After my 2008 book Life in His Hands, about the Sydney neurosurgeon Charlie Teo and his patient Aaron McMillan, a young pianist who had brain cancer, I declared that I would never write another book about illness and death. But then my mother died.
Mum faded away so slowly that I didn’t even admit to myself that she was dying. I was an only child and she had been divorced and on her own since I was a small child, so we’d had a close relationship.
I was alone with her when she died at home. Mum was 82 and you could say – in that dreadful cliché – ‘‘she’d had a good innings’’, so her death wasn’t a tragedy. You could even say it was a relatively peaceful death.
But for me it was a devastating shock. I wasn’t prepared for it at all. And in the months after she died I was wracked by all sorts of complicated thoughts and feelings.
Apart from the great absence she left, I was filled with guilt and regrets. I felt the pain of her suffering and played her death over and over in my mind. I felt I hadn’t shown her enough love and care. I had lost the person who had loved me most and longest, and with her went part of my identity and purpose. I became terribly aware of my own mortality and the brevity of life.
None of those feelings are unique to me but until you experience them you have no idea how they can bowl you over. The thing that saved me was talking to other people, hearing their stories and telling them mine. Hearing what other people went through and how they survived helped me to feel less alone and less crazy. And I realised that as a baby boomer I was surrounded by people in the same phase of life.
Towards the end of 2011 I was at a party and found myself talking to Jane Palfreyman, a publisher at Allen & Unwin whose father had also died that year. As we stood there tearily sympathising I asked, ‘‘Do you think there’s a book in this?’’ ‘‘Yes, I do,’’ she said.
So I commissioned the 13 other writers who are in My Mother, My Father. Some were people whose stories I partly knew, others were writers I admired and hoped would have something interesting to say. We could all see that we might help other people by sharing our individual stories about those great universal themes of life, death, families, love and all its complications.
Each story is beautiful and tough and moving – and sometimes funny – in its own way. I hope readers will find stories with particular meaning and resonance for them.
Thank you for sharing this with us Susan.
edited by Susan Wyndham
Some of Australia’s best known writers share their wise and searingly honest experiences of losing a parent.
The loss of a parent is an experience that we all face without any training – relating to a parent through old age and illness; going through the actual death in different circumstances and whether we can help parents to have a good death; the emotional aftermath – shock, grief, relief, the effect on families; funerals, wills and other rituals; clearing out the house and keeping memories alive; recovery and carrying on with life; the longer-term changes in us and our relationship with our parents.
Edited by Sydney Morning Herald literary editor, journalist and writer Susan Wyndham, My Mother, My Father is a collection of stories from 14 remarkable Australian writers, sharing what it is to feel loss, and all the experiences and memories that create the image of our parents. Contributors include Helen Garner, David Marr, Tom Keneally, Gerard Windsor, Susan Duncan and Caroline Baum.
These stories are intimate, honest, moving, sometimes funny, never sentimental, and always well written.
About the Editor
Susan Wyndham is the literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. In her career as a journalist she has been editor of Good Weekend magazine, New York correspondent for The Australian and a deputy editor of the Herald. She is the author of Life In His Hands: The True Story of a Neurosurgeon and a Pianist, and has edited and contributed to several other books.