Life

In an effort to repel the relentlessness of death, the author becomes a carer for broken, struggling animals, and a companion to her fading father. By Maggie MacKellar.

The toll of caring

The author’s country property.
Credit: ALEX TRACEY

I have three stories to tell.

In the paddock that borders my garden I have two pet lambs. I didn’t mean to have any pet lambs, one never does, but we had a particularly bad lambing season last year and for a while I had quite the production line going. The weak ones would start in a box under the wood stove and progress to the pen outside, sheltering in an old dog kennel filled with straw. From there they would get shuffled over to the yards, where I would pair them up with a newly bereaved mother. Of course, she would be cross about this because she would know it wasn’t her baby. We would enter negotiations and, mostly through persistence rather than skill, I would win and mother and lamb would head out to the paddock. By the end of the season I had a substantial flock of these matched pairs.

We run merinos and merinos are notoriously bad mothers. In a tight season where the ewes have to walk a long way to water or to find a feed, they don’t have enough energy to produce milk to raise a lamb, so they abandon them. It’s simple evolution. Except for me. Jim is tougher but it’s relentless doing the feeding, watching the suffering, so every few days he takes me for a bit of company, a buffer. The downside of my company is I won’t drive past abandoned lambs. A friend tells me I’m crazy. That it’s more cruel to bring them in and try to save them than leave them to die in the paddocks. She’s right, but there’s a part of me that needs to stay soft. That needs to try, to push back against the relentlessness of death. So usually we return with the ute cabin crowded in a tangle of lambs. 

My aim is to not have any poddy lambs, and for a while I succeed. They move through the system pretty effectively; they either survive the first few days of intensive nursing and are then shuffled over to the yards, or they don’t and I lift their bodies, hard and stiff in the morning cold, onto the back of the ute to be tossed on a bonfire pile.

Then, on a perfect morning to be born, Jim turns up with another potential foster mother on the back of the ute. I’m in the yards wrestling with recalcitrant mothers and hungry lambs. Jim tells me she had trouble lambing, she got down on her side and couldn’t get back up − the crows attacked her lamb when it was half hanging out of her. Got one of its eyes, had a go at the other one, and ripped its tongue. What a way to meet the world. Jim had pulled the lamb from the ewe and thrown them both on the back of the ute to bring home.

The lamb, left on its own as Jim carries the ewe over to the yards, tries to stagger to its feet. Its swollen white face is covered in blood. It bleats pitifully. I will use the ewe to put a strong lamb on − her colostrum is valuable. But for now we let her recover from her ordeal. She pulls at the grass in the yard seemingly oblivious to her trauma. I envy her forgetting.

“Bloody crows,” Jim mutters. He picks the bleating lamb up and opens its mouth. “The bastards have ruined his tongue. He’ll never be able to suck.”

As he says this, the lamb finds one of Jim’s thick fingers and sucks as if its life depended on it, which it does.

I carry it and another orphan lamb across to the house and put them in the lamb box by the fire. The lamb with no eye and a ripped tongue sucks strongly. The other one, who is bigger, sucks for a few gulps and then gives up. I pour some milk down its throat. The next morning I have one live lamb and one dead one. The maimed lamb holds up its head. Bleats at me from the box. It’s comical and it’s determined. There is so much death around that I think the little blighter deserves a try.

 

In the heart of the hospice a family gathers. Not ours. These people are loud. They hug each other and take turns sitting in the room with their loved one and weeping in the cafe. There are many of them. On my way to make another cup of tea I move around them. They are like rocks in a river; they cling to each other and sob while the rest of the hospice gets on with its day. I’m quietly jealous. I wish there were more of us. I wish for this big, noisy, grief-stricken family.

I return to my father’s room and while he sleeps I pick up my embroidery and sip my tea. Outside his room I can hear “Happy Birthday” sung in crazy abandonment on the doorstep of death and grief. I hate the politeness that keeps me quiet, keeps me from keening loudly when I leave his room, keeps me from wringing my hands and tearing my hair. Keeps me from calling people, telling them to come, to be here. In the room beyond in a moment of quiet I hear the precious laboured breathing. The corridors are thick with grief. My father’s room is quiet. Notices plaster his door warning visitors not to enter.

When I pass through the hospice I don’t avoid the family; instead, I move through their centre. I hope their tears and snot stick to me. 

The end of the day means I can walk again. Walking makes me invisible, unobserved. The moment I leave the hospice I cease to be the daughter, the troublemaker. 

Out the door, down the stairs, cross the road, turn right, past the splendour of a private boys’ school, beneath the blossom of the spectacular macrocarpa eucalypt, turn left, down the hill, past the grapes, across the river, down the stairs and onto the path beside the river. The breath leaks out of me. The river links the city and the suburbs. I don’t know these suburbs, don’t know this city, but I’m starting to learn it.

My father’s partner thinks long hours at my father’s bedside are unseemly. Early on in this last stage of his life she declares there will be no bedside vigils. I’m puzzled. I didn’t realise that was what I was doing. In my head I’m keeping him company, jogging along with him so the hours aren’t so long or lonely. But in her head I am disturbing him, agitating him, causing trouble, stimulating him, tiring him. So my time with him is monitored. It’s relentless. My phone whistles at me. A message begging me not to stay too long with him. “PLEASE.”

 

The one-winged finch I found earlier adapts quickly to its new environment. Water, seed and warmth see it gaining in strength. It can jump from the floor of the cage to the first perch. From there it harbours great ambitions to reach the high perch. It leaps continually, and just as often falls, landing on its back in a flurry of wings and agitation. I wonder if I’ve done the right thing, but I’m also fascinated by the determination it shows in acclimatising to its new world. A week after I rescue it, the finch can negotiate its way around the cage. It is no longer a flurry of terror at human presence around it. Instead it’s attuned to our comings and goings. Its peeps and whistles make the courtyard spark with life. Each morning its tiny voice rises with the light.

My father’s illness progresses. The intensity with which he is guarded by his partner takes on new levels. I begin hiding behind trees outside the hospice to avoid detection. This is a new low. Nevertheless I find myself skulking behind the broad trunk of the eucalypt in the times Helen is due to visit. I lean against its rough trunk and pull out my book. Generally I don’t have to wait long, though the wait is a relief, a moment in the sun beyond death. Helen visits morning and evening. Before my father gets really weak he sends me a text when she’s gone and I come back inside, pick up my sewing and we recommence. We listen to classical music. Or we watch the cricket. He dozes and moves peacefully in and out of the here and now. Then he’ll open his eyes and see me and ask what day, what year, where is he and has he been asleep for hours? I gently prod him back to the present or I don’t.

This is part two of a three-part series.

For part one, click here.

For part three, click here.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 17, 2016 as "Survival instincts". 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.