Trigger Warning: This piece is a heavier one. It covers distressing subjects of murder and grief. If your mental health currently isn’t strong, please give yourself the gift of skipping this one.
There’s been a shaking of my childhood foundations lately.
I’ve sodden with grief and shock and outrage.
What to do with all of this, but write about it?
First, the cousin.
“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can’t remember who to send it to.”
– James Taylor, Fire and Rain
Just this morning, I got the text.
You were gone, my cousin.
Once upon a time, we were thick as thieves.
Our roving gang of teenage selves, renegade misfits in a conservative country town.
You were closer to a brother, part of the farmhouse furniture. We talked for years and laughed like hyenas. It was on your computer that I went on the internet for the first time. We rode in cars, spent Friday nights parked in a cane field while my sister snogged your best mate. We celebrated my sister’s 16th birthday by dressing in drag and dancing on hay bales at midday. You with your long blue hair and hairy chest, resplendent in black silk lingerie.
We grew apart after school. I went city, you stayed small town. The fractures in our family tree deepened.
We turned 40 this year, and this was the year you didn’t make it.
I sob for the teenager in me who would be distraught to know her beloved cousin was gone.
I collected herbs from my garden, wound them with selenite. Told my children about you. About how much I had loved you, and how sad I was that you were gone. Told them that when a soul has left, we take offerings to the water, and give blessings for their life and their path onwards.
We went to the ocean together, and while the children played, I gave my offering to the waves. I wished for you all the healing, love and kindness you ever craved. I wished for you to be whole again.
I felt the gust of wind behind me, and I felt your around me.
And I knew then, as I somehow knew back then too, that this was how this story would end.
We would play like puppies. We would be cratered by the family war. And when we were 40, you would die.
It makes all the sense in the world, and it makes no sense at all.
Most of all, I feel sorrow marinate in my bones.
The sorrow of how things turned out, even when they couldn’t have been any other way. The sorrow of losing something that once upon a time meant a whole lot to me. And the sorrow that says: how lucky I was to have love and be loved at all.
Thank you for the memories. The jar of fluff, the Star Trek lego in process, the campfires, the overnight train, the bakery at dawn. Thank you for the funny, nerdy, ridiculous world we built together to block out the other one. Thank you for loving me when not many did.
Farewell, my cousin. Blessed be your journey, as always.
And then the mass murder.
A sudden turn I know. One I wasn’t expecting either.
It happened just days after I found out about him.
Reports of a mass murder near my family’s farm. The hairs on the back of my neck stiffening. Somehow knowing my story was interwoven. It took more days to find out how. And then the call, and I knew.
When I was a kid, my parents decided to grow their agribusiness and buy a second cattle property. Our home property was 2,000 acres of lush green pastures. The other property was 90 minutes away – 45,000 acres of wild, scrubby country. I spent many weekends and long stretches of school holidays there, mustering cattle all day on horseback.
Almost from the beginning, it seemed beset by disaster. I watched my Wild Bushman Dad be thrown against the wooden fence by a wild bull, watched a beloved horse die from heat exhaustion. But most of all, we lived in the shadow of ghosts. My parents had made the unfortunate mistake of buying next to the official neighbours from hell – the cattle rustlers, the mischief makers, the ones who would cut fences and steal our cattle in their hundreds over and over again. My parents were alternately outraged, distraught, helpless, furious, financially devastated for years on end. Police and the stock squad were unable to help.
My childhood prayers each night were fervent and distinctly unchildlike:
Please don’t let the cattle rustlers steal any more cattle. Please don’t let my parents go bankrupt. Please don’t let my parents get divorced. Please don’t let anyone in my family die.
My prayers did not stop them nor any of life’s calamities. My parents are divorced. My brother did go on to die in a farming accident.
And the cattle rustlers continued to steal our cattle until my parents had no other choice but to abandon ship. They sold the property, heartbroken. They escaped bankruptcy by the skin of their teeth. They were never able to expand their farm again. That dream had long since turned into a nightmare.
And those cattle rustlers have since existed in my mind as mythic super villains.
I’d heard through the grapevine they’d continued to cause havoc wherever they were. Continued driving neighbours to the point of insanity and financial devastation.
Last week, the supervillain of my childhood (allegedly) shot his new neighbours over a dispute with cattle and fences. Three dead, one badly injured survivor.
And I’m in shock and I’m pissed and I’m sick to my stomach.
My heart aches. It aches for the family. It aches for all that loved them. It aches that this is where this story ended.
And when I go to sleep at night, I think:
It could have been us.
I don’t know what to do with all of this.
Every day since, I start my day by telling myself:
Your cousin is dead. He is dead.
It still feels wildly unreal.
And then I say:
Our ex-neighbour murdered his neighbours (allegedly).
And I’ve written it down in my journal, over and over.
But I still can’t make sense of any of this.
My cousin dying has nothing to do with the cattle rustler. It is just wedged in the same spanse of days, carved in the same land and timeline and root of my childhood tree. My childhood life has been ruptured once more, ruined by earthquakes. My life right here, right now, is as peaceful as ever. The incongruous mismatch. I am fine. I am not fine.
My husband’s parents come to visit. They arrive bearing a gift. They slide me a six pack of beer, telling me:
This is for you.
I am confused.
What is this? I ask. Why am I getting a present?
They smile sheepishly. We just thought you needed it.
Oh, I say. Awakening slowly dawning. Is this dead cousin beer?
Yes, they say. If you want to say it like that.
I don’t know why, but it does help me. Even when I haven’t drank a single one yet.
I think of the line in Grace and Frankie.
That life eventually becomes about going to the funerals of all your friends.
And I didn’t think it would happen to me, but of course it has.
In times like this, I wish for my elders. Granny. Great Aunt Lucy. Nan. Those wise elders, those lighthouses of love. The ones who fixed things with simple words and cups of tea. And I miss them desperately, and I wish they were still here. I carry their love with me. And I turn to the next generation.
When I tell my love’s mum about The Alleged Mass Murderer, she gives me the kind of no-nonsense elder advice that I crave.
You’re not there anymore, Leonie. You didn’t want to re-create that kind of drama for your own family, and you haven’t. Your life is good and calm. It’s not crazy, because you haven’t made it crazy. You chose another life for yourself.
And it does help. It does.
It removes me out of the cratering mess. Reminds me that right here, right now, I am safe.
My husband’s tooth shatters in the midst of all this. He undergoes an emergency extraction and is in debilitating pain, almost unreachable. I muddle on through. Pick up kids. Feed kids. Kiss them and tell them they are lovely. Keep the ship afloat.
As soon as his stitches are out, the colour returns to his face. As we walk down the street to the car, he turns to me:
How ARE you honey? I feel like I haven’t been present with you when I was in so much pain. Tell me everything.
And I do. We return home, and we sit on the verandah. We look out at the gums and I tell him how heavy it all is.
It’s a comfort, this. For this man to love me so well, and for so long. Through all the stories and beyond.
I decide the only way out is through.
I take myself on an afternoon road trip.
Go to the ocean. Hunt for art galleries. I just need to see beauty. Need to fill my heart and eyes with it. Need to remind myself, that despite all of this grief and loss and pain being washed up, so too does treasure and light.
When I’ve had my fill of books and colour and melded glass and charcoal skittering on torn paper, I eat gelato. It is hard to choose which ice-cream store to enter – there are 5 in a laughably small walking distance. I spy a sign down the footpath:
TAROT READERS IN TODAY.
And so I return, slinking in like a Catholic who hasn’t been to church in years. My hippiness was once my defining factor. Now it is far down the list. But still, I come back.
They don’t have any spots left. Could fit in 10 minutes before the next person arrives?
I take it.
The man has gentle hands and non existent eyebrows. He tells me that my life is golden. That it will be filled with sorrow and disappointments too. That it’s all part of life. But I can return to this. My life, my heart, my art is golden.
I leave lighter. It’s not that simple, but it is.
I am safe. I am here.
There is pain. There is sorrow. There is beauty. There is dead cousin beer. There are real life nightmares. There is fear. There is hope. There are childrens’ heads to sniff. There is a beautiful life to craft for them, and for me.
All of it, together.
I don’t have the answers, but I do have my story. And I offer it all up to you.
May all beings be at peace.
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