March 2024

Back to Issue 15

Leaving and leaving and leaving

By Liz Sutherland

I was twelve the night I first saw someone die. We had spent the day moving house from number 77 to 76, just over the road. Our temporary home while we renovated the permanent one. We went out for ice-cream to celebrate moving furniture and boxes a few dozen feet to the other side of the street. Laughing through the brain freeze and shining under streetlights. The mint chocolate chip coated my tongue and marked my fingers with sticky sweetness. Dad pulled back into the driveway. We all poured out and divided up the last of the tasks. Dad and Kathy, my older sister, headed to 77 to carry across some final things from the office. Mum and Andy, my younger sibling, walked into the new house to start unpacking. Joey was already locked inside 76, he was Mum’s cat. Jerry, mine, hadn’t been found before we left for dessert. I was assigned to find him, bring him home.

Pspspsps, I squeaked, bottom teeth pressed against top lip. A warped version of the sound only I made that Jerry knew by heart. I wandered through the dark along one side of the street and back the other way. Popping my head behind his favourite bushes, calling his name and squeaking interchangeably. I rounded the white picket fence of 77 and he came trotting towards me from behind the jacaranda, a grey skeleton in the dark. I scooped him up, started walking the thirty metres home, and crossed the road. Headlights glared at us from afar, widened their eyes in approach. Jerry squirmed in my arms, trying to break free. He wanted to go home to the one he’d always known. I held and held until I couldn’t anymore, until sharp-clawed blood drew goodbye on my forearm. A little bit of blood never hurt anyone.

The seconds linked arms like school children, crossed the road, ran into one another. Each indistinguishable from the next.

My gaze averts as you leap. Extract; let the grip release. I don’t hear the tires screech; I can only hear my own. See you on the bitumen, your tiny, perfect body writhing. The smell of burnt tires makes me shudder, I’m going to be sick. You’re a ventriloquist’s doll, strings are shaking, wooden body breaking. My hand reaches out unbidden, your skin is so warm, it near-burns me to the touch. I can’t stop reaching, shouldn’t stare, you may as well be the sun. Your pieces shattered, piercing dust motes with your silent screams. I’ll do it all differently if it will make you stay.

A look past lashes, other lashes have stolen. Warm body getting colder by the moment. Folded back upon itself, clock spins lost all meaning. I saw it happen. I can’t believe I kissed you one last time. I saw you gone I saw you gone I saw you gone. Now and tomorrow and in every lifetime, I’ll follow you home.


In hindsight, this was the moment I learned to leave. There’s a powerful draw to nostalgia. An aching, melancholic desire to return to the positive memories of before. Whenever I’m faced with a present that feels uninspired, unstable, or unsafe, I know I can’t go backwards. And the only certainty in the future is uncertainty. So, if the here and now is mediocre at best, I choose to be elsewhere and then. This combines with my ADHD-fuelled aversion to sameness and a fear of abandonment; the perfect recipe for finger-licking yearning. Because what better way to avoid being abandoned than to abandon first?

Granny left a long time ago. I only met her two or three times, I think. She stuck around long enough to have four kids, my Mum being the eldest. One Christmas, she surfaced in her white and blue caravan to crash lunch at my cousin’s place. Her diminutive frame contorted in opposition to Grandad, who passed down his tallness to Mum and me. But aside from the height differential, her features reflected ours eerily. She’d bought gifts for my cousin, a Barbie with fluro 90s bike shorts and pink sunglasses. I loved Barbies too, where was mine? When she said hello to me, she notably didn’t say my name. I didn’t know hers either until I was 29.

A little bit of blood [relations] never hurt anyone.

That caravan reappeared in our driveway a few years later. We’d been out all morning; hockey matches filled winter Saturdays followed by hot chocolates in our favourite cafe. Stinky with sweat and content in our bellies, we angled for the warm showers of home. But as we pulled into our street, approached the 60s, then the 70s, the caravan came into view.

     “Don’t stop,” Mum snapped to Dad. “Keep driving, don’t stop.”

We drove for what felt like hours, circling back every so often to see if she was still waiting. Granny only ever came back when she wanted something. Money, usually. Or a fight. She eventually left and we went inside and didn’t speak of it again. I wonder if I’m destined to repeat her pattern of leaving and leaving and leaving. 

When people tell you to consider both your head and your heart in making decisions, I think they leave out the crucial third—animal. The animal in me loves [needs] to run. What’s it called when your body is frozen asleep and you wake? That. Motion sleepness, car wall hitness, thrust awakeness.

At airports there are contraptions that probably have a name, but I don’t know it. They’re made of metal poles, extendable fabric strips, alternately clipped into one another to create barriers, to direct flow. There are unwritten social cues around these queues. We abide. I flew into another new airport. There were unknown-named contraptions all about, inside and out. I walked, crossed a road, and continued towards one. There were people there, there were people everywhere. Before and behind me. One lifted a hand, lifted a fabric strip clip, snapped it back, and cut through. Others followed suit. Before and behind, then all before. And I’m still going the long way round.


The day I first flew away the voice on the plane said, “If there’s anything else we can do to make your flight more comfortable just let me know.”

They always say that. It’s just words and wind flying past my face, my neck. What’s the air like where you are now, I wonder, or if there even is air because I guess you didn’t take your lungs with you this trip there would’ve been no room to pack them in the casket. And now you’re right, I wish I hadn’t left that first time around and now it’s been years, you’re right, and I’m still thinking of you, and I can’t sleep and I’m much better than I used to be so please don’t worry about me. There are words and there are whispers and in falling asleep all I hear is goodbye and maybe that’s why.

A few years after Jerry died in my arms, his brother Joey also passed away. Months later we brought another feline sibling pair into our home, Riley and Lulu. Riley picked Mum, and Lulu picked Andy.

Lulu passed away within three weeks, she had a previously undetected birth defect, there was nothing anyone could have done. We had some serious bad luck with cats, it seemed. It took a long time for us all to feel ready to bring another fur-buddy into the fam. And when we did, I fell in love immediately.

His name was Robbie.

He was so soft and white, I swear there must have been snowflakes fashioned in his image. I was a hormonal, depressed, self-conscious mid-teenager when Robbie arrived. Barely knew myself, I was unformed and malleable, and trying desperately to fit in and be seen for all the right reasons, not my reasons. Years nine and ten were the worst for me once I’d come out as bi to my best friend at the time, and she promptly told everyone else at school. I felt obscene, monstrous, and unlovable. I pushed those parts of me aside. At least then when my classmates rejected me, they’d be rejecting a curated reflection of someone I presented myself to be, not really me. But then he padded right into my orbit.

My internalised speciesism tells me to feel embarrassed to say these things about a cat. I wonder, though, if there’s anyone alive who hasn’t felt their heart swell to twice the size because of a non-human animal? I don’t subscribe to the idea that animal-human relationships are any less meaningful than human-human ones.

He used to do this thing that everyone else found weird and disgusting, but I adored. He would jump onto my lap and twirl on the spot half a dozen times until it felt just right. I’d cradle him in my arms and he’d lean into his lower right nipple, pink and swollen from oft-use. Lick a few times until the tell-tale plckplckplck would signal he’d latched.

     “Like sucking his thumb,” I’d say to my friends with wrinkled noses.

And he would only do it with me.

All I have left of you are pixels.

I wish I could capture these moments, play them on repeat like the reel of an old movie. Nostalgia sepia painting the grains of your face. I’m going to miss this. I’m going to miss this. I’m going to miss this.

If I had the chance, I’d send it back eleven years ago to when I first left. I’d bring you with me over thousands of miles and hold you close. Listen to your suckling and never have to say goodbye until the whispers of I’m ready.

I’m sorry I left you all those times, but I promised you one thing, and I kept that promise. You wouldn’t be alone at the end. I was there with you every second on the way to the vet. Every second on that chrome table. I was there holding you and accepting you and loving every ounce of you. You held on for me for longer than you probably wanted to, you knew I wasn’t ready. I’m ready to let go now, but in that letting go I’ll hold you in my arms until your very last breath. I’ll hold you in my heart for momentous eternity.


Memory is a curious thing. I wonder how it comes about and how it starts to fail. I wonder why some memories can implant a blooming ray of warmth that lasts a lifetime, when others can tear down the sun at the slightest recall. Dad used to travel for work a lot when I was a kid. Each time he left, I thought I’d never see him again. This would be the last. Perhaps Mum picked up on that, could sense I couldn’t see past his absence to a unified tomorrow. She made sure that disconnection ended as soon as possible. As soon as he stepped off the plane and into our outstretched arms. Those are some of the happiest moments of my life, knowing he comes back. He always came back.

It’s the same for cats. Their uncanny ability to wander, befriend the neighbours, lose themselves and find their way home. I remembered my other grandma, Dad’s mother, telling me about her cat from decades ago. A fearless ginger farm boy, he chased a snake under the house one day to screams of Grandi sobbing on the porch. He stayed below all night, surely never to re-emerge. But with fierce victory in his stride, he shocked them the next morning, whole and well, snake between his jaws.

When my romantic relationship with Dale started, it was six years after we’d first met. I fell in love with him from afar, while I travelled in a van around the US and Canada, and he hiked the Appalachian Trail. Our long-distance communication drew us closer until we eventually fessed up to our burgeoning feelings. It was electric, exciting, the way transitional moments edged me from beyond the fog. It lifted skyward, shrouded around crossed legs, soaked in sand from head to toe. Waves shuddered beneath my skin; I breathed him in. Westbound blood orb spilled out of the sky, and all I could do was stare and sigh. I’d heard the words before, but I didn’t understand. In every moment on this sphere, how many ways can I say, I wish you were here?

Finally, together on the West coast. The words you said played in my head on a loop.

     “I don’t want to get up. I’m afraid that you’ll disappear, that you won’t be here when I get back.”

How did you know that’s my tendency—invisibility? I turn to mist and disappear, falling through the spaces between fingers where I used to live. I want to stay corporeal; will you stay with me?

Staying is a strange concept when all I do is move. Disappear myself before anyone else can beat me to it. Like when I flew to Gadigal/Sydney to escape the remoteness that had landed between us after we fell pregnant, and I wanted to keep it and you didn’t.

There used to be a Sylvia-button hiding in my body, don’t push tempting me with every inhale. This could be my last.

At the end of episode eight of season one of Our Flag Means Death, Stede and Blackbeard are thrown to the deck of the ship. Side by side, arms tied behind their backs. They turn to face one another.

     Stede whispers, “You came back.”

     Blackbeard says, “Never left.”

Granny left Mum. Dad flew away. I fled over East and overseas. I let go of both of my boys and my baby and have regretted it ever since.

I didn’t cry on the plane on the way back to Naarm/Melbourne from Gadigal. I figured the damage was done. I remembered every time Dad landed and we greeted him gate-side in piercing clarity. My wheels touched down with deep nostalgia for a past I’ll never return to. My eyes slid past without registering you at first. But there you stood with waiting arms, warming me with your embrace. This epochal moment marked me. No matter how far away we get, you always came back.

I’ll always come back.