I have been sitting here staring at a candle for some time now; murmuring a wordless prayer to the past. I am supposed to be doing something else, something productive, like write a piece about writing. This is what I was asked to do; what these words should be about. But ironically, the act of trying to be productive has triggered this event; much like an earthquake sets off a tsunami.
It started off normal enough. I was, as so many of us do, swiping my way through life, reading emails, ticking boxes, actioning things (because that is what we are supposed to do), until I finally landed on the calendar app, and boom; I stopped. Goodbye, productivity. It is as if some hidden switch was flicked and resembling a steampunk automaton, my cogs whirred into motion and I began the practised movements that have led to this catatonia.
Why? Because today is my mother’s birthday and nothing else really matters.
Now, transfixed by the flame, I watch as warped shadows dance in the flickering light and trail the silent droplets of wax pooling on the saucer beneath. Somewhere, on the fringes of consciousness, I can feel the fingertips of reality tugging away at the loose threads, desperate to haul me back. But for the moment, I remain lost to the flame and the memories it conjures.
I stay this way for some time until finally, I let my hand drift over the flame, feeling the heat nibble at the soft underbelly before a hard bite wakes me from my daze. And here I am again. Two, ten, twenty moments later; ready to work. Well, sort of.
In truth, I am still addled by remembrance, and no matter what I do, I won’t be able to shake its effect. Sitting down to write this piece, breathing in the scent of smouldering coconut and vanilla, I realise that I need to sift through those memories to understand why I do what I do. It is our past that defines us after all. So, in the soft haze of candlelight, I start digging through the shallow grave of the past, knowing I won’t necessarily like what I find.
I don’t talk much about my mum. Not really. She’s been gone a long time. Too long. I have seen more years without her than with her. And on days like this, the idea of celebrating appals me. There’s no lightness there. No joy. Not after so many years. Only regret and the disappointment in knowing I have missed out on so much and will continue to. So on this day, every year, all I do is light a candle to remember her and then I grieve. Because remembering can be hard; both the act of it and its impact.
I’ve learnt that you need to brace yourself when you take those tentative steps into the past. You know it’s not going to be fun. You know it will tear at you like some starved beast and spew up those emotions you’ve worked so hard to force down. But you also know that at some point, somewhere in that misshapen memory-box you call a mind, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for. The trick is knowing which path to take.
My difficulty is reconciling the idea that the memories I want to retrieve won’t be the first ones I encounter. It takes concerted effort to rediscover those treasures. To go back, way back, you need to pass through the recent past, and when your last memory of someone dates back two decades, the smaller, less significant memories remain forgotten. The big ones, though, the traumatic ones; they rush headlong at you, and you have no means of dodging them. You have to endure them. Have to relive those painful, desolate moments time and again.
To revisit the day when mum embarrassed me as she ran out onto the field, waved dismissively at the opposition and handed out Mars Bars at to my teammates at the U/16 Cricket Grand Final, I have to sit through the many hours by her side in the hospital, holding her lifeless hand, resisting the urge to recoil from the clamminess, and watch her chest inflates as a machine breathes for her. Or to recall the moment when she karate chopped an apple in two, so I could share it with a friend, I have to weep again, as the creaking and groaning of the hoists that lowered her coffin into her grave fill my ears. This is why remembering is hard.
So today, under the guiding light of my memory candle, I scratch at the surface and dig through layer upon layer of unhappy recollection, hoping I will find my quarry. It’s a strange sensation; reminiscing. It is timelessness, spanning brief moments and lifetimes synchronously. You feel weightless and hollow; a spectral watcher loitering on the edge of a reality long experienced. I claw through my past, gliding from moment to moment, as if swimming through fog until I reach my destination. The catalyst for who - what - I have become.
I see the battered old couch in my childhood home, its beige/brown upholstery interspersed with crooked black stitching like scars on a camel’s back. I remember when mum repaired the cushion. My brother and I were playing with a diecast plane and my brother was pushing one of the wings into the seat, the left one I think. I remember it was jagged from being dropped too many times on the concrete outside. The wing punctured the soft foam easily and in our haste to pull it out, we tore through the fabric leaving a gaping wound. It was one of those couches that didn’t have removable cushions so mum spent the next hour or so hand-stitching it as best she could.
I see us sitting on that couch, my mum and me. She is wearing her old, sky-blue dressing gown and I’m in my favourite Star Wars flannel pyjamas. A mug of warm Milo rests on the chipped coffee table next to an opened pack of Arnott’s Cream Wafers; these were my mum’s favourite. Mum pulls out a book from behind her and holds it in front of me; Walt Morey’s Kavik the Wolf Dog. I hear the eager gasp my younger self makes as he nestles against mum’s body, waiting for her to begin. This was her favourite book and I remember how excited she was when she found an English copy of it. It’s funny how memories do that; transition from one to the next, blending many into one.
She begins, her uncertainty with the language creating a stilted, pidgin-English retelling as she slips into her mother-tongue when she explains passages from memory, rather than read them. My younger self doesn’t care and neither do I. He listens to every word, pawing at her hand to turn the pages, like Kavik would, so he can find out what happens next. She pauses and he assists, offering aid in the pronunciation of words she struggles with. I watch all of this unfold; as though it is a film I’ve only seen previews for, trying to anticipate each moment. As they read, my mother and me, I realise that this is the moment I learnt that stories are the tether between us. They are the foundation of our connections and we need them to understand not only each other, but also ourselves. I watch as mum pauses reading, looks lovingly at me and tells me that she wished she could write because stories are the greatest gift we can give people. My younger self looks at her confused and she just smiles and continues reading.
The buzz of my phone bouncing across the table jerks me from my reverie, the memory of what is a pivotal moment in my life, splintered by stark reality. Behind me, the candle is all but burnt out, and prodding the hardening wax puddle, I feel like I’ve discovered a hidden treasure.
There is no hard and fast rule to why people write. We do it for a variety of reasons; because we’re paid to, because it helps us express ourselves, because we enjoy it. Why do I write? Because I know, deep down, that stories are the mechanism that I use to connect with others. They nourish me, as a reader or viewer or teller, and when I am able to explore either my or someone else’s story, I feel that little bit more whole, as if each tale plugs a tiny crack that has been left open to the elements for too long. It has taken me quite some time to appreciate this and I owe my mum a considerable debt for teaching me this lesson, even though I didn’t understand it at that time.
So I say mum, thank you, wherever you may be. I still love and miss you more than my words can ever express and I just want you to know, that no matter what, I’ll keep lighting those memory candles.