The good from the bad


I’ve had quite a few visitors over the last few days, all of them bearing gifts of groceries and goodies. I’ve come to realise that when you’re perceived as being helpless, others want to help. I was resistant at first, as I always am when it comes to charity and favours, until I realised two things: I needed their help, and by allowing it, I was doing them a favour.

I’ve got plenty of good quality food in the fridge at the moment and open invitations to ask for more as I need it. I actually intend to try cooking something myself this week – mum’s recipe for potato and leek soup.

I appreciate the goodies, but what I really cherish is the human contact. I feel like I’m in home detention here, more or less. Except to go to the hospital, I don’t get out, and I’m still a week or two away from trusting myself to take a walk to the shops. So any visit interrupts the monotony of this life and takes hours off the clock I’d otherwise have to find a way to fill. And they’re a reminder that friends and social interaction – people – are at the centre of a healthy and happy life.

Naturally, they’re all very curious about my time in hospital and express how well I’m looking without exception. That’s purely in relative terms as I still look pretty ordinary, but as they were expecting the heinous aftermath of facial surgery, pretty understandable. It’s true, other than the swelling – which will pass – you would hardly know that my face was laid open. There’s a subtle scar that runs alongside my nose before branching into an L shape. You have to look hard to see it, and with my glasses on, it’s virtually invisible.

I’m curious to see what I look like once the scarring recedes and I’m back to normal. It won’t be near as bad as I feared, but I won’t be as good as I was before either is my bet. I suspect something will appear just a little off.

In one conversation, it was speculated how this had happened to me. I explained that it was bad luck, especially given that I possessed none of the usual indicators for such a cancer. The question was larger than that, though, more existential: why me?

Of course, it’s natural to wonder that yourself. I deal with it by admitting that there’s a statistical probability of X for getting any cancer; in this case, the X landed on me. Basically, someone has to get it, and this time it was me.

But when I couple it with the hardship I’ve had to deal with previously – the near bankruptcy, homelessness, the fracture in my family, and so on, it appears unreasonable, if not unfair (as if fair came into it). This was the point made by the questioner.

I’ve been very careful not to feel sorry for myself. One of the things I despise most is the sense of victimhood some people cling to. I certainly don’t want to be a martyr. And, in the circumstances I find myself, self-pity would be ruinous.

I always remember many years ago reading about chance and probability with particular reference to playing cards. A particular phrase stood out to me that I’ve remembered ever since: the cards have no memory. In other words, it doesn’t matter what came before because it bears no relation to what comes next. Of course, life isn’t entirely a chance event, and there are triggers and consequences, but in many regards, probability plays no part.

There’s no relationship between down at heel and cancer unless you choose to believe that the stress of one leads to the other. I just happen to think it’s bad luck.

It’s human nature, however, to search for meaning – and perhaps, to ferret out a positive. The oft-repeated phrase that everything happens for a reason bears that out. I’m not a believer in that, for the reasons I’ve described above – but then, what would be the meaning – the purpose – if such a thing existed?

I can only think of one. I’m suffering now as I suffered before, but the suffering is of a much different nature. When it comes to suffering, I’m coming towards a well-rounded experience. Not much fun for me, but what do I gain from it?

The only thing I can think of is by way of a kind of wisdom and depth of understanding. Because I experience more, I feel more and, ultimately, acquire insight forbidden to me before. I hope that’s true, but feel it must be. I’m not rushing to any resolutions yet, but reckon I have a better idea than before.

All of this should benefit my writing as if it was the point of this suffering. I’m incapable of writing creatively at the moment – I don’t have the concentration or inspiration – but it will come back, and when it does, I’ll have so much more to draw upon.

That’s it, though, and given a choice, I’d have passed on the suffering and wisdom to live as I did before.

Lawrence


Another of the documentaries I’ve watched in recent times was about T.E. Lawrence – better known as Lawrence of Arabia. I’ve long found him a fascinating character, as have many thousands of others. He was so complex and enigmatic and managed to achieve remarkable things, yet lived out his shortened life tortured by his failures.

As most people do, I probably encountered him first through the movie based on his desert exploits. It’s a glossy, romantic, beautiful-looking movie with Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence. I don’t know how true it is to the man himself – probably not a lot – but it holds true to general facts. The battle scenes are vivid, and O’Toole and Omar Sharif (as Faisal) are magnetic.

Later on, I picked up Seven Pillars of Wisdom from a local bookshop and began to read. I don’t think I ever finished it – I should try it again. What I remember was the prose, which could be overwrought, but equally could draw you in. It was perhaps a bit too wordy for my younger self, but I took things from it. There’s a famous quote from it which for years I would hold up as a type of philosophy:

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.

I still believe in the principle of it: it was who I wanted to be.

I have carried him me in the years since, as you do various characters, as I have Hemingway who I wrote of the other day. They’re characters that connect with you in some way – they intrigue you, or you feel a sympathy for their beliefs or personality, or, quite often, they excite an ambition in you. They become a part of your internal make-up.

What was it about Lawrence? Perhaps I’m drawn to complex characters. In his case, I think it’s the combination of high adventure and intrigue in the desert, like a boy’s own story, combined with the dense complexity of the man who was unable to accept that he failed his friends – not that it was his fault.

He was betrayed himself by the French and English governments, who betrayed the promises Lawrence had made to the Bedouin he led and fought with. The long shadow of that betrayal is the chaos that reigns now in so much of the Arab world.

In many ways, I find him a foreign character. If we ever met, I think we’d find little in common beyond curiosity and wonder. He was a repressed, closed individual. He was driven by inner demons and perhaps an innate rebelliousness. Whatever the reason, he seemed unwilling to accept the status quo presented to him – perhaps we might find common ground there, also.

I thrill to his desert adventures but suspect they were more cinematic than effective. I was in the desert he traversed some years ago, and which we see in the movie made of him – grand, breathtaking rock outcrops, like headlands, amongst a sea of sand. I tumbled down a dune, I remember and spent the night at a Bedouin herders camp. It was a memorable experience.

There’s no doubt that Lawrence was a bit of a strange character, but of the type the world needs more of – brilliant, idealistic, decent, honest, stubborn, and tough. He was a visionary with the ability to vividly articulate a purpose. He seems hardly the charismatic type, yet he was able to inspire the Bedouin tribes to a common purpose. Of course, he had his flaws and personal weaknesses, which he was intensely aware of, but we’d hardly bat an eye at them in our times.

He was naive and innocent too, which was his downfall, and the thing he could never get come to terms with. There are many worse things than that. In this case, what he saw as his failure changed history.

Papa the paradox


It’s a pretty dull life I have at the moment. The only time I’ve ventured out the front door since leaving the hospital is to return to it. I don’t have the energy to do anything more than the basics, so what I’m left with is a routine of reading and watching TV, listening to music or audiobooks, browsing the net, or writing here. There’s sleep, of course, and I look forward to the odd soak in a hot bath to bring solace to an aching body (I’d love a massage).

I’m very careful to manage my day, not doing too much of any one of those activities, lest I spoil it. I retain the ethic drummed into me when I was a kid by my parents about watching TV during the day – don’t, otherwise you’re a slob – but needs must in the circumstances.

When I returned home from the hospital, one of the things I did was to sit myself on the couch and watch a documentary series on Hemingway I’d recorded while I was gone.

I’m one of many millions who was inspired and influenced by Hemingway since I first picked up one of his books as a teenager. I was transfixed by the sharp, direct prose, which yet felt poetic. The stories – which I was drawn to first – also spoke to me in a way I understood inside, within my self, in a way I couldn’t explain to anyone else. They felt true.

I read his novels, more than once mainly, and some biographies of him, and he’s remained a strong influencer, though it’s a long time since I decided that I didn’t like the man.

After watching the documentary on him, it’s hard to reconcile the paradox of the man. By many accounts, he was a boorish, bullying, blowhard capable of cruelty and indifference. Yet, he could be great company also and, when engaged, a man capable of generosity and kindness.

If I had a time machine, I’d love to go back and meet him, but I don’t think I’d want to spend much time in his company. He’s just the sort of man I like least.

But then there’s his writing. Everything missing in his human persona is there in his writing. You wonder how a man so caught up in his own myth could then write so truly and with such insight about the human condition? In his writing, there is so often the wisdom that comes from a deep knowledge of how people act and react, their flaws and strengths, their fears and desires. There’s a stark simplicity in his writing that yet reveals so much. Particularly early, there’s a great sensitivity.

That’s the Hemingway I’d love to know.

So, how do you reconcile this? Was it that he was only capable of this sensitivity when he wrote – that it was somehow an unconscious talent the act of writing revealed? Or was it that he only showed himself in his writing?

Hemingway was clearly a very complex individual, and there seems little doubt that he was beset by mental health issues from a relatively early age. They worsened over time, were indulged and pampered, and exaggerated further by his heavy drinking. In the end, he was almost a caricature.

He was haunted by his father’s death and came to hate his mother. I feel sure that he was terrified of following in his father’s footsteps with deteriorating mental health and suicide. I suspect he tried to overcome those fears with the boasting and tall stories he told of himself in later years as if to distance himself from any of that. I’m certain it also fuelled his creative self and his writing.

I’m no psychologist, but it appears that Hemingway was deeply insecure at heart and reacted to (rejected) that with his overtly masculine behaviour. Whether he ever admitted it to himself, the truth was different, and I suspect he sensed it. That’s where his writing came in. His writing was a way to tap into that sensitive inside and express it. It was something he needed to do.

Because he himself felt so much, he understood much. Most of this was rejected in his public life, though he was said to be a good father. But it was fertile ground for his story-telling. This is where his insight came from – a keen observation of the world and people around him, filtered through this deep and painful knowledge.

When his writing failed him, he killed himself. I understand the impulse, though it was ugly how he left his wife to find him (he was far from thinking clearly). He was a gruff, oversized presence, and he could sustain that for as long as he could write. It was the one true thing for him. When that left him, there was nothing left for him. His meaning collapsed.

I’m no psychologist, and I’m probably way off, but that’s how I see it, from my observation of life and myself. It seems such a great pity that he could never integrate the writer in him with the man the world knew – though I’m sure, from the love he enjoyed, there were great periods when it shone through privately.

Venting


It’s hard to know how long I will be off work, assuming that I get through the process successfully. Going by the doctor’s estimates, we’re probably looking at around Christmas to fully recover.

I can’t afford that without income protection insurance. I’ve just about used up my sick leave, and I have some annual leave up my sleeve. I haven’t been able to submit an application for the insurance because work had been tardy with putting through the EOFY pay rise. As you’re entitled to 75% of your salary in income protection, I had to wait for that.

I was on my way to the hospital on Wednesday when I got a call from my direct manager advising that the pay increase had come through. Deep breath.

We’ve been talking and debating about this for a long time. Lots of vague promises were made, but no firm commitments, but all of us were led to believe that the Product Owner role was mine.

That didn’t happen, and I have to wonder if it would have been different if I wasn’t off work with cancer? That might be stretching it, but I feel abandoned. Ultimately, the pay rise was $6K, which falls within the insulting range – bearing in mind this is the first increase for two years, and the Product Owner role would command an extra $30K-$40K. (I do get a $3K bonus).

I was furious. All the way into the city on the train, I fumed. It was a miserable day. Rain and hail and bitterly cold winds. I got off at Parliament station running a little late. Though it was the first day out of lockdown, there weren’t many people around.

There’s a particularly long escalator at Parliament. I started to climb it to make up time. About halfway up, I encountered an older woman with a collection of bags blocking the way. “Excuse me,” I said, expecting her to step aside and let me through.

Instead, she started haranguing me and wouldn’t stop. I had earbuds in listening to music and only picked up scraps of her diatribe, though why she was so angry, I couldn’t figure. She was animated and histrionic, speaking in a voice with an accent sounding like it might come from one of the weightlifting countries.

After about 30 seconds of this, abruptly, I had enough of it. I felt my anger rise, stoked by the disappointment of an inadequate pay rise, and probably concern at my condition. Without taking out my earbuds, I said: “Shut up, you old bag.”

This was very out of character. Though it felt good, it’s rare I let my emotions rule like that. It’s not that I’m pure at heart. I can be very blunt. I’m happy to speak my mind when the situation calls for it and can be very cutting, even coarse, though almost always with cool control. And I’m very familiar with the curt, masculine language we men will occasionally exchange.

For all that, I’m well mannered and polite. I’m of that generation and class where it comes naturally. Even now, I will address elders using a pronoun, unless otherwise permitted. I open doors – regardless of gender, and let people go before me, and hold open lift doors for those coming. On a crowded train, I’ll give up my seat to those deserving. As a matter of course, I say please and thank-you, and believe such simple grace is a mark of civilisation.

Never before in my life have I opened as I did to an older woman, no matter how discourteous she was. Do I regret it? No. But I doubt I’ll do it again.

Not that it mattered. I might never have said a thing, for it didn’t interrupt her flow, which she continued all the way up to the top. But it felt good to vent.

The upshot of this is that I’ll not have as much to live off when my income protection comes through. I’ve started the application process by submitting a request to reduce the waiting period to 30 days – that would fall due on. August 7. I was unable to submit an application for insurance because their systems were down. Either way, it’ll take weeks before it gets approved – probably when I’m in hospital.

Right now, the right side of my face has puffed up. I feel my eye closing. It worries me. I’ll be on the phone to the hospital tomorrow.

Agency and identity


I got called wholesome yesterday. I was speaking with a guy I used to work with, telling him about the latest developments. He encouraged me to go out and look for another job, telling me that I had a lot to offer. Then he dropped the W-word. That was one of my strengths, he said.

I’m pretty definite that no one has ever called me wholesome before. In my own mind, I have a picture of the wholesome type, rosy-cheeked, straight as a die and ever courteous. It doesn’t entirely gel with my conception of myself – I’m not rosy-cheeked to start with. And while I’m courteous, I’m also blunt and assertive, opinionated and occasionally sarcastic.

I figured he meant it in a particular way – honest, well-mannered and of good character. I’m happy to accept those traits – I am well-mannered because it was how I was brought up to be, and I believe in being honest. And I recognise that there’s a side of me that a lot of mothers would love to have their daughter bring home – polite, respectful and with reassuringly measured intelligence. And I come from a good family 😉

But all of us are a complex combination of qualities that are in perpetual motion, shifting according to circumstance and environment. We all try to project a persona, often different depending on who we’re with – and then there’s the view we have of ourselves. Often, I think, that’s at great odds with how the world sees us.

You have to wonder why it matters. It’s an indulgence, but it’s all a piece of the human frailty all of us possess. It’s what drives us on, though, what fuels our expectations and gives rise to the decisions that we make. It becomes our identity, but without that, who are we?

Case in point is the situation I find myself in at work currently. I’m aggrieved because I believe I’m being short-changed, symptomatic of a lack of respect – or so I reckon. There are practical considerations in that – I need more money, and I deserve it – but there’s also the ego and deeper psychological scarring at play.

I referred yesterday to how this has been a trigger event for me. As my first bitter emotions subsided, I was left with a clearer idea of why it felt so personal – and it relates to the time that I was homeless.

Before I was homeless, I was confident and capable and rarely doubted my ability to succeed. I knew I was smart, but I also believed I had the will and energy to manifest destiny for myself. It may seem naive now, but I don’t think it’s uncommon. Besides, I had good reason to believe it – I had pulled myself up by my bootstraps and made a middling success of my career. Cue Jaws music.

Then, of course, everything changed, for reasons long described.

When you’re unemployed and homeless, when you’re broke and rely on the mercy of others to get by, there’s a lot that goes through your mind. It’s a real battle just to remain on an even keel – to get up in the morning and try again and believe that in the face of 99 failures, the 100th time will succeed. It’s more complex and messy than I could ever hope to describe, but I was lucky in the end that I did finally succeed in getting out of it – though it was closer to the 400th attempt.

One of the things I remember is the sense of being an outsider – banished from normal society and foreign to the comforting routines and rituals of domestic existence. I felt different from everyone and not in a good way.

A part of that is an absolute sense of powerlessness. I felt cast on the winds of fate, with little I could do to change direction. I felt invisible and irrelevant and entirely unimportant. I became very aware of how small I was, and I hated it.

When finally I got out of that situation, it was in the smallest way. I started at the bottom again, and I was relieved to have that. Gradually, I worked myself back somewhere towards where I used to be, though still well short. As that began to unfold, I felt increasing angst, reminded of how much I had lost and how different things were. More than anything else, I was frustrated by the lack of agency in my life. When you’re digging yourself out of a deep hole, the margins are small. You feel as if you could tumble back anytime, and that limits your options. Even today, I feel far distant from who I was before and still feel outside of life.

And this is why I’m triggered now. I’ve worked hard to regain something for myself, and I deserve more than what I’m being given. That’s not entitlement; that’s just plain fact. Unfortunately, what’s right and fair plays little part in the ebbs and flows of life, and you feel it most when you’re at the bottom.

I’ve been at the bottom. I’m trying to climb. All I want now is to be justly rewarded for that. Instead, I’m being denied for spurious and pragmatic business reasons. But what can I do? Once more, I have that sense of being powerless – of being exploited, in fact. It feels so wrong to me…so evil, in a way.

I guess it’s always been like this, but I was always too young or too confident to know it. Now that I’ve fallen back, I can see it and understand the deliberate nature of it. What is right comes second to what is pragmatic, and people like me – without agency – just have to cop it.

That’s why, for my self-respect, I have to get out. If I give way to it, they know they have me – and I know they have me, too. I refuse to be powerless. I’ve come this far; I can’t fall back.

On the other side


There’s nothing like visiting a hospital to make you grateful for your good health. Sure, we grizzle occasionally about the inconveniences of aching bones or a dodgy back or even a persistent sniffle or a stomach bug. Still, they’re small beer, you realise once you walk the antiseptic corridors of a general hospital, and you see the old and frail, the bent and failing, the patients in walking chairs or with tubes in their nose or coming from their body. To see people made feeble by illness is a levelling experience, and no more so than when you realise for many that this is the terminal stage, and it’s never going to get any better than that.

It’s at once both very humbling but also very scary. There but for the grace of God, you think, not knowing whether this might be in your future also. And you leave the hospital gasping in the fresh air, grateful to be healthy, no matter those inconveniences, grateful to be able to walk in the sunshine unaided and to see friends and live life unfettered by ill health. For a while, you remember, and then it slips from your mind.

I think it’s similar when it comes to mental health, though it’s normally not so clear.

I have complained in recent times, and in recent times have felt myself withdrawn and put upon occasionally and enshrouded in gloom I didn’t want to believe in. I battled at it as if caught in a net and tried in characteristic fashion to think my way out of it – as if the spirit could be healed by the intellect. When you’re in the middle of these episodes, it feels quite difficult, but I understand with perspective that these are inconveniences of the spirit. I am waylaid, but I am healthy. Others are not so lucky.

All this comes to mind because a friend of mine is struggling, and I fear for his future. He’s always been prone to these things. He’s as smart as they come and can be totally charming when he’s up and about and occasionally a total boor. He’s sensitive by nature, which I always think of as a gift bestowed upon us, but it’s a gift with inherent risk. It opens up a door in us through which heightened experience and insight may enter, but on the far side of those is the shadow that can be debilitating – doubt and despair and withering disappointment.

My friend is one of those who can be up and buoyant and occasionally manic, but also almost immobilised by melancholy. When he’s like that, I worry that he won’t look after himself as he should. He becomes apathetic and listless. His thoughts are morose and pessimistic.

He’s got health issues now, which require discipline from him, but I doubt he cares enough to make the necessary effort. When I last spoke to him – he’s interstate – he basically shrugged his shoulders, and he had cancelled on something we discussed he needed to do.

I feel some responsibility for him, maybe because I think I know him better than anyone. And because I know I can help.

My issues seem trivial alongside his, and my perspective is shifted.

I realise that while there are things I need to overcome, they don’t threaten my existence – far from it. I realise how resilient I am and remember the storms I have weathered. I know that no matter how bad things appear, there’s a part of me that will remain true and strong. I’m not made for that terminal failure because I have a bedrock of self-discipline mixed in with self-belief and a perverse pig-headedness.

I might indulge in lairy risk from time to time because it’s fun, but there’s something measured at the heart of me. I’ll do the right thing because it’s my nature, and it seems something that others have recognised in me for many years. I’m seen as reliable, steadfast, trustworthy

And strong. I can be strong for me, but I want to be strong for him now also. Right now, all that constitutes is touching base with him regularly and remaining bright and positive. Nothing negative, no judgement, everything encouraging. And it means opening up and engaging with my true self. He needs to know that he’s loved and that life is a gift that needs to be embraced. I’ll be there when he comes around and knows it for himself.

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’s surprising how the themes that recurr 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 takes hold. Now though, high above the land, I was in a kind of limbo, a no man’s 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 then, 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 of. He grew up wanting to be like my Dad, 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 that had passed. 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, unwilling for any concession: this too is familiar. 

The scandal of the day is that none of my uncle’s children attended the funeral,l 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.

As the sun sets


I drove across town yesterday to have lunch with my dad. He’s about an hour’s drive away from me but living in the general area where I grew up. It was a bright, warm day and I wasn’t convinced I wanted to travel all that way to see him – especially as I was so busy with work. But then, I hadn’t seen him since before Covid struck.

I made it to his place and met his dog and was shown around the comfortable home he’d made for himself. We set out for lunch, and I asked if it was okay if he could drive us. I had messages I had to attend to from work because it never goes away.

Originally we were going to have lunch at the Lower Plenty Hotel. I grew up in Lower Plenty and remember the hotel just off the golf course, though apparently it was torn down and something new built in its place. In the end, we went somewhere closer – a cafe in Were St, Montmorency.

A couple of years after mum left dad, and after I left school, she bought a unit in Rattray Road in Monty. I’m not sure now how long we lived there, but there was many a day I would walk down the road to the Were Street shops, and dozens of times I caught a train from the station. (When I was younger, and when my parents were still together, I remember creeping out of the house in the middle of the night and walking to Were st. Together, Peter Woody and I broke into the Reece plumbing store there, just for the fun of it – we took nothing – not knowing that there was a security guard on duty patrolling the premises. We eluded him by the skin of our teeth. I was about 15 then. There was also a cinema in the street early days, and we saw the original Rocky there when it came out.)

Yesterday we sat in the sun and had a light lunch catching up on things. His poodle, Henry, had come along, too.

I mentioned not long ago how disturbing I found my father aging. It seems odd that it’s not something I ever thought about much before, but it comes to mind regularly now. He walks with a cane, has various ailments that need managing, and is not nearly the energetic man he once was. As we were sitting there at one stage, he actually said: “getting old is hard”.

Besides everything else, he spoke of balance issues, which seem to be a common talking point in his group of elderly friends. He made reference at one stage at how he had fallen down and how it was a regular occurrence.

I find it depressing and not a little daunting. As we drove back to his place, I even thought: he drives like an old man now. He still has all his faculties and retains a certain sharpness, but he drives slowly and deliberately.

This is not uncommon in elderly people, as I’m sure we all know. I’ve always thought it was a sign of conservatism and perhaps a certain fear, but I had never thought about it in any depth until yesterday. I would never have believed that my aggressive father would become this, but I wondered if it was because he was now aware of his vulnerability.

When you’re young, you feel strong and certain, or a lot of us do – and never more true than for my father. But he is frail. He has proof of his decline, and clearly, it’s in his mind. The realisation that he will die one day, and sooner than before, is probably in his mind. He’s vulnerable. Anything could happen at any time. Why risk it on the roads? And at least that’s something controllable – so he takes it slow, just to be sure.

This is my speculation – we didn’t discuss it. I left him feeling uneasy, for him, and for me too. If this is his journey, then as his son, I’m probably on the same path. It’s a powerful motivator to remain healthy.

I know that if I ever reach a stage of physical decrepitude or mental incompetence, then I’d rather exit the stage.

A grateful moment


I had the best sort of chance encounter today.

I had a physio appointment this morning. The physiological is located within the main building of a retirement village. I’ve been three times now, and each time it’s been a hive of activity, as well as being vaguely depressing. I guess lively is good, considering the alternative, but I come away each time thinking I never want to end up in such a place.

As I was sitting in the car preparing to leave afterwards, a tap came at my window. There was an old man there. He’d have been over eighty, short – about 5’5″ – and bent over clutching a walking stick. I wound the window down. “If I give you $10,” he said, “will you take me to Centre Road?”

I couldn’t knock him back and, declining his money, told him to hop in.

As we drove, we talked. I asked him polite questions and, like a lot of elderly people, he was pleased to answer at length. It was only a short drive, 7-8 minutes, and I was happy to listen.

In the way of things he told me he’d been at the home for 18 years. He’d moved into a villa unit with his wife, before shifting into main accommodation because of a disagreeable neighbour. I gathered his wife was dead.

He was Jewish he told me and had settled in Ivanhoe after coming to Australia, until all the kids grew up and the neighbourhood changed. He had two sons, one in Melbourne, and the other living in Israel.

I asked him what his home country was. He told me he came here from France in 1949, though he was from Poland originally. He’s survived the Nazis (his word), but it had been very hard. France had been difficult, too. He needed a permit for everything, and he’d been told he should go back to where he’d come from. Instead, he came to Australia.

The main thing for him is that he wanted to get away from Europe. Initially, he was going to go to Canada, but that changed, and he ended up in Sydney before coming to Melbourne. It was the best thing he’d ever done.

And on that, we parted. I pulled up by the side of the road near Bentleigh station, we shook hands, and slowly he unbent himself getting out of the car.

As I had said to him when he thanked me, it was my good deed for the day. I actually got a great deal of satisfaction from meeting him, and being able to help him. It’s moments like this that open your heart and – without knowing exactly why – you come to understand the meaning of being grateful.

Holding back the tide


I’ve just returned from the cafe, where I had two flat whites as I contemplated the world. It’s a lovely morning. It looks like being a lovely day. I headed to the cafe on restless impulse, wanting to break the workday routine. It’s surprising I don’t do it more often now that I’m working from home. I might grab a take-away coffee a couple of times a month, but much less often do I sit down to enjoy one.

I followed on a few work conversations on my mobile while I was there, and otherwise took the time to touch base with people I hadn’t spoken to for a while, sending them messages. Mostly though, I just sat there watching the comings and goings in quiet thought.

It’s something I’m quite adept at. I know many people need to be doing something to feel occupied, but I’m happy to just sit there. There’s always a lot going on in my head, and I’m happy – perhaps too happy – to indulge it.

As I walked in the sunshine towards the cafe, I reflected on how I was still fit and relatively healthy, and to the eye presented a robust figure. For some reason, I thought of a time, 20 years into the future perhaps, when I’m not quite so robust, and when the clothes I wear today would hang off a reduced frame. Though, perhaps not.

It doesn’t seem a happy thought, but there wasn’t much emotion in it. It was more a reflection on the nature of time, of how things change, about transition. It’s in-line with a lot of similar reflections lately, though from a different angle. It seems random, but I think this came to mind today because of my dad, who I spoke to yesterday.

I don’t know how true it is that you grow into your parents. In theory that would mean in 20 odd years, I’ll be the man my dad is today. I’m not sure how true that is in reality. We look alike, more or less, but otherwise, I’ve always been a bigger, more muscular version of him, and though there are other similarities in character, our personalities diverge.

With that said, I remember him as a man of constant motion, not busy but measured, as well as a man of constant motivation. There was a point to everything he did, and his activities directed to an outcome. He had a successful business career, but the abiding mental picture I have of him is bustling around bare-chested and in a pair of shorts busy in the garden, or with some piece of home maintenance.

I hardly see him these days, but the picture presented by his words – and on those few occasions I do see him – is starkly different. Objectively, and statistically, you’d think he has only a few more years in him.

I asked yesterday about his health, and he filled me in, though without complaint. He’s a practical man who doesn’t believe in self-indulgence. He’s getting by well enough, except that for a few years he’s been beset by a range of ailments. He has auto-immune complaints generally, which include chronic arthritis in his legs. He had kidney stones removed last year. He also has Sjogren’s disease, which sounds nasty. He’s not nearly as active or mobile as he used to be, though he remains mentally agile.

You listen to such things and can’t help but wonder if it’s a forerunner of what you, as his son, can expect. Maybe, but I tend to regard it as a warning. It pains me to see him like this, and it feels wrong, though I know that’s how life goes – how time takes us from one state to another. I’m making active efforts to become fitter and healthier lately, and it seems to be working, and it’s fear of that decline that drives it.

When the sun is shining, as it is today, when you feel fit and well, when you’re at your ease sipping on a second flat white, it all seems very distant – and somehow surreal. How does one thing become another? Gradually, is the answer, in ways you hardly notice at the time until one day you look in the mirror.

My ailments have settled down. I feel better, and look it too, and the physical signs are improving. I expect that will continue. From here on in it seems sensible to be more mindful of many things that once you accepted without a second thought. It seems that’s one thing you learn as you go along, though every day has something new.

But there is now. And in the next month I’ll be having lunch with dad, and tomorrow night I’m having cocktails in the city and on Saturday off to a steak restaurant. Things might change, but we always have the moment.