The Tarago is packed tight with bags and bikes, two parents, four kids and a dog and we’re cruising the Princes highway bound for Ocean Grove for a week’s stay in a fully furnished holiday house right by the beach but there’s an underlying hum to every thought, plan and action because Reservoir Mum’s Nonna died yesterday.
RM has her head down scrolling through her phone, Tyson and Maki have fallen asleep and Archie and Lewis have earphones in watching ‘Monsters University’ on a laptop and the song playing on the radio right now is Nikita by Elton John – a sad song if ever I’ve heard one.
‘Nothing is more therapeutic than driving along singing to loud music,’ RM says.
‘Who said that?’ I ask.
‘I just read it on Facebook.’
‘That’s synchronicity right there,’ I say, as I turn up the volume to catch the chorus and all of a sudden RM and I are singing a song that, lyrically, has nothing to do with us, but has the perfect tone and rhythm to drown out the practicalities and distractions of the day, to focus us on that hum.
‘I was talking to Lewis and Archie about Nonna last night,’ RM says. ‘Lewis was asking a lot of questions about death…’
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘What did he ask?’
‘He wanted to know how people die. I told him sometimes just old age, sometimes because people get sick…’
‘Yesterday I was explaining why you were so upset and he asked if you’d ever get over it,’ I say.
‘Archie asked the same thing. I told them that when someone dies it gets easier after a while… you still miss them but you can remember the nice things about them and the great times you had with them without being so sad. And then Lewis asked what if one of your kids die?’
‘Shit,’ I say.
‘I said we would never get over that.’
When RM’s phone rings I reach for the radio’s volume and turn it down and within seconds I realise it’s Reservoir Mother In Law and as funeral arrangements are being discussed my gaze drifts to the boys in the back and I’m not surprised to find myself contemplating how many holidays we’ll get to take, all together like this.
Before we left RM was uploading some pictures of Nonna to send along to her cousin, who was making a montage for the funeral, and as I was looking over her shoulder I saw a picture of Nonna with our boys, all four of them, and what struck me first of all was how the boys faces have changed – so much – in that short space of time. Then I saw RM in Nonna’s smile and worried about her. I have this certainty in me: I won’t be here for her one day. Death is an arsehole, laughing at us.
This morning while I was packing for the holiday RM rose at the same time that grief took her hand, her certainty and her energy. She had a shower, washed her hair, got partly dressed and then went back to bed, incapable of finishing that basic task, unable to make a decision on whether to cancel the holiday or go.
It was only a long chat together and then a phone call to her Dad that got us on the road. His mother had passed away but in typical style he said to his daughter, ‘If you don’t go on your holiday, I’ll kill you.’ RM took to the road, sad, but with a smile.
‘The funeral’s Thursday,’ RM says, while there’s a short break in the conversation and then I hear several names being discussed and I can picture them all.
Like many families RM’s has a back-story of ups and downs, celebrations and tragedies, funny and inspiring people and somehow – through a series of lucky breaks as far as I can tell – I slot into that history now.
Yesterday afternoon at Nonna’s retirement village as we moved his Mum’s belongings from the room she’d spent her last two years, Reservoir Father In Law was stopped several times so that staff could deliver their condolences.
On the way to the car he said, ‘As usual, wherever Mum went she was the favourite. She never said no to anyone. She always put others first…’
‘I remember when she’d had a stroke,’ I said. ‘She was asking after the doctors and nurses and worried she was putting everyone out…’
‘She never ever complained…’ he said. ‘… unlike her son.’
‘Isn’t that how well functioning families work?’ I said, as I laid an armful of her clothes on the back seat, thinking I may have actually said the right thing, but worried I hadn’t.
On the way back to RM and the boys, after we’d emptied Nonna’s room for someone else, I thought about my own Mum. Even though I hadn’t turned to her for support, directly, for a long time I do feel supported just knowing she’s there. When she dies I’ll miss her and mourn for her like a boy.
RM hangs up she says, ‘Mum and Dad have put you down as one of the pall bearers for the funeral. Are you…’
‘Of course,’ I say.
We’ve been up and down the Princes Highway a hundred times or more but my eyes are wandering over the landmarks and road signs and wondering about the turn-offs and the places they lead to as if I haven’t seen them before and I realise, despite my fear and worry and anger, that this is the wind through the trees, the water through the reeds, how death affects us.
‘How are you going?’ I ask.
‘Okay,’ RM says, as I get a buzz from a familiar tune.
‘Don’t Dream It’s Over!’ I say, turning the music back up. ‘Crowded House.’
The hum. Cars are travelling along between the neat little lines that are droning alongside us inside the edges of the highway that spills over to open paddocks. The city grows smaller as the ocean rises ahead but the usual distractions can’t hold me. My four boys in the mirror. RM beside me. No matter how loudly we sing together I can’t shake the awareness of this strange reality: everyone – everything – has a day that will open and close with them inside it.
I squeeze hard as RM reaches out for a Thelma and Louise handshake.
‘Nothing is more therapeutic than driving along singing along to loud music,’ she says.