Climbing the Cliff Toward Self

I sat opposite the professor, who was the Head of Neurology at a Sydney university teaching hospital. He had my scans and X-rays on the light board behind him. I swallowed hard, a little afraid. He noted my anxiety with a nod and sat with his hands clasped on his bare desk.

“You have MS, undoubtedly, but there are complications. Obviously, it is cyclical and there is a huge underpinning. When were you first sexually abused?”

“When I was six by a cousin.” My words tumbled out without thought.

“And later?” the professor enquired.

This was my childhood pain. I had never spoken of it. I had suppressed it severely. “At seven by my uncle, who is six years older while I was on a visit to my grandmother,” I replied.

“Do you think of it often?” the professor asked.

“No, I have almost forgotten.” I had only dim memories of my young relatives asking me to suck their member and me complaining that it was dirty and not nice. I became afraid of boys.

“And next?” asked the professor kindly.

“My father. I had just turned 13. I didn’t know about my vagina. It was a terrifying experience. He put his tongue down my throat so I couldn’t scream.”

After that, I entered ten years of darkness. My mother knew there was something wrong but refused to accept reality. After I suffered 18 months of chronic illness, I was sent to a religious boarding school in Sydney. I was totally alien.

“I can understand it became worse. It is written on your body. I can see also you have undertaken extensive counselling,” the professor said.

“Yes,” I replied softly.

“Don’t! You must leave Australia and never return. Work in a university environment and write. You have too much sand under your skin and it cannot be erased. Go back to Oxford and find yourself in a place of peace.”

“Thank you, professor,” I said as I gathered my handbag and thought of my return journey home beyond Bourke.

“You have a remarkable store of courage, so use it,” the professor gently replied. I certainly had not had that kind of affirmation since my years with my foster parents. I was emotionally charged. And I was 48 years old.

It took me three years to resolve all my commitments. I joined the staff of the China University of Geosciences, where I was warmly welcomed. I had drawn a deep line over sex, and as my eldest son had said jokingly many years earlier, I was “fully immunized, de-sexed, house-trained, affectionate, and free to a good home.” He didn’t have any takers. I wasn’t up for grabs.

My university apartment was on the fourth floor, and the surrounding buildings were similar, all built at the same time and leased to university employees. I found I was troubled by the regular screams of a young woman in the adjacent block and was told it was not my business.

I was sitting one afternoon after work on my small balcony surrounded by plant pots when the young woman jumped. Her last sigh will always remain with me. I have often thought it could have been me. I placed some flowers at the doorway next to the official tributes. I still think about her as I reflect on my own life.

I turn 70 this year. I have lived in Europe for almost ten years, surrounded by 27 summer shades of green. I go to draw water for my garden at 6 a.m. The adjacent well is ancient, deep, and cold. I fell in twice last year and was rescued the second time by my recluse neighbor who now watches my morning activity from behind his screen of greenery. When I finish, he milks his cow and goes out to his fields to cut hay by hand. He is a very kind and gentle soul I am beginning to love.

My other hours are spent writing children’s stories with environmental themes, gathering medicinal herbs that grow in abundance, and preparing lotions, teas, and healing patches. I have cultivated a peace that I didn’t think was imaginable in my earlier years. I call it my gift of end days.

About the Author | Julia Ellis Burnett

Julie Ellis Burnett is a retired academic, although she is not sure from what, and is known to her grandchildren as "Ogg" for very good reasons and to numerous former students as "Mum" for quite different reasons. Now a legal resident in Slovenia after a refugee experience, Julia leases a garden, writes, dreams of filming another documentary, and appears to be falling in love.

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