Life

On the farm with her dying father, the author ponders the complexities of grief and the path she will take when facing her own mortality. By Maggie MacKellar.

Facing the end

The author (left) on her country property.
Credit: ALEX TRACEY

Each time I come to visit there are new patients in the hospice. They arrive terribly sick, grow sicker and are gone. My father stays the same. Perhaps he will stay here forever. Perhaps he won’t die. Perhaps I can visit him here always.

I know this is fantasy because as the weeks go on he grows weaker, but still the thought lingers. Negotiating the time I spend with him is a complicated dance of agendas. I delete his texts or phone calls to me from his phone when he summons me back into the hospice after his partner has left. I hate the subterfuge but I do it for my father, who insists. In his dying he is true to the way he lived. Always taking the easy option. Pleasing his partner, pleasing me. We talk about this and he says he just doesn’t have the energy to confront her. I tell him if he doesn’t want me to be here, if I’m making it harder, I will go. I won’t be insulted. I say this without emotion. I actually don’t want this role. But he holds my hand hard. I think, “Not everyone is changed in facing mortality.”

When I leave, the nurses sing out goodbyes. They have become companions in this; as they go about their work they are privy to barely concealed stories told in glimpses of withered flesh. I walk to the river. The streets are quiet, rush hour over. I try to let the images of the day play over, let them wash through me rather than holding on. I tap out the day’s news in a long message to my brother. The sting of my slinking shame at not standing up for myself grows smaller in the face of his fury at the pettiness of this or that tiny incident. The two of us feel vulnerable. On the brink of a life without parents.

Back at my friend’s house I warm up under a hot shower. I’m washing my hair with special shampoo. It’s miracle shampoo and promises to transform me. The last time I bought such a product was when my mother was dying. Even as I handed over my credit card to the hairdresser I laughed at myself. Grief does this to you − makes you believe a shampoo might help.

Just when I think I might go mad, two of my mother’s oldest friends rush into my life. Both of them appear at the hospital, within days of each other. I see their faces, lined with wisdom and a peace steals into me. They have raised families. They’ve lived creative, rich lives. They have loved. They love me. I try not to hold on to them too hard. One of them comes straight from her farm. She holds my hand. Her nails are strong, short. She looks at me and her eyes crinkle. She wears sensible shoes and the words she says are full of intelligence and strength. I go home to another of my mother’s friends. She looks after me. Sits up with me, a scotch in hand, and the two of us make a sort of sense of the world. In the love of these two older women I feel sane.

Negotiations around visiting my father continue. Who can come and who can’t. I bite on my fury and in doing it I know I will be deformed. I try to find the way between his partner’s wishes and the things I know to be right.

 

The lamb with a torn tongue and one eye keeps sucking. He is further handicapped because his one remaining eye becomes infected. Soon he’s totally blind, but I’m pretty sure this is only temporary. We give him a shot of penicillin and he slowly comes right. The lambing flood slows to a trickle and just when I think I have only one full-time poddy, a kindly motorist finds a tiny lamb on the road. It’s been hit by a car and looks like it has a broken shoulder. My partner, Jim, looks incredulous at the thought of keeping it, but it will be a perfect companion for my blind lamb. The two of them keep each other warm at night curled in the straw and the blind lamb follows the lame lamb around the garden. Jim asks me again what I’m going to do with them. “Nothing,” I say. “I’m going to do nothing with them. They will just be allowed to enjoy the luxury of existence.”

 

Another phone call from the hospice: if I want more quality time with my father I should come now. Jim says go and with that I’m booked on a plane and in the car driving to the airport. The swoop and dip of the road echo the rise and fall of my stomach. Hobart airport and my phone whistles. It’s a message from Dad’s partner telling me not to go see my father tonight. He’s settled and stable and there’s no need. She doesn’t want him disturbed. The tears, which usually I find so hard to find, stream down my face. I gulp a glass of wine at the airport bar. It hits my empty stomach and stops the shaking for a moment. I ring Jim and my brother and ask them what to do. Both of them tell me not to be ridiculous. Just go, they say. I ring the hospice. I’m calm and rational. I tell them I’m on the evening plane, but I don’t want to disturb my father unless he would like to see me. They answer in code: my father is expecting me; I should definitely come.

The Melbourne night tries to slap me. I shuffle from plane to taxi. The hospice is quiet. The nurses greet me like old friends. We are up to hugging stage now. I leave my bag in the corridor. “Mags,” my father says, “I’ve been wondering when you would get here. It’s so good to see you.”

We talk about this and that. I sit close. Tell him I’ll come back in the morning. Tell him I have no agenda, save for him. Tell him I won’t get in the way. Won’t upset anyone. I hug him. He goes to sleep. Out in the corridor the nurses assure me I have not unsettled him. Their concern for my peace of mind touches me deeply. I go back out into the night, hail a cab, give the cabbie my friend’s address and then lean back in the seat and let my eyes drain of tears.

 

The lamb with the broken shoulder starts to put weight on his leg, he leads his half-blind mate around the garden, they make a beeline for my roses when I let them out of their pen. Soon they outgrow the garden and I move them to the paddock. I feed them every morning, the lamb with the now not broken shoulder will gallop from wherever he is in the paddock. The blind lamb is not so savvy. He waits until I’m near him and then follows me back to the trough.

When we go away for a few weeks I move them to a bigger paddock with more feed in it. I ask the kids to check on them when they come home from school at the weekend. One day they find the one-eyed lamb stuck in the little creek that runs through the paddock. Dead.

 

I’m not there when my father dies. I told myself it didn’t matter. People told me it didn’t matter. After all I’d spent all the time I could with him, but that wasn’t true. Not really. I’d walked away from him because it was too hard to stay.

It did matter that I wasn’t there. It still does. I should have flown back one last time. My dreams are a complicated tumbling of not saying goodbye. Full of missing his funeral, of turning up too late, of not being where I should, of failing. The last months of his life were nothing short of hell. Surely death would be easier. But he didn’t want it.

I wasn’t with my mother. She waited until she was on her own. Waited for the quiet hours of the morning, her favourite time. I understand this. It makes perfect sense to me and I thank her for it. But the thing is I was there afterwards, before her body was cold; I was there to see her and to stroke her and to say goodbye.

Why does grief become a competition? I am sure I’m not alone in experiencing this. Why do we guard so viciously someone else’s experience of a loved one, someone else’s relationship? Can we be so insecure in ourselves that we cannot allow each other to mourn the father, the lover, the uncle, the brother, the friend we knew? For years my father had juggled the roles he occupied in our lives. Now he’s gone, there is only one role allowed of him.

The rest of us stand to the side.

My one-winged finch lies on the bottom of the cage, still, feet curled like delicate twigs. My son, in the list of jobs I’d left him to do before he flew with Jim and my daughter to Melbourne, had forgotten to fill its feeder. It had starved to death in the sudden cold of winter as we attended the week-long drama of my father’s funeral.

We return home and the sight of the finch means nothing. I’m so numb the finch’s death doesn’t touch me. My son is upset, the sharp prick of guilt in the polished feeder, not one seed left. The finch’s body is so weightless I can’t feel it in my hand when I lift it from the cage and bury it under some catmint in the garden.

It’s spring again. Lambing is starting and, because there’s been no rain, we are feeding the ewes. Again, they are abandoning their lambs, leaving them to die. In the small brain of the ewe something tells them death for their babies is easier than life. Let the cold claim them. I wonder if, like a ewe, when I’m faced with the knowledge that death is better than life, I too will wander off. Or will I be a one-winged finch, a tongueless, blind lamb, my father, and fight it.

This is the final part of a three-part series.

For part one, click here.

For part two, click here

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 24, 2016 as "Into the light". 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.