Saturday, 26 July 2014

Memories of a tall man.

This first appeared as a column in The Age two weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. It seemed appropriate to post it again. Sympathies (again) to families and friends of the victims of MH 17.

Like many people I guess, I’ve been watching the footage coming out of America all week. Gripped by morbid fascination and wondering if the world is slowly sliding towards a long war. I probably shouldn’t have watched so much, because inevitably it stirred up memories of my own and the echoes and the disturbed sediments are still swirling around. Death and disaster always seem to trigger my own little honour roll of the dead. Like a long fishing line that drags up all sorts of crap from the bottom of the sea, they come up all of a bunch, all tangled together. And all disasters share a certain family resemblance. Whether it’s bombs, plane crashes, earthquakes or bushfires there always seem to be rubble and twisted steel. That’s the footage that always gets me.

My father was killed in the Granville train smash in 1977. It was during school holidays and when the first radio reports came through we had no idea how bad the crash was. We thought dad might have just hopped on the next train and gone to work as normal. Hours later when the first TV footage came through and we realised the seriousness of what had happened, we started saying the same things I’ve heard on the telly this week. Maybe he’s helping the rescuers. Maybe he’s unconscious in a hospital and doesn’t have any ID on him. Maybe he’s wandering around with amnesia. But at midnight we got the phone call that his body had been pulled from the wreckage. A close church friend was dispatched to identify the body because back in the 70s it was considered too distressing a task for the family. I never got to see his body. That is one of my only regrets. They now know the importance of being able to see and touch the body. To make it real. To help with the grieving process. As it was, I couldn’t take my eyes off the coffin during the funeral because it didn’t seem the right shape. It seemed too short and too wide. My father was a tall man.

Grief works in mysterious ways. In the weeks following the tragedy all the miraculous near-miss stories started emerging. People who’d missed that train by less than a minute. The people who decided to take a day off at the last moment. I found myself really resenting the “lucky bastard” stories. It just rubbed in the fact that my father was spectacularly unlucky. But it was also in those weeks that we discovered the depth of generosity of average folks. When the names of the victims were finally published in the paper, my family received literally hundreds of cards. Many of them with five dollar or two dollar bills attached. Just small anonymous offerings to help out our family. It’s kind of sad that it takes tragedies like that to realise how good most people can be.

The worst thing about having a family member die in such a public and newsworthy fashion, is that it can never be left in the past. The poor folk in America are going to have to get used to seeing the footage again, every year, on the anniversary of the event. The anniversary of Granville is the one day of the year when I try to avoid all news reports because I am sick to death of seeing the damn footage. It may be just history for everyone else, but it was where my father died and I wish they’d stop showing it. I wish they’d renamed the suburb as well but I guess that’s going too far.

The weirdest thing of all is that life goes on. The pieces get picked up, the crying stops (mostly) and laughter returns. In somewhat a guilty fashion at first, but it does come back. A couple of years ago I was working in Sydney and I decided to go and see the memorial at Granville. I’d never been before. My oldest and dearest friend drove me there. Neither of us had been to Granville before and we got a bit lost. We ended up parking on the wrong side of the bridge and had to walk across it to see the memorial. Which really threw me quite frankly. I got distracted. I almost stepped in front of a car. My friend threw out her arm and stopped me. Then looked at me and said: “That would be too ironic.” She was right. Imagine being killed by a car at the exact same spot where your father was killed by a train. I laughed so much I had to sit down.

The laughter comes back. And to all those people reading this, coping with their own personal echoes and sediment, my thoughts are with you.