Turtles and an Angel

There’s a few turtle stories in Ben’s life. The one that I remember the clearest is when he was about 12 and had collected a number of small turtle shells from a dried up pond. The shells went under his bed until I noticed a smell coming from under there. On looking closer it was apparent the shells weren’t entirely clean and my advice to put them outside on an ants nest was turned into Ben spraying perfume on them and leaving them under his bed! He grew up into a keen fisherman with a through understanding of the sea and for some reason I equated sea turtles with him.

Ten days after Ben’s funeral I was staying with my daughter in Central Queensland. I was browsing in the self-help book section of the local Big W oping to find something to help me articulate my shock and grief. I turned around with that feeling that someone was looking at me. A book had been left open exactly at my eye level on a page about sea turtles. I looked straight into the face of a beautiful sea turtle and knew Ben’s presence instantly.

This was more comforting than any words. A felt presence.

The next day I returned to the same shopping centre for a massage. I hadn’t been there before so I was happy to be seen by any practitioner. I was asked what I wanted and I said I was particularly tense after my sons recent death and just wanted a relaxing massage. The woman introduced herself as Faith. A few minutes into the massage she said to me, “I dont know how it feels to lose a son but when my mother died two years after she lost my brother. They said it was a broken heart.”

I asked after another few minutes he had died here or overseas as the woman was African. “In South Africa”, she replied.

“Was it an expected or a violent death?”

“My brother was a policeman and he was shot and killed by thugs.”

I told her that Ben had been shot and killed by police.

She said that there will never be any justice where the police are involved. She told me not to focus on the details of what happened and why but to look after myself and my other kids and not to push my husband away.

I felt a presence again. I cant explain what it was but it was there and it saw me and knew the words I needed to hear at that time. Still many months later I remember those words and try to live by them.

Turtles and angels have more in common that you realise.

Storytelling

Last May I went to as many events as I could at the Northern Territory Writers Festival in Darwin. The highlight for me was a panel of speakers discussing memoir writing and how family might react to the stories shared. All four women had published a recent memoir.The questions asked ranged from, “Do writers edit out parts to protect feelings?” to, “How much time has to pass before dirty laundry can be safely aired and can it ever be aired?”.The consensus was that you have to tell your own story and navigate the “hard stuff” about who it’s going to affect, the wisest, kindest way you can. There was no easy answer to any question raised. Each writer recognised the problem and each had worked out for themselves how to tell their own story with minimal negative impact on family.

Magda Szubanski reminded us that Aboriginal people are very conscious of not telling a story that doesn’t belong to them.She struggled with writing her fathers story, balancing her words carefully so as not to disrespect the Polish Jewish and Catholic communities the family had been a part of. She taught herself to write by finding her own voice and thus making the telling her own, if not the story itself.The memoir took her eight years to complete.

Each person has a unique story, unlike any other. And to be able to tell it freely enables a person to make sense of their life’s experiences. To clarify their emotions, to heal from losses, to inspire and encourage and to preserve cultural identity and so much more. Storytelling is fundamental to human experience. As listeners or readers we are entertained, we learn, we experience vicariously and we are enlarged by the contact with another person’s world. But, for all the benefits it’s still a balancing act to be honest in our telling and to share our story, without taking away from those closest to us what is rightfully theirs. Their story, their perception, their life. And isn’t that the same compromise we face day after day, whether writing a memoir or living our lives.