THE LEAVING: Terry Finch

I suddenly remember that I don’t remember. I try not to panic. I try not to analyse what this might mean in terms of my mental health – then and now. I have to relax my jaw and keep breathing. I remember what Brenda taught me about breathing through my feelings rather than thinking about them. Yes, analysis. That’s the problem. If only I could suspend the thinking – the endless turning things over, this way and that – as if life were a series of problems and events that could be neatly dealt with by thinking – and then putting events, people and places – especially painful ones – into the ‘completed’ basket.

So I think of the front door and then the laundry door that was more the main door anyway. There must have been a last time I shut that door but I don’t remember. 

The dreams and hopes suspended while the practical, more pressing, details of life took centre stage. And then – all these years later – I remember the practical details are still centre stage and I’m older and wiser and oh so bored with the practical details: paying the bills; maintaining a house; supporting the important people in my life; working; cooking; cleaning; shopping; planning for retirement – the list goes on and on – all the many and varied ways we do our duty, fulfil our responsibilities, be a good and selfless person, wife and mother. All the while there is a dying – an inner dying for which there will never be a body or a funeral.

And then a chance email – a live link intended for another recipient, arrives and opens the box of memories – held tightly and securely closed all these years, lest their airing take too much time and too much feeling and impede productivity. Can’t have that. It’s not reasonable and rational – and besides it’s about the past. Best not to wallow in that! What good could it possibly achieve? Where do you begin the emotional housekeeping, the big un-clutter so the accumulated baggage doesn’t get in the way of living today?

I begin quietly and gently – and always with compassion – and if the tears come, I don’t hold them back. I’ve tried, and discovered it’s actually painful!  

And so I go back to the front door. I see my beautiful white cat that used to hang there, away from the dogs and all the commotion of the back and side of the house. The front door, framed as it was with lavender and roses. The front door that took the full brunt of the afternoon sun and the consecutive days of over 30-degree heat. Hot, and dry, so dry it almost crackled. 

You had to be tough to survive the heat. And there’s a danger in becoming so tough that you can survive the heat. I realise now you have to let go of softness – it’s the price you pay for survival. 

I see the red trim on the cream door, neatly protected by the bullnose verandah. The verandah that was the favourite place of all the spiders who made it their home. I don’t know how often I opened and closed that door and walked over that threshold, I don’t suppose it matters. But I know there was a last time and I don’t remember it.  

The cat came with us – and the dogs. But the lavender and roses remained. I wonder if the cat ever thought back to the door, that verandah and those lavender bushes which gave her respite from the dry and scorching heat. She seemed to find her own safe place in the next house – and the next. Until one evening, she left her safe place and wandered across the road – forgetting to look right and left. A kind neighbour told us and we collected her, wrapped her up and laid her to rest in her forever safe place among our fruit trees in the backyard. We cleared away her basket and her food and water bowls, but for months afterwards I still heard her meows and saw her under her favourite tree. It’s strange what memory can do.

I go back to that chance email and its link to the article about leaving and relocating. That’s where all this memory stuff started. It posed the question: “Do you want to leave happy or do you want to leave well?” 

So I thought about the front door and the cat. They are strong symbols about who or what I let into my space and how I relate to them. I like to think I’m the front-door-open-everyone’s-welcome type of person but in reality I know if the front door is open, the screen door must be securely locked. I also like to think I have more of a dog’s nature of welcoming people – open, trusting, enthusiastic and friendly – when in fact I’m a cat: aloof and reserved, not overly given to having people in my space without invitation.

Remembering how I left – it wasn’t a happy or well-executed departure – I got the job done and feel a sense of pride in that.

Then there was the time, in the middle of a busy supermarket, number one child stopped, looked at me and asked, “Mum, what happened to my chooks?” Thankfully I did remember that and could answer honestly, without recrimination. 

I cannot control random memories. They keep popping up, often inconveniently. I’m out with number three child and spot a calendar with horses on it. I see her tears well up and though not a word is exchanged I sense mixed emotions are stirred. Sadly, it never seems to be a good time to go back and revisit them – I know there is pain. You can’t force anyone  to unpack that. It reminds me that when we left I did not do the pony thing well. The float, the hay, the tack – they were easy. But the ponies were another story. 

I’m not sure why I take responsibility for the leaving. Maybe it’s what women do because we tend to do the lion’s share of the emotional housekeeping.  

The best part about the leaving was the fact the dogs were coming. Thank God for the dogs. They have joined the cat in eternal repose but between the leaving and the repose, they gave us eight glorious years. We are forever indebted to them. And for the pupil open to learning, they taught more than any psychology, morality, ethics or human relationships course could ever teach. 

Perhaps most importantly, what they taught was that where you do life is not as important as who you do it with and how you do it. They also taught sharing simple things brings great joy – like regularly hanging down at the river with lots of other people and their dogs. I could write a book about the other lessons but the general theme is the dogs kept us more human. 

It seemed strange the canine world could have so much to offer. Yes, the dogs were the best part of the leaving.

The worst part of the leaving was the people. 

If I did a poor job with the ponies, what I did to the people was an outright failure. Compassion springs to mind and I remember I need to exercise that towards myself and others as I ‘visit’ the people we left. There are reasons things happen. Sometimes these become clear with the passage of time and the growth in wisdom. Time doesn’t necessarily heal but it can. Other words beside compassion come to mind as they too have a part to play: humility, forgiveness and humour. I hate to think where we would be without them.

While I admit my failure in this aspect of the leaving I take comfort that in some areas I excelled. Not that it was some kind of test. Self-evaluation can be useful. Didn’t one of the philosophers – Socrates or Plato, perhaps Aristotle – say ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’? I guess it’s a matter of degree – another wise person said ‘all things in moderation.’ So, I return to my reflection on the quality of my leaving and I say, ‘Well, I did the best I could do at the time. Some aspects I managed better than others. If I had my time again I’d probably do things differently but the leaving was accomplished; I got the job done.’

© Terry Finch 2021

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