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California, New Zealand. Two passports, two homelands. And detours.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Whalers crescent

I went to my first wake on Monday night, and it was not how I thought it would be.

I had already spent two evenings in a foldable canvas chair on my deck, looking at David’s house and the cars outside on the grass, coming and going, telling myself that I didn’t want to go across the street to pay my respects because I didn’t want my last memory of David to be David without life. But this was a lie really, I didn’t want to walk across the street because I didn’t understand how the ceremony worked – a memorial service I get, I have experience with, with photos and music, and a schedule of who is speaking next and what prayers to recite – but not a wake. I didn’t know who it was for, and why. I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel, other than the fear that a 4-year-old has of a dark hallway. So I stayed on my side of the driveway.

I listened to the radio, and ate a bowl of ice cream, made myself a gin and tonic, had another bowl of ice cream, then a wine, and watched the lights go on and off in the top room of his A-frame house that had been empty for two weeks while he had been in hospital. I had passed the hearse on the gravel road coming into Omaui on Sunday at noon as I left for work; I knew he was being brought home for two days, for viewing, but I didn’t know what time, and I was ashamed and relieved to have missed this part, and I pulled over to let the hearse pass. I thought that was sort of right and fine and appropriate to our dynamic while he was alive, that we would pass on this piece of road this way, this last stretch that came down into Whalers Crescent, me going to work, sunburned, with sand in my ears, and him coming back here for the last time so that the town could say goodbye.

I moved to this town because of David. In November I drove out with a photographer to do a story on him for his first exhibition opening. We drove down this long gravel road that turned off the main road to Bluff and headed for cliffs and bush and then you turn the corner and there is the sea and a handful of cribs. It was an old whaling community and it felt like, feels like, the edge of the world, and very, very far away from the third story of a building in the middle of the city I that I work out of.

David lived on the end of one of two streets in Omaui, and he came out to meet us as we pulled off the gravel and onto the grass. He had just gotten back from a trip through Belize, Guatemala, Mexico and had done a series of 36 photographs of his trip in August and September. But it was his diagnosis with an aggressive cancer in January that gave every photograph its urgency. You walked through chronologically. The first was taken about two hours after he had been told at the hospital he probably had less than 12 months to live, which meant that he wouldn’t see the next summer. He had been given a camera for his 49th birthday and it was in the passenger seat when he saw a storm coming in over the mountains and pulled over and watched it come towards him and then he got the camera to capture the obvious metaphor. He got better with the camera as the year went on, as his health worsened, as he went through chemo, and got up early, because the sleeplessness then, to get sunrises on the Omaui beach and the way the light caught the barb wire of a fence, and a bird coming out of the water during the winter, with snow on the sand dunes – it had the feel of someone trying frame every nuanced piece of the world’s beauty before he left it.

When the photographer and I first came up to the house, there was tiny place with a carport and a deck across the street, half hidden by a wild garden growing around it. It had a For Rent sign in the front, a bathtub in the back, a place to gut fish, if I ever got into that, a veggie garden, an apple tree, and the pounding sound of the ocean, and after some deliberation, and some emailed prodding from David, this is where I am now. The last time I saw David while he was still well, was when he pounded on my glass door, while I was scrambling eggs without having opened the curtains to the morning yet, to tell me there was a beached whale down below and the whole town was down there trying to refloat it. The next time I saw him was in hospital, for a followup interview for his exhibition. The last time I saw him was at the exhibition a week ago, in a wheelchair, and he was so tired he could hardly keep his eyes open. When I kissed his cheek and said I’d see him when he got home, I knew I probably wouldn’t. He told me he had big exhibition planned with a new project that was going to blow my mind. I asked if he could say a little bit about at least. He said he couldn't. It was going to be a big surprise and it was going to blow everybody's minds. On Friday, I got a text saying that David had died. I called his sister, and she said they were going to bring David back to Omaui, that there wasn’t a day in hospital that he didn’t ask to be brought home.

When I did go to see David, finally, it was in the early evening, when I got home from work on Monday. I parked my car, got out, and marched over, ready to get this over with, so I could go out for a run on the beach without feeling like I was being silly and childish. There was only one car in the driveway, and the door was open to the kitchen and I stepped inside, knocking, seeing figures on the porch. Two guys came through the house, and I remembered them as students from around Invercargill and I said who I was and said I was David’s neighbour and then I just started to cry. One of the students put an arm around me and wiped his own eyes, and said they had been neighbours too for awhile, last year and we talked about how David looked after all of us, bringing us muffins and making sure we were happy here and how he told us we shouldn’t swim past the waves or we’d get dragged out to sea, and then pointed to the small room around the corner from the kitchen counter, where people had put loaves of bread and cards and baked goods, and I went in. David was in an open coffin on the bed. The curtains were open and the sun had just set.

It wasn’t how I thought it would be. The sky was red, the sea had pulled back and the lagoon was full of new sea water. There was even a full moon. I stood there for a few minutes and it was how they say, that it seems like that person could just open their eyes, or move a hand. It was more unbelievable that he wouldn’t do those things. Just outside his room, you could see that first photograph of the storm coming over the mountains. There were books, and CDs and music posters still up. I had thought I would want to walk in and walk out, but it was the opposite. I wanted to stay. I wanted to talk to him. If there had been a seat in the bedroom, I would have sat, and stayed for a long time. It was like standing in a very small cathedral. Afterwards, I went for a run, and then for my first night swim in Omaui. The moon rippled on the water of the lagoon as I slid through it, then turned on my back, and realised then that the aching in my upper body that had frightened me all week, was less likely to be a tumour lurking somewhere in me, and more likely that I hadn’t been doing backstrokes properly, and I should probably take swimming lessons if I wanted to get better and that I also need to stop being so ready to die all the time.

Yesterday, I had the day off, and I went back to being the socially awkward neighbour who watches people from her deck in her pajamas, well into the afternoon. I watched people I didn’t know move the furniture out of David’s house but I didn’t see his sister, who was the only one in the family who would recognise me. It was the last official day of summer. In the early evening I went for a run and a swim again and on the way back up to the house I picked blackberries and later that night I ate them with vanilla bean ice cream and crumbled Oreo cookies and read the last chapter of Mrs Dalloway (advice for readers who haven't gotten around to torturing themselves with Virginia Woolf: don’t read Mrs Dalloway, if you are feeling like your world is already rocking, it will tip you over ) and I left the window open because it was warm.

I woke up to the house shuddering with wind and rain and it was cold in the room and a huge, wild, bottomless sadness filled me, the kind of sadness you have in the middle of the night when you’ve woken up from a dream you can’t remember. David’s death made me feel alone and un-buffered, and other things made me lousy too, and all of it seemed to involve the storm. It seemed to be taking something away and I thought, well, that was it, that was summer.

Which is just a depressing final sentence.

So I will tag this on: apples are falling from the tree in the backyard and there are more blackberries to be picked, which make for great pies, and pies need people on decks to eat them. And I have weekly additions to my growing collection of scratched up $5records.  The Doobie Brothers just sound better on vinyl, trust me. Or just come over.

1 comment:

  1. Always love reading your blog. Thanks for writing.