Words by Bec Fleming, ACTWC Blogger in Residence
Four years ago, this week, I found out my PhD thesis had passed examination. My first call was to Mum, the person I always called first with good news or bad. But Mum didn’t answer the phone that day, my sister did. In hospital for tests, Mum had gone into surgery for a biopsy earlier than expected. A minor procedure. I was worried about what they might find, but confident it was treatable. I told my sister I would call her again in a few hours, travel to Sydney the next day. A few hours passed, lost in the haze of the work day, my phone rang. My sister was hysterical. Mum’s heart had stopped in the operating theatre, the surgeons had brought her back but she was unstable. Overcome with the sheer frustration of being so far away and so useless I yelled at my sister to keep Mum alive. Mum held on and I made it to the hospital. She was in intensive care lying face down, the doctors said it was the only way they could keep her stable. “She’s already gone,” I said to my Dad as I felt how cold her skin was. A nurse reassured me that they would not have her in intensive care if there wasn’t hope. For a moment I believed him, it sounded logical, I wanted it to be true. I whispered to Mum that she just needed to hold on for the night. She did.
The next day she was lying on her back, a good sign, but she was still unconscious. I talked to her for most of the day, told her I really needed her to wake up. I was beginning to realise we didn’t have long left and I desperately, selfishly, wanted to talk to her one last time. The medical staff did more tests. We were given our own waiting room, assigned a social worker. I knew neither of these were good signs. Mum held on another night.
On her final day, the doctor met with us. There was a tumor wrapped around her heart and lungs, he explained. She had been without oxygen for a long time in surgery. Her organs were damaged. I imagined her waking confused, disorientated, being told to say goodbye because her body had failed her. I knew now it was better if she didn’t wake up. I spent her final day talking to her as if she could hear me, hoping she could. I told her my thesis passed. I told her I loved her. I told her it was okay to let go. Later that day, I held her hand as she took her final breath with family and close friends by her side. A month or so later, I was talking with her in a dream, she held my hand the same way I had held hers and reassured me “I heard every word bub.” I woke crying.
Those three days changed who I am as a writer. I know I won’t ever turn my thesis into a book. I’ve tried, but the thesis and its subject matter are now inextricably linked to her death. I also lost my greatest supporter. For a little while, I didn’t write. I couldn’t. It was too hard to put myself back in the study and I almost let it go. But when I tried again I was drawn out of non-fiction. I wrote a poem about losing her. It was shortlisted for an award. The grief had pushed my boundaries, pushing me into a new genre and I discovered I could write beyond non-fiction. A year later I wrote another poem about losing her, it was different, more optimistic. Just as the grief had changed my writing, the writing had changed the grief.
In the four years since she died I have joined the Writers Centre and found my way into a number of writing groups, I’ve attended lots of workshops and met many talented writers. I have started writing most days and explored new genres. I’m working towards publication. The idea that writing can be cathartic is not new. I guess what surprised me was that the grief and loss broadened my world as well as my writing. In losing my greatest supporter I was pushed to find this wonderful community of writers who have enhanced my world and saved my passion for the craft.
This post is a thank you, to all of you. For every conversation about the joys and challenges of the craft, for everything I’ve learned from those I have met in workshops and writing groups. It is because of this community of writers that I didn’t lose my writing self on the day I lost my Mum.
Bec Fleming is a Canberra based writer, historian and poet. She graduated with a PhD in history from the University of New England in 2010. She has spoken at the National Portrait Gallery, the Australian War Memorial and for the ABC program Now Hear This. Her poem ‘An untimely death’ was shortlisted for the 2013 Michael Thwaites poetry award. She has loved words for as long as she can remember and thinks it is a little bit magic when they line themselves up in just the right order.