When you move to Australia, people love to ask, ‘What about those poisonous snakes?’ They also ask if you miss home, a question you try not to feel viscerally. You notice other ex-pats never ask that question and if in a quiet moment, you speak of your home countries, it feels like intimacy.
When you emigrated, you changed something intrinsic about yourself. Even strangers know it, and some don’t like it. You can’t forget the time visiting your parents when an old veteran growled, ‘So you’re the one who took off for Australia,’ as if you’d stolen something. A family friend of a friend. You didn’t even know his name.
No one asks how leaving grows you: how it deepens how you ache or how you feel less afraid and more connected to this world than you did before you left. No one really believes it’s worth it, and as the years accumulate, most of them will tell you it’s time to move home. Secure in the climate of their birth, in meeting up with family for a cup of tea, in ferrying their children to the schools they attended, and in complaining about foreigners buying up local real estate, the people you left don’t wonder about the same things you do.
You remind yourself that you chose this. You fell in love. You were the one who chose to uproot yourself, to divide your world in two. And you make meaning, almost feverishly at times, in your isolation. You try to understand why you had to drift so far: what was it you wanted to claim out there? And within yourself?
Years ago, when I flew over the Pacific on my fiancé visa, I didn’t dream of snakes. I traded a summery July for winter in the Southern Hemisphere and after twelve sleepless hours, when the pilot announced our approach over the Coral Sea, I closed my eyes and dreamt of whales. I slipped from the plane and fell towards water. I saw them: two long shadows. I got closer; they grew defined. A pair of slender whales glided and rolled in the sea, white bellies bright as the moon, and flukes turning in the current. They danced the way whales dance.
Minkes. I knew then what they were. Lucid and flooded with delight, I was in the dream but not of it. Then startled by the rattle of the breakfast cart, I opened my eyes.
What did it mean? It felt more real than the plane seat. I looked out the window where morning lit the Coral Sea. Were minkes down there? I had no idea. It was July 2000. I had left Boston to relocate to Queensland, Australia and get married. This was all new territory for me.
Ten years later, I was nursing my newborn son in Queensland and watching the news when I remembered the dream. A story reported that every July, dwarf minkes gathered along the Ribbon Reefs of the Great Barrier Reef and Dr. Alistair Birtles, a British born, Oxford graduate at James Cook University, observed that the whales arrived by the dozens to flirt, feed and calve only for those weeks. They approached snorkelers – the only time and place in the world where they do – before departing again for the open ocean. Some minkes bore harpoon scars, indicating nasty human encounters, but nothing hindered their curiosity with people who visited there. Tourists flocked to lose themselves before the minkes who gently beheld them, and emerged giggling like children, their faces aglow with something cosmic.
The last time I flew home, my three year old daughter, Amelia, loosened her seatbelt to peer at the Coral Sea. She listened as I told her about minkes and the reef where we would all swim one day. As I spoke of my husband and five year old son, I ached.
We’d left them in Brisbane to make this sudden trip to Newport, Rhode Island, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t want my son to miss school and two young kids banging around my parents’ house wouldn’t be conducive to recovery. Still, I’d never gone this far from my boy and it was physically rending. ‘Manage it,’ I told myself. ‘You’ll be squeezing him and smelling his head again in no time.’
After dinner on the plane, Amelia slept. I blew my nose and worried. The cancer news had come fast – only a few weeks prior – and despite the speed of the plane, it was catching up to me.
Before the flight, a friend told me: ‘When cancer happens, it happens to the whole family.’ My mother was in her seventies but she was fit enough to dig her garden and pull down trees. I also knew she had been traumatised by the biopsy alone and was frightened. I had a terrible urge to protect her and felt my own mother-daughter roles blur. I wanted to support her but also felt bereft. Alongside my own preoccupation with mothering young children into life, mortality had come as some sort of surprise. I had to adjust and do it quickly.
Amelia and I arrived to find my parents already home from the procedure. ‘The surgeon said it was contained,’ my father said, relieved. ‘She’s upstairs in bed.’
My mother was ashen – I saw it from the top of the stairs. She was sick from the general anaesthesia and had vomited her pills, even those for nausea. Amelia went straight to her. She said nothing, but climbed the side of the bed, put her hands on her grandmother’s face and looked so deeply into her eyes that the woman melted. ‘You’re three,’ my mother said. ‘I haven’t seen you since last year. How can you look at me with such love?’
I marveled. I had never experienced intensity like this with either of my grandmothers, fierce women who barely let me near them. My relationship with them comprised of reporting on how I did in school and completing chores.
‘This…’ my mother said as Amelia nuzzled her, ‘this is medicine. Thank you for making that godawful trip.’
The next couple of days passed in a haze. I emailed pictures of Amelia to my husband and he sent pictures of our son. I made chamomile tea and pushed pain pills. My mother winced and tried not to move her arm. Again and again, Amelia climbed into bed beside her, careful and stroking her grandmother’s face until the colour returned.
‘This child,’ my mother kept saying. ‘I’ve never seen this before.’
“You try to understand why you had to drift so far: what was it you wanted to claim out there? And within yourself?”
Four days after surgery, the ‘nurse navigator’ called.
‘Are we at sea?’ I asked, surprised by the title.
‘It’s what they’re called these days,’ my mother said, then sighed and I saw fear. ‘I can shower today, and take off the bandages. I don’t know how we’re going to do that.’
‘It’s OK,’ I told her, a sense of panic needling both of us now. ‘We’ll do it. Why don’t you take your pain meds an hour before?’
While Amelia took a nap and Dad cut the grass, we contemplated the bathroom mirror, my mother still living in her pajamas. ‘Are you embarrassed?’ I asked.
‘Yes.’ She slowly unbuttoned her top.
I smiled. ‘Would it help if you saw mine?’
‘No!’ She looked pained.
I lifted my top. ‘Look what your grandchildren did to me. Totally crooked! They both overworked the left!’
‘It’s not that bad.’ She looked discretely, still trying to mother me. Then she really looked and started to laugh. ‘Well, at least one’s perky. You could get a tuck, you know. Lots of women do.’
‘Never,’ I shook my head. ‘I earned this. I’m keeping all my stories.’
She was giggling. ‘You could probably just fix it with a piece of tape.’
‘I’m glad you find it so funny. Are you ready?’ I put mine away.
When we peeled the bandaging tape, the glue tore at the tender skin under her arm and electrified the angry nerves along her ribs. My mother blanched and sat on the toilet. This happened twice until she stood, shivering and pleaded, ‘Oh just rip it off! Just rip it off!’
‘Wait,’ I said. The choice of only two paths – slow and excruciating or fast and excruciating – was unacceptable. I ran downstairs to the kitchen and came back with a decanter of olive oil. ‘The midwives showed me a trick to remove the ID tape from my newborns. We’ll keep it away from the wound.’ I poured oil along the pale bandages, turning them gold.
‘This oil is from Potenza,’ my mother said, ‘where your great grandmother was born. Maria Giuseppe, though they changed it to Mary Jo when she emigrated.’
‘She married for love, didn’t she?’ I held the oil.
‘At sixteen, to a farm boy not much older, and then they came here.’ The bandages slid into our hands. My mother continued, ‘She had a hard life here but my mother told me they loved each other.’
After her shower, Mom put on her jeans and we watched Amelia kick a ball across the grass. A neighbour brought lasagna. He also told us that my childhood friend, now 41, had stage 4 cancer in both breasts. And it was in her sternum.
He gave me her number and I left a message that went unanswered. I understood why. She had two young children. She was in a darkening sea. I caught myself thinking of her at the kitchen window, looking out to a cove of Japanese maples where we used to play thirty years ago. I whispered at the pane, ‘Strength, strength, strength…’
The following morning, I gathered all the plastic containers from my mother’s kitchen cupboards. ‘None of these are BPA-free,’ I said. ‘You know that’s linked to breast cancer?’
She watched me drop her containers into the recycle bin, saying, ‘It feels like a raid.’
The following morning, my mother wanted to go to weekday mass and see her friends. She fussed over her granddaughter in the pew and after mass, Amelia hugged every old lady she could get her hands on.
One of them asked if I missed home and I said, ‘Dear God,’ as if God could hear me better in there, ‘yes.’
‘I suppose that’s home now,’ the sweet little old lady said, ‘after fifteen years.’
‘Not really.’ I shook my head.
‘So which is home?’
I smiled. ‘It depends which direction I’m flying.’
After church, Ingrid, a neighbour who emigrated from Sweden 50 years ago, visited with homemade havreflarn kakors for Amelia; traditional little oatmeal cookies that melt on the tongue. She hugged me like she knew all the turmoil inside me. Tears pricked my eyes. ‘You must be missing your husband and son. I know how that is. But it’s so good you are here,’ she said. ‘So good for your mother. So good for you. You can go back in one piece.’
She knew first-hand my divided heart and she willed it whole again.
“More and more as you travel these lines back and forth between your homes, you feel both restraint and expansion.”
That night after dinner, my father played the piano. He called himself rusty but Amelia spun circles across the carpet to the old folk song, ‘The Lonesome Road’ until she climbed onto her grandmother’s lap.
As my mother improved over the next several days, she and Amelia were inseparable. Every morning, my little girl squirmed out of bed saying, ‘Let’s go check on Nonna,’ and thumped along the floorboards in her pajamas to find her.
‘Don’t pick her up,’ I’d tell my mother, not wanting her arm to flare.
She scolded me with ‘I know, I know,’ then they were off to do make up, something I didn’t see as essential enough to pack for this trip.
Amelia returned with polished pink nails, her face shining. ‘Nonna has blush and eye shadow and lip stick and bronzer!’ She said it ‘bronzah’ with her little Aussie accent, my mother repeating the word.
‘Wow! I can see that!’ I turned to my mother and said, ‘You know you’re creating a monster.’
She laughed. ‘Let’s go buy sparkly shoes!’
On our last morning, the day we were set to fly out of Boston, I found my mother in a chair with Amelia tucked into her fleecy bathrobe. The room was silent. My mother’s eyes were closed, her nose touching the top of Amelia’s head and the little girl was staring away from me, somewhere outside the window. I stopped and left them alone, something in me awash.
I found a window where I could see the Japanese maples where my childhood friend and I had played and prayed, ‘Strength, strength, strength…’ I thought of how Ingrid willed me to be whole and willed the same for my friend; that she would be whole again after all of this cleaving; whole to see her little children grow into themselves; whole to see her own beautiful life unfurl in its own sweet time.
That night, through the night that swallowed a day as we flew towards Australia, I thought about my husband and son asleep in their beds, and smiled at the thought of seeing their faces and how I would smell my boy’s head. I thought about the life we built together; how my son loved his school and said he never wanted to leave our little brick house whenever we talked about moving into something bigger. I read emails my husband sent during the past two weeks, writing that he was grateful for this time with our son. ‘He loves fruit doves,’ he wrote. ‘They’re his favourite. He got the bird book and showed me. The sweetness of him.’
In the darkness of the plane, I remembered that the minkes would gather soon along the reef. I thought about those weeks they spent together after a year marked by separateness and survival in the vastest of oceans. I wondered about their joy of reunion, as they circled round one another and leapt from the water; a joy so permeating that it quelled the trauma of harpoon scars.
As a dual citizen of dual hemispheres, you have two homes and two sets of seasons that directly oppose one another. You pause to think whenever you write the month because it’s cool in July and hot in December and you’ve lost yourself a little, in everything you’ve gained.
You vote for two governments and think two? Why not make it four? six? if you consider your ties to the ancestral lands. When you had bought the DNA analysis package, you found such a collage of peoples, your genomes revealed spirals of passports. You saw people who did not stay put, whose songs and love affairs laced the planet.
More and more as you travel these lines back and forth between your homes, you feel both restraint and expansion. Something rises in you when others condemn foreigners who refuse to assimilate but you temper your words. You, who keep your New England accent, celebrate your old holidays privately because orchestrating them takes the kids out of school and feels showy. You celebrate by remembering the forces that shaped you; those forces that rise out of the ground and from the rolling sea; forces that smoke from the bones of your ancestors; forces that speak from the fading photographs of others also who married for love.
You remember your great grandmother who loved a farm boy, who died in her forties, never seeing her family again.
You have planes. You have Skype. You do not have to endure what she did. You never met her but you remember her with tenderness and thank her for the gift of her strength.
You don’t worry about snakes. You took a workshop on poisonous snake handling and can hook one into a pillowcase if you must, but find the fear of them, along with many others, fades if you will it. The last time you see a snake, you’re on the phone with your mother, watching from the window as it disappears into the bushes. You don’t even bother to mention it.