Swimming

“Are you sure you can swim 300 metres?” my husband, Pete, asked, when passing me the pre-requisite details he’d researched for a freediving course I want to do.

“Pffft, of course”, was my immediate reaction. I’d always been a fairly strong swimmer. But when I further reflected on it, I realised that it had been a while since I had swum any distance and, being on the wrong side of middle age, 20kgs overweight, and not terribly fit, that I’d better check. Pete agreed and, at Christmas, presented me with a 20-swim pass to the local aquatic centre.

I confess to being reluctant to begin the task, concerned that I’d sink like a stone trying to swim freestyle laps. Since I finished school almost four decades ago, I’ve rarely swum freestyle, resorting mostly to the more comfortable, less arduous breaststroke. I was worried that I wouldn’t even manage one lap without gasping for air half-way through. But, once in the water, I was surprised to find my freestyle technique and breathing capability in much better shape than I’d anticipated, and I swum a slow finless 500m in half an hour, alternating freestyle with breaststroke. Two sessions later, I was up to 500m freestyle in half an hour, and in the next session 700m in the same time. Mission more than accomplished.

I did not get back into the water for a month after that. There was so much going on with my mum, who lived 12,000kms away in South Africa, and I lost my motivation for a while. Late December, I started to suspect that she was dying. She’d broken her hip in mid-October 2020, after falling while dancing, and she’d had a hip replacement, which dislocated a few weeks later. The dislocation was a traumatic event that seemed to be a turning point in her cognitive and physical capabilities.

A young friend moved in to care for her fulltime during what we hoped would be her recovery. But over the subsequent weeks, she mentioned other distressing physical symptoms, such as breathlessness—which was diagnosed as bronchial pneumonia—burning, itching skin, hallucinations, extreme fatigue, nausea, and weight loss. She was under the care of medical professionals, who didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong other than her hip trauma and the pains of old age, but instinct told me that she was checking out. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions in Australia and South Africa, I couldn’t travel to be with her, and this weighed heavily.

My mum in her last months with her live-in carer, Chelsea

In mid-February, I forced myself to get back in the water and found that it helped me cope mentally with my distress about my mum’s situation. She’d recently suffered a second dislocation of the same hip replacement and had been operated on by a different and, it would seem, far more competent and humane surgeon in a different hospital.

On the day I swam 1km for the first time, I heard from my brother, Mike, that she had stage-4 cancer of the lungs, which had metastasized, clearly some time ago, to a number of other areas. When the surgeon had stitched her up after repairing the second hip dislocation, he’d found a lump in the nearby soft tissue and had it biopsied. It was malignant. Refusing any further treatment, three weeks later, she slipped into unconsciousness and died.

Since then, I have spent more time in the water, progressing to breathing on both sides and swimming 2km in 1 hour using a resistance-reduction freestyle technique. In the aftermath of my mum’s death, I felt like handblown glass, an intense sense of fragility that shocked me. Swimming became a meditation, a medication—What did she know? For how long?—and an unhindered time for reflection: the mind wanders, and wonders…what happens to our DNA when we die and are absorbed into earth, stone, and mineral? Why did she get lung cancer?

“It’s strange to be an orphan in the world”: so many people had that to say. But, no, my unmooring was more from a sense that she had kept a secret to smooth the path to the acceptance of her dying. The last time we spoke when she was still conscious, she said, “I’m 82 years old; I have to die of something.” And then, “Kari, it’s not as bad as it seems, you know?”

Courage, acceptance, and equanimity in the face of death.

Mum in her younger days

In mid-March we travelled to the Victorian coastal town Mallacoota for a break with friends from Melbourne. On the night of the 13th, the town, which just over a year before was the scene of an apocalyptic firestorm, was struck by a violent thunderstorm, which blew out the area’s electricity. Earlier in the evening, a friend of my mum’s called me so I could talk to her on his phone, although she could no longer speak. At this stage, her friends and congregation were keeping a 24/7 vigil at her bedside.

Later that evening, I sat outside in the pitch black aftermath of the storm and saw my mum’s beautiful face for the last time via Zoom: a pale, heart-shaped vision, her once-gorgeous blue eyes now deep dark pools as she seemed to be trying to respond to me. She slipped away less  than 24 hours later.

After her death, I signed up for The Conqueror Virtual Fitness Challenges English Channel challenge, a goal in the pursuit of fitness and peace. During the 24 swim sessions it took to reach the finish line, I continued to reflect on the love and help my mum was afforded over her life and, particularly, in the last 6 months by so many: my brother, her friends, the people of her congregation, and our family and friends. And how much generosity and kindness we, her children, have been shown by all the people who loved her, some of whom we’ve never met.   

During the three to four times a week I continue to swim, my thoughts are inextricably with her, not so much on the events leading up to, and surrounding, her death, nor on the things that divided us—religious philosophy, mostly—but on the many good things that we shared—a sense of humour, a love of nature and art, and the many road trips we enjoyed together when she visited Australia.

I miss her 💙

Road trip Thredbo, Snowy Mountains

The act of swimming can be one of healing and health, a way to wellbeing.

Why We Swim, Bonnie Tsui

Notes from a KTM – December 2019

A fat raven hops about on the neighbour’s verge as we prepare to leave for our motorbike holiday, a foreshadowing of things to come. Our north-west Sydney neighbourhood is quiet, except for the squawking cockatoos and the occasional dog walking its human, as we set off in air tinged with bushfire smoke.

Highway to Jindabyne

By the time we cross the Nepean River the air is a thick, dirty brown, and it holds its relentless choke for our almost 450km trip to Jindabyne in the NSW Snowy Mountains. It’s hellishly hot, too: this week has seen Australia’s hottest average temperature records tumble. Twice.

Our Jindabyne lodging is without cooling air-conditioning, not uncommon in this typically winter destination, so we leave the window open and are plagued all night with smoke from bushfires more than 100km away.

jindabyne-street-art-1.jpg
Jindabyne Street Art

The air quality is worse the next day as we leave for a return day-trip Jindabyne to Khancoban along the Kosciuszko National Park Alpine Way, with the mostly pleasant scents of the forest and mountain gullies bringing a bit of respite.

The next day the Alpine Way is closed due to fires south of Khancoban, as is the Barry Way, which we had planned to ride to our next stop, Bairnsdale, VIC. Instead we head off on the Monaro Highway via Bombala.

Khancoban Pondage
Khancoban Pondage

The route we’ve taken through rural NSW so far presents a disquieting spectre: a denuded landscape of low grey and yellow shrub, scarred with vast tracts of soil erosion and bare earth. Willows weep into parched creeks and gullies, empty riverbed rock the memento mori of dying farmland. Rusted, broken windmills and the black cracked beds of long empty dams are a common sight.

Old Windmill

Lichen on ancient rocks and small copses of perennial trees are almost the only green in this scene, its atmospheric smoke and dust conjuring up a Martian astroblemed vista.

If you’re wondering how Australian farmers are surviving in these conditions, many are not: In 2018, The Guardian reported that the suicide rate for Australia’s farming men is about double the general male population.

Boco Rock Wind Farm

From the town of Bombala, we take the C612, passing through Delegate, a village of derelict buildings and empty shopfronts. Mental health issues are rife in the country: hoarded burdens, having breached their hidden spaces, are stacked to the overhangs of one house’s veranda, a common sight in many of the towns we ride through.

Delegate Motors

We take the spectacular McKillops Road, crossing the Snowy River via McKillops Bridge in Deddick Valley. Outside Tubbut, near the aptly named Graveyard Creek, we pass a number of fox skins hanging on a fence to dry.

Fox Skins
McKillops Bridge

The next morning, Christmas Eve, after overnighting in Bairnsdale, VIC, we head for Marysville, VIC. After a stand-off with a mad goat in the Mitchell River National Park, our ride takes us via the beautiful Tanjil Bren forest and Mt Baw Baw tourist roads.

Mad Goat
Tanjil Bren Forest

From Healesville we ride the stunning Black Spur forest road and arrive at our accommodation for the next four nights, the gorgeous Marysville Garden Cottages. Built by owners Tracy and Anthony, they occupy the site where a lovely, old homestead once stood. In the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, it was destroyed along with 90% of the town.

Black Spur Road
Summer Cottage, Marysville Garden Cottages

Christmas Day we take a break from riding and do the return Tree Fern Gully bushwalk to the Steavenson Falls. Later in the day, we see a CFA rescue vehicle and a helicopter head to the area of the falls. A siren sounds in the town, and we start to wonder if Marysville is once again in the path of a firestorm. While having a meal at the convivial Duck Inn, we hear that someone has fallen 20m down the waterfall and has been rescued by helicopter.

Boxing Day, we do the loop via Taggerty and the Eildon Skyline road, another exhilarating ride. And then we take another break from riding until we head back to Sydney. We overnight again in Bairnsdale and travel through the beautiful East Gippsland forested region a day before much of it becomes an inferno.

Rudolph the red-nosed hay bale, Taggerty General Store
Lake Eildon from the Skyline Road

A day after we arrive home, many of the towns we’ve ridden through burn in the catastrophic bushfires currently engulfing Australia: the day before the main road closes and those apocalyptic visions of daylight turned to night by firestorms fill the news, we ride to Moruya through Lakes Entrance, Orbost, Cann River, Mogo, Genoa, the Mallacoota turnoff, Bega, and Cobargo.

Part of Moruya Woodfire Pizza’s Porcelain Dog Collection

The next morning, in anticipation of road traffic due to the evacuation order, we leave early, travel through Batemans Bay and Nowra not long before they, too, become towns evacuated to the beaches.

Millions of hectares of this beautiful country razed to the ground; many human souls lost; an estimated 450 million wildlife creatures burned to death; towns, properties, livelihoods, economies erased. A catastrophe of mind-boggling proportions.

Kangaroo, Tom Groggin Campsite, The Alpine Way

And during this disaster, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, left the country, taking his family to Hawaii for a holiday, a rather severe error of judgement. What might have been more politically astute, seeing as he loves putting on the daggy dad act for the media, is piling his young family into the car and, without his political entourage, taking the iconic daggy dad holiday: a road-trip across the country he’s supposed to be leading. See the devastation of drought firsthand. Talk informally to the farmers on the ground without the TV cameras. Spend his dollars in the small rural towns hard-hit by drought. Learn that the Australia people are not his flock, followers of some cult, his children to be patronised and told to “stay calm”. Cultivate self-awareness and empathy; get a grip; grow a backbone.

But it’s too late for that now. Along with much of the country, his standing is in cinders.

Shanghai

Tonight
I’m in a city of 14.50 million
souls. I know no-one
here. I’m a nano-human, a speck
in the smog. I make myself big
riding the subways with no-one
with light-coloured hair. No-one notices
the gweilo; the ghost-person, I think,
until I step into the deluge at Shanghai
Library, and a dark-haired
girl steps in time beside me, her umbrella
banishing the rain, her words, my ghostliness:

“Where are you going?
Can I take you there?”

“They’re irresponsible”, my husband says, “sending you there on your own.“

“It’ll be fine. I’ll be careful”, I say. I have an unspoken list of no-go countries for work, but China’s not one of them; my 8-year-old self has waited a lifetime for this. From a young age through most of my teens my dreamscapes were exotic places far from my home in Africa, in particular, somewhere intoxicating called the Far East. There was no internet then to fuel my obsession, but on the first floor of 320 West Street in Durban was The Laughing Buddha, a numinous, sandalwood-scented haunt that spirited away my monthly allowance in exchange for all manner of Oriental treasures. These cluttered my bedroom, under the gaze of a multi-coloured fire-breathing dragon which I’d painted across one wall.

It doesn’t feel safe to breathe, but I walk 20 kilometres anyway in the first two days, a free weekend. Although I don’t speak Mandarin I can tell that my Birkenstocked feet cause a stir with the locals. It’s not the impoliteness of almost-bare sandalled feet (a breach of etiquette in the business world here) that bothers, but such nakedness in December’s Arctic temperatures. The choking sky, on the other hand, causes them no such obvious consternation. Its terrible grime settles on my tongue as I wander the incongruously Christmas-decorated Bund. Here, newlyweds pose against the toxic-veiled backdrop of the Pudong New Area, across the asthmatic-sounding Huangpu River, which appears to be drowning in water-traffic effluvia. Perhaps, for these young lovers, the scene evokes the romance of natural fog; reds, oranges and pinks stand out like the sun in Monet’s Impression Sunset. But what do they wreak, these pestilent airborne nano-particles that twinkle and dance, day after day, in the collective bloodstream and gene pool of Shanghai? The form is spellbinding; the content, deadly.

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson asks, “Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though we had lost the will or vision to demand that which is good?” In the Yuyuan Gardens, a saltating Eurasian tree sparrow pays no attention to such questions as he eyes the fat, indolent Koi in the pond below. His offspring may well suffer the epigenetic consequences of his deadly flight paths, but he doesn’t know. What must it be like to live without the knowledge of the Human Condition?

The exquisite gardens evoke a nostalgia of childhood days spent poring over Ming and sumi-e paintings in library books, breathtaking scenes of Huangshan mountainscapes and the promise of something exquisite. Alongside a 400-year-old gingko tree, it feels safe to finally breathe great lungsful of air, although, on this cloudless day, the shapeshifting form of the Shanghai Tower smudged beyond the antique eaves of the garden wall is a reminder that there’s no true sanctuary. Later, the rain clears the putrid air, contaminates the groundwater.

It’s no secret that the government here is the archetype sinister Big Brother; visitors to the city are automatically registered with the police when they check into their accommodation, Facebook and Google are blocked, and television programs are frequently interrupted with replacements, as was the BBC News I was watching one morning when the subject turned to human rights. But, they can’t hide the noxious air out there.

Nor do they try: in the seven days I was in Shanghai, not a single day fell completely within the ‘Good’ range of the published Air Quality Index: all fell into the ‘Moderate’ range at some time during the day, three reached into the ‘Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups’ range, and two crept into the ‘Unhealthy’ range. Beijing fared much worse during the same period, with three of those days falling into the ‘Very Unhealthy’ range and not far off the ‘Hazardous’ range. A blue sky day never showed up.

In Gucheng Park, my footwear evokes explosive mirth from a pair of rugged-up workmen, as I watch chuckling toddlers fish for goldfish the size of their toes and joyful dancing couples relish their time outdoors in the far-from-fresh air. This is most of us, I think, focused on the minutiae of life, practising a kind of psychological sticking the fingers in the ears and singing, “la la la”. Today we, here in the park, want to be that sparrow, oblivious to the invisible deadly particulate matter, small enough to slip into our lungs and bloodstream with every breath we take. We want to eat the delectable charcoal-roasted food from vendors lining Fuyou Road, swirl one another around in the park until we’re dizzy, and laugh at silly things and the reflection of ourselves in others, to be mindless and pay no attention to the big questions at the end of a frenzied week surviving city life. After all, we are only human.

One school day in 1973, I came home to find graffiti sprayed across my dragon masterpiece: “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols!”, an adolescent brother flipping The Bird to an annoying baby sister. Devastation engulfed me, a maelstrom, my brother. How to undo the taint, the desecration? Only by going back to the drawing board. China’s task is comparably galactic: how to simultaneously protect the health and economy of cities, each with a population close to that of Australia’s, as blue sky days become ever rarer? They’re working on it; they don’t yet know the answer; but they know it’s as necessary to survival as the air we breathe.

An Umbrella on the Wind

I was in primary school when I heard that crazy laugh for the first time. Other girls in the class tittered and giggled in typical 8-year-old manner: Janine Scott’s laugh was anarchic, dangerous and often inappropriate. I loved it. Sharing an absurdist sense of humour and a love of dancing, we became firm friends. Frequent sleepovers at each other’s homes were spent choreographing our latest dream dance production and laughing for hours at nothing in particular, amusements in an era devoid of personal computers, internet and smartphones. But one Friday night, as we lay about her bedroom, chatting, she became increasingly agitated as I mindlessly threw her small brown Teddy bear into the air.

Stop that!

What?

Stop throwing the Teddy around.

Me, laughing and dangling the bear upside-down by one leg: What’s wrong?

Janine, almost crying now: It belonged to Morgan.

Who’s Morgan?

Morgan was my brother. And my father killed him.

Janine’s sudden disclosure of her youngest brother’s filicide and her schizophrenic father’s subsequent incarceration in a psychiatric hospital plunged me into the cold reality of how different two lives lived in close contact could be. My bedroom was a safe sanctuary, but Janine kept the windows of hers firmly shut in the sweltering heat of Durban’s summer nights for fear her father would escape and come back for her.

Why? Why Morgan? Why not me?

The seed of survivor guilt was embedded in her psyche, and its insidious roots were well watered and fed by a conspiracy of silence, lies and wilful blindness perpetuated by the adults closest to her.

…I came in with the newspaper and there was, a, um, an article on this, um, it didn’t say names, but it said, you know, a long-haired, you know, man in his 30s, um, killed, you know, I can’t even remember what it said, and apparently I went into my mom, and I said, ‘Is this dad? Did dad do this?’

Forty-three years later, she recounts the moment that, as an 8-year-old, she discovered from a local newspaper that Morgan had not been killed in a car accident, as her mother, Marge, had told her and Stephen, her oldest brother, a few days earlier but had been murdered by their father, Leslie.

Not long after Janine and Stephen moved to Penzance Primary School, they would both be wearing school blazers adorned with colours for academic excellence. Janine was the model student, the good girl, to all outward appearances, who became a prefect and shined at sport. Stephen’s boundless intellect was well above the norm, and his many interests included practicing magic and stand-up comedy, mostly on us. In spite of the trauma they’d endured, it seemed that a world of opportunity awaited them both.

But it’s a capricious wind that blows through the lives of humans, and in our final year of primary school, it was again an ill one for the Scott family. It was an impossible-blue-sky day in 1974, as we hopped from foot to burning foot on the paving at Tesoriere Swimming Pool, waiting to compete at our inter-House swimming gala. Stephen, then in his first year of high school, stopped by with some classmates in the afternoon on his way home to watch. As is the tempestuous progression of such blistering days, a summer breeze, a welcome relief to those not in the water, drifted in and gradually built to gusting. And as we swam and cheered, it found its way to the judges’ table, lifted the beach umbrella sheltering the staff from the heat of the day and tossed it like tumbleweed towards the group of schoolboys standing on the grass.

They say that there’s a million ways to die, but how many ways are there to render a life less lived? As Janine and I waited with my parents in the bleached corridors of Addington Hospital late that afternoon, Marge was informed by the attending neurosurgeon that Stephen had a small entry wound in his forehead and an equally small exit wound in the back of his head, on the opposite side, at the base of his skull—from the puncturing stroke of an umbrella spoke.

Why? Why Stephen? Why not me?

There were never illicit drugs. But there was binge-drinking. And there was hitch-hiking alone in the middle of the night, picking up strangers in bars and taking them home. And exercise: a lot. But distractions are no match for the chthonic demon of guilt, and ultimately it would make its insidious self well and truly manifest.

The natural world appears to exhibit causal determinism and mathematical order: the moon creates the tides; geometric fractals shape coastlines; and logarithms create the breathtaking spiral arms of our Milky Way. And, it seems, we humans are hardwired to look for this order in everything, including what happens to us in our individual lives, and to ascribe meaning—even where none can ever be found, the unscratchable itch of the Human Condition. Survivor guilt is a complex condition, but is almost always underpinned by subconscious notions of causality and a search for meaning. For an agnostic or an atheist, there are no apposite words or narratives for the absurdity of an umbrella on the wind, no neat narrative arcs for those who don’t ascribe these cruel and unusual events to magical thinking or some eventual reward for religious faith. They are ineffable, merely random, and that is all. But when exploring notions of causality as to why she’s survived into her 50s without so much as breaking a bone, while her brothers endured such terrible things, even someone of Janine’s scientific-rationalistic, irreligious mindset talks in terms of angels and demons, albeit always with the qualifier “if you believe in such things”. How else to make sense of moving through life relatively unscathed while, it seems, all around you some invisible force picks off your family?

In the book Pathological Altruism, the authors suggest that “empathy-based guilt often hovers behind pathological acts of altruism, generating the considerable energy spent in sometimes futile and often self– and other-destructive efforts to help… ..empathy-based guilt becomes pathogenic when it provokes cognitive errors in understanding causality.” Janine’s survivor guilt resulted not only in her pursuit to be a perfect child, but in pathological acts of altruism that saw her deny her own mental health needs well into middle age.

So, actually, I, I, I couldn’t ever really tell anybody anything because I was protecting them. I was protecting them. I was protecting my gran, protecting my mother, protecting my dad, protecting Lorr–. Lorraine still doesn’t know what happened to Stephen!

What happened to Stephen is this: in spite of his traumatic brain injury, which caused him to speak and walk as though permanently drunk, he graduated in pure mathematics and statistics, winning the top prizes at university, only to descend into madness and, after many years of psychiatric incarceration, to be bashed to death at the age of 40 by a fellow inmate in the toilets of a psychiatric hospital. By then Janine had packed her bags, said goodbye to her family and a 3 ½ year romantic relationship in Durban, and emigrated, alone, 11 200 kilometres away, to a country she barely knew. But three months into her new life of self-created stability, Stephen’s murder would conjure up overwhelming survivor guilt, breaching every weapon of resilience and defence that she had armed herself with over the years. Afraid and suffering from terrible insomnia, she finally sought the professional help and care that she should have had as a little girl.

She describes her psychiatrist as “brilliant” and someone who, with endless patience and humour, steered her towards accepting her survival and understanding that the happy, peaceful life she now lives is not a betrayal of her brothers’ memory. To finally find comfort in the company of strangers: absurd, isn’t it? _______________________________________________________________________________KP

This text is published here with the full permission of Janine Scott.