In art, we edit the narrative details to maintain credibility. In life, the universe never doubts its own veracity.
By the time my mother returned to live in the new house that my father had rented for us after the fire—less than six months after her stroke—there was no sign of the original Frances Smith. Not only because she’d gained a lot of weight and now took lithium for depression, but also because she couldn’t remember how to navigate the simplest of tasks. Most days, she sat in the living room with the blinds drawn watching television from morning until night. If she ventured out at all in those early months, she had to write her name, address, and phone number on a piece of paper and pin it to her clothes.
We all lived on the tide of her inertia and the house quickly fell to ruin, the dishes piling in the sink and the garage full of garbage bags of smoke-laced items rescued from the fire. My three sisters and I all shared a silent pact that no one could be invited into the house on Brighton Street, a perfectly ordinary red brick house in a middle-class Sydney suburb. If we’d been abandoned, then it was surely in the fourteenth-century sense of the word—we’d been brought under the control of something infinitely more powerful than we were. But as a ten-year-old in 1981, despite all reason, I couldn’t help feeling that my mother had just walked out on us and left us in the custody of a vacant-eyed, feckless stranger.
We are all, of course, surrounded by people who feel abandoned in plain sight. In the same way we mythologize that abandoned places are sitting in the shadows of some impenetrable valley, we tend to think of the lonely and the deserted as sitting perpetually in darkened rooms or nursing homes, when, in fact, some of them are our neighbors or colleagues.
When I think of the house on Brighton Street, where we all lived in the aura of my mother’s debilitating stroke, I wonder how it’s possible that we didn’t have any meaningful social support. No one dropped in to see how we were doing. Surely there should have been social workers, old friends and acquaintances of my mother’s, follow-ups from the rehab center, or even my father sounding the alarm to the wider world. But somehow we kept the vigil of our secret life.
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