Between our house and the street is a sprawling magnolia tree that in summer provides shade and dapples the harsh light onto my bedroom window. Like our own Praetorian guard, it watches over and protects us.
When my partner of 25 years left recently, and as I stood in the wake of his violent parting, I watched the leaves of the tree curl in, shrink and disappear. Bare-armed and vulnerable, it stood imperiously against a stormy autumn sky.
As I stood in the wake of his violent parting, I watched the leaves of the tree curl in, shrink and disappear.Credit:Nailia Schwarz
In the months that followed, I made the choice to cope. Striding rather than walking, I power-dressed, laughed too hard, and worked like a woman possessed. Playing the role of the gay divorcee, I told family, neighbours and friends that I was fine … better than fine!
I went drag queen heavy on the makeup to disguise my exhausted, pallid complexion, and worked patiently to untangle a shared life. I arranged payment plans, fought the banks to stop our joint account being stripped and visited a lawyer to divide assets.
There were court cases, intervention orders, child protection and police statements to deal with. My eldest son and I spent hours turning the house into Fort Knox and pre-empting my ex-partner's potential moves. Like two soldiers-in-arms, we carried the collective burden of knowing his cunning and lust for revenge.
Plotting and counter-plotting, we worked into the early hours. When nervous exhaustion cloaked my resolve, I became seduced by despair. Asking myself, what kind of life is spent protecting children from their own father? I read that more than one woman a week has been killed by their intimate partners this year, so I gave up the luxury of self-pity and started plotting again.
My lawyer has a fleshy, grandmotherly face that belies her hard-bitten demeanour. I seem to annoy her from the get-go with my rapid-fire questions and edge of desperation. I wrote on the form that I was an academic, this was like a red rag to a bull. For some reason I confide in her that I fear for my life, and she smiles her grandmotherly smile and says, "You’re an academic, you’ll work it out." So much for sisterly solidarity, I think.
Sleep was hard to come by and in the gloomy, pre-dawn light, I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of parenting my four children alone. Catastrophic thoughts fired off in my brain: What if I get sick? What if we lose the house? What if one of them is struggling and I miss it? … Will I always be alone? The darkness pressed in on me and I could not breathe.
What kind of life is spent protecting children from their own father?
When there was a breeze, the fingertips of the magnolia taped gently on my window and I relaxed as if a baby rocked in its mother’s arms.
After years of having my spending monitored, and being chastised, I lost my head with my newfound freedom. I had little money but lots of time so online auctions became my drug of choice. I scored a $1500 Swiss watch for $40 and felt like I had won the jackpot. I defiantly flashed it about as if to say, "I may be poor but I do not have to look it."
Then I won another watch, and another and, when the seventh arrived, my 15-year-old daughter looked at me as if she had just found my drug stash. “I am sure this will pass,” I offered feebly.
I wanted to howl into the soul-crushing void that had swallowed her childhood innocence.
My once carefree nine-year-old spent her time cleaning her room and excelling at school. She refused to hug me saying she had too much to do. Dark rings circled her chocolate brown eyes and she developed a compulsion to touch her fingertips with her thumb in a particular sequence, whenever she was idle. Therefore, she filled every minute with frenetic activity until she fell asleep at night.
Mother guilt corroded my heart and turned my gut to stone. I wanted to howl into the soul-crushing void that had swallowed her childhood innocence.
Nine months after the split as I walk to the letterbox, I feel the warm grass feather the soles of my feet. A sweet anise fragrance swamps my senses and looking up I see a rebellion of pure white magnolia flowers, perched like lanterns on the fingertips of the branches. Its glorious fecundity flaunted against a vivid blue sky and its feet carpeted by petals laying in perfect repose, on the lush green lawn. I am arrested by its majesty; disarmed by a feeling of utter joy.
I call out to my now 10-year-old who runs full speed out of the house and squeals with delight as she log-rolls in the layers of luscious petals. I laugh at her recklessness and feel life blooming again, new and renewed.
The author has a doctorate in medical research and is based at a large Australian university and research institution.
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