THE SISTERS' SONG coming in January 2018 from Allen and Unwin. Sign up to be the first to know. x Louise

Here’s the rest of the story. Because it’s long, I’ve split it into two parts, both of which I’ll post today.

I apologise, once again, for the length of these posts, but I’m nearly there, nearly through telling this story …

If you’ve missed the earlier stories, they can be found here: Part 1—Early Childhood, Part 2—Ending the Relationship, Part 3—Life without my mother.

***

Going to Court

As 2004 wore on, I grew stronger emotionally, and when, in early 2005, the rent on the property again started coming sporadically and late, I felt robust enough to tackle it. We tried to install a property manager to act as an intermediary and give us a bit of distance. My mother refused to co-operate, so we spoke with a lawyer. He wrote to my parents and asked them to sign a lease. My mother wouldn’t agree, and stopped paying the rent at all.

Then we discovered more than four thousand dollars in outstanding rates that my parents were meant to have paid. Final Notices were being sent to my parents’ address in our names. We paid the outstanding amount, but we knew we couldn’t afford to keep the property—we had a young family and our own mortgage, and we couldn’t support my parents as well.

Our only option was to sell the property. We asked our lawyers to send my parents an eviction notice. We felt heartless and cruel, but we had little choice—my mother had refused to pay the rent or rates as agreed, refused to deal with a property manager, and refused to sign a lease. We had to choose between supporting my parents or looking after ourselves and our family, and, as I had to keep telling myself, we had a right to look after ourselves. We wanted to be free of the financial and emotional burden owning the property had become.

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My mother wrote me long letters. At first, they were angry and threatening. Next, she wanted to have a private talk with me. Then, she told us our action would be thrown out of court, and our lawyers were wrong and we shouldn’t pay them. She reminded me that it was my inheritance they were fighting for, and that of my children, and I was putting it all in jeopardy.

Letter

When we refused to back down, the letters became more conciliatory, saying how she deeply regretted her actions the day she left our house in 2004, and how she wished she’d ‘handled it so very differently’. Then I was reminded of how much I’d cost them over the years …

We just wanted out of this financial tangle, so we went to court. My mother told the court a ‘family trust’ would buy the property. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing over the contract details, and two-and-a-half months later when we still didn’t have a sale, we went back to court.

My parents didn’t turn up and the order for vacant possession was granted.

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How did I feel after obtaining a court order to evict my parents? Pretty awful. There was relief, certainly—we were free from my parents’ financial problems—but there was huge guilt, too—I was evicting my parents from their home. I knew what my mother had done to us, and I knew we had no alternative if we wanted our freedom—we’d chosen the rock over the even harder place.

On the eve of the eviction, my parents phoned. My mother said if I went ahead with it, she would report me to the Medical Board because I’d done ‘things no doctor should do’. She wouldn’t tell me what I’d done, just kept repeating, ‘You know what you’ve done …’ I knew I’d done nothing unprofessional and it must be fabricated, and I told her I wasn’t going to give in to her blackmail.

Almost immediately after hanging up, my uncle rang. He asked us to hold off for a couple of days so he could buy the property, which we did. We added enough to the purchase price to cover our costs, which, after six months of lawyers and two separate court proceedings, were in the tens of thousands of dollars.

My mother sent more letters with demands for the money we owed them, the profit we’d made on the sale of the property, and repeated the threat to report me to the Medical Board.

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A debtor’s letter from my mother to us

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My mother sent me a copy of a memo from the Medical Board, letting me know she was serious about reporting me.

To others, she twisted the story so she appeared guiltless and I was the ‘bitch’ who’d tried to evict them from their home to make a profit.

But we were finally free. We felt awful, but we were free.

 

Dad

I haven’t written much about my father’s role in all of this. He was in the early stages of his dementia and very much in the background.

He’d always been a background kind of person—gentle and quiet. Each morning when he’d wake me for school, he’d nuzzle my ear and whisper, ‘Good morning, number one daughter.’ If I was dressed up to go out, he’d whistle when I appeared and tell me how nice I looked. And he was patient—when I had my own children, he’d wait while they did something for themselves, rather than step in and do it for them.

Dad and Issy

Scanned Photos-16 - Version 2

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In my younger years, Dad used to stand up for himself, and for us. He got yelled at, hit, and had things thrown at him—I hated seeing the way my mother treated him. I especially hated it when she spat at him—lips pursed, that explosive sound, ‘Ph-tt! Ph-tt! Ph-tt!’, and the look of contempt and disgust on her face as her wet spittle landed on him. It’s not something that I’ll ever forget.

He used to tell her, ‘You’ve gone right off the deep end,’ and go out to the workshop until she calmed down. He could let it wash over him, although he grew quieter over the years, and stood up to her less.

As we got older and argued with my mother more, he tried to tell us to let it wash over us. ‘Don’t let it get to you,’ he’d say. But I wasn’t as good at doing that as him.

Once I moved to Western Australia and saw my parents less often, the changes in Dad became more noticeable—his personality became flatter, less rounded. It was clear there were things he didn’t understand, and when I asked for the rent, he’d say things like, ‘Well, we don’t have it and you’ll just have to wait. It’s as simple as that.’

During their last visit in 2004, Dad, a tradesman, took four hours to build an Ikea bookcase and even then he fixed the shelves in the wrong place. My husband and I knew that something was wrong, and suspected the early stages of dementia, which his mother had also developed.

After my uncle bought their house from us, I kept in contact with my grandmother and she used to tell me how Dad was going.
‘I can never remember whether it’s Alzheimer’s or dementia that he’s got,’ she’d say. ‘He’s good if you get him talking about something he did when he was young, you’d never know he had it then. But, the other day he came up after he’d had a haircut, and I said, “Oh, you had your curls chopped off,” and he felt his head and said, “Did I?”‘

After Dad began to get lost driving, my mother started going to the jobs with him, and when he was having difficulty with the work, she rang an uncle and asked him to help. My mother had ostracised this uncle for many years, but as soon as she asked him to help, he did, out of respect for my father.

I missed Dad, but I couldn’t see him—it would have meant dealing with my mother. One night at a concert, through the dimness I spotted a bearded silhouette that could have been my father. I imagined for a moment that it was, and my eyes filled at the thought of never seeing him again.

***

Things went quiet from my mother. My husband and I continued on with our lives, working and raising our kids, and our lives were smoother. I felt happier and freer in many ways, yet sadder in others.

Then my mother sent us an email in May 2007, telling us that Dad had been declared bankrupt. I googled his name, and up it came—in the Federal Court of Australia, Dad’s name and ‘bankrupt’ in the same sentence.

I felt sorry for him and for everything he’d lost. He was a good man and he didn’t deserve it.

 

The Mother-Shaped Hole

Life was easier, but I did carry a mother-shaped hole inside of me, with jagged edges and a screaming emptiness.

At first I hoped to find someone to fill it, a substitute mother. I checked out the older women I knew and tried them on as potential replacements—I never told them, of course. We’d chat, and they’d tell me about their daughters and their grandchildren, and I’d soon see they had all the family they needed. I felt envious of their daughters, who had mothers to whom they could talk about normal things—like what the kids were doing, when they were next coming for dinner, or about minding the kids on Tuesday because they were working. These mothers owned their own houses, their daughters weren’t asking them for rent and being told they couldn’t pay it because they’d just paid their lawyer, and then listening to the latest injustice that the government had done to them, and how they had to keep fighting to clear their names …

Over the next few years, I found people to fill that mother-shaped gap—safe people, people I could trust, people who didn’t hurt me or my kids. People like my cleaning lady, on whose shoulder I’ve cried more times than I can count, and people like my children’s singing teacher, whose home became a quiet, once-a-week sanctuary from the outside world.

The gap left by my mother didn’t completely close, and its edges didn’t completely smooth, but it stopped screaming.

 

Meeting Again

Things settled and we got on with our lives. Then, while we were overseas at the end of 2010, my mother emailed to tell me that my father’s health had declined.

I knew it would mean seeing my mother again, and I hesitated, but only briefly, before grabbing the opportunity to see Dad. I’d been waiting for this, and I knew I had to take it—it might be the last chance I got.

Almost as soon as we arrived back in Australia, we set off again for Tasmania.

We met my parents in a park on a warm day in January 2011. I spotted them on a bench by the rotunda—Dad sitting tall, slimmer, slightly greyer, but still the same. My step picked up, and as I reached him, I bent down and said, ‘Dad.’ He looked up and saw me, and said, ‘Oh!’ as if he wasn’t expecting me to be there. He clutched me and didn’t let me go. It felt so good to hold him and be held by him.

Meeting Dad again

I could barely look at my mother the whole afternoon.

Dad seemed to enjoy being with us again, and he sat quietly, smiling as we chatted around him. At one point, I asked him if he was bored.
‘No, but I’m sitting on one,’ he said.

One night when we were visiting and it was getting late, my mother asked him if he wanted to go to bed.
‘Not particularly,’ he said.
It’s become a phrase that the kids still use when I ask them if they want to go to bed.

Dad’s gait was unsteady, and he was forgetting his train of thought mid-sentence so it was difficult to hold a conversation with him, but he was as loving as ever. My son started crying one night and Dad was up out of his chair to comfort him. Another night as we were leaving, my mother and I were talking on the footpath. Dad wandered out and put his arms around us both.
‘All that matters is that we’re all together,’ he said.

My mother told me Dad was becoming aggressive of a night and not sleeping, and she was surviving on only a few hours sleep. It was clear that he needed to be in care, but she couldn’t afford it, she told me in a moment of honesty—a nursing home would have taken most of Dad’s pension and she needed both pensions to pay the mortgage.

I could see how rundown their house was—peeling paint, the gate sagging off one hinge, the broken fridge and dishwasher—and my heart was breaking.

Two nights before I was to return to Western Australia, my mother showed me her breast cancer. She’d first noticed it fifteen months earlier but hadn’t seen a doctor. It was large, and having worked in that field for seven years, I knew straight away it was advanced.

I couldn’t believe she’d left it and watched it grow, and I wanted to shake her. Not only were they in a financial mess, but now a medical one, too—it would be a lot harder to treat her cancer at this advanced stage than it would have been if she’d done something about it sooner. And there was Dad to worry about …

I hesitated, again briefly, before telling her I would help—that I’d help her get out of the financial and medical tangle she was in, but that she must do as I say—see a doctor, put Dad in care, and sell their house. She agreed.

The next day, the kids and I minded Dad while my mother had tests. Dad watched the kids do jigsaws and listened to their chatter, and was happy the whole time he was with us.

We returned to Perth, and a week or so later, my mother’s doctor phoned. She told me that because my mother’s cancer was advanced, she would get better treatment elsewhere than Launceston. She said that my mother was leaning towards Perth, because I was there. I told her that I’d only just started talking to my mother again, after seven years of estrangement.
‘If it was my mother, I know where I’d want her treated,’ she said.

I hesitated once more, again only briefly, discussed it with my husband, then said I’d help. How could I deny my mother a chance at cure? And how could I turn my back on my father, who I knew wasn’t going to be with us for much longer?

I told my mother that if she wanted to come to Perth, we’d look after her and Dad, and I left the decision up to her. My mother decided to come. My husband and I were wary, and our eldest daughter was upset, worried my mother would repeat what she’d done the day they left in 2004.
‘No,’ my mother reassured me. ‘I won’t. I know I won’t. I’m just so appreciative of all you’re doing. You’ve given us a life raft.’

***

In Part 5, which follows:

  • my parents move to Western Australia
  • Dad goes into care
  • my mother starts treatment
  • and my husband and I try really hard to forget the past …

‘Right,’ I said when I’d finished saying all that I’d bottled up for the past seven years. ‘I’ve said all that I have to say and I won’t mention it again. You’re here now. Stay and get your treatment. You’re the only mother I’m gonna get, so let’s make this work.’

 

'The Sisters' Song' is coming in January 2018.


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