I’m finishing this blog from the Sydney international airport. In 1.5 hours I’ll board a plane to South Korea, where I’ll live and work for 3 months before heading to Japan for about a month. As usual, I’m really excited. But when I first started writing this post a week ago, there was a purring cat sitting on my lap – and I was crying.
Let’s rewind to that spot.
I had just sat down on my bed, about to put my shoes on and head to the gym. It was raining quietly outside.
I felt weird.
There was a startling noise beside me. Pancake the cat materialised from whatever dimension it is that cats go to.
Pancake and I have never really been friends. He bites me and I call him stupid. But this time he sniffed my leg, gently nudged it with his head, and all of a sudden he leapt into my lap. He curled up and tucked his little pink nose into his tail like a fox.
“I didn’t see that coming,” I said out loud. And then I started to cry.
I’m not sure if everyone is aware of this, but it’s sacrilegious to move a cat once it has deemed you worthy to sit on. So it looked like I would be stuck there with my thoughts for some time. Luckily my notebook was in my bag beside me so I took it out and decided to try and write out what was making me feel sniffley and weird.
The day before I had seen my good friend Mel, as well as Mark’s family, for the last time before my trip. I was painfully aware that saying goodbye to my mother, my sister, my father and my cat came next. But somewhere along the line, saying “I’ll see you in 4 months,” stopped being easy.
When I went to live in Japan for 9 months back in 2014 I thought, “This is the hardest goodbye. It will be easier from here in.” And it was for a little while. I left for Thredbo in 2015, then South Korea later in the year, and Thredbo again in 2016 without much trouble. Before Canada in 2016 I remember thinking, for the first time ever, “I don’t want to go”. Thredbo 2017 was hard too. And now here I was.
What had changed? What made these more recent departures so hard?
As it turns out, the answer was death.
After the first death
Back in 2016 I had set off for my second winter season at Thredbo. I drove the 6 hours down with my guy friends and moved into our house in Jindabyne. The next day my boyfriend Mark and I went up to Thredbo to get our uniforms and lockers. We went to the bakery, ordered coffee, and then my phone rang. It was my uncle. He said, “Gran’s passed away.”
I called my mother right away. It was one of the scariest phone calls I’ve ever had. She sounded utterly confused with grief, like a lost child. She didn’t really know who I was.
I postponed work at Thredbo, returned home and spent a week with my mother. I grieved my last grandparent, but there was also so much to do. I’d never been involved with organising a funeral before. Along with my aunt and uncle, we stood in a room full of a dozen coffins and picked out the style we wanted for Gran. We chose the clothes she would be cremated in. The makeup she would be wearing. The flowers. The menu for the wake. The music. All the while with my mother sobbing quietly beside me.
The funeral came and went. More people turned up than we ever thought would. The wake room was full. And then it wasn’t.
I drove back to Thredbo two days later. In the back of my car I brought two vases of the beautiful white flowers we had at the funeral. When I walked into my Jindabyne home my housemates sang me a ‘meow rendition’ of happy birthday (which had been the day before the funeral) and we ate cake.
I had put the flowers down on the table and we didn’t talk about them.
I certainly didn’t talk about the dread that I felt, that the next funeral would probably be for my mother or father.
That time dad made the newspaper
After a few months in Canada, I returned to Thredbo this year. We rented the same house. We moved in. I saw the vases from the funeral still there, now empty of flowers and pushed to the back of the cupboard.
I started work.
And a few days later my phone rang. It was my mother. She said, “Your father’s in hospital.”
He had fallen off the top of a ladder – onto concrete. He’d been airlifted to Westmead hospital. We knew he had hit his head and had a suspected broken back. But we didn’t know how bad it was. Would he walk again? Did he have brain damage? The helicopter crew said he was lucky to be alive.
I was able to talk to my dad the same day. He sounded worn out, but still had his trademark wit. “I tried to do a sick trick,” he told me, “but I didn’t quite land it. Got to have a fun helicopter ride though!”
Dad had indeed fractured his back, but considering that type of fall frequently kills people, he was lucky beyond belief. The fracture was stable and he returned home just a few days later in a metal brace.
A pattern emerges
The next few seasons after these events, I found it much harder to leave home. I became anxious for my family, thinking about what could happen to them while I was away. What if they got hurt? Became ill? What if my cat died?
In my subconscious, the connection had been made. When I leave, bad things happen.
Really, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Our brains love to create meaning from the patterns we think we are seeing – even when those patterns are purely because of chance. It’s called patternicity and is often the reason gamblers believe there are patterns in the numbers, that people believe in conspiracy theories, or that we simply think everything is conspiring against us when a few things go wrong.
For once, this post isn’t about how I realised a problem and then came to some overarching, fantastic conclusion. Or how I stopped being upset and Pancake magically got off me. Because that didn’t happen. Eventually I got restless and shifted a little, so he bit me and I kicked him off.
This is about life. How bad things happen, randomly, without any pattern at all. And if you travel a lot, these things will continue to happen while you’re away.
If there’s one thing I can say, it’s this: It’s ok to be sad and upset and not know why. It can be a good idea to sit with those feelings, look at them and wonder what’s making them. It’s also good to know that you have emotions, but the emotions do not make you. And that they too will pass.
I guess sometimes it takes a cat sitting on you, forcing you to be still for a little while, to realise all these things. And feel a bit better.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a flight to catch.