Curious that birthdays always stay the same, even when those whose years they’ve marked have gone. Today, the 15th of December, is my partner’s birthday but it’s hard for me to celebrate when he’s not here to share it. Perhaps he is in spirit. I like to think so, though I realise that I’m merely comforting myself. Then again, who of us actually knows?
All that aside, what I’d like to do to honour him is tell a small story.
It was almost a year ago that we went to buy a new mattress. Despite the ten-year guarantee, the one we bought six years before had developed a couple of hollows, shaped to our bodies but giving our backs no support. Tony’s back was bothering him and so was mine. Tony thought his back hurt because he was getting old. I knew that mine, having been broken in three places years ago, needed a very firm mattress. So on the advice of my chiropractor, we took the bus to Sleep City at Belrose, a fur piece away from our flat in Manly. At least we tried to. We had recently sold our car, and after carefully studying the possible routes on the net I concluded that we would have to change buses at the corner of Warringah Road and Forest Way. It was a long ride through some of Sydney’s northern beaches just to reach that intersection, and then the bus driver overshot it. Instead of stopping on Forest Way so we could cross with the light to get to the bus stop for Belrose, he let us off at the first stop he could on Warringah Road. From there we trudged to the pedestrian bridge we needed to cross to get back on Forest Way and to the Belrose bus stop.
The problem was that I have a problem with pedestrian bridges. An aversion to heights brought on by being held as a seven-year-old kid over the Empire State Building’s 85th floor balcony has been exacerbated in recent years by Menieres disease, which in my case gives me severe vertigo whenever height is combined with speed. I get dizzy on escalators, in cars on hills and often on bridges, especially if they’re arched. Pedestrian bridges are usually arched and this one was no exception. But Tony, the 86-year-old ex-mountain climber, held my hand as we crossed it, the terrifying sensation of the traffic whizzing past below playing havoc with my balance.
And that you might call an epiphany. We did have a lot in common, but there was so much more that we didn’t. Like his fearlessness when it came to heights, his passion for fishing, his deep love of nature, mountains and wild Canadian rivers. I learned from him and, to be fair, he learned from me. And more, I keep on learning, on paths where he has led me. He told me once that when mountaineers have an accident they keep on climbing, in the way that horseriders do after they take a tumble from a horse. It’s called exposure, he said. A word that echoes through my brain whenever I’m faced with a challenge. And sometimes now I will seek the challenge. After a nasty fall a couple of years ago, I will walk up a flight of stairs without holding on to the railing, and am even trying to train myself on escalators. Small ones to begin with, but all the while I chant to myself that special word he taught me: exposure.
As for the new mattress, it has been great for my back, but it didn’t help Tony’s. The cause of his pain was the spread of his cancer and we just didn’t know.
But here is a poem I wrote, prophetically perhaps, two years ago, before the knowledge came:
Don’t tell me it isn’t tragic
that I’ll have no one to talk to in the morning
or walk with into Manly round the harbour
or listen to the fulminations
erupting on his tongue
He irritates, no doubt,
is difficult to feed, and I imagine
how I might eat without him.
Truth is, there won’t be much point
in eating then at all.
No one to tease, how I do love to tease him,
a child I am, the child I once was
so many years before.
Wicked? Well, tempted. But no,
not unkind. And who would be so
when nothing that comes from him
manages to be unkind.
It’s an island I’ve come to, refuge at last,
a small one; high ground.
But why does he need a piano?
It isn’t a home without one, he says
though doesn’t often play.
Below us lies the ocean we travelled
a gentle, rippling sea that day by day
swallows its expanse.
Don’t tell me it’s not tragic
that I’ll wake in a cold bed one day.
Sad trees, such sad trees,
with deep sad colours,
barely green, more black,
and waters of beaten pewter
that he loves.
Big, tangled rivers, the current
so strong they would knock
a man down they have.
He dreams of them
those sad trees
but doesn’t see they’re sad
nor the ravelling of the river.
Tragedy. There’s no monopoly here,
and yet we will meet her
with wide, distant eyes,
as if by pleading might be spared.
But once she beams her baleful grin upon us
we might as well take up exclusive claim.
Notice how a crested quail
will stand beside her stricken.
On the road or in the spangled forest. copyright Sara Dowse 2015