Millie Bird is just seven when her father dies and her mother takes her to a department store.
“I’ll be right back, her mum says and Millie believes her.”
Millie waits patiently for her mother to come back, then, when it becomes clear that isn’t going to happen, Millie sets out to find her. As she searches, she meets up with Karl the Touch Typist and Agatha Pantha, two elderly people who somewhere along the line have also lost their way in life.
Heartbreaking yet funny at the same time, the book follows the trio as they traipse across Western Australia trying to track down Millie’s mum — and find something of themselves during their journey.
I talked to Brooke Davis, who lost her own mother in a sudden accident, about her book, grief and loss.
What was the genesis of Lost & Found?
The book is very much a work of fiction but it comes from a really personal place. About eight years ago, I was on a trip around the world and rang home to find out my mum had died in a freak accident. Before she died, I had never felt the kind of grief where you don’t know if you’re going to be OK or not. After she died, I was trying to understand how to live without her, how to live with the knowledge that this was how life worked: that anyone I loved and depended on could die at any moment.
When I told my dad I was going to write a PhD on grief and death (Lost & Found was written as part of a PhD at Curtin University in Western Australia), he sat me down and, in his fatherly way, said, “Do you really want to spend four years writing and thinking about this?” It was thoughtful of him, but my answer was: “I’m going to be doing that anyway.” Lost & Found was the perfect avenue for me to continue grieving and thinking about my mum in a way that was socially and culturally permissible. I was able to keep Mum close to me without anyone thinking I was too weird, or not “moving on.” That made me relax about the concept of “moving on”and also made me realise that I didn’t actually have to. It gave me the chance to think deeply about what it means to grieve on a broader scale, which made me feel less alone. I was particularly interested in the concept of grief not as a process that begins and ends and is only about sadness, but as a part of life. As something we have to work out how to live with, in among everything else there is — the good, the bad, the indifferent.
Why did you decide to tell the story of your grief from the point of view of these three characters — Millie, Karl and Agatha?
I wanted to understand the way different people grieved and thought about death. If we’re on earth long enough, we will all experience the death of someone close, and we will all grieve. This is something that we all share. What we might not share is the way we work through this grief, and how we think about death. I don’t believe this is something that we should judge each other about.
When I first began, seven-year-old Millie Bird’s voice came out first. It felt natural, and I wonder if that’s something to do with how we become a bit childlike when we grieve. She gave me the freedom to ask those thorny questions about the way we are; those questions adults don’t think to ask or wouldn’t dare ask. This position in the world, of learning everything from scratch like a child, mirrored my own feelings when Mum died. I felt like I had to relearn how to be in the world.
Eighty-two-year-old Agatha Pantha — a grumpy woman who doesn’t want to know about death — developed out of the need to counteract Millie’s inquisitiveness and hopefulness. Agatha and I struggled to get along from the beginning because it felt like she was so opposite to me. She was so judgmental and mean. But I knew people often behave in these barbed ways out of an ultra-sensitivity — they find the pain and suffering of the world so unbearable the only way to survive is to pass it on. As I came to understand Agatha, I realised there’s probably a bit of Agatha in most people. She’s not hiding her oddness — she doesn’t have the self-awareness to do that. It’s easy to write Agatha off as mean and judgmental, but she’s just very afraid. The only way she’s able to deal with her sensitivity is to fill up any space in her life that allows for self-reflection, so she can’t let any pain or suffering in. I think the Agathas of the world need the most compassion we can give.
Eighty-seven-year-old Karl the Touch Typist — a man wanting to relive his youth — pushed his way into the story about two years into the writing of the novel. I originally wanted Lost & Found to be a love story between an elderly woman and a little girl. But Karl kept appearing and felt so strong and important, I gave him his own part.
Karl’s point of view allowed me to write about more complex things, particularly to do with ageing and masculinity. Even though Karl is an 87-year-old man, he’s still trying to work out women, and how to be a man. He’s gentle, kind and thoughtful, which makes him the best kind of man, as far as I’m concerned. But he doesn’t feel like one, and I believe this to be a common struggle in contemporary Australia, and perhaps in the contemporary West. There’s been decades of conversation about the way women’s roles in society are changing and have changed — and that dialogue is still absolutely necessary — but I do feel this conversation should not exclude the role of men in society, and how they have changed, and are changing. There are social expectations placed on how men should be, and when sharing hopes and fears is not considered to be “manly,” it makes these struggles difficult to work through.
Did you ever consider telling the story entirely from Millie’s point of view?
Never. Like I’ve said, I wanted to look at grief as prismatic, as being an experience that can be experienced in a multitude of ways. I also felt pulled in the direction of other themes such as ageing and masculinity — themes I wouldn’t have been able to explore as effectively, if at all, from her point of view only.
What were the challenges of using the voice of a seven-year-old, or limitations imposed on your writing?
I don’t know any seven-year-olds that well, so I relied on my own memories of what it was like. I think it helps that inside this 35-year-old body of mine there’s definitely a seven-year-old hanging out! For the most part, I found the child’s perspective completely freeing. I was completely relearning my own position in the world after Mum died, so to have that childlike point of view to put language to that feeling was a beautiful thing. It acted as a kind of balm for me in other ways, too: Millie reminded me to be curious, to ask “Why?” to be playful and imaginative. It felt good, in amongst all the heartache after losing my mum.
Perhaps one limitation might have been the restrained nature of such a point of view—the voice of a child can’t be too sophisticated, as their brain is still developing. Agatha and Karl allowed me to explore more nuanced themes.
While funny, at its heart Lost & Found is about grief. Why do you think we find it difficult to confront death and dying and are ashamed of grief?
They’re such awful, difficult truths. Like I said before: how can you live knowing than anyone can die at any moment (including yourself)? How do you live with that knowledge and not become paralysed by it? I completely understand the need to forget the facts of it. Most of us are merely trying to survive this life as best we can, and confronting the truth of death doesn’t work for everybody. But death and grief are shared by all human beings, and I do wonder what it would be like if we could accept the challenge of facing them.
I’ve always tried to be open, authentic and honest about my grief. I don’t want to hide it and I want to be kind to myself about it. If I’m having a bad day, I try to give myself the space and time to feel it. Those days remind me that my mum existed once, and they’re important for me. I’ve thought deeply about the way we as a society put silences on death and grief, and how we pretend it doesn’t happen. I think it makes us feel grieving and sadness are abnormal states, and make us feel pressure to move on and achieve closure.
I wonder what would happen if we were more open to sadness. What if it was OK to slow it right down? What if we didn’t see it as self-pitying, as self-indulgent, as wallowing, as something to ashamed of? What if we didn’t hide it? What if we made it public, if we wanted to? Yes, there must always be respect for the privacy of grief and sadness, but are we private about it because we’re ashamed of the feeling? Why is happiness the only acceptable way to be? I wonder what a world would look where we accepted the challenge of sadness, where we felt safe enough to share this sadness — to be vulnerable — in front of other people. I wonder if we’d be better to each other, more tolerant, more understanding, more kind. The American writer George Saunders has said that fiction, for him, is about “softening the borders between himself and other people,” and I wonder if taking the shame out of sadness might do this very thing between ourselves and other people.
You’ve said, Old people aren’t always old. What did you mean by that?
My character Karl really announced himself around the time my nan was put in a hospital after having a stroke. She was put in the aged care part of the hospital for a few weeks, in a room with an elderly man who she didn’t know. Their beds faced each other, so they were both sitting in their pyjamas, looking at each other all day. I don’t think my nan had ever been in her nightgown in the presence of a man who wasn’t her husband, so I can imagine the experience would have been so confronting for her. About half the staff who dealt with her were kind, and spoke to her with respect and empathy, but the other half seemed patronising, blunt and impatient. They treated her like she was nothing. It was heartbreaking. I know our hospitals are overcrowded and that our wonderful nurses aren’t being paid well enough, so this isn’t a criticism of individual people. There seemed a wider, societal problem at work here: that we seem to treat our elderly as if they’ve always been old, as if they’re invisible, as if we have nothing to learn from them.
That feels upside down to me. That my nan — this human being, who had loved and given birth to children and travelled the world and was the funniest, warmest, strongest person I knew, and who taught me so much about how to be in the world — could be completely dismissed and treated as invaluable purely because she was old. She kept saying things to suggest that she felt completely worthless, and it was the saddest thing.
I gave this feeling to Karl, and I feel so strongly for him because of this.
The book tells the tale of a physical and metaphorical journey; was it a journey for you, too?
Absolutely. It was my way of grieving. In writing Lost & Found, I’ve listened to other people, talked a lot about my own experiences, read a lot, and tried to understand attitudes to grief — be those individual or as a society. And I’ve written about it, obviously — directly about my own experience, and also through fictionalising the experiences of others. Through sharing, listening, creating, and trying to understand, I think this has all helped to make my grief a little lighter. I must make it clear though: my grief journey did not finish after I finished writing the book. Part of the journey of writing this book was discovering that I now have a relationship with grief, and that relationship will change and grow, and it will last for as long as I live.
Was there anything that surprised you about writing the book?
I have been so (happily) surprised about how many people want to talk to me about their own experiences with death and grief. When I began writing Lost & Found, I believed everyone would think I was a big weirdo. That people would think that “mulling” over death, “indulging” in grief, “wallowing in self-pity.” But I really couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve realized that many people want to talk about it, despite the pervasive narrative in the West that suggests death and grief are taboo subjects. In fact, when people share their experiences with me, I get the distinct feeling they’ve been waiting for their chance to talk about it. It makes me a bit teary just thinking about how awesome that is!