One of the biggest obstacles in my life was that I couldn’t swim. From the annual school swimming carnival, to birthday invitations at friends’ pool parties, to beach holidays…Not being able to swim and trying to hide that fact was all too much. My family knew I couldn’t swim. Non-swimmers kinda ran in the family. But I tried hard to hide that fact from my friends and peers. It was a cause of embarrassment. Only now can I joke about it when the topic arises. But I wonder if there is still some hidden shame about the fact that I haven’t been able to conquer a skill small children are able to pick up. It wasn’t for lack of trying either.
My parents enrolled me in swim schools. I remember with dread, the horror of swimming lessons during Summer holidays. I don’t remember being in swim school when I was really young. Perhaps that was part of the problem. I recall the other kids bobbing up and down in floaties, whilst my feet were firmly planted on the pool floor. They would have been 5 or 6 while I was 11 or 12. A major age difference, further magnified by my prepubescent frailties.
Now 20 years on I still struggle with swimming. But this obstacle generally recedes in my mind. These days I still tend to avoid swimming and pools and the beach. And thankfully I don’t have an annual school swimming carnival to worry about. Friends tend not to invite me to their pools to swim. I don’t really have friends with pools. If I did it would be socially acceptable to just bob around in the water.
But 20 years on my obstacle is much larger. My obstacle is not because of something that I can’t do. My obstacle is because of someone that I can’t have. I feel like I’m climbing mountains with too much weight, doing hurdles upside down and treading water all at the same time (and you can imagine I can’t tread water either)! My current obstacle is that I don’t have a mum anymore. It’s more than that. I don’t have my Mum anymore.
I feel like I can’t move. It’s all too hard. My compass is gone. My guide has gone. The best person I’ve known and trusted and relied on is no longer.
Even now a lump has risen in my throat. She would have called it “yit hei”. That’s the phonetic spelling. Yit hei is hard to define. But growing up with a Chinese mum, I knew exactly what it was. Or at least I knew what it meant…for me. It meant not eating chips when you were yit hei, because chips are yit hei. It is a noun, an adjective and definitely a consequence. I don’t expect someone to understand this if they haven’t grown up with their Chinese mother not letting them eat certain things for the sake of avoiding yit hei.
I remember my sister in law was first indoctrinated into the ways of yit hei at a very early time in her marriage to my brother. She was yit hei according to my mum. My sister in law believed she just had a sore throat. Potato, potatoe. Either way, Mum was not going to let her eat the pork crackling on the roast. No, that was reserved for those who were not yit hei at the time. That lunchtime, my sister in law learnt what yit hei was and probably also learnt a thing or two about Mum’s ways.
I wish my daughter would have had the same privilege. I wish she could have grown up being scared of Granny restricting yit hei food from her, sneaking the chips anyway and hiding the fact she had a sore throat (was yit hei). But no, none of these things will happen. My daughter won’t get to meet my mum. She’ll see photos or the odd video of her for sure. But they are so two dimensional. I would give anything for my mum to be in the flesh, for her to have laid eyes on my daughter. Then she could do what Mum did best…bluntly tell the truth. I would want her to tell me what I haven’t done right in motherhood. I would want her to state the obvious and especially the not-so-obvious to me. I need Mum now. I don’t need her more than ever. There’s been plenty of time for that in the past. But I definitely want her more than ever.
I sit shaking my head, repeating the regular phrase, “I can’t do it”. The problem is not that I can’t swim. The problem is that I can’t do life anymore. Well obviously it looks like I can. To the untrained eye it might look like I’m coping. Nah, let’s face it, everyone knows I’m not coping. Why? Because of the obstacle. The biggest obstacle of my life yet. The fact that I don’t have Mum.
I blame her a bit. When I couldn’t do something, she would sometimes take over. She would effortlessly complete a task that took me tears and tantrums to not complete. Everything seemed easy to her. If I couldn’t do it, Mum could. If I didn’t know it, Mum did. She was the wisest person I’ve known. Not only street and book smart, this lady was able to utilise her knowledge and have wisdom. It was as instant as a formula could be answered in the next cell of one of her Excel spreadsheets. She didn’t have to ponder and wonder and toss and turn with her words. She spat them out. Sometimes these words appeared to be hurled as insults. But no, in reality they were pearls of wisdom, sometimes just cast before the recipient before they were ready. Yes, I’d give anything to be delivered a verbal truth-bomb from my mum right now. Because that can’t hurt as much as the pain of living without her.
Sometimes when I try to be rational I think that I do have her wisdom swimming around my head. While it’s the only type of swimming I would want, I still fear that I will drown and suffocate in the deep waters without her there to save me. There is no silver lining to her being gone. Of course, I would not want her to suffer her physical pain that she experienced in the last years of her life. In some ways I am glad that there is no more pain for her. But dammit I miss her.
I could fill a swimming pool with the tears I’ve cried over losing Mum.
Elizabeth is a Mum to Grace, step-mum to Will, wife to Ricky. She is very changeable. Sometimes she'll identify herself as a social worker, other times as a writer or even as a Christian. She loves her town of Dubbo, New South Wales. Elizabeth studied a Bachelor of Social Work at Charles Sturt University.