I was three years old when my mother left.
Dad picked me up from the babysitter’s on his way home from work and we pulled up to a darkening house. I still remember following him into their bedroom. A missing suitcase, make-up gone from the dresser, wardrobe doors open. My brother’s room cold and quiet, his toothbrush gone. Dad panicked and started making phonecalls, afraid and angry. Then he said to me, ‘Mummy’s just gone on a holiday, it’s okay.’
I cried a lot.
Afterwards, I stayed with family down south. Dad had to remain in Cairns for legal arrangements, and there were things to bring from the house. This meant driving the thousands of kilometres to Victoria in a big old truck. When he neared our farm that first night back, he kept driving the extra forty minutes to where I was staying, even though it had been arranged that he would come for me in the morning. I had been put to bed already – my uncle carried me outside in my pyjamas when the truck came up the drive.
I still remember what he was wearing when he climbed out of the cabin – a red-checked wool coat with a lambskin collar. I remember the feel of his chest as he hugged me to it, too. The solidity.
Almost twenty years later I sent him a red polar-fleece vest for his birthday. It was February but the chemo gave him chills and I thought he’d like the softness – his old woolen jumpers were too scratchy. When I saw him at Easter he’d put the vest on for my visit. I don’t think he wore it often though; I had underestimated how much the cancer had shrunk him down and it hung loosely across his torso.
Suddenly, I was bigger than him.
After he died I looked for that red-checked coat to hang in my wardrobe, but it had been packed off to the Salvos long ago.