03 April, 2007

not getting any younger

Why do I suddenly feel compelled to tell this story now? Who the hell knows. I just do.

(By the way, since I’m writing about someone I no longer know, I didn’t feel right about using his real name… but "Leonardo" is in the same vein, which makes it close enough.)


I met Leonardo in Winter. On our first date—a quick mid-morning coffee before he scuttled off to a class in his classical music course—he was wearing a warm jacket, gloves and a scarf, walking lopsided with the weight of his saxophone case in one hand. He was a handsome boy, barely eighteen, of Italian and Chinese heritage. He was young and beautiful, beguiling but non-threatening, anxious but optimistic, and infinitely kind—in short, he was exactly the kind of stripling I found myself drawn to when, at the age of twenty-four, I finally plucked up the courage to post a profile on a dating website and Go Out With A Boy.

Only a few weeks previously—after spending a Sunday afternoon crying, smoking weed and listening to Nirvana in my room, when I should have been at a family barbecue—I had sought long overdue treatment for depression. And just in the nick of time too. Within the next three months, my mother’s cancer finally threw off the shackles of her determination and destroyed her body. She died in Spring, shortly before what should have been her forty-seventh birthday.

But when Leo and I met, my Mum was not yet "dying of cancer". She merely "had cancer", as she had done off-and-on for several years now. For my family, it was an unpleasant but accepted part of our lives. Meanwhile I was caught up in my newfound confidence. Just the knowledge that I had given the Black Dog its marching-orders was enough to make me feel like a whole new person. And this adorable boy was an embodiment of the youthful mix of hope and trepidation I felt. His behaviour was often somewhat awkward, but every now and then, when telling a certain story or speaking of a certain friend, he would erupt with such grinning, eye-flashingly confident joy, it made my chest leap and my joints falter. I wanted him to talk like that about me. Even more than that, I wanted to talk like that. To feel like that, without faking it. I had been acting the part of a happy version of myself, for too long.

When my Mum died, I sent him a text message to let him know. He replied with the kind of unclouded yet uncomfortable kindness that only the young and emotionally inexperienced can muster. By this time, Leo and I were just friends. Shortly after our first couple of meetings, he had told me he didn’t like me “in that way”. I had been upset for about three minutes, and then got over it. Some people told me to be patient: that as he spent more time with me, he might come to like me as more than a friend. But I knew that hope was over, had never really existed, and that it was probably for the best. Even then, I knew that he was less someone I wanted a relationship with, and more someone whose youth, attractiveness and future promise I had hoped would rub off on me.

Shortly after his original sympathetic message—
at some point in that initial time of grieving that was so numb and grey that I now barely remember it—Leo invited me to a picnic he was having with a bunch of his friends. I suppose he wanted to do something kind for me. Perhaps he felt obliged to spend time with me, but didn't know what to say, so avoided a one-on-one situation. At any rate, the picnic was the following week, on Mum’s birthday. I hesitated, and then accepted. I knew I should be spending the day with my dad. But that time in our house was so unbearably insular, so unhealthily introspective. Life felt like a dead end—a constant, plodding monotony of grief and emotional exhaustion. So I did the selfish thing. I left my family in the labyrinth, and accepted the offer of a day spent surrounded by youth, in the sunshine.

That was how I spent the birthday my mother would never have. I met with them—a gaggle of about ten bouncing, giggling suburban teenagers—at Flinders Street Station. We made our way to the Botanic Gardens and ate junk food around a huge cluster of blankets. I manned the spinner and gave orders for a game of Twister. Someone climbed a hill and took a photo from above, as the rest of us arranged our bodies on the grass to spell out the word “PICNIC” (I was one half of the first "C"). I talked and laughed with Leo and his music-student friends; his school friends were too close-knit a group for me to find a way into their conversations. I tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid questions about my age (I was at least five years older than any of them!), my studies (I had finished University three years ago!), and how I knew Leo (we had met “online”—I sidestepped further details). I successfully avoided mentioning or, for the most part, even thinking about Mum.On the tram back to the station, I overheard a couple of Leo's friends discussing a teacher they had hated at school.
“Oh well, she’s probably dead by now,” one of them said.
“No way,” replied the other, “She wasn’t even that old.”
Briefly, involuntarily, my eyes met Leonardo’s. If such a thing is possible, he shrugged apologetically with his face, and looked away.

When I got home, my dad was very down, very quiet. A blank. We went out for dinner, as some kind of sombre acknowledgement of what would usually have been a happy day, although we didn’t really talk about Mum or her birthday. We didn’t really talk about anything. We especially didn’t talk about the fact that I had abandoned them on what was almost certainly the most difficult day since the funeral. I knew my Dad was upset. I don’t think he was angry or disappointed in me as such. I think he resented my escaping from the day, but only because he wasn’t able to do so himself.

It wasn’t the last time I would hurt my family by running away from things, emotionally and physically, during those first few weeks. I guess the realisation that I couldn’t rewind it all and go back to being a kid again—that I now had no choice but to be as grown up as I could manage to be—took a while to sink in. Even now, I often still completely forget how old and together I’m supposed to be, and do or say completely stupid things. By the same token, I will never let myself go back to feigning togetherness to mask the sombre husk of a person I became when depression had me in its shadowy grasp. I will always remember to find joy in things: to be frivolous and trivial and ridiculous as often as is necessary.

But ever since I sat amongst those laughing kids on the grass, and looked at that beautiful boy who didn’t know how to look back at me, I have known that I can't truly go back. I realised that this was my coming of age—
the series of events that definitively marks the end of youth and thrusts you, ready or not, into your future. 

And going back is impossible. As impossible as my Mum ever turning forty-seven.



Anonymous Tyson said...

"and looked at that beautiful boy who didn’t know how to look back at me."

Just beautiful.

April 03, 2007 4:35 pm  
Blogger Ms Smack said...

This is a gorgeous post. Just beautifully written.

April 07, 2007 11:59 am  
Blogger Dr Philm said...

My sentiments exactly.

You are truly beautiful. [gush]

I just wish I had the words to put it more eloquently.

April 17, 2007 12:30 pm  
Blogger mindlessmunkey said...

Thanks everyone.

May 15, 2007 2:47 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home