real life

“Tests showed my mum didn’t have brain cancer, but what she did have haunted me.”

The MRI took place on Saturday morning, and by noon on Monday the doctor rang my mum to tell her the test results had come in. She asked whether she could have the results revealed over the phone, as was his normal practice when nothing was wrong. Mum had had symptoms of headaches, difficulty concentrating, and dizzy spells, and brain tumours run in our family, so an MRI of her head was recommended, just to be prudent.

“You need to come in,” he answered instead and booked her in for an appointment at 12.45.

I left work as soon as she called me with the news and arrived at the doctor’s surgery just in time. Mum asked me to stay in the waiting room while she spoke with him.

“This is something I need to hear by myself,” she said.

It was a long 20 minutes. She emerged with a wry smile that was difficult to read. Either it was good news or she was desperately trying to save face in the waiting room.

“It’s good news,” she announced as we stepped outside. “No tumours, no blood clots. I have scarring on the right side of my brain from head trauma. I have to see a neurologist. But it’s not life threatening.”

I guess she expected me to share in her relief.

And I was relieved. But the words rang in my ears. Head trauma. Then the images began to ring too. My dad punching my mum in the head over and over. There was no sound, and I couldn’t even imagine how the punches had sounded—were they cracks of knuckles hitting skull? Whacks of flesh hitting flesh? I knew I had been screaming at the time, but my memories hadn’t processed anything but the visuals.

It was almost 10 years ago. I was 15 years old and watching television in my room. I heard my parents yelling at each other all the variants and derivatives of ‘f*ck’. This was happening increasingly often so it didn’t alarm me. It was only when the screaming changed from words to just noises that I realised the fight had progressed from verbal to physical.

You can’t undo violence. Know where to draw the line. Post continues below…

I stepped out of my room into the corridor and froze. I saw my mum sitting, her legs oddly crossed, her eyes closed and her body slumped. My dad grabbed a fistful of her hair to lift her up from the floor and with the other fist pummelled her in the head. Her face remained lifeless as her body sunk into the ground from the force. He lifted her up again by the hair and punched her in the head again. She collapsed in a heap.

He’s done it, I had thought. He’s killed her.

He then grabbed two fistfuls of her hair and rammed her head into the wall. The right side of her head.

“You know what the head trauma was,” I stated, knowing now why her smile had been so wry.

“Yes,” she answered quietly.

To our friends that knew about the test and were expecting the results, we lied and said the trauma was caused by a “car accident” a few years ago. Ironically, a “car accident” was a good way to describe my parents’ marriage.

My father, her husband, weaned us onto the violence slowly. The first few years of their marriage were idyllic, my mum always told me. He doted on her apparently, but of course then all her focus could be on him as well. After my brother and I were born, he was no longer the centre of her universe, and he resented it. He began slowly: slapping, pushing, shoving. It was never spoken about after it was done – we would all descend into silence for a few days, after which things would suddenly go back to normal, as if nothing had ever happened, and I would be left wondering if it ever happened at all.

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Of course, slaps, pushes, and shoves are easier to hide than punches and beatings. As the violence escalated so too did my understanding of this cycle we were trapped in. Instead of just yelling at my dad to stop, instead of just pulling my mum away and hiding in corners of the house, I began to fight back.

And that night, perhaps out of anger, or perhaps hope, my body charged at him with such force that I think even he was shocked out of his robotic stupor for a moment. His eyes, that had been focused and ice cold, widened in alarm.

Listen to Jelena Dokic tell Mia Freedman about what life was like with her father on No Filter. Post continues below…

I knelt by my mum and tried to cradle her. She opened her eyes. She was alive. “I’m okay,” she said, slowly and quietly.

The sound of her voice switched something back on in my dad’s brain. He must have realised the job wasn’t done, so he tried to continue. I copped the majority of round two. But neither of us died. Neither of us bled. Neither of us had a visible bruise on our bodies. For both of us, the damage was internal.

My dad never hit my mum again and they separated soon after. And yet, our past, this car accident, would continue to pop up in our lives. In my diagnoses of depression, anxiety and PTSD. In our bad dreams. In my admission to a mental hospital. And now this.

I knew that the mental scars would never go away, but now I realised there were physical scars that would remain too.

The thought of my mother’s fragile brain being damaged, the organ that contained her generosity, her kindness, her spirit and her soul. The very real possibility that my father could have killed her. It still haunts me.

I feel like I’m in a perpetual game of tag or hide and seek with my past. At any moment it might creep up on me and destroy me, even though it’s all meant to be over. But it’s never really over.

Before the MRI, my mum never really fathomed how bad that night was. She couldn’t remember most of it. I had tried to explain to her what I had seen, what I hadn’t heard. I asked her to imagine the feeling of walking out into the hallway, seeing me being punched in the head, and believing I was dead. Now, while her memories are scarce, she has brain scans as the definitive cast of her marriage.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. We have each other. There’s a bond between us, a link, not between our hearts, because that’s too corny, but between our brains. Hers physically scarred, both mentally scarred, but alive. We’re alive. And that makes us the lucky ones.

If you or someone you care about is living with family violence please call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

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