• Mum also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. This, more than any of her other conditions, is the most difficult to manage. (Getty Images)
Trauma can be tended to, gently, patiently. Caring for my mother is that kind of everyday routine, though it can be lonely, difficult work.
By
Dimitra Harvey

19 Aug 2019 - 9:20 AM  UPDATED 19 Aug 2019 - 1:38 PM

I’ve been my mother’s full-time carer for many years. She has congenital heart disease and a form of blood cancer.

There have been times, over the years, when these conditions were life-threatening. Now they’re mostly under control — thanks to a metal heart valve and a string of medications, including a mild chemo drug. Day to day, I help Mum manage her chronic pain and fatigue. I cook and clean for her, I help her dress, I take her to her doctors’s appointments, I pick up her prescriptions.

Mum also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. This, more than any of her other conditions, is the most difficult to manage.

There are days when her mood swings suddenly, violently, and she can’t get out of bed. When she gets so depressed, so intensely anxious, that having a conversation with her, without her screaming and becoming aggressive, is impossible. When anything can trigger in her a fight or flight response. When all she can see is that everyone is against her, everyone an abuser with malicious intentions she needs to protect herself against — the receptionist at the GP’s office, the taxi driver, even me. 

Throughout her young life and into her adulthood, Mum was savagely abused by her father

Throughout her young life and into her adulthood, Mum was savagely abused by her father. 

There are dents in the bones of her forearm where he beat her with steel piping and she tried to defend herself. Often, he used his belt to beat her. Once, while she was breastfeeding my older sister, he put a knife to her throat. 

Beatings were common in my grandfather’s family. His father beat him and his siblings. His siblings beat their children. 

His family had an intimate relationship with violence. 

Along with his parents and many of his brothers, my grandfather fought for the Greek resistance during WWII and the German occupation of Greece. He witnessed his siblings cut the throats of German soldiers. On the day the war was won, in front of his entire village, the Germans lined up one of his brothers with other captured insurgents, and shot them on the beach. 

After going on to also fight in Greece’s civil war, my grandfather didn’t want much to do with people. He spent long periods of time up on the mountain by himself, herding goats. He desperately needed to escape the political confusion and volatility, and devastating poverty. 

He emigrated to Australia with my grandmother, my mother, and my uncle in the 1950s. By then, Australia had amended its White Australia Policy to admit other-than-British Europeans, in order to bolster its flailing post-war population and work force. 

That was about the time he began beating my mother. She was barely five years old. 

When he was having difficulties in his marriage, he beat her. When she did well at school and her brother didn’t, he beat her. When he drank and lost money gambling, he beat her. 

I often think about how the trauma of violence gets exchanged from one generation to the next; how you break the cycle

It’s impossible to understand why he targeted her, and so savagely. He never beat my uncle — though he often belittled him, called him a weakling and a “snot”. 

My grandmother always tried to intervene, to physically insert herself between my grandfather and Mum, use her body as a shield — and was also beaten. 

Mum describes how “the old man” would go through periods where he was playful and genial, when they joked and laughed together; when, in her words, he was “a really nice person”. She’s spoken of afternoons they spent discussing philosophy, mythology, spirituality together. 

Then, “something would happen”, go wrong in his life — his mood would swing, and he’d take it out on Mum.

He struggled with the violence he witnessed and committed during the wars — no doubt suffered from post-traumatic stress. Did that make him turn his rage on her? 

Was it the beatings he’d received from his father? 

Was it the racism and class discrimination he experienced when he arrived in Australia? Was it the difficulty of being displaced? Having to leave his home, give up his culture? 

I don’t know. Maybe it was all those things. Maybe my grandfather was mentally unwell and never got the support he needed. I struggle every day to make sense of his violence. 

I often think about how the trauma of violence gets exchanged from one generation to the next; how you break the cycle. Violence turned on your own child is a disease. 

I’ve learned there’s no way to fix the effects of that kind of violence. But day to day, trauma can be tended to, gently, patiently. 

Caring for my mother is that kind of everyday routine, though it can be lonely, difficult work. 

I struggle every day to make sense of his violence

We live with a legacy of generational traumas, of losing a home, a language, a culture, a livelihood. I feel like I’ve always lived between cultures, countries, and histories, with a tenuous sense of identity and belonging. 

By the time I was born, my grandfather was weakened by emphysema, and his physical abuse of my mother had largely ceased. 

Mum lived with him and cared for him right up until he returned to the village in Greece to die. He didn’t tell her he was going — he locked up his side of the house, and just left. 

When I talk about it now with Mum, it’s obvious his leaving without saying goodbye was almost more painful for her, more difficult to endure than the years of abuse. She tells me she prefers to remember the times they joked and laughed together; that she forgives him — it’s the only way she can go on with her life. 

My memories of him are like snapshots. 

How he’d lean against the garage wall, smoking a cigarette. 

The mornings he’d sneak me and my brother Kit Kats before breakfast. 

The peach-coloured chunks of rock he hauled back from Coober Pedy before I was born, and had stacked under the carport. The way he’d split the rocks like coconuts with a chisel. How the broken stone would glitter with interwoven seams of opal. 

I’d never been to Greece before, but my blood knew the country somehow

After I finished high school, I visited the village where he was born and his family has lived for generations. I took the ferry from Italy to the port of Patras in the Peloponnese. I remember waking at sunrise to see the white islands of the Ionian Sea drifting past, the clear water coruscating with light — sensing immediately a bond, a familiarity. 

That sense of recognition intensified when I arrived in the village. I’d never been to Greece before, but my blood knew the country somehow. 

The vineyards and the whitewashed cottages reminded me of my childhood home — the rambling grapevine in the backyard my grandfather had smuggled into Australia, the lemon and orange trees, the cypress trees. He’d been a prolific gardener, he’d loved to grow things. 

A part of me felt at home in the village. But it was the same tenuous sense of belonging I’d always felt in Australia. I wasn’t really a Greek. But I couldn’t wholly identify as an Australian either. 

From the porch of my great uncle’s house there’s a view of the Acrocorinth — a monolith, a stony hill, on top of which stands the ancient acropolis of Corinth, the temple of Aphrodite — goddess of love — perched on the highest peak. During the various wars, the Acrocorinth was made and remade into an important military fortress and lookout. 

I remember gazing at it and thinking how incongruous, sacrilegious even, it was to make use of a place dedicated to love for war. That hill symbolises the struggles of my family.

Dimitra Harvey is the poetry editor of Mascara Literary Review. She will be introducing writers at the Mascara Global South Salon at Sydney University on August 24. Registration is free.  

If you or someone you know is impacted by domestic violence or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au In an emergency call 000.

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