Category: survival

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 …

Transplanniversary, with a solar eclipse chaser

We all reach places in life. Crossroads, turning points, junctures, choices, decisions – even Rubicon moments. For me, after nineteen years, I’ve reached a place of happiness and peace having come into the quiet of my heart. I feel settled. Life is simple, so I’m going with the ease and grace of that.

I’ve done a lot of letting go since I did some deep spiritual work earlier in the year. Relationships, patterns, behaviours, concepts, survivor’s guilt … the list goes on. We all release shit as our lives evolve, and it just so happens that this has been the year to let go of shit that just doesn’t serve me anymore.

Last night, I did a solar eclipse meditation where I anchored myself to the ground, and drew in the energy of the stars, the sun and the moon, and plugged into cosmos. This morning, I released it. I splintered it into a trillion pieces so that soft shards of love went to every human, animal and plant. Then I made myself a cup of tea, and sat in the garden; the sun at my back, the wind brushing my skin, and the hum of bees and the prattle of birds in the peach tree.

There was no rush. Just the warmth of the sun above me, a hot cuppa in my hands, and two dogs that came to greet me after their breakfast.

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It’s hard to believe that as I write, this time nineteen years ago I was on life support in intensive care after having surgery for a double lung transplant. I very nearly croaked it, as my friend Nic would say, and over the years I’ve come far too close to dying more times than is comfortable.

Like last year, I’m going to mark this year’s Transplanniversary by having an otherwise ordinary day. There’ll be no celebration. Instead, there’ll be a silent commemoration for my donor and her family who I know are still grieving after nearly two decades. A family who will grieve for their daughter, sister, wife and friend until the end of time. That is something that is never lost on me. Not ever.

There’s so much grace and wonder in the every day, and we forget that it’s even there. We’re all guilty – focusing on shit that shouldn’t concern us, like what people think of us, our beliefs and values, how we look, how we should act, how to go about our business, life, relationships.

The older you get, the less attention you dedicate to what others think about how you should be living your life. You only get one, so my hard won advice is to gather yourself up and find the marvellous in the mundane (for some strange reason, doing laundry brings me unparalleled joy), and revel in the fact that after all these years, Dr. Seuss is still right – ‘today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer that You’.

So go and grab your beautiful, messy life by the vagina (they’re far more resilient than balls), and shape it into something you’d be proud to look back on either at the end of the day, or at the end of your life. In the end, the only thing that matters is the love you give, the love you share, and the love you get back. Oh, and be kind, compassionate and do your best to help other people. That’s the secret to true happiness. You can thank me later.

Endnote: My mum turns seventy next week. She has loved me, nurtured me, taught and guided me. She’s been the kindest, most loving and selfless mother a person could ever ask for. Yeah, I know – that’s a lot for a person to be, but she’s been all that and more. Jewel by name, and Jewel by nature. Also the bravest person I know. Love and kindness is the answer, people.

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.

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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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The places I go …

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It is akin to a dream, this dense clump of trees unfolding before me, reaching sharply into the sky. As I walk through the forest under canopies of palms and eucalypts and a discord of screaming birds, my feet arrive at a bog. I’m at the lip of a lake I cannot reach for the rain that has distended the ground. Perhaps Jacky can take me tomorrow so I can see where it splits from the earth and drops away.

There is life above, around and below me. The swollen ground silently objects under my boots and as I lift my feet, it plumps up like a pudding.

The air is slow and dense from woodsmoke, and it anchors me to the moment. I crush leaves between my fingers; that stain of scent not leaving the folds of my hands until I bathe later that evening.

With the sun caught in the canopies – splintering shadows onto the ground as though they are dancing a jive – the screech of a cockatoo and flurries of parrots embroider the Piccabeen palms. Their silver mottled skins are grooved with what looks like inverted feathers, as though someone has taken the time to stencil each one.

Early evening yields to the call of the kookaburra, cackling at our stupidity and the irksome way we do not love them every minute of every day.

Diamonds scuttle across the water as the day reaches into dusk. The milky way splashes across in silver and white – a smattering of light and relief in their spilt majesty. The sky cradles a waning moon.

Being here, it takes time to breathe at a slower pace; to let my belly soften and sink into my winter bones. I find myself in a world where it is becoming more difficult to disconnect from the goings on of humanity, my country, my community. There is a deep well within me of wanting to be free from the destruction, the war, and the suffering I have no control over. But then I realise for the millionth time that I control nothing. I can but try to go forwards in what seems to be the right direction. I can shepherd and steer myself, yet control does not belong to me. It never has.

I am finding myself enjoying growing older. Not only because I never expected to, but with the growth itself. I am assured as a human being, though never would I believe that I am particularly ‘good’ at any one thing, although I am on my way to becoming an exceedingly keen listener, and that itself is an art. 

Another art (and something I am not particularly good at) is writing. It is a pursuit I will never be great or even exceedingly good at. If I ever become half the writer I have yearned to be all my life, would that be a paragon of happiness? How am I ever to know if I am anything over than average unless someone tells me differently? And even then, can I bring myself to believe them? In all likelihood – not a chance.

With age comes wisdom and truth. Some are fraught with despair, while others have a far more convivial pulse. I remain unconvinced that absolute truths do not exist, although these things often come down to perception.

Breaking my bonds with the city, I ‘go within’ as Jacky calls it, and reach back into the folds of myself I have forgotten or allowed to lapse. I come back to breath, firing my body in the sun. My lungs expand; each lobe bristling with each seemingly bottomless breath. I readjust the way a spinnaker does downwind. Silence is my ballast.

As I come to see my senses as a decoy, I’m carried towards a deeper understanding of who I am, where I am in the world and how I came to be here. I temper my body, but do not become weary, and there is a far greater element of not needing answers – to embrace the mystery and come home. Should books and music, baths and tea, shadows on the wall from the moon, and the odd storm be all I had for company, I would want for nothing. For there is equanimity in the quiet, and peace in patience.

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When you get punched in the face

A couple of years after my transplant, I was assaulted. Had the shit beaten out of me. What made it even more shameful, was that I was beaten up by a girl. Of course this rationale has evolved with the gradual unfurling of my life and hard won wisdom, so I know that it doesn’t matter who hits you. Girl, boy, woman, man – it’s violence and it should never be tolerated.

So here’s some back story: I had been at a Cystic Fibrosis luncheon (as was tradition) and I admit that I was intoxicated during the day, but stopped drinking early afternoon. Around dusk, my friends and I hopped on a ferry from Southbank to go to a friends place at New Farm. I was feeling clear headed and had been drinking water for quite a few hours.

When we arrived, there were quite a few people we didn’t know, so we sat around in a circle (old hippie habits die hard), and I got to talking to a guy about where we had been. He seemed friendly – long red dreads, not quite a hippie, but more of what we would call a ‘feral’ (terrible term, I know, but it was a term nonetheless). I explained that I had CF, to which he responded, ‘you look really well,’ so I told him that I had had a transplant and he commented that I probably had some wicked scars.

We engaged for about twenty minutes, but things started to get a little strange and off topic, so I excused myself and walked away. This man’s wife who I thought looked really friendly, for she too had long dreads and was wearing Doc Martens which transported me back to my youth – had seen us talking, and as she turned towards me, a storm rose in her face and she asked me what I was looking at. I replied, ‘absolutely nothing’, picked up some grated cheese that was on a table with some other snacks, and threw it behind me as I walked away. I wasn’t aiming for her, but it was her perception that I was.

The next thing I remember, she was on me and I was up against an old car; punching me in the chest and ribs, and then grabbing my head and smashing it into the car window. My first thought was to protect my face – I was wearing glasses after all. Then a horrific thought crossed my mind – that my head was going to be smashed through the glass (old glass that shatters, NOT safety glass that sticks together), so I just took it.

She smashed my head into the window so hard that my glasses flew off, she lifted me up against the car so that I lost my shoes, and my friends were behind her screaming to leave me be. The thing is, she was Amazonian when I am not, and she just kept the blows coming. Her husband eventually dragged her off, but she was trying kick me in the face. I copped a boot to the chest which took the wind out of me, and I stumbled away while they got in their car and took off. Then they came back. After about fifteen minutes (we were still waiting for a taxi at this point to go to the police station), I saw her get out of the car, light a cigarette and walk back to the party as though nothing had happened. She was so oddly blissed out and mellow, and my educated guess was that she had had a hit of heroin or something similar which had calmed her down.

I don’t fight dirty. Never have, never will. When I was going in high school, my Dad taught me how to box; how to protect myself even though (or because of) I was going to an all girls school. And so that night, I didn’t fight back. I went into protection mode. If I threw some grated cheese behind me that she mistook for deliberate hostility, making her believe it was ok to beat me up, then that’s on her.

My dear friend M (who happened to be a lawyer at the time) and I went to Police Headquarters and I wrote down a preliminary statement. My memory was pretty fresh, but I was in shock, so the statement was brought up in court as being ‘contradictory’ to my official statement that I made about later that week.

When I got home, my Mum took photographs of the bloodied scratches and bruises across my chest and neck. Even more concerning was that I had had a central line removed just two days before and she had scratched the scab off it and drawn blood with her fingernails. Later that night, I struggled to sleep because the attack kept playing like movie reel in my head – a punch here, a kick there.

When I tried to get out of bed the next day, my whole body ached like I had a really bad flu, so I called the transplant unit and they said to come in straight away – I needed to be checked out, x-rayed and have bloods taken. I could barely move and because this girl was possibly a drug addict, I had to be tested for HIV and Hepatitis because as I mentioned earlier, she had scratched the scab off my CV line and drawn blood. I had fourteen x-rays, was checked out by a physiotherapist and then I went home to rest.

It felt like an age waiting for my blood results to come back, and I admit that I was feeling pretty distressed. When they came back clear, my doctor, family and I were relieved to say the least.

The worst thing about the whole situation was that the woman who assaulted me was in the care industry. She was an occupational therapist at a major metropolitan hospital and  she knew that I had had a transplant and therefore was a ‘soft’ and vulnerable target. My transplant consultant wanted her struck off immediately, but somehow that didn’t transpire.

Court was brutal and unforgiving. I felt so terribly guilty that my friends had to testify, but I was determined that this person was to be accountable for her actions. Her husband arrived at court wearing no shoes and repeatedly walked up to the courtroom to listen to proceedings when he shouldn’t have. The lovely detective who took my official statement didn’t think this was right, so he was given a warning to stay away or go elsewhere.

When I had to get up on the stand, I had strips torn off me by her lawyer (I still remember his name), and he manipulated what had happened on the night, where I was a cheese-throwing bitch who provoked the attack. I know that’s what lawyers are supposed to do, but a few minutes into the cross-examination, I was a bawling mess. In fact, he was very capable at making me feel like shit, but I was lucky enough to have the states top DPP who representing me. I also had a wonderful and compassionate detective who actually gave a shit about what had happened. My lawyer made a very strong argument that she was a violent offender, and after an arduous day of court, Mum and I hopped on a train, but as we were nearing home, we were called back.

I had to get on the stand again, and to cut a long story short, the woman who assaulted me was found guilty of grievous bodily harm which meant that she had to pay me a reasonable sum of money and complete 200 hours of community service. What upset and disappointed me the most, was that there was no conviction recorded. In fact, I would have happily done away with the money in place of a conviction. The fact that this person was an occupational therapist working with vulnerable people and who possibly had a drug problem disturbed me greatly.

For the first few months after the attack, I was constantly checking my back, especially when I was at uni. I didn’t feel safe and that really grated me. It lowered my self-confidence and even though I was already hyper-aware of my surroundings after being with my Mum when two piss poor excuses of men who mugged her tried to run her over in a carpark when I was fourteen, I became a little paranoid for a few months and was always at the ready to fight. My nerves were shot, and even someone running behind me was enough to set me off and put me into fight or flight mode – mostly fight mode where my  fists would curl instinctively until the perceived threat had passed.

Looking back, I was so incredibly naive to think that these people were good people. I’ve always looked for the positive in everyone I meet, and while it was a hard lesson to learn, I refused to let my assault dictate who I engaged with, and soon I was feeling more positive about interacting with humans I did not know – I was just a little more selective.

The entire process, from the assault to the court case, exhausted me and my only real escape was studying for my creating writing degree, which ripped me back to my youth where study was my escape from all of the death and suffering that was all around me on an almost daily basis when I was in hospital. Friends deteriorating before my eyes, friends dying, trying to help said dying friends die a more comfortable death, seeing kids pinned down so doctors could shove in an IV or a nasal-gastric tube for feeding. The word brutal  comes to mind again.

I rarely think about my assault, but something a couple of days ago triggered a surge of memories, and I wanted to write about (and share) what happened. Violence is never the answer, and instead of being embarrassed about not fighting back, I’m proud that I protected myself as best I could and that I walked away with grace and my dignity intact.

You may ask why I didn’t just let it go and not report it to the police. I was always going to report it to police because I  was raised to believe that everyone needs to be responsible and accountable for their actions. I found out a few years later that her marriage ended. Did that make me feel good? Temporarily, yes. Now? Not so much. Did I want something awful to happen to her after she assaulted me? Yes. But then I learned that when you dig a grave for one person, you need to dig another for yourself, and that held no appeal for me. Do I hope that she’s now ok? After my own addiction issues, yes. More than ever. I forgave her a long ago, but I will never forget the physical, emotional and spiritual pain she put me through. Spiritual pain? Well, that’s another blog post entirely …