Thinking about Spencer

Spencer and Buddhist Prayer

Thinking about Spencer.


I am not supposed to be doing this. I am supposed to be studying. But somehow the picture that his owner, Janet, gave me as a thank you for my assistance in his leaving this world, has caught my attention. He is a small terrier with a big bone in his mouth. His fluffy foxtail is blurred with movement. It is a dog’s joy, is it not, that captures us?


I know she is bereft. We have done what we can do, as humans. We have given him a calm and dignified farewell. A cancer in his belly was growing like a hungry gourd. He felt nothing as he slipped off a needle of very strong anaesthetic. I recited the words the Tibetan monk gave me so many years ago on a Buddhist retreat.


Geshe-La was surprised, wide-eyed, to know, that as a vet, I routinely killed things. He had not long been in the West. He had imagined only the healing. He didn’t believe it was good for my own karma and gave me a prayer for that. At the end of each day I was to use it for purification. I have not remembered it. He gave me another for the animals, and that, I have memorized. The words are supposed to ease the transition from this life to the next. Perhaps the rebirth following will be better, more enlightened. (Of course to believe that we are more enlightened than dogs to begin with is a whole other question.) The short prayer is said in Tibetan and repeated as I inject. I don’t know how it translates and all I have is how the maroon-robed monk told me to say it. What happens if I pronounce the words incorrectly? I carry the mantra in my head. Like Chinese whispers, who knows what wish I am finally asking for and for whom I am asking it? He told me it must be said out loud to the animal as it dies. It is what I do.


Tayata om muni muni maha munaye soha. Tayata om muni muni maha munaye soha.



We clipped some fur for her to remember him by and made a paw print too. We struggled to get the print right and somehow that helped us, the room of people left behind, meddling around looking for something to do, as a spirit lifted off. She wanted to be the one to carefully slide his body into the black plastic that, necessarily, was his transport to the crematorium. There was a feeling, at that moment, that Janet might gladly climb into the bag to stay with him. Spencer had with him a favourite blanket, a squeaky ball and a saliva stained hand puppet, Collin, who had been his chew toy. A dog needs little in the way of possessions to be joyful. A week later his ashes were returned in a well-crafted wooden box. Such a small bundle in the end. The crematorium rang Janet to say, Spencer was ready to come home. What else can humans do?


Janet tells me he still feels present in the house. A collar he wore will be cherished. His bed remains where it was and she senses him. Of course she does. It is only ten days. He was as loved as a child. The loss of him is human-sized. How long do you think it will take to no longer mourn him? A new puppy is on order and perhaps this will help. After all it’s a Griffin. Its piddly, bitey ways will surely distract. But an old dog is priceless. They know us. We don’t need to learn, as I have in my behaviour course, that dogs innately read human gestures, even better than primates. Dogs just get us. They see with our eyes. Owners know dogs understand them. They have always known this.


(Thanks to Janet and Spencer for permission to retell some of their story…)



Empty Nest


The Robinia is still recovering from the storm. The edges of its fragile leaves are brown and bruised. It is not how it usually looks in summer. It is autumnal, bedraggled.

The Willy Wag tail nest is still there. Stoic and strongly harnessed to its branch. But it is empty. No longer do the busy little black and white birds make their way, back and forth, with bounty from the grass.

Where do Willy Wag tails go to grieve?


Mrs. W is in her seventies. She wears a polycotton blue and white floral print dress for her visit to the vet. It is a happy dress. Benny is her Jack Russell terrier with a long history of heart disease. We have battled his belly, which grows rigid and tight with oedemtaous fluid, but the belly has won. The skin is drawn tight over the gourd-like abdomen. She keeps a measure on the size of his belly with her dressmaking tape. Today it measures 60cm. I think of Elizabeth Taylor playing Scarlett O’Hara and her less than 20-inch waist.

I can tell by the quiver in her voice. The way she holds him into her chest, that she has come to say goodbye. The medication is no longer working. His heart sounds like a working washing machine. She tells me he is not eating and he looks at her as if to say, help me, I’ve had enough.

Is she anthropomorphising? Yes. No doubt. So what. He is her only close companion these days. He is human to her.

We decide that, yes, Benny has had enough and together we will be saying goodbye to him today.

I imagine her at home, before the visit, before she has rung for the appointment. She has had to build up to this. She has tried all the foods she is not supposed to feed him, to see if he will eat. Streaky bacon. She has doubled his diuretics. She has decided to ring and then waited another day. She has sat and watched him through the night. She has dialed the number and then hung up before the phone has answered. She has driven past with him in the car and even into the car park, but turned about again and gone home. He follows her around the house, into the bathroom. She sleeps with her hand on his chest, feeling it madly vibrate beneath her palm. She has prayed that he will drift off in his sleep. She wonders how big his abdomen can get. How much can one little dog belly hold? Can it pop like a overinflated balloon?

I sedate him, and while the medication takes effect, Mrs W tells me about her old mum who recently passed away. Her mum was in a coma for days, being given morphine and not able to communicate, but, before she died she opened her eyes and looked around. She saw her daughter there and then turned her head towards the window and in the light that beamed through her daughter was convinced that her mother saw someone waiting for her. She had a wonderful, not-often-seen, smile on her face. The daughter believed it was her brother – the boy who had died of peritonitis when he was a three-year-old infant. It gave her enormous comfort to think of her mother, who had grieved all her life for her son, as reuniting with him. She then went on to tell me the story of the boy’s illness and his death. She had been five years old. She had a memory of her mother dressing the child to take him to hospital on what would be his final visit. Before this, her memory was one of his seesawing illness and her anxious parents. She remembered her mother’s tears as she reassured the boy that he would be made well.  But the small boy cried that if he went to hospital he would never come back. She promised him that he would get better. And as I am expressing my sympathy for her dear old mum and how terrible it must have been for her to lose a child she tells me that yes it is unfathomable. She says it is 2 years, 4 months and 3 days ago that, at the age of thirty six, her daughter took her own life.

Benny is feeling the effects of his sedation. His head is lowered. We both touch him. Unison of strokes. She has his head cradled in her cupped hands. She will never be ready to let him go. Wrapped up in him now is all the loss in the world. She is weeping across him. She is weeping for her mother, her brother and her daughter. She is feeling an ever enlarging whole of empty pushing its way out through her chest. Fat droplets of tears are running across her face. Blue tissues turn wet and soggy in her hand.

Now she tells me about Benny. How he came to her from a home where the children teased him and he was never allowed inside. She said he didn’t know how to play when she got him. He only knew how to hide. She asked if it was her fault that his heart was the way it was.

I held her hand and we let Benny go.

We both wondered aloud, whom Benny was off to join in the light. She thought of a previous old dog, that Benny had known, one that knew how to fetch tennis balls. He would be waiting and ready to teach him to play.

Mrs. W goes home. She takes Benny’s collar and lead. They have his smell. The lead is impregnated with his white hair. She will pick them up and holding them will remember him. His tight bellied waddle following her about the house.


I think of her everyday.

I have a bookmark, made for her funeral, loose in the console of my car. As I drive to work and stop at the lights I handle the glossy card. The picture is of her on the phone, laughing. I imagine she is talking to a friend. Or perhaps she is talking to me.

She would be telling me about the Not Guilty verdict of Lloyd Rainey. Together we would scoff. She would be asking me to place a bet on a horse running in the Melbourne Cup. She would choose it because she liked the jockey or maybe the gelding’s name. She would be barracking for Obama.

I hold the card while I drive. Hi Mum.

I think of her everyday. I tell her stuff.

But it is different from when she was alive. Then, I was needed to do things. I had mandarins to buy. I had magazines to purchase. I had appointments to arrange. To drive to.

I grumbled to friends and family about the burden of the tasks. I felt smothered by her need to see me. Her joy, as a I entered her dimly lit room, only made me sigh.

To turn around now and say I miss her seems fickle. I feel unable to tell the people I complained to, that really it is simple, I miss her. I miss her everyday.

My life has a new rhythm without her in it. No nagging need to get this, do that. But. I miss her everyday.

No one is as interested in me in the greedy, consuming way she was. She had a need to know everything going on in my life. I, of course, hid it from her. I didn’t let her in. Not really. I kept it to myself. The way I do most things. From most people. Like a kid who shields their work with their cupped hand from the kid sitting next to them. Somehow petty. I wish I had shared more.

She would have been thrilled to hear about my recent trip to Sydney. She grabbed at stories. She gulped them in. She wanted my fulfillment. She wanted me to have happy experiences, with beautiful things. To stay in flash hotels and go to fancy restaurants. She wanted me to do the things she wished she had done, so I could tell her about them. I would watch her eyes fill with sparkle at the stories I would bring back from elsewhere. She could then have news for her carers and her hairdresser. She could be the entertainer then.

I imagine her sitting up in bed, watching the Presidential race. And Charles and Camilla happen to be in the country too. A feast of news. And Thank Goodness, no football. Her thin blue ankles on the plush throw rug. Her Hush Puppies by the bed. She will have a cold cup of tea on her tray. She will sip from it anyway. She will wrap the uninteresting biscuit in a Kleenex and put it with the others in the bedside drawer. I will attempt to ditch some older ones when she has her head turned.

I will give the flowers fresh water from the tap in her bathroom. I go through some letters she has piling up by the television and see what I can throw out. She will not allow any to be binned.

She will ask me to mark some dates in her diary. In here she writes which carer has given her the shower and who was on night duty. These are the things that are important to her. She will ask me to write when I am coming again. Is it tomorrow or the next day?

Day Three of Dying

Her piano-playing fingers are swollen. Blue. It is not the hand I know. The one that has done so much touching, grasping, stroking, holding is in there somewhere, beneath the oedema. Today the memory of her bones are gone. The paper of her skin has turned to something like flesh. I think of Hansel and Gretel tricking the witch with their chicken bones instead of fingers. Too skinny,  the wicked witch would say. Not yet ripe for the cooking pot. What horror it made you feel as a child. Now I hold her hand, searching for the memory of it. Where have my mother’s hands gone? The image of them remains concrete. It cannot be changed. I hold it in my mind.

People who love her visit. They are shocked to find her non-contactable. June is there still, I say. The nurses said she could hear you if you spoke to her. I don’t know if this is true. To me she is asleep. And what do you hear when you are asleep? Your dreams. But this comforts those who visit. They sit and hold the puffy-not-her-hand and tell June how much she meant to them. They cry and say they love her. I give them some space to be beside her because they have only a visit and I have? How long have I to go?

Part of me feels as if she is on display. Some kind of exhibit. I am the museum guard. Making sure they don’t touch the artwork. Don’t nick anything. This is absurd. But there it is.

Maybe not having had the experience of being close to death makes us awkward. Our mind chooses other things to liken it to. I think of those red plaited ropes they set up in movie cinemas to make you form a queue for the box office. I think of those retractable barriers in airports that corral you into a zig zag line, heaving your unwieldy bag behind you. Even death has a form, a way of being. Form a neat queue behind the yellow line people.

There is sludge in the urinary catheter tube that leaves her body and fills a bag by the bed. It is not what is supposed to be in urine. The antibiotics are still not working.

Her lips are cracking. With a cotton-tipped bud I apply the lanolin. It is white and smeary. I like these tasks. I wish for more of them. I straighten the blankets. I smooth the sheets. I stroke her hairline. There is an inch or so of white hair now. Her hair is growing despite everything. She missed her last hairdressing appointment because of feeling unwell. She would hate the state of her hair.

Her tongue has some red blotches on it. It lies in her half-open mouth, flipped on its side, like a slug without its shell. Her breathing is slow and monotonous. It does not seem to be weakening. My sister will arrive tonight at 6pm. It’s not far off. Five hours.

At 1pm the nurse visits and they reposition her. We decide not to give June more morphine. She has been unchanged since her first dose and the nurse thinks that if she is dosed again she will not be alive for my sister.

I sit and watch her. I film her on my phone. I have captured her.

I write.

She would hate that I am doing all this. Recording such melancholia. She used to say, why can’t you write about happy things? She pushed away the deep and dark. She wanted lightness, frivolity, entertainment. She wanted Kate and Will’s wedding on the TV. She wanted a Silver Jubilee parade. She wanted baby pictures of the Danish Royals and for Molly Meldrum to pull through.

The silver chain nurse comes and examines her and gives her more intravenous antibiotics. We chat. When it comes time for him to leave he says, I won’t see you tomorrow. I answer, Oh.

I go through my mother’s address book for familiar names of people I should tell. I see a name Dossie. It is a name I know. Dossie this, Dossie that. But I have never met a Dossie. The number is a Sydney number. I ring it and tell the woman who answers that I am calling to tell Dossie some news. This is Dossie’s daughter, the woman says. Dossie died a couple of months ago and I wanted to tell June but hadn’t managed it yet. She is glad I called. Our mothers were close childhood friends. They played in each other’s yards. They put ribbons in one another’s hair. They had the same knee-high socks. They whispered through the pickets about boys. They stayed in touch for eighty years.

I am writing when I realise I have not heard her breathing and I look up from my notebook and spend a still moment watching the bed clothes. There is no rise or fall. I know instantly she is gone. I go closer. I go to the side she faces and look at her motionless face and watch it for a breath, for a sound. Oh. My first thought is that I was not paying attention. I should have been holding her hand. My second thought is of my sister. She has missed her. She is about an hour from landing.

Any moment now Graham and Jasper will be here to swap cars and go to the airport to collect Lisa.

I touch her forehead. I hold her hand. I watch her. My phone rings. It is my brother-in-law. He will be the first person to hear the words she’s gone. He is not expecting this.

Graham and Jasper arrive minutes later. Her hands are bleaching. No longer blue, but a deathly beige. Waxen. I tell them I will just sit with her till they bring Lisa. I will not tell anyone she has died. I want to keep it a secret for as long as I can. I want her to be like this when Lisa arrives.

I manage about forty minutes, just my mother and me, before a carer comes in with a cup of tea for me. I have to tell her June’s passed away. It seems wrong to not say. Are you certain? she asks. Oh yes, I’m sure. She is a little panicked by the fact that no one but us knows this fact and she must tell someone she says, and off she runs. Soon the doctor and nurse are in the room. I stand back. The doctor even warms his stethoscope on his own chest before he checks her for a heart beat. I guess it is automatic. We sit and talk about June. The doctor is sad. His sadness feels real. She had such a love for life, he says. I bet she gave a good party, he says.

I try to remember her parties. It is hard at first with so much death in the room. She loved celebration. I think of a surprise party she told me about that she had arranged for my father. It was for his fortieth birthday. We were only toddlers. She had no way of hiding from him the beer bottles in the bath, so instead she told him he would have to pretend to be surprised. And he went along with it. Faking astonishment to all their friends. She would have made devils on horseback and asparagus rolls. She would have worn strappy gold sandals and orange lipstick. The house would have been filled with the scent of Sweet Pea.





Day Two Of Dying


I go to Myer to buy nighties. They are crisp and new. They are cotton with a delicate flower print. The woman serving me apologises for no one being in attendance at the counter while I was waiting to pay. I say the garments are for my mother. I think about adding – she is dying. But it is something that is just said in my head, to myself. It is a whisper under everything that I am doing. Like the rattle of the tracks under a train. Monotonous and keeping time. Outside the department store the arts market is going on in the square. The sky is ridiculously bright and blue. How dare it? I buy a takeaway coffee. In my head to the barrista; My mother is dying. The coffee machine has only just been turned on. It’ll take a few minutes; Is that okay? My mother is dying. Will she wait while I get takeaway coffee?

They already have her in a new nightie. It is pink, with flowers. I don’t think it is hers, but I don’t say. I put my two newly purchased ones, tags still attached, in the drawer. Tomorrow she can wear one of mine.

How are you Mum?

Better, she says. You don’t look better, I think, but do not say.

I am so thirsty. Still?

I check the fluids are working. Yes.

The tips of her fingers have changed colour. They have a blue hue. Think violet. Her feet too. In her outgoing breath there is a gurgling, fluid sound. On the inward breath too. She wants to cough but can’t seem to manage it. Her throat is like a frothy drain. What does it mean not to have the power to cough and clear your throat?

Visitors come. We sit around her. I give her globby water. I am careful to make sure she can swallow it. It isn’t much and does little to quench her relentless thirst.

She starts guessing her ailment. Appendicitis? Am I going to theatre?

Have you got pain June? the nurses ask. No.

Then she asks for Panamax. It has been her cure-all for many years, since the demise of Bex.

We conclude she must have pain.

The doctor has written her up for Hyoscine and Morphine. The drugs of the dying. At 3pm she has her first dose of Morphine.

Once she has had these drugs the gurgling stops and she closes her eyes. This is the first time she appears restful. It is a relief. It is like watching a baby sleep. It is peaceful. It is how it should be. I feel like someone who is waiting for a bus, but who isn’t in the slightest hurry to go anywhere. I feel like a person who is sitting in the sun, with my legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. I have nothing to read and nothing to occupy my hands. I might just watch the traffic go by. I might just let the bus be missed. I will simply sit in the sun. And wait.

It is not over and I don’t know how much time she has but it is different now. There is no struggle to cough. There is not thirst. There is just sleep. There is just waiting and watching. I guess this is a vigil.

Dust is beginning to gather by the wheels of the bed because we have shooed away the cleaner. There has been no Leonie with her turned down mouth dragging her noisy vacuum. There are no stray mandarin pips. No crumbs from biscuits had with tea. Just dust.

From the en suite bathroom comes the burping sound of drains being unblocked. I think of Rolf Harris and the noise he made with his Wobble board.

I look through her address book for names of people I should ring. I ring some of her very old friends. They too are old. Some are older. Some still drive. Some have recovered from worse, or so they say. But they know what I am saying without me having to say it. It is in the croak of my voice. The child like sorry. They say, Thank you dear for letting me know. Give her my love. They say it matter-of-factly. How else should they say it?

Do all the dying look the same? She looks like Dad did now. Gone is the originality of her face. It is a dying face now.


to be continued…









Day One of Dying

I go ahead of the ambulance that is transporting my mother back to the nursing home. Silver Chain has been arranged to come out and deliver the iv antibiotics. In my head I hear the parting words of the physician, she should recover from this episode.

I have confidence in his knowledge. He knows if someone in front of him is dying.

I give a heads up to the nursing home staff. June is on her way. Her room is readied, the bed turned down. Her favourite 100% polyester blanket with the pink love hearts is smoothed over. Sun has flooded her room. Light appears to have burnt off the illness that had pervading it. Here she will do as the doctor said. Recover.

I warn them that she will want to use the toilet. More than anything.

Seeing her in the arms of two of the most capable nurses, one on either side, assisting her to her bathroom, I feel able to go. I leave confident that on my return the following day she will be recovered.

I go home. I take Jasper to footy training. I stand in the cool evening air and watch ten-year olds run and kick and sling tackle each other to the ground. Mothers are talking about house prices and renovating vs moving. Jasper stays after training officially finishes to keep on kicking for goal. As it turns to dusk and he comes towards me I see his green and black stained knees. Anointed by winter grass. I sleep.

In the morning I go to the nursing home expecting; sitting up in bed, conversing, television on. Instead I enter a room where the curtains are still drawn. She has not recovered. No dirty knees. She looks worse. How can this be?

I buzz for the nurse.

What’s happening? I ask. Remember learning to ride a bike. Whose idea was it to start you at the top of a hill?  You’ve never gone down it before but once you push-off at the top it’s too late to change your mind. Did someone give you an almighty shove? Flying down. Fast. You don’t want to go faster. Already you feel out of control so you take your feet off the pedals, but you need your feet on the pedals of a back-pedal-brake bike to slow down and stop. Why were you given no instruction? And now you realise you don’t know how to stop. You crash onto the grass. You just want to get off this thing.

My heart has sped up, down-hill-no-brakes-fast, and won’t go back to resting for some days now. It is reminding me I am alive. This is me with grass-stained knees. Feel it.

A nurse has my mother’s hand and is working her rings off her puffy wedding ring finger. There are three rings that live here, two of which have stayed put for fifty years; an emerald engagement ring and her silver wedding band. The nurse says I should keep them safe till her fingers come down. I slip them on my finger. Just for now, Mum. She has on her worst nightie. It is bedraggled and fraying at the shoulders. I am embarrassed for her, but it seems they didn’t want her in a long-sleeve and could find no others. I will buy more. It seems important.

No one will say she is dying, so I ask. Is this the start of dying? I think I have asked this question before with my Dad. I am feeling on familiar territory. They are not words you articulate often. They are unforgettable as they leave your mouth. Maybe if I don’t say it, it won’t happen? But that just isn’t me. I say everything. I write it too.

I ask Marie, What do I do?

You should tell important people to come and visit, she says. This is an admission.

What now?

Yes, she says.

Remember being in the ocean and facing wave after wave. My dad was there with my sister and I, teaching us to be safe in the big surf. But he didn’t hold our hands. You take a big breath and dive under. It is calm beneath the surface. There is a pull. Outwards away from the earth. Is this something like an astronaut might feel, walking on the moon? It takes your feet off the bottom. It pulls you further from the shore. Your head pops up and another wave is on its way. You belong to the ocean now. It can take you from your family if it really tries. The next wave is bigger. Harder. Bam. In the washing machine of the surf. Over and over. What is bottom? What is air?

My heart has sped up, dumper-after-dumper-fast, and won’t come back to resting for some days now.


Home is the bed. White linen. Sponge bath.

I leave the room for them to give her a wash and reposition her. They are worrying about bed sores. You should make some calls, they say. I am in the corridor of the nursing home. I go to the dead-end, where the exit door to the garden is permanently locked. I ring Graham and tell him to bring Jasper from school. I ring Lisa. I am incoherent. She is dying, I am blubbering. My sister doesn’t understand. After all I had told her she was recovering only the day before.

I have to say it again. I am saying it between choking, sobbing tears now. I don’t know if you will make it even if you come now. But you should come. Do your best to come.

I ring some relatives. Ones who count. Ones who have visited her. I ring the long time neighbour of June who has been here along every step of the way. She will come. I ring my best friend. She will come too.

I speak to June’s GP. He has heard she is worse. He wonders if going back to the hospital would be a better plan. We argy-bargy back and forth. Can’t she have IV fluids here? It appears the nursing home is not classified to give acute care. An IV can only be looked after by Silver Chain. Okay then we ask Silver Chain, I say. Because she is better here. This is her home. The staff love her here. No one loves her at Fremantle Hospital. Why am I suggesting love is what she needs? I know love does not heal sepsis. I don’t believe that love can stop the progression of illness and disease. But somehow it seems important to keep her here now, rather than send her back to the hospital, where they may muck about adding wires and fluids and taking more measurements. I don’t doubt the outcome either way now. The hill has been scaled, we are hurtling down the other side.

Opera plays in the room next door. Non-stop loud. From the dining room the sound of afternoon game shows on the television clashes with the arias.

Graham brings Jasper from school. He is worried at being absent while the class is choosing the Olympic sport they will each research. He doesn’t want to end up with something he thinks of as a girls’ sport. Of course he wants road cycling. On seeing the boys Mum says, that’s a bad sign. People are standing around the bed looking at her. Taking her hand. I feed her spoonfuls of thickened water. It is like clear jelly but tastes of water. She can swallow it easily. She can’t get enough of the thickened stuff. She is thirsty. I give her spoonfuls of the globby water. She is still thirsty. She huddles in the child-like pose of the sick. Her hands are clenched when they are not in mine. Will I heal? she asks me. Yes Mum, of course. Even though she does not look at me I say it smiling, with brightness in my voice. A you-can-do-it, Rah-Rah kind of voice.

I am giving her the thickened water, when I feel a presence behind me. It is a nurse I don’t know and she is rubbing June’s upper thigh through the blankets. She takes her hand out of mine and holds it. Oh June, she is saying over and over. Love you, June, love you. I turn to see big, fat, wet tears running down her coal-black skin.

Just as the carers come and hold her hand or stroke her face, my feeding her spoonfuls of water, is all I can do. This delivering of a few mls of liquid into her dry mouth feels more important than it is. It feels essential, and healing, and nurturing. It feels life-giving and capable of staving off death.

In the afternoon the Silver Chain comes. The nurse has a bag of tricks; pulse ox, blood glucose measurements, stethoscope. She makes her assessments and rings the doctor. It is decided she can have subcutaneous fluids to avoid being over-perfused and getting a moist chest.

I stay till the sun goes down.

I don’t stay with her at night. She could pass away while I am gone. I accept that. I can’t stay all night. I wonder how long the night must feel when you are creeping towards your death. Does it pass by quickly or else eke? What dreams does she have? Does she feel the edges of her world closing in on her?  Are the corners all blurry?  Is there a central thread, an essence of self, which is clarifying? As sweet as the nectar sucked from the centre of the honeysuckle? As I leave her that night I place a hand on her forehead, like I am her mother and she is my child, and wish her sweet dreams, Mum.


To be continued…


Tally Ho


We are on our way to the airport discussing the derivation of the word tally ho. We all thought it meant a flourishing, extravagant Goodbye, said with an English accent and a grandiose waving of the hand. Graham is reading from the iPhone – to teach us that it is what is shouted when a fox is spotted on the hunt. It is also an expression that was used during the Second World War when enemy aircraft were sighted by fighter pilots. These days it might be used by pilots as a response to air traffic controllers letting them know about air traffic in their vicinity.

I am delivering my men to the airport to set them on their journey to New Caledonia. There, they will sail with two others; another man and his son. I do not know what it will be like. I have hopes for fine weather and smooth seas. I am already wondering if Jasper has enough socks and whether his father packed any singlets.

I took no part in the packing. I didn’t want to be the one to forget something. Hence I am sure they have left something behind.

But they are not travelling to the end of the world.

Socks, I am guessing, can be bought world-wide.

The drive to the airport via Leach Highway is mind-numbingly depressing. It is about the worst possible view of suburbia. Full of semi-industrial warehouses and garage-like shops. Full of mechanics for high performance vehicles and fork-lift operators. Sidewalks unused, the slabs lifting. Delis selling Chico rolls. Past broken down houses with washing lines strung with FIFO fluorescent work shirts. It was out here somewhere that Dad spent a week in a transitional facility on his way to the nursing home. It held the demented and therefore had a series of high security hoops one needed to jump through to get in there, and to get out again. It had that Cuckoo’s Nest feel about it and the smell of boiled broccoli. Dad hated it and was perpetually packing and trying to figure out how to order a taxi to take him home.

At the bag drop a couple have opened a bulging pink suitcase to take out stuff from it and jam it into another. To close it again the boyfriend must kneel on the lid while the girl fiddles with the zipper. At every counter someone is trying to waggle their bags through despite their extra kilos. But this is a budget airline and if your bags are over-weight they will make you pay.

I say good bye here, before the security, because otherwise I will need a pat down. The boy, who never hugs, seems sad to be leaving me. He puts his arms about me, more than is usual for him. He even lets me plant a kiss on his neck, which is now where my lips come up to. I watch him as he makes the metal detector ping. Back through and take your belt off young man. He wears his Lamonts yellow beanie, rescued from the recycling bin, before it went out on the verge. Lucky. It is the vision I will carry of him through the next two weeks. Smiling back at me. Bye Mum.

I am on my own.

I have no partner, no son;  no one to cook for, to pick up from school, to wash and to clean for. I have no schedule to keep other than my own. I can keep writing all through dinner time. I have no mother, no father. No mother to care for. No mother to visit, to sit with, to look through gossip mags.

Before she died, my mother had been frightened of the idea of Graham and Jasper going off sailing. I don’t like to think of them out on the ocean, she would say. She didn’t like risk. I can’t bare to think of an ocean with waves and swell and them upon it. If she was still alive I would visit her now to tell her they got off okay and then again tell her each and every day that they were still okay. Whether I knew it or not. She would ring me for news. I would ring her back. But the phone will not ring, and if it does, I will not need to answer it.

I have a dog whose nails are clicking on the floorboards as he senses it is about school pick-up time. He is ready to go get Jasper from the Arts Centre. It is his routine and he knows it in his cells. He comes into the study and looks at me. He wags his tail, brown eyes saying let’s go already. He stands by the desk and shakes his body. He stretches. But I do not have to go. I can keep writing despite the dog’s misgivings. I do not have to get up in the morning. I could, if I wanted, spend all day in bed. I could start drinking after lunch. Murphy, baffled by my not leaving my desk, wanders back out. Back in. Back out.

Graham has left the dying roses on the table, with an instruction not to move them. They are from my mother’s funeral. Later they may become a picture. One day it may hang in a gallery or on someone’s wall. For now they are dropping their leaves, slowly one by one, and their pink rose petals turning brown. I wanted to ditch them when he left but he has said to leave them, if I could bare it, for another two weeks, till he returns. What state will the water be in then? Already it is swamp. I wanted to get rid of them to spartan the table and perhaps make space for felt-making. But I will leave the roses till he gets home…




The Days before Day One of Dying

As I take my position by my mother’s nursing home bedside this is what I write in my journal; Day One of Dying.

I suspect I am thinking her death will be more drawn out than it is. How many days am I planning on?

She has spent the previous day in Fremantle Hospital. Like a scene from Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell. Full of vomiting, retching, gagging, coughing souls. Later I am told that the hospital has declared itself; Code Black. To the layman this is bursting at the seams. Patients are served up on skinny trolleys. Obtunded. Gurneys jam the space that is supposed to be a corridor. I see a man with a gourd-like belly just covered by a triangle of hospital linen. He is one of the many waiting. Patients, like cattle, stare out into the maelstrom of the central emergency area where the doctors, nurses and ancillary staff zig-zag back and forth before them. Buzzing like flies. Drawn to the smell of carcass. Maybe patients think if I stare long and hard enough someone will come. Then a scrub-suited someone places a stethscope on a chest, eyes to the ceiling, and then moves on. Someone might take a blood pressure. Find a pulse. Scribble it down. Order blood to be taken. Boot-faced nurses. Soft-shoed staff mesmerised by chest xrays on screens. Backs to patients. Speaking to relatives on the phone. Looking at the far corner of the wall, any place other than eye-contact with a patient or a pleading relative.

When I arrive in Emergency it is already late. People should be at home, in front of the telly, or in bed with hot cocoa. Instead they are wanna-be patients waiting to be called through. But their wait depends on the level of severity of their illness. Best be dying to get their attention. Some will still be sitting watching the screen when I leave many hours later. Go home I think. I see the triage nurse and say my mother is in Emergency and that they are expecting me. Indeed they are. A nurse has to show me where Mum is and I am met by a young doctor in scrubs. He seems reluctant to discuss her in the corridor and says perhaps we should go somewhere private. He leads me into a room that someone has tried to make nice, but has failed. I get the sense the room embarrasses him, but what can he do?  It has a painting of scenery on the wall. It is a little wonky. I can’t recall the scene. A lake bordered by forest? There is a vinyl couch (where I am supposed to sit) and a chair opposite it. It is where doctors deliver bad news. Bad news is thick in the room. It has made a home for itself here. I think how I prefer the corridor. I have already spoken to this doctor on the phone, so I know what he is about to say. Words like critical, sepsis and no white cells seemed to stick. Others, like the importance of her blood gas result, seem to fade. I remember his stethoscope necklace and the gentle grasp of his handshake. His face is Scandinavian, soft and sincere, as he delivers the poor prognosis and I think I like him. Mum would like him too.

Then I see her. Defrocked and in a hospital gown. Her bird-like chest is barely covered. Beneath her skin, by her collar bone, is her pacemaker. Her small bundle of clothes are in a blue plastic laundry bag at the foot of the bed. I remember Dad had a similar collection of belongings following him from ward to ward, from hospital to nursing home. She is a little bit confused, but knows it is me. I take her hand. She understands she is in the hospital and that she is pretty sick. But they will heal her. She is thirsty. No wonder. It has taken several hours to examine her and conclude she is dehydrated and get her on a drip.

They move her from a curtained cubicle in Emergency to a room in the corner, with a more comfortable bed. The corner room is normally reserved for women delivering a baby. It is a closet really.  As windowless as the rest of Emergency. A bunker. Do they imagine she will die here? She has multi-coloured cords recording her heart beat and its rhythm, as well as a baboon-making oxygen mask and an intravenous infusion.

I sit watching her. Listening to the electronic beeping of her machines. I watch the fluids running in, and hear the hiss of the oxygen being delivered. I think the amount of intravenous fluid they are giving her is what I might give a sick terrier. I check that urine is flowing out into the bag hanging by the bed. The urine is still more concentrated than it should be, but less cloudy than it was. It has looked worse. Infection is treatable. That is what antibiotics do. I see another doctor, a medicine registrar, this time. He is somewhat scathing of the nursing home and their level of care. He rolls his eyes when I describe her recent turn as TIA. He asks if brain scans were done. No, I answer. How was it decided that a stroke was the cause of her collapse then? It’s just what they suspected, I answer. Hmm. I see. I see. More hurling around of the word critical.

She does not look critical to me. I remember my mother doesn’t believe in death. I go home. I blurt it all out to Graham.

I sleep.

The hospital parking is worse in the morning and I have to park a few streets away. She is still in Emergency. Still in the closet room.

When I arrive I find her desperate for water. There are no cups by the sink used to wash your hands. I ask a nurse. They say she can’t have oral fluids. She is in danger of choking and getting an aspiration. She is on a drip. She won’t be dehydrated, they say. They leave. Still she asks me for water. I wet a paper towel and dribble water from it into her mouth. I can see how dry her tongue is. Her lips are cracked. She sucks up the little droplets. I feel good about doing this. I am mistakenly wetting her gown. I pat it with the paper towel. I keep giving her water. I stroke her forehead.

I stand out in the corridor and survey the emergency room for oncoming doctors or nurses. All that is out there are other sick people. They are searching too. Their faces are worried. Scared. They have had their clothes removed and are in hospital gowns. They haven’t their shoes on.  Some don’t have any underpants. They sit or lie on beds or trolleys. Some hold oxygen masks to their faces. Some hold kidney dishes to retch into under their chins. I am wondering how it is that I am normally so fond of hospitals.

The nurses come in to check her and to fiddle with the machine. They call her sweetheart and darling but the overused word is so devoid of compassion that they could replace it with any other noun; try pot plant. It might get more water. I am not sure what they think of her or me. I am not sure they care for us and that is what is crushing in on me and making my eyes fill up with tears. I don’t want to cry in front of people who don’t care that I am crying. I ask them to bring her a pan, because she is telling me she wants to use the toilet. They mistrust that I know, or she knows, what she wants, but I assure them she knows. She is not demented, I plead. But she can’t manage to use the pan and is still uncomfortable and I can’t settle her. I wonder if the nurse is thinking; See, I told you so.

We are setting up an adversarial relationship. I don’t want it to go this way. I want them to work for us. Like us. Help us. Mum is now begging me to get her to the toilet, but I can do anything. She might have sepsis, but all she really wants to do is to have a crap.

Then we are swooped in on by her team. They stand at the end of the bed, all six or so of them, while a young, nervous doctor gives the summary of her case. The consultant is the oldest in a tweed jacket. He is Irish with a lilting accent. Despite the chaos of Emergency he has not forgotten his manners. He addresses my mother and talks to me. He takes his time examining her. He listens to her chest. He looks at her neck and the bulging of the vessels pulsating in it. He points it out to his underlings. I tell him she is thirsty and he gets the bed head raised and hands her a plastic cup of water. She drinks from it. He wants to get rid of the wires and tubes and get her off the drip. He says yes she has sepsis. She is not mounting a good response. He thinks she should recover from this episode but sepsis will get her in the end. It’s not a bad way to go, he says. Make sure you have a blue form signed. He means make sure she has a DNR. You can go home to the nursing home and be treated there if that’s what you want.


To be continued…

When my mother died…

It is Sunday and my mother has been dead for just over a day. We, the bereaved, are in the supermarket getting things for dinner. Because even when someone dies there is food to cook and dishes to wash.

We have spread out in the supermarket to get it done quickly. Lisa is sent to find toilet rolls. Graham is getting the mince. Jasper is taking a moment to check out the toys. I am getting Salada crispbread since there is still school tomorrow.

In the biscuit aisle I see a woman, roughly my age, with an older woman. The elder has a walker that she pushes in front of her. The older woman has on comfortable slacks and Hush puppy shoes. The younger woman pushes the trolley and loads it up with their groceries. She looks a little tired – like perhaps she wishes she were doing something else with her Sunday afternoon. They have a large collection of sweet biscuits. Monte Carlos. Mint slice. I imagine the younger woman is the daughter, (I can see the resemblance) and the older woman her mother. They are everywhere these pairs. I see them in the chemist and the waiting rooms of doctor’s surgeries, in the emergency room of the hospital, in post office queues and filling out withdrawal slips in the bank.

When I accompanied my mother on such journeys to the Captain Stirling shopping centre she knew everyone – the pimple-faced, flour-dusted girls in Brumbies, the aging pharmacist, the grey-faced newsagent, the grocer called George. She knew them by name and then the names of their children and their boyfriends and their spouses. She knew how many marriages they had had and the diseases they had recovered from. She knew the degrees their children had studied for and their subsequent careers. She knew when and where they were going on holiday and for how long. She knew how much money the girl in Brumbies needed to save to go on vacationing on the Gold coast. She brought them small going away gifts and welcomed them on their return. She brought them in homemade choc slice for their birthdays and told them if their star sign was one she was compatible with. She invested time and energy in the lives of other people.

June had a way of endearing herself to others. She was memorable, indelible. She thrust herself into their worlds with her inquisitive nature. As her daughter it could be mortifyingly embarrassing to have your mother speak to everyone and not in a hushed tone. At restaurants she always wanted to, and often did, stride back into the kitchen to congratulate the chef.

I was her source to the outside world; the bearer of mandarins, in winter, and grapes in summer, the deliverer of the Woman’s Day and Hello. She loved me and didn’t want to be separated from me in a way that is almost impossible to bear. Sometimes I felt like I was, for her, a reason to be alive. She fought her hardest to stay with us. I am thankful that I was able to be with her when she passed away and to know first hand she did not suffer, but simply seemed to seep effortlessly from this life to what is beyond. As those who have already lost their mothers must know, it is the strangest feeling to know that suddenly your mother, the woman who bore you and who indeed has been the one most intent on your happiness, is no longer watching over you. Now you are grown.

In the days leading up to her death the carers at Hilton Park would come in to speak of their fondness and appreciation for her. They did this because she had developed a relationship with each and everyone of them. It was immensely moving to watch them come in, one by one, and take her hand in theirs and thank her for her kindness and love. They told me how she didn’t complain, how she helped the other residents, how she complimented the cooking and how interested she was in everyone. I will be forever grateful and indebted to her carers and nurses and all the wonderful support they gave Junee from Room 25. That she was able to pass away in the home, she had quickly come to love and be loved, was indeed very special to us, as a family.








Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

We want to thankyou for teaching us to dive beneath the big waves,

For taking us out on your back through the surf,

For carrying us asleep from the Holden to our beds,

For making us pull weeds, rake gum leaves, pick up bark, sweep the garage and clean the gutters.

Thankyou for showing us how to collect warm eggs from beneath chooks,

For crying at the sad moments on TV soaps,

For showing us how to swing a billy around our heads,

For teaching us to build a camp fire and to strip and paint a cupboard,

For bringing home day-old chickens – yellow and chirping to be raised under a heat lamp,

For bringing home trays of summer peaches,

For dinkying us down the driveway on the back of your motorcycle,

And for loving what you had, and not wanting for more than you attained

For this and more, we thank you.


We will miss you sweet Goong Goong.