Monday 7 January 2013

On being shaped by death

How’s that for an ominous, grandiose title. Being the new year there are some wonderful, inspirational posts kicking around. If you haven’t seen them already, make sure you read this by Tania Browne and this by Gia Milinovich. Now really is the time to get up and make the world turn. Don’t let anyone stop you.

Early January is always an interesting time because it reminds me on the one hand of how important it is to start things fresh, while at the same time for me it carries the echo of death. Now, I can understand completely if you find self-indulgent posts about personal loss rather irksome. So if you read my blog purely for professional reasons, feel free to sneak out quietly and I won’t hold it against you.

On 2 January 1989, my mother died of cancer. I remember that her room in the hospital had a window that looked out on to a small garden. She loved nature and I like to think that having a garden in view made things easier for her at the end. Her life and death shaped my life – and my choice of career – in ways that I am still coming to understand as an adult.

At the time of her death I was a cocky, extraverted, smart-arsed 11-old kid who liked to run around in a tracksuit labelled “LIGHTING BOLT”. I had a big mouth and wanted to be a film director. I thought I was the smartest kid in town and that my mum would live forever despite being sick. I marched around that hospital like I owned it. I even stamped around my mum’s hospital room bragging how long I would live because I was sure she was going to make it too. I was a cheeky, embarrassing little turd.

All that changed pretty suddenly.

On 25 December 1988 my family had our last Christmas together with mum. She came home from hospital for the first time in weeks. I have no memories of that Christmas day, save one. In it my mum is sitting on the sofa in the lounge room while most of the others are in the dining room finishing off leftovers. My dad is sitting next to my mum, and they are speaking together in hushed voices that I can barely discern, accepting some grim reality that my immature senses read as a defeat. She isn’t going to make it.

Years later, I now know that mum came home that Christmas knowing for certain that she was going to die soon after – the cancer had metastasized and she was having her lungs drained with a needle every day to prevent drowning in her own lymphatic fluid. I shudder to think of the pain she must have endured during that time, especially while away from her morphine drip. But she simply wanted to see her family in her own home one last time. If only I had known all of this then, I’d have hugged her more. If only I could go back as the adult I am now, I would do more than act like a dumb arrogant kid.

Part of my 11-old identity was aware of this inevitability. Yet, at the time I maintained the doublethink that she wouldn’t die. I was confident for two reasons. First, I knew she had fought cancer for four years and it hadn’t beaten her yet – in fact she had gone into remission not so long before - so why now? And, in darker moments when I wondered if she might die, I prayed. Those who know me will balk. It seems strange (and inexplicably shameful) to admit this now as a scientist and atheist, but there it is, I prayed. I wasn’t sure what to, or how to do it. My mum was a failed Catholic who turned to Taoism and meditation, on top of chemo, when she was diagnosed with cancer. So I wasn’t sure where those higher powers resided. The sky? The earth? I was pretty ecumenical about it. I even remember asking the apple tree in our garden to let her live (I fell short of asking the cat).

When I overheard the conversation between my mum and dad that Christmas I realised something was wrong, so I upped the ante. I started bargaining with those higher powers. I prayed to get sick instead of my mum. A fair trade, surely. How could any god say no? I promised to behave better, to be less of a prank-playing, punishable shit. I asked for forgiveness. I did everything my religious instruction teacher (who I tortured mercilessly with questions about dinosaurs and evolution) said I should do. And more.

Still, the 2nd of January 1989 came and she died shortly after midnight. Soon after Christmas she had returned to the hospital and we saw her one last time in the afternoon. Then, that evening, we all sat on the floor, leaning on the wall of the back room in our house – me, my dad, my sister and my grandmother. After the phone call confirming her death, my father took off his wedding ring. I don’t remember what he said but it was at this point in life that I realised how alone we truly are. There was simply no reason for god and I never came close to believing in anything like it again. Gods were for the stupid and gullible.

The worst part was when my mum’s clothes and belongings returned from the hospital. They carried the biological smell of death: a sweet, cloying odour that I know now reflects the breakdown of metabolites in the body. That smell remained in the house for weeks and such was its strength that I can conjure it from memory.

My father became a shell of grief and much of my childhood ended as well. The confident extraverted kid was replaced by a shy death-conscious child who retreated into a world of books and rarely came up for air. My mother’s death coincided with starting in a new school, transitioning from primary school to high school. In the first year of that school I felt like an alien dropped in a zoo, surrounded by stupid creatures who I had absolutely no interest in, and who had absolutely no ability to understand me. I wished I could just skip school altogether.

The teachers were hopeless too. One time, early in first form, a particularly odious teacher made us stand up and say what our mothers and fathers did for a living. I immediately dreaded it. After seemingly endless examples of “dad works in insurance and mum does the shopping”, it was my turn. I didn’t even mention my dad and just cut to the chase. “My mother is dead”. Muffled laughter from other kids and a scowl from the teacher, followed by a loud reminder that this was a Serious Exercise. I was prompted again and repeated myself. The class laughed harder this time, a galvanised herd, as though I was performing a perverse comedy act for their amusement. I was promptly dispatched to the Principal’s office for lying and issued a detention notice. Once it became apparent that I was in fact telling the truth, I had the edifying experience of receiving (for the first time in my life) a grovelling apology from an adult.

As the years went on, my father declined further into depression but I slowly regained something resembling confidence and found myself gravitating toward the world of science. Like nothing else, science offered actual answers to existence, a taste of the future, and the opportunity to stand out and be noticed for something other than running fast or kicking a football. While my father retreated to his cave, David Attenborough and Carl Sagan stepped up to tell me about nature, while Gene Roddenberry, David Eddings, and Margaret Weiss kept my imagination alive. The ghost of my mother began to take shape and it had a clear message: The world is a big place. Don’t rely on higher powers to solve your problems, whether people or groups or gods. Be your own master, then you can solve your own problems and those of the people you care about. My mother’s death destroyed the confident, extraverted child but created something else, something more resilient and self-reliant.

Coming face-to-face with death as a child taught me – in the words of Hobbes – that life can be brutish and short (though of course, as an educated adult I now realise that it can be far worse on all fronts than what I experienced). Knowing this at such a young age was strangely empowering and helped me understand the importance of seizing opportunities when they arise.

All these years later, as I look forward at 2013 I see a lot of change being driven by me and others. A new kind of scientific journal article. New scientific projects in my lab looking at addiction and brain function. A new scientific information service to help politicians understand evidence. I wonder sometimes why I’m doing these things. They certainly aren't easy and I have a definite lazy streak. How did I go from being that scared and depressed child, reading Asterix comics in his bedroom to running my own science lab?

It's in early January that I’m reminded why: because that 11-year old kid isn’t dead afterall. He’s certainly a lot less noisy than he used to be and (thankfully) doesn’t wear bright tracksuits anymore. But his 35-year old replacement still has an overblown sense of self-entitlement and gets out of line pretty often.

As I conclude this indulgence about life, let me offer some advice. Nature, above all, rewards two things: creativity and persistence. So go forth in 2013 and do something you’ve never done before. Change something. Be innovative. Don’t be afraid of critics or criticism. Be self-entitled, just like an 11-year old pain in the arse I used to know.