Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Love, loss and learning

The world is divided into two types of people: those who think everything that happens has some sort of moral lesson to it, and those who believe that shit happens. Randomly. Deal with it.

Of course, that's bollocks; the truth lies somewhere between, and a third group of us have worked that out. Reading that first paragraph back, I fear I've been influenced by my midnight reading as I lay awake last night trying not to think about having my other breast lopped off next Monday. 'Chicken Soup for the Soul' might better have been named 'Krispy Kremes for the Simplistic'. I found it deeply disappointing. It's a book I've been meaning to read for years, ever since some well-meaning teacher got up at assembly and read us tender females an extract that resonated with my embryonic understanding of the world.

An understanding which was also terminally infected with bollocks, I might say. Happy ending or tragedy, I've discovered to my cost, are not the only choices in life, though my youthful literary choices would have me believe so. A lot of life is tedious or plain exhausting. We all end up dying in the end, even if the roller coaster ride was fun up till then. Worse, the ones we love die, and instead of having a weep and closing the book with a sort of morbid enjoyment, we're sentenced to keep on living that same story- to find a way to manage without them.

But of course, as a career educator I'm the first type of person. I'm more inclined than the next person to look for the lesson in everything that happens to me. And so I'm sitting here with my trepidation and my sadness, trying to see if I can learn anything useful from the loss of my beloved Blinky.


It was the dog barking over and over that drew my attention to him the first time. Looking out through the forest near our house, I couldn't see a single thing to be alarmed about. Then a bouquet of gum leaves dropped almost on my head, and I looked up and started yelling for the Bear.

"Come and look! There's a koala in our yard!"

Now, perhaps you might think that this is a fairly normal happening for people who live in the Australian forest. Not so. The koala population in our area has been decimated by logging, disease and various forms of human stupidity, and is in severe danger of extinction. Nobody we know can remember seeing a koala anywhere remotely near our place before- not even the local bushmen who used to live here in humpies rather than houses, cutting ti tree by hand or dropping trees for a tiny sawmill that was swallowed by the forest long ago.

It was a magic moment.

Over the next two months we watched Blinky with increasing reverence and awe, as he selected a new tree each night in a game of hide-and-seek that he was always going to win. Finding a solitary koala in the two acres of forest nearest the house was a more diverting game than Candy Crush, and I found myself spending more and more time outside, walking through the trees with my neck aching from craning upwards. He was rarely low enough for us to photograph, given that the trees around us make Cleopatra's Needle look bent and stunted.

Are you hearing me.

It made me educate myself in a way I'd never bother to do before, despite my love of nature. I found myself consulting Google again- thankfully not about breast cancer and BRCA2 and salpingo-oopherectomy and DIEP reconstruction, but about eucalypts and feed trees and scratch marks and droppings. I needed some 'cheats' to play the highly distracting find Blinky game more effectively.

I was no match for him, of course. He gave plenty of clues- fresh droppings, distinctive hand marks on the smooth-barked gums- but it was as though he'd turn up in plain sight and then magically vanish. Once he went AWOL for ten days and we thought he'd moved on, only to open our eyes one morning and be confronted by a furry ball tucked high in the flooded gum outside our bedroom window, in clear view.

Here I am. Gotcha.


And then one evening, as I walked out in the late twilight to catch a last glimpse of him, I found him sitting on the ground at the base of a grey gum. Hastily tying the dogs up, I raced back with a flashlight. Something was definitely wrong. He shouldn't be on the ground at this time of the evening.

And he most definitely shouldn't let me get close enough to brush the flies off the back of his neck. He sat awkwardly, his bright eyes regarding me with a resigned stare.

I called the koala rescue service.


24 hours later my little friend was dead, released from the misery of the final stages of the koala's form of AIDS, KoRV (koala rotavirus). He'd probably fallen from the tree out of sheer weakness, fracturing his forearm in the process.

It was, to me, completely unbelievable. For over two months I'd told myself stories about this little chap. He felt safe here. He had everything he needed. Our trees were so attractive because they were in fertile soil, thanks to our turkeys free ranging around them. In spring he'd start to call, and attract a female. Soon we'd have a whole colony of koalas outside our window.

All bollocks. My head had been firmly wedged in the sand. Wild koalas don't appear near houses unless they're desperate. All the time, he was sick and hungry; perhaps when I didn't see him, he'd not been hiding- he'd simply been too weak to climb and had lived on the ground, scrounging a few fallen leaves where he could.

He wasn't the start of something. More likely, he was the end- a sign of the dire state of our koala population, ravaged by KoRV, chlamydia and a decimated, fragmented environment.

What was there to learn that I didn't already know? The human race is selfish, greedy, deluded. There is no hope for us. We will cut down the trees and flatten hapless wildlife with speeding cars till there's no magic left.


I could, so easily, throw Blinky out with the bathwater, just like that. I could so easily discard everything good about the experience, simply because the ending was bad, sad, too hard to deal with.

I could let him confirm my worst, most depressing thoughts about humanity.

There's always a choice, my therapist used to say. And so, actively, from Blinky I learn yet again to choose differently, even though it's hard work.

I can choose to learn that life is a series of cameos, each one carrying its little basket of emotions. I can choose to hold onto the best vignettes, even when they're in the past, instead of letting them be eclipsed and made meaningless by sadness. Looking at my few photos of Blinky, remembering the joy he gave me while he was here, I can still smile as well as ache. Touching my poor doomed breast for the last time, I can still recall the fun we've had together, even as I mourn the coming loss of that particular sensation- surely? Can't I? Can I?

I can try.

I can choose to learn not to tell myself such alluring stories. I can acknowledge that when I really don't know, it's best to store up a little realism with the determination and optimism. Blinky's presence was a farewell, not a greeting. These operations may go wrong. I may get an infection, my wounds may break down, the reconstruction may fail.

Learning is always possible. Shit happens. The truth is somewhere in between.

And while I'm stuck with my story, the story where my breasts will be gone forever- and with them one dimension of my sexuality- there are other dimensions of my story coming that I can't imagine from where I am now. The more I close myself off, protect myself, allow myself to be miserable and fatalistic, the less open I am to turning new pages.

Vi's grandson- remember Vi?- Vi's grandson has helped me turn a page to get past the sadness of my Blinky story. He's turned up here on a bicycle, ridden all the way from the Central Coast, and he's started to clear our track through the forest down to the creek. Remember those huge storms while I was having chemo? The tree that nearly killed the Bear when it fell? Those storms wrought havoc down the back. We couldn't even walk down there, let alone get a vehicle in.

Losing access to most of our property has been a huge thorn in our sides. But with everything else that's been going on, dealing with the carnage down there just hasn't come to the top of the list. Now as I walk down the first part of the track again, for the first time in two years, I see that the enforced lack of human presence has been a boon for the wildlife.

And I find myself looking upwards again, craning my neck to see the distant treetops. Checking the ground. Checking the bark of the smoothest trees, looking for those tell-tale scratch marks.

It's good exercise, walking. It's something I can do almost immediately after my surgery. I was wondering how I'd cope with suddenly having to drop my exercise routine back to the bare minimum; walking down the road simply doesn't have the pull of cycling. What would happen to my motivation?

But walking down the bush track- that's different. If I stop, wait, listen, there's always magic to be found.

And listen. There are scratch marks on those trees. Fresh ones, since the last time the trees lost their bark.

They may be from a goanna, I say to myself. Google said it's hard to tell the difference sometimes.

There are droppings, too. Fresh ones.

I'm no expert, I say to myself. They may be from some other animal.

But I keep looking upwards anyway.


  1. A brilliant post, you have such an amazing way with words, I shed a tear or two!

  2. RIP Blinky. I am glad that he brought you some joy Candy. xo