States of grief

Mum always printed a detailed itinerary for every overseas trip she made and left it with someone, so they could make the right phone calls if needed. This time she handed me her itinerary and with her dark sense of humour said, "Here. Just in case the terrorists get me." She always said that, too: "See you when I get back, if the terrorists don't get me first."

A week after Mum's last trip, a busload of tourists in the same part of Egypt she had been travelling through were killed by a suicide bomber. A week after she had taken my older brother, Leigh, and me in a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, a helicopter making the very same trip had crashed, killing all on board. These near misses often formed the exciting twists in the well-rehearsed travel stories I would hear her tell over and over and over.

I took the itinerary and kissed her goodbye.

My mobile phone woke me, close to midnight. I was in my own bed, but because I'd been drinking, I wasn't entirely sure of that fact for a few long seconds.

"Hello?" I said, not even bothering to conceal the fact that my sleep had been disturbed.

"Hi, it's Leigh." My brother had been living in London and working in IT for six months. "Some planes have crashed into some buildings in America and I'm just a bit worried about Mum."

I can't stand people jumping to conclusions.

I try to be a positive person most of the time, always look on the bright side and all that.

"There's probably nothing to worry about. Can you call back tomorrow?" I said, motivated by my desire to go straight back to sleep.

"Simon, what is it?" my partner Tahnee was now awake, which meant this conversation was going to happen tonight.

She knew Leigh rarely called, so the fact that he'd also called with some concern made it all the more worth paying attention to. Still, it played against my "She'll be right" attitude, and I was a bit annoyed at having been woken.

"Something's happened in America and Leigh's worried about Mum, but ..." is all I got out.

"Where's your mum's itinerary?" Tahnee asked determinedly. I wish I hadn't told Tahnee I had it. This was going to set back my chances of getting back to sleep by at least another half hour. I begrudgingly got out of bed, mumbling swear words to myself and grizzling.

Tahnee had turned on the television to footage of a plane hitting a building in New York City. The reports were saying this was the second plane: the footage showed the other tower already billowing smoke from the first crash. I wondered how something like this could happen twice.

I found the itinerary Mum had left with me, about a dozen photocopied sheets in a plastic sleeve. Flight AA77 from Washington (Dulles International) to Los Angeles. The live broadcasts soon relayed the news that a plane had hit the Pentagon. "Flight 77. I think that's one of them," Leigh said flatly.

September 11, 2001, was not the moment that defined my formula for grief; it had been well practised by then. The first great loss for my brother and me was in 1985, when our father, Barry, died from a massive heart attack.

Barry Kennedy was a life insurance broker who ironically died with no life insurance, leaving his bookkeeper, our mum, unemployed. Physically, he had a large-barrelled torso with the kind of beer belly that felt hard, as if it was muscle. Strict but loving, he would take off his belt to punish us for our wrongdoings, but I savoured the hugs and kisses he would happily give at bedtime when he would sing Morningtown Ride by the Seekers, noting how his face felt like coarse sandpaper.

At nine years old, my life in our four-bedroom house in Toongabbie in Sydney's west couldn't have been more normal. My brother and I were loafing around the lounge room watching TV when Dad came home from work and then promptly left.

"Your dad has a pain in his chest so he's just gone up to see Dr Ing," explained Mum.

No one ever knew how to pronounce the surname Ng in 1985, so an invisible "I" had been added by Mum. Dad had survived a heart attack some years earlier, but Leigh and I had been far too young to remember. I wonder in hindsight why he hadn't called an ambulance rather than trotting off to the GP. I suppose men like my father didn't want to "make a big fuss out of it".

That was the last time we saw Dad. He had arrested in Dr Ng's surgery and died in an ambulance on the way to hospital. Watching Mum struggle with grief had more of an effect on me than actually losing my father. I loved Dad, but I would learn to live without him. I was still learning how life worked anyway. Mum, though, wasn't looking for any life lessons at 46.

Mum managed very well most days, running the household and looking after two boys on the cusp of puberty. She had the support of her parents, who immediately sold their house in the town of Picton, south-west of Sydney, to buy a house in our suburb.

But things were different under the cover of night. It seemed that the combination of a glass of wine with dinner, then another mixed with her prescribed valium, left Mum wide open to loneliness and grief. There were nights I would not be able to fall asleep for the wailing and helpless cries coming from Mum's bedroom. My bedroom was at the opposite end of the house and the sound was enough to get me out of bed and down the cold, tiled hallway in the vain hope that I could help. No matter what I said or did, Mum just kept screaming with a kind of hurt that comes from nowhere visible.

Leigh rarely emerged from his room when Mum would go to pieces. I imagine he was feeling much the same as me: our world had fallen apart and the one person who was supposed to be in charge of getting it back on track was falling apart, too. This was a frightening time for two boys who had to become men overnight.

I began asserting my place as a clown at school. I enjoyed the positive attention, which seemed to fill a void. But as I came out of my shell, Leigh went into his, spending hours in his room teaching himself about computer code and pulling apart and putting back together his PC. It took quite some time before he could venture out and discover the real world and make new friends.

As the pain of losing Dad lessened, a tone of black comedy inched its way into Mum's life. Comments such as, "Things were going great until that bastard dropped dead on me", were now part of her repertoire. Perhaps the sense of humour was genetic, but when Mum joked about her dead husband, it kept his spirit alive and in a small way helped her to heal.

Mum started to get on with her life, but the relationship between the brothers Kennedy had been marked. When Leigh got angry enough, he would lash out at me with fists and feet flying. I mastered the art of curling up into a ball on the floor so that only my shoulders and the back of my head took the blows. When he got sick of that, he would storm off back into his room and the PC he had built from scratch, leaving me to sort out what unused anger I had left over.

I would generally try to avoid inflicting any physical attack on my brother. Words were always my weapon of choice, and as I had a ginger-haired brother who submersed himself in his computer world he was easy game. In the 1980s nerds were vilified - it's only now that they rule the world. My passive-aggressive Gandhi meets Chevy Chase technique meant that when I needed to release my aggression, I would take it out on a plasterboard wall or hollow-core door. I would then have to foot the damage bill.

Looking back at how my brother emotionally closed off after Dad died, I'm not surprised he became a powder keg when puberty kicked in. There was also the underlying fact that I was a very annoying provocateur who knew just the right buttons to press. Some kind of competitive team sport may have helped Leigh burn off some of that pent-up energy, but hand-eye coordination was not my brother's strong suit. Except, of course, for one freak moment during a fierce argument in the kitchen over nothing much at all, when he managed a very precise hit to my left temple with a Home Brand frozen meat pie.

Mum was genuinely worried about the outcome of our fights. When the news reported that a man had stabbed his brother to death at the Toongabbie Hotel, Mum actually thought for a moment it was Leigh and me. The volatile nature of our relationship waned as we grew into our 20s and lived apart. After university, Leigh took himself to London and this distance dissipated much of the teenage anger we shared. The sibling friction faded, stopping short of us becoming close friends.

I had never heard my brother speak publicly before. I always had it in my mind that I was the only one in the family adept at using a microphone. At Mum's funeral it had been decided that I would speak last. In stand-up comedy circles, this is called the headline spot. I stood beside Leigh as he began to speak, and speak well.

"For a very long time, Mum didn't have a very happy life," he said. "But over the last year or so, she had started to live her life for herself, and she was really happy. This is how I want to remember Mum and I hope everyone else here can try to do that, too."

Growing up with Leigh, I had never heard him speak with pride about anything or anyone. He was a closed book, but now at 28 he was opening up the pages in front of more than 1000 people. I was proud as he painted the picture of a woman who had gotten over hurdles in her life to go out on top.

"About a year ago," he continued, "as Mum neared retirement, she set off on a trip she had been wanting to do for a long time, to see Egypt and the pyramids, to go to the Greek Isles. Finally, Mum got to go on her retirement trip. A trip she had been dreaming of for years. She went to Canada and the US, travelling through the Rockies. She did things she had never done before, such as whitewater rafting. Mum was on her way home when she died."

My handwritten eulogy spanned three pages. I fought to get the words out. On this rare occasion, my emotions were in control of me. This was not a performance and I wasn't playing for laughs. One thousand people were now watching me unravel, each sentence would wind up in a series of rapid inward breaths and streams of salt water. Suddenly a hand rested on my shoulder, the brother who I once would have believed would leave me hanging out to dry was there for me. He gave me the momentum to keep going.

My phone rang. "Hello, this is Fred from Sydney Funerals," said a polite voice. "The casket containing your mother's remains has arrived."

I had always imagined that the remains being sent back from the US were pretty much just some ashes, more of a symbolic gesture than anything. I knew this was coming, as I'd been told by the federal police that some remains had been found based on the DNA samples Leigh and I had given. Commonsense should have told me that it wasn't just ashes, but I hadn't given it much thought until now.

Tahnee had been my go-between on so many of the details up to this point, but now I was on my own, in a food court with a question that seemed to fall out of my mouth.

"What remains are there?" I asked.

"Uh. It's one of her feet ... pretty much," he said uncomfortably.

Devastated, I hung up and sat in the food court staring into my imaginings. I was paralysed, glued to the chair that was bolted to the floor with my imaginary pile of ashes stolen from me. My choice of mental image had been hijacked, and now the idea that Mum had disappeared into a puff of smoke was no longer an option. Now I had to deal with the horrifying reality she may have suffered.

I tensed my brow in an attempt to control the tears and sobbing fighting to get out of me, but I fought harder. I didn't want to be a guy wailing in a food court. In shock, I sat there staring at the curry stains on the table. The tears did not come. My breath would have stayed inside, too, had I not forced it out.

I've learnt over the years to shut out whatever is happening in my life and relegate all the negative feelings to the back of my mind in order to keep a positive exterior. Tahnee calls this exterior "Good-Time Simon". When it's just me on my own, or just Tahnee and me at home, Good-Time Simon gets a break and my inner melancholy comes to the surface.

There was a marked difference between the Simon who held a microphone or tried to be witty and charming in a social setting, and the man she lived with. The more Tahnee voiced her frustrations with the state of our relationship the more I shut her out. She was the only person willing to point out my faults and as far as I was concerned she must have been wrong.

I was looking for Video Hits but the news seemed to be playing on every channel. "The bombs had gone off within seconds of each other at the Sari nightclub in Bali."

As I flicked through the channels, I saw the same footage. A repetitive loop of people shuffling around a burning pile of rubble. There was now blackened charcoal in place of the nightclub I had stood in with my mates five years previously. Suddenly I found myself transported back to the lounge room of our Maroubra house, watching continual footage of Flight 175 hitting the World Trade Centre's South Tower. All the emotional crutches I had been leaning on for the past year had been kicked out from under me. I slid from the bed to sit on the floor. I had tried so hard to walk tall and move forward, but Osama bin Laden had sent along his Indonesian counterparts to pull down the fortress I had built around myself.

I called Tahnee, hoping her voice would fix me.

"Have you seen the telly?" I asked.

"Yes, that Bali thing. It's terrible," she said.

I wanted more than her opinion of the story - I wanted her to know exactly how I felt without me having to express it.

"It's not just a thing!"

"You know, if I can't make you happy, maybe you'd be better off with someone else," she said, ripping open a part of me I thought was hidden. I wanted Tahnee to cure me, to make me feel better, to take away my troubles, but she hadn't. It wasn't for lack of care and sacrifice on her part, it just hadn't happened the way I had hoped.

"I don't want to be without you!" I pleaded. I hadn't realised until this moment that a year of involuntary emotional shutdown, which had been protecting me and keeping me on track, had also taken its toll on her.

"I've tried to help, but it's like we're not even a couple any more," she said. Now I understood why she had come to resent Good-Time Simon so much. Over the past year, I had taken Tahnee for granted and now I was faced with the fact that she was desperately unhappy and if I continued as I was I would eventually drive her away.

I'd been to see John, a grief counsellor, a few times just after we lost Mum, but the situation with Tahnee made visits more urgent.

John seemed to think I was coping with Mum's loss to the best of my abilities, but Tahnee was frustrated that he never got to see the true results of my grieving, the impact it had on my relationship with her. I told him she was feeling this way and he gave me that gift that all good counsellors do. "What do you think?" he asked me.

My answer was that I knew she was right. Whenever fear, frustration and pain would quietly build up to the point of overflowing it presented as a short-tempered outburst, generally in Tahnee's direction. It was at that point that she would pull me reluctantly back down to earth and make me examine what was truly going on.

I would initially fight against it, but I began letting Tahnee have her say. It played against my natural instincts for proving other people wrong, so I would resist, but fortunately she was strong enough to stand her ground. Owning my flaws and mistakes became a tool for moving forward.

Tahnee became the barometer for how I was doing. When things would get a hold of me I would bite her head off, then she would pull me up on it and I knew it was time for some course correction. She became the best counsellor I ever had. This is the process that still plays out today. One step back, two steps forward.

Edited extract from 9/11 and the Art of Happiness, by Simon Kennedy, released by Finch Publishing this week.

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