Even Sticky Tape Couldn't Fix Me - Dream Big (2013) by Valentina Duong

Remember when we were young and naive and we believed everything could be mended. Broken toys, broken bones and even broken hearts could be fixed with an arm around the shoulder or a squeeze of the hand. Time heals all wounds but insanity has no cure. No remedy. No treatment. It starts as a spark and doesn't stop until it destroys every cell of sanity until all that is left is a memory of happiness, hallucinations and hurt.

Every writer is a little insane. It’s a good kind of insanity that transports us to a dream world and makes us lose our footing on reality. Most can catch themselves before they get lost in insanity, an inbuilt reflex that forces us back into reality. I wish I could say the same for myself. I was born without this reflex. From the mere age of ten, a single candle illuminated the barely decipherable scribble of my ideas every night. The only way to awaken me from the land of fiction is to stop. Stop writing. Stop thinking. Stop breathing.

Humanity’s obsession with the false promises of wealth, fame and youth does not concern me. Instead, I sacrifice sanity to recreate my insignificant, morose being, transforming my small stature into a towering, powerful figure, my dull straight hair into glossy ringlets, and my loneliness into love.

The piercing memory of my sanity haunts me but giving up creativity is giving up hope, spirit and belief. Take one aspect away and eventually, we all falter and die.

The last rays of day filter through the blinds and my fingers curl around my fountain pen as I immerse myself in writer’s paradise. I have nothing else to lose, broken to such an extent that “all the king’s horses and men couldn't put [me] back together again.” The only thing that keeps me alive is a force that urges me to write. To release my insanity on paper. To the ignorant, words are merely a jumble of letters consuming precious paper. They are incapable of comprehending that words strung together properly inspire hope in the hearts and minds of the young and old. Words have motivated the greatest ideas in history; expressed the greatest and worst feelings felt by humanity. Words are capable of magically capturing moments, and when read can replay every moment precisely. Do not be mistaken, lines and lines of words do not necessarily make writing great, for words are precious and often a sentence conveys thought better than any essay can. Words are magic and authors are magicians.

My hand trembles vigorously as the wheels of my mind turn for the last time free from society’s controlling grasp and I write the words that would define my existence, before I dial the number that would destroy the monster that gripped me, before sanity prevails, before it is too late.

"Good writers have a balance of sanity and insanity but for truly great writers, sanity was never an option.”

 

My Italian Grandfather - Summertime Fun (2013/1014) by Valentina Duong

The scent of his neighbour’s creamy pumpkin soup wafted through his window every evening, accompanied by excited squeals of the youngest daughter at her favourite dish. His lips slowly curled up into a smile as water trickled onto the lilac roses adorning his window sill in memory of his wife; pumpkin was her favourite food too. Despite living in a suburb renowned for a multitude of theft and robbery, he always left his side gate to his vegetable patch and guava tree open for the little Vietnamese girl.

“Vanilla”, he would holler in his thick, Italian accent. “Pumpkin. Pumpkin. Take. Take.”

***

I never took his pumpkin or other vegetables, nor did I tell him my name was not an ice-cream flavour. Instead, I sat under the indigo sky and we counted until my mother returned from the sewing factory. How could I repay a man who left his doors unlocked for a stranger and dissolved my worries with a warm cup of tea and tiramisu slice? Natalia’s small smile never faded, his heart filled with love pumped strong but he now moved with the snails with his body hunched and head bowed down humbly. His world was dimming; a strange mist fogged his eyes and memory. I kept counting uno, duo, tre but time marched onwards. I resorted to tiramisu and tea, entertaining him with new Vietnamese phrases I had diligently translated into English then Italian. In return, he told me the anecdotes his grandfather, nonnino, had amused him with when he was a child always reminding him Mal commune, mezzo gaudio; A shared trouble is a half joy.

***

On a sweltering Friday afternoon, I trudged past his wife’s withering roses. A simple letter lay on my veranda inviting us to a small funeral. He had gained his angel wings. Respectfully dressed in our red Vietnamese dresses, ao dai, we entered. A large congregation of aggrieved family clad in black greeted us with distant smiles and murmured of our confusion; the Chinese wedding was next Sunday.

The soft, melancholy crescendo of the piano weaved through the pillars in rhythm to foreign prayers. His small smile projected across the screen, his green eyes stared lovingly down on me. The sharp scent of pumpkin hit me. Twenty-eight eyes turned towards the little girl hugging her knees and gasping for air. They moved closer and closer until their arms embraced me, until my sobbing was a whisper in the cries of many. Vanilla perfume wrapped around me and I sunk into their warm embrace.

Sometimes when the sky is tinged purple and the morning rays begin to smile on the pumpkin patch, I sneak into a stranger’s backyard and sit under Natalia’s guava tree. I hug my knees to my chest and trace the veins on my wrist. Perhaps it’s not the blood that in our veins that define family; rather it is love, compassion and bravery that bound us eternally. Natalia will always be my nonnino, and I his nipote.

 

Breathe Easy/ One Stitch At a Time (2014) by Valentina Duong

The smell was acrid. The sharp bitterness of antiseptic burnt my nostrils. I felt like my lungs were being crushed. Air particles assaulted the thick layer of mucus barricading my bronchi walls. The lines on the electrocardiogram fluctuated erratically. My eyes darted wildly between the sterile white walls that were caving in on me. They pause as her warm fingers curl on my shoulder. Slowly, she mouths “focus” and together we breathe deeply. In and out. In and out. Finally, the particles penetrated and oxygen and relief flooded my body, followed closely behind by dread… Numb, I leaned back into my mother’s arms, awaiting the ensuing coughing fit.

***

She moves in rhythm with her daughter. Her arms mirror each tumble and turn of Phoebe, ready to perform airway clearance techniques in a moment’s notice. As Phoebe coughs heavily, there is no doubt that even their breaths are in synchronisation. Instead of taking charge, I stand quietly behind her. The most important thing that I have learnt in my twenty-two years of nursing is that nothing compares to a mother’s love. But even a mother’s love cannot create miracles. Behind every smile and laugh is the unspoken knowledge: The maximum life span of cystic fibrosis patients is 35 years. Not enough time to grow old, have grandchildren, pay off a house and car. But enough time to laugh, cry, dance, scream, hug, to start a family and create memories. Enough time for someone to be loved… and lost.

Glimpsing my figure she speaks, “Jess I don’t think I’m going to go to the dance tonight.”

“ Pheebs. It’s ---“

“… our tradition. You’ve been going to the Sydney Children’s Hospital Dance since you were four”, interrupts her mother.

“But I’m too weak to..”

“dance? That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun” she said in a soft, resolved tone.

***

The milestone. Even though she is retired, Jess stands beside me lighting the 35 candles that my mother had miraculously arranged on my cake. For my entire life, this day had loomed as my expiry date but today, the only thing I was worried about expiring was the creaky hinges on the swing of the fairy garden. Where the Sydney Children Hospital dance is still held today.

***

Jess wheels me into the room towards the main group socialising in the centre, a nebuliser trailing closely behind.  “Stop.” Following my requests, she leads me to a small table in the corner of the room.

 

Disconnecting me from the whirring machine, she pushes me further and further in to the centre as the music pumps loud in my ears. Sweaty, pulsating bodies press against my cool skin. I breathe heavily as my wheelchair spins around and around and around. In moments like this, I don’t mind having my breath taken away

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