by Nicole Skeltys
Graeme and Eugenie: the ties that bind
Last night I Skyped Canberra to try and speak to Eugenie, my adopted Mum. I have been more than usually anxious about Graeme, my adopted Dad, for over a week now. When I was in Philadelphia I received an email from Eugenie about Graeme with news I never wanted to get. Graeme was in hospital, he had had a massive stroke which left him paralysed down the left side of his body. In shock, I read the email twice, once out loud to Tanya who gasped.
My heart wrenched. I felt a deep tangle of emotions which even now, I struggle to describe.
Graeme had been there for me through all my major life transitions and struggles over the last 10 years.
In 1997, I finally made a break out of the sterile, small town/ government-town atmosphere of Canberra, where I had been working in the public service since graduation, trying to save some money. I fled to the music haven of Melbourne, where I was initially giddy with the stimulation of being in a real town with real stuff happening all the time. Here were lots of great venues, cool bars, restaurants, large herds of people from other cultures and sub-cultures, people who knew how to dress snappy. I was at the time in a long-term relationship with Peter, who I had met at University, and he and I moved into an old warehouse on top of a shop in Smith St, in the hip inner city suburb of Fitzroy. Each morning I would walk down the crowded street like I was stoned, listening joyfully to all the different languages being spoken, smiling at all the junkies and freaks, delightedly sucking in the dank pot-pourri of Vietnamese cooking, musty second hand clothes shops, and pollution. Trams crashed past my windows late into the night, as soothing as the throb of the ocean. When I met new people, I would joke that I had just spent the last 7 years “in a sensory deprivation tank”, which I still think is a pretty accurate description of Australia’s capital city even today. Melbourne, in contrast, was an acid trip.
Graeme had been my last boss at the Department of Finance; but once our formal relationship ended, a richer connection developed. We stayed in email contact. Gradually we realised we were starting to rely upon each other to talk about our minor worries and celebrate our little life victories. We emailed each other regularly, not every day, but frequently enough to make it feel like our lives were becoming more and more connected. Over the years, Graeme would come down to visit, often as part of a work trip, or sometimes just to visit his ex-wife’s sister, and to see me. When my relationship with Peter ended, and I found I could no longer afford to live in increasingly yuppie-crammed Fitzroy, I moved further out to a share house in Brunswick, a sprawling working class suburb full of Italians, Greek, Turks, Arabs and eco-activists. The house was ’70s ‘wog kitsch’, and featured a little concrete porch facing the plane-tree lined street. Graeme and I would spend many hours on the porch, watching the Greek mommas vigorously sweep much hated leaves from their gardens out onto the street. We’d drink wine and discuss relationships, his kids’ ups and downs, people we knew, spirituality, politics, all the while giggling a great deal as we shared the same irreverent sense of humor.
Graeme became more and more important to me as a shoulder I could lean on, an older, wiser man I could rely upon to give me unconditional love and inflinchingly honest advice. My relationship with my own father had been distant. As a child I knew he loved me very much as he was always giving me presents and was proud of both myself and my brother’s academic achievements. But he was a reserved man, and hid much emotional turmoil behind his proud Lithuanian masculinity. He was a taxi driver and a workaholic, driving late into the night, 6-7 days a week. When he got home in the early hours of the morning, he would go down to the rumpus room which he had helped build, put on his headphones and play the Lowrey organ for hours – although he was a war refugee from a poor farming background, he had taught himself (amongst many other skills) to read and play music. Late one night, he did not come home. There was a knock on the door, and I got out of bed to answer it. There was a young policeman standing there who held his cap in his hand and looked down awkwardly as he told me my father had committed suicide by hanging. I was only 14, which meant that I then went through the formative years or adolescence and teenage-hood not knowing what it would be like to have fatherly support around.
Later in my life, Graeme filled that gap. His naturally warm and generous heart simply expanded to include myself. Three years ago, as I went through the durm und strang of yet another relationship breakdown, Graeme was there, patiently wading through my angst ridden emails, striking just the right balance between genuine concern for my broken heart and fatherly annoyance that I should be so bonkers over someone who Graeme regarded as “a twit”. Graeme would often refer with pride to the success of his own relationship with Eugenie, his second wife. While they argued about many topics, he regarded this as a sign of relationship health, that the friction (within bounds) kept the spark alive and indicated genuine engagement. He adored Eugenie, who was temperamentally quite opposite to him in many ways – she was a highly gifted landscape painter, who could let fly with strong emotions at dinner parties, particularly when she felt in the presence of fools, a situation which, in Canberra, happens particularly often. Graeme told me over and over again he and E accepted and valued each other’s differences, and that was a key to their relationship longevity.
In mid-August 2006, Graeme ‘just happened’ to be down for a visit when the Queensland police rang to tell me they had found my mother, she had died suddenly in her Brisbane flat. I could not have got through that night or the following few weeks without Graeme and Eugenie’s tireless emotional and practical support. And when 6 months later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, Graeme flew down and stayed, sharing the journey with me, making sure I got through the surgery and the subsequent diagnosis ok. Before I left for my epic supertramp through the US, Graeme and Eugenie let me know that I always have a home with them if I need it, they are my family and will always be there for me.
The night I got the news about Graeme’s stroke, I called Eugenie who turned out to be at the hospital in the stroke ward with Graeme. When she passed me onto Graeme, he could hardly speak, and his voice was almost unrecognisable, like that of a frightened child. When I finally put down the phone, after a long silence, I recognised a familiar emotion – grief. Grief that this formerly cheerful, energetic, charismatic man was lying scarcely able to move in a hospital bed, facing awful uncertainties about his future. I could feel his own grief, frustration and terror about the loss of bodily power. But I also grieved for myself, that my rock had crumbled, that the person who I loved and could rely upon in my hour of need now was in direst need himself. And here I was thousands of miles away, helpless.
For two nights I hardly slept, considering seriously whether or not to fly home immediately and join Eugenie. Tanya was disturbed too, as she and Graeme had hit if off when they met briefly before we left for America. Graeme had come down to Melbourne to visit before I left, as he knew he may not see me for a long time. After our first group lunch at Bimbo’s pizzeria on Brunswick St, Graeme had pulled me aside at the bar while T had gone to the toilet (thats a ‘restroom’ in American), and said “Shes great, you’ll make a great team”. Although he could now scarcely form sentences, he had asked after Tanya when I called him.
But then I considered the situation more objectively, and realised that Graeme would be facing a long recovery and rehabilitation process, after the initial crisis rally-around, many friends and family would probably taper off, I could be of most help in a few months time when I had originally planned to use my return flight to Australia.
Last night I found myself talking to a woman with a rich Scottish accent, Graeme’s niece who was staying with Eugenie and helping her out. She told me progress was slow but steady. Some mobility and balance was being gained. Graeme was finding it easier, although still tiring, to talk. I asked after his spirits. “He keeps saying how much he is determined to ride his motor bike again” she said, adding sadly “But the doctors say that won’t be possible.” I thought about my own journey through cancer, and the number of stories I read about sick and gravely injured people beating the statistics, people written off by the medical profession who pulled through, some testaments to the individual’s sheer pig-dog determination to survive, others bordering on evidence of divine intervention, miracles. I said “The biggest healing power of all is hope. Graeme needs hope more than anything else. I’m glad he is thinking about his beloved bike. Its a symbol of hope.”
Three weeks ago today I clicked on “post” for my first blog about Pittsburgh. I was in the bleakest of moods because of the dramatic loss of my brand new mattress. It had blown off the back of Scotty’s Chevvy pick-up on the way back from the shop, and instead of providing me with badly needed nights of soft passage into the land of nod, it had turned into a terrifying zeppelin with a short lived flight down the highway, crashing to its premature smouldering end under the wheels of an SUV. More than that, both my money and my visa situation were looking hopeless. I loved PIttsburgh and I loved the people I had met here, but I couldn’t see how I could keep the dream going much longer.
Things were continuing to look up for Tanya, as (thanks to Charlie yet again) she was offered the job of filming five promotional reels for Mount Washington’s Grandview Scenic Byway Park, the newcomer in Pittsburgh’s impressive cornucopia of parks. The park’s authority wanted a series short promotional films shot over all 4 seasons. I could do sound design, music and narration…provided, of course, I could somehow stay in Pittsburgh.
The day after the blog post, Charlie emailed. He asked if T and I wanted to go for a ride to a local music shop. I agreed for the sake of an outing from our freezing flat, although musical ambitions were far from my mind. As we cruised down more leafy autumnal Pittsburgh streets, I was preoccupied with the problem of how we could get hold of another mattress for free. The concept “free mattress” was blooming and repeating in my mind like a Hindu chant. At the shop, I wandered around in a distracted sleep deprived haze, twiddling with a few synths. When Charlie asked which one would be best for The Jilted Brides, I pointed at the Korg X50 and said it was very good value and would do the trick, I would buy something like that one day. Suddenly, Charlie was at the counter clutching the Korg, handing over cash. When I realized what was happening, I tried to protest, but to no avail. Is there a word for “feeling shocked, humbled and made speechlessly happy with gratitude?”. Well there should be, lets say its “shumbled”. I was shumbled. I remained quiet in the back of the BMW, occasionally stroking my brand new Korg, all the way back to our Lawrenceville flat.
The day after that, I received an email from Tom Gates, a man I had met once in New York. Tom was a partner in an ultra-cool music management/publishing company called Nettwerk. He liked our music and was supportive of our crazy journey, which made us feel good as this guy had discovered then managed Cold Play and was as warm as he was smart. Tom wanted to know how much money I needed to keep going, ‘just tell me straight how much you need’, he’d help me out. When I got the email, I was shumbled all over again – someone I hardly knew was offering me hard cash to keep going.
And this was quickly followed by more offers of help: Nick Meyers, an old friend and ex-lover from Sydney, offered to cover the cost of the AWOL mattress: when we next looked at the bank balance, there was an extra $2000 sitting there, enough for 4 mattresses!! Gabrielle Dalton, an Australian film producer who is a friend of Tanyas but who I have only met once, also put money into both our accounts, to help us improve on our scanty can-o-beans biased grocery list and “buy yourselves some good food!”. And my dearest oldest friend in Melbourne, Kazza, offered to go through all the expense and paperwork of organising to sell my little Hyundai for me, so i could get more cash that way too.
As a result of this extraordinary outpouring of generosity by strangers and friends, I felt my spirits start to climb again. It started to become clear to me that neither I nor T were entirely on our own. We wouldn’t fail to start a new, more hopeful life, we wouldn’t sink into penury and oblivion, because there was a safety net. A safety net made of the kindness, altruism and passionate imaginations of people we had had the great good fortune to become friends with over our lives. People who would help us out because they believed in us, they believed in ideals of freedom, kookiness and romance, and they believed in ‘spreading the love’.
And I felt that what was happening on a personal scale for me, was happening for America. Over the last few weeks, the Obama campaign had boiled down to a simple image; Obama’s handsome face stenciled with primary colors , tilted upwards, looking passionately but intelligently into the distance, stylistically hearkening back to a time of late ’60s cultural revolution and optimism. This poster was all over America. I saw his youthful, black, iconic face in residential and shop windows – cafes, supermarkets, bars, record shops, book shops, clothes shops, libraries, everywhere, all over Montana, all over Colorado, all over New York, all over Pennyslvania, everywhere I went across the country. And underneath his face was one word: HOPE.
Yes, we can!
On Tuesday 4 November, Charlie lined up a meeting between myself and Councilman Bill Peduto, a progressive local Pittsburgh politician with wide ranging portfolio responsibilities and interests, including arts and cultural development. Bill had at one stage been recognised by the Democratic Leadership Council as one of the “100 to watch” New Democrats in the nation. Charlie described Bill as a man of impeccable integrity and vision and who should be the next Mayor of Pittsburgh. I was glad to be meeting a rising star Democrat on this historic day, the day when Americans had to decide if they wanted more of Bush’s policies delivered in the Republican chicken-suit of McCain or if they wanted real change as represented by Obama. I was meeting Bill because there was a chance he could help me find employment in Pittsburgh, a sponsor to help me stay in America. It was, I thought, a slim chance, but one worth taking.
We shook hands outside a Butler St cafe, and started to shuffle towards the door. Before we got there, cars beeped and waved in recognition to Bill. We were then further delayed by another pedestrian recognising Bill and wanting to shake hands and chat. When we finally got into the cafe, the cafe owner lit up when she saw him, and more local political gossip was exchanged before we could order our sandwiches. I noted this was the life of a popular Pittsburgher politician, Bill had all the visibility of a sheriff in a one horse town. Still, Bill thrived on the interaction, he was clearly a people’s representative born and bred.
We talked about Bill’s history in the Democrat party, how he had opposed the Iraq war right from the start and initially paid the price by being marginalised by the party’s power brokers. As time wore on, and popular opinion began to swing against the war, his status in the party rose too. Now he was now one of 8 local Pittsburgh Councilmen; his personal priorities were to tackle environmental sustainability initiatives, social equity programs, improved public transport, and enhanced support for the arts.
As we rose to leave from our lunch, Bill suddenly said: “Don’t worry, I’ll help you. I know everyone involved in the local not for profit arts and welfare sector. I can help you find a job. And I know a Congressman who can help with the visa process too. Together we got a friend’s wife released from a Chinese prison where she had been held for her Fulan Gong beliefs. If we can do that, we can help an Australian stay in America”. I felt shumbled again, as Bill had now beat the record of complete strangers wanting to help me out – we had known each other for less than an hour.
As we parted ways outside of the cafe, instead of shaking hands we now spontaneously gave each other a hug. I said “God help us, that we win tonight. What are you doing? Are you hanging out with some Democrat folk?”. He responded with a supremely confident shake of the head “N’ah. I’m just going to play ice-hockey with some kids. Obama is going to win. Its in the bag”.
As I trudged back up the hill to our 45th St apartment, I drank in Bill’s confidence about the election results. He’d crunched the numbers, he knew the predictions, better than most. So it was really going to happen?! We would soon have a new, black, young, progressive president of the United States? and (just as life changing from my own micro-personal perspective) – I would have real help for me to remain in this country? For both those reasons, I felt more and more tension unravel out of my body. When I reached home, I made a quick dinner then fell asleep early.
The next morning, I woke up at dawn and rushed out to log-on to find out the election results. The first email headline that came through was from my dear old friend Aaron, that told me everything I needed to know, that told me that an historic change had happened in America, and there was now hope for a better global future:
“YES WE CAN!!!!!!!!!!”