The official version

Referring back to yesterday’s post, back at the time I started on a piece I never finished describing the event of my uncle’s death.

It’s been sitting on my computer’s hard drive all these years, and I thought maybe now is opportune to bring it out of the dark. I wrote it while it was still fresh in me – I have the feeling I actually wrote some of it on the plane, as is described, and that I may have made notes along the way. Here it is. It’s a bit rough around the edges because I abandoned it before giving it a polish, and there are gaps in it for the same reason. And I was not the writer then that I am now, though it surprising how the themes that recure to me haven’t changed: we all have our themes. Read it, or not.

A Death in the Family (2003)

The plane headed to the Sunshine Coast. As we took off, I looked at my fellow travellers. Few were under fifty. Most were grey-haired, retirees heading for the sun, or executives looking for a break. Nearby sat a couple in their sixties, he in suit and tie, his wife dressed up in her Sunday best, reminders of another era when people dressed up to travel. Across the aisle, sat a man about 60 in stylishly casual Lacoste gear. He read the Financial Review, and later, he opened a satchel and made notes: an executive not yet in holiday mood. Besides me, there sat a couple in their fifties, silver-haired and handsome, speaking in low tones and reading their magazines.

And then there was me. I was not off on an escapade to the sun. I knew that. I had felt rushed, cramming my travel arrangements into a few short hours until I was here, on my way. On the plane, I relaxed, my work was done for the moment, but I felt out of sync. I looked around in between reading my own magazine. I could not fail to notice the difference between myself and everyone else that travelled. I was younger by 10 years at least. Unlike the generation of people around me who had dressed for the holiday in a variety of fashionable and conservative clothes, I was in jeans. I wore red shoes. I was different, though. I was not on holiday. I was going to bury someone.

As we travelled through the air, I read. Later I too got out a pad and a pencil and began to make notes. I should have been at work. As we travelled through the air, the meeting I had organised should have been sitting. Like the man across from me, I had yet to divorce my life at home from the place I was heading for. In an hour or so, the plane would land, and a different reality take hold. Now though, high above the land, I was in a kind of limbo, a no mans land. I put my pencil down – I had been doodling. I closed my eyes, feeling tired, thinking about these things and wondering what would come.

Then we landed. We descended, low over the ocean, it seemed, the clouds low and all around us like fog. Then the plane bumped down on the wet tarmac. Outside, the rain fell. What I could see as I waited to alight was distant hills, green and shrouded in mist. Then I walked from the plane and into the terminal. There waiting for me was my father and my aunt. I felt like smiling.

The world changed today. That’s how I was going to begin this piece. It’s too grandiose, though, too pompous even, too impersonal. Still, it’s true. Each person is a world unto themselves. A unique world like no other. All these millions, billions, of worlds combine to create the great world we are all part of. It changes every day. It is added to, subtracted from, it never remains still. Such is life.

So it is, but for all those infinite changes, it becomes much more to us when one of those small worlds subtracted belongs to us. In the big scheme, it matters little perhaps, in our world though it is great.

Such thoughts flow through me in the days following. We – my father, Aunt, and I – attend to the necessary preparations, from the funeral to the wake. Speeches are written, ministers spoken to, beer and wine bought by the dozen. In between, we have lunch on rainy days at great hotels by the water. One night we meet with more family for a meal at a good restaurant where my father and I clash, as we ever have. In the evenings, we sit in my Aunt’s small courtyard with a cool beer and chat. Throughout it all and in the midst of this unreal time before the funeral, we remember.

There’s no telling what you will remember. Memories are unpredictable, random. Small things are sometimes recalled while great things overlooked. It’s different 

Among the memories recalled, I have my own. I remember once years before, when I was in my early twenties, how he described a pub in Cremorne as a ‘cunt farm’. It had taken me aback at the time and later led to some ribald smiles with a friend. This was his recommendation to us, the place we should go to, coming as it was from the harsh persona he occasionally adopted. There was a smile in his words, despite his crudity; they were not evidence of a crass mind, but rather, I think, an effort to connect with the nephew a generation younger than him, the nephew he loved. And perhaps in his words, there was a desire for the world he imagined I lived in – beer, women, good times. 

As if to counter-balance that memory, I recalled other moments. There is a photo of him asleep on the floor beside his infant son also asleep. He always loved children, and of all the things he wished for in life, they were always uppermost. That explained his love for me initially. I remember how I was the bartender on the night of his 21st birthday party at his parents home. I’m about eight, I think. I felt so chuffed to be given the responsibility and proud as all his long-haired friends were all so good to me, laughing and joking treating me, I thought, like almost an adult. Later my uncle married, and then once more before finally he had the children he dreamed of. 

From there, the story changes, a few years of stable suburban life, a shift from Sydney to Brisbane, and then separation and divorce. Far away in Melbourne, I heard all of this distantly, rarely seeing or speaking to him but for family events. I had known somehow that the divorce had been acrimonious, that, according to some, his ex-wife had turned the children against him. Living with my aunt, he was finally diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, no surprise after years of smoking and drinking. The end had come as it almost always does with cancer, ugly and undignified. 

Though I had my memories, I was at one remove. He was my uncle, not my brother. I had grown up with him distantly in my life rather than as a member of the household. I sat silently then as my father and my aunt spoke of their memories. I listened curiously to what I heard, watching as closely as I listened. This was something I rarely experienced. 

My father is not an ordinary person. I suppose many sons might say the same thing about their own dad with as much certainty. Perhaps that is how we all view our fathers. Still, I believe it to be true.

There has always been something intimidating about my father. I saw it myself but experienced it differently from how other people did. It was not some effect of physical being – he was of average height only, though always accounted as being handsome. It did not come by way of great charm or wit – he could get by but was no more accomplished than most intelligent people. In his presence, there was some hint of that mind that went deep, that intelligence that had allowed him to exploit his fundamental gifts. If anything, his presence was the product of all that and the unerring sense of self that left him with.

Travelling in with him from the airport, I had come to silently articulate the essence of his person: his will. More than any other person I had ever met, he was defined by his sheer will to win, succeed, and persist. It had defined much of my relationship with him. Our conversations over the years peppered with his exhortations of will and intent. As much as anything, I had come to know him by these things and had absorbed many of his lessons – though with a sceptical eye. The man the world saw, the monolith, was built upon this unwavering will. I had lived close to it and known it as a son does, with both love and a sense of rebellion. As he had climbed the corporate ladder year after year, others had received it differently. 

In the car with him and in the days after, while we waited to bury his brother, I had sensed something different in my father. Had that famous will wavered a little? Is that what I had sensed? No, not really – the will remained, it was not so easily dismissed. What I had sensed, though, was doubt. Grief and doubt. The natural grief of a man who has come to bury his baby brother; and doubt, as if for the first time he had questioned his actions, his feelings and attitude to the same brother now departed. 

Doubtless, it was natural, but it was new to me. I don’t think I had ever seen my father doubt anything. I don’t know if he ever considered the possibility – he was different from other fathers, other men. In those days, he seemed morose and quiet, his emotions checked, but barely at times. 

In many ways, he was as he ever was, industrious and active, making sure all the preparations for the funeral went to plan. His eyes had the same intelligence, his movements the same direct expression of his will. It was when he stopped, he changed. In those moments, he appeared weathered. The hard outer shell had been breached, and exposed was the softer stone beneath, unprotected now, raw to the elements, visible to the eye. Somewhere deeper inside him was that hardcore that drove him forward, the essential him, that part of him that would forever lead him on – but for now, it came second.

We piled into separate cars and started the short drive to the funeral parlour. It had been intended that we drive in convoy so that the out of towners amongst us not get lost. The inevitable occurred, though, when the car in front of us got the green light we missed. We sat in the car, and as the light changed back from red to green, we edged forward, unsure of the way and in our collective mind trying to piece together the fragmentary directions we had received. Too late, we realised, just as we passed it, that the turn off we needed was on our left. We drove on, unable to turn around on the motorway until we reached the next exit. Returning to the motorway we turned right and, after a few turns, found ourselves at the funeral parlour. We were late. Outside, a crowd gathered, murmuring to each other and waiting to be called in. My father and my aunt stood amongst them, their eyes to the road. At our arrival, the word was given: we could enter.

The chapel was modern, though, in truth, I have little experience of these places. It had a high vaulted ceiling, like a modernist church, bland brown brick walls and a pew and benches constructed from a polished honey-coloured wood. Behind the pew, there was the coffin resting on a metal stand.

The crowd filtered in. Feet scuffed the hard floor. The soft murmur reverberated off the brick walls and beneath the high ceiling. We, the family, sat in the first row. And the service began.

It began conventionally, with a man who had never met my uncle standing before us extolling his many virtues. He had been well briefed. I listened, interested but unmoved. They were words unconnected at that moment with the man I had known. They described a life in its bare facts, interspersed with the odd anecdote. Behind him, as he spoke, a video screen displayed slides from my uncle’s life, one after the other. My eyes were drawn to this and stayed there. I heard the words, but the stories I felt were in the photos and memories inspired by them. With a jolt, I saw myself in several of them. In one, I was young, tall and gangly, innocent in another more knowing. Some of the words spoken registered to me then: he had loved his family. Yes, that was true. It was more than conventional words, but the truth. He had loved me, truly, had been proud of me, I had heard, and that struck me. I felt emotion swell in me until I felt I would choke with it. For all I had thought of him, I knew he had been pure in this: he had loved without qualification.

My father stood then to give the eulogy. He stood for a moment without speaking. This was characteristic of him: he was a man who chose his words carefully. It was more than that, though. As I watched, I saw as he tried to marshall his emotions. He looked down at his notes and then up at us. His eyes were wide open. He began to speak.

He spoke of growing up, of how Paul, his brother, had come late into the family. He described Paul as a child – one of the pictures had shown him them, a smiling, good looking boy with dark curly hair. Though my father didn’t mention it my uncle had idolised my father. Coming late into the family he had been a boy still when my father had become a man. He had seen perhaps the charisma and talent in my father that others had spoken off. He grew up wanting to be like my Dad, of using him as the measuring stick he could never reach. He was a different person, soft and gentle, pliant and hopeful.

As my father spoke, he paused a couple of times. Each time it was to compose himself, to stave off the tears that welled in him. Here he stood, eulogising his baby brother, dead before his time. It was when my father came to speak of my uncle’s family that he faltered and then failed. His red-rimmed eyes bled tears. He shook his head, tried to go on, but could not. I’m sorry he muttered and stood down. Silence engulfed the chapel. And as I watched my father, bent under his grief, I felt something break in me.

It is hard to explain exactly what was happening at that moment. I cried for my uncle, but I cried for my father also. I had never seen him like that. Never. Like my uncle, I had always looked up to my father. I admired his strength and control. As a man, I believed in it and tried to emulate it myself. Now, as I watched my father split in two and all inside revealed, I felt as if I was witnessing something fantastic and unknown. And in his breakdown, I felt my own undoing. I cried at his grief. On the one hand, I saw in his tears permission to shed my own; and I cried for him and his sorrow.

The service ended. We stood, and outside the chapel spoke to the visitors like hosts and invited them back to my aunts if they so desired. My tears had dried, but I felt my eyes swollen by them. I was embarrassed, but people were gentle with me and understanding. I was grateful to them.

The mourners piled into the small rear courtyard of my Aunt’s home. Tropical foliage ringed the space, and overhead the sky brooded forebodingly. That was distant though, here and now in that small space the family, the friends, the odd acquaintance gathered all in their best funeral clothes, they talked until the air was full of it, a social babble; occasionally amid it a laugh could be heard: the deed was done. Like most funerals, people who had not seen each other since the last funeral met and exclaimed at the time past. More than once, I was pulled up. Is that really, H? Haven’t you grown? Then with a laugh: the last time I saw you, you were so high, indicating somewhere around my shoulder. I smile and laugh along; for a few moments, I linger agreeably before moving on. I do this throughout the crowd, the unofficial family representative doing the necessary glad-handing. 

My father has recovered, is his familiar self, but even on his best days, this is not his thing. Today with his brother buried, he responds as he meets with the distant family he can remember from his childhood, he recalls shared memories and moments for decades ago, and every so often, he joins in the laughter; occasionally, there is a twinkle in his eye, but there is something still in him. My Aunt is different. She hustles around to make sure everything is ticking over as it should, a drink in her hand. Soon enough, she finds herself recalling old times also. Happily, that leaves me to flit through the crowd filling drinks and sharing their memories. For me, it is easy, but it also a distraction.

As the evening closes in, the crowd thins. Left are about a dozen, family mostly, some of whom have flown up for the occasion. By now, most are seated, a glass of wine in their hand, a gin and tonic, a beer. The conversation is quieter, the reminiscing continues, but now it is mostly about my uncle. I sit watching, silent mostly, listening in to memories I had heard before and others new to me; I have my own memories. Mostly the conversation is fond, though tinged with sadness. Occasionally it becomes more.

It is my father who seems at the centre of this with my Aunt butting in. My fathers’ syntax is familiar to me. I had forgotten, but I remember as he speaks, thinking this is a part of him. This is what I might remember when he is gone. “No, no, no…” he says even if agreeing with you, wresting the conversation back within his control. Looking on, I observe the respect with which he seems to be accorded within the family, and not just for his loss. I think back to the stories I have been told, of how he was the golden-haired boy, even if a bit wild, the prodigy who was always going to go far. It seemed an accepted truth, a destiny foretold and fulfilled, the man in the family who has gone the furthest of anyone.

Then his eyes glisten again. His words come slowly, precisely, but hard as if going by an obstacle. Someone tries to ease his way, but he continues, hastening: this too is familiar. 

The scandal of the day is that none of his children has attended the funeral despite calls and coercion. They are young still and in the grip of their mother, generally agreed to be an ‘evil cow’. She claims they don’t want to come. I doubt that, but even so, I think it’s wrong. They should be there. Their mother should insist. 

Though my father does not say it, it was the thought that his brother had been abandoned and betrayed by his family that had broken him. In a way, it had been an act lower than he could comprehend. I think he saw it as the ultimate insult as if my uncle could see and know how lowly he was regarded. What he looked upon bitterly and sorrowfully I was more sanguine and cynical about. It was disgusting that his children were not there, but I believed that they would come to regret it in years to come.

No-one adds anything. No-one can disagree, but nor do they want to speak of it. Then everyone is gone, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, exchanging consoling words and fond memories. In the dark, the cicadas ring loudly. We sit exhausted in the yard, a bottle open before us, and the conversation goes on into the night. Tomorrow we return to our lives, we go on; for now, it is all about my uncle.

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