Category: grief

Endings, beginnings …

A few months ago, I was driving to see a client, and as I always do when I’m on the Inner City Bypass, I quickly looked to my left where the Royal Children’s Hospital is. Or I should say, was. When I’d finished my shift, I drove back to the Royal, parked my car and got as close as I could to the site. I cried big, ugly tears, and had to take some deep breaths to ground myself. I took some photos and spoke to one of the traffic guys about my time in there.

Going back was not about burying my suffering. It was about bearing witness to the destruction of what had been my second home. That might sound hyperbolic, but it’s where I did half my growing up. It’s hard for people to grasp that I spent nearly half my life in hospital before I had my transplant. It’s about being there, grounding myself in the suffering that is still with me – the suffering that will always be a part of me, and when it comes to that suffering I’m not broken or stronger for it. I just am.

I don’t live in the past. I AM my past. It’s like that saying, ‘you don’t have a soul. You have a body. You are a soul.’ 

Just when you think you’ve released all the guilt, there’s a dark corner of me that feels I need to be there to pay penance for having survived when most of my friends did not. Sound stupid? Try living it.

This place is sacred ground for me and so many others. There were so many first and final moments on that land. I fell in love for the first time there and I never believed the time would come when such a place was torn apart piece by piece. The state government made that decision years ago when Anna Bligh decided to entertain her vanity project of a children’s hospital in South Brisbane because Brisbane had a perfectly good hospital and infrastructure at Herston because: politics. I can see the new children’s hospital from the place I’ve left (it’s revolting, just in case you were wondering), and I remember the uproar in the medical fraternity when the idea was initially tabled, both with doctors and patients.

Back in the 90s, I was in hospital for much of the construction of the ‘new’ hospital (the one that’s been demolished), and I also happened to be an inpatient when the Deen Brothers demolished the old hospital. If you live in Brisbane, you’ll know that the Deen Brothers were the go to guys who knocked down iconic landmarks such as Cloudland and the Bellevue Hotel under our despotic Joh Bjeilke-Peterson dictatorship. Under Joh, they demolished much of Brisbane’s beautiful heritage buildings from the 1970s and beyond, often under the cloak of darkness and surprise.

And so the Deen Brothers were given the job to demo the old red brick hospital buildings in 1993, and I was a fierce sixteen year old who took shit from no one so it was nothing for me to jimmy open a window so I could yell at the Deen Brothers ‘you heretic c*nts!’. I’d shout until I was literally blue, my face covered in the dust of my past, present and future. I’d do this as many times as I could during the day when I wasn’t studying or having treatment. I would rage and cry, and punch the glass separating me from so many years of pain and suffering. I would wait until they met my eye (because they would) and I’d rage and cry, and give them the finger. They must have thought I was a mad little girl, but they  were just doing a job. Maybe I was doing mine, and the job of so many souls who had gone before me in those buildings.

The one image that brought me to my knees was when the kitchen being ripped out – the timber splitting like kindling, and the terrazzo floors being smashed. I wanted to throw myself on the ruins of that building and die with it. I was sixteen and I was in a constant state of grief. Heavy, sodden grief.

I’ve often said that I don’t live with regrets, and that I live with lessons instead. But I do have one regret. I wish I’d got some bolt cutters to break into the old Adelaide Billing ward before it was levelled. I feel that regret in my marrow, and I have a recurring dream where I can’t get into the ward. But there’s another dream happening where I’m right there, seeing myself not being able to get into the ward. Sometimes I get in without the bolt cutters. The double doors open up slowly, and I can feel the cool, polished terrazzo under my feet.

I still have nightmares about its old lift that shake me awake, and leave me unable to get back to sleep. They’re cyclical, and after a watched the hospital being torn down, I had more recurrent dreams about trying to get into the old Adelaide Billing doors.

But with every ending, there’s always a beginning. The day before Christmas, I moved into my new house, and I’m beyond besotted. I can see the stars every night, there are trees as far as the eye can see, the birds sing to me every morning, and I think I have an owl after finding a feather from a Powerful Owl, which is curious because I asked for an owl to look over me at the beginning of the year. Sometimes life is funny like that.

And so, I’ll cast my attention to this new beginning with fairy dens, banana palms, owls, native hibiscus and old, thickly rooted jasmine. And yes, my new place has terrazzo floors …

A trip of infinite sadness and regret

I’ve been sorting through index cards, rogue pieces of paper and old photos because I’m moving. Moving out of the city, and returning to the trees and all of the secrets they’re waiting to tell me. They’ve been calling me for a while, and it’s time. I’ve become weary of city living over the last couple of years, and the more time I spend at the farm, in the bush or up in the mountains, the more I yearn to be in silence, amongst the trees and the stars, harvesting bush lemons, herbs and having a veggie garden with a couple of rescue chooks. Maybe even a rescue dog one day.

People ask me if I’ll miss living so close to the city. No. And yes. I won’t miss the sirens and incessant traffic, the dust, the cranes, or the crimes against architecture which seem to spring up while I am sleeping. I will miss the sunsets out to the west, watching the lights come alive in the Gotham City building, my many murders of crows, and the kookaburras, rainbow lorikeets and magpies that gaggle in the trees every afternoon. Perhaps they might like to follow me if I ask them? I suspect that there are going to be many murders of birds and other wildlife where I’m going.

There are people I’m going to miss, but I can visit them, and they can come by any time. It’s just that it’s time for me to move on, and when an almost inconceivable opportunity presented itself, I leapt. It was a quick decision, but most of all, it was an easy decision (which are the best kinds of decisions).

I’ve started packing, and that’s where I found a bundle of index cards and rusty paperclips from a couple of my trips out to Barcaldine – another place that calls me, and one I hope to see later in the year. Below is some writing from 2001 and 2002 – long before I’d found my writing voice (I’m still finding it) – and it’s about my time at Cumberland, the cattle property where my dear friend Meagan grew up. Meags died in May 1999, and I have mourned the shit out of her. You cannot imagine. Or maybe you can. Grief is one cruel mistress.

In 2001, I finally got out to her family’s cattle station to see where Meags had spent so much of her life; a place she had wanted me to visit when we were both well enough. But that wasn’t to be after Meags died in May 1999 from Cystic Fibrosis – the illness we were both born with. The last time I went out was in 2013 when I was addicted to opioids. A part of the reason why I decided to get clean was because I was alive, and Meags was not. I realised that I needed to recalibrate my compass, so that’s exactly what I did. I daresay the next trip will be very different.

An infinite trip of sadness and regret

Thursday 9th November, 2001

Stock and forty degree anarchy

Here I am at Cumberland, wrestling with hollow hope that the clouds, thick and full of promise, might crack open and give me a belated baptism. Blue funny faces remedy the forty-three degree fever for one quick minute, the coloured ice glossing my lips until I’m a pale shade of cyanosis. Swigging down coffee doesn’t sit well with the melting barbs of ice in my throat; my teeth frozen in a futile resolution to my thirst.

Frogs croak with my hot feet moving across the floorboards, so I walk outside and sing to them. I sing to them that we are missing the rain, too. Cumberland and surrounding properties are still on town water for now, but for how much longer we do not know. We do runs around the paddocks dropping off licks for the cattle, making sure they have enough water, the grass and wayward sticks whacking the ute. I wonder if the stock will be here when visit next. The cattle aren’t fat by any means, and look like the animal kingdom’s walking dead.

A palomino dropped dead yesterday afternoon from colic. The mare had been sick for days, splayed on her side to draw out the pain, her gut distended as though she was ready to foal. Just before Kerry went to get the shotgun, she got to her feet, hobbled over to the fence, and dropped to her death in the dirt.

The stock will not die from colic. Instead, they will starve and thirst until rib cages protrude through paper thin hides; craggy, matted hair shrouding more bones and bleeding skin.

I try to write and I sit under the weeping willow waiting for the words to come, but they do not. The arbour is green, and it grows grapes, although I don’t know how productive it is. It looks like a green and twig laden blanket, covering wire and wood, and it moves me with the breezes that roll through the garden.

A hot, bullying wind has risen, and the sky has swollen with charcoal coloured nebula – clumps of hope just out of reach from where we stand sentinel on the prickly grass. I’ve never felt rain on my skin out here, and doubt I ever will. At night, I dream of pellets of rain popping on my skin, and me – coming alive in the mud as the water volleys against the dry earth.

*

In the city, I’m in limbo. I feel shackled and ambushed. Out here, I am free. I eat cheese and tomato jaffles and icy poles, drink hot coffee and cold beer – all the while looking at coloured vignettes of Meagan, her eyes like chocolate discs swimming on her face – her blonde hair swathing her young neck, olive and soft.

I feel a sense of permanence here. Something like belonging. I don’t know why I come here. It could be to be close to Meagan – to sit at her grave and memorial garden in silence. It could be to air my regret at not seeing her the day before she died. It could be to tell her what’s been happening – we always loved hearing about the other was up to. What adventures we’d found, what adventures had found us.

Or it could be so I can remember her, and to read those words on her epitaph – ‘Rest, little one, rest.’

Wednesday 2nd October, 2002

I woke late in the night and had a skirmish with what looked like a bird eating spider above my bed. After I’d half-killed it, it showered me with its babies. I trundled off to the shower thinking that it never feels right killing a sentient being.

In the morning, Sue still had the bread out on the table and the kettle and been boiled. The Walker’s had an ironic thirst for coffee. Ironic, purely because they can drink several cups of the stuff in forty-seven degree heat. The office and the bedrooms are air conditioned, and Jay had said year after year that he’d have the whole house cooled. ‘Maybe next year,’ Sue said last night.

Today had been no different after looking at the weather station that had been Jay’s grandfathers – the arrow pointing at ‘dry’, with the temperature stuck on forty-one.

In the afternoon, we transplanted two trees. The first one looked like it had more guts to it – fatter trunk, leaves more evenly splayed with plump branches, and not on too much of a lean. The other was brittle and grey like a ghost gum, its threadbare leaves devoid of a middle vein running through the ashen foliage. It didn’t have much spirit about it.

And so, today was the tale of the two trees. Kerry dug them out from the old station hand’s quarters where the grand bull ring once stood, the excavator bouncing around like a feather on the wind. His kids visiting from Warwick looked on as their Dad tried to uproot the trees as gently as one can with an excavator, and one by one they sprung up and out of the earth, averse to being torn away from their tree family. Kerry drove them back to the homestead, and gently set them down into where he had scooped out the dirt – Katrina pointing her freckled hand at where they needed to be. She had left a hose in each to saturate the soil, and when both were in, we watered them for another half an hour, and soon enough the weakling was on a lean.

Jay poured a rum for himself and a wine for Sue. Katrina and I had a beer each, our eyes mulling over the flat plains as the sun dropped behind the spine of the mountains far away.

Jay, a man of few words, looked over at the trees and said something about ‘waiting and seeing’. This day, like every other day, had carried with it thoughts of his daughter who didn’t survive, then he looked to the girl who did, with a lopsided grin. Me, a bottle of beer in my hand, lost in the stars of an inky sky that will always lead us home.

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The birth of my fourth decade

I’ve been thinking about my thirties. About how they started, and how they’re about to end. Ten years ago at my thirtieth birthday party, I was bloated from massive doses of steroids I’d had to have earlier in the year due to a serious respiratory virus. I was puffy faced and swollen, and going into my third decade, I was fat (for me, anyway. Or at least my face looked like a puffer fish).

For what it’s worth, I haven’t exactly loved my thirties. They started off on a bad note when I had to be treated for the early stages of vulvar cancer. My oncology team and I tried  to keep the cancer at bay with a topical chemotherapy, which would leave my vagina looking like I’d sat on a cheese grater and ridden it like a champ. I know – so glam.

In November 2007, I underwent surgery so the cancer didn’t travel into my lymph nodes and metastasise, which would have afforded me protracted suffering and death, and while the surgery saved my life, it left me teetering on the brink of death. I had a poo bag and a broken vagina pieced together with skin grafts, and I honestly don’t know how I got through three months of non-stop shit explosions and blistered skin from a stoma that refused to stick, but I did (thanks for all the late night laundry, Mum).

When I was 31, I got myself into a destructive relationship, and my boundaries with men were still pretty woeful when in my mid-thirties, a person I was seeing got into a fight and called me for help. I cleaned and dressed his wounds, after which he pissed in my bed. The next morning, he helped me move the mattress out onto my balcony, but left before I had to bring it in myself. I was on home IV’s at the time, and nearly popped my CV line out of my jugular.

My response was an almost ethereal calm, simply because not much fazes me. I thought, ‘hey, that’s ok – mattresses can be replaced.’ WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK, CARLY?! My response now would be entirely different, and for all intents and purposes, he should have bought me a new mattress (he didn’t). Now, I’d kick him to the kerb without a second thought, block his number, and never connect with him again. It was only then that a close friend began to teach me about boundaries, self-worth and self-respect. This friend has also helped me plug in to my intuition – something I’d struggled to get in tune with before. There was other stuff. My sister’s divorce and its ongoing aftermath has been confounding in its cruelty and acrimony.

All in all, I’ve learned my most powerful and empowering lessons in my third decade. Yes, my thirties saw its share of death, but through this came unexpected gifts. I discovered my true purpose and passion with wanting to care and advocate for the dying. I went to my first Spiritual Care Australia conference which opened up the world of hospital chaplaincy (I call it spiritual care), and in 2015, I graduated from my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. My CPE training was one of the most rewarding learning experiences of my life, and I’m now working at the city’s biggest trauma centre as their only non-religious spiritual carer – such a privilege and so incredibly humbling (if you ever want a lesson in humility, go and sit with people at the bedside, and listen). In 2016, I was asked to be on the organising committee for the 2017 Spiritual Care Australia conference, and I’ve been made to feel welcome by all faith groups.

In 2014, I was invited to speak at TEDx Brisbane where I  shared my story and my hopes for how we can do death differently and how we must do death differently. After seventeen years, I discovered who my donor is/was after realising that I needed to know about her, even though I’ve had information about her since just after my transplant.

I have been lucky enough to work and learn with the best people in the death care industry, I did my first Vipassana, let go of my survivors guilt, and got clean. I’ve been clean for three years, and honestly can’t think of anything worse than taking opiates again. In fact, you’d have to render me unconscious to get any narcotic into my system.

On Christmas Eve, I was accepted into the Karuna Hospice Palliative Care Support Volunteer training program – an intensive I’ve been dreaming of doing for many years. It’s as though the world is opening up for me, and for that I sit in a space of deep gratitude. Transplanniversaries came and went, but never without much introspection and indebtedness.

I discovered what I needed to keep and what I needed to let go. I realised that just because I have a history with a person, that it doesn’t mean I have a present or a future with them. I know what ingredients help make me my best self, and I’m clear in my purpose. I’m settled, happy, and in love with giving zero fucks about what anyone may or may not think of me.

So why is that? It’s because I’m done with not being and living as my authentic, no-bullshit self. I was done with that a time ago, but as 2016 and this decade comes to a close, having lived with so much uncertainty, I am certain of one thing – life is beautiful, and all that matters in the end is the love you share and the love you get.

My wish for you, going into 2017, is that you embrace the simple things, because these too have been my greatest lessons. Go and hug trees, howl at the moon naked, walk in the rain (naked again), take less and give more, love yourself, treat others with kindness and suspend your judgment. Own your shit, be accountable, tread lightly upon the earth, and as my dear friend Andy who died last month waiting for a transplant would say, ‘don’t be a cunt’. Life is short – paint it your shade of spectacular.

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A love letter to my lungs on this, your eighteenth birthday

Tonight as the waning moon floats between shelves of cloud – the stars liquid and alive – I will whisper, ‘I am still here.’ A bittersweet offering, but one I cast into the world as a call to arms.

With each passing year, I harvest guilt, siphoning off grief as I pick the fruit and plant more seeds for the following year. As I stand under the beating sun, I divine my contrition and cast myself as an apostate, as a modern heretic; nothing but a taker. These aren’t empty postulations. In fact, they are very real, for I’ve watched most of my friends die, and I watch now as others are dying as they wait for a donor that may never come. I should be dead, and be dead many times over, but I am not. Thoughts like these catch my untrammelled breath, lodging like a barbed pip in my throat.

When I listed myself on New Year’s Day, I wasn’t ready for you because I was afraid, but I soon became too sick to evaluate the risk. You kept your first caretaker – a beautiful redhead – breathing for twenty-two years. Yes, I know who you came from. That door was opened long ago, and it is one that can never be closed, never mind how hard I push. For 234 days I was tethered to oxygen tubing like Major Tom on a space walk, until I was cut loose and given new breath.

I think of my family, my friends and my lover in footholds of despair as we braced for the most terrifying, yet exciting news of my life. Then comes the horrible realisation that one family has had to say goodbye to a daughter, sister, wife and friend, while I was given a chance to resurface. It is a notion that can sink a person even with the best of intentions to live.

I have imagined my surgery thousands of times over – of being sliced under my breasts from armpit to armpit, my sternum and ribs lifted so surgeons could drop their fists into my chest to pull out my native lungs – sticky masses, black and Lilliputian, like little lung caricatures. My lungs are curtly dropped into a plastic bucket, and then the magic happens: you’re plucked from your watery grave of preservation solution, slippery as a placenta. Busy hands usher you into my empty thoracic cavity in a highly choreographed animation of fingers, clamps, retractors, clips, wire and sutures.

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Native lung.

Twelve years on I was still tweezing the ends of old suture that had pushed their way to the surface of my skin, as though wanting amnesty from my beating heart. I would look at these tiny black slivers of silk under a magnifying glass and confide, ‘you’re a part of me’, keeping them until I felt strong enough to let them go. Closing my eyes, I would blow them away, never to be seen or touched again. Another part of me gone; my life in a perpetual state of mourning.

I don’t know why I am still alive. Is it luck or chance or something to do with planets aligning? Is it compliance? Am I one of the lucky ones whose immune system is unusually strong, or were you and I such a perfect and indomitable match, that failure was never an option? It’s impossible to say.

I have my doubts that we will be here in another 18 years, although my doctors assure me that there isn’t any reason why I won’t. There may come a time where I need a third set of lungs, but I hope that’s not the case because I’ve grown rather fond of you. In fact, I loved you from the start, even though you tried to kill me.

When you think about it, we’ve had an odd relationship. Where I shook the hand of death, you peeled me away from the death grip I was beginning to see as a friend. The first fortnight, we fought bitterly. I rejected you, or perhaps it was a mutual renunciation. Whatever the case, it was an education in terror and pain we both swiftly learned from, and we never fucked with rejection again.

That’s not to say we’ve haven’t had our fair share of shit. Cancer wasn’t one iota of fun, and you’ve gifted me lungfuls of air when I’ve sobbed through seemingly impenetrable sadness.

The scar under which you lay is now a pale pink seam of refuge, like still water beneath a bridge.

I love all five lobes of you equally, and I will always be your biggest champion. That you must know. Every year, just before (y)our transplanniversary, the weals of scar that have hardened into runes on my trunk begin to itch. I scratch, but it is so far beneath my skin that it cannot be touched. When ‘the itch’ presents, it’s as though you are trying to tell me something. It never fails to make sense, but not before I have scratched my skin until my breasts and that tender seam of scar are raw and streaked with blood.

I acknowledge that my life date is your first caretaker’s death date. The day she died, I returned to life, and ever since I have been making my way all slipshod through a special kind of purgatory. I needed to suffer before I felt worthy enough to commemorate my new life with you, and for many years, I have marked this day timidly, humbly and with a quiet voice. Maybe next year will be different.

And so today, there was no grand celebration. I chose to commemorate you and your original caretaker the best way I know how – by living my life. I enjoyed an ordinary day at work, because I’ve long preferred the beauty of the ordinary, because within that realm of normality, that’s where I chance upon the extraordinary. Ordinary doesn’t have to be mundane or insipid. That I can get out of bed, feed and dress myself, pull on my boots, go to work, and walk around the hospital visiting patients (an ironic reflection of my own life), double back to the bookstore, have a coffee and share a meal with my family is a day meaningfully and well lived.

Tonight I will light you a candle. The flame will thicken in the cool winter air, and I will give myself pause. I’ll sit on my balcony as a retrospective of the last eighteen years  plays across grey hems of cloud, and then I will go to bed with a grateful heart.

Last month when I was beach combing, I found a miniature set of you. Two lungs, the structures of a heart and even the intricate plumbing of the carina of trachea. I held it against my ear and my ears filled with the gentle rush of waves pitching over pebbles.

I listen to you. There’s rarely a rumble. You have held the line and kept me anchored to this life and for that, I owe you everything.

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Purple cardigan

A story from my childhood has recently been featured on photographer and multidisciplinary artist Mindy Stricke’s website for her ‘Grief Landscapes’ project. You can find it here.

A little about ‘Grief Landscapes’ … ‘for the initial phase of Grief Landscapes, I’m documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief through photography and a collaborative process with the public. First, I’m inviting people to participate by answering a series of questions online about how they grieved after someone’s death. I’m then photographing an object in extreme close-up that evokes the memory of the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the participant’s grief story.’

Thank you for all of your hard work, Mindy and for sharing Ineka with the world.

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Happy Birthday, M

For M.E.B


We became another death

(the fulfilment of my internship).

Like a false syncope,

my grief would not let me claim you.



You came to me with bleeding gums and a dent in your jaw,

your broken gait like a barber cutting through

walls of plasticine with blunt scissors.

Bruised pride; your face a field of stubble I so loved jiving on my skin.

But first …



you were an uncertain algorithm of desire –

because you were never going to want me the way I wanted you.

Except, on a summer’s day, under umlauts of clouds, close to the border,

we pushed a kiss right through our chests like a bullet.

I was yours and you were mine and before we came up for air,

the earth had spun off its axis.



Purling into webs of light –

the softness of your cupped hands under my sunburned chin as we

tasted each other for the first time.

As salt danced across our skin, I ploughed my fingers through your hair

as clouds climbed behind us, then sunk with the sun like sabbath.



We cut our teeth on summer.

Sticky and wet like puppets of nature.

A curtain of devotion and great folly –

I grew attached to your shadow.

I’d fall off our bed of sin as you made me come to Bach,

and you would tell me stories of how you skulked up and down Cavill mall,

devout in your pilgrimage to find me on that first night at Schoolies.

You told me you would cry as you watched me sleep;

my childishly freckled cheek hemmed in by swathes of blonde hair.

You would wash your hands with such care in the darkness

(I liked to watch your panoptic palms somersault under tendrils of water)



You would drive along the rivers reach looking for me.

Once, I saw you.

I ran as fast as my body could with bleeding lungs,

but you never saw me.

I was jealous of the wind with its fingers in your hair.



Climbing lovingly into winter bones,

we knitted our bodies into an impenetrable pod where no one could touch us.

We shunned the world with aching hips and salty flesh

stuffing our mouths full, speaking a language only we knew –

believing ‘there is nothing else worth living for other than this’. You.



But I heard church bells pealing from promises that would bleed;

fistulas of memory fractured a fall and I began barking time;

howling spoonfuls of dirt into your mouth

your perfect fucking mouth

always open for mine;

a receptacle of love and all that was good in our world.

You tried.

You were unmoving in arresting us in that space as I jettisoned the indifference,

but we rolled away from each other as old mountains do,

and I began to not love us.



I garrotted you,

throwing you from your skin;

bones akimbo to the wind,

leaving a frayed man like a barometer of truth.

Fall in, fall out.

With the biting sick that bored into my body,

you were gone.



You never got to hear my new voice

or sweep the pads of your fingers over my new scars.

I can’t sing anymore, but my hair is long just as it was that first night you saw me

shuffling across blue linoleum in dimmed hospital corridors.

(I go out walking, after midnight, in the moonlight, just like we used to do.

I’m always walking after midnight, searching for you) 



Seeking out the ground with eyes I put to bed so many years ago,

I would give you my grace (or cleave the moon in two)

but you will not let me.

So I press my fingers into the rivulets of my palms

knowing we will meet when the streets glow in their silence.

Throbbing asphalt still hot from the burning day –

just like our first days of warm hands and cold feet.



Like a splintered shard of shrapnel that will always itch under my skin,

I will always be that woman who loves you.


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‘think of me when you sleep,

warm heart, cold feet.

In your dreams we will meet, 

together soft and deep.

Wish I could be there with you now,

all my love and desire. 

I think of you in despair

oh, when will I meet you there?

Not long, one more sleep,

think of me – warm heart, cold feet.’

– M.E.B 1995

This.