small town life

I am in rural NSW. Tonight I went to a community meeting with Mum and Dad. I took my needles and yarn and got my Madame Defarge on, knitting and glaring at various scoundrels who have wronged my Dad. “Glad to see you getting into the spirit of small town life,” said Sarah’s awesome friend Jane: “I promised I’d take notes or I’d be putting some rows down too.”

The community meeting was to oppose the plan. The plan is to cut down all the London plane trees and close down three more store fronts along the main street. Poor little Barraba. Tamworth Regional Council might as well just nuke the site from orbit.

It is strange, strange, strange to be here without Jeremy and the children; strange how effortlessly I fall back into my childhood rapport with my brother Alain, twenty months older, my twin. When we do the washing up we are still one person with four hands. With him and Mum and Dad here I am at home but also not; I wake in the icy dark before dawn with my heart racing, not knowing whose house I am in, or in what town, or in what country. I’ve traveled too much this year. Among other things.

Here is the lede I have been burying for five months. My father has been diagnosed with a rare condition called semantic dementia. It is a malfunction in the language processing centres of his brain, which is difficult for him to understand because of the malfunction in the language processing centres of his brain. It is the Eater of Meaning. I used to joke that my father was a genius but I couldn’t prove it. Now I have proof: he has had this condition for months, if not years, and he is still himself, still putting the pieces together, still trying to solve puzzles, still trying to understand. Reaching out, as Ursula le Guin once put it, to be whole.

I have a bunch of mantras which are supposed to help me through this interesting time. Focus on his abilities, not his deficits, I say to myself, and that helps me to be grateful for his undimmed sweetness and affection, for his unaffected memory, to ask him about his childhood in Papua New Guinea, his memories of his mother. Attack this with the hammer of unconditional love and the sword of Not Trying To Fix Everything, I say to myself, as I am interrogating his gerontologist in case there’s a drug treatment we just happened to overlook, as I weed the living hell out of the flower bed in front of his and Mum’s house.

What can I possibly tell you about my father, who showed me the Galilean moons? Love is such a little word for a feeling so big. When I climbed to the top of the highest shell in the Opera House in January, I found a fire panel that had been made in his factory. It was a garden factory and in the garden was a deep pond, with frogs and herons; after watching it for years he realized that it was a spring. He is my source.

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