Today, tomorrow, the dead, the unborn, the sick and dying. And me, can you see me? The thirty-five-year-old man, cross-legged in the large white tent where we speak of the dead? Another face in the hundred other faces.
The walls are thick with thankas, pastel pinks and icy hells, skulls cups and lotus flowers. Mothers are rocking babies, fathers creak like old bones. We all inch forward to hear the large monk in yellow robes who says how forty-nine days after death we seek material form, see a range of lights, a chimera of colours. We drift to where our parents are making love and take form in the womb. To be reborn a human, he reminds us, is very, very rare.
Breath in, breath out. Meaning of life through a contemplation on death. He says we need to remember to remember, but right now I wish I could forget.
Me, on a midwinter night, in Christchurch. Twelve years old, naked and deep in the bath as a yellow cloud of piss bleeds out around my white and skinny knees. Downstairs, there are noises, milk bottles chinking, a coal shovel scraping, Pink Floyd and a maunder of women's voices. Back from a conference, they laugh and fret. Cars arrive, the door bell rings, and someone is met with cajoling welcome.
Tonight it is busy, when for the last three days the house had been dead of life; just my brother in his room, my stepfather, Earl, fixing shelves in the bathroom, and me continually thinking about the conference, all those women, overseas speakers, delegates and workshops. Three thousand. To me it may as well have been the world. Everyone had gone. My mother, her friends, my sister. Even my gran had managed an afternoon on Sunday. "Yes darling," she said, mightily impressed, "all those girls rah-rah-rahing. Your mother up on stage. It was all quite a show."
When they came in, I was sitting on the bench, picking a scab on my elbow. I remember, my mother, searching in her pockets for cigarettes and wrestling off her jacket. Her face had been tired and her eyes were sullen. Smoke eddied past her forehead as she reached up and unfastened her long tail of hair. Berwyn Sallychurch, six foot, pale and bony, was boasting about her workshop, 'Women and Guilt'. She was hunched over her hands, fixing herself a cracker and cheese when Earl came in from outside. He had his cotton work hat on, baggy corduroys and his hands looked cold and were splattered with paint. He stood in the middle of the room of women, cardboard roll, several brushes and a scrunched up sheet of paper in his hand. He bid them all a sheepish hello, to which my mother quickly smiled back, I examined my shoe, before he moved to the fire, tossed the rubbish into the red mouth of the fire and stabbed it with the poker.
Berwyn was explaining how a woman broke down in the middle of her workshop. "The bit where I had them all writing down their childhoods, she starts up, wailing like an siren."
"What did you do?" My mother rid her cigarette of ash with a quick flick of her finger.
"Do!" Berwyn raised her hand. "What can you do? I said to her, 'Darling, you've got a lifetime of patriarchal conditioning to live down. It's gunna take a while.'"
Berwyn went on saying how she asked the crying woman if she masturbated and how well the woman had responded to her question. Heads nodded, tea was poured, Earl skulked out the door.
Another winter night, how I remember, all those noises, my mother's tired face, me in bath later on, trying to figure out this thing about asking someone if they masturbated, and really, who on earth would want to know?
Footsteps up the stairs, then back down again, the door opening to myriad of sounds, cut through by my mother's indelible voice, just before the door slams.
"Fuckin' silly bitch. When will she learn?"
Who is the silly bitch? I lie back and consider. Patricia Hickey, the smut protector? She always gets a hiss and spit when she comes on the tellie. Or Lady Drayton, ex-mayoress, who has a thing for councillors and other women's husbands? One of the pro-life Spuckies, rabbit-breeding Catholic. It is hard to tell. There are so many silly bitches to choose from.
The wall is tiled and chipped. It is peppered with splash marks and finger prints. On the shelf a tube of toothpaste is uncapped and oozing. Tooth brushes are scattered like pick-up sticks. There are two pictures tacked to the tiles. One is of a chart of all the kings and queens of England.
The other picture, a real picture, is torn out of a magazine and its edges are frayed and have turned a shade of yellow. This is the one I look at. It isn't like the other pictures downstairs though, the ones in the hippy guides to mud huts and home births. There are no doctors with masks on, mothers grunting, hands being held, babies being squeezed out the lady's hole. I wouldn't show my friends. It's no fun. No fun at all.
She is dead and flat on her face, arms out with her dress around her large, white buttocks. Blood is running out between her legs and at the bottom, beneath a twist of plastic tube, black letters say 'ABORTION -- A WOMAN'S RIGHT TO CHOOSE. KEEP IT OFF THE STREETS'.
Everyday I see her, brushing my teeth, wiping my face, sitting on the loo. She is a reminder of how lucky I am, that she could be my mum or my sister, the lady who sent us a turkey at Christmas because she was religious and there was nothing else she could do; or maybe the one from last night when I answered the phone and she said 'Is your mum there darling?' distant and weepy. 'Please! Please! Can I speak to your mother?'
From my wet, white toes to her grim, grainy print and world of lonely silence, my eyes and imagination move. How could they? The boyfriend, the husband, the doctors, Patricia Hickey, the stupid Catholics? How could they let her die?
The tent flukes in the afternoon breeze. I can hear the sound of the waves and the occasional car. Figures pass by, feet on the sandy soil as I sit here aware that it has taken me three days; three days up the grassy slope, past the brazier wafting juniper and incense, past this shrine for the dead, three days looking down at my bare feet, their pale weave of bones, their callused heels upon the litter of green blades, the oak needles, ants and earth?
Before me is a box containing many names, a masonite board and many different photos. The monk said he would give prayers for the unborn as well as the dead, and now the box is full and I must wedge my paper in. It contains a small offering, my mother's name, date of birth, date of death and a reason.
As if we need a reason.
My mother had her reasons. They were wrapped around her life like a shawl. At the National Archive that day, they were all that was left of a forty-seven-year-old life. In scribbles and scraps, cutouts and clippings, she was 'a notorious pioneer in New Zealand women's health, a fighter for justice, a heroine of reform', neatly assembled into two concertina folders.
I sat at a neat desk in a large room with a head full of questions and a book full of scribbles.
Proud? Of course I was proud.
But when certain words fell off certain people's tongues, my skin crept and toes cramped. No. That woman they chorussed, the 'wonderful' 'strong' and 'gutsy' mother of mine, wasn't mine at all. She was theirs, sewn into their political imagination with the thread of nostalgia, traces of jealousy and fear.
Hundred of pages attesting to her work: the back-breaking tedium of abortion politics, accounts, tax files, divvying up of funds, the 1977 Women's Conference, speakers to attend, registrations, flight details for women going to Australia, hotels booked, operating doctors.
Q tried to get into Christchurch Women's Hospital. Refused. Found back street abortionist. Used catheter. Told to leave it in for a week -- bled badly. Emergency case Ch'ch Women's. Nearly died.
Mrs M is a 44-year-old Maori woman, solo mother of 9. Husband left after service and never returned. She said herself that her children were a 'bit out of hand'. Just suffered a disc protrusion in her last pregnancy and spent six months in hospital severely depressed. In all the woman saw 7 doctors in order to obtain termination. The delays in appointments resulted in her being 16 weeks pregnant at the time of operation. Done for $250.
I looked out the window at a seagull battling in the Wellington wind and could imagine my mother, labouring over a pad of paper and ashtray late at night. I wanted to hold her hand, share the load, tell her not to cry.
I removed the file marked 'Personal' and was pulled out of my lament. It was brimming with letters, cringeful, naïve, mock militant letters that were bleedingly written and poorly spelt out. For me, they signalled a journey from boy to man along a fraught and fractured path. Letters from my mother's best friend to my mother, around the time they met, drunk in adoration, political vision and parochial feminist forecasts of 'Sisterhood' and 'Herstory'. From the halcyon high to inimical low, deceipt, and brokenheartedness, I could pin-point the letter written to my mother at the time of my seduction. "Dear Elizabeth," my new lover wrote. "You unmitigated bitch."
Dozens of letters I stuffed in my sock, sick at the thought, feeling the camera in the corner, as if it were the eye of the world, laughing, goading and snickering at me, the feminist's son. 'Mine! Mine!' I want to shout. 'These letters are mine. No-one else's. Ya hear me. Got it!'
And though I wanted it, no librarian's hand appeared on my shoulder, no one tried to stop me stealing. It was just me in that large room, and a small camera no one was even watching.
From out of my shirt pocket I remove the photo and pin it to the masonite board. My mother, beside all the other photos of the dead, the polaroids and black and whites, has her hand on her chin and looks towards the early night sky. She wanted to see the Kauri trees before she died and her boyfriend drove them north. Her hand supports her chin and her face is alabaster in a red silhouette of sunset and trees. She wears a light-blue jumper and her black hair has not yet fallen out. That hair, once raven black and key to her bold symetry and audacious manner, dropped out in feathery lumps and left her like a small girl with frail shoulders and yellow skin.
So many dead to ponder. My mother haunted by her past, was frightened to die. But for now at least, despite her driven face and questioning eyes, I see peace and a moment of closure. I breathe in, I breathe out.