Friday, March 17, 2006

The Nail Fright Mountain Models

On the way back here (picking up friend from hospital, seeing psychiatrist, trying to track down unpaid bills and pay them, that kind of stuff) I passed eight roadside memorials. Eight of the things. Everywhere here there are signs somebody has died.

I should try and explain the things I mean – although I doubt they are an exclusively Australian phenomenon. You see a streetlamp, or a salmon gum, or a road sign, and tied to it or nailed to it are some faded flowers, or a broken sign, and a name. By the intersection of Cooper and Laing streets, there is half a tilted cross strapped to a lightpost. It says "Daniel P..." but the rest of the name is worn away.

These are not distributed randomly, but the mathematics behind the pattern is obscured. There is a mathematical model that should be able to be used to predict when and where these memorials will occur - I refer the interested reader to the Nagel-Schreckenberg model of car accidents, a mathematical model of how traffic flows or does not flow, and when and where to expect collisions.

As an aside, I hadn't heard of this mathematical model before and I looked it up. The most comprehensible nuts-and-bolts article was from wikipedia... but in German. I tried translating the page with Google's translato-thingy, and I got a relatively normal looking article... but then I noted that among other things, the translated page spoke not of the deterministic and non-deterministic Nagel Schrekenberg models of traffic flow, but of the Nail Fright Mountain Models.

Now there's a mental image. The Nail Fright Mountain Models. Coming soon to your fashion show, to lurch psychotically along the catwalk in tattered rags at midnight, and stare at passers by through the broken glass of empty shop-front windows.
Sound like one of those bands my niece listens to - that stuff they call black metal, although it's only ever done by white guys.

Anyway. From what I see of where these memorials are, long straight roads seem to be over-represented - the five or six kilometer stretch of the single-lane street from the railway tracks to the sheet-metal place, the straight stretch of Kraepelin Highway as it comes down from the north. This suggests the usual suspects - fatigue, inattention, complacency.

I wonder, at the moment, if there was anything else involved.

Those voices in the silence, that kind of thing.

But some of the patterns are surprising. A few years back there was a horrible accident close to here. A big semi trailer came down the hill, end of the Freeway, came through the lights. On the other side of the intersection the cars were lined up - a small Civic, a Barina, a beaten up station wagon, a VW. Eight or ten people died. I was doing final year at the time, closer to the centre of the city, one of my friends was doing emergency, another surgery, another orthopaedics - several of us saw these patients, or had spoken with those who had. We descended on the patient files like flies, the way you anxiously grasp at news of a strange country towards which you are being taken.

Anyway, eight dead, tens injured, the close-knit communities of the south reverberating with the shock. Psychiatrists and social workers spoke gravely on the television about the effects of things like this.

And yet today I drove past the entrance to the freeway, and there was nothing. No flowers, no cross, no small sign hammered into the stony ground. As if, perhaps, that death was too obvious to require a memento, or too vast to be claimed as one person's death.

And anyway. These things do answer some questions. Are we forgotten after we die?

I suspect we are.

Before I cause offence, I am not suggesting that those who mourn their dead only make show. And I know - I have seen - people crippled by their losses - husbands who survive their wives by less than a month, fathers who've buried part of themselves with their sons. My own best friend, when I was fourteen, fell from the back of a flat-bed truck onto the road, cracked his head open, died on arrival. I cried like I had never cried before. It changed my life.

So - do I remember him?

One answer is of course. His father grew trees (it was a windy night, the young trees they were transporting were being blown about, he stood on the back of the truck to hold them on), and even now each time I see a nursery I am reminded of him. And I did what theology I did and aimed to be a pastor like I did at least partially because of him, imagining in some daft way that he would be honoured by me taking up what he had always said he would do, my picking up the torch that he had dropped.

But there is more to this than that.

The first few days I heard about this I cried, cried constantly for a few hours.

The next few weeks there was less crying. There were times spent talking, gathered knots of us, or sitting outside classes while teachers sat with us, being comforted.

Then the next few months. We did stuff - wrote about it, organized some English prize in his name or something, once or twice we prayed together. But we also played a bit of basket-ball, fell in and out with each other, discovered dungeons and dragons. I think that was the summer my new best friend Alastair hooked up with that red headed girl and I hardly saw him.

And now. Now it's once or twice a year I see a nursery, or I hear that 'four Yorkshiremen' sketch, or see someone who runs a bit like him (that nodding-headed, enthusiastic way), or some weather patterns (it sounds really mawkish, but when the sun comes out from behind a cloud - that's what he was like)... that's what reminds me.

Something has changed. I have recovered. I think on those events and I do not feel quite the same pain. In one sense, it has been forgotten.

Neurologically, I suspect we can find out what has happened. The brain is plastic, meaning that it flows and deforms in response to pressures: emotional pressures, cognitive pressures. Not so much on the macroscopic stage, but at the molecular level - neurons and synaptic knobs and patterns of neurochemicals. It adapts, it flows around, ineluctable as water round a rock.

Over time the brain recovers from what neurologists call 'insult'. Horribly, callously, unpalatably, most people pretty much get over it. They continue on their way - an altered trajectory, subtly or less so, but still continuing. They keep on moving.

I suppose if we are talking neurology, the 'reason' for all this is unclear. But perhaps some griefs are intolerable. Scar tissue forms around the wound.

(However, this is not always true. I remember seeing a woman when I was with the Mental Health* team, working in the far south of the city. I had been asked to see someone after her GP became concerned about her ongoing depression. I drove miles and miles over dry, sun-baked land, past tiny shopping centres and service stations with two petrol pumps, to find her, in a tiny regional hospital on the banks of a slow-flowing river. We sat in the courtyard while she told me of her husband's death - eighteen months earlier, some agricultural accident, a few days in intensive care in the Royal, and then an end.

She - no sleep, no energy, not going out, fewer and fewer friends, voice slowed and whispering - I don't know that she would get better. It had been a year and a half, and she was no better at all. I recall reading at the time that women widowed at a relatively young age have a very poor prognosis).

So mostly we forget. That's it. No thesis here, no particular argument, no pushing a certain point of view. If we die, then (eventually and to a certain extent), people get over us.

This, I suspect, is why the flowers are faded on the signs that say "Always in our hearts", and why Daniel P's surname is obscured, and why I wager nobody in the surrounding shops (KFC, an aquarium shop, Alf's tyres, Carpet World) could tell me who he was.

Anyway. Enough of the morbid thoughts. And enough of the internetting. I have to get in the car and pick up my niece from the bus stop. Basic social contract stuff.

I was right about the drugs, too - three out of three. Mood-stabiliser, anti-depressant, low-dose anti-psychotic. I spent the night looking up the pharmacology of these medications, and the day imagining I have every documented adverse effect possible. I doubt it. But next post will probably be an installment of Fear and Loathing in the Frontal and Temporal Lobes.

Thanks for listening,

John

*Not in the mood for amusing-to-me nicknames. And anyway, I've forgotten what I called this organization. It's the community mental health team, the people (nurses, social workers, doctors) who go out and visit the mentally unwell in the community. Did this for six months almost three years ago. Very much an "into the underbelly" job.

2 Comments:

Blogger Foilwoman said...

I hope the new medications are doing their job without too many unpleasant side effects.

11:44 AM  
Anonymous Camilla said...

Wow, how bizarre. I was writing about this very same thing myself, today. About how after trauma, and after the initial acute pain, people get on with living. I suppose they have to, really, otherwise there wouldn't be any people left.

I know what you mean about the flowers too. There's a pair of vases concreted into the traffic island at the Welshpool Road/Leach Highway intersection, and a name mounted on the traffic light on a carved little block (wood? metal? can't tell from the inside of a car). I know who died there (you guys too), but rivers and rivers of cars go past each day carrying people who don't. Someone is holding him in their memory though, 13-odd years later, because every now and again there are fresh flowers in the vases.

For my part, I say his name out loud every time I go through that intersection. I still feel sad that he's gone, but it doesn't hurt so much any more.

4:13 AM  

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