I rarely write directly about work – the stories I hear there are mostly not my stories to tell, and of course I am bound by confidentiality. But I work full time and have done so for years, so work is very important to me and takes up a lot of my time. It, and the people I work with, influence me a great deal. In light of Peter’s email, and JW’s talk, and Maria Popova’s work on Brainpickings, and the power of stories, lives lived, poetry and the subtle influences we have on each other that ripple on and on and on, I am going to try to write a little about one person I worked with and how she stays with me, years after she has died. She is an example for me of the idea expressed in a poem by a Japanese woman writing originally around 1000 years ago…
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
(Izumi Shikibu, translated from Japanese by Jane Hirschfeld and Mariko Aratani)
I first met Lorna (I will call her), in the 1990’s – she had come to SA from interstate and was homeless and staying at a shelter. I assisted in getting her housed in a Housing Trust place (you could do that remarkably easily back then), and continued to have contact with her for a long time afterwards. While she had had a life filled with trauma, she was a real goer – interested in many things, quirky, artistic, and a bit obsessive. She collected things – cd’s, dvd’s, ornaments (gnomes and fairies were specialities). She bought herself an electric organ and would play it for hours. She had a couple of cats and a very eclectic garden. She would paint picture after picture – brightly coloured and quite gorgeous (see an example below). She went to TAFE – studying various things and taking a shopping trolley filled with papers with her each time. Whenever I went to see her she would have a weak orange cordial made ready for me in the fridge and she always had quirky phrases to send me on my way with – “may all your troubles be little ones” and “don’t do anything I wouldn’t enjoy”. She was lonely I would say, but never bored.
I found working with her challenging at times – she would be very revved up sometimes and I didn’t know what to do to help. She had mental health problems and I was not and indeed am not very well versed in that area. But I liked her a lot, and could encourage her because of that. I had many laughs with her, and many adventures in sorting out how to get her art into Rotary Art shows, what to do about the cats when they got sick and in one case died, where to plant various things, listening to her various current favourite artists (KD Lang was one, Jim Nabors another (he played Gomer Pyle on tv and was also a singer)), going to the chemist for her and looking over her latest acquisitions. She would give up smoking regularly, and use the savings to buy bigger items that she wanted. She saved enough for a new car at one stage (hard to believe, but she did). It was a Subaru, from the dealership just around the corner from me, and I think of her whenever I pass it. There were downs as well, which I won’t go into, and eventually she became ill with what turned out to be lung cancer. Her husband, whose memory she was very devoted to, had died in traumatic circumstances, and she had almost no contact with her kids or her family of origin for the time I knew her. When she became ill she asked me to get in touch with her brother. This was a weird request from my point of view as she hadn’t spoken with him for decades, but she rattled off an address and I think even a phone number, and although I had no expectation of being able to track him down, and in fact felt quite anxious about doing so, I did give it a go – and sure enough he was where she said he would be and was very responsive to the call and did make contact with her. It was very moving to me that she had kept his details in her mind for so long, had held him so firmly in her heart in a way, and I felt really pleased that I pulled my own finger out to find him even though I was unsure about whether I would and felt shy about even trying.
Eventually the one daughter she had some very occasional contact with turned up and persuaded her to go back with her to Victoria. I was very sad to see her go, and worried that it would all turn out badly, given that they had a pretty limited relationship at that time. She decided not to give up her place here with the Trust, in case she decided to come back, and her neighbour took on the job of looking after her remaining cat. I promised to ring her once a week to keep in touch. The last time I spoke with her was on one of these weekly calls – it was late on a Friday night, and I wanted to go home, but at the last minute made the call. She was in hospital at the time. It was just before Mother’s Day and she was worried about how it would go, and also feeling pressured to give up her Driver’s Licence. I remember telling her not to do anything she didn’t want to do.
On the Monday morning, I got a call from Lorna’s neighbour to let me know that her place had been broken into over the weekend. I rang to let her know, to be told that she had died the previous morning, on Mother’s Day. I saw her daughter when they came back to go through her place and finalise things here. They brought back her ashes, and we buried some of them underneath a rose bush that was just outside of the office where I worked – another place for me to think about her often. One thing I feel sorry about is that I didn’t tell her how much I would miss her – this is because I didn’t know I would. I think of her often – her passion for life, her enthusiasm, the way she kept going in the face of so much pain and difficulty. She died long before she might have – the impact of poverty that I see again and again, but she is definitely not forgotten. I took a photograph of her not just before she went to Victoria and it is on my mantlepiece, pictured above (you can’t see it specifically, but I can!). I think of her often, and especially when I say to people, as she regularly did to me, “don’t do anything I wouldn’t enjoy”!