2018 was a cruel year. My general optimism took a battering. ..I almost keeled from the weight of events having been pummelled by the waves. Add anxiety attacks, manifested in uncontrolled physical convulsions, and you get at least a small fragment of the cracked rear-view mirror through which I bid 2018 goodbye.
We had two deaths in the family this last year. My wife’s mother Angela passed away in October after 18 months of a slow, tortuous decent. Lewy Body Disease, a form of dementia, was her killer. Angela is a beautiful person. A giver. Her life revolved around her family. Cooking and caring and being wherever, whenever she was needed. Selfless in a way that our generation can barely comprehend. Her life did not include medals or societal achievements or climbing the corporate ladder. She came to Australia from Greece in the 50s migration boom, following the overwhelming disruption to Europe due to WW2. With her husband Arthur they forged a home and family from nothing but hard gruelling work in factories and a belief that nothing mattered more than their family’s safety and future. A roof overhead, food on the table and love as life’s blanket.
Angela’s life was a triumph. Every deed, every conversation, every hug was imbued with love, as Leonard Cohen would describe it, a thousand kisses deep. And this damned world in which there is no rhyme or reason for why one person lucks in and another lucks out gave one of God’s most ardent believers the worst possible final act.
After 18 months suffering a cruel demeaning incurable disease her passing came as a blessed relief. For her beautiful soul. For her husband of 60 years. For her daughters and all of us. The person who approached the last weeks of her life was hardly the Angela, Kiki and Yia Yia of a family of three generations. Angela is in our hearts and in every little act of kindness her six grandchildren deliver through their lives.
Lewy Body Disease took a sledge hammer to Angela’s dignity. That is not to say that Vicki and the family didn’t share beautiful moments with Angela. We shared many a moment. Loving, tender, intimate moments. And there were many fun and funny moments. Dementia brings with it a dropping of the guard. Through her life Angela was modest and deferential. Now, we got to hear Angela’s sharpened wit. If she was unsatisfied with something or someone, she let rip and we fell about. But those little moments were outweighed 100 to 1 by the daily damning of this wonderful woman’s dignity, hopes and memory. This was a death in which the grieving was in motion many months before Angela took her last breath. The sun scarcely pushed through the clouds for the longest time.
Angela passed away in late October in the palliative care ward at the Austin hospital with Vicki, her other daughter Maria and our daughter Madeline by her side.
Earlier in the year my sister Jo, committed suicide. She was 51. I’ve not been close to suicide before my sister’s tragic death. I never want to be this close again. Not if I’m reincarnated 100 times.
Devastated cannot begin to describe how you feel. There are no reference points. Our family is close-knit. From the moment that we learned of this shocking tragedy we bonded. There was no judgement. No shame, no blame, as the saying goes. No deep soul searching for why such a beautiful person would make such a blunt and final decision. Well some. Well, a lot actually. But not in a judgemental way. There are more things in a person’s heart that even their most intimate friend could know.
I accept that Jo believed death held less pain than living; that it was better for her to “end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. But still the gaping hole left by her departure remains. I can almost make sense of it through an intellectual lens but I am still lost. Hopelessly lost.
Through the years our family has been confronted with death more than once or twice. Finding the joy after a family member has passed helps me get through; remembering a life well lived and having been a part of their life. On every occasion I have found the joy very soon after their passing. Like within hours. This has been my keepsake, containing the indescribable sadness of knowing they will no longer be a living part of family milestones and parties and our future. I have still not found the joy following Jo’s passing. I was haunted by this for months. Why can’t I find Jo’s joy? The question and lack of an answer dripped like water torture in my mind’s eye.
I am in counselling and it is a constructive support. It has helped me appreciate that the joy will come, eventually, whether in the next week or the next year. I don’t have to will it to happen or damn myself with guilt. The gaping, maddening hole is still there but I don’t dread it. I live with it.
Music gets me through. Call it a Linus blanket. Call it a search for the sliver of light in the deep dark night of the soul. Billy Bragg was on an episode of Q&A in December. The usual cut and thrust of political quarrel ensued until they got on to the power of music. For one brief moment the panel agreed. On our primordial relationship to chords and rhythms, to beats and melodies. In music we find structure and stories and something beyond our petty ways. Something numinous.
I flew to Perth to be close to family after my sister’s death. My brother’s wife Suzie kindly loaned me her car. In the confines of that car I played the hell out of the new John Prine record. One song in particular, Summer’s End. Please, have a listen. Brace for the chorus (“just come on home, you don’t have to be alone”). Tell me you’re not wiping back a tear. I picked up my daughter Mercedes from the airport and we spent the day driving across town. She had to endure me playing the song on repeat, crying while singing while driving while dadsplaining the song. To her credit she let me have my moment. We cried and sang along together.
Jo is about five years younger than me but from an early age we bonded over our love of rock’n’roll. In our 30s we had a run in with the law. The police came to the house to tell us to turn the music down. It was 3am. We were playing To Her Door. The irony was not lost on the constabulary that they were asking us to turn Paul Kelly down. My last text message to Jo was a critical review of a new song she had discovered. Music was her love and Joan Jett was her absolute, number one best and favourite artist. Daylight came second.
In November Jo’s partner Dicko and my family scattered our sister’s ashes on a bend in the Blackwood River near Nannup in the South West of WA. This is where the rest of the family’s ashes reside. Back in Melbourne, on the back veranda of our place in West Preston Vicki and I readied ourselves for the moment. We had sat a picture of Jo, alongside her favourite beer on a chair. At the proposed time of the scattering of ashes I was ready to play Bad Reputation a song by Joan Jett.
When Bad Reputation played I was transfixed. It was my sister’s song to be sure. But there was something much, much more going on. The song was alive with possibilities and it spoke to me, to my core. My hands trembled, my eyes danced. We played it again. Again, I had the same visceral reaction. I was gobsmacked. And in the same instance, humbled and embarrassed. I felt an intense love for Jo. Not the obvious filial love, not the sweet sad beautiful love for one so treasured departed too soon. This intense love I felt was for Jo as music enthusiast and pioneer and it filled my heart to bursting. It was as if I had heard Bad Reputation for the first time. As it directly related to my sister. As it stands as a song. And it is, my friends, a ripper.
Overcome with a desire to spread the word I immediately texted a number of close friends with the following text: “We are raising a glass to my sister and playing Bad Reputation. I said to Vicki, I can’t believe it took Jo to die for me to hear how great a song it is. And it’s Jo”.
One friend, who was literally at a bottle shop buying a six pack came straight over and joined us in our celebration of my sister. A friend in Perth replied, “Taylor Swift used it as her concert introduction song and I thought exactly the same thing”. In an instance, a song connected friends and family to what Jo stood for.
To Jo, I dips me lid and raise my glass. Bad Reputation is a quintessential rock song. It has a 50s wrapped in 60s wrapped in 70s sound and brashness to it. On its release in 1980 esteemed music critic Robert Christgau in his review of the album said Joan Jett comes on “tuffer than any gurl in history”. That is what my sister Jo heard all those years ago. That I finally heard. That is what Jo strived to be. In the end she ran out of juice but to her last days she believed, with all her heart that, “A girl can do what she wants to do/And that’s what I’m gonna do/An’ I don’t give a damn ‘ bout my bad reputation”. Indeed.