Back a couple of years, I wrote a review of a new memoir published by University of Queensland Press, Learning How to Breathe, by Linda Neil.
The review was to commissioned by an Australian literary journal, but for reasons unknown and unexplained, it didn’t get published. (I ceased my subscription to the journal after this, as I was annoyed that they kept promising publication but didn’t do it, and never apologised or explained why). So here is my revenge; I’m publishing it here, belatedly. I came across it again the other day, after hearing Linda Neil perform a meditation, with song, on the themes she had explored in her memoir, on Radio National.
This is a lovely book, and is still available. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it.
LEARNING HOW TO BREATHE: A TRUE STORY OF LOVE, FAMILY AND MUSIC
By Linda Neil
University of Queensland Press, $26.95 pb, 352 pp, 9780702237348
Linda Neil’s memoir of accompanying her mother Joan on her journey from the slow onset of insomnia and sadness through Parkinson’s disease and dementia to a penultimate state of vegetative dependency, is packaged in the media release as ‘a tribute to the loving complexity of family ‘ and ‘a love song to her mother and family’. This is a book that deals with strong emotions and arouses empathic responses in me as a reader. With my reviewer’s hat on, I modulate this response with an awareness of the complex structure of the narrative, the elegant interweaving of reminiscence — the reconstruction of a life and the family relationships that clustered round it — with the story of that life’s decline.
My introduction to the book was an emotional one, as I sat in my car in late 2009, in tears, listening to an interview with Linda Neil on The Music Show on Radio National. I went home and ordered a copy of it from the publisher. The author read a passage from the book, describing her mother’s last performance, singing fragments of a love song she had sung to her husband, as she walks with Linda along the corridor of the nursing home to the lift. As they sing the last refrain of the song, Joan turns round,
announcing to the lift which has arrived at our floor holding what might be her final audience: This is my daughter. We’re just singing together.
I get into the lift, turn back and face her as I hold the button down to keep down to keep the door open a little longer. The couple next to me join in with Mum and me to sing the final line of the song: I love you so.
…. There should be an orchestra in the lift. There should be technicolour. A choir of angels. A curtain closing. Rapturous applause. But as the lift doors close, no one claps, not even the couple beside me who sang with us. I imagine Mum walking back to her room, humming as she goes, at the same time forgetting and remembering all the melody of her life, her mind a confusion of love and music.
The first time I read this book I was caught up in the textured reconstruction of Linda’s relationship with her mother, that had been fraught in childhood and early adulthood by the gap between Joan’s musical expectations of her daughter and Linda’s wilful, unconventional journey as a musician. Joan was a suburban singing teacher, who could have had a career as a singer, but whose middle class, Roman Catholic upbringing led her into quieter activities. Linda’s violin playing and composing has led her from early awards, through a gypsy life ‘playing my songs to ferals, punks, artists and ordinary punters’, to this intense duet she and her mother perform, at first in the family home, increasingly in hospitals and eventually in hostels and nursing homes. The duet is about learning how to love and listen to each other, as Joan loses control of her life, stumbles and falls, and as Linda, forswearing her lifetime habit of walking away, performs with her mother the dance of death, and in doing so, learns how to live, love and let go.
My second reading of the book plunged me into the almost unbearable sadness of how illness can destroy a life, reducing it to one that is, for Joan, without meaning, without hope, whereas Linda, the observer, the carer, the witness, always seeks meaning. Towards the end, Linda is thankful that, in her vegetative state, Joan no longer feels the trauma. Her life has become simple and her needs, much reduced, are met through the loving and devoted care of one of her sons. She is one of the disappeared. For Linda, one of the survivors of trauma, the grieving is not finished; the trauma is felt and felt again, and the name of the disappeared is written over and over. This is the healing gift of life writing.
This voice of elegiac mourning, which for me is the dominant one, is modulated by many other voices — of Linda in different moods, of Joan, protesting, lamenting, raving, reminiscing, consoling, seeking solace, finally becoming mute except for rare utterances — and the voices of family members and friends. Neil has skilfully woven her own reflections, snatches of dialogue with her mother and others, excerpts of recorded interviews with significant characters in the story, reminiscences of childhood, of her father, of her parents’ complicated love affair with each other, into a narrative that ebbs and flows around the central figures, Joan and Linda. Woven through this complex composition are refrains from love songs her mother used to sing, fragments of philosophy and literature, and of Joan’s teachings about the art of singing.
Against the story of Linda’s messy, meandering pathway through life is set that of Joan’s determined, talented and dedicated service to others, teaching them how to find their voice and to perform, how to ‘maintain the appearance of serenity, even if you are dying inside’. The memoir is about Joan’s loss of poise and control, about her undoing as a person, her embodied descent into hell. Yet through this undoing, the shared love of Linda and her mother, of the remembered father, and of Linda’s siblings, rises in a triumphant refrain.