Pretending to die is fine in my book

In the year since she pretended to die, I hadn't dreamt of my mum even once, but a year and a week after the fact  – which is to say, a few days ago – I did. 

In the waking hours beforehand I'd attended my Australian citizenship ceremony – an occasion of pride, introspection and mounting hunger. The event was at 6.30pm, at Coburg Town Hall. On the drive there I was clock-watching. I had to get my citizenship certificate; everything needed to go off without a hitch: I had to present it the following morning at the passport office to have even a fighting chance of getting a passport turned around within three working days so that I could fly to Chile, which on that same day had been hit by a massive earthquake.

The citizenship letter said to be there at 5.45pm; I ran into the town hall at 5.50pm while my wife parked our car outside. She came in a few minutes later, with our boys, by which point it was obvious there had been no rush. The registration queue was long, yes, but moving steadily. 

We were separated 20 minutes before the ceremony: friends and family members had to sit at the back of the hall; we nearly-citizens had to sit together at the front. I sat on my allotted plastic seat – number 69 – one of 112 people who were there to take the pledge. 

The demographic was mixed, the ethnicities varied. Each nearly-citizen had a different story, a different route to this particular point in their lives. That was worth reflecting on, but I wanted it to be over so I could eat.

A two-man band – one on sax, one on electric guitar – played lounge-jazz versions of Waltzing Matilda, The Girl From Ipanema, Fly Me to the Moon ... 

I turned to look behind me several times. My wife was there. My boys. Sometimes they smiled and waved; other times they looked bored and didn't notice me. 

The mayor, when she spoke 30 or 40 hours later, told us to look at the pledge cards in our paper bags. There were two versions: Pledge One for those who wanted to have the words "under God" in their oath; Pledge Two for heathens. 

Most people were Pledge Ones. They stood and recited from their cards. The heathens – myself included – stood next and said: 

From this time forward,

I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, 

whose democratic beliefs I share, 

whose rights and liberties I respect, and

whose laws I will uphold and obey.

The pledge was a preamble to the money-shot: the moment when we had the right to say, for the first time without anyone pointing at us and laughing: "I am an Australian."

I didn't think the words would affect me but as I said them I felt a definite tug of something. Hunger, definitely. But emotion too. For me, undoubtedly: I was proud and happy. 

But also, I thought, for many of the other people in the room who – going by their dress and my prejudices informed by reductive media narratives  – had probably faced far greater struggles than me. It meant a lot to them, becoming Australian. Shit, it meant a lot to me. I am an Australian. Check me out, Mum. 

My first conscious thought after declaring myself Australian was "pizza", then "chips", then "pizza" again. 

When my name was called, I went up to the front, shook the mayor's hand, the hand of the Aboriginal elder who’d performed the Welcome to Country. No one could hear him when he spoke because the microphone wasn't working. When his mouth stopped moving we'd clapped. The mic had worked fine for the woman who followed him, who apologised for the technical difficulties. 

My wife took a photo of me with my certificate and a non-edible plant. She said she was hungry, the boys said they were hungry; they started losing it; we started losing it. The only nibbles on offer by the time we got near the table someone had set up for the occasion were some damp-looking flour wraps with vegetables and cheese. I bit into one, yelped as the unseen wooden skewer inside punctured the roof of my mouth. 

My dream happened – in bed, of course – a few hours later. I was standing with hundreds of other people in what might have been a town hall, or some other public place. 

My wife and boys were there, my mother in law, my step father in law. They had to squeeze past me to get to wherever they were going. I nodded as they passed, smiled. 

And then, there she was, right behind them – my mum. Red jacket. Hair bobbed. Glasses. Jeans. Trainers. She smiled and waved. We hugged. She’d surprised me big time. She knew she’d surprised me big time. What really got me was that everyone else must have been in on the secret too.

For a year and six days she’d kept it secret – she’d pretended to be dead. But she wasn’t dead. What a laugh. She was there – on my big day. When she and the others had passed, I sat on a plastic chair, turned to look behind me several times.

She saw me each time, smiled, laughed. I’d get the full story later, find out what it had all been for, this pretending. I'd ask her. I could do that. There was no rush ...

When I woke up I was still happy and didn't mind she'd been pulling my leg. 

Over breakfast it struck me it might not have been a dream version of the citizenship ceremony but of my book launch a week earlier. People came to that too. My wife. My in-laws. My colleagues. My friends. I felt surrounded by love – it was one of the best nights of my life.

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My mum would have liked it. She'd listened to me talking about writing for many years, long before I knew how to write or what I'd write about. She’d read the book I was launching, in its next-to-last draft form; she said it made her happy and sad, as books were meant to. She had – we’d been told – months, at most, left. In the end it was weeks. The launch was still a year away.

“I’d love it if you were there,"  I’d said during my final visit to see her in Aberdeen. I'd pay for her flight to Australia, she could stay with us – promises that were genuine and would never have to be honoured. 

“I’d love to be there, Dearie," she said. "I’m so proud. My head wouldn’t fit through the door.”

At the book launch I mentioned it was coming up for the one-year anniversary of her pretend death. I hadn't intended to. It's not the most uplifting thing, pretend death. That's why people, myself included, tend to laugh nervously when they talk about it. My dog's died, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Oh no, my partner's died, HAHAHAHAHA.

I don't know why I brought it up, except that it was an emotional evening for me, at the end of a busier-than-expected day, and I hadn't had time to write a proper speech.

Instead, I'd scribbled some notes and the names of people I wanted to thank. My publishers at Sleepers – for their work on my book and the other great books they've published; and Clint Greagen, of Reservoir Dad fame, who gave a terrific speech

My wife's name was in caps, circled several times and underlined. Without her, there would have been no book, no way to write it.

I tried to make the point that my story, as it is in the book, is not exceptional; that for me it was about using what was at hand at the time of writing it, which holds true for most of the writing I've ever done. It's been called "harrowing", and it might be. But it's not a misery memoir. My life's not miserable. I actually quite like it. 

I wanted to speak from the heart, and knew my mum would have been touched by the mention. 

Among the many indelible impressions I took from the book launch was the feeling of intense surprise, and also – more confusingly – intense non-surprise, when my friend Jamie arrived unannounced. We're old pals from Scotland, and have shared the kinds of laughs and mutual respect that – thankfully – cement lifelong friendships. 

He lives in Dubai, and had flown to Melbourne specifically for the book launch. That's 11,675 kilometres as the crow flies. He wasn't even flying by crow. He surprised me big time. 

He stayed for two days and, other than the fact I have photographs with him, it's still hard to believe he was here, that I didn't dream it. 

Was my pretend-dead mum in my dream a transmogrification of Jamie, the dream visitor from afar? 

I was still mulling that over this this past weekend as I walked towards the tree in the Dandenongs at which my wife, sons and I held a ceremony of sorts after my mum died. I didn't go back to Aberdeen for her funeral. She'd asked me not to. I'd just been over. She wouldn't be there. 

We'd chosen a distinctive tree, stuck a decorative butterfly at its base. We'd planted two native plants. We'd wedged photos of my mum with my eldest son into a gap at the base of the trunk; a poem from my mother in law; a glass bottle with a rolled-up message inside; stones my mum had given me to give the boys to bury there, so that something of her – apart from me, my sons and her genes – would be in Australia.

In the year since, I'd visited four or five times by bike, checked the plants, straightened the butterfly, sat there, thought about things, ridden away again. We'd chosen well. It was a nice tree. 

My four-year-old son carried a trowel; I carried a roll of freezer bags and my book. I’d had the idea a few days earlier that I could go to the tree, bury a book there for my mum. She wouldn't be able to read it. I knew that.

It’s virtually impossible to read a book when it’s wrapped in a freezer bag and under the ground; there's no chance of turning the pages. It was a symbolic act, something I wanted to do, just because. I knew my mum, if she was alive and not pretending to be dead, would think it was a nice gesture.

I got to my knees, broke earth with the trowel.

As I dug the hole, recoiling at chopped-in-half worms, it struck me my son wasn’t as aware as I was of the act's futility. He hadn’t questioned the point of writing his name on the inside of the book. He watched me dig, chinking the trowel against a rock under the earth, held the book.

"Why's it in a bag?" he said. "So Grandma can read it without muddy pages?"

"Yeah," I said. "We can’t give her a dirty book, can we?"

"No …"

I dug the rock out – it was sizeable – scooped out the loose earth. The hole looked big enough. My son passed me the book.

"Which way should I put it in the hole?" I said. "Facing up or down?"

"With your name at the top," he said. "So Grandma knows it’s your book, not someone else's."

"Shall I put the rock on top of it?"

"Yeah," he said, suddenly animated. "We can come back and if the rock's moved it means Grandma's read it."

I piled earth back into the hole, he stamped on it, talked about treasure maps, treasure. He asked if we could stay a while to "say things".

I told my mum we'd buried a book for her; my son asked me if he'd ever met her. 

"Just once," I said. "She came here, to Melbourne. She couldn't stay very long. You were just little. You don't remember?"

"Well ... not really. I can't remember anything from when I was a baby." He looked at the tree, said:  "I love you Grandma and I miss you."

Then, with the lightness of foot of one who knows dying's just pretend, he set off at a run, shouting: "Race you back to the car."

 

And You May Find Yourself is published by Sleepers Publishing.