You and I drive our little car out to Toowoomba to collect my 9 year old cousin, Sommer. She is so excited it’s like a light is shining brightly in her mind, making her eyes glow. She hugs her mama tightly and for a long time. There is no shyness in her love. I try to imagine a day Alba will leave us like this but I just can’t.
When we arrive at the airport Sommer wants to wear Alba in the Ergo carrier. This is one of her favourite things to do. She wears her snug to her chest and tells us happily that Alba is in the perfect place to give her kisses.
First we visit your family in Perth, who are coming to Bali with us. Sommer makes friends with your youngest sisters and while they run amok around the yard we sink into the contentness of free time. We slip out of our mutual kindness in Perth, it happens every time we visit. We both lose our patience in the heat and emptiness.
We fill out the immigration forms as Sommer looks out the plane window, casting her soul out over the foreign country. This is the first time she has ever left Australia. Then suddenly, like flicking a switch, we are in Bali and the air is both sweet and rotten. The smell instantly floods me with the memories of our last visits.
One, a new couple, washed over with the intensity of new love. Making out on the beach, endless cheap ice creams, launching fireworks and speeding down lonely roads on a motorbike in the middle of the night. Two, for a Christmas with your family. Connecting with your siblings and lounging on big boats above clear water. And three, in hope that the hell that had become us would be healed by a familiar joy. My selfishness, your desperation to keep us from falling apart and the inevitable hurt. And now, four, evolved and loving again, bringing our new family.
Our first hotel room sits right on the pool’s edge. From our private deck we can dip our limbs in and let the cool spread deliciously through us. I feel as though I am so far away that stress and depression can’t find me here. I uncurl myself on the big bed and breathe contently.
Alba, the born traveller, eyes the place brightly and squeals in delight. “Look! Alba is so happy to be here!” Sommer tells us. She disappears into the cool blue water and only reappears a week later with an ear infection and instructions from the doctor to stop swimming. In-between she makes friends with a blonde girl from Finland.
After midnight on Christmas Eve, we have the worst fight we’ve had since the great rough patch of our lives. I love how rarely we argue now that we’re parents, but this time we’ve been so busy that all the little things have gotten bottled up and compressed tight. It all spills out in a ugly mess of accusations and name calling and eventually you leave with anger, and I am so exhausted I do what I used to do, I curl into a ball and cry. The hopeless, messy kind of crying, spiked too with hot anger.
Then suddenly a kind voice in my head reminds me that I am the one in control of how I feel. That’s right, I am. I sit up from the tiles outside our hotel door, wipe my wet face on my wrists and smile. It feels wrong to smile but the smile works its way into my brain until I actually feel happiness. A concerned security guard passes and I give him a reassuring smile too. I let myself back in, fill Sommer’s santa sack with gifts, crawl in the bed beside my daughter and wait.
Then the door opens slowly, like I knew it would, letting a path of yellow light grow into our room. You pull me quietly up and together we retrace the yellow path outside. You hold my face in your hands tenderly, giving me your full gaze, and you apologise again and again. Then I apologise too. I feel the highness of love, backdropped against the recent anger and I’m glad for moments like these where I can feel fully. We recognise each other again. This is the way it always is now, no matter how small the disagreement. We can never stay mad at one another for long and never overnight. We say sorry, we talk it through with new understanding and we melt into one another again.
I have mixed feelings about arguments. On the one hand, it is a way to release energy and speak about issues without boundary, a way to reset love. After all, it is too easy to get so used to love and contentedness that it feels like nothing.
But on the other hand, it is an ugly thing. Doesn’t every child want parents who never fight? Doesn’t everyone want perfect love?
Before I fall asleep I think I hear the jingling of bells. When I wake up a few hours later Sommer is sitting cross-legged in bed, grinning to her ears and staring at her sack of presents. Among other things she unwraps Indonesian flashcards and tells us she will be able to teach her little sisters Indonesian now too. She hands Alba a present and helps her to open it. It is a small stuffed lion. Alba plants a kiss on his nose and then throws him off the bed. We all laugh because that is Alba, her love is sweet but painful. We spend the day with your family, and I love them dearly but I still miss my own. It doesn’t seem like Christmas without them.
We move to an eco bungalow in Ubud. Our backyard is a food forest, with rabbits, goats and chickens. We share big organic salads, fresh from the gardens. We eat well in Ubud. I’m still unsure of where my intense passion for plant-based food came from, but I embrace it here. I watch with pride as Sommer wolfs down a raw lasagna and a green smoothie. And so far, there is not a single food that Alba hasn’t liked. Somedays it seems I’m just filling the time between delicious meals.
Stress begins to creep itself back into my nights, as it always does, wrapping itself around my thoughts with it’s wiry black fingers. I can’t sleep with the fear of things unfinished, emails unreplied, mistakes I’ve made. You feel me tossing and turning in the middle of the night and you murmur in sleep “what’s wrong?” and as I begin to list you say shhhh like you do when you’re calming Alba. “Don’t worry Nirrimi, I will take care of all of these things.”
Still I am unsettled, so you walk me through (with your gentle words) the ways in which you will help my problems disappear. You wrap your long arms around me so I feel as safe as a child held by a loving parent and so I can escape from complex adult worries. We sleep, us three tangled in the warmth of one another, dreams intermingling like passing clouds.
I wade into the clear water with Alba. The creeping crawling of the water through my bathers wakes me. Most of the time I walk around in a haze, in a kind of autopilot. I barely recognise where I am. But now I take it all in. I am standing with my daughter (oh, my beautiful daughter! Ringlets of hair golden in the sun, blue eyes bluer than the sky above us!) in the Indonesia sea. You, the boy I have loved half my life is photographing me, shouting out across the ocean just how beautiful we look. I think I can feel the individual grains of sand beneath my feet and the water current feels like a breeze at my legs. I wish I could feel this deeply forever.
I spin Alba around and she is overflowing with joy. She’s a thrill seeker, I love finding out different aspects of her like that. She also loves to dance, to put on jewellery, to be in the garden, to have her eyebrows traced when she’s tired and to make music. I love the way she always wants to kiss me just after you’ve kissed me, the way she mimics our quirks, her squealing as you chase her and of course, snuggling her into me as she has ‘boobah’.
We move on, to Kuta for two nights. We used to always come to Kuta, but we no longer have room for it’s chaos in our hearts. We are here because it is your sister’s birthday in the Waterpark and this way we will be nearby.
One night, as Sommer and I are walking past the night clubs Sommer yells to me over the music “I will never want to go to those places they’re so terrible and loud! Why is it so loud?” I explain that it gives some people a kind of energy, like a fire inside them. You might want to feel that too one day. She asked if I ever did and I remembered myself a few years ago, going into these same night clubs with you. I was curious and hungry about that world. The constant chase for feeling. “Once” I said “But none of it was very real.”
One day we get lost down a rice paddy trail. For hours we walk precariously by rivers, trek through streams and follow beaten paths. We ask locals for help and end up where we began. Eventually we find a restaurant where they grow all of their own food. We all share a large coconut, scraping the white flesh out to eat once the coconut water is gone. It is the perfect thing for us weary adventurers.
Very soon it is time to go. We hear Sommer as the plane takes flight say “Goodbye Bali.” Australia smells so goddamn good I throw myself into it and spin around in the blue Perth evening. Then Brisbane, big-hearted Brisbane where our home now is. You’ve been gardening, I’ve been cooking, Alba’s been learning to walk and talk and we’ve been settling in with our big new family. Life is good, but it always is, I’m just learning how to appreciate it more every day.