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.
If my writing has an impact on you, you can support Fire & Joy and help my writing and projects keep rolling on: https://www.patreon.com/nirrimi
In return you’ll get cool things like these posts in your inbox early, vlogs, filters and prints. Yeah!