Twenty years ago, it was a very similar picture. Mum and I in the car, liquorice allsorts tucked in the drinks holder in the centre console, Tracy Chapman playing on the stereo. On our way to visit my brother. We talk about her day at work, and my day at school, and I lapse into future-thinking, thinking out loud about the things I am learning today and what they might prepare me for tomorrow.
It isn’t the same, though. Twenty years and a whole lot of life has passed between us.
In August, 20 years passed since we had to drop everything and move to the UK on a desperate, last-ditch attempt to save my brothers’ life. This year I’ve been reflecting on what that move has made me into — now that I’ve returned, belatedly, to my family’s ancestral home. One of them, anyway.
My family were failed by the New Zealand medical system — that more or less condemned my brother to a premature death at the ripe old age of 11 — and because of that I grew up where my father was born but did not call home. I’m not ungrateful. I mean, there are certainly worse places to end up. But, there were things that happened as a result that, in the recent weeks more than ever, I feel should be honoured for their place in the incredible synchronicity of how our lives’ harmonies resolved themselves. Things that irrevocably changed the pathway of my life away from the things I have only just returned to this year.
Mum, a fourth generation New Zealander (Scottish-Irish heritage, red hair and freckles), never took to England. She did, however, take to English liquorice allsorts. Once she discovered Bassett’s, and deemed them an adequate replacement for Pascall’s (so Gran could stop mailing them to us), it became her one reason why the UK wasn’t a terribly disappointing place for her family to end up. After all, she and my father had put so much of their time and energies into preparing for our lives, a vision for which she’d had long before we were born, a vision which involved staying in one place. Our summers at Pukehina, our weekends in Cornwall Park, our tiny kiwi accents, our beautiful border collie (Flash), our love for the land and our family all around us — blinked out of existence in a single 24h period.
But, we were in the land of Bassett’s and the NHS, so it couldn’t be all bad.
She’d pick me up from school in our tiny teal-green Rover metro, L-reg, “Lulu”, and we’d drive down the M3 to where my brother lay in the C-Neuro ward out Southampton General. C for Children, not cancer… but for the majority of the inhabitants, either would do. Mum would blast Tracy Chapman. And we’d eat the liquorice allsorts, and for a split second, we could have been anywhere in the world. We could have been driving back home to Auckland.
I hated liquorice allsorts. I never told her that, not until I was in my 20s. I really did, but I ate them because it was our thing, and we needed a thing, something — anything — to transcend the unspeakable prospective grief that we might have upended our lives for nothing, that James had to suffer in such a way, that Dad was still on the other side of the world — rehoming our beautiful border collie, Flash, on a family dairy farm in Taranaki. That the trees didn’t look right and the air didn’t smell the same and the water tasted weird, and the kids at school bullied me for having the wrong uniform on laundry days (we could only afford one of each, secondhand) and saying my vowels strangely, and the teachers picked on me for being in a perpetual state of shock, assuming I was merely slow and that it could be beaten or shamed out of me somehow.
That our family and our home was 19,000km away. That our afternoons were spent bathed in the disinfectant stench of the hospital, surrounded by the dying and the desperate.
We needed colour, and sugar, and sweetness. So, that was our thing.
Twenty years pass, and suddenly, we’re on the same rhythm. Sitting in the front of our Santa Fe, “Kiki”, crawling in the direction of the northern motorway. We pull in to Z for some petrol.
“You feel like being bad?” Mum asks, as I unclip the fuel tank stopper.
“Always,” I joke over my shoulder.
“What do you feel like?”
I think on it. I don’t really crave sweet things any more. “Surprise me.” She goes in to pay, and once the tank is filled, I hop back in and wait. Not long after, I hear the clap of her boot heels on the forecourt and the passenger-side door opens, and Mum holds up her bounty — all in the blacks and the bright colours. We eat RJ’s now.
“How did you know?” I grin, pushing the ‘Engine On’ button and pulling Kiki out of park. Mum rattles around with her seatbelt and starts opening the packet — she offers me one and I take it without looking, as I wave to a bus driver who let me merge into the Harp of Erin traffic lights. I pop the little cube into my mouth just as the light goes green, and all the memories are instantly available to me. I am 9, and 29.
Recent events in my life have reminded me that we are all just here for a few rounds of golf on the grand green of human existence, and I don’t even like golf, but I like the idea that we have these beautiful scenic moments in between trying to knock things into the right holes. Ha! And that it’s all very ridiculous and humbling. How it could have gone in any which way, but it went this particular way, and no matter how much we had to sacrifice to survive, we’re here now and it was worth it — oh, it was worth it.
So Mum and I drive northwards, and we talk about her day at work, and my day at school, and I lapse into future-thinking, thinking out loud about the things I am learning today, and what they are preparing me for tomorrow.
This time, of course, it’s different. This time, I’m the one driving. We glide northwards across the Harbour Bridge, watching the city gradually recede and the greenery encroach, headed in the direction of the Whangaparaoa peninsula. My brother owns a house there, with his gorgeous wife, and my “nephdog”, a schnauzer I helped name ‘Capone’.
He survived 17 acute neurosurgeries, an entire childhood of rehabilitation and treatment, to become this complete, wonderful, fully-functioning human being who I cannot imagine living life without. We came back, we came home.
And I like liquorice allsorts, now.