incredible voice, I struggle with learning guitar and I’m very shy; so I never let myself take it seriously. What would be the point?
But then life went on teaching me lessons and it taught me that these things don’t matter as much as I thought they did. What matters more is the high that rushes in when I play. What matters is being brave. What matters are my stories.
The day I begin is reminiscent of my first day of year five. When I changed schools, My Mum and the school decided I could skip year four entirely. I remember staring in horror at a test that first day. The mathematical signs and science terms I’d never learned were like a foreign language to me. I felt stupid and afraid they’d change their minds and send me back. The sound of the other kids scribbling their answers was deafening against the silence of my pencil. I couldn’t stop my tears rolling onto the paper.
And now here I am staring at software I’ve never used, trying desperately to understand a hundred terms I’ve never heard and produce a song from nothing. Everyone believes in me and I’m already a failure. Even once I figure out the microphone and recording my guitar track, I can’t sing and I’m so close to crying from frustration I can’t write a single thing. “I give up!” I shout dramatically after three hours.
Bee finds me upset and when I tell him I expect to produce a song every day I can tell he thinks I’m insane but he doesn’t say so. He just holds me and asks me what I like about making music. I try to describe the feeling I get when the music comes.
So then it’s just me and my guitar. I write songs as I play but it’s still all wrong, everything is all wrong. I can call photography, sometimes call writing, but music refuses to be called; it comes only when it wants to.
I try to write instead. I rewrite a single paragraph eight times before I realise it is no better than the first. Time keeps on passing as I am slowly crushed under the weight of my own expectations while all around me everyone is doing everything and I am doing nothing.
I lay on the floor just to breathe. Breathing out this obsession I’ve developed of always having to be productive. I lay there until I realise failing is productive. Laying on this floor thinking is productive. It all counts for something, if only living.
One morning I wake up and the first words I speak are the lyrics from a song I was writing in a dream. I run around the park and a melody wanders into my mind. I finish my first song. The music comes.
More and more often I look at Bee without that manic consuming love. Often I look at him and he’s just Bee and I’m just me. Stripped of magic, stripped of electricity. These ordinary moments hurt me now and then, they seem to highlight the way love changes. I write.
“This is the part where your touch becomes so familiar that I forget where I end and you begin. Where I begin to talk to myself out loud because even though you’re right beside me it feels like I’m all alone. Where I stop wearing make-up, wear ugly old shirts all day, leave the dishes piled up by the sink and sing songs I can’t sing well. Where I’m cooking pancakes naked and you don’t bat an eyelid. Where I lament the fireworks of the beginning and romanticise the excitement of singledom. Where you tell me my soup is too salty and I tell you I hate that song you love. Seriously, I really hate it.
But this is the part where I don’t need to tell you why I’m crying, you already know why and you know all the right things to say. Where we work silently on our projects for hours on end without getting distracted by each other. Where we know each other’s bodies so well that sex is divine. Where you know just how I like my avocado toast (so much lemon) and I know just how hot you like your tea. Inside jokes, all the inside jokes. This is where you know all the characters in my stories and I know the narrative of your life as though it’s my favourite novel. This is where all games end and our flawed, messy, marvellous true selves begin.
This is the part where love whispers instead of shouts and even though it’s quieter now, it’s stronger than it ever was.”
Alba’s conversations wander from how much she loves ponies to the inevitability of everyone we love dying. When she wakes in the night from nightmares I rub her back and sleepily soothe her. “Imagine fairy princesses riding rainbow unicorns through glitter skies eating strawberry ice-cream in long sparkly dresses.” And she smiles that smile I love and drifts back into sweeter dreams. She is both girly and morbid, and I like that about her.
I’m cooking dinner when I am seized with anxiety. Bee is at work, Alba is being clingy and the day’s plans have all fallen apart. The rain beats at the roof as if to reflect the chaos of my mind. But will I look back to this day and only remember the calming sound of the heavy rain, the warmth of the bath I shared with Alba and the familiar smell of pumpkin soup simmering away on the stove?
This thought stays with me. How often do I daydream about those ‘perfect’ days when Alba was a baby or the idyllic days of my youth? How often do I hold my raw present reality up against my romanticised past or future and long to be there? The truth is life is never perfect and one day I’ll be nostalgically longing for now so I might as well embrace it.
We’re staying at Bee’s Dad’s home while he’s in New York. He owns an advertising agency and lives in a big house near the beach. Bee’s childhood dog Crunchie lives here; a sweet golden labrador who falls in love with Alba. As we swim in the pool he waits for us by the gate.
My friend Mary asks if she can take styled wedding pictures of us. I’m dressed in white lace dress, holding a bouquet of native flowers and kissing Bee, when I realise I’d really like to do this for real with him. I’ve never seriously considered that with anyone before.
My friend Zal gets us tickets to a festival where he is playing. Zal, the boy who will do anything for anyone without expecting a thing in return. He is Indian with long curly hair and we cook dahl together from his mother’s recipe. At the festival he plays in a chapel and the whole place is full of people and I am smiling at him between songs as if to say, “I’m so proud of you.”
Elle Graham is playing here too. She wrote a lullaby album for Alba when she was just a baby. We’ve never met in person but when I hug her it’s as though we grew up together. In a way, we did. We grew up in the same small hometown and chased our creativity while the world around us told us to be ‘realistic’. I watch her play from one of the couches strewn across the grass. Her hair is braided down the middle of her head and she is like an elven princess up there. I drink coconuts and eat crêpes and get tipsy and I love everyone.
For the first time in my life I throw Christmas. This is possibly the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done. It is made especially difficult by the fact I am doing it plant-based and our families are keen meat eaters. Once I brought a kale slaw over to my grandparent’s and my grandfather refused to eat it because he didn’t eat ’seaweed’. I tie my hair back; this is my kind of challenge.
I’m preparing every day until Christmas morning. I am sweating and stressing and everything that could be failing feels like it’s failing. I’m cooking too many things at once and suddenly the mushrooms are burnt and the picked fennel tastes weird and I forgot some vital ingredients. I’m biting my cheek raw when Jasper grabs me and tells me to chill out in the nicest possible way. It’s hard not to listen to Jasper.
And it’s fine. Not perfect, but fine. My aunt’s husband eats my raw cashew cake and says, “This actually isn’t too bad,” to which I shoot Bee a look to say, ‘did he need to say that?’ And the day ends with my little family in the pool under the beat of the sun, laughing and happy.
Jasper is over most days and he gets along with Alba so well we joke he is our nanny. The first time I ever met him I didn’t think I liked him. He seemed so quiet and serious. He looked like someone who might beat you up if you said the wrong thing. Now I love him. I can cuddle him and he knows exactly what I mean by it. I know he fights demons and I think our positive little family is a kind of medicine for him.
Alba’s Papa books a one way ticket to the other side of Australia for a job and momentarily my world tips upside down. Before I know it she is seeing him for the last time in a long time and I am making peace with a lot of confusion and hurt.
Then my girl is back in these arms she’s always known. I brush the knots from her hair, trim her nails, rub coconut oil on her skin, braid her hair. I dress her in clean pyjamas that smell like lavender and sun. I make her hot chocolate in her favourite cup. These simple things are delights I’ve always dreamed of and I feel blessed to do them. Blessed to make sacrifices for her and to struggle sometimes. Blessed to stay.
New Years sweeps in and as 2015 take its final breaths I think of myself at this time last year. A single girl in Melbourne watching fireworks explode outside of a moving tram. Yet to face her fear of public speaking. Yet to have her heart shattered. Yet to tour across America with her favourite band. Yet to meet the boy she’d been dreaming about. Yet to find her way home.
After three flights, a six hour road trip and a ferry, I am on a tiny island floating somewhere in the Tasman Sea. As I step off the boat and onto the pier I am greeted by loud smiles, New Zealand accents and shots of tequila.
I am here for another speaking gig. I know little about this retreat, but I feel an air of sacredness here. Like this is a piece of extraordinary amongst the ordinary of everyday life.
We all huddle together in a tiny room with wooden walls, listening to Si speak. His voice booms. He speaks about the the responsibility and power of being an artist, of sharing the uglier parts of life for those who can’t and of changing the world through art. The days we have together on this island are a gift, he says. This is a time and place where we can be totally ourselves, as weird or as mad as we certainly are. It’s a fine welcome.
From my bed I can see the sea sweeping in and out of the shore. I miss my little family. The thought of them is the warmest thing there is. I write Bee a love letter.
‘The hardest part of missing you is the things I ache to tell you, they pile up on top of each other, swallowing the ones that came before. They’re insubstantial things. Like, the sun was falling through the airplane windows in such a way that there were these lovely circles of golden light on the cabin walls. Or, I met a man who reminded me of a character from one of Alba’s picture books. Or, I thought of that word we couldn’t think of and it is sonder. But they matter to me because I know that they matter to you because they matter to me.
Isn’t that a beautiful thing about love? Who else would care about my thoughts on smoked paprika, or my sore ankle, or my dreams every single morning? I’ve grown so used to telling you every little thing that I’m being crushed by the weight of my unspoken thoughts, dreaming of the nights to come when they’ll all come flooding out like a tsunami of moments and ideas in-between hurricanes of kisses.”
The flames of the bonfire are impossibly red against the blue sea. The island is full of people and I want to disappear into a great big shell like a sea snail, but I don’t. Instead I tell myself these people are just friends I haven’t met yet and just like that, they are.
I walk with my new found friends across the edge of the island until we reach a little cove. The silver stars are so fierce their reflections burn in the water. “Let’s go swimming,” I say and I’m met by disbelief, arms crossed tightly over winter jackets. I shrug, take off my clothes and dive into the sea. The water is so cold there is nothing to do but laugh. I beg the others to come in and a few do. A seal swims in the sea beside us. We swim in the stars.
As we walk back shivering we watch glow worms in the forest trees. Tiny pinpricks of glowing light like stars themselves. We climb into a spa and watch the others warming their palms against the fire, quite possibly thinking we’re out of our minds.
Minutes pass like years all tangled up together, wondering aloud how we were just strangers hours ago. Every light goes off on the island until it is just us and the universe. Galaxies are spread thick and glittering across the sky like wet paint. The feeling I feel, within the warm water, the milky way, passionate conversations and these incredible humans, is everything. In those marvellous few hours all is profoundly good.
The few days before I am due to speak, I explore the island and listen to the others. They share stories that rattle bones and lessons born of great failure. I am blessed, sitting cross-legged on that floor soaking it all in.
On the day of my talk we’re all piled in Oli & Eric’s bed. The morning feels sweet and still. As people come to the door we bring them all in until the bed is a crowded mess of limbs and laughter. I often downplay my immense love and affection for people so I don’t weird them out but here I feel like I can just be me.
I’ve always known myself to be more loving than most other people I’ve met. In the same way I’ve known myself to be more sad, more excited, more sensitive, more introspective. I seem to only feel things at full force, which can be either crippling or the best thing in the world.
A single comment can leave me obsessive and sad for days but the thought of my love for my family can make me burst into joyful tears in the middle of the night. It’s part of the reason why writing is deeply important to me, if I kept all my feelings inside I’d go crazy.
I’m shaky so before I speak I go down by the water and listen to a song my friend Elle wrote for me. It’s a song about standing up and speaking my truth without fear, even in the face of misunderstanding or criticism. It gives me the strength to say all the hard things I’ve come here to say.
In the middle of my talk I look around the room and see people crying. They’re not just listening to my story, they’re feeling it. I am overwhelmed by the reality that these people are giving a piece of their lives to hear my story. When I finish, I ask if I can please hug everyone before they go. One by one I hold everyone in gratitude. People whisper all kinds of beautiful things in my ear and I find myself crying too.
I am high on this euphoria. I’ve never done work that feels this raw and fulfilling. A girl I know pulls me aside. I realise she must have hung back after I spoke, because I never got to hug her. I’m still grinning, still caught up in the glow of my talk.
“I think you know why I need to talk to you,” she says quite seriously, and I shake my head naively. I’m totally unprepared for what she is going to say. I don’t know how long she talks to me; all the colour leaves my face and the people around us blur into nothing.
She tells me my affection is making people uncomfortable and the organiser regrets inviting me. She repeats a hurtful comment my friend Andrea made about me being loving. She brings up the spa. My tongue is tied with the horror of being so misunderstood and disappointing these people I’ve come to love.
I feel myself being picked apart thread by thread and resewn darker, more broken. She offers the abuse I experienced as a child as a reason I’m so touchy. Says that when she met me I wasn’t the person she expected from reading my blog. I can see she’s trying to be helpful. Trying to say things that are hard to say, reminding me that not everyone sees the world like me. But these are daggers.
I am weak. I’m stumbling over words, crying, offering up apologies. Trying to explain me. I keep thinking she is right, that if these people I admire feel this way about me there must be something deeply wrong with me and I am ashamed for being so blind. It’s true that my heart has gotten me into trouble in the past, true that it has confused people, true that I’ve made countless stupid mistakes. But here I felt so understood and that is shattering around me now.
Then she asks me what Bee would think and it snaps me back to my good intentions, because I already know exactly what Bee thinks. My love for everyone is one of the reasons he loves me.
I remember when I first went to a grocery store with Bee. He ran into his friend and gave him the longest, most loving hug I’ve ever seen a man give another man and I fell a little more in love with him. I think of movie nights where a bunch of us just cuddle on the couch or times where I’ve almost fallen asleep on his best friend’s shoulder. He gets my platonic love for the people I connect with because he feels it too.
When I leave I’m sobbing like a child, hiding my face behind my hands. When I come into reception in my room I finally call Bee.
“It’s okay,” he soothes, “I know your intentions, I’m sorry they don’t understand. All you can do is just be honest about who you are.”
“But what if I really am a bad person?”
“You’re not. You love a lot, and that’s a good thing.”
He helps, but I still feel hollow. I so desperately want to explain myself and it gives me the resolve to brave the outside world. As I’m walking I feel like a shell of myself. I am exhausted and confused. Andrea emerges from by the fire and stops me. “I need to talk to you,” she says, and I’m instantly sick with the guilt of knowing I upset her. “I need to apologise,” I say. She replies, “no, I need to apologise.”
She takes my hand and walks me out by the shore. “After you spoke today I climbed out of the window to cry because I had judged you. Once I heard your story it all made sense. I was wrong. I am so sorry. Please keep on loving and hugging and being you. It’s what makes you special. Please never stop.”
Her words are like hands reaching down into the hole where I lay curled, pulling me up and up and up. She hugs me tightly as I begin to cry again. I’m crying for so many different reasons tonight. Her message about my love being good is one I hear several times throughout the night and each time the reassurance lifts a little of the weight.
Oli takes me for a walk across the pier. I feel closer to him than anyone else here and I’ve been desperate to talk to him. As soon as we’re alone my words spill out fast and thick while Si is letting off fireworks on the shore. Oli just laughs and tells me, “of course I get you Nirrimi, don’t worry.” The more he talks, the less alone and weird I feel and the smaller this whole situation seems. I tell him he’s my hero.
He reminds me that it’s our last night and we should be heading to the party. On the way the incredible lady who organised this retreat tells me how grateful she is that I came and she is the final hand pulling me to the light. Inside the hall everyone is dancing. The owner of the island is dressed as a woman with a blonde wig, dancing on the table. The energy is brilliant.
My despair melts into joy again. From the euphoria of my talk, to the darkness that followed, back to joy again. It’s exhausting. I’m not sure I’ve ever connected with people the way I did here and maybe I never will again. Whatever it is that makes this place special, this is my last chance to embrace it. So I soak it all up for what it is worth, and for what it is worth, I love even more than ever.
I climb into bed at 4am feeling strong. Feeling like my love isn’t a flaw but a strength. A superpower that comes with great responsibility and a need for transparency. Not for the faint of heart.
I head home via Wellington so I can see my best friend Kelsey. She’s dressed in high heels, sparkly earrings and pink lipstick. I’m dressed in boots, some wacky pants I found in a Balinese supermarket and a boy’s army jacket. We’re clearly soulmates.
We book a hotel room, down fancy cocktails, eat sweet crêpes and peanut pie for dinner and fall asleep late holding hands, as we always do when we’re together.
I tell Bee I’m coming home a day later than I truly am so I can surprise him. He’s at a gig the night I arrive so I secretly book tickets for myself. I get to our place only minutes after he’s left. While I shower I am shaking with excitement, nerves and a serious lack of sleep. By now it’s 3am in New Zealand.
I wear a new white lace dress I bought in a secondhand store in Wellington, hoping he won’t recognise me in a crowd. When I walk into the venue my heart is beating like mad. I hide in shadows and text Jasper who tells me Bee is near the stage.
As I walk over I am wondering why I didn’t plan this far ahead when he suddenly sees me. His eyes meet mine in one breathless moment and the gig is up but then, just as suddenly, he’s looking at something else like he never saw me at all. I run to him and when I’m right next to him I ask, “care to dance?”
He looks at me like I can’t possibly be real. It’s a long moment before he registers that it’s truly me. He shakes his head and just says, “oh my god.” Jasper is laughing beside us. “That was really good,” Bee says, between overdue kisses.
It’s becoming hot and sticky. Most mornings we drive five minutes to the beach and dive into the cool ocean. We come home and do yoga, all three of us. When the sun is low I tie up my runners and head to the park at the end of our street. Bee pushes Alba on the swings and I run laps. I’m moving so much and it makes me so happy that I wonder why I so easily fall out of these habits
I call my little brother Zake and tell him about what happened in New Zealand. We are one and the same and he tells me his own stories about his affection being misunderstood. We joke that maybe we should come with warning labels.
Laura comes to stay with us for her friend’s funeral. I’ve never been any good at knowing the right things to say or do in these situations. I just hold her as she cries. Through Laura’s stories I can feel her friend’s absence from this world. There are times where life feels inexcusably cruel.
One night I ask Laura, “Do you think Bee is a good match for me?” It takes a lot to ask this. Laura is brutally honest and has disapproved of every love interest I’ve had since I met her.
“Yes. In all the right ways you’re the same and all the right ways you’re different. Like yin and yang. I usually don’t give a fuck about what anyone thinks of me but I do with Bee. He’s special.”
I recognise the fire in Alba’s eyes, I think she has more than I ever did. She’s spirited and stubborn but if she sees that I’m down she will kiss me so tenderly and sing to me until I smile. In the hard moments it can be difficult to find gratitude, but when I do, it’s all there is.
Bee & I listen to parenting podcasts together. After a particularly tough day we talk over everything, figuring out what went wrong and what we can change. He has all the time in the world for Alba. Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I’d had a step-father like that instead of one that frightened and abused me. Many of the men who have come into our family have left us with scars. I’m grateful for my scars for what I can bring to others, but I would never wish them on Alba.
One night we drive into the country to spend a night at a friend’s house. Most of Bee’s friends are here and we’re all playing board games and drinking wine. He is so happy to have them all together he can’t stop grinning. In the height of the fun it is time to get Alba ready for bed so I say goodnight, kiss Bee and leave. When I turn to close the bedroom door behind me Bee is standing there saying, “you didn’t think I’d miss bedtime, did you?”
Instead of staying with his friends he chooses to brush tiny teeth, read bedtime stories, listen to ‘I’m thirsty’ and ‘I’m not tired’ a hundred times and lay in the dark for an hour while Alba falls asleep. As we lay quietly in that dark room, faint sounds of laughter trickling through the windows, my heart is exploding. That little gesture is big to me. We’re a family.
A poem by the sweetest poet Joel McKerrow, written as he listened to me speak.