Season 4: August 2016 to May 2017
Rose’s West End house
I land softly in my temporary accommodation in Rose’s West End house on Vulture Street. While the downstairs of the old Queenslander is a bit shabby, it is a safe, protected, quiet haven in a neighborhood I know inside and out. I spend many happy hours in Sol Breads, the organic bakery and café across the street.
Then, miraculously, a marvellous café, the community enterprise, Just Earth, opens next door. There I can sit and write for hours. The manager, Amelia Salmon, a prominent Brisbane activist, is welcoming and compassionate. She understands what I am doing. Nobody minds if the elderly woman sitting with her coffee in the corner is softly weeping.
I am safe here in Rose’s house. Over the past two decades, I often visited this house, spending time with Rose Gardener, her daughter Yollana Shore and her family.
I will not decide where to live permanently for another six months. I have lots of time. I am nesting in the large downstairs of Rose’s spacious house.
Together, after a flurry of repairs and painting, handyman Bill Penson and I hang curtains and some of my pictures. (Bill is generous beyond measure; nevertheless, I do sadly notice what it costs to pay for every handyman hour and reflect on the thousands of hours Karl contributed to the comfort of our living conditions.)
I unpack scores of boxes, display some of my treasures on the windowsill, and finally relax a bit. I feel secure in my stable new home.
I declare to myself that when I recover from Karl’s death, I will become a writer. So I establish an office space in a corner of the ample downstairs space. I hang files in the filing cabinet, fill my stapler, and buy flowers for my vase. It feels normal, comfortable, safe. It feels – for now – like home.
Rose tells me that Sufism is permeated with light and colour. She shows me a photograph of mountains in China with the color palette she loves.
I revise my original interior design ideas and paint the floor a soft, gentle pink, not the burnt orange I had in mind.
With a young friend, Gaelle, I weed the back yard, clean out the shed and paint it inside and out. To achieve a “Sufi” palette, I take a palette knife and carefully remove paint flakes from hidden corners of Rose’s house’s exterior. The man at the neighborhood hardware store scans them and mixes three cans of paint.
The interior of the dark green shed is transformed in pink, pale yellow and a luminous light blue.
I clean the veranda, hang lights, plants, and ornaments. I remind myself that acts of personalization are valuable psychological processes for wounded people.
I cannot believe how much pleasure I gain from these simple acts, even though my injured body does protest.
In my journal, I write to Karl in mid-November 2016:
I am really so “house and garden” – and every improvement I make to my little hidey-hole brings me happiness. It’s good to be in a secure place where I can relax and tinker a bit.
Rose quips that I’ve transformed her downstairs from “shabby” to “shabby chic”.
Rose’s unconditional love
I bask in Rose’s unconditional love. She is helping me make sense of my grief. She loved Karl, and he loved her. I accept that God loves me and has saved me. I am grateful for Karl’s ongoing help with practical matters.
BACK LIVING IN Brisbane’s WEST END
Karl and I lived in the West End for several years, and we had an office in the centre of that inner-city suburb.
I make hesitant forays into the West End for errands and medical appointments. I find an excellent doctor and a good massage therapist. I donate a hundred books to a second-hand bookstore.
Some trips are unexpectedly upsetting: one evening, struggling to achieve my 10,000 Fitbit steps, I wander past the apartment where Karl and I lived in 17 Ganges Street, in the early 2000s.
Glancing up at a second-floor window, I can see that the new residents have not repainted the kitchen cupboards. I remember painting them and buying the grey knobs and drawer pulls at the local hardware store. I collapse in tears.
I rarely sense Karl’s presence in the West End, but occasionally I glimpse him outside the Coffee Club on Boundary Street. As always, he’s leaning against a post on the sidewalk near our office, drawing on a cigarette.
Of course, I cry.
Victim Impact Statement to Tweed Shire Council
On 12 September 2016, supported by two close friends, Lori and Kev, I venture onto a new path. I deliver my self-styled Victim Impact Statement to Tweed Shire Council, the municipality responsible for the road where our crash occurred. Preparation for this political action triggers massive feelings of loss in me. It’s the first time since Karl’s memorial that I am translating my sorrow into words.
Partly because of the Council’s aggressive and litigious response, that meeting is the beginning of my road safety activism, my survivor mission. I discover that empowerment is a critical ingredient in healing.
I continue to write to Karl daily in my journal and record his responses. Now both of us accept that we had no idea how to build a house. That insight triggers many conversations between us about guilt and forgiveness. I have some small cognitive breakthroughs, and my patience is improving. Karl and I share words of optimism about my future. In our daily conversations, we affirm that our new relationship is the ultimate test of teamwork.
MY Second retreat at Quest for Life
In October 2016, at a second residential retreat at Quest for Life, I meet a dozen women, many of whom cared for their loved ones until they died. I can barely listen to them as they pour out their suffering. Debbie, grieving the loss of her partner, describes “the tumultuous river of grief” and how she was “plunged into the wild waters below.” In my recollection, the river that extinguished Karl’s life (the Tweed River) is enduring, flexible, and forgiving. I am grateful that Karl’s sudden death spared me much of the suffering that these women have experienced.
As I sense my future calling to me again, I feel terrified by the prospect of journeys into unfamiliar territory. Karl promises to watch over and care for me forever.
I continue working on my memoir about my midlife adventures, astonished that I can write, edit and organize the manuscript. I meet the writing competition deadline. I rejoice that I can do something, anything, “professional”. Submitting the book manuscript is a major milestone.
The very sight of the boxes of belongings I brought from the Nimbin house overwhelms me, but I slowly, gradually unpack them. I leave the heartbreaking job of dismantling my photograph albums and scrapbooks until I feel a bit stronger.
The contradictions of my compensation case
In November, I sense some small ray of hope about my compensation claim. Nevertheless, as my Canadian judge friend, Peter, pointed out before I began, my case is impeding my healing. It’s a contradiction that is hard to live with: for legal reasons, I have to stay “sick” when my soul is desperate for healing.
Also, in November 2016 (as part of my survivor mission), Lori and I make a dramatic political statement for the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. We hold a media conference and hang a huge poster of Karl on a roadside tree in Uki, near where he died.
I continue to record my daily conversations with Karl in my journal. He praises our work and challenges me to have radical trust in God and in my future. We agree that our shared views about social justice issues have enriched and empowered my ongoing survivor mission.
Karl and I discuss the possibility of writing a book about our adventures after his death. Together we review our life’s decisions. I am gradually growing in confidence and slowly learning to identify my “recovering self”. I yearn for intimacy and bask in the “Big Love” that “Big Karl” showers upon me.
As part of my survivor mission, I write a detailed letter to the State Coroner, requesting that he hold an inquest into Karl’s death. He agrees to investigate.
Moving to Adelaide: perhaps a backward step?
In early December 2016, I spend 10 days visiting friends in Adelaide. It’s absolutely perfect.
And I quickly determine that it’s not for me. Adelaide feels like retirement. Safe. If I want to live in a new story and to awaken my spirit to adventure, I must develop my new self and have new relationships.
Like the nautilus, I must live in the fresh chamber of my life. And I must tread unfamiliar pathways.
Accepting death, I now see more clearly where I can live.
Moving to Vancouver: a commitment
In December 2017, I commit to moving permanently to Vancouver and set a departure date of mid-May 2017. I am terrified, but I do it anyway. I want to be living in Vancouver by springtime, soaking up the pale northern summer sun to inoculate myself against an unfamiliar winter. I have not experienced a proper winter for nearly 50 years!
I have five months to prepare for the move. How blessed I am that two Vancouver friends offer to help me find an apartment in Vancouver and to furnish it for me.