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Authors: Doris Brett

Eating the Underworld

BOOK: Eating the Underworld
2.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

About the book

When Doris Brett was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, she began writing a private journal - a traveller's diary through a life-threatening illness. The journal, how ever, rapidly grew into something much more than that. Cancer became the catalyst for an inner journey - a journey through self.

Evocatively told via three voices - the diarist, the poet, and the voice of fairytale and myth -
Eating the Underworld
explores the intricate dynamics of fam ily, truth and memory.

Poignant and compelling,
Eating The Underworld
is a sharply observed, often unexpectedly funny book about change, transformation and the constant renewal of self throughout our lives.

‘As with any descent into a feared and terrifying country - whether it is the country of illness or the country of a grieving heart - we have entered the underworld. And we have eaten of its fruit … the knowledge of ourselves, the knowledge of others. We cannot remain unchanged.'


Italian poet, said, ‘We do not remember days, we remember moments.' In creating the story of our days, some of us will remember different moments from the same events and others will remember the same moments differently.

To decide to tell one's story publicly is a difficult decision. To decide to tell a story that involves others is even more difficult. Despite the fact that my sister and later my father have put themselves into the public arena with regard to family matters, I have felt intense discomfort in writing about my family. I am still wrestling with the ethical issues of telling stories about families. I can't come up with easy answers. The best that I can do is to recognise the complexity of the ways in which people remember and interpret their lives and know that I can speak only for my memories and understandings, and that others will have different ones.

There are three voices—each of different tempo and texture—weaving together in this narrative. There is the voice of the diarist, the voice of the poet and the voice of fairytale and myth. In my imagination, I am sitting with them at one of those old-fashioned dressing tables, backed by a hinged, three-sided mirror;
the kind I was fascinated by as a child. You can look at yourself full on, turn sideways and be startled by a profile you never get to see. If you lean more deeply into the mirror, you can see that even more foreign-familiar territory—the back of your head. You can gaze, you can glance, skip backwards and forwards, return to what catches your eye and watch it widen as the mirrors shift at your command. And always, the unspoken amazement—is that me? Is that really me?—as you see for the first time the multitude of disparate, odd-seeming selves that go to make up the one whole you.


, 1994, and I am rolling over in bed—an automatic motion that suddenly stops mid-roll as I realise something feels odd. The feeling is centred around my abdomen; it is as if a part of me is moving in a different trajectory, with a different momentum, to the rest of my body. This is the strangest sensation.

Automatically I hold my arms to my belly as I complete the roll, keeping whatever it is swaddled, secure and in line once again, with the rest of me. I lie awake for a little, wondering what it is. I have put on weight recently, a weight-gain that seems focused around my waistline. Could it be the extra fat that is making itself felt, swaying and moving like a package on a donkey's back? It doesn't make great sense, but it's the only thing I can think of.

My imagination doesn't extend any further into my body. My body's interior is hidden country. Occasionally it makes itself felt by pains—indigestion or cramps—but those pains come from vague amorphous places: down here, over there, rather than distinct, internal entities. If I say I have a stomach-ache, it's only because I've learned to identify those pains and that
area with where my stomach is. I can't draw an outline of my stomach. If I direct my attention internally, I can't sense the placement or circumference of my liver, my gallbladder or any of the other inhabitants of that mysterious space. It is territory as invisible to me as the furthest stars.

A few weeks ago, I tried on bathers and was dismayed to find that I looked five months pregnant. Lamenting the disappearance of my normally visible waistline, I pep-talked myself all the way out of the department store. ‘It's middle age, you're forty-four. This must be what happens—middle-aged spread. Embrace it. Be graceful.' I spend the next few weeks trying to diet it off.

Diet doesn't work on this waistline. I haven't reached embrace and graceful yet, but I give up on the idea of trying to diet it away. I go the route of the elastic waist and loose, flowing garments. I'm aware too that I feel bloated most of the time. Every now and then, I also notice the slightest touch of urinary incontinence. I have just finished running a support group for women with urinary incontinence. I have never before had even the smallest sign of incontinence. I feel somewhat disturbed. Have I caught it from the group? Empathy is one thing, but this is ridiculous.

But above all of these signs and changes, I feel tired. I feel tired, exhausted, fatigued, spent, wiped out and all of the other associated words the thesaurus can dig up. Being a psychologist, I put it down to stress.

A month earlier, I had decided to join a gym. I have fantasies of amazing boosts of energy; of transform
ation into a Nike nymph; of golden, glowing health. They don't eventuate. My tiredness and symptoms continue. So it's stress, I continue to say to myself of all the slight and even embarrassing symptoms that have been on my heels for the last few months. Wind and excess burping are some of the least attractive. What wimpy, inconsequential reasons to go to a doctor. I hesitate for weeks, not helped by the fact that my long-time GP retired a couple of years ago and I've not bothered to find a new one. I read up on irritable bowel syndrome. Maybe that's what I have. Finally, feeling like a hypochondriac blowing up the smallest symptom, I ring and make an appointment to see a new GP.

A couple of days before the appointment, I lose my appetite. After two days of eating very little, I am again lying in bed at night. Without food, my abdomen has not blown up to its recent tight hardness. Instead, it is soft and pliable and, I discover, contains a large, solid mass, easily felt, in the lower right-hand quarter. It is resting there, part of the landscape, almost nonchalantly, as if it has always been there. A muscle, I think at first, puzzled by this new topography. I show it to Martin, my husband.

‘It's a muscle,' he says.

‘I'm not sure,' I say. ‘Do muscles feel like that?'

I don't think they do, but I can't imagine what else it can be. I'm vaguely concerned—enough to be glad that I have a doctor's appointment coming up, but not enough to worry about it.

When I see my new GP and she asks why I have
come, I say with a deprecating shrug and a slight sense of embarrassment, ‘wind'. It hasn't occurred to me that the mass I felt two nights ago is a slightly more important reason for coming than wind. In my mind, I am still thinking of it as muscle.

My GP, of course, spots it as soon as she begins her examination. She thinks it's a very large fibroid and will require surgery. This startles me out of my ‘muscle' complacency, but not with any great sense of urgency or concern. Fibroids are common after all. Surgery certainly wasn't penned in on my engagement calendar, but this is straightforward, non-life-threatening stuff we're talking about here. Nothing to panic about.

I wander off to digest this new information, make appointments for the blood tests and ultrasounds needed, and gripe about the inconvenience of having to ring and reschedule all my patients.

Life starts to get a little surreal at this point. I am in my car setting off for my blood test. Just a few metres away from home, a light on the dashboard begins flashing an urgent red. I have no idea what this signal means. I have no idea what most of my car's signals mean. With fantasies of radiators blowing up, I head home to catch my husband who has majored in cars as a foreign language and can converse fluently with even the most complex engine.

‘It's a signal telling you that the back, left brake light isn't working,' he says. ‘The globe inside it has shattered.'

‘How?' I say. ‘I didn't touch it or back into anything.'

He shrugs his shoulders. ‘Here, I'll drive you to the blood test.'

We get into his car. He turns on the engine and within seconds, to our amazement, the same red light starts flashing on his dashboard. ‘Danger! Danger!', it seems to say, like the robot in
Lost in Space
which was forever warning Will Robinson, but in vain.

Martin gets out of the car to investigate. He has a strange look on his face when he returns. ‘It's the same thing that happened with your car,' he says. ‘The same brake light. Its bulb has burst.'

The blood test proceeds uneventfully except for the discovery that for my next stop, the ultrasound, I am supposed to have filled myself up with water. No-one has mentioned this to me, so I spend my waiting time drinking interminable glasses of water. I remember reading somewhere about a man who committed suicide by drinking glass after glass of water until he drowned. It strikes me that someone with that amount of determination and will power should have risen to the heights.

Back home after the blood test, I get into my car to drive to the ultrasound. The dashboard blinks determinedly at me. Even though I know it is only a broken brake globe, I feel uneasy. The flashing red light is so insistent. As if it is trying to say something.

The ultrasound offices are within the same complex as the hospice where my mother spent the last three days of her life. It is a large anonymous-looking brick
building, caught between a busy main street and a side street called Saturn. It is the first time I have been here since her death, eight years ago. A shiver of recollection runs through me as I walk in, and I slow down, surrounded by memories of my mother.

I keep wanting to say that my mother was like those characters in fairytales—as good as she was beautiful. And she was. She doted on my sister Lily and me, was rock-solid and resourceful in any crisis and would do anything for us happily, from the slightest wish to the most taxing demand. She was patient through teenage tempers and sulks, and on occasions when I was at my most vile, could deflect my glowering declamations by making me laugh. She gave everything and asked too little.

It is only as an adult that I am learning that fairytales are complex and many-layered; that magical gifts, even those of love, can backfire and that the top layer of the story is only the beginning.

My mother had been through unimaginable trauma in her life, but it was not something that was focused on at home. Both she and my father wanted to put it behind them, wanted their children to grow up free of such horrors. I grew up without grandparents or extended family, but it was something I took for granted. Most of my friends, also the children of Holocaust survivors, were in a similar situation; not having grandparents seemed normal. My parents had a group of close friends whom I referred to as Aunty and Uncle. There was also my father's brother, Edek, and some distant cousins. I didn't question the absence of
more blood relatives. Within the cultural enclave created by post-war European Jews in Carlton and later Elwood, it was what I saw everywhere.

The only aspect of my mother's past that she talked about freely, perhaps the only one able to slip past the pain of memory, was her schooling. She was proud of her scholastic ability, telling me how she had won scholarships and tutored younger children to earn money when she was a student. She was an exceptionally beautiful woman and had been as a girl, but she never mentioned this when she talked of herself as a teenager. What she was proud of was her brain.

My mother's beauty was not something I fully appreciated until I was an adult. I knew she was beautiful but it was not the teenage, trendy beauty I aspired to. She was my mother. She was
! My friends and I used to be highly amused in fact, as we watched the reactions of our male teachers to my mother on parent–teacher nights.

Every Saturday night my parents' group of friends went out together. Every summer, they holidayed together. Friendships were intense, volatile, voluble. Within the group, my mother could be as intense and opinionated as any of them. But with us, her daughters, she was different—deferential, almost reverent; our whims becoming her command.

I am aghast when I look back at the way I simply assumed her life was lived to meet my own and my sister's needs. But this was also her assumption. It was not a martyred sense, carried out with feelings of resentment and debts accrued, but rather a truly joyful
belief that my sister and I were what life was about.

Being a mother was a dream, a privilege that she had thought she might never attain. Before the war broke out, she had been set to leave Poland to study medicine in Belgium. She loved children and wanted to be a paediatrician. After her marriage to my father at the beginning of the war, she gave birth to her first child, a stillborn baby boy. My mother, who wanted to be a children's doctor, had to be the helpless witness of her own child's death.

A few years later when she was in the concentration camps, she saw a woman, face in shadow, lying motionless on the floor with her daughter. As an adult, I heard my mother describe this experience, her face lit, as if she were witnessing a miracle.

‘She had a daughter,' my mother said. ‘A woman with a daughter!'

My mother was starving, but each time she passed the faceless woman, my mother paused to give her some of her own food.

Years later, after the war, the woman recognised my mother. ‘This is the girl who saved my life!' she announced to the group she was with. ‘In the camps. I would have died without her food. She saved my life.' My mother did not recognise the woman; she had never seen her face. All she had known was that she had a daughter.

And now at last, my mother had her own yearned-for daughter. And then another. Here in this new land, new life, she was determined to give us everything. How could she deny anything to these treasured
beings? I did not feel singled out in this. It was also how I saw my sister being brought up. Perhaps if it had been just one of us, it would have raised questions in my mind. As it was, I simply took it for granted that we were ‘the children' and that the children were everything.

My mother was always on the move in the house—cooking, cleaning, sewing, fixing. In the kitchen, she was like a great, golden humming-bird. Serving this, clearing up that. When she sat, it was on the edge of her chair, instantly ready to fetch, to carry, to attend to whatever needed attending.

And yet despite this sense of coiled energy, she was somehow able to create an atmosphere of peace and calm around her. It was one of her paradoxical abilities; that despite her own anxieties or tensions, she was always able to reach out and nourish those around her. In this, she was totally dependable—always there to fix problems, give comfort, practical help or whatever was needed.

My friends loved coming to my place. It felt like a sanctuary to them. When one of my sister's friends was in difficulties, terrified and unable to tell her parents, it was my mother she turned to and my mother who pulled off the impossible to help her. Another friend of my sister's, in a chance meeting many years later, tells me that as a teenager, she was convinced she was ugly. No-one in her family recognised what she was feeling. It was my mother who gently led her to the mirror one day, sat her down and said, ‘Look at yourself. You are a very beautiful girl.' No-one had
ever said that to her before. The woman tells me that it is a moment she has remembered all of her life.

BOOK: Eating the Underworld
2.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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