Five days ago, I arrived Brisbane’s international airport with Hook’s ashes and managed to avert a personal customs check of my baggage.
Before I left Austin, I purchased one of those face powder makeup containers and emptied it, then filled it up with my dead husband inside. I was fully prepared to dip the mini powder pillow into his ashes and smooth it onto my face should the scene have called for it. It’s just make-up, sir.
In Australia customs, a foreboding sign looms over weary travelers and reads: Do you really want to pay an automatic $200 fine for these? The sign posts photos of handguns and flammable liquids and other assorted crime paraphernalia. Because I’d been rushed by other smelly travelers hurrying through to catch their connecting flights, I didn’t see that two of the ten forbidden items were fruit and nuts. Imagine my relief when the drug sniffing dogs passed right by me and did not pick up my scent of a fresh apple, a plastic container of cashews, or Hook’s ashes in the fake make-up kit in my luggage.
In customs, they asked, “Purpose of your visit?”
“My husband died,” I said in a dazed sort of way, my big cow eyes staring and blinking at him like someone with a nervous habit but really just someone who’d popped contact lenses onto bone dry eyeballs after a 14-hour flight.
“I’m sorry ma’am,” said the customs official, “was your husband Australian?”
“Oh no … but we were going to come here? For a year? Then he died …?” and I let the rest of my fake British accent drift off.
I’d sat between two of the nicest Australian men on the plane and in our forced time together, their beautiful Aussie accents had rubbed off on me but not to the point that I could duplicate them effectively. I was opting for the easier route of doing a Madonna-fake-British-accent on the customs guy who was staring at me wondering where I was going with my death revelation.
Then I knew. I knew I needed to stop speaking. I’d marked the box for ‘holiday’ on the immigration card because there was no box for Spreading Spouse’s Ashes. If I were to state anything, I should have said “vacation” but I was confused and exhausted and still worried that my period was going to start, which is an emotionally taxing effort all by itself, especially when it involves three flights — Austin to Los Angeles to Brisbane — with one more still to go to get all the way to Perth.
I did not want to be fined anything for anything, but I’d lost an entire day crossing the equator and something about the congenial way of the Australians was going to have me blurting out: I didn’t mean to sneak in fruit and nuts but there are some human remains in my big suitcase with the broken handle – Please, for the love of God, I need to get to the bathroom. All, of course, in my new fake British accent … the closest thing to an Australian accent I could muster.
Giving Way in Perth
Yesterday morning I drove on the left side of the road with my rental car, the one with a steering wheel on the right side of the car instead of the left. Those of you reading who are not from the UK or a former British colony, think about that for awhile. The words – stay left, stay left, stay left – played in a continuous loop in my head, and I’m immensely grateful that there are frequent Australian road signs that read, Keep Left. They must have known I was coming.
I’ve successfully fought off the inclination to drive or turn onto the right-hand side of the road or to think that all cars were headed down the wrong way each time they came towards me. Good Lord, either he’s driving the wrong way on a one-way or I am. Neither of us was of course.
Several times a day, I drive over curbs on my left because I’m unable to estimate the amount of space I need for what feels like a huge passenger side of the car … on the left side of the car. And when I drive, I continuously glance over my right shoulder as though I’ll need to Give Way for the cars I’m sure will be driving up on my right, from behind, instead of towards me. Is it confusing to read this? It’s confusing to write it. Imagine what it feels like to drive in it. I keep turning on the wipers every time I need to use the turn signal because those are switched on the steering wheel as well. Seems my driving in Australia is as bad as my driving in Austin, but my front window is always clear and clean of any debris!
All the travel books talk about how nice Australians are, and all of my face-to-face contact so far has supported this except when it comes to driving. They honk if you go too slow in what I have finally figured out is the fast lane (right lane instead of the left lane!), and they really honk if you constantly drive over the little lane bumps – brrdrrpbrrdrrpbrrdrrp – which separate their car from your car. They’re so picky.
This whole driving fiasco has me feeling like I’m speaking a foreign language, so much so that when I went to the McDonald’s (hey, don’t judge – my Perth apartment doesn’t have wireless internet but trusty Mickey D’s does) and they asked, “Dine in or take away?”
I replied, “Here?” and I wasn’t even trying to sound British.
The young woman stared at me like I was from Mars instead of just Texas as she repeated, “Dine in or take away?”
The first response that popped into my head was, para llevar. My brain in its misunderstanding of Australian phrases and the thick Australian English has me pulling from the recesses of travel, a phrase in Spanish that I never seemed able to recall in Mexico when I needed it. But because my brain is muddled and that was a state of being with which I was familiar living in Mexico, my auto-reflexive memory (I just made that up) pulled the response, para llevar, to the forefront. Interestingly, I am still using this inappropriately as a Spanish response because my intent is not to “take away” but to dine in or drink in as it were since all I was buying was a “flat white coffee” or a coffee with cream or café con leche depending on which part of Texas you live.
“Here … for to dine in … here … I’ll eat here except I’m not really eating just the coffee, the flat-white-coffee-with-cream-or-milk-or-anything-white really.”
I jumble all of this together confusing us both then I lean over the register and whisper in a conspiratorial voice, “It’s okay, I can just have black coffee and I’ll drink it here so I can use your internet.”
I’m sharing too much just like with the customs guy.
Ashes in Australia
Today, I did what I had come thousands of miles to do, and which has been my only real goal since my non-planning for this trip began. Not even the thought of snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef has held as much importance for me as seeing finally, 43 Hope Street.
Western Australian time is 13 hours ahead of Austin and my Wednesday, September 3rd, started while most of you in the west were still sleeping. This morning, I drove north of Perth onto the Mitchell Freeway which as best as I could tell does not have an actual highway number assigned to it, it’s just called, Mitchell Freeway. I kept confusing speed signs with highway number signs, and I didn’t know if the speed limits were in metric, too, so I couldn’t figure out if I was going too fast or too slow unless cars were honking at me which they seemed to do quite a bit.
“Give way, damn it, give way!” I kept yelling but of course, the honking continued.
From Mitchell Freeway, I took Reid Highway until it turned into North Beach Road which took me to Waterman’s Bay, a quiet coastal town which was also the home to 43 Hope Street, the address for a house that Hook and I pre-rented for our stay in Perth. It was going to be our year-long home base while he researched, and we traveled domestically. After slowly driving by the residence several times and wondering if from the inside of the house I might look like a crazed stalker, I knew that a strange woman dumping white powder on a front lawn would not be cool. Instead, I parked two blocks over which happened to be only one street across from the mammoth Indian Ocean.
Once on foot, I immediately found an entry way with stone steps leading to a secluded rock cove near the water. I walked down until I came to the base and before my butt even hit the stone step to sit, I started to bawl like I had not done since before the move back into the Hook House. I howled from my gut not worrying if anyone could hear. The waves crashing against the rocks hid the sound but not my tears which fell for all that had transpired, for all that would never be, and for Allan still being gone.
When I was done, I looked out to the ocean and said clearly, “I’m here,” as in, I made it, for both of us.
There was nothing else left to say because I was talking to myself only. Hook was not there. He has been long gone in spirit for some time. He waited for me to move forward and he waited for me to get re-settled, but he’s had his own journey to fulfill which does not include me. And as much as I have wanted otherwise, mine moving forward will not include him.
I looked down at my hand which held the pretend makeup case full of ashes. Removing the lid, I spread my husband’s remains onto the rocks while the waves of water washed over them and I whispered this poem from our wedding:
Votary of nature even from a child,
he sought her presence in the trackless wild
To him the shell, the insect, and the flower,
were bright and cherished emblems
of her power
In her he saw a spirit all divine,
and worshipped like a pilgrim
at her shrine
When I finished I said only, “Okay.”
I sat for awhile on those steps until my eyes dried completely, and I allowed the peace that was mine for the taking to come. This time, I accepted it.
Allan and I did the best we knew how to do at the time. Whatever deficiencies I had as a wife, and they were many, I had been there when my husband needed me the most. I think again about the weeks before he died when every day was a new routine because his body was declining faster and faster. In those evenings, I’d drain his stomach of fluid then rub him down with Ben Gay to loosen up his back and buttocks. His sinewy swimmer’s body had been all muscle, perfect even at the age of 59. Afterward, I set up the oxygen tank for a short 30 minutes, not because he had difficulty breathing, but because fresh oxygen in his lungs and muscles meant a deeper, more comfortable sleep. With the tank humming, I’d begin to massage the edema out of his feet and in this way, I learned finally what it meant to really love a person. To love meant to do for them, to give to them. I learned that love was a verb and not a noun, and I felt closer to my husband than I ever had before.
When I first started massaging Hook, he liked to encourage me to think about massage therapy as an alternative career. My brother, Dave, owns a massage business in Austin, and Hook thought that after he died, I should consider working for Dave.
“You’re really good, babe,” he’d mumble with his eyes closed.
“I don’t want to massage anyone but you,” I’d say as my fingers pressed into the soles of his feet.
Even as he lie dying, the practical side of Hook couldn’t help worrying about a backup plan for my future. And as I would rub, he’d say over and over again, “I wouldn’t trade you for 10 nurses, babe.”
Once the oxygen had run its time, I’d stop rubbing his feet so I could turn off the tank, then I’d lean over to give him three quick kisses on the lips.
“You’re so handsome,” I’d say every time because to me he was. Through all the chemotherapy and the radiation and the debilitating weight loss, through all of it, Hook remained incredibly virile to me.
“I’m a scarecrow,” he said once with a slight catch in his voice. I kissed him again, looking straight into his eyes, “You’re beautiful to me.” And he knew that I meant it.
For the past two years, I thought that Allan and I had been dealt a crappy hand. He would never ask Why or say Not Fair so I said it for both of us…screamed it…cried it…bellied it until the muscles in my stomach ached. When he was still alive, Allan reminded me again and again that dying was a part of living and that his dying was just happening sooner. He had accepted the circumstances, faced them, walked into his end with grace; but not me.
A few years ago I heard P. J. O’Rourke give a lecture at a Texas Book Festival on the subject of fairness. He was reprimanding his daughter for something and she yelled out, “That’s not fair!” He used this as the crux of his talk to list all the unfairness in the world, and how each of us living in a first world country had better hope things don’t start becoming fair any time soon.
I don’t think, Not Fair, anymore because I don’t want to know what would be fair. I don’t ask Why either. That’s for another lifetime. I say now only, “Okay.”
You will always be beautiful to me: Allan William Hook, September 3rd 2013
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