2010; McKay and her Nanna (Photo: Supplied)

How to be brave in the face of, you know, everything

What does it mean to find courage in the face of a global pandemic, race protests, border strife and climate anxiety? 

Books editor Catherine Woulfe writes:

Christchurch’s Word spring festival opens tomorrow. In real life!

A highlight will be the Brave Worlds gala on Friday night, at which luminaries (Becky Manawatu, Witi Ihimaera, Elizabeth Knox, et al) will deliver short keynotes about courage and what that means right now. 

One of those essays, and the one we’re most excited to see, is by New Zealander Laura Jean McKay. Her novel The Animals in that Country released here right in the thick of level four and happens to be about a strange flu sweeping Australia. It’s been rapturously received, most recently by the Guardian, whose reviewer said: “There is some stunning nature writing here … Her writing about people, meanwhile, is filthy, fresh and funny; this is prose on high alert, hackles up and teeth bared in every sentence.”

Here, McKay writes about losing her nanna, and everything else. 

Stage 1: Beg

To be honest, I begged her not to go. I wasn’t considering how she’d lost her ability to move or that she’d been here for 93 years and her last sentence was “I’ve had just about enough of this.”

I said, “Nanna, don’t leave me here.” I meant to add “alone”. She gave me a look that was the very definition of world-weary.

Zoologist Edward O. Wilson says we’re not living in the era of the Anthropocene – the age of humans – but rather in the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness. In the Eremocene, we watch extinctions occur: photos of Lonesome George – the last surviving Pinta Island tortoise; the sonar trails of the only Christmas Island Pipistrelle microbat; the fruitless search for the South Island kōkako – until we are left alone in an environment entirely of our own making. I bring this up because, sitting in that nursing home about to lose a woman who was more parent than grandmother to me, I felt a loneliness that seemed to span an epoch. Nanna was still there, I could touch her hand, but I was bearing witness to her lasts: words, meal, breath. A soft-boiled lunch arrived on a trolley but Nanna couldn’t eat it. She was having trouble swallowing and, at that age and stage of dementia, she wouldn’t be kept alive. I rubbed water over her lips, letting some go into her mouth. She nodded firmly. Good idea.

In the coming years, this desolate feeling would expand beyond Nanna’s small nursing home room, beyond my grief, to the collective loneliness that is this moment in time. To stay and bear witness is not particularly courageous. Not many people with my level of privilege – a tauiwi woman in the Antipodes – know the sort of courage that most people need daily. I have too much blood on my hands (notice that I don’t have the courage to write about that here either). But if this is about facing fears: I have some. Ecofeminist Donna Harraway talks about Staying with The Trouble, which “requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings”.

Stage 2: Sit with me

I’m not afraid of death. It’s no stranger to our family. My baby photos are backgrounded with my mum and brother’s grieving faces. My dad died at 27, an age where he wrote poetry, had only recently swapped out purple hotpants for jeans, and was expecting a second child – me – that he didn’t live to see. Later, Dad’s Mum in her 60s, Dad’s brother in his 50s; then when I was an adult, friends whose losses hurt so much I broke my tear ducts from crying.

By 2015 I was watching the weather out a nursing home window near Melbourne, Victoria. Patchworked with drizzle and sun, wind carrying gritty pollen, a base note of promised heat. I had been taking photographs of Nanna’s hands on the knitted rug, hands that had always seemed to me like tree roots holding everything together – now thin and cracked, dried leaves. Finally I said, “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow,” and tried to stand but I was caught on something. This dying woman had got a grip on my shirt like there was no tomorrow. She frowned at her hand like it was speaking without her. I damn well sat back down again.

So that year’s spring was one of loss. In the northern hemisphere, the promised summer came earlier and more ferocious than usual on the Kazak plains and a male saiga antelope – a moose-like creature with elegant striped horns and a comically bulbous nose – was hot. Too hot. Possibly the hottest he had ever been. The rest of the herd were overheating too. The saiga’s vacuum-like nose is host to a bacteria that usually dwells there quite benignly, but the heat that spring caused it to multiply to fatal proportions through the bodies of the population. Some 200,000 saiga died – 70% of the entire species.

Closer to where we sat – in the same country at least – a spotlight had been turned on a native rodent called the Bramble Cay Melomys. The species had existed for millennia, snacking on turtle eggs and avoiding seabirds on a vegetated plot of coral cay sitting just above sea level at the tip of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The mouse became the first mammal in the world to become extinct solely due to climate change – rising sea levels and increased severe storms washed the entire species away.

If I’m making 2015 seem like a hell of a year for endangerment and extinction, it wasn’t. We had only just started catching up. Turning our heads to search for animals that most certainly had disappeared forever – on our watch. Elizabeth Colbert had just released her book The Sixth Extinction in which she chronicles the largest species decimation in 65 million years. I went to see her at a writers’ festival, part of a Melbourne audience begging for her to tell us that it would all be okay. She didn’t. She fairly slumped in her seat on the stage and articulately shattered our dreams.

February 2019: tourists visit Lonesome George, dead seven years, the last tortoise of his kind (Photo: Rodrigo Buendia / AFP via Getty Images)

Stage 3: Breathe

I stayed with my grandmother. I slept on a foam mat on the floor by her bed. She knew I was down there. More trollies rolled down the hall and every few hours a carer burst into the room to check Nanna’s pulse. Nanna and I both startled then settled, appraising each other through the gloom. And in the morning we had breakfast – no, I ate, she couldn’t. Her grey blue eyes peered at me stabbing at the food on the plastic tray – eating! Imagine. And then she couldn’t swallow. And then she struggled to breathe. The rest of our family arrived. We sat by her, talking – the usual scenario of Nanna’s spirited daughters and grandchildren nattering away while she observed us with the keenness of a bird eyeing a worm. Except now she had her eyes closed. The smaller her life got, the closer we drew around her bed.

In her essay “Do We Care Enough About Animals to Save Them From Extinction?” Jane Rawson wonders whether, if animals were somehow individualised, would we care more about their disappearance? “Witness,” she writes, “the online grief and chest-beating when the last male white northern rhino died. Contrast it with the complete silence when the hundreds of thousands of white northern rhinos who came before him met untimely ends.” Fast-forward to 2020 where we face our own collective demise: to date more than 1,000,000 people have been killed by coronavirus. A tiny percentage in an overpopulated planet of 8,000,000,000, but enough for us to strive in a massive global effort to not catch it and die in the tens of millions. At that scale, it’s hard to individualise, it’s hard to comprehend. Rare are the stories of single victims or survivors beyond the Trump family and other weird celebrities. It is a virus born in the flesh of dead animals. It tends to target older people. It’s scary and it’s also a list of statistics. Courage 2020 style is found in staying indoors and watching TV. And we wake with a feeling I can only equate with either guilt or grief. It’s true: I’m still here and they’re gone.

Stage 4: Stay with the trouble

A crow narrator in Max Porter’s novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers, states that they “find humans dull except in grief”. In grief, the bird feels, humans are “pure crow”. In the final moments with Nanna I felt like her death coach – “come on, you can do it!” She ignored me, held on. She was very strong. I could see her fighting to breathe and even when she stopped breathing her big powerful heart kept going and going. I looked up at my family, incredulous. Was this courage? A super woman! Who can live without food or breath! You see? She’ll never die.

Of course she died. The loss of her pecked out my voice and clawed my heart; my left eye began to flutter, like it was trying to get out. In her poem ‘Grieving’, writer Te Kare Papuni (or J.C. Sturm) expresses it best:

You – bugger

you – arsehole

you – stinking shithouse

 

Dying

         without me

Leaving

         me stranded.

Stage 5: Try this on

What do we have left when a life is lost and we don’t have the words to describe it? Remains. Memories. Objects. The grainy black and white footage of the last Tasmanian tiger thylacine – one of the world’s biggest carnivorous marsupials – pacing back and forth in a bare cage, a low tail and fetching stripes. The stories of a gun cracking over the Auckland harbour as the Governor of New Zealand shot the last pair of Southern merganser ducks in 1902. A picture of a seal caught in the giant soup that is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In my aunt’s house, the unslept, hysterical laughter of women unpacking and repacking boxes. The masses of meat. The early whiskey. The late history. The sudden, hot argument. A sweet smell. Pressed flowers. Felt hats. Rings in a dish, teeth in a glass. Lipsticks ground to the end of colour.

I try on the rings that I now keep in a box, but whenever I do I feel silly – a girl again, dressing up in Nanna’s fox fur stole, creepily designed so that the mouth opened and the fox bit its own tail. Is it equally foolish to visit the delicately laid out skulls of extinct moa, haast eagle and huia in Te Papa? Why do we keep these remains if we can’t stop our own carnage? Why do I try on the rings if I too will die – I didn’t have the courage to bring children into this kind of world, so who will I pass these shiny things on to? We keep these relics, of course, to bear witness. To make physical the soupy chaos. To give ourselves the courage to at least know we’re not faking the grief: see? I didn’t imagine it. They existed. Here they are in a box.

I call the family and friends I have left – trying to reach them over the coronavirus oceans. They respond. When we finish talking, I go out to stare at the animals. There are more cows than native birds. I breathe in their chocolatey smell and look over the fields where blackbirds pick at the grain there. I see trouble. I sit with it.

The Word Christchurch Spring Festival runs from October 28 to November 1.

The Brave World gala event is sold out. However! You can still buy tickets to Laura Jean McKay’s Saturday morning event Talking Animals, at which she and poet Philip Armstrong will discuss their books, and the question: what would the animals say if they could talk to us?

The Animals in that Country, by Laura Jean McKay (Scribe, $29.99), is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington




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