You’ll lead a different life now. That’s what my mother told me two years ago, just before she died. Apologising until the very end for up and dying on her only daughter. Her only child.
A different life. It’s not easy to put a positive spin on being faced with leading a different life. My colleague’s son had to embark upon a different life after he broke his neck diving onto a sandbank after one too many beers. He is now a quadriplegic leading his different life in supported accommodation. The carers are very good according to my colleague. I doubt that anyone told my neighbour’s son that he’d be leading a different life after he achieved a perfect score in his college exams. An amazing life, an exciting life, perhaps, but there would’ve been no need to tell him it would be a different life. That is reserved for those of us whose life has shrunk, been diminished somehow by circumstance.
You’ll lead a different life now. I can hear nothing but the insistent sound of my mother’s voice, no chirping of the ubiquitous small brown birds of the alpine regions, no whispering of wind. I am standing on a ridge overlooking an almond shaped lake, the silence of the external world lapping against me like an incoming tide. So incongruous to the noise inside my head. If I turn I would see Mount Ossa in the distance. But I don’t turn. My eyes are fixated on a white strip of beach at the top of the lake. Mulholland’s Beach. Named after my father. My father had been the first person to document the lake and it had been named after him for his efforts. It had taken days of bush-bashing to get to it back then.
A different life. My mother had begun a different life not long after my father had stood on this very ridge. The life of a widow and soon-to-be-single parent. Strange that someone as fit and healthy as my unknown father should have succumbed to a heart attack, I think once again, as I make my way down through the heath to the tiny, crescent beach below. I stop, perch on a rock just before I reach the flat. I am as still as a rook. I feel constrained, unable to move forward, as if doing so would be an act of wanton vandalism on this unspoilt slice of wilderness. Or perhaps it is the desecration of a sacred space that stops me in my tracks? The spirit of my father’s final resting place.
I canvass the landscape in front of me before I become part of it. The brilliant white pebbled sand, the sun and wind sculptured driftwood, the gentle lapping of the tannin-stained contents of the lake. Two rows of perfect pencil pines framing each end of the beach. And overlooking it all, just beyond where the bush begins, the huge glistening trunk of a skeletal gum.
I take one step forward along the beach, and then another, my small footprints leaving behind the heavy imprint of humankind with each step. I stand at the water’s edge. I am alone here. But not lonely. Not here. I look for a suitable log to rest on and remove by backpack. I set up my cooker and boil water for tea. It is always a comfort to focus on the small steps that lead us to life’s small pleasures, I think, as I wrap my hands around a mug of strong, steaming tea. I rise as I take the last mouthful and walk to the water’s edge.
I stare, mesmerized at the transformation of the lake. I am no longer alone. Tadpoles. A lake full of almost-about-to-burst tadpoles has come to greet me. The water’s edge is a dark, swirling whirl of tadpoles spilling over each other in a frenzy. In the amphitheatre of the lake I am their holy man, they are my acolytes, waiting to receive any drop of wisdom I may graciously bestow upon them. You’ll lead a different life now, I tell them solemnly. Not that I know much about the hidden, watery world of amphibians. But I suspect a lonely life as a frog under a rock would be a rather different life to the one they are currently leading, a life which appears to involve little more than roaming in a pack and endless fun-filled frolicking.
Perceptions, of course, can be deceiving. Take me, for example. A full life, good friends, overseas travel, a worthy career as a school psychologist. Looks good on paper. I doubt anyone realises that I am barely coping with my different life. They know about my failed IVF attempts and my two failed marriages, casualties of my desire to have children. But mention me and words like strong, resilient, stoic will be sprinkled liberally through the conversation. I saw my first husband recently for the first time in many years. He apologised to me. For not leaving the marriage sooner. He said he knew how much I wanted children and he knew how much he did not. At least he is living up to his word and has settled into a happy, childless second marriage. I am not naïve. By the time I’d recovered from the shock of Simon leaving, I knew I didn’t have time to search for true love. Compromise would be necessary. So I compromised and married a good, solid family man sort, reliable if a little dull. A good man who assured me he wanted children. He wanted to be a father. Another man true to his word, he also left me a respectable length of time after my last failed IVF attempt. I saw him in the street recently accompanied by a cheerful looking mother-to-be. I wish him well, truly I do.
So that’s who I am. The only child of two only children, both deceased. Single, twice-divorced, childless and infertile. In other words, I’m free. When Janis Joplin belted out that freedom is another word for nothing left to lose she was on the money. I have no family ties to anyone, no connections to anything that can’t be replaced. I feel as if I am levitating over the earth’s surface. I’m free, I tell my tadpole congregation. As I say the word, I notice how the vowel sound widens my mouth and pulls my lips into an involuntary smile. Freeee. The opposite of the word ‘alone’ where the vowel sound forms a closed, impossible to get past pout. Aloooone. The shape of a zero. Nil. Nothing.
I turn away from my amphibian followers, to the glistening silver-grey gum that overlooks the lake like a giant cenotaph. My father’s true grave stone. Forget about that uniform grey slab in the local cemetery. I cross to it now, wrap my arms around it, willing it to give me the strength of my father, the patience of my mother, the endlessly radiating optimism of my maternal grandmother. Now there was a woman who could put a positive spin on almost anything. When the doctor told her that the lumps on her shoulders were bone spurs caused by rheumatoid arthritis she had come home and informed us that while she wasn’t going to contradict the doctor, she secretly suspected they were the beginning buds of angel’s wings.
I feel close to my absent family in this ancient place. They are all I have now. And I am all they have. Within me my mother, my grandmother, continue to lead their full and vibrant lives. They are safe from being swallowed up by the world, from dissolving into darkness, while I am the custodian of their remnant selves. Memories, so many sweet memories. I break loose from the magnetic grasp of the sepulchral gum. As I begin to retrace my steps back into the world I turn to offer one last drop of wisdom to the few remaining tadpole faithful fringing the lake’s edge.
Wherever you go, take them with you, I whisper. Keep them safe.
Andrea McMahon writes short fiction and poetry. Her short story collection Skin Hunger was published by Ginninderra Press in 2008 with the assistance of a grant from Arts Tasmania. She lives in Hobart and works as an adult literacy coordinator with LINC Tasmania. Visit Andrea McMahon ... stories, poems, essays to read more of her writing.