A divorce you don’t want

Jen’s been doing it hard. In order to let me get another 7 months’ work at the Labs in Bristol, she resigned from her beloved Intensive Care Unit back in the middle of 2006. She could only take 12 months leave without pay, and time was up. By the time we came back, a little less than a year later, that rule had changed to allow 3 years leave, but it was too late for Jen.

So when we came back, she started from scratch at the hospital, and had to face the night shifts—5 per month. She couldn’t do it. The ill-effects of nights had been steadily increasing over the years, and the break from the shifts had possibly made their effects worse. In any case, by the end of the third night, she was a mess, and so she resigned. Her boss was able to make temporary arrangements that involved Jen dropping to one “official” shift a week, with extra shifts offered to her to cover staffing shortages. In was known to be a temporary arrangement, and the current roster was to be her last.

She started to look for another job, and found that it was almost impossible for her to go to work in the unit. It’s like a divorce you don’t want, she told me one tearful night. There had been other tearful nights. Many times in the course of her years in the unit, she had dealt with tragedies that had moved her to a discreet tear behind the ventilators. This, however, was her own small tragedy: giving up the unit she loved, the team she loved, because the work she loved had exhausted her resources to cope with some inescapable aspects of it.

It wasn’t just the nights. There had been a rash of kids coming into the unit, and dying there. There is always a high mortality in intensive care, but it is the parents of young families and the teenagers that are hardest to cope with. I’m tired of burying children was a sentiment common to many of the women who had their own children.

So now she has a day job, which she starts the week after next, and she must resign from the ICU again. Last time, Jen told me very much later, to leave her ID behind and walk out the door, knowing that she was no longer a part of it, had broken her heart. Bring it to me, my love, and I will care for it, intensively.

Ashes

We had a day for it, all right. It was, I think, the 3rd of August, a Friday, in what we would always have considered the depths of winter. It’s a Brisbane winter we’re talking about, and it can be cold and windy on Moreton Bay, but that Friday was, as you can see, balmy—blue sky, green-blue water, and a light wind. The water-taxi took us from Redland Bay out between Macleay and Coochiemudlo Islands, then up to Peel Island. Once we rounded Peel, we were looking across the broad expanse of the bay, with the port just visible to the west, Moreton Island to the north-east, and northern-most part of North Stradbroke to the east.

A person’s ashes are surprisingly heavy. You can see below (1) the size of the container. It was by no means full, but when the woman at the crematorium handed it to me in a shiny white paper carry bag with rope handles, of the kind that more up-market retail stores will give you, she cautioned me to support the bottom of the bag. Dad’s mortal remains sat at home for a week or more before I got around to arranging the trip onto the bay. Jen and I met J, C and K at the ferry. I was pleasantly surprised to see my daughter, M, there.

The boat was noisy, so we didn’t talk much. I was expected to say something before we scattered Dad’s ashes, but, predictable as that expectation may have been, I was at a loss for words. I was thinking about M, I was thinking about Dad, I was thinking about Mum. When Mum had died, in keeping with the desire to “keep things from the children” which had rendered her inevitable death a massive shock to both Cherie and me, her ashes were scattered by Dad, alone, on this same bay. It was years before I was able to ask him what had become of Mum’s ashes, my silence no doubt reinforcing a belief that his silence had all been to the good.

Aunt Alma tells me that she had pointed out to Dad that it was a provocation to Mum’s uneasy spirit that her final resting place was in the ceaseless movement of the Bay. Mum hated the Bay. While I was a baby, and up to the time that she had Cherie, the Bay would take Dad away from her for unpredictable periods doing inherently dangerous work. Every time he went out, there was a real risk she might never see him again. If the weather blew up while he was out, her anxiety would rise with the wind. Dad saw Alma’s point, but the deed was done. Dad took decisions without asking for advice, let alone consultation; like his father, and like me.

So I stumbled through some words of farewell, and took up the ashes. The crematorium had thoughtfully provided a plug in one end of the container, and I had brought a screwdriver for the purpose. The ashes averaged out to a mid grey, but as I poured the first cast into the shallow green water beneath the boat, it looked almost white in the water. No-one else wanted a part of the process, so I continued. Cast after cast sank in a spreading cloud into the water, and passed underneath the boat, carried by the tide some distance into the Bay, before settling into the sandy bottom of Moreton. Towards the bottom of the container, the material grew coarser, and I realized that these were small fragments of bone, which I assume had been ground from the larger remaining bones. I resisted the urge to rinse the container, fill it, and let it fall to the bottom. Dad’s nameplate, taped on (and visible in photo 1), should have carried it down.

1

Me with Dad’s ashes

2

M (off frame), me, K

3

Me (casting the ashes), M, J (with petals)

When the ashes were gone, everyone threw some rose petals into the water after them. J had collected a bag of them for the occasion. That done, we toasted Dad in scotch and ginger ale, thoughtfully provided by K, and we had the captain of our little ship turn and head for shore. Back on shore, M asked Jen and me for a lift, but K said immediately that she was going past M’s door, and so she went with K. I was kicking myself that I hadn’t pressed the point, and so missed an opportunity to talk with her on the way home. Next time. Jen and I went to the Redland Bay pub for lunch, walked a way along the foreshore, and watched the lorrikeets, before dusting the red soil from our shoes and heading home.

Shame

T came home one day, very pleased with herself. She had attended one of those day-long seminars that sweep through organizations, both private and public, at regular intervals in order to leach some of the spare cash out of the system. She was particularly chuffed about a game they had played. In the exercise, members of a team collectively negotiated a response to a situation of some kind, and then individually passed on their response. No one in the team knew the individual decisions until they had all been made. The catch was that the points garnered to each member of the team varied with the number who chose a particular response. If all members chose response A, each received, say 40 points. If, however, one person chose response B, while everyone else chose A, that person gained 100 points, while everyone else gained only 10. If everyone chose B, however, each person got only 5 points. As T explained it, the aim of the exercise was for individual members to maximise their points. It was more elaborate than that, with points schedules for every possible result, but you get the picture, I hope.

This may sound very trite, but I had never encountered it before, and neither had T. She immediately realized that by convincing everyone else to do the right thing by the group, then betraying them, she could score heavily. This she did. That, you might think, was the end of the co-operation.

Ok, ok. It was a momentary lapse of reason. I’m sorry. But the logic of the game is still with Response A. Second round, same result. 200 points to T, everybody else, 20. So I’m ahead. But let’s get serious now. There’s no point everyone going for B, because the result is even worse. Only by sticking together can any of you expect to get any worthwhile points now. As I recall the story, only one of the victims broke ranks on the third round, which still left the two of them with a handsome advantage. I was, as usual, awe-struck by T’s skill in this kind of manipulation. This was the least of the examples I had seen, and a click of the fingers compared to the ones of which I was then unaware.

Some while later, I found myself in a time management seminar, playing the same game with a team of people from my company, none of whom I had worked with before. Having been wised up by T, I played her game, with some success. People are very trusting, fortunately for the world we live in. It was only at the end of the game that I realized what I had done. No-one who had played that game with me would trust me in future. I had given them a disturbing glimpse of my character. Gallingly though, it wasn’t my character. I wouldn’t dream of behaving that way in any actual situation; had I not been presented with the successful strategy by T, it would not have occurred to me to play in such a way, irrespective of the way the aim of the game was presented. I had only myself to blame, of course, in my lack of perception and discrimination.

It was an example of the power of bad company. Like the most impressionable school-kid, I accepted uncritically the self-assessment, and self-aggrandisement, of someone who loomed large on my horizon. Mimicry, the engine of our linguistic habits, drives so much else that is occurring below the radar in the formation of our attitudes and and patterns of behaviour. Here’s an example of a different order.

On the way to lunch at The Three Monkeys so time ago, I selected, more or less at random, a bottle of Mojo 2004 shiraz. It was a wonderful drop. It was the sort of wine that you take a first sip of in the middle of an animated conversation, which you are then obliged to interrupt to exclaim, What a beautiful wine; take another few mouthfuls, and have everyone around the table agree. There’s no better review. The next year’s, which was the only vintage we were able to get subsequently, was not a bad wine, but nowhere near as good.

Last Friday I went with Peter to 1st Choice at Oxley to get something for Friday night. Amongst the shiraz I found the 2005 Mojo, alongside the 2005 Rockbare and a third from the same winery. It featured a pink foil, and the Rockbare label background motif of thin vertical bars, but in pale pink on white, and it rejoiced in the name Barossa Babe. It even featured a Barossa babe in pink. It’s an unusual way to present a wine, but it was a 2003, and the same price as the Mojo, $16.99. When we got the the checkout with our assorted glassware, the price was $37.99. Oh no, it’s not that much. How much? $16 something. So we went to the rack, she popped out the ticket, took it back to the register and called the manager.

I’ve worked in a bottle shop, and have sold booze to customers at the (incorrect) marked price, so I knew the routine. Peter didn’t. In those circumstances, he said, he would be inclined to refuse the bottle at the incorrect price, and get something else. That opinion troubled me a bit, then, but I overcame those qualms. Later that night, I was talking about visiting other 1st Choice bottle shops, looking for Barossa Babe with the wrong price tag. Just to get one, mind you, not a half a dozen. Then they’d pull the price tag. Oh, so you’d be doing them a favour? Precisely. He can be so unbearably superior.

At any rate, sometime the next day I rang Owen and asked him to nip up to his local and buy a couple if they were there at the lower price. They were not in stock. By this time, I have to say, I felt relieved that they weren’t. Next time I saw Peter, he told me BB was correctly priced at Toowong. I was so glad he had checked. Nonetheless, I was feeling a sting of shame.

Funny stuff, shame. Funny as in strange, elusive, allusive, mysterious. It is potent state of mind. It is an emotion in that it has immediate and ongoing physical manifestation, but it is more importantly the interaction between an idea and a perception; the idea of the way the self should be, and the perception of the way the self is; the ideal and the actual.

We can argue for a long time about the source of this idea or set of ideas – this model of how we should be. What’s most interesting, though, is the power of an idea, and the fact that the idea can lie dormant, to be aroused to its full power by a word heard or behaviour observed, either by its contrast or its felicity to that idea. When it does arise, the self-perceptions by which it has been lulled to sleep have as much chance of maintaining their coherence as a newspaper in a gale.

In case you think I know something about wine, I’ll tell you the rest of the Barossa Babe story. We bought another couple of bottles of wine that night, and Peter wanted to try something a little more spiritual as well. We settled on a bottle of Pernod, after skirting around a Czech absinthe, made according to the original wormwood recipe. Neither of us had ever tasted Pernod, so when we got home a round was poured. Jen couldn’t stand it, and didn’t finish her glass. I wasn’t any more impressed, but persevered, and found that fresh orange juice disguised the taste enough for me to drink it. Peter quite liked it., and finished Jen’s glass.

With dinner we opened the Babe. Funny if it’s corked, Peter said after sniffing the cork. I thought he was joking. When we started to drink it, Jen loved it, but I was a bit put off. After a while, I complained. Peter had the same problem, which was what motivated the comment about the cork. So after I finished the glass, we opened another wine we had bought. Same problem! The penny should have dropped, but didn’t. Jen quietly continued to drink the Babe, thinking What’s wrong with me. I like it.

It wasn’t until I poured myself some coke and got a sniff of that that I realised. The coke smelled off in the same way. It was all down to the Pernod, which had colonised my palate, and Peter’s. So much for our bargain bottle. At least Jen enjoyed it, but I have still to taste it.

Heart failure

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.

Births, Marriages and Deaths

I was the executor of Dad’s will, a circumstance both appropriate and unfortunate. Unfortunate because administration is not my milieu even in the mill-pond days of the psyche, and they are few. The storms that churn my teacup depths are many and varied. My cup spilleth over at the slightest disturbance. Taken together, the employment doldrums I drifted into after the Labs, the edginess they engendered about staying in the U.K. and the consequent move home were enough to fill the saucer. All of this prior to Dad’s death.

For me, at least, procrastination – the procrastination that makes me a friable administrator – is driven by some anxiety or other. There are many to choose from, and particular circumstances throw up novelties for the menu. So it was when we came home to the funeral. Nature was aided and abetted by the coroner. In order to finalise Dad’s affairs, his death certificate, or a certified copy of same, was required by most interested parties. On top of the delay introduced to the funeral by the coroner, was the more or less constant call to calm reflection by the Department of Justice and Attorney-General, represented by the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths. This meditative pause ranges from five to six weeks.

To everything there is a season, especially, I should think, to marriages. But births and deaths? I don’t know. In any case, the delay seems to be predictable, which leads to the conclusion that the staffing levels are sufficient to maintain the balance between work flowing in and work completed, except perhaps in peak season for one or another of life’s milestones; which leads, in turn, to the speculation that, were sufficient resources made available to clear the backlog, such that the delay were reduced to, say, one to two weeks, then the original staff would be able to maintain that position.

There must, of course, be something wrong with this argument. I can’t see that it is to do with increased demand as a result of the quicker turnaround. The Registry has a monopoly, and every birth, marriage and death must be documented. There’s no getting fed up and opting out. “That’s it. I’ve had it. Dad, as far as the State of Queensland is concerned, you are going to live forever.”

So maybe this formal, structural procrastination is also driven by the sum of individual anxieties. Perhaps, at every level in the system, a head of backed-up demand is required to open the valves. Perhaps there must be a threshold of pressure, a degree of difficulty sufficient to engage the attention and commitment of those involved. If so, I will have to go to the end of the queue of critical commentators, because I understand this dynamic all too well. There will probably be a fight for the position.

Dad died.

Dad died on Tuesday the 22nd of May. He had a fall in the nursing home, where he was under house arrest due to his dementia, or, to be more precise, his inability to remember short to medium term events. He would wander, and lose track of the time and place. It wasn’t so bad when he was still in familiar surroundings, but when he moved to the home, he was completely disorientated.

This has no bearing on his fall; it was just a fall such as the elderly suffer. He hit his head, and his skin being paper-like, his blood, inclined always to flow from incidental cuts and now full of warfarin, made a messy spectacle. As usual in such circumstances, he was taken from Tarry Brae to emergency at the Wesley. From there, Judith was rung, but there seemed to be no urgency, so she walked over from Toowong. A scan had revealed no cause for alarm. I don’t know whether Judith talked to him, or whether he was sedated. While she was with him, be began to fit. Judith called attention to this, and left while he was attended to. One of the doctors came to speak to her. He didn’t have long to live. Weeks, days? Hours. Judith went outside to call the kids on her mobile. While she was contacting them, he passed away.

Kyla called in the small hours of the Bristol morning, to tell me. I called Cherie in Utah. Cherie and Rob were preparing for a road trip to the east, to see Rob’s relatives. Cherie decided, after talking to Judith, not to come for the funeral.

Jen and I had been due to arrive on Saturday evening. We were booked on a flight leaving Heathrow at midday on the 25th, Friday. The plan was that we would pack up on Tuesday and Wednesday, hiring a car to take us and our worldly possessions to a B&B in Iver, nearby to Fogchicken. We would spend a couple of evenings with her, and leave in her care various odds and ends she might find useful, going on Friday morning to Heathrow. We brought the flight forward by two days, packed in a frenzy, hired a van in which we drive our luggage to Heathrow, and Fogchicken’s paraphenalia to Langley. We had dinner with her in a pub, and said goodbye in the evening. Jen was quite distraught as we drove back to Bristol. I dropped the van at Bristol airport, while Jen started the final cleanup.

We has already given things away on Freecycle, and we were now dumping the remainder. As well as the clothes and shoes that went into the clothing bins, some bagsful were secreted amongst the many plastic bags of detritus around the Asda charity bins, with messages left for Freecycle subscribers on how to find them. There were a dozen planters with mature fuchsias, geraniums and ivy, which went down beside the entrance, with another Freecycle plea that they be given a good home. A few other larger items went in beside the building’s bins, in the hope they would also be put to good use. We had a bus to catch at 5:30 in the morning, so after about two hours sleep, we were up again. By 8:30 we were having breakfast at Heathrow. Sometime after 7:00 pm on Thursday we landed in Brisbane.

On the Wednesday night, at Lang Park (formally Suncorp Stadium; a.k.a. The Cauldron) Queensland met and defeated New South Wales in the first State of Origin match of 2007. I wouldn’t be able to watch that with Dad, but I expected to see the remaining two matches with him. Before we left for the U.K., a small private ritual for us to watch the matches on TV together, fielding complaints about the noise (when Qld were on the attack). It wasn’t just the Origin games we liked to watch. Before my evenings had been re-focussed on Jen’s shifts, I would often go over to watch the Friday night game with him. I sometimes did still; before we left for the U.K.

I’m sure you will allow me a confession. In the two years we were away, I never once spoke to my father. It was too easy to rationalize that he would probably not remember me anyway, and that, in any case, his memory of a conversation would not survive its end by more than a few minutes. So it was too easy for me to justify my innate aversion to social contact without a “purpose”, even if that purpose is to watch a game of football. That, however, seems to be one of the components of a definition of “bloke”.

Such, at any rate, were my plans to re-establish my connection with Dad. Ah, happenstance.

There was a twist in the story that threatened to let me recover from the jet-lag before the funeral. Because the initial scan had revealed no life-threatening injury from the fall, no one knew what had killed him. His body went, then, not to the funeral director, but the coroner for an autopsy. The brain is a mushy thing, so the pathologists wanted to let it sit in something to let it firm up for about a fortnight, so that it would slice with greater consistency. In the end, they were persuaded to give it until the Monday following his death. I can’t remember now whether the funeral went ahead on the Wednesday or the Thursday. In any case, I was able to remain awake, and more or less alert, for the proceedings.

Dad left the church without us, borne off to the crematorium on the other side of Brisbane in an unaccompanied white hearse. I decided to stay with the relatives whom I only saw, nowadays, at funerals. Not that I saw them any more often in less morbid times; probably less so. Dad was the last of the siblings, and only three of the spouses remain, so the gatherings will likely dwindle back to their usual frequency soon enough, to pick up again as the boomers generation runs out of time.

It doesn’t sound like a very traumatic event, does it? Appearances can be deceptive.