Separation anxiety: the darkest of times

When I left home to get married at the age of 20 turning 21, my Dad sat in the lounge room playing his guitar and shouted, ‘Seeya David,’ as I lugged the last of my bags to the car.

I have no idea how he felt about it because we never spoke about it. But if you go by the adage ‘Look at what people do, not what they say,’ he didn’t feel very much at all.

And I don’t understand that. Not now.

I separated from my wife for three months in the middle of 1997. It was several months after the Gracetown cliff collapse, and during that period a terrible number of marriages failed in the district of Margaret River, in the southwest of Western Australia, particularly among those of us who had been on the beach that day. We are not made to witness such tragedy. We are not made to see limbs poking up through the sand between the limestone boulders as if reaching toward heaven for help but receiving nothing. None of that is an excuse for leaving your wife and family, but it was true for me, as it was true for many others, that our unprocessed grief from that day in September, 1996, pervaded every area of our lives. Our relationships. Our jobs. Our faiths. I thought I could outrun it by working all day and all night. I was wrong. It caught up with me, and with us, and I went to live in a caravan down the road, like a sad caricature of a Roald Dahl hero.

Separation tore me up. I felt myself coming apart at the seams, just as I saw the family coming apart. The photos of them from that period never stop driving a knife through my sternum. The kids have hollow, sad eyes and brittle smiles. There’s no colour in their faces. No life in the way they hold themselves upright for the camera. Don’t even ask me about Carolyn.

I broke down twice during that period, and both times I would have sworn I heard the voice of God. Not a still, small voice, and not a whirlwind either — more a mighty kick up the arse to get back home where I belonged.

‘But I’ve fucked everything up,’ I said — twice.

‘Go anyway,’ the voice said.

Our attempted period of reconciliation hinged on a single weekend in the country town of York, where we drove to a Christian marriage conference run by full-time Christian workers in sandals and socks. By the time we arrived, we’d both had enough. Had basically agreed to walk away for good. I was off to Darwin, or Sydney, or the bottom of a lake somewhere. Who knows. We commiserated by drinking Guinness in the local pub in the hours before the first session, by which time I was so drunk I didn’t have the inner ear balance to get up and walk out, or I would have done. These strange dudes in sandals were not my people. And yet … the video they played … man, it shook my world. It had creation at the start, Jesus in the middle, and resurrection at the end, and marriage woven all the way through. Cynical as I was, I couldn’t help but listen … and in a moment see myself in a way I’d never seen me before.

We decided to start again.

I didn’t feel the type of pain again that I felt during that time until seven years ago, when I ‘left’ my position as vice-principal of Laidlaw College. For the weeks and months that my dispute with the college was strung out, I would lie in bed night after night, unable to sleep, unable to dream, sometimes unable to breathe. The one thing that kept me going was the hoot of a morepork (ruru) from somewhere on the college grounds. I would listen to it for hours, while I lay there in the dark, my body aching from the anxiety I was holding inside, my heart beating like a fucked clock, my hope in any way forward dwindling with every night that passed.

When it was clear that my grand vision of going out into the world with a message of loving encounter as a foundation for knowing (the grammar of the gospel) was over, I was a broken man in the way I’d experienced in the caravan back in Western Australia. Except this time there was no voice of God. In fact, God stayed on the Laidlaw campus, from which we were banished, while I got shifted off — packed up with the family and told to move somewhere … else.

So we found a great place. Take that, Laidlaw.

Two years later, Carolyn was diagnosed with breast cancer. If you abide by the Deuteronomic way of looking at life (as some still do), which is basically blessings for doing good and curses for doing bad, then we were fucked. Carolyn particularly. As curses go, this was about as bad as it gets.

Carolyn underwent a double mastectomy to save her life, and emerged from hospital on a Monday with pipes coming out of her torso like a Borg. Unable to move her arms, we spent hours during the course of the following days navigating the shower and learning how to wash around the horrific pipes without causing even more damage, then doing the same with a towel, and talcum powder, until we finally felt we were getting it right. And as Carolyn lay down to rest —because all of that on top of major surgery and anaesthetic and the emotional trauma of realising you’re probably cursed by God is pretty bloody tiring — I would go off somewhere and sob and say to God, in the hope that from the grounds of Laidlaw College he could still hear me: ‘I can’t do this, you motherfucker.’

But I could do it. We could do it. We did do it. Monday became Tuesday. Tuesday became Wednesday. And each night, God would show up, in the howl of a morepork from the bushes down by the Taipari Strand. I lay in the dark as I did at the college, listening to the morepork’s song, and in the song I heard hope and encouragement and a reminder that I and we had seen terrible darkness in our lives before … and each time it was followed by a period of light, no matter how dim.

Then on Saturday of that week, my Dad separated from my Mum.

It’s a weird thing to discover in your 40s that you still bank on the fact you have a family home, somewhere to retreat when the enemy has you pegged back, somewhere to run to when the darkness becomes too foreboding or when the morepork stops singing or when the cancer makes you wish you were a boy again and your Mum and Dad would just step in and take the shit for you.

In a flash, all that was gone. I knew I was alone. That there were no adults above me. That I was it. I’m not sure I ever recovered. I don’t want to be it. I don’t want to be the adult everyone else relies on. I want to be a boy again.

I’m not sure whether the residual pain from that period was the cancer and its effects or the separation of my parents. Clearly, it was a profound cocktail of both. Enough to knock a bloke in his 40s off his game.

Anyway, to the point of this rambling melancholy. This week, the torment returned. That home we found after Laidlaw — we have to move out. Something about the landlord’s son wanting the house. It’s not all bad — the owners are praying for us to find somewhere nice. So there’s that.

And also, my eldest daughter is moving to Melbourne — tired of the great New Zealand experiment that we began in 2008 and wanting something new. In a country that has, you know, cash. And who can blame her?

But this time, the process of separation is a particularly hard one to take, because it requires something of me that I didn’t expect I would ever have to give. It requires me to be the rock from which she pushes off in order to launch herself into the rip. And that’s painful. I said to a friend last night that I was hoping to spend these last few days enjoying her company. He reminded me that instead I have to spend the next few days playing out my final role as a dad. I’m the one who sends her off.

Except, I know it’s not my final role. I know that on Monday I won’t send her off with a strum of a guitar, for one thing, and no matter where she ends up in the world, the family home will always be the place to which she returns when the darkness presses in.

Nevertheless, it’s separation … and the old demons are back.

And as of yet, I haven’t heard the morepork’s call during my sleepless nights. Perhaps God is too busy at Laidlaw. Perhaps I only ever imagined that the morepork was there at all during those dark times.

And yet … and yet … I can’t help feeling that he isn’t far away.