Life

As her father slips closer to death, the author assumes a peripatetic, reflective rhythm, travelling between her rural Tasmanian home and an inner-Melbourne hospice. By Maggie MacKellar.

Dealing with death

The author’s country property.
Credit: ALEX TRACEY

My father is dying. The doctors say there is nothing more they can do for his cancer. In truth, we were told this six months ago, but my father refused to accept this time line. Instead, he changed doctors and started on an experimental chemo treatment which, he was warned, was unlikely to work, advanced as his cancer was. Down the phone the first doctor shrugged her elegant shoulders. “We have thrown everything at your father’s cancer. It has defeated us.”

Six months later he is forced to face the reality of this.

I hate the metaphor of battle invoked for cancer. Hate too that my father, far from seeing its limitations, embraced it; in fact, suggested that if my mother had fought harder, had found better doctors, she wouldn’t have died, let alone so quickly. I resist the urge to slap him when he tells me this. We are in the paddock, watching my son kick a rugby ball through two irrigation pipes standing on their ends. The ball rattles the cross bar and my father’s breath whistles. Above, the black cockatoos keen their lament across a stained sky. I hear in my father’s words the rehearsed cadence of an oft-repeated opinion and realise he has been saying this for years. My fists, deep in the pockets of my coat, are clenched. I think, “I’ve watched her die from cancer and, despite what you believe, I will watch you die, too.”

 

I have an aviary outside my kitchen window. It makes me very happy. Jim built it for me out of poly pipe, which he ingeniously fitted together with metal braces and covered in wire. It’s a busy place, filled with a mixture of finches, canaries and cockatiels. In a very short time the finch population has exploded and it seems every few weeks another batch of babies emerges.

One morning I spot a baby finch hopping around the bottom of the aviary. There is seed and water for the guinea pigs and rabbit that share the aviary with the birds, so I don’t worry too much. It will find its wing strength and take to the air soon enough.

It’s still there the next day and it occurs to me something may not be quite right, but when I try to catch it, it evades me easily. The next day, while hanging the washing, I hear a whisper of movement in the Japanese windflowers that grow close to the aviary. It’s the tiny finch. I have no idea how it has got out, but there it is. I throw a tea towel over it and carefully find it in the folds of cloth. It’s so small. I wonder at the size of its heart. I carry it inside and pop it in the cage where our very ancient and most precious cockatiel lives. She raises her topknot in disapproval. Now I can see what I thought was an injured wing is in fact non-existent. A one-winged finch, a mutant.

At smoko Jim walks in the door and sees me staring at the tiny bird. I say, “It’s only got one wing; it’ll never survive in the aviary.” I ask him if he can kill it; what use is a one-winged finch?

He, tough farmer, says: “Why do I have to do all the yucky jobs?”

“Fair point,” I say.

“I’ll do it later,” I think; instead, I find an old ashtray and fill it with water, put some seed in another. The finch flutters drunkenly around the cage. Its one-winged propulsion keeps making it flip over on its back. The cockatiel huffs in disapproval and fluffs her feathers. I cover the cage in a towel so I don’t have to think about the finch, and get on with my day.

 

My father is in hospital on the mainland. I am visiting him. This is my new state of being. If I’m not there with him, I’m travelling there. If I’m not travelling there, I am travelling home. If I’m not travelling home, I’m planning on going. The only place of stillness is when I’m with him. There I am sedentary. Clean hands. No hint of dirt under my nails. Hand sanitiser at every doorway. The waiting is written on my body in unexpected ways. My muscles soften. To combat the feeling of erasure waiting brings, I walk to and from the hospice.

I learn this: everywhere in Melbourne is eight kilometres from the hospice as the crow flies. We, my younger brother and my father’s partner, visit the hospice for the first time on a Sunday morning. My father is still in a major oncology ward. They have got him strong enough so he doesn’t die on them and have now said he can go home. But he can’t go home because Helen, his partner, is renovating the bathroom. My brother and I are powerless in the face of this. We both live in different cities. Our father has lived with his partner for well over a decade, but without the bathroom her home will no longer accommodate him. He must go from the oncology ward to a hospice. We visit the hospice before he goes so we can tell our father about it. Reassure him. I see manicured gardens, neat and unimaginative. A tall eucalypt, shedding its summer skin, is littering the grounds with bark. We wander up the path, wait in the lounge for a member of staff to show us round. Helen purses her lips and says, “I don’t like it.”

My brother and I exchange puzzled looks. Don’t like it? Don’t like what? The lounge? The entrance? The fact our father is dying from cancer?

The hospice is wonderful. The staff efficient, warm, and practised in the walk towards death; practised, too, in juggling fractured families. Our father is too well to be there, too sick to fight to be anywhere else. I feel the heat and friction of his frustration. We both pretend it away.
I resolve to be with him as much as I can.

My year unfolds in direct relationship to my father’s health. I fly backwards and forwards from Tasmania to Melbourne. I stay with friends and walk to the hospice each morning. The hospice is my north, and I learn a different track to it according to where I stay. When I’m in Carlton, I close the door on a narrow townhouse lined with books and art and step straight into a generous street. I walk beside a stream of bicycles and their whizzing urgency reminds me of how close I am to the city’s hum. But then I turn down a tiny laneway and the walk changes. The area is in the throes of a transition into gentrification. I walk until I find the river then choose a crossing depending on a complicated changing set of needs: my mood, the weather, how much time I have. I learn that all the bush tracks eventually take me up the hill. Below the river flows, barely. On the hill a breeze rises to cool my hot face.

When I stay in Armadale I close the door on kids’ toys and pick my way through small bicycles and diggers to the garden gate. I walk past shops filled with unattainable beauty. Then I cross the road to streets lined with enormous houses. The streets are filled with black four-wheel-drives driven by women in gym gear. No bikes. The city is a murmur. My boots make a hollow sound on the pavement. I walk across the plateau and then down into a valley of rail and road. The river is on the other side of a major city road and I step anonymously between clogged cars before reaching the path that leads to it. This part of the river is different. I pass exclusive schools, and am passed in turn by strong girls rowing and their tiny mothers running in immaculate Lycra. The girls and the mothers pull up long before me. I keep walking, and the river changes. The blocks on one side are neglected, industrial, choked with weeds. On the other, rambling houses drop in terraces down to the water. I pass vineyards and incongruous sheep and re-enter the territory of bikes.

I walk and a madness walks with me. I start in the lingering Melbourne summer – not its fierce January heat, but hot enough. I finish walking when my breath is a veil and the cold bites my fingers and nose. My walking wears through a pair of boots. By the time my father dies, the heels have worn away.

This is part one of a three-part series.

For part two, click here.

For part three, click here.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 10, 2016 as "Wings of change". Subscribe here.

Maggie MacKellar
lives on a sheep property on the east coast of Tasmania. She is the author of two memoirs, How to Get There and When It Rains.

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