Today I am picking up the pieces of a life, not my life but someone else’s life. I am finding the shattered shards of a heart and putting them into safe keeping to one day be reglued into a whole.
But, first, let me begin at the beginning. Who am I? An observer, a fly on the wall of lives. There I am blended into the faded, fly-specked Victorian floral wallpaper in a small Australian house in a non-descript suburb.
There is nothing special about this house – 2 up, 2 down, loo out the back for the night-soil collectors cart to visit. Into this world of white flagged nappies blowing on the line, dogs barking and horses clip-clopping along the dusty excuse for a road a baby boy was born.
The mother was tiny and delicate. She came from a more privileged part of Sydney but followed her heart and married a tall, exciting but rather stern man.
His marriage to her had been a disappointment, and the tall man looked down at his flushed wife, beseeching eyes filling her face as she presented to him their tiny whimpering son.
He picked up the child as if it was an insect and an obnoxious one at that. The silence was a solid wall of disapproval.
“I thought I would name him after you” she stammered, so Robert Jnr was named.
The tall man didn’t say a word. He put the baby down, turned on his heel and walked out of the room never to be seen again. From time to time apologetic money would appear. Enough to fill the belly but never enough to fill the soul or the heart.
Over the years Robert Jnr would make many a fantasy about his father. He was a dashing merchant seaman sailing the Dutch East India Coast. He was a swaggy traipsing the path of freedom. He was dead and buried in a lonely grave somewhere in the outback.
His mother never recovered from the abandonment. She became a scattered, bird-like woman. Her love was poured out into the altar cloths at her local church. When she noticed Robert Jnr, which wasn’t often, she would tweak his collar or brush aside his fringe of hair in an almost absent-minded way.
It was no surprise when Robert Jnr was sent away to the local Christian Brothers boarding school. He was left clutching a paper parcel tied with string, holding his most cherished worldly belongings at the gate. Although he didn’t know it, his eyes mirrored those of his mother – beseeching eyes full of wordless hope for love and acceptance but finding none.
The Christian Brothers flogged the heart out of him in order to save his soul. Somehow Robert Jnr managed to separate his drive for success from the beatings and used every thwack of the cane on his tender fingers as a mantra, “Someday I will make a difference”.
His only solace from the daily beatings was his books and the chemistry lab. Wondrous acrid potions could be brewed with mysterious properties. His one act of rebellion was the creation of a potion that spewed forth clouds of smoke upon contact. One night he painted this potion onto the tracks of the local tram line causing widespread panic and alarm for the tram driver and his passengers.
The brothers had their suspicions of the culprit, but no proof so they flogged Robert Jnr anyway and sent him to bed without supper. As he clutched his rebellion close to his chest, Robert Jnr smiled into the dark.
As soon as he was legally able Robert Jnr ran away from school and talked his way into the local hospital. First he was a wardsman and then as an apprentice in the labs. His life was spartan – a rickety hospital cot and hospital scraps as his meals but for the first time in his life Robert Jnr was happy. He had come home at last.
Hospitals became his life. When his mother threatened to visit his new life, Robert Jnr raided his meagre savings and headed to the most exotic destination his bank account would afford – New Zealand. There he was safe from visits by his twittering mother.
Life was very different in New Zealand. There he was respected, he had friends, and for the first time in his life, Robert Jnr felt what it was like to be a success.
Buoyed by this feeling he noticed a girl so unlike his mother that his heart also paid attention. She was as dark as his mother was fair. She was full where his mother was twig like. She spoke English with an accent where his mother’s vowels would have been in place in Buckingham Palace. She stared him and life full in the eye, where his mother’s eyes were permanently cast down in prayer. He looked at her mother to see what she may become and liking what he saw he married the girl.
What he didn’t see was that she also had a solo childhood, full of scars and wound that she was seeking to heal through marriage.
They married at the local church, none of his family in attendance. There were only a small handful of their friends to witness the event. They walked to the local reception hall where they had 1 hour between two full-paying receptions to celebrate their future.
Immediately their life together started in earnest. The differences that seemed so endearing while courting became mountains in marriage. Robert Jnr loved cleanliness and order, with things always neatly in place. She loved a cluttered lived in look, where dust was a sign of a full life. He put 110% of his soul into his work. She felt that life was to be savoured with good friends, singing and laughter, and work took a second place if at all.
From such an unlikely union a child was born, closely followed by another. As he looked down on the second child, he felt hollow inside. The walls closed in on him and the appearance of bars over the windows took shape. He heard the blood pounding in his ears and had an overwhelming urge to run.
He forced down his fear, swallowed his soul and glued his feet to the ground. “I will not revisit the sins of my father on these children. I will do the right thing by these kids, so they know their father no matter the cost to me,” Robert Jnr vowed to himself.
In doing the “right thing,” he moved his family back to Australia so they could know his mother. She twit twitted over the babies, filling their heads with nonsense and God.
Robert Jnr was not into babies: They cried and made a mess. The feeling of being forced to remain and the feeling of being trapped, tainted all of his interactions with his children. His disappointment with his life spilt over into disappointment with his children. They grew vaguely knowing they had failed their father but not knowing exactly how.
Every day was a living torment for Robert Jnr. He had made his vow to remain in a now loveless union for his children and his soul once again hid behind barriers first erected at the Christian Brothers.
At least he could escape back into his world of beakers, smells and logical rules. At his latest job he chose to go by his nickname Tom rather than hold onto Robert Jnr. The lab at this job was presided over by Dragon Lady an imposing battle-axe of a woman with a strident voice, a raucous laugh and rules of iron. Dragon Lady was the secretary to the Professor of the Lab, but everyone really knew who was the boss.
Tom found he and Dragon Lady had much in common. A love for rules, a love for doing things right the first time and love for giving 110% at work.
One late night at the lab, Tom was painfully two finger typing his thesis to enable him to gain a piece of paper proving his worth. Dragon Lady took pity on the hunched figure in the darkened room and offered to type Tom’s thesis herself out of hours (of course) for a nominal fee. The relief on his face was palpable.
Once a week Tom would make the long drive over to Dragon Lady’s house, with his carefully handwritten notes. Once a week Dragon Lady would transform his scrawl into pure crisp black and white, edited and purified to meet the exacting standards of the examiners.
Weeks turned to months. The thesis was completed. “Thank you Amanda” Tom shyly said.
As their eyes met, they realized that although this chapter had been completed another chapter had begun.
Tom and Amanda started to find reasons for coffee together and to catch lunch at the same time. They discovered tennis courts in walking distance to work and through the game of tennis discovered the same fierce competitive streak and drive for winning. Feelings were pushed out onto centre court; passions long dormant for both were sublimated into fierce volleys and long games.
Feelings started to spill out into other tasks, other days, and other events. Families started to notice, relatives started to talk and work began to gossip.
Disaster struck. Amanda found a cancerous malignant lump in her left breast over her heart. Surgery and the removal of the full breast and lymph was the only treatment.
Amanda’s husband cracked. His image of a perfect life with a perfect and whole wife was exposed for the sham it was. He left before the first incision was made – the first cut before the surgeon’s cut.
Tom stepped into the gap Amanda’s husband had left. Years of yearning and the need to be needed and loved so long bottled up, fizzed up like shaken champagne.
For the first time in his life he had a purpose – to keep Amanda alive. He threw himself into his mission body and soul. A lifetime’s worth of bottled up love enveloped Amanda like a healing balm.
Tom could no longer live his lie. Being there for the kid’s sake was not as true as following his heart. His soul was free, he had a purpose and he had love. Returning to prison was no longer an option for him.
He left his wife and children with sorrow, knowing that in the end the sins of his father had been revisited.
Tom made Amanda a vow that he would always be with her in sickness and in health. This time he made the vow with all of his being, knowing it to be true.
The years passed and Tom and Amanda grew more together and in love. When one breathed out the other breathed in. Their passionate natures made for sparks at times. Her loudness and exuberance complemented his natural introversion.
They had seven more battles with cancer. Each one tackled with hope and positivity, each one overcome with love and the latest potion. But the cancer never did stay beaten for long and each time returned with greater strength and ferocity.
Tom and Amanda’s life was focused on beating the cancer, all their words were on the latest miracle treatment or food to create hope.
Late one year the words they did not want to hear were spoken. “The cancer marker has increased alarmingly. This time it is terminal”.
Years of struggle and challenge flashed through their minds. “If this is our final battle together, then so be it. We faced the first battle together and we will face this last one together” they whispered softly to each other in the night.
As Amanda’s hair once again fell out from redundant chemotherapy, they knew this hair loss would be for the last time.
As Amanda’s health failed along with her bodily functions, Tom gently nursed and cared for her body as tenderly as the most loving mother.
As Amanda’s fears about dying grew more and more strident, Tom stood firm by her side like the most loving of fathers.
As Amanda’s fears of losing her love exploded, Tom’s heart broke just like the most loving of husbands.
The final weeks in the hospice were the hardest in Tom’s life. Watching his love, his heart and soul shrivel and die and knowing that there were no more miracles left.
Amanda finally died with Tom holding her hand to guide her through this journey.
“I promised you 30 years ago that I would always be there for you in sickness and in health,” the now wizened man said. “I kept my word … I kept my word.”
The lonely old man walked out of the echoing corridors of the hospice, clutching a paper parcel tied with string of Amanda’s most cherished possessions. Inside the parcel was also a broken heart and an even emptier tomorrow.
As he lay that night pretending to be asleep while I and his other children bustled around the house, he felt a gentle touch on his sodden cheeks. “I know you kept your word. You made difference to my life. Thank you. I love you.”