|LIFE WITHOUT A SPATULA|
by Lisa Reily My mother lay on her side in bed, dying, and rummaging as best she could through her bottom bedside drawer. It was full of cards from my brothers and I, family and friends. When I asked her what she was doing, she said she didn’t want us kids to have to go through all her things when she was gone. That image stuck with me.
Mum wasn’t a hoarder. Although she did keep a lot, everything was shipshape and she would never waste a thing. She repaired, organised and donated. Clearing her bedside drawer was the last ‘mess’ of her life she hadn’t tidied. But even though Mum was an orderly person, sorting through those cards, and the accumulation of her whole life after she was gone, was not easy. She had not wanted to leave that burden to me, and I learned from her that I did not want that for anyone else in the future.***Not long before my mother fell ill, my partner, Ion, and I had downsized our lives. I finished my contract as a literacy consultant in Sydney, Australia, and Ion retrained to work as a massage therapist. We decided to sell our home in Sydney to buy a new beachside cabin—a kind of mobile home—up north in Coffs Harbour.
To make the move from Sydney to Coffs, we had to rid ourselves of many things. Our small cabin would not allow for our furniture, so most of it had to go. My work suits with their matching shoes and handbags would not fit into our new miniscule wardrobe (and I hoped I would never need them again anyway). Our garage, full of odds and sods, could not be accommodated in a cabin carport.
We got to it. Most of our furnishings we included in the sale of our Sydney property. We took several car loads to local charities. I even held a mini garage sale in our driveway. I remember selling a box full of old cassettes to a lady for about twenty cents. She was ecstatic and so was I! By the end of the day, I gave all remaining items away for free; like my mother, I wanted nothing to go to waste. The money I raised, almost one hundred dollars, I donated to a dog sanctuary. It was thrilling and scary to let things go. But I had lived in the same home for fifteen years, four of these with Ion; we were both ready for a change.
Once we settled into our new home in Coffs Harbour, I immediately got work as a substitute teacher and Ion set up a massage therapy room in town. Work was slower, so we often had days free to just take in our surroundings. Our cabin was located right on the coast, only separated from the beach by a small strip of bushland. A minute’s walk on a sandy path and life opened up to a stretch of white sand, an emerald sea and the green velvet cake of Split Solitary Island. Beautiful.
Living by the sea, we found ourselves at home most of the time. We’d sit on our verandah, sipping cups of Earl Grey tea and listening to the waves. Our little dog, Henry, loved sniffing about the beach—something he had never experienced before in all his fifteen years. We had no desire to go out anywhere special, so we managed to save quite a bit. We left city life behind easily.
With the money we saved, and the freedom of not working full-time, Ion and I had something we’d never had before: time. And that meant time available to travel. There was no more waiting around for annual leave, or having to book during expensive school holiday periods. We’d only been overseas together once before, to Bali. Suddenly our dream to go to Greece became a real possibility. Our only issue was Henry. He was getting old and we did not want to leave him. Lucky for us, Mum offered to help.
Henry was used to visiting Mum, so we trialled him on several overnighters and weekends. Somewhat embarrassingly, we learned that Henry could not have cared less that we weren’t around! In fact, he seemed to prefer Mum’s place with its king-sized bed complete with warm human and fellow dog. (Henry was never allowed on our bed!) I think it also had something to do with the fresh chicken Mum cooked him daily. And his new name, King Henry, entitled him to snacks worthy of a king! With Henry and Mum happy, we were free to go.***Ion and I headed off on a three-month trip to Greece. When our plane left Australia, I leaned back into my seat and a sense of utter relief came over me. I felt a bit teary, but it was a good, releasing kind of feeling. Ion held my hand and we drifted across the sky. I missed Henry already, but I knew he’d be okay with Mum. And by the time we had landed in Greece, I had no time to worry.
In Greece, there was something new around every corner—mostly food-related! Olives, figs, grapes, lemons and rosemary grew in the garden where we first stayed. We ate fresh eggs with yolks so yellow, they were orange. People took time to prepare food. I remember when one taverna owner refused to serve us the tzatziki on his menu, insisting that the garlic in it needed to permeate overnight. We did as we were told and came back the following night for a meal instead.
We learned to wait for things. On one occasion, Ion ran to the bakery for our usual tsoureki, a sweet bready cake made for Easter, only to return empty-handed. In Greece, things were baked fresh; sometimes you missed out. Not everything was ready and waiting for you at the supermarket either. Fruit came in seasons here and you could see the fruit on the trees, right before your eyes. I realised how little I knew about how things grew, or when.
There was a rawness to Greece that I had never experienced back home. Plump chickens roamed and scratched under olive trees. Goats chased and played in the evening, and later hung bloodied in the butchers’ windows. Everything was right there in view, not tidily hidden away. People greeted us and strangers gave us food. On a walk along a village road in Zacharo, an old man caught us eyeing the oranges on his trees. Next thing we knew, he was running towards us, arms overflowing with his gift of oranges. Greece was full of life, and I felt happy and at home like I had not felt anywhere before.
Ion and I stayed in low-budget accommodation all over Greece: in Athens, the Peloponnese, and the islands of Naxos, Paros, Santorini and Crete. But it was a steep learning curve. Back then, about ten years ago now, Greece’s budget rooms had a kind of unspoken rule I call the ‘random plate act’. Rarely would you find a matching set of plates—often no plates at all! Cutlery was often an odd combination—three spoons, two forks and one knife, for example. As for cooking utensils, let’s just say Ion spent a lot of time flipping fried eggs with a fork. A spatula was unheard of. A bread knife was a luxury.
Budget travel really changed us. We got used to doing without. It felt crazy to return home to meet up with friends, to spend exorbitant amounts on dining, wearing clothes we did not need in places we did not care about. We wanted to see our friends, but we didn’t care where. We never really did. And the more time we spent away from home, the more convinced we were that having ‘things’ didn’t matter.
We took great care to keep our spending to a minimum during our trip. We calculated that we had literally saved hundreds of dollars just by packing a small kettle and making our own coffee, instead of buying it from fancy cafés. We kept this thinking going once we returned home. We needed less and less money to live on.***A few months after we returned from Greece, I got a call from my aunt informing me that Mum was sick. I got into my car, Henry by my side, and drove crying into the night to see her. I did not know what was happening. Only that Mum had stomach pains and had taken herself to hospital.
The next day, when I arrived in Sydney, Mum was sitting up in bed, in a cancer ward, entertaining her ‘guests’ with her habitual over-the-top cheer. She wore a black singlet top and colourful leggings, large sunglasses hiding her pain. When her visitors left, half of whom I barely knew, she became pale and drawn.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I scolded.
We both laughed.
“I’m scared,” she whispered.
“I know,” I replied, and I held her hand as she slept.
Mum had lost a lot of weight over the past two years, something we had argued about. Ion and I thought she had an eating disorder as she had no interest in food and was making protein shakes to get by. The stupid thing was that most people congratulated her on her diminishing physique, something that always irked me.***Mum had only three precious weeks between her diagnosis of cancer and her totally unexpected, painful passing. She was too slim for chemotherapy; the doctor said she would not handle it. The cancer was everywhere, so there was no hope for her anyway.
I did not return to Coffs or work and just stayed with Mum until she died. She was able to return to her home for most of her three weeks and when she did, she made jokes about her new, fancy toilet seat and the plastic chair in her shower. It was as if it was going to be fun. My brothers and I made charts for her daily medication. I bought her some comfy clothes for bed and all her favorite foods. But reality struck the day Mum could not eat even one tasty black olive; she just gave up and spat it into my hand like a little girl eating broccoli for the first time. She spent her last two nights in hospital.
My mother’s death hit me hard. It made me see how brief and unpredictable life could be. Life is short. People say this like it’s a catchphrase from a motivational poster. For me, it was a bolt of lightening. I felt like Ion and I were already on the right track. We had downsized and left the rat race behind. If we hadn’t, I would not have been able to spend the last three weeks of my mother’s life with her. If I had been working in Sydney, I would not have been able to drop everything to look after her. I was so grateful I’d left my career behind; this gave me time, to spend with her. The last time I would ever see my mother.
But death stops for no one and it did not stop for us. Just a few months after Mum passed away, our beautiful Henry died too. He had been surviving well on arthritis shots and medication, but finally a tick bite took its toll. He had been bitten a few months earlier and we thought he’d escaped its consequences. It was all I could take. I sat alone on our verandah and let my grief roll over me. I had had enough of death; I needed life.***Ion and I visited the big red gum tree in Sydney, where we’d scattered Mum’s ashes; she had not wanted a grave and did not want us to spend our lives worrying about it. We walked the empty beach at our home in Coffs and spoke to the sea where Henry’s ashes now drifted. Barely a day passed where I did not cry. I missed them both. Sometimes at night, an ache came over me and I felt like I was drowning. There was no escape. I knew I had to do something.
All Ion and I needed was our suitcases and two small backpacks. We let go of everything else. We sold our cabin partly furnished. We donated and gave things away. A few days before we stepped onto a plane with one-way tickets to Bali and a vague itinerary, a friend came over with a van and took everything we had left. It was a relief. In the end, the most difficult thing about leaving was having to explain to airport customs why our tickets did not have a return date.
It was daunting to leave everything behind. I felt my mother’s absence like a hunger. I wanted to tell her about our possibly amazing, stupid plans. I missed her. And Henry, too; I could still feel his furry little chest under my hand. But I knew I had to go. Greece was calling me back to life.***Now, we’re travelling full-time. We’ve been gone over four years now, returning to Australia only to visit family and friends. We began our travels in Greece, but now we’ve also visited North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, England, Wales, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and India. We have been to poetry festivals in the UK and trekked the jungles of Borneo. We’ve spoken many languages (badly), tried many different foods, and experienced the kindness of strangers everywhere we’ve travelled. And I have come to love this life of temporary rooms, unknown destinations, and mismatched cutlery.
I cannot say it’s been easy, especially as we are low-budget travellers. Sometimes I miss the niceties of having a ‘real home’. Occasionally I fancy new clothes. But when I think of my life now—even with its inconveniences—I feel free. I still think of Mum and Henry and I am grateful for the time I had with them. But when I think back to my mother dying in her bed, trying to sort the cards in her bedside drawer, I am glad that Ion and I have lightened our load. We do not want to leave a burden for anyone when we are gone. And if we hoard things now, we have to carry them. Literally. So we part with things easily.
There are plenty of motivational phrases around these days: Life is short. Simplify Your Life. Keep Calm and Carry On. These are great, but it’s not enough to just frame them on your kitchen wall, post them online, or say them. You have to mean what you say. You have to decide, and act. Take a risk to really live. Let life in. Life is not about things.
Life is short. About the Author:Lisa Reily is a former literacy consultant, dance director and teacher from Australia. Her poetry and stories have been published in several journals, such as Panoply, Amaryllis, Riggwelter, River Teeth Journal (Beautiful Things), and Magma. Lisa is currently a full-time budget traveller and her writing is often inspired by her journey. You can find out more about Lisa at lisareily.wordpress.com
Home Nonfiction LIFE WITHOUT A SPATULA By Lisa Reily