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Adrift on the river of time

I wrote the column above in The Newcastle Herald back in February 2005. That’s nearly 17 years ago, as the crow flies. I use that seemingly odd expression deliberately, since it seems to me that time moves like some rivers: sometimes running pell-mell in a straight line through tight canyons of circumstance, sometimes meandering gently through sun-kissed meadows and sometimes twisting and turning through unexpected rapids and past overhanging branches at such a rate that the only thing to remain in your memory after the hectic passage is a few blurry images and a sense of exhaustion. You can say “17 years” and picture a tidy timeline in your imagination – like the proverbial crow flapping its way reliably between two points – but it isn’t really like that.

Back when I wrote that column my children were at school and I was wondering where the years already past had gone. Now, 17 years later, all three are adults with very busy lives of their own. I am now a grandfather of two, with all the joy and pleasure that entails. As I write this, my daughter and her husband are visiting from their overseas home and the pitter-patter of the little feet of their toddlers resounds through our old family home. Our grandchildren are eating the last of the season’s mulberries from the tree that was already old when I moved here in 1988 and which gave its purple bounty to their mother in annual profusion. The old dog, having seen one generation of children grow up and leave home, is witness to the next generation starting out on their own journeys along the river of time. He seems a little nonplussed, and I don’t blame him.

When I sat down to write in 2005 I recollected an occasion when I caught a tear in my father’s eye as he helped me settle in a new town. He was moved by the bittersweetness of “things in life not turning out as you expect”. In 2018 I heard him say much the same thing again: this time with death close at his shoulder. A sudden and merciless onslaught of cancer was not how he had expected to die, he said. In 2005 I had a mother, a father and a brother. In 2021 only my mother and myself remain from my childhood family. There is a knot in my gut for each loss, and the memories of the times of those losses is just a painful blur with scattered images and sensory snapshots. Touching the cold brow of my dead brother; the smashing wave of grief that followed his death; stumbling red-raw through the eulogy that only I could deliver; the surprising weight of his ashes the day I scattered them on the beach.

With my father I recall my awful helplessness in the face of the inevitable. Seeing the horrific PET scan image that spelled his doom. Pushing him in a wheelchair, weak and nauseous, for a few last shared meals. His tears as he struggled with the knowledge of death. Dad died in October 2018. He missed his 79th birthday by a matter of days and he missed seeing the face of his first great-grandchild by barely a month.

A year later I had the following remarkable lucid dream:

I woke to the now-normal smell of bushfire smoke and wondered if the faint hint of light meant that dawn was near. Soon I heard the familiar song of a butcher bird – an enchanting, complex and hopeful sound – and realised it would soon be morning. I dozed off again, and next I was dreaming of surfacing from beneath dark water. The water was warm and not fast moving. I swam about, and luxuriated in the feel of the water over my entire body.

I realised I was dreaming, and that made me focus still more intently on the perfection of the sensation of being immersed in water. I marvelled that my mind was able to recreate in the dream state the exact feelings associated with being in water, and I exulted as I moved my limbs, feeling splashes and ripples and the resistance of the fluid.

In the dream it was becoming light, and I was near an upside-down canoe. I dragged my body onto the canoe from the side, and again wondered at the perfect replication of the sensation of the scored and scratched canoe bottom scraping against the skin of my chest.

As I lay across the canoe, I recognised the river as the Barrington, where we have spent so many hours over the years with our children. I was peering down through the water at the pebbles and stones on the riverbed and soon I became aware of voices. They were the voices of my family: Sylvia, Lily, Oliver and Jerry. The voices of my wife and children, exactly as they sounded many years ago when we played together in the river. Sylvia was talking to Lily in a kind and loving voice. Oliver and Jerry were chattering and playing happily. Still aware I was dreaming, and soaking in the multiple sensations of touch and sound I was rapt by the perfection of recollection of these dearly loved voices, exactly as they were so long ago. A wave of emotion welled up in me, and I heard a voice say, clearly: “The beautiful voices of my children are forever in this river”.

At the same time that I was struck to the heart with wonder at the clarity of the experience, I imagined I saw in an instant a span of future millennia: the river’s course changed, the rocks now below me in the clear rippling water buried underground, and the landscape changed again and again, but always those beautiful happy voices somehow never to be gone.

The rivers of our lives got even more hectic and confused soon after that. Fires, droughts, floods and a worldwide pestilence changed the regular flow. We went to Sweden for a family Christmas in 2019. I had a feeling in my bones it was an important thing to do. But a family crisis brought us home in a hurry straight after the celebration, then Covid-19 appeared and locked us away from our distant loved ones for two long years. This year we took a leap of faith and bought tickets for them to come to us in time for this Christmas. The leap paid off and they are with us now.

A few mornings ago my little grand-daughter looked at me with her gorgeous grin. “Grandpa . . . ” she piped.

“Yes Elsie,” I replied.

“You are my Grandpa,” she told me.

“Yes I am,” I agreed, my heart melting inside me.

“And I am your Elsie”.

“Oh you are, you are, you are.” Touched to the core, of course.

The river is flowing. For now the southern sun is shining on a wide and placid stream. And in my ears I hear the beautiful voices of my children, and my children’s children, forever in this river.

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