Turning into the driveway of the farm, damp gravel crunches under the tyres, while kangaroos watch warily from the tree line. The chaos of the city has long been left behind, replaced with the contented chewing of cows and a chorus of birds predicting rain. It’s so easy to slip back into old habits, like sinking toes into fresh soil, running barefoot towards the water. The river flows from under the small bridge at our boundary to the inlet out the back. Walking down there, the horizon is dotted with pelicans, sitting ruffled on sandy hills or salt-encrusted driftwood. There’s a wildness out here. It’s the sound of hard rain on a tin roof and the sizzle of the atmosphere during a summer storm. Many birthdays were spent huddled under blanket forts in our parents’ bedroom, whispering rushed stories to my sister as the curtains cast lightning-shaped shadows on the carpet. The memories of this place are written into every old peppermint tree and my father’s huge boot prints in the dirt.
The five-hour journey to Albany could be magical, when the headlights on dark winter nights flung shady spectres from the wing mirrors so tall that they danced on the car roof. Somehow over time, that magic was lost in the pursuit of a life elsewhere; the enchanting lights of the city and the tempting call of endless possibility. Each year, the pilgrimage back to the farm would come at Christmas, the car so full that it wallowed on the drive down. Possessions lovingly collected over the semesters would be unloaded into the bedroom, put in boxes that had been swiped from supermarkets and library discard sales. It was always jarring to come back; the hand-drawn ‘I Can Do It’ poster on the ceiling above the bed betraying the anxieties of the insecure teenage girl that I was claiming not to be anymore.
Before returning to the city, each box would be slid under the bed or stacked against the walls, collapsing under the weight of the memories in them. Classics textbooks, dictionaries and several well-thumbed translations of Dante’s Inferno were herniating out of their cardboard prisons. Towers of university essays, tickets and photos had fallen over, fanning out on the floor. The memories housed in the bedroom had grown like parasitic plants, sucking the soul out of me and demanding to live again. They had been ignored too long, because their sentimental contents were a visceral punch that still had the power to really hurt.
Among the debris, there’s the big, blue bag they put my clothes in when I went into surgery. It brings back sharply the cold, emptying fear of laying under the lights of an operating theatre, exposed and small. Five times in two years I awoke to the excruciating burn of a packed wound, holding in breath and willing the tears not to come. Also spread across the room are the tiny Italian dresses and summer shorts that only fit a body that was starving itself, whittling away with every meal that couldn’t be digested. There are compression bandages, faded and stretched from near-constant wear. They carry the weight of sleepless hours and aching limbs. These are the surviving objects from that time. Others have been burned or thrown away because they hit too hard; shirts that still smelled like him and tickets to joint events, their edges curling and fraying in the heat of a bitter fire. On quiet, lonely nights, the wheels of his suitcase rattling away can still be heard in my memory, along with an echoing, anguished howl.
It seemed the evidence had been there the whole time; broken-hearted letters and photos from failed relationships had been mixed in with the box that contained a diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease. Given they occurred together, I firmly believed back then that they must be related and the only possible conclusion was that my illness had made me unlovable and damaged. Without the clouding of so much pain and fear, it becomes clear that correlation and causation had become confused and that the story that I had been telling myself and everyone else was not only wrong, but unnecessarily sad. The collective experience in those boxes had become tarnished by one rotten memory, one hard year. It had eaten away at my ability to see that not everything had been so painful. There were also wrist bands from great concerts, tickets to the zoo and the museum, a folded musician’s poster from the night I fell in love for the first time. Cards from long distance friends, essays with grades to be proud of, photos of me dancing across stages and filling my lungs with laughter.
Tears, anger, and a great deal of fighting spirit have gone into the construction of a new incarnation of myself, but they have been tempered by glowing joy, love and hope. In the collection of an emotional hoarder are the belongings of a girl that was oblivious to the fact that she would be hit by a chronic illness and heartbreak. It’s okay to feel a pang of nostalgia for that ignorance and to sometimes wish that things were different. The strength that has emerged in building my life has taken a lot of fracturing and resetting. Hearts and dreams have been tested, but it’s time to tell a new story. Ugliness and pain don’t need to be hidden under the bed or packed into boxes where they cannot be reached. The reflective power of solitude means that I can now take those memories, hold them and be grateful for how they’ve shaped me.
Alyssa Shapland grew up on a farm near Albany and moved to Perth to study. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Italian and Archaeology from the University of Western Australia. She works at the Literature Centre in Fremantle, helping out with their Talented Young Writers’ Programme. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2016 and has become a passionate advocate for the chronic illness community. She has written about her experiences for The Mighty and Girls with Guts.