Posts tagged ‘hospital’


Alone again, naturally

12.01.2020

Looking back over the years
And whatever else that appears,
I remember I cried when my mother died
Never wishing to hide the tears.
And at fifty-nine years old,
My father, God rest his soul,
Couldn’t understand why the only lass
He had ever loved had been taken,
Leaving him to start
With a heart so badly broken
Despite encouragement from me,
No words were ever spoken.
And when he passed away,
I cried and cried all day.
Alone again, naturally.

Considering Gilbert O’Sullivan was 21 when he wrote ‘Alone Again’, it’s a remarkably mature lyric, particularly as he didn’t know his father well, and his mother was alive when the song was penned.
   But it is my current earworm and with a slight change in the words, it reflects my mood.
   Of course I’m not “alone”: I have a partner and a network of friends, but there is an element of loneliness as part of the immigrant experience that hardly anyone talks about.
   When you emigrate to parts unknown with your parents, and you don’t have a say in it, you arguably have a different perspective on your new home country than someone who perhaps chose to go there, and you certainly have a different perspective to someone born and bred there.
   I’ve never blogged the full story though most of my friends know it.
   There is a photo somewhere of my family as I knew it at age two or so: my parents, my maternal grandmother, and me. At that age, I knew there were other family members—paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—but this was my immediate definition of family, and I held on to that for a long time. Certainly it was my definition during my formative years.
   I came with my parents and not my grandmother, landing here three days shy of my fourth birthday.
   When my grandmother arrived in March 1978 under the family reunion policy, my mother and I being her only living descendants, I felt ‘the family’ was complete again.
   Immigrants will probably tell you, more so if they are not of the majority race, that they have a sense that they need to face life in this new country together. That most of the people around you won’t be able to share the experience you’re having, because you’re making sense of it through a different lens. We spoke Cantonese at home, and we will have talked about the odd customs of the people here, from the stupidity of the colloquialism bring a plate to my parents needing to fight for the Wellington Hospital Board to give my mother her correct pay (something which ultimately required the intervention of former mayor Frank Kitts). Most of your peers wouldn’t know what it was like for a white person to tell your Mum and yourself to go back to where you came from. Or to be denied service at what is now Countdown on account of your race.
   Repeated experiences like that give you a sense of “the family versus the world”. Happy ones naturally outnumber negative ones—by and large, New Zealanders are a tolerant, embracing people—but it’s probably natural for humans to build up some sort of defence, a thicker skin to cope with a few of the added complications that the majority don’t have to think twice about. It’s why some of us will jump to “racism” as an explanation for an injustice even when the motives may not be that at all. It’s only come from experience and reinforcement, certainly at a time when overt racism was more commonplace in Aotearoa, and more subtle forms were at play (as they still are with decreasing frequency; hello, Dominion Post).
   As the family’s numbers dwindled, it impacts you. It certainly impacted my father in 1994, in the way O’Sullivan’s song says, and as “the last man standing” there is a sense of being alone. Never mind that my father had aphasia in his last years and couldn’t respond intelligibly when I spoke to him: the fact he could hear me and acknowledge me was of great comfort. He understood the context. And frankly, precious few others do.
   Other than aunts, uncles and cousins, the only time I really get to use Cantonese now is at shops where Cantonese speakers serve me. The notion of an ‘Asian’ invasion where you’re walking the streets not knowing what’s being spoken (I’m looking at you, Winston) is rot. You feel the loss of identity as well as your family because identity is relative: while you have a soul, a deeper purpose, that is arguably more absolute, you answer who you are in relation to those around you. I am proud of my heritage, my culture, my whakapapa. They identify me to the rest of you. Each of you holds a different impression, part of the full picture, just as in branding. The last person who understood part of my identity, the one relative to my immediate family who came with me to this new land, is now gone, and that cannot be reclaimed.
   Therefore, this isn’t solely about the passing of an elderly man and the natural cycle of life. This is about how a little bit of you goes as well. Wisdom tells you that you form another part of your identity—say how I relate to my partner, for instance—and in time you rebuild who you are and how you face the world. However, that takes time, and O’Sullivan might be an earworm for a little while longer.

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The maternity ward of the early 1980s was a very different place

24.06.2018


Virginia McMillan/Creative Commons

Now the PM and her partner, Clarke Gayford, have shown off their daughter to the world (video at the end of this post), it reminded me of my own experiences in the maternity ward many years ago.
   I’m not a parent at the time of writing: I’m talking about the 1980s when I visited Wellington Women’s Hospital (as it then was), to wait for my Mum, a postnatal midwife, to finish work.
   The 1980s don’t seem that long ago to me, and all these memories are still very clear, but when you relay the story, you realize decades have passed.
   Mum shifted to WWH in 1980, when it first opened, and I still recall having a preview tour of the building before it opened. New carpets, new fixtures. Hand-held buzzers hooked up to the wall where you could call for a nurse—how modern! The 1980s had well and truly arrived, and how lucky of those patients, because this place was like a hotel. We really did think it was that flash in 1980.
   And it was a nice place to visit. I finished school at St Mark’s at 2.45 p.m. and the bus would usually get to the hospital by around 3 p.m. There was a long walk to the building at the back, taking an internal route, and walking through a basement tunnel with painted stripes—it felt like a science-fiction movie. I’d get to Ward 15 and I was expected to wait in the TV room.
   The TV room was next to the ‘day room’, which really meant the smoking room, where new Mums could pop in and have a fag. Every now and then, you’d get a naughty new mother who’d take an ashtray into the TV room, where I’d be waiting, but we are talking the early 1980s, and the term secondhand smoke had not entered the vernacular.
   Of course, we youngsters weren’t allowed to change the channel if adults were watching. Unfortunately, in the days of two state-run channels, most new mothers would watch Prisoner, and I don’t mean The Prisoner, with Patrick McGoohan. I meant the Australian soap opera Prisoner, set in a women’s prison, and known to British readers as Prisoner: Cell Block H. I could never comprehend why anyone would watch the sheer misery of the storylines about a women’s prison, but I suppose in the early 1980s, these ladies were thinking: ‘No matter how tough things are for me, at least I’m not in Wentworth.’ I would wait patiently for 3.30 p.m. to tick by, and Lynne Hamilton singing ‘On the Inside’ (itself a depressing, haunting theme tune) and the Grundy logo were signs that relief was coming. However, to this day, I still know this blasted song, and can play it by ear on a piano. Without checking online:

On the inside the roses grow,
They don’t mind the stony ground.
But the roses there are prisoners, too,
When morning comes around.

   Only once do I remember a Mum offering me control of the TV during the Prisoner hour to watch whatever channel I wanted, and of course, that meant the children’s programming, eventually an after-school show imaginatively titled After School, hosted by a cheerful Te Reo-speaking man called Olly Ohlson.
   Mum would be another 15 to 30 minutes, so my time in front of the telly was fairly limited. We’d walk home to Newtown in those days, and my memory of that journey home was that it was often sunny. Of course, that couldn’t have been the case, as I have equally strong memories of below-zero temperatures on the radio in the morning in 1981, and very grey weather watching Springbok tour marches (including fights between protesters and police officers) outside my window growing up. Those may or may not be the subject of another blog entry, as I’m not traditionally one to post childhood reminiscences on this blog.

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