Saturday, January 04, 2014

The burdens we carry


I've never quite thought what it's like watching from the outside, when you're close – so close that it's like pressing your nose to the window. And when it's someone close, so that what's happening puts daggers in the heart.

Me, I'm in the middle of my personal maelstrom, as you know. Which makes it easy to forget that people close to the storm, but not in it, have feelings too. I should know: I was shocked to talk to a friend recently, to find her crying when I thought I was just relating facts. Her outside was closer to my inside than I realised.

And you're the one on the outside, which I now realise is harder than I'd thought it was. You cry over photographs, and fret that the people inside the storm won't survive it.

You know what? That's beautiful.

Really: because if you're on the inside, getting touches of love from the outside can hit like a stick full of love and weeping.

But enough of me. Your concern is that one person is dying, and someone closer to you, the wife, is in denial. And that's what I want to talk about.

Denial takes many forms, and one of them, I'm familiar with. By the time Ms T was sent to RPA emergency, I already thought she was dying (which, in the absence of hospital, she was).

To nearly everyone, Sarah, I would have seemed in denial in those horrible three months. Even my mother saw nothing but a stolid optimism from me; I found ways to talk to my sons without actually lying to them. For example, because they were used to some of the ways I spoke, I could have a conversation like this at 7:45am in the morning:

“How's mum?”

“Ahh, you know, guys. Still in hospital, still alive, after you go to school I'll head over to the hospital and find out properly, now eat your breakfast.”

That got me through a lot of mornings, and any third party would take in my tone of voice and words and tell me that I was in denial.

So the first question you have to ask: is your sister in denial, or is she just maintaining a public face, a facade, because if she ever lets it slip, she'll end up like I was then, lying on the kitchen floor, cuddling the telephone after the end of a call, drunk and weeping.

One kind of denial, you see, is to deny your own feelings, terrors, pain, and for God's sake not listening to the voice saying “he will die”. As well as “what about me?” As well as “what about the children?” As well as “what about the mortgage?” And so on.

Yes, there is the other kind of denial: the one that simply pretends things aren't happening.

And it's hard to tell between the two, from the outside.

Don't try. If you assume that your sister, with the sick husband, is in the wrong kind of denial, you'll direct your attention to breaking through her defences, and that won't end well. The only thing you can do is provide support – and the support you provide doesn't change whether or not you have chosen the right kind of denial.

Think about this, Sarah: whether or not your sister is completely sane, her husband's condition doesn't change one way or the other. Whether she recognises the situation, the outcome for her children if he dies will be the same.

Whatever her says in public to you: if or when he dies, the support you have to provide will be the same.

This is the cold equation you have to live with, Sarah: that you have to choose the burdens you can carry, decide you will carry them, and then …?

I'm the bastard who has to say it. You can't set the burden down. It'll be with you until either someone dies, or the crisis passes. Once the cup is poured, you have to drink, no matter what it tastes like, how much it hurts. There won't be anyone else to take it from you, because there never is.

But look at it this way, through the tears. Why would you assume the burdens? For whom? On whose behalf?

You love your sister, so much that you will assume burdens of worry on her behalf.

You love her children, enough to worry that their mother isn't coping with the impending death of her husband, their father.

This, Sarah, is part of growing up. You have learned that love doesn't exist without pain, because one day, love will be lost, and others have to take up love's burdens.

Sarah, your sister's children may well need your love and shoulders, in case your sister really is in denial. Your reality will be needed, and – here, I am again the bastard bearer of bad tidings – someone will have to carry the burden.

And I know that you may not be strong enough to bear the burden. I don't care: you know the burden exists, and it terrifies you (as it terrifies us all), and that is sufficient to warrant my love. I hope, wish, pray that you can carry whatever burden falls to you, and guarantee that I will do my best to share it.

*Not her real name, and not the same “Sarah” as last time.

Two walkers' personal pilgrimage

Really, it's such a small thing.

The walk named the “Den Fenella Lookout” doesn't rate. It's not one of the Blue Mountains' great long walks, like going from Kanangra Walls to Katoomba (which I have walked), or the Six Foot Track (part of which we have walked), or Katoomba to King's Tableland via Mount Solitary (a very small part of which we have walked).

The Den Fenella walk is just a lookout walk from the Wentworth Falls Picnic Area.

It's just 1km down and the same back. With a descent that wouldn't upset anyone except if, as Ms T, they've been too sick to attempt the walk for four years, which makes it special.

And because it was laid out by someone who had a soul.

The Den Fenella Lookout walk starts as a somewhat boring descent through the same Blue Mountains heath as everyone sees, even if they only look at tourist lookouts. It's everywhere, including at Bunjaree Cottages, the joint labour of love of me and Ms T.

It passes down past a small bit of hanging swamp, which is also everywhere … so long as the developers don't kill them. They look like useless bits of ground, but they also supply an awful lot of the drinking water that ends up in Sydney's catchment.

After the swamps, the Den Fenella walk drops into a grotto. It's a nice grotto, but if you want grottos of inexpressible loveliness, go somewhere else. This grotto is just … nice. That's all. Nice.

And there's another walk around a hanging swamp, with a bit of walking under the cliff, and then …

You turn a corner and find yourself overlooking a long valley with Mount Solitary pretty much dead-centre of the vista.

It takes the breath away – even for Ms T, who hates heights, detests lookouts, and can only ever drop herself on a rock, as far as possible from the railing, and gaze over the valley as a coward.

The first time we walked the Den Fenella, we agreed: “This is a walk with soul in it. Somebody who loved someone wanted them to see things the way they saw them.”

And despite its brevity, we perceive the soul: the person who wanted someone to get the big reveal, the “glamour” – to quote a movie – at the end of the walk. To walk around some rocks, and suddenly find themselves in a vista of inexpressible beauty.

And a couple of days ago, Ms T managed the walk, walked down the stairs, caught “The Prestige” – for herself, for the first time in four years.

It's only a couple of kilometres. The descent, and therefore the climb back out, is only a hundred metres. But it's a big thing, for us.

Ten years ago, an accidental combination of circumstances led us to take up bush-walking. We started with light stuff – including the Den Fenella – and Ms T discovered to her vast surprise that walking made her chronic back pain (an old fracture to lumbar 3 and lumbar 4) disappear. We spent the next six years expanding our range.

At our best, we could cover 20 km in a day, and those walks formed the basis of the best years of our marriage. You do so much talking in ten hours in the bush.

Just before Ms T first went into hospital, she couldn't walk the fifty metres to a bus stop without help, and it's been a long road back.

I'd given up on some things. For example, I thought that we'd be doing well if we got to finish a 10 km walk without drama. But on New Year's Eve, she declared her own goal is 20 km before the end of 2014.

Doing our personal pilgrimage to the Den Fenella is an ideal way to start.