I want to express in words what I feel. But I am only me, there is no other. Meaningless non sequiturs and illogical metaphors follow statements like senescent leaves falling off trees in autumn. It’s now late July 2010, a measure of time, of the months in the year, and a count of the years passed since year zero, the birth of Jesus Christ our savior who died on the cross as a sacrifice to God for all our sins.

Since I last put pen to paper my mind has been subjected to incalculable sensory inputs, discrete to my perception, but in reality continuous and intertwined. It has organized those it can make sense of into recallable memories which obey the rules of cause and effect, or “objective chorality” as my housemate in Reno was wont to pronounce with paternalistic superciliousness, because his father was a physicist, whereas mine was a lowly cheese-maker-cum-factory worker-cum-flower farmer. He was paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan, his compatriot, because being bereft of any original thought he wanted to pass himself off as intellectually superior by associating himself with the ideas of famous others, even though I’d never heard of Marshall McCluhan. As for how well my brain has retained my life’s memories, all I can say is: do memories exist if they can never be recalled?

Last year one Saturday, almost a year to the day my mother died (she died, in fact, on August 23rd 2008), when the antipodean winter reluctantly makes way for spring’s indecisive entrance, I drove to Richmond to see the house we lived in after arriving down in Melbourne from the Bonegilla migrant camp outside Albury, in late February 1969. Like many of the other houses on Wellington Street it has been fixed up. In fact the entire area south ofSwan Street has undergone a rejuvenation of sorts, a makeover if you like, or gentrification. It is now inhabited mainly by young urban professionals with or without small children, content to be part of a medium-to-high-density, sustainable residential community with ready access to public transport and all the amenities and services the nearby central business district has to offer. While not quite bona fide members of the urban elite establishment, they live close enough to be demographically lumped in with them while still retaining a vicarious and ennobling connection with working classdom, albeit in acquired retrospection.

All this may sound like I don’t particularly like yuppies; that’s because I can’t stand them. The main reason they live in places like Richmond is because they’re so lacking in substance, they’re desperate to attach themselves to a historic and somewhat mythic demographic they believe embodies the character they wish to project of themselves, best described as conformist non-conformists, in the hope this will unequivocally establish their socio-political credentials in the wider social formation. This is despite the fact that every opinion they express reflects their fundamental vacuousness, which of course they vigorously and vociferously deny through self-fulfilling argumentation in the various channels of mass communication, electronic and print, and shake their fist with rage at anyone who dares hint that their sanctimonious self-righteousness is merely a bluff for their inner insecurities. Thus, I avoid them.

In any case, the semi-detached two-bedroom house we once lived in is situated towards the far end of Wellington Street, away from Swan Street, on the corner of Blanche Street where there’s a kind of dog-leg to the right, a disjunction if you like, after which Wellington Street continues south for a bit before ending in a cul-de-sac with two narrow blue-stone alleyway running of it in opposite directions. The side of our former house facing south actually borders Blanche Street, which is really a one-way lane, barely wide enough to accommodate one vehicle at a time. But since it’s paved and has a narrow sidewalk with houses that front onto it, I guess it still qualifies as an actual street.

On the side opposite along Blanche Street, running from the corner of Wellington Street to Cremorne Street is a twelve-foot high red brick wall topped with rusted barbed wire, somewhat reminiscent of a Berlin Wall from Victorian times, but on a smaller scale; or else it could be an outer wall of some sort of correctional facility on the other side. Originally it formed the perimeter of a factory the nature of which I’m not sure. But judging from the main building which the wall joins onto, and which sits diagonally across from our former house on the dog-leg corner, my guess is that it was a packing or storage facility of some sort that required goods to be hoisted up from street level, or lowered down to be carted away, by an over-hanging beam and pulley system on the upper level. The rusted beam was still in place when we lived here, sticking out of the boarded up door, but it has since been removed and the door opening has been bricked off.

Whatever the business of the factory, it had ceased to operate by the time we moved into the area, and the high wall along Blanche Street enclosed the yard of a trucking company that went by the name of “Arthur’s Transport”, while the three-story red brick building on the corner lay disused. This my friends and I confirmed one Sunday after we crawled under the front gate on Cremorne Street to go and collect caterpillars from a native willow tree that grew inside the wall next to it, and then went exploring inside to discover that it was largely empty except for some old rusted machinery covered with layers of dust, with cobwebs entangling the beams and rafters, and all the windows broken and the doors falling off their hinges.

Back then, the street was filled with immigrant families from various countries around the world including Greece, Italy, Turkey and Mauritius, with a few Anglo-Australian families thrown in. I can’t imagine any of them still living here. I assume they or their children moved out to the suburbs long ago, like we did, or returned to their respective countries of origin; or the parents have simply passed away and the children sold off the properties. Having said that I have a strange suspicion the Greek family from whom we rented the house are still living next door at 61 Wellington Street in some capacity, either one or both parents, George and Georgia, on their own, or with one or more of their children and perhaps their own family. I say that because, even back then, as an impressionable eight year-old, they struck me as the type of people who had little desire to venture beyond their immediate surroundings, and despite having arrived in Australia some ten years before us, George didn’t even drive a car.

Perhaps after saving up enough money to buy their own house, and then the one next door which they duly converted into two rental units, they stopped looking beyond the horizon, and except for the occasional trip to Elwood Beach on the train in the summer, they never ventured further afield. It helped that they had close relatives living nearby, up on Richmond Hill north of Swan Street. They also had relatives in Sydney whom they visited once every couple of years. But according to George Melbourne was much better than Sydney by miles because, among other things, the trains here had louder claxons compared to the puny sounding ones on Sydney’s trains. Even though I’d never been to Sydney to compare for myself, it was something that stuck in my head, I guess because I could hear the trains from our house most nights sounding their horn as they pulled away from Richmond station next to Swan Street, and would assure myself they were louder than the ones in Sydney.

George’s vain pride in Melbourne and in Australia, however, left me confused, because like us they were Greek and compared to our own uncertain roots, he always liked to boast of his family’s Spartan heritage. But otherwise he rarely spoke of Greece, and when he did it was mostly in disparaging terms. Whereas for us, Greece was a constant preoccupation, with my mother always reminding us that we would be heading back the following year to be reunited with my aunt and uncle. Nevertheless, thanks to George’s avowed reverence for his adopted city, soon I too was infected with the same parochial pride in my new city, and in geography class I never wasted an opportunity to tell my classmates that Melbourne was much better than Sydney, proof of which was that trains in Melbourne had much louder sounding claxons.

When I look back on those years, sometimes I wonder how determinant my ready acceptance of such illumining disclosures were, however trivial or second hand, in shaping my character. Or was it merely a reflection of it, an expression of something already there, akin to the belief of ancient Greeks that all learning is recollection and knowledge is inhered in the soul? In this regard, was my unqualified adoption of the bombastic views of George and my regurgitation of them without reservation an indication of my nascent elitism and my innate desire to impress my peers with my privileged knowledge? Or was it just a reflection of a natural desire by any newcomer to want to assimilate into their new environment and be accepted by those around them, by ingratiating themselves with them through flattery and imitation? Or was it an early sign that I was starting to identify with my oppressors, something akin to a Stockholm syndrome, of which George had an advanced case, and irredeemably so?

Anyhow, on this particular Saturday I drove to Richmond from my house in Chadstone in the south-eastern suburbs, some ten miles away, and turning left into Wellington Street from Swan Street, I stopped and parked my car just around the corner from the red brick building which was in the process of being converted into loft-style apartments. Through my driver’s side window I had a good view of 63A Wellington Street without having to get out, and took a few photographs using the zoom function on my digital camera.

I could see that the front façade and the wall on the side abutting Blanche Street had been repainted the same color as forty years ago, a washed out lemony green. In addition it had a new corrugated iron roof put on in exactly the same style as the old one. The front picket fence, however, was a new feature, a faded grey of weathered hardwood. It had replaced the rusty waist-high Cyclone fence and the creaky gate of old which I could almost picture myself pushing open, walking the few steps up the narrow concrete path on the side of the patch of grass that was the front lawn, up onto the small veranda and front door.

The street itself was eerily quiet. Not a soul could be seen or heard either outside or in the front yards or verandas of the few residences that didn’t have a six-foot high wall along the front for privacy. This was in stark contrast to how I remembered the neighborhood from forty years earlier when you could see into the front yards of houses and front windows and my friends and I would chase one another up and down the street after school and on weekends, kicking around a plastic football or playing street cricket with the ball often landing on people’s roofs or front doors and windows, sometimes breaking them, while we yelled ununderstood obscenities at cars and their drivers who dared disrupt our games.

As I sat in my car, snippets of all kinds of memories came flooding back in a random stream seamlessly superseding one another. But they evoked little emotion. Perhaps this was because I was overly anxious that some paranoid house owner peering from behind the curtains would come out at any minute and confront this stranger taking photographs of their houses form inside his car. Somehow I didn’t think my explanation that I was only taking pictures of the house I used to live in for my photo album would satisfy them. Nevertheless I remained gazing across at our old house, curious to see just what type of people now lived there.

I doubted they were newly arrived immigrants; for a start, the rent would be prohibitively expensive. From its well-restored condition and the neat and tidy front yard, my guess was that it was owned and occupied by a young professional couple who took pride in their humble Depression-era, semi-detached dwelling. Whoever they happened to be, I felt a strange affinity with them all of a sudden, as if having lived in the same house and in the same neighborhood had imbued us with a like outlook on the world. But our respective circumstances were completely different, I thought, because, whereas we had lived there out of necessity, the present occupants more than likely owned the house and had chosen to live here over other less expensive areas in Melbourne, figuring it was a good long-term investment, given that Richmond was steeped in history and character, and such intangibles accrue with time, adding value to the property. But this was purely conjecture on my part. Maybe they too were compelled to live here, so as not to have far to travel to their workplaces, or because they preferred to walk and use public transport rather than drive everywhere. But I would only be able to confirm that if I actually met them in person, which wasn’t on my agenda that particular afternoon.

The adjoining unit was done up in the same style and was equally well maintained, and as I continued gazing at them and the cars parked on the street at the front, the more I could appreciate the appeal of wanting to live here. For one there was the physical proximity to one’s neighbors that encouraged social interaction and engendered a close sense of community that was so lacking in the alienating sparseness of outer suburbia. However, this was counterbalanced by the fact that the Monash tollway which carried tens of thousands of vehicles each day and well into the night when all the heavy trucks come out like nocturnal beasts was only a block to the south. In fact, by my reckoning, the main outbound tunnel ran more or less right under Wellington Street, if not our old house itself, and the exhaust towers had to be somewhere in the general vicinity. Moreover the area itself was surrounded by roads that carried heavy traffic throughout the day, filling the air with toxic exhaust fumes and fine, sub-microscopic particulates, which couldn’t possibly do one’s health much good.

As I sat in my car, I was also keeping a close eye on 61 Wellington Street. Compared to the well-looked after, semi-detached units next door, the house in which George and Georgia and their three children used to live had fallen into a noticeable state of disrepair. The trees along the side fence and the bushes inside the doubled-fronted Cyclone wire fence now thoroughly rusted were overgrown, as were the grass and the weeds in the front yard. It added to my suspicion that George probably still lived here with his wife, refusing to sell and having nowhere else to go, with no desire of returning to Greece to live out his remaining years. But he was now too frail to cut the grass with his push rotary mower, and she had grown too old to take care of the garden.

I could almost picture him in his dressing gown, with messy grey hair down past his shoulders and a long monastic beard, sitting in his arm chair under the lemon tree in the common concrete-paved back yard we shared with him and the other tenant occupying the adjoining unit, leisurely smoking a cigarette and loftily arguing religion and politics in his terse, laconic manner with my father who courteously obliged. Having arrived in Australia well before us, he probably thought he had something to learn from George about this new country. But if truth be told, he had little time for people like him, and when he had finished his cigarette, he would promptly excuse himself, leaving George to ponder confusedly over some cryptically sarcastic parting remark of his own.

For someone not much older than my father, with three children about the same age as me and my sister, George struck me as a peculiar figure when I first saw him. But there was something about his eccentricity that struck a vague chord. His thin and gaunt appearance, and his detached and unsociable manner must have subconsciously recalled my reclusive uncle back in Greece, that is, my father’s younger brother, from the few times I saw him before we left for Australia. Perhaps this resemblance explained my father’s veiled derision of George, because like his brother, he also shunned people and eschewed the modern world. But George’s unconventional appearance and his unpredictable cantankerous outbursts would strike fear in me, but at other times he seemed quite timid and withdrawn, and I felt more pity than fear when I saw him sitting on his own.

According to my parents, whom I overheard talking about him one Sunday with some visitors to the house, George wasn’t always like that. Apparently he had quit his factory job years earlier, having gone mad, “τρελλάθηκε,” they said. This happened after the family returned from Greece bitterly disappointed at having failed to settle back in their part of Peloponessus, at the height of the junta years. They said he had spent time at “Kew”, which was a reference to the psychiatric hospital situated in that sedate suburb in the leafy outer east of Melbourne, and which I believe is still operating in some capacity. For some reason, that particular institution was well known among Greek immigrants, and the refrain “θα πάς στο Κιού” had passed into the Greek migrant vernacular as a kind of admonition to those who dared stray too far from the approved path laid out for migrant workers in this faraway land, because if they did so, they were apt to go mad and be locked up in “Kew” and given pills to make them forget their woes and stop worrying.

After hearing all this about George, I realized he was in fact what a real-life “mental case” looked like. It was a term I often heard used at school among my new friends, but I had no idea as to who or what it actually referred to. But now I did. It was someone like George, with long hair and a beard, who didn’t work and stayed home all day dressed in his robe, shunning people and mocking whatever they had to say; while his wife looked after the house and went off in the evenings to clean offices in the city to earn enough to make ends meet. Although not all “mental cases” fitted his description, the allusion was clear enough for me to draw a general conclusion, which was that they didn’t look and act like “normal” people. And the fact that they didn’t meant one had to be wary of them. Thus, from then on, I avoided George when I could help it, and made sure he wasn’t sitting outside before I dared go use the shared toilet at the back of their house.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I went to Wellington Street that Saturday. On the surface, I set out on a whim to drive to the city by way of Richmond to relieve my boredom. But on the way there, a more purposeful objective suggested itself. And this was that, by going to see my old neighborhood and house again, this might inspire enough of a sense of belonging to conciliate me with the idea of finally committing myself to this place for the long-term and settling down, as much as I abhorred the notion of having to formally pledge allegiance to a country, any country really, especially a monarchy, after I saw the effect it had .on my father.

He had put it off as long as he could. But when he turned sixty-four, he finally relented and decided to become a naturalized Australian citizen, believing this was a necessary step for him to qualify for his old-age pension when he turned sixty-five the following year. In fact, this wasn’t a strict requirement, but disconnected Greeks of his generation all believed it was, guided by blissful ignorance of government policy, in a country from which they felt largely disenfranchised, feeding a collective indifference to its laws, but at the same time a fear that if they didn’t take out citizenship before they turned sixty-five they would lose all their entitlements, or have to wait another ten years before becoming eligible. But when my father did take out citizenship, along with my mother, I suspect something of him died in the process.

He didn’t become morose or overly depressed, but he assumed a resigned humility which I sensed hid an even bigger inner resignation to whatever fate had in store for him. It was as if, by taking the oath of allegiance to a country which he was never able to adopt as his won, or adapt to, he had betrayed some core character-defining principle, and turned into that person he vowed never to become. And within a year he was dead. It’s not that I truly believe there was a causative link between the two. But in my mind I can’t help but look upon the negation of character and change of identity his conversion signified as death foretold.

On a more emotional plane, something else that brought me to Wellington Street that day was a non-descript nostalgic yearning that had been building up in me over the past year in the wake of my mother’s death. It was a yearning for a period of my life which despite its relatively short span, less than two years, still dominates my past. But sitting there in my car, across from our former house, as hard as I tried to reconcile my memories of growing up here with my present situation, I could feel no abiding affinity with either the house or the neighborhood. It felt like my brain was simply parsing memories and trying to string together coherent storylines that vaguely resonated with truth and meaning in the hope of discovering something deep and insightful about who I was and what I had become. Memories like the time I convinced my mother .to buy a can of a particular brand of air freshener because I wanted to prove to her that it had magical powers.

I was so excited when we came home from the shops with a can of “Air-o-Zone” in our shopping cart, that I grabbed the can, pulled off the cover and ran straight into the living room, spraying it on the mantle piece where an empty vase stood, with the full expectation that flowers would instantly spring up, as they did in the television commercial. But after waiting twenty seconds or so, ample time, the vase on the mantelpiece remained empty. After trying again and again, and the vase still flowerless, I was thoroughly perplexed. I just couldn’t understand why it failed to make flowers appear, when on television they sprang up out of nowhere almost instantly with just a short spray. Desperate to show my mother that it really worked, I went into the kitchen and sprayed some on the table. But again my efforts were in vain. It was as if logic itself had broken down. There was something missing, but I couldn’t figure out what it could be.

Watching me all this while from his arm-chair in the living room with a derisive grin on his face was my father. Breaking his silence, he said in a dismissive tone that the advertisement was a lie and that I was stupid to think that a spray could make flowers appear out of nowhere. As much as I resented his statement, I couldn’t hide my humiliation and I felt a wave of embarrassment sweep over me, because it suddenly dawned on me that, as shattering as it was, his explanation made full sense. Flowers only grew in the ground, or in pots filled with soil. Somehow on television, they had made it look like “Air-o-Zone” made flowers grow out of thin air, when in fact they just couldn’t. The pretty woman in the advertisement was lying; it was as simple as that. But why would someone with such a friendly face deliberately lie? In the end, I don’t know which hurt more; my father’s blunt disillusioning truth, or the fact that I had been fully taken in by the pretty woman on television.

As crushing as this realization was, I think this particular incident marked a turning point in wider education, in as much as it served as a cautionary introduction to the world of deceit and dissimulation on the one hand and my own willingness to go along with it on the other. I suspect the willful duplicity I now recognized in advertizing puffery, still too naive to appreciate its underlying commercial purpose, coupled with my embarrassing gullibility, subconsciously carried over into real life. And from then on, I was wary of believing anything I saw that appeared to be the result of magic, or defied rational explanation. And as for people who smiled a lot and acted friendly, well, they too were apt to be lying and couldn’t be trusted. Thus, when Christmas came round, I took it upon myself to convince my sister that Santa Claus didn’t exist, and that Jesus couldn’t possibly turn water into wine, or come back from the dead, as she’d been led to believe at Catholic Sunday school she used to attend with some of her friends.

This wasn’t the first time I had visited my old neighborhood. I had been back several times over the years, even stopping off at my old primary school around the corner on Cremorne Street to walk around the asphalt playground and relive the cricket matches we used to play at lunchtime, with the wickets painted on the wall of the toilet block still visible; and the tunnel-ball contests in training for the interschool sports games. This time, however, I sensed a finality about my visit. I came to the conclusion that no matter how many times I came back here, I would never feel a genuine affinity with the place, one that was free from that soppy, puerile sentimentality for the apparent simplicity of the past, whenever the confusion of the present and uncertainty of the future weigh on my mind.

Thus, I resolved to give up trying to contrive a sense of attachment for a place to which there exists a flimsy romantic connection only in my mind. And as far as the people who live here were concerned, safely sequestered in the privacy of their single-fronted, semi-detached former workers’ lodgings faithfully restored to their original condition, I had little or nothing in common with them. With that sobering, disillusioning thought, I drove away neither happy nor sad, but sure in the knowledge there was nothing special about the house we once lived in, or the street and neighborhood.

Now that I think about it, having rejected the possibility of discovering any character-defining attachment to my old house and neighborhood, I suspect my repeated attempts to do so over the years were motivated subconsciously by a desire for the exact opposite, that is, to arrive via the occult logic of my subconscious at a plausible reason to distance myself from it, in as much as it represented my doubtful baptism into Australian society, so open and receptive on one level, yet unable to absorb newcomers whole-heartedly and accommodate otherness. As such, it’s a society towards which I feel an irreconcilable mistrust, and still cringe at the sound of my own name in this strange sounding tongue. Perhaps the indifference I now feel was, in fact, what I was looking for all along, because deep down I really have no wish to belong here, simply because I never can.

As I mentioned, it’s now almost two years since my mother died. I must confess, they have been the shortest two years of my life. It’s like time has stood still even though in those two years I feel like I’ve aged five or ten, as the wrinkles and lines on my face attest, and the profusion of grey hair on my head and elsewhere.

In the aftermath of her ceasing to exist, I walked away from my job as a research scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra. I could no longer see the point of sacrificing the lives of small laboratory animals just to figure out how cells in their eyes converted electromagnetic energy into electrical impulses. Up until then I hadn’t given a second thought to the deontological implications of my work as a biomedical research scientist, both in Australia and all my years in various laboratories in the States. By following the ethical guidelines for humanely killing these creatures, as oxymoronic as that sounds, my conscience could be assuaged and I could proceed to perform the necessary experiments on tissue samples extracted from them guilt-free, record and analyze the data with my instruments, and then write up articles for publication in scientific journals, and feel that I was achieving something and contributing to human knowledge.

Now, however, all that’s changed. The idea of consciously terminating the life of an animal whose natural instinct by definition is to want to live and avoid death, all for the sake of scientific research with the aim of discovering something new that will bring me and my colleagues accolades and recognition, as well as promotion, and add to the existing body of scientific knowledge, well, all that just seemed absurd.

After quitting my job in Canberra and selling my apartment there in a panic, spooked by talk of house prices about to collapse with the global financial system on the verge of a major crisis rivaling that of the Great Depression, if you believed the hype, I moved into my mother’s house in Melbourne and devoted myself to looking after the welfare of her pet dog and cat, Max and Timothy, or in her language, “Μέξ καί Τσίμαθι”, while I looked for a new job. I suspect it was also a way of trying to keep alive her memory, in as much as these creatures lived through her and she through them, and in my mind the three of them were inseparable and I felt an obligation to honor her unspoken wish that they be looked after. 

On another level, however, one that straddles humaneness and religiosity, I also saw my commitment as a way of paying penance for having sacrificed the lives of so many animals in the course of my research career. Thus, driven by a vague but overbearing sense of Franciscan piety, I decided to devote myself to the needs of these two mutually cognizant fellow creatures and expiate my guilt for my past sins.

I suspect my reasoning, albeit buried in the murkiness of my subconscious, came out of a rather maudlin assessment of my situation at that particular point in my life, and I figured that by affecting outward piety I could justify my retreat from the concerns and demands of my hitherto specious existence where I felt increasingly drawn further and further away from an inner ideal. By adopting such an attitude, I figured I could draw on people’s sympathy, if not pity, and be excused for abandoning my career mid-stream and instead devoting myself to such a seemingly unavailing commitment, because my irrational behavior was understandable for one recently bereaved of the closest of kin, when concerns for the routine of life tends to give way to reflections on the immaterial and other-worldly. 

In any case, these two creatures have now become my closest companions, not just in a material sense but in a cosmic sense as well, and I can’t imagine ever walking away or abandoning them. Our relationship transcends human friendship and in their presence I feel as if I exist in a wholly different dimension. Sometimes I wonder whether my altered perception of time isn’t due to these creatures having drawn me into their own notion of reality.

As fellow co-inhabitants of this realm I am in awe of the way they resolutely and dispassionately go about their lives, dependent on my generosity and welfare on the one hand, while driven by their animal instincts to survive by exploiting my sense of duty towards them for supplying me with needed distraction and acknowledgement of my existence. As silly as it sounds, they embody the meaning of life, the basis of which is the will to maintain the functional integrity of the organism each of us constitutes by all the means at our disposal. Having said that, I get the impression they also possess the ability to willingly succumb to the inevitable when further resistance is futile.

Sometimes when I take Max to the park and let him wander off the leash I can also see my mother’s image in the distance. One instant I see Max sniffing the grass and the next, right there beside him, or in his place, I see my mother throwing me looks in case I take off without him or her. Perhaps I conflate the two because it was rare to see her without Max by her side, whether it was at the beach or at the park, or in the car when they went off shopping together. So now, when I see him on his own, my mind automatically supplies the missing image of my mother and overlays it onto the in-coming visual sense-image of Max, and in this hybrid, interchanging mental percept she appears as real and present as ever.

And it’s not just her image, because sometimes I can hear her voice calling him to quiet down and stop barking at the deliverer of junk mail stuffing leaflets and advertizing brochures into the letter box at the front, as Max watches him intently from his armchair, through the living room curtain, lest he or anyone else make a wrong move and step over the line. As for Timothy she’s naturally more aloof and projecting my mother’s personality onto this detached feline doesn’t seem to work. After all, cats are their own people, so to speak.

But one thing I’m certain of is that something of my mother lives in me, which is not so strange a notion when you think about it, given that more than half of my DNA is derived from her, if one includes mitochondrial DNA. And being a firm believer that, as much as one’s environment, one’s physical attributes define one’s character and personality in equal measure to the extent that they circumscribe one’s ability to interact with human beings around them and be acknowledged by them, or more fundamentally, the ability of others to relate to you, the fact that she and I shared a physical resemblance and had similar temperaments, it would only be expected that she would continue to exist through me in some way. But as far as Max and Timothy are concerned, I feel compelled to subjugate my life to theirs, because in that act of humble servitude I can free myself from my humanoid existence, so tied up as it is with that oppressive existential triumvirate of the past, present and future.

Speaking of time, I recently experienced a revelation of sorts which offered some insight into the nature of the universe, albeit from my own idiotic perspective. By idiotic I mean that it came from my own “private” view of the universe, which is what “idiotic” means in Greek, that is, something derived from my one’s intellectual processes, free from outside scrutiny. 

Specifically, this revelation concerned the nature of light at the conceptual level, that is, unsupported by mathematical reasoning in which I’m not sufficiently grounded to even attempt to provide any proof, although I did study mathematics as well as physics in first year at university and did reasonably well in both. However, I’ve always had an aversion to numbers and symbols with their bold lines standing out from the background, encoding a kind of secrecy and offending an inner esthetic of beauty. In any case, I suspect I suffer from occasional numerical dyslexia, or is it prosopagnosia, whereby at times, numbers and symbols with which I’m familiar seem to defy meaning.

Actually, I’ve come to the conclusion that an inordinate affinity with numbers is akin to a psychosis, or a “numerosis” if you like. What I mean by this is that numbers and their inter-relationships can delude the mind into believing it has the ability to unlock the laws of the universe and crack open the mystery of life. (I don’t know what I mean by this; it just came out) In those possessed of this obsession, or by it, mathematical logic becomes the means by which it spreads and takes hold, a bit like a psychic cancer that grows and spreads uncontrollably until it has subsumed its host’s consciousness, molding and shaping their brain to accommodate the mathematical processing their expanding madness demands, and co-opting the mind to direct the body to serve its expanding needs, at the expense of the myriads of other associations the mind could synthesize from sensory inputs to inform one’s consciousness of the world and harmonize it with one’s desires and fantasies. It’s also a bit like a religion, but instead of a strict belief that everything in the universe is the self-fulfilling work of a supreme deity, the demiurge, in mathematics, the ultimate delusion lies in the self-referential certainty of numbers.

When I say that one plus one equals two, I’m saying that one thing which is identical to another thing, when considered together, are now called two things. That is, when the word “two” or the number “2”, as a phonetic or a visual symbol impinges on my senses and conjures up in my cognitive brain the thought image of the word “two” or the number “2”, I know that it represents abstractly the existence of one thing grasped together with the other thing, both of which now form a new combined entity known as “two” or “2”. Thus when an object which stands out from the background is considered with another object, which doesn’t necessarily have to be identical with the first, but which is similar in the sense that it can be perceived as a separate and unique entity, both of them together now become “one” thing which is represented by the word “two” or symbol “2”.

As idiotically apocalyptic as it sounds, I’m driven to the inescapable conclusion that mathematics and all the scientific knowledge it underpins is nothing but a means to the final end, that is, the annihilation of humanity. That’s because human beings, actuated by a universal cosmic force, channeled through the myriads of cascading chemical actions and reactions within their cells, are driven by the inexorable need to transform their physical environment ad nihilum by whatever means at their disposal. And this includes the use of mathematics, which is but a hallucinatory attempt by the intellect to apprehend in symbolic form the infinite interrelationships between all the elements and forces of nature so as to feed our need for pleasure and sustenance, in the quest to reproduce more of ourselves until we no longer can. I think I’m digressing into the realm of incoherence, so I’ll go back to what I started on.

Well, this minor revelation I experienced happened one evening while I was sitting back in the warmth of my living room having a coffee after dinner, and as I said, it concerned the nature of light. This question had been a source of confusion, a veritable thorn in my intellectual side ever since I came across the idea that under some conditions light was a “wave”, but under others, it was composed of a stream of almost mass-less particles called photons that traveled through space at something like 186,000 miles per second, abbreviated as “c”, which is arguably the most important constant in physics. In high school, to reconcile these two aspects of light, I would try to picture these small particles zipping through space while oscillating about a central axis.

This baffling duality continued to niggle at my intellectual powers of reasoning through university. But driven by an inner need to come up with a unifying concept to account for both the particulate and wave-like nature of light, I couldn’t get past the idea that something with mass can also be a “wave”, and the image of photons oscillating as they traveled through space kept intruding. As a result, I stopped trying to visualize light and simply went along with the received wisdom that under certain conditions it behaved like a stream of particles that reflected off objects at the same angle of incidence, while under others it behaved like a “wave” as in the ocean, whose amplitude and frequency could vary, and so its energy. This enabled me to calculate equations and correctly answer exam questions, and convince my physics tutors that I had a firm grasp of the subject. But I suspect many of my fellow students found themselves at the same cognitive impasse.

I don’t know why a resolution to this niggling incongruity offered itself up on that particular evening. Given that it occurred close to the anniversary of my mother’s death, it’s possible that in my wandering contemplation of her passing and the moment she ceased to exist, which may have had something to do with the fact that I was sitting in the same exact spot on the couch she used to sit in on such cold evenings, and of the related question of whether the instantaneous vanishing of her life force, or anyone else’s for that matter, violated the physical laws pertaining to the conservation of energy and the transformation of energy into matter and vice versa; this stirred up various mysteries to other related physical phenomena, among which was the baffling duality of the nature of light. 

Or perhaps the thought of the instantaneous vanishing of her life-force evoked in my subconscious the extinguishing of a flame as a metaphor for death. And seeing the former event was beyond the reach of my intellect to explain in terms of physical laws, I turned the focus of my late-night inquiry on the more tractable problem of the duality of the nature of light. But before I could address this problem, I realized I needed to arrive at a clearer understanding of the concept of “space,” that is, the medium through which light travelled, either as particles or waves. 

I didn’t have to think very long to realize the word “space” as I had understood it was actually a misnomer. You see, I had always understood the word “space” to signify a three-dimensional emptiness devoid of all substance. This made intuitive sense because I, as an entity possessing mass, exist in three-dimensions, and those same three dimensions would continue to exist in my absence. Therefore “space” would still exist in the absence of all entities of mass and substance. But waves required a physical medium through which to travel, as in the case of waves in the ocean. So how could “space” possibly be empty, that is, a complete void?

As I thought over my hitherto misconception, I could see there was a basic contradiction in my logic. And this was, if “space” was “nothingness” how can it possibly exist? It was a patently absurd proposition, because for anything of a physical character to exist it must possess form and substance, whereas “nothingness” cannot possibly exist. In fact, it’s not even possible to contemplate “nothingness”; one can only account for it by assigning a word to it, like “nothing”, or a numerical symbol like “0”. But “space” existed, because without it light could not exist. Therefore “space” cannot possibly connote “nothingness”; it must constitute a “somethingness”, that is, a physicality that exists in three dimensions.

This then raised the question of what space is made up of, because if it is real and physical it must be composed of something. The inescapable conclusion I came to was that three-dimensional space was composed of indivisible units infinitesimally smaller than atoms which I called “spaceons”. These were its building blocks, as it were, of indeterminate shape, which give space mass-less form and substance. And suspended within this three-dimensionality of spaceons is mass-ful matter composed of coalesced elemental atoms and molecules.

Having demystified the nature of space at the conceptual level, I went back to the issue at hand, which was the dual nature of light itself. Within the framework of my idiotic understanding of space as a substantive medium composed of indivisible mass-less fundamental units called spaceons, I wanted to see if I could reconcile the particulate and wave-like natures of light. In the course of my audible soliloquy and expository gesticulation, with Max asleep in his arm chair, head half-dangling over the edge, his paws and mouth twitching and eyeballs flitting away under closed eyelids; and flea-ridden Timothy curled up like a furry coffee scroll wheezing away; in her padded basket in front of the gas heater, I realized why my hitherto misapprehension of space as a complete void had been so firmly rooted in my mind.

It was tied up with the fact that air was composed of atoms of various gases suspended in space and separated by relatively large distances. Thus, in this rarefied state, it seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that the probability of photons striking any atoms of gas in air and being reflected back to the eye of an observer was infinitely small, and that majority of photons passed through unimpeded, thus rendering air invisible. Therefore, it made intuitive sense to think of the space between the atoms of gas, and of space in general, as being a complete void, since it could not impede the passage of light particles, that is, photons. As for the transparency of solid objects like glass and crystals, this was explained by internal reflection of light particles entering at one surface and being reflected from one atom or molecule to the next internally, until they emerged from another surface into the more transmissive medium like air.

But having now postulated that space was not an emptiness, but a “somethingness” composed of spaceons inter-connected with one another in a three-dimensional lattice, either dynamically or statically, I was led to ponder how light rays composed of streams of photons could possibly be transmitted through this substantive omnipresent medium. The conclusion I came to was that light particles would not get very far at all, or they would burrow their way through for a short distance, rapidly lose all their energy, and come to a complete stop. Thus, it made more sense to think of light purely as a “wave”, that is a pulsatile transfer of force/energy from one spaceon to a neighboring spaceon, and so on, until that force was transferred to a solid, mass-ful object composed of coalesced atoms and molecules which it could be either reflected from, absorbed by, or through which it could pass and be re-transmitted to spaceons on its exit, attenuated in energy.

As I reflected on my new understanding of the nature of light, I was satisfied I had proved to my “idiot savant” self, as my housemate in Reno was wont to refer to me whenever I came up with a novel but simple explanation to a baffling conundrum, because I lacked his scientific pedigree and was therefore unqualified to speculate on matters pertaining to the “hard sciences”; I was satisfied, I say, I had proven to myself that light was composed of pulses of energy that imparted force to objects, and there was no longer any need to invoke the particulate nature of light; waves could explain everything. Light only appeared to be particulate because it required a particulate, albeit mass-less three-dimensionality of spaceons through which to travel, and therefore people had confused the medium with the message.

Emboldened by my revelatory insight into the singular wave-like nature of light, my inquiry now turned to the concept of gravity and how it is that objects composed of atomic matter tend to fall to the ground, and more generally, how planets are attracted towards the sun, and the moons to planets, and such like heavenly phenomena.

To address this question, I first considered the hypothetical case where there was only one atom in existence suspended in the three-dimensionality of spaceons. I postulated that this substance-less space was permeated by an omni-directional, universal cosmic force transmitted through spaceons. In the case where there was only one atom in existence, the cosmic force acting on that atom would be the same from all directions, so that the atom would undergo no displacement and stay put. But if there were two atoms in existence suspended in space, I hypothesized they would undergo net movement and eventually “find” one another and coalesce due to an apparent mutual gravitational attraction.

This would come about because the force acting on each atom would now be unequal over its surface, because each atom would shield the other from a portion of the cosmic force coming from the direction of its neighbor. Thus, the sides of the atoms facing each other would experience a weaker cosmic force, and as a result of this imbalance, the two atoms would undergo displacement and appear to gravitate towards each other. But this attraction is but an illusion because in reality the two atoms are being impelled towards each other by external cosmic forces acting on them non-uniformly. Moreover, the closer they approached each other, the greater this asymmetry would become, thus producing apparent accelerative gravitational attraction.

My line of reasoning raised further questions about the nature of the cosmic force transmitted through spaceons, like: was it simply light energy of an infinitely high pulsatile frequency so as to be continuous; or was it of a very slow frequency, with a period of eons, such that the entire universe was presently subjected to the force exerted by a single multi–dimensional wave which was either peaking or decaying back to nothing, at which point all matter will disintegrate, before the next pulse came along and the material universe can re-constitute itself anew? But where does this cosmic force come from, and how is it produced?

As I pondered over the implications of this co-revelation about the nature of gravity, I realized my ruminations were completely lacking in the scientific rigor necessary for them to ever be taken seriously. For a start, I couldn’t even recall the relationship between potential and kinetic energy, or many other equations I knew by heart at university. I would need to delve into my undergraduate physics text books, which were only introductory anyway, intended for biologists. But I reminded myself that I wasn’t interested in detail, because details were the slaves of concepts, and I would leave that to those with a mathematical obsession for quantifying reality and proving the existence of things with numbers.

As I took another sip of my coffee, still gloating over my powers of explication, I realized my spaceon filled three-dimensionality was nothing new; it was the “ether” of old which Einstein apparently refuted with his discoveries on the photovoltaic effect, although he himself never categorically dismissed the concept. But how can it be wrong when it seemed so right in my head? I thought a little further about my revelation of the singular, wave-like nature of light to see if it could explain various other properties of light such as diffraction, refraction, the change in the speed of light through translucent matter of different density, and the collimate nature of laser beams. On the surface it could, although it would be too tedious to go into here.

In light of my idiotic discoveries about the nature of light and space and gravity, I now turned to a more fundamental question, that being the nature of reality. Was reality simply space and vice versa, because without space, there truly can be nothing, as oxymoronic as that sounds. And where did time fit in, if it did at all? Scientific time was simply a reference to a numerical standard of rhythmic movement of matter in space, like the vibrations of an atom in a crystal, or the movement of the arms of a clock, or the swings of a pendulum. So what is time? Is it simply a human abstraction created out of memories that logically follow one another? Is it like beauty in the sense that you can point to an object embodying beauty and can touch it, but you cannot grasp beauty itself. That’s because it doesn’t exist; it’s the result of a purely mental process. And just like the standard measure of beauty can change depending on prevailing tastes, so can the perception of time.

I concluded there is no such actual thing as time; there is only space and movement of matter therein. Time is an illusion, purely a human mental construct. Take dogs, for example, which bury their bones. You would think on first consideration they too possessed a concept of time because they appear to be planning ahead for future scarcity. But in reality their actions merely reflect a behavioral trait honed by evolution over tens of thousands of years, that is, revolutions of the Earth around the Sun. This drives them to bury bones in places that become fixed in their memories, formed from visual inputs of the shapes and sizes and colors of various other objects in the vicinity of the burial spot, like trees and rocks, as well as from other associated sensory inputs, like smells and sounds.

Thus, when they’re desperate for food, their hunger causes them to recall those places from memory, triggered by some sensory cue, and see if they match incoming sense-images, and if they do, they go and recover the buried bones. They possess this faculty because somewhere in their evolutionary past it was likely that dogs or their precursors that possessed this trait for forming memories survived and passed it on to succeeding generations, while those lacking it starved to death before they could reproduce in numbers, and their kind eventually died out.

All manner of other side questions began to pop up in my head seeking clarification. Questions like, if time didn’t truly exist, then how can one explain time dilation? And how does space and matter fit into it? For example, if a human being were composed of a single indivisible atom, and they were travelling at or close to the speed of a light wave through spaceons, then what would happen? I predicted that light waves from behind would never reach me, and therefore I wouldn’t be able to “see” anything behind me; it will be total darkness. In addition, I wouldn’t experience any cosmic force behind me either. The cosmic force in front of me, however, would be doubled, as would the frequency of light impinging on my eyes as I stared in ahead. But if cosmic forces impart mass to atoms, which are loci where energy is transformed into matter, then in the absence of any cosmic force on my rear, and with my front compressed into a super-solid mass-ful state, wouldn’t I disintegrate or collapse into myself? And what would become of the disintegrated me-atom?

The questions kept coming; some familiar seeking clarification; others less tractable demanding explanation by my newly arrived at conceptual theories. Questions like, are the cosmic forces acting on the sun so immense that atoms are continuously fusing and coalescing into super-solid matter and releasing light/energy back into space as pulses of an infinite number of frequencies through the sea of spaceons? And how is matter converted into energy? And what happens to the sun’s emitted energy? Is it conserved as it must be? Does energy really crystallize into matter and how? And what happens to the entropy of the universe? Is the universe really descending towards disorder, as imbecilic as that sounds?

I sensed my already meager grasp of these concepts weakening. I was way out of my depth and the temptation to refer all unknowns to the omniscience of a supreme power was strong. Or should I take the more laborious approach and systematically study the voluminous extant scientific literature, as overwhelming as it would be for an ageing intellect like mine? I was sinking into a deep bog of confusion and I had no choice than to abandon my quest to understand the nature of the universe and reality if I was to avoid being consumed by its incomprehensibility.

Nevertheless, I felt pleased I had at least come to a clearer understanding, however idiotic, of the singular wave-like nature of light, and that space is not in fact an emptiness, and that I myself am a collection of atoms, apparently mutually attracted towards one another to form a corporeal entity surrounded by spaceons, indeed infiltrated by them, enabling my mind/body to be subjected to the three-dimensionality of cosmic forces which are distilled by the cells in my body to drive the myriads of chemical reactions therein. However, I am not a rock but a living creature, driven by a self-sustaining will that emerged from this agglomeration of atomic matter, just like in all the other life forms around me, including Max dozing away, with the tip of his pink tongue sticking out between his little front teeth. But what is this thing, “the will”? Is it the cosmic force internalized through the mind/body conduit down to its constituent elements, and finding expression in the “life force” which continuously drives the organism to seek sustenance by depriving other living matter of their own “life force”? And what are feelings and sensations? 

Only I can see and smell and taste what I see, smell and taste. Are sensations possible without the disposition to act on them? In other words, would I be able to see anything if I didn’t have a motor cortex in my brain connected to and driven by my visual processing centers? Do I “see” an object for what it is because that object evokes a neurophysiological response organized within my brain which in turn “thinks” of ways to implement an appropriate motor action? Thus, when I perceive the color red, is it “red” because my brain, having recalled all manner of images of objects colored red stored in my memory, albeit below the level of consciousness, is preparing my body via the motor centers in my cortex to lift an imaginary red candy apple in my hand up to my mouth, this being the dominant “red” object-image drawn from my memory at that particular instant, informed by the particular combination of incoming sensory inputs, from which I will take a bite with my teeth and chew it with my jaws, anticipating its taste and texture? 

Is “red” the sum total of these preparatory actions involving the act of eating a red candy apple, as well as the anticipated gustatory sensations thereof, in endlessly spiraling subliminal loops of potential action and anticipatory sensation? Is this what we understand by consciousness, a massively interconnected, sensory-premotor ying-yang formed of silent memories competing for dominance, triggered and gated by a waking flood of sensory inputs most of which completely bypass perception? And what is the soul? A living creature is ephemeral and can cease to be a living creature, whereas the universe is perpetual and eternal, a collection of bits each composed of smaller bits, and so on and so on.

My now late-night intellectual meanderings had all but exhausted my reserves of mental stamina. I was rambling and asking questions that were silly and profound, frivolous and profound. I decided to call it quits for the night and prepared to go to bed, but not before letting Max out for a pee. Timothy could come and go as it liked through the cat-flap in the kitchen door, although generally in winter she slept inside in her basket through the night and was first up at daybreak, sitting next to my pillow with Sphinx like patience, paws tucked under her, waiting for me to get up and feed her.

As I mentioned, it’s now two years since my mother died. But it could well have been yesterday. On the night I bid her farewell she lay narcotized in her hospital bed breathing in short gasps through her dry open mouth as PVC tubes hooked up to her nose delivered pure oxygen into her nostrils. She was oblivious of the beads of perspiration continuously forming on her forehead and my efforts to wipe them away and stop them flooding her flickering eyes. 

Irreversible ascites had set in due to an infection in her abdomen, probably contracted from the botched emergency surgery she underwent to try and restore her rapidly failing biliary and pancreatic functions. These had been severely compromised by aberrant cells that had abandoned their normal behavior and abode and turned into uncontrollable self-replicating freaks that knew no bounds. And now her abdomen was so swollen she could barely contract her diaphragmatic muscles to draw air into her lungs. And with the attendant decrease in blood volume, her heart was required to beat faster and stronger, causing the sheets above her chest to visibly quiver with each pulse.

In a weak voice she mumbled for a sip of apple juice. Obligingly I picked up the carton on the bedside table, bent the straw and placed the tip next to her mouth. Lifting her head up to the side she managed to suck up some juice, licking her lips ever so feebly to savor the sugary taste. But realizing it only dried her mouth even more she mustered a half-hearted frown and waved it away with her hand down by her side on the bed. She tried taking a deep breath, as deep as her distended abdomen would allow, perhaps it was a sigh of self-pity, before mentally collapsing back onto herself, opening her glazed eyes just a little to glance at the bare walls and ceiling, and then at me with a look that conveyed confused oblivion. I noticed her irises were a peculiar purple bluish-green; very different from their usual agate greenish-brown with blue edges. I assumed they reflected the altered chemistry of her blood and body fluids, from all the intravenous drips and antibiotics and narcotics she had been on for the past two weeks since the surgery.

As she lay there falling into and out of attempted sleep, closing her eyes and then wearily reopening them to focus on some object in the room while trying to moisten her parched lips with her tongue, I asked if she preferred some plain water. She motioned with a mock-angry nod of her head that she didn’t want any, and then tried to adjust herself on the bed so as to sit up a little more vertically. When she couldn’t manage she mumbled for me to help, and lifting her head and shoulders forward, I slipped another pillow behind her upper back and shoulders and lowered her onto it, as she tried again to take in a few deep half-breaths to express relief from the soreness.

For the past two hours I had been keeping her company in her private room on the second floor at Dandenong Hospital, just like yesterday and the day before. She had been transferred here from her bed in the public ward down the hallway, where she was brought to recover immediately after her emergency surgery at Monash Medical Centre. Apparently there was a shortage of beds there, and while still in excruciating pain, with drainage tubes coming out of her abdomen, she was loaded onto an ambulance and brought to Dandenong Hospital some fifteen kilometers away during the afternoon rush hour. I sat next to her all the way in the back, trying to reassure her that we would soon be there, as her moans got louder with each bump and turn in the road, until we finally arrived.

To pass the time, I flicked through the channels on the television up on the wall with the sound turned off; but it was all shit. But she insisted it be left on, even though she wasn’t watching. It was approaching nine-thirty and from the window I could see the hospital staff walking back to their cars in the lit-up parking lot having finished their shifts. The visitors in the public ward down the hallway had left hours ago in accordance with hospital regulations, but there was a tacit understanding between me and the nursing staff that I could stay for as long as I wished, although I had a feeling they didn’t like me hanging around too late.

My mother continued to fall into and out of short spells of light sleep, shifting her head while sighing and mumbling through half-hearted moans. I looked up at the message board above her bed, but I noticed something different about it. It had her surname on it as before, and the medication she was receiving, which was morphine. But in the very top slot, next to her name, there was a curious black square.

I recalled in the public ward, while she was still undergoing tests, that symbol had been a red diamond. I also noticed the intravenous line connected to the needle on the back of her left hand had been switched off; there was no fluid dripping in the chamber. I didn’t have to think hard to know what it all meant. I wondered if she had figured out what was going on; or were her perceptive faculties so clouded by the morphine infusing into her bloodstream, sapping her of any will to think or fight, that she no longer cared that people had given up trying to save her?

I decided to wait around till the nurse arrived to check on her condition before I left for the night; she usually came round just after ten. As I sat quietly watching the images on the television screen to the sound of her rapid half-breathing, I tried to imagine how it would feel to be without a mother. But her mumbled entreaties nudged me out of my thoughts and I turned to listen to what she was trying to say.

As she held out her arm and motioned to give her my hand, she was demanding my full attention. I obliged, and as she clasped it tight into her clammy palms I could feel how cold her fingers were, even though the room was quite warm and she was perspiring. It was an indication that her body was on the verge of irreversible shock. Despite the efforts of her heart beating furiously inside her chest, blood was being diverted from the periphery in a futile attempt to maintain her blood pressure, while at the same time sweat glands on her face and head were being activated to cool down her elevated core body temperature from the growing mass inside her, and the last ditch effort of her immune system to fight off the infection that had set in, in her peritoneal cavity. She squeezed my hand as strongly as she could and then attempted to lift it to her face, but lacked the necessary strength. I moved closer, and raising my hand in hers, she guided it to her face and held it there, squeezing it as tight as she could, and then pressed it onto her mouth to kiss with her dry lips.

I can’t remember exactly what thoughts were running through my head at that particular moment. Her actions brought up memories of her kissing and hugging me at the airport as I was about to fly out. She was sad to see me go on the one hand, but happy that I was returning to my job in the States, because as she always liked to remind me, “there is no shame in work,” as if there was no higher human virtue, even if it meant leaving one’s friends and family behind. But presently she was bidding me goodbye from her sickbed without the usual excitement, and there was no job for me to head back to overseas. I struggled to comprehend the poignancy of the moment. Why was she doing this now, when she hadn’t done so on previous nights? Did she already know, I wondered?

Abruptly she pushed away my hand and trying to affect that admonishing look she usually assumed whenever she wanted to exercise her maternal authority, she mumbled that I should go home at once and feed Max and Timothy, because they would be waiting in the dark, all hungry and cold. In her own mind, she still held sway over me, and with renewed though pained fervor, she demanded I do as she said. For a brief moment she seemed back to her normal self and the thought crossed my mind that perhaps her condition wasn’t as serious as it appeared, and she would soon be back home to resume her daily chores.

I said I would wait another ten minutes until the nurse arrived. But she was adamant I should leave at once and wait no longer. She said the nurse was going to come much later, probably close to midnight, and I should leave because she wanted to get some sleep. Obeying her order, I packed into my bag a book and some paperwork I’d brought but never resorted to, and before leaving, I made sure she was comfortable, adjusting the pillows and covers. As I did so, she held my hand up to her face once more, and then began nodding her head up and down while staring down at the sheets covering her bloated abdomen, conveying her bitter disappointment at how things had turned out. She knew what the score was and she could do nothing but submit to her fate. Not even Αγία Βαρβάρα could now save her. Her miracle-working icon remained safe in the drawer next to her bed at home, awaiting her anticipated return, because the cold heathen surrounds of the departure room of Dandenong Hospital was no place for saints or martyrs.

As I looked down at her weary face, eyes flickering, I realized she had given me the signal. She no longer needed to sustain the pretence that she would soon be well enough to resume her domestic duties, like cooking, gardening, feeding Max and Timothy, going shopping, or sneaking off to join her so-called friends, worthless hags if truth be told, at the hotel-casino down by Holmesglen to try and win the jackpot on the slot machines, only to lose all her money and self-respect in the process. It was no longer necessary because the simple truth was all around. It filled every corner of that bare cold antechamber. She was to undergo an abrupt and irreversible change, and our mutual awareness was about to come to an end. I was going to leave her and she was going to leave me, forever.

My eyes began to moisten and well up as I felt a sudden release from my present concerns. Tears rolled down the side of my face and dripped off my chin. Perhaps she saw them, I don’t know, but she ordered me to leave at once. “Go now, quickly!” she said. “Go and get some sleep, and feed Max and Timothy. I’ll be all right. I want to get some sleep. Go!” She seemed pleased when I got to the door, having asserted her maternal authority over me, her disconsolate, contrarian, misanthropic son. Before I walked out of the room, I turned around to look at her lying up in bed for the last time as she mumbled for me to leave.

On my way out of the ward I passed the nurses’ bay and bade them good night. When I got downstairs, I wasn’t quite ready to get in my car and drive home, and I stopped at the chapel just inside the main entrance. Posted on framed plaques on the walls were quotations pertaining to death as well as to life, for this was also a maternity hospital. They were drawn from the scriptures of various religions, reflecting the multi-ethnic diversity of patients at Dandenong Hospital and the outer suburbs in general which it served. They were so trite, I thought, that they could have written by a ten year-old. They left me none the wiser about the meaning of death, nor did I find anything comforting in their words. I made my way around the rest of the displays intended to console the grieved, and stopped at a small fountain in the middle of the chapel trickling water into a bowl. According to the inscription on the plaque, it said it depicted death as absence among other abstractions.

I was wasting my time, I thought, because the only emotion I could feel was the lack of one. I decided it was time to head back home to be with Max and Timothy. They were sure to be patiently waiting for me in the living room in the dark, looking out for headlights coming up the driveway, united by their shared expectation that someone, I or my mother, would arrive at any minute to reward their patience and feed them. But all the way home on the freeway, all I could think about was that soon I would be left without a mother.

Early next morning, just after eight o’clock, the phone rang next to my bed. It was a nurse from Dandenong Hospital, one I hadn’t talked to before. She wanted to let me know that my mother had fallen into a coma overnight and was not responding to external stimuli. She said they didn’t know how long she would remain in that state; it could be hours or longer. I said I would try and get there in the next hour and after hanging up I phoned my sister to pass on the news.

When I got there, I found her and her husband, as well as my older cousin sitting around my mother’s bed. She was in a coma all right, eyes shut, oblivious of anyone and anything, breathing very rapidly in short shallow gasps, interrupted every half a minute or so by an attempt to inspire more deeply, as if she were drowning and trying to take in a big gulp of air before sinking back under.

I don’t know what came over me, perhaps the non-descript anger I felt which had been building up inside me since I received the call in the morning had relieved me of my usual inhibitions and decorum, and I got up and, standing by her bed, reached down to feel her ashen face and hands. They were as cold as the metal bed frame. Then without any hesitation, I pried open her eyelids with my fingers to see that her pupils were fully dilated and she failed to blink at all when I lightly touched their purplish blue corneas with the tip of my finger. As I looked into her deathened eyes which once supplied her with a view of the world and which for whoever knew her served as a window into her soul, there was something alluring about the detached serenity they conveyed.

To all intents and purposes, save for her short, shallow irregular breathing, she was already dead. As I took a seat next to the others, I felt my anger growing. I was angry at myself for being in this situation, and angry at the fact that my mother was going to die a cold death in a foreign land, of an illness that seemed to come out of nowhere. I tried to conceal my rage, although I suspect the obviously manic state I was in had already alarmed the others into a fearful silence, not daring to say anything lest I be provoked into loud outbursts, or worse.

A nurse walked in to check the syringe in the infusion pump under the sheets, and in response to a question from my older cousin, which I thought, perhaps somewhat hypocritically on my part, betrayed a lack of respect for the solemnity of the circumstances, she said she had no idea when my mother would stop breathing altogether. “It could be minutes or it could be hours,” she said. With that, we all decided to go down to the cafeteria for a coffee, after which I drove back home, while my sister along with her husband and my cousin Rania went back up to the room to keep vigil.

Just as I arrived at the house, I heard the phone ringing inside. I rushed in to answer it and it was my sister. She told me that when they returned to my mother’s room she had already stopped breathing and the doctor had pronounced her dead.

By the time I got back to the hospital again, my mother’s face was as dry as chalk and had begun to take on a pale sallow hue. The morphine line had been removed from her arm and as I looked down at the sheets covering her bloated abdomen and at her swollen arms by her side I needed no explanation for what had happened. I kept my thoughts to myself, but my anger now returned. It was directed at the doctors and nurses, two of whom, both Philippinos, who, judging by their ready show of compassion with their sober countenances and demeanor, seemed accustomed to dealing with the relatives of the just deceased, had come in as if on cue to offer their condolences, saying how much they would like to attend the funeral. 

They were accompanied by one of the doctors, a junior resident, balding with glasses, who stood at the door affecting blank sympathy, looking down at the floor and saying nothing. He had been looking after my mother for the past few days in the absence of the senior doctor who was not much older than him and had mysteriously vanished after my mother was transferred out of the public ward to this room. And the tall fat senior nurse who’d checked the morphine pump in the morning, and who rarely spoke and showed no emotion, she wasn’t anywhere to be seen either. “How could she show her face,” I thought, “after what she’d done, when no one was here to see.” And given the mood I was in, it was just as well.

There was nothing more for us to do except pack up my mother’s personal belongings and bedclothes from the cupboard and leave. The body that was once my mother, her mortal corporeal shell, lay there cold and still on the bed, eyes closed. The nurses assured us they would take care of it and contact us the next day or Monday about picking it up for funeral arrangements. We all then stood up and left, going our separate ways, I back home to Max and Timothy, trying to put on a brave face, which was nothing more than a cover for the altogether novel sensation I was feeling of being without a father and now without a mother, a middle-aged orphan with no-one to scold me and tell me what to do.

The following day one of the doctors called. It was the young female doctor with an annoyingly grating Australian accent whom I caught flirting with her bald-headed fellow resident at the end of my mother’s bed one day in the public ward, while their senior colleague was looking over the charts and trying to explain in layman’s terms somewhat condescendingly the course of action available to us. I gave them both a stern look to convey my disgust, after which they stopped like a pair of clueless horny imbeciles.

In an arrogant, imperious tone, she said she called to ask me if I could go to the city morgue in South Melbourne where my mother’s body had been transferred, and identify her. Well that did it, and I exploded in anger down the phone. I let fly such a barrage of expletives at her and her colleagues for their incompetence in handling the necessary paperwork, threatening to sue them and the hospital, when they had assured us they required nothing more from us, that she had to cut short the call, her voice trembling with fear, while I took satisfaction from having made her seriously consider changing careers and opening up a hair salon.

I once had a mother, and before that I also had a father. But now those from whom I came are no more, and there is only me.

(Melbourne, 2010)

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