On New Year’s Eve, I sit on the bank of the Murrumbidgee River with my friend, Em. She slaps and curses at the mosquitoes buzzing around her ankles. A fish jumps in the middle of the river and a mopoke hoots its mournful cry. Our hurricane lamp is a beacon for moths. Our warm champagne tastes silky smooth and sweet in the darkness as we toast in 1985.
Out on the horizon where there is a patch of dark blue on the black, a car light twinkles. That was the outside world and I didn’t want to be part of that. Better to be out here on the saltbush plains and red dirt. We pulled out the swags, lay on our backs and watched the night sky.
Three hundred miles to the south, my father holds my mother’s hand as she slips further into a coma. They are at a bush nursing hospital, nowhere near our home. Perhaps having a dying wife and mother impacted on our decision-making process. Was it lunacy that I went on a camping trip with Em, 5 hours drive from home? My mother was dying and was not expected to last the week. That said, wasn’t it just as crazy for Dad to pack her up in the car and take her away for the weekend to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
In hindsight, I believe my family of three was quite mad.
Perhaps it was to make everything seem normal in a bleak situation.
Around 2 am as the night sky reached its darkest, a shooting star streaks across the horizon. Perhaps that’s mum going out with a bang and a sharp twist of light. It seems impossible to think that she could just slip away. Later, when I tried to drill down with my father, he said he didn’t know what time she had died as he wasn’t there either. He said the nurses had told him to go home. He dutifully did this and took a sleeping pill. A fine duo we made, couldn’t even manage a deathbed vigil.
Em and I pack up camp early on New Years Day and I spend the trip home gazing out of the window and remembering trips up and down the same road with my mother. The three of us would squash into the ute. My father would sing and mum would roll her eyes and then pretend to be asleep.
Back in the now, Em and I roll through the town of Echuca on the long trip south. Em stops to go to the toilet. This was where on one trip back Mum, Dad and I had camped in the Shell Service Station as Dad was too tired to drive any further. He set up our camp beds next to the bowsers. I heard my mother cry herself to sleep as I dozed off to the stench of petrol fumes. I thought it an adventure, not realising that her weeping was anything to be worried about. Question marks remain. Did we have no money? Why didn’t we go to a campground?
Mum came home to die after weeks of in and out and back and forth in a yellow brick hospital. The building was as yellow as her.
The thing was that neither of us was there with her.
Note: The above is an excerpt from an unpublished memoir, The Year of Everything. Mum died on New Years Day 1985.