A Negative Start

Emigrating is not for the faint-hearted. My eyes constantly pricked with tears as just about everything I did or saw had the capacity to invoke a treasured memory. The ache of loss starts in your soul and fills every cell of your body with a sadness so deep it is physical. I wanted to lie in the foetal position and just wait. But for what? I reminded myself that I was the person who had told everyone it was all about attitude. If I had the right attitude everything would be fine. But I didn’t know, then.

I thought the hardest thing I would have to do would be to get on the plane. But that part was easy. Getting through each day was much harder.

One morning, I was pretty much spiralling into the emotional pit when the phone rang. A lady from the church we had attended the previous Sunday asked if it would be convenient for her to pop around. I couldn’t think of an excuse to put her off, so I quickly splashed my face with cold water and painted on a smile, which actually became genuine as we chatted.

Weekends were difficult, because in our previous life, weekends were spent with the family. The first Sunday that Vaughn played golf, I lay in bed long after he had left, not wanting to face the day. When I did drag myself out of bed to the bathroom I realised it was myself I could not face. Through tears of self-pity I saw the person whose pleasures and joy in life stemmed only from the support and love of family and friends, and the luxuries I had come to take for granted. Suddenly there was no baby to cradle in my arms, no son or daughter to meet for coffee, and I had to find a source of joy within myself. I felt great envy for the women who still had those things.

I felt so desperately alone. And angry. Angry with God, angry with Vaughn, and mostly angry with myself. Why had I not managed to convey my feelings to Vaughn before allowing him to bulldoze this whole move?

I was obviously given the strength to go to church, which was difficult, and many tissues were used. Then I went to lunch with Vaughn’s mother and Cheryll. It was easier to go than to phone and explain why I didn’t feel like it. Cheryll had been through her own process of heartbreak when she emigrated from South Africa, and I knew she would do everything she could to prevent me from becoming despondent. She was a great source of comfort during my first years.

But although I felt ashamed of giving in to my low state, I knew I wasn’t clinically depressed or suffering from a shortage of serotonins. I was just sad. Really really sad.

Over the next few weeks, my strength grew and I slew a few more dragons. I forced myself out of bed and into the gym each morning, as I thought the discipline of a routine would help.

But just as I was beginning to feel pleased with myself, I discovered I would have to completely re-do my driving test, from learners, through some computer thing, to the actual driving and parking. I was ready to head straight back to the airport.

Things went from bad to worse. The multiple choice theory test was fine. But then came the computer simulation. It consisted of clicking a mouse at an appropriate moment while watching a grainy video. I failed. They allowed me to repeat the test (at an increased fee) and I failed again by an even bigger margin. The young girl from Vic Roads was sympathetic and told me I just needed a bit more practice on the road. I narrowed my eyes and gave her The Look. I had been driving for thirty-five years and never had an accident, so a bit more practice on the road was not what I needed. The test bore more resemblance to a computer game than an actual driving situation, and it loomed as an insurmountable wall blocking my progress.

However, it all became unnecessary when it was discovered I still held a British licence, which was acceptable to the Australian authorities.

I felt I had become pretty good at putting on a cheerful face although the emptiness inside me was so big I seemed to be just a hollow shell. Everybody is more comfortable with perceived contentment. People can sympathise with a broken arm or a sore throat, but nobody really enjoys hanging around with someone who is miserable. Vaughn just wanted me to get on with our new life there. It frightened me that he didn’t understand how devastated I felt. And I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t feeling that same pain. But I discovered later he did feel the pain. He hid it in order to give me strength.

Our container arrived after about eight weeks, a gigantic box of memories. This was the milestone on which I had pinned my optimism. I thought once our things were here, the house would feel more like a home. It did, but then I had to find something else to look forward to, because Christmas, highlighted in my mind’s calendar because some of the children were coming to visit, was just too far away.

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Melbourne

When I finally cleared immigration at Melbourne airport, I was so delighted to see Vaughn again, I practically threw myself at him. We took a very long detour to our house, because we kept looking at each other instead of at the road.

We first went to our new home. Vaughn was nervous because I had given him only one criterion when it came to choice: it must ‘feel right’.

We had looked at numerous houses on the internet before his departure, but when he got to Melbourne and saw the reality, he appreciated the benefits of wide-angled lens photography. So under the same conditions, I had viewed the house he’d chosen and was expecting it to be smaller than the pictures showed.

But I was slightly awed, as the house was huge. The ever-optimistic Vaughn had bought a big house in anticipation of many visitors and family immigrants following in our footsteps.

We went in through the garage where I saw a brand new Hyundai Getz in a pretty shade of lavender. Vaughn had already started his new job, so couldn’t take any leave. There was big shopping to be done. His words were ‘Here’s your car. Get yourself a map book.’

We had a new bed, borrowed bed linen, two dinner plates, two cereal bowls and two sets of cutlery from his mother. We had two coffee mugs and a bar fridge, in which Vaughn had put some milk. That was it.

After looking over our empty new house, we went to Vaughn’s parents, where his mother had cooked him an enormous T-bone steak for his last supper before handing him back to me. I think my own mother used to equate food to love. The greater her effort, the more love she was showing, and the more you ate, the better you returned her love. It was amazing that we weren’t all very fat, as Mum’s roasts were legendary.

I slept soundly in my new home, exhausted from the travel and the emotional depths and highs.

Vaughn’s twin sister Cheryll took a few days leave to help me orientate myself. I found the local shops and bought the essential map book. We then organised a washing machine, a fridge and a microwave, followed shortly after by a television. Vaughn was not able to plumb the washing machine in straight away because all his tools were in the container, which would take a further six weeks to arrive. Cheryll lent us two bar stools, and we managed quite well for a while with only these minimal possessions.

The appliance I missed most was the computer, my life-line to the rest of the world, so I was grateful to be able to seize Vaughn’s laptop each evening to email the children in South Africa. I was relieved to hear Nikki had recovered and was back at work, and everyone seemed to be getting on with their lives.

However, I discovered later, that we left an aching void they all struggled to fill. There were constant reminders that life would never be the same again. No more Saturday afternoon wine together, or Sunday barbecues. One less set of baby-sitters. No mum to run to for a hug when things weren’t going well.

And little Megan. Who knew what she was feeling? It would be hard for most ten year olds to verbalise their emotions, and I’m sure she went through the same grieving process as the adults, but without the understanding. I felt I had let her down in the worst possible way and I carry that guilt and sadness to this day.

But at that moment, for me, the adventure had started. At first it was like being on holiday, but I did feel deep stabs of envy when I saw grannies having coffees with their sons, daughters and grandchildren.

For the first week or so I focussed on finding my way around, and trying to change our house from a campsite to a home.

Driving in Melbourne was not as scary as I’d anticipated, because the speed limit was slower, which gave me chance to check the map book as I went.

But by the middle of the second week, that holiday feeling had waned and I found it increasingly difficult to hang on to a cheerful face.

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Going

Back in Johannesburg everything started to speed up Vaughn’s spreadsheet of things to be done was getting shorter. I tried bargaining with God. I promised all sorts of good behaviour and charitable works, if only He would send some miracle to keep us in South Africa with our family.

The predetermined date approached, and still no insurmountable obstacles blocked The Plan. In fact, everything dovetailed into place so smoothly, it would have been perverse not to see those things as signs. Vaughn was offered the first job he applied for. Our house sold the first day it went on to the market, for more than we had budgeted.  And still I clung to the dream that we wouldn’t really go.

The week of Vaughn’s departure arrived. The arrangement was that he would go three months ahead of me in order to sort out his job and accommodation. I would stay in Johannesburg and finalise the packing, the cancellations and the money.

Everything started to take on an awful air of reality as I watched Vaughn saying goodbye to all the family. I felt his daughters’ pain as they hugged their father for the last time until heaven knew when. I felt his sorrow as he hugged our grandchildren, knowing Matthew and Caitlin would not remember him when they next met up.

I left him at the airport, in the drop-off zone. I didn’t even go in with him. We’d had too many family goodbyes to face another one. That hollow feeling as you sit at a grubby airport table forcing down an overpriced lukewarm coffee and struggle to find something cheery to say.

So different from the excitement you feel when you come to pick someone up, especially family you haven’t seen for a while. I always get to the airport far too soon, just in case the plane is early, which it never is. Sometimes we’ll have a drink to pass the time, but I usually drink mine too quickly, and then need to go to the bathroom but am too scared to go in case we miss them coming through. Which is silly, because our relatives always seem to be the last people through customs, and by the time they do emerge my eyes are red. I’ve shed many tears at the sight of everyone else’s emotional home-comings or granny-visits.

So Vaughn dragged his many suitcases into the airport terminal, and I drove home, thinking about anything but the situation I was in. The house still looked normal, as completion on the sale was six weeks away.

I thought I should probably start cleaning out the cupboards, and doing the second round of treasures to be thrown out. But first I went to the computer to play a quick game of Scrabble, my habitual form of procrastination. I hadn’t cooked, so I decided to have a slab of chocolate and a bottle of wine…

The rest of the time, I cooked healthy meals, but no matter how good the food was, there was something missing. Having never had to eat alone, I missed the social aspect of the meal. Even after the biggest meal, I kept wandering in and out of the kitchen all evening, looking for something, but never finding anything that satisfied.

I finished the second round of sorting, crying over old birthday cards that had to go out, but I couldn’t part with the children’s first pictures and schoolbooks. They went in round three. By that time I had grown a steel armour. I was still in denial and had switched off all emotions except the pleasure of spending time with the children and grandchildren.

Abi and Irwin had their second child, a beautiful boy, and I felt sad that Vaughn wasn’t around to welcome little Luke into the world. Not that deep sorrow that I would expect to feel. In fact, when I thought about it, I really felt angry with Vaughn. He could have been here. It was his choice.

I packed my suitcases with everything I would need for the next two months, and moved in with Abi and Irwin. The packers arrived at our house and worked through it all with great efficiency. Abi and I watched, she with more heartache than I.

Everything was packed, even things I had said must remain. Abi left her shoes by the front door, and they were packed. Naturally we weren’t about to let the baby out of our sight.

Eventually everything Vaughn and I owned was cardboard-bound and standing in the driveway. I didn’t think the packers could possibly get it all into the twenty foot container, but somehow they did. When they finished, there wasn’t even room to squeeze in a matchbox.

I felt nothing. It was just stuff. I could live without it all. Let it go to Australia. Abi saw it for the reality it was, but kept her tears bottled up inside herself.

I said good-bye to the house. It was just a shell. Part of the past. Must look forward.

But actually I lived entirely in the present for the next few weeks, in a state of anachronic myopia, unable to focus on the past or the future. I had a lovely time with my children and grandchildren, making the most of every second, and completely ignoring the fact that I would soon be on my way. It was a special time of closeness, during which I insulated myself by blocking out thoughts of the pain to come.

The children felt it though, and Nikki developed terrible headaches and had to be hospitalised two days before I left.  No diagnosis was found, and I felt responsible. I thought it was the sign I had been looking for, that I shouldn’t leave. But somehow, I seemed to be on automatic pilot, heading for Australia. I managed to say good-bye to her, in her hospital bed. We both cried, but she was strong, so I was strong, and my body kept going on its way to the airport, but my heart stayed behind.

Many tears were shed the afternoon I left, but by the time I reached the airport I was back in my layer of insulation, focussing on the matter of getting through passport control and on to the right plane, almost as if it were happening to someone else. But as the plane took off and I watched the African land disappear behind clouds, sadness engulfed me and I cried until I finally fell exhausted into a restless   and uncomfortable sleep.

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Whales and Sharks

Although in my mind I kept on believing we would actually be staying in South Africa, I was keen to jump on to Vaughn’s bandwagon and take advantage of some of the wonderful activities and sights the country had to offer. Every year we made an annual pilgrimage to De Kelders to watch the magnificent Southern Right whales. Our last year in South Africa was no exception. We sat on the rocks staring at the sea until our eyes ached. White horses on the periphery of our vision teased us as we waited. And always they came, the mothers and babies, sometimes so close in to shore we could have waded in and touched them. Sometimes out in deeper water, breaching and playing and performing just for our own private show.

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Another activity offered off the Cape coast was a cage dive with great white sharks. We decided that although it was expensive, we would do it. It may be our last chance (although I knew it wouldn’t because we wouldn’t actually be going to Australia).

Our booking included a breakfast of boiled eggs, the wisdom of which I did ponder. But duly fed, we climbed on board the rather smelly boat. We all geared up in the obligatory yellow oilskins as the weather forecast was stormy. I felt pretty strong as we bounced out through the harbour. Once on the open sea, the waves became choppier and I had to take deep breaths and concentrate on the receding coastline. People were in and out of the cupboard that housed the pump toilet and that reminded me that I’d had two cups of coffee with my egg, so I decided to brave the plumbing. What a disaster! The person who had used the toilet before me had vomited leaving the smell lingering for all to enjoy. As I tried to stand up to get the oilskins off, the boat lurched as a wave threw us into the air and dropped us.

I bounced off the narrow walls of the closet and somehow managed to hover over the bowl, but the smell of vomit was making me gag and I would have turned around to part with my egg if there had been space. I pumped, sluiced and staggered back out to the deck and the fresh air.   Several people were already leaning over the side while those with strong stomachs made comments about it not being necessary to ‘chum’ for the sharks.

All of a sudden one young lad vomited across the deck, narrowly missing me. That finished me! I grabbed the rail and retched. As I leaned over the side of the boat I felt my tongue swelling and the acid rising. I thought I would feel better after I’d been sick, but I actually felt worse. Each time I tried to stand up, I had to grab the rail and vomit again. In the end I lay there with my head over the side, wanting to die. A great white shark swam beside the boat and I was tempted to roll off and let him eat me.

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I looked up to see if anyone was going into the cage, but the skipper said it was too rough. So we waited and ‘chummed’, and that fishy smell seemed to go straight from my nose into my stomach. Strangely, I was still keen to get into the cage. Every so often I raised my miserable head to see if there was any action, but the sharks had been and gone. Nobody dived with them that day, to my bitter disappointment.

It took me two days before the feeling of nausea really wore off.

Australia Getting closer

While we carried on with our lives, the wheels of the immigration process were quietly turning. When the day of our medicals arrived, I told the doctor I hoped he would find something wrong with me. He thought that was tremendously funny, but I wasn’t joking. I didn’t mean anything like lung cancer that would carry me off in the immediate future, but something like a small TIA that I hadn’t even noticed, but would have been sufficient to get the rejection stamp.

The day the letter of acceptance arrived, Vaughn was ecstatic. I felt as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus. We had a year to get out to Australia to validate the residency visa, and thereafter five years to come and go before finally settling.

So to sweeten the Australian pill and get the relevant stamp on our passports, Vaughn suggested we fly first to the UK to visit my father, then on to Australia via New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fiji, and New Zealand. This was going to be our ‘Trip of a Lifetime’, a round the world holiday. I still didn’t believe we would be going to live in Australia, so went off on holiday with a semi festive attitude.

My father’s house seemed sad and empty without my mother there, but it was good spending time with Dad. We took a trip to Exmoor, a place I remembered with great fondness from my childhood.

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We walked across Tarr steps  –  Dad must have been about eighty-six at the time, but he was game for anything. Halfway across he lost his balance, and although we managed to save him from falling, his walking stick fell into the water and was soon racing through the rapids. Luckily he had a spare one at home.

England draws me back again and again as if I were physically attached by a long piece of elastic, but I knew it would be a long time before I was able to return, so I drunk in all the greenness, the history, the lifestyle and every precious moment spent with family members.

The rest of our world trip was a wonderful experience but totally exhausting. Too much in too short a time.

When we arrived in Melbourne we spent most of the holiday looking at houses, always a pleasant activity in any country.

Somehow, by the time we got back, what had started off as a ‘maybe’, had subtly turned into a ‘definite’. There was never any more discussion about ‘if’. It was always ‘when’. I looked in the sky for a sign telling me it was okay to go. When the first agent absconded with our money, I was certain that was a sign, and we wouldn’t be going. When three new grandchildren were born, I felt as if this whole Australia thing was just a bit of an adventure, but we’d actually be staying in South Africa. When I was offered a really good promotion at work, it was another addition to my growing list of Reasons to Stay.

A New Experience

In addition to a holiday in Thailand, we were also fortunate enough to be part of a sales incentive trip to the Commores. Once there, I put my name down for the resort course in scuba diving, and found I was the only one. So I had personal lessons with a twenty one year old tanned male with sun-bleached hair, which was all rather lovely.

The theory was easy because Vaughn had talked me through most of it beforehand. However, when I got the gear on and had my first pool session, I thought I wouldn’t be able to do this. It felt so claustrophobic, I started to breathe too quickly and was gripped with irrational panic.

I surfaced, took the regulator out of my mouth, looked at the sky and took a deep breath. Then I put the regulator back in my mouth and gently sank below the water, focusing on slow rhythmic breathing. It worked. I was doing it. I swam along the bottom of the pool and started to enjoy the sound of my breath.

We were ready for my first dive. The reef was fairly close and the sea was calm. There were no unexpected strong currents and visibility was good. No reason to be anxious, but of course I was. As soon as I was in the water I felt that panic rising again. My instructor must have sensed it, because he signalled to me to level off, breathe in, breathe out. In… out…OK. I gave him the thumbs up, and we were diving.

Under the sea there was silence at first. All I could hear was the slow heavy hissing of my breath, sounding like the troubled gasps of a dying man.

We dived deeper where the coral came to life. It crackled as it expanded and contracted. Green and yellow parrot fish scratched at the coral with their beaky mouths, causing a crunchy sound.

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We saw a red and white striped devil firefish, with strange feather-like dorsal fins and white-tipped wings. We swam through shoals of wrasse and butterfly fish, their iridescence enticing us to play with them. A shy moray poked his head out from under a rock and opened his mouth in a sly smile.

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It seemed no time at all before my instructor signalled that it was time to make our slow ascent. I had been down for almost an hour and had been so captivated by the sights that I hadn’t had to think about my breathing at all.

 

 

Tough Decisions

During the peak of the ‘blended family’ difficulties, we had planned a holiday to Australia to visit Vaughn’s parents. I was very reluctant to go, as arrangements at home changed by the day, but Vaughn was determined, so with some trepidation, off we set.

I awoke my first morning in Melbourne to hear the strangest noise. I thought it was birds, but they sounded almost like toys whose batteries were running low. It was the magpies. I felt very far from home.

We had a tour along the beautiful Great Ocean Road, with Vaughn and his father discussing the economy and South African politics, giving me a gut fear where their conversations were leading.  It came as really no surprise when Vaughn asked me if I thought I could live in Australia.

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My daughter, Abigail and her husband, Irwin had just bought a piece of land in New Zealand, and I was told there were cheap flights from Melbourne to New Zealand all the time. I was promised I could indulge my passion for cetaceans and watch whales at Warnambool and would not need to work unless I wanted to. They assured me there would be no immigration problems if any of our children wanted to come out, as we would be able to sponsor them.

So I said yes, I thought I could probably live there.

The following day we were whizzed off to an immigration agent, who took our money and our details. I felt a terrible panic, as it was all happening too quickly. Vaughn reassured me that we were not making any commitment at this stage. It was important to apply before he turned forty-five. If we were accepted, we could make the decision then.

We met several people who had been declined residency, so I contented myself with the thought that we probably wouldn’t be accepted. In fact I prayed that we wouldn’t. Even though our personal life in Johannesburg was highly stressful, it was familiar and infinitely preferable to moving to a far continent.

The South African life-style was rapidly changing. After the optimism and excitement of Nelson Mandela’s release and presidency, the gap between the rich and the poor seemed to widen. Except that it was now cross-cultural. At every set of traffic lights one would see black and white people begging, often with children beside them. I bought a bag of apples each day to give out, but they were often rejected.

Small businesses were closing down because they couldn’t comply with the employment equity laws. Young white people were unable to find jobs because of affirmative action. Top grade white students were denied tertiary education because the universities had filled their ‘white’ quotas, but were accepting students of colour with far lower qualifications.

We had been burgled several times, although our alarm was linked to an armed response company. Security was big business. Every window was barred. Our property was surrounded by eight foot fencing with electric wiring. We installed movement-sensor lights. The doors between the living area and the bedrooms were locked behind us every night. It became a way of life.

I was car-jacked one morning while visiting clients. My window was smashed at a red traffic light and a gun was thrust into my face. Without thinking, I put my foot hard on the accelerator and shot forward. Fortunately nothing was coming the other way, and I escaped with only a fright and a broken window.

The topic of conversation at every social function was always crime. Some people had been devastated, and Vaughn felt it was only a matter of time before our turn came. We were playing Russian roulette.

But in spite of all this, it was my comfort zone. I couldn’t consider leaving and going to a safer place without my children. How could I be safe if they were not? They all told us we should go before we got too old, and they would follow as soon as they were ready, but to be so far away from them all when it was my decision, seemed unthinkable. Children grow up and leave their parents, but parents do not leave their children.