When I was nineteen, I asked my mother what she thought would happen when Pluto squared my moon. This might sound odd to most people, but not to us—my mother, a professional astrologer, always spoke in such terms. Pluto squaring the moon is an aspect (or angle, in this case of 90 degrees) from the current position of Pluto in the zodiac to the position the moon was at the time of my birth. This wasn’t due to happen for quite a few years, but to be forewarned is forearmed, right? It wasn’t often that she answered questions I posed to her regarding my birth chart—due to our close relationship, it was difficult for her to be objective when reading for me.
I remember we were sitting outside in her garden, surrounded by the ferns that grew wild there and my mother’s beloved Japanese maple trees. Our dog was flopped on the lawn, basking in the spring sunshine. We had coffee and cigarettes and she took a drag before she answered me.
“I don’t know,” she laughed as she exhaled. “Maybe I’ll die.”
She was right.
I’ve always been fascinated by Pluto, also known as Hades, the Lord of the Underworld—both astrologically and mythologically. At the age of three I told my mother that I came from Pluto and wanted to go back there. In astrology, his main concerns are sex, death, other people’s money and the occult. And these are the things people care about, right? The only questions anyone asked when they came to see my mother were these three: When will I fall in love? When will I die? When will I win lotto? His concerns are basic and selfish and utterly human.
My mother was extremely overprotective, which was frustrating as I grew up. The world was much more dangerous than the one she grew up in, and as an only child all her focus was on me. She often spoke in mythological terms, due to her work, and referred to me as Persephone—her greatest fear being that Pluto himself would take me into the underworld and I would be lost to her forever. People with siblings don’t realise just how stifling your parents can be when there is no other child to distract them. There’s no one else to blame, or to cover for you. They focus on the loneliness but not the constant observation.
Once I was a teenager, I didn’t want to be protected any more. I rebelled by devouring true crime books and watching movies with sympathetic if psychopathic protagonists. The psychology of serial killers intrigued me, as I tried to ascertain their motivations and urges. Following my parents’ divorce, I went to live with my father who gave me more freedom and I took advantage of that. I wanted experiences; I wanted to walk the streets at night with my friends and crash parties and talk to people older than me.
I’m lucky that nothing too bad ever happened to me, or to any of my friends. The safety of the suburbs protected us, though I doubt my mother would have seen it that way. It just seemed to be the thing that teenagers did—along with smoking and drinking and bouts of suicidal angst. I wanted to be a writer, and how could I do that without experimenting?
I returned to live with my mother when I was eighteen, due to issues with my father’s partner. She went through a period of arrested development, and found it hard to deal with me as an adult—she would spy on me out the front window to make sure I crossed the road to the bus stop safely, and demanded that I catch taxis home late at night (I never did, since I was a poor uni student and thought she was paranoid). She claimed that she could never be my friend, because she was my mother, and I accepted that eventually. Her cries of “take a jumper!” as I left the house were cliché but comforting. Often she would couch her demands in jokes—like when she told me I wasn’t allowed to date anyone until she’d seen their birth chart and the results of an STD test. None of the charts I provided her with met her standards. She gave them all nicknames—‘Leo wanker’ was probably my favourite.
By this stage I knew what she was talking about—she had begun teaching me astrology in my late teens—and here I discovered Pluto’s final aspect, the occult. It’s a word loaded with detrimental connotations, though its original meaning is simply ‘knowledge of the hidden’. I’d always fancied myself an amateur detective, and now I had a whole new wealth of information at my disposal. The serial killers made a reappearance, and I had folders overflowing with their birth charts. Around this time I started writing a novel featuring Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, the infamous Moors Murderers, and I pored over their charts for clues I could use in my fiction.
It was around this time that we were discussing Pluto, and my mother made her flippant prediction. I remember brushing it off, telling her not to say things like that. Then I forgot about it for a long time.
A few weeks before my twenty-fifth birthday, my mother was diagnosed with stage four inoperable breast cancer. I was in the midst of a heavy depression following a traumatic breakup, but this snapped me out of it—or at least out of that particular mindset. She never told me that it had progressed so far; she never told anyone. I read the diagnosis for myself after she died and was angry that she had decided to keep that information to herself. Another instance of her overprotection, in my mind.
When she told me she had cancer, I asked her how long it had been since she first noticed the lump. She couldn’t remember. Since a bad experience ten years before she had avoided doctors, and as she rarely got sick it had made little difference until now.
Her illness lasted six months, and she was only in hospital for one. Though she had always said she would never poison herself with chemotherapy, I think she undertook treatment for me. She wasn’t scared of death, as she had been a Buddhist for more than thirty years and was confident in her beliefs—she was simply terrified of leaving me alone. I did my best to look after her while she was ill, and to keep undesirables at a distance: due to her work she had a lot of hangers-on who emerged from the woodwork ready to pump her for the last advice she could ever give them.
She was admitted to hospital in December and within a week couldn’t get out of bed—the cancer had spread so that it was now impacting on her spine. The doctors were amazed that before she was admitted she had been surviving on paracetamol alone. I got up every day and visited her, bringing her the food she enjoyed and videos I had taken of our dog whom she adored. People said I was ‘strong’ for doing this, but in my mind what was I supposed to do? Run away? Apparently that’s a more common reaction. On Christmas Eve I had a dream where my grandfather—who had died only a few months before—told me to come and visit his ashes. I said I was waiting for Mum, so she could come too. He replied that there wasn’t much time left.
On Boxing Day the hospital called me at six am. They wanted me to come in; she was having difficulty breathing. When I arrived she was lucid, just finding it difficult to communicate due to the oxygen mask covering her face. That was the only time I cried. She told me that it was time to bring in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, since I had promised to read it to her when she was dying. I brought it in the next day, and read it aloud as family and friends visited, as they hooked her up to continuous morphine, as they asked me whether she wanted to be put on a drip (I told them to ask her; she refused as I knew she would). She smiled while I read it to her.
I went to a party in Sydney on New Year’s Eve—which was probably quite selfish, considering the situation. I was hungover in the backseat of a friend’s car, on our way back to Wollongong, when the hospital called at eight am. My mother had died five minutes before. I asked them if that was the exact time. I had promised her I would get it for the chart.
They asked if I wanted to see her body. I was still in shock, but I knew it was something I had to do. I didn’t make it past the doorway—even from that distance, I could see that she was not the same. Something essential was missing, something had been taken away.
My mother always told me that Pluto takes away what you don’t need anymore. She didn’t mean it in a heartless way, and neither do I when I say it now. It was my karma to lose her at a young age, and be forced into independence. It was her karma to give me a way to explain it, and a way to accept it. Without my mother, my life would never be the same. I realise now that Pluto does not really represent death, only transformation. But maybe that’s something you just have to experience before you can understand it.