I got a call from the counselling service of the John Tonge Centre yesterday. The autopsy report had finally been delivered. Congestive heart failure due to cardiac amyloidosis. There was no trauma to the brain. Jen’s hunch had been correct. Dad’s death was coincidental to the fall. In fact, the fall may have been caused by problems with his heart.
The report mentioned some secondary findings. The coronary atherosclerosis we knew about, and the incipient Alzheimer’s. As mentioned earlier, Dad’s short-term memory was very short indeed. That led to his restriction to a locked unit. I now regret greatly not having been able – or perhaps that should be, not having striven – to talk to him about the experience of this isolation in the fast-fading present. Of course, only someone close enough to him to be very familiar and trustworthy could have expected to elicit such a confession or elucidation. There was a time when I could have asked him about such matters, but it had passed with my absence and his forgetfulness of me. The exploration of his mental states was never high on Dad’s agenda in any case. That, and the shortness of his horizon would have precluded such conversations with anyone since his move to the hostel. Some inferences can however be drawn from his behaviour.
Confinement is rightly regarded, by the freedom-loving peoples of Australia, as a punishment, and Dad was nothing if not one of those. He temporarily escaped on one occasion. At the age of 90, he climbed the wall, but was soon recaptured. I heard this news in Bristol, and was, but of course, guilt-stricken. He was disciplined for aggression. There was among the papers I received as executor a sensitively-worded letter about his behavioural problems, the upshot of which I don’t know. It probably, though, involved drugs. I was granted some insight into Dad’s state of mind as I discussed this with Jen. Dad had stayed with us for a week about three years or so ago. We printed up signs for all the doors in large letters, and a brief note for his room about the reason for his stay here. I remembered Jen’s attitude to him as distant. In talking about this again, she told me that, when I was at home, Dad was relatively calm. When Jen was at home alone with him, he was agitated and aggressive. He didn’t know why he was in such unfamiliar surroundings, or who this woman was. He wanted to go walking, but refused to let Jen walk with him. If she tagged along behind, he would be rude to her, or shake his fist at her. She would let him get to the end of the street, and watch his confusion as he looked for some landmark. Once I went looking for him, to find him sitting at a bus stop, with no idea of the way back. The familiar street, the familiar house, the familiar face, is a beacon in the bewildering world of dementia.
In the last four or five years, he had forgotten much about Mum. They were less than twenty years together. From the perspective of twenty, that is a vast stretch of time. From fifty-six, the perspective is broader, and the shrivelling of the years is more understandable. He told me that he could not remember Iris’ face. I did not try to get some photos from Cherie for him. He did remember his mother, and much about his childhood. By the time of his death, he was the last of the siblings, and when the talk turned to reunions, it was of with his mother, his only and beloved sister, Pat, and his brothers. His father might sometimes rate a mention, but never Iris.
My sister is a Mormon. The Mormons put vast sums and great effort into preserving, and making available, genealogical records all over the world. Their purpose is religious. Mormons may undergo what I dimly understand to be proxy baptism for ancestors who did not have the opportunity. Similarly, the marriages of ancestors may be “sealed” by proxy. If one of the spouses is alive he or she must be consulted about this process. Dad refused to be so sealed with Mum. The marriage, he said, had been a mistake. He may have meant that it was a mistake on Mum’s part, but it is far too late to determine the shades of his meaning.
At the funeral, I was standing near the entrance to the church when a young woman with short, pink-streaked blond hair, and wearing a faux-fur top, came up to sign the book. I thought, “I know that woman. Who is it?” for a few moments before realising with a shock that it was my daughter. I hadn’t seen her for eight or nine years. I had last spoken to her perhaps seven years before, and our last face-to-face conversation would date back to about 1995. I received some three or four years ago a letter formalising the reality of our break.
I was unsure how to proceed. I knew that she had re-established contact with her mother and uncle, after studying drama in Mackay. I had called Noel to pass on the information that Dad had died, and discovered that she was living with her mother and step-father. Jen had found a reference to her in a play in Brisbane last year. Was her “Goodbye, Dad” still in effect? After the funeral we spoke, and exchanged a tearful hug. I gave her my phone numbers, but did not receive hers in return, so, at the end of the day, I have no idea where I stand. She came out with us on Moreton Bay when we disposed of Dad’s ashes. I asked her to get in touch and arrange to have dinner, but have heard nothing since.
The truth is that I am afraid. The load of guilt that I carry over my rejection of her is normally locked safely away. Seeing her again, with the hope of a return to some affectionate regard, brought it all out, full of fight. It’s a process I can’t face very often. Sorry about that.