Elly McDonald

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Eulogy by my sister Cathy for our father Angus’s wake – draft

I was with Dad when the surgeon said the cancer is inoperable. Dad smiled and asked, “You don’t think it’s worth looking around for a new car then?”

The next day he went out with Mum and bought a new car for her because he wanted her to be safe when he was no longer here to protect her.

He had an amazing capacity to manage setbacks with humour and I think he learned it from when he was very young growing up in Mt Gambier during the Great Depression and World War 2. His parents Angus and Edie were born in the 1890s and already parents when World War 1 began. Dad’s sister, Ila, was one of thousands of children who caught polio around 1917 and she suffered the effects for the rest of her life. His cousin Des also grew up cared for by Dad’s family but by the time Angus was born Des was leaving home. Dad’s father owned a shop called The Spot for Menswear and it’s there that Dad began his career in retail, learning from his own father the skills he needed to be a manager and later director at Myer. I think the first photographs he took were of his house and family and the shop.

You will all recall Dad out and about with his camera. Photography was his special past-time that got him out into nature, the sunshine and the inevitable conversations with all the extraordinary people he met. Soon after he received the bad news, he decided to prepare a slide show for today. I helped with the technology and he chose the images. This proved complicated because he has 45,000 photos on his computer. Not long after we started work on the slide show his computer completely froze. I took it to Matt at Apptech who said he’d never seen that happen before but Dad’s computer was completely full. We had to delete some obsolete files. This was tricky because Dad doesn’t see any of his things as redundant.

Dad wanted the slide show to reflect his great love of Mum and family. He wanted images of all his friends: those who have already passed and those here today. We found images of him at school, including a special one of the football team showing him and Hugh Edwards who would later be brothers-in-law. There are his dear friends from uni who I’ve known and loved all my life. There are the amazing people from the community at Point Lonsdale who have shown so much love and support for the family.

Dad was so worried about Mum left alone but just seeing all the kindness that has been extended towards Elizabeth relieved him. Thank you to all of you who have dropped off food and equipment, who have chatted on the beach, phoned, and given your attention to our family in the last few months. That solidarity is much appreciated.

I sidetracked there a bit, so back to the slide show.

There are the tennis players, the Point Lonsdale Raqueteers, who awarded him legend status just in the nick of time, as seen in the photo on today’s flyer. You will see the Optimists from the Optimists’ Club, who have lunched together once a month for years, and his mates from Probus. Mum and Dad were very proud foundation members of the Combined Probus. There are old friends from interstate.

However, we didn’t fit every one Dad cares about into the slide show because I wanted images of Dad. Now, he is happy to take photos of everyone else, but there are not so many images of him. Most of the ones he chose were taken by Mum when they travelled together. One of my favourites is of Dad dressed up as Father Christmas with his sister Ila and his Auntie Maude, both of whom he looked after as they aged. It was a huge responsibility for him to drive through Melbourne on Christmas Day dressed this way because children in cars everywhere spotted him and waved. He waved back to them all.

Last year, I researched the connections between memories and photographs for an artwork project for my post-graduate studies in art at Deakin. I based my work on a photograph of the Point Lonsdale front beach by Dad. You will have seen his images of random families on the front beach that he took originally to decorate the guest rooms at the Point Lonsdale Motel, which Mum and he ran during the 1990s. Later, he couldn’t throw them away, so they hung in their house at Cheshunt Street. We discussed what his photographs actually recorded. He told me that he recalled he heard Louis Armstrong singing A Wonderful World as he pressed the shutter button. When you look at Dad’s images they all show his love for people and nature and for being alive.

Angus loved music and played it constantly. If he could hang out with Bing, Louis, Frank, Dean and Sammy he was happy. He decided to make a soundtrack for the party, to start after these speeches. He wants to dedicate all these love songs to Mum. Like Dad, I find great consolation in the stardust of a song.

He also chose the songs for this serious part of the proceedings. Amazing Grace is for Mum because Dad is grateful to her for all the grace she has shown him over the years. He wanted the Dennis Walter version but we couldn’t find the single to buy so Elly tracked down Dennis’s brother. Fred said it wasn’t available as a single but he sent Dad a homemade disk just for today. Dad chose St Louis Blues because he loved the joyous jazz funeral processions he saw in New Orleans.

He chose Jimmy Durante because there couldn’t be anyone more lovable to sing about love and Dad decided that love was the most important part of his life.

Stardust captures the bitter-sweetness he feels at leaving behind his loved ones. You might be surprised that he chose When Irish Eyes are Smiling when his ancestry is so Scottish, but Elly sent a sample of his spit to be DNA tested and it turned out he was nearly 50% Irish, down the female lines of course. This amused him no end, as his favourite son-in-law is an O’Keefe. He gave Peter his green polo shirt to wear today and chose the song, an Irish song, to celebrate the news.

Isa Lei is a Fijian farewell song. Last year, for his 85th birthday Dad took us all to Fiji. Mum and Dad took Elly and me there for our first trip overseas as teenagers. It is a special place for our family and we had the most marvellous times there. I have video of Dad’s birthday dinner aboard a sunset cruise, being serenaded by waiters. Then we all got up and danced the night away.

Looking back at my childhood, I am grateful I had loving parents but even more so that I had parents who loved each other. I remember sometimes sneaking out of bed to the top of the stairs because I could hear music playing and seeing Mum and Dad dance together alone in their own bubble of love. The last song Dad chose is Save the Last Dance for Me.

Adam Lindsey Gordon, one of Australia’s great poets, incidentally also lived in Mt Gambier. He wrote a poem that sums up how I see my Dad. It’s known as Froth and Bubble – a good name for a racehorse.

Life is mainly froth and bubble

But two things stand as stone

Kindness in another’s trouble

And courage in your own.

angus-with-liz-in-fiji-2016


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Angus in his own words

angus-mcdonaldI have a strong sense of history. You see, my great-grandfather would now be 215 years old, my grandfather would be 175, and my father would be 125 and my mother 125. Even my sister would be 104. There is frightening evidence of longevity. All four of my grandparents had died long before I was born but because of this my parents told me a great deal about them and anecdotes of life in their time, including voyages by sailing ship from Great Britain, the goldrushes, Ned Kelly and the life of 12 kids on a 160 acre farm, floods, droughts, bushfires, horse-drawn vehicles and all.

I’m not lying. My great grandfather was born in Scotland in Glencoe in 1802. My grandfather was born in Adelaide in 1842. My father was born in Yando in 1890. I don’t have to invent stories, they fell in my lap. I have been privy to hand-me-down stories dating back before Ned Kelly. I’ve selected a few from the distant past and some from my own personal experiences. There’s a bit of a mixture of humour and pathos, such is life; and hopefully some insights into human nature. I’m reaching an age where recollections are almost more important than new experiences and frankly I’ve already decided that I will ignore Facebook and a good deal of the goodies of the IT revolution. In fact some of the behaviour, such as the lack of eye contact because people have their focus trained on iPads and iPhones etc, and the pathetic use of mobiles just to fill in time, makes me quite angry on occasions.

Well, times have certainly changed. I imagine the percentage of regular church-goers has dropped from 80%-plus when I was born to maybe 2% now in Australia. My dad told me that when he was a kid they were let out of Sunday School well before the adults came out of church and he and his brothers had taken all the horses out of their shafts, turned the jinkers and the buggies around and re-harnessed the horses on the other side of the fences. The kids were hoping this would see them banned from Sunday School but all it did was result in a thorough belting from their father.

Dad saw World War 1 coming and from 1911 he was in the volunteer Light Horse. He was also in the town band so he became their army bugler. He told me they had a visiting colonel from England came to inspect them, a very self-important gentleman. During a field exercise the colonel called on Dad to “Sound the assembly!”

“I don’t know it, sir,” Dad said. The colonel was unimpressed.

“If you whistle it I’ll play it,” said Dad.

“Good God!” said the colonel. “Well at least the man’s got some brains!”

My dad Angus and two of his brothers were in World War 1. As farm lads they were all excellent horsemen and deadly shots with a gun and they were in the 4th Light Horse. Uncle Les saw more of the fighting, in Lebanon, Egypt and France. He was gassed in France and although he survived, it certainly shortened his life. He died in 1952. I also knew he had been hospitalised, wounded, for five months. I had always assumed it was a bullet but when I searched his records it was a surprise to discover he had been kicked in the groin while shoe-ing a mule! It may have saved his life by keeping him out of the front line for half a year. Uncle Jack told me a story of a soldier mate of his who woke up one morning in a dead funk and sweat and told him he knew he was going to die that day. He had never been anything but brave in all kinds of situations but this day he was petrified. My uncle went to their commanding officer and explained the situation, and he said, “I’ll send you two behind the lines to get ammunition and this will take him out of harm’s way, a mile away”. Jack said they took a wagon, each riding one of the horses. At the gate Jack dismounted and presented their authority to proceed. When he returned his mate was lying on the ground with a bullet between the eyes from a sniper who had infiltrated the lines.

At the end of the War they were reallocated horses and rode as Lighthorsemen in the Victory Parade in Paris down the Champs-Elysées. In the polishing and preparation for the event one of the men discovered he had been issued a sword which was bent; although it would come out of its scabbard OK it was extremely difficult to put it back. It was too late to get a replacement but nobody liked their sergeant-major, who was an arrogant bully, so the lads all agreed they should replace the damaged sword with his – a simple swap. Imagine the scene on the big day. The sergeant-major is out on his own in full view of the crowds. The detachment is at the trot and he gives the order as they approach the saluting base: “Withdraw swords! Present swords!”, and – after they pass the President of France – “Replace swords!”

The sergeant-major rode for the rest of the journey unsuccessfully trying to get his sword back in the scabbard. After the march he singled out our boys and said “If this bloody war wasn’t over I’d have you all shot!”

Les went on to ride at the London Victory Parade and got his just deserts when his horse slipped on the wet cobblestones and they slid into the crowd outside Buckingham Palace. One selfie he’s glad he didn’t get.

Back to farming for two of them.

I had twin aunts, Fanny and Florence, who married farmers in the Yando district on the River Lodden. The eldest brother was Jim or James. He had to earn a living off a tiny farm, 200 acres. He left school at 14 and somehow got himself to Tasmania and worked in the 1890s on the newly-discovered Mount Lyall Mine near Queenstown. The work conditions were so dangerous and appalling that he joined the union. Some years later he was running the whole movement in Tasmania and in 1915 entered parliament as a Labor MP. With his lack of education it is amazing that he became Minister for Education, then Mining and then Attorney General. Dad went to his funeral in 1947. It was a State funeral and still holds the record for the number of mourners.

Dad became a retailer, which he had been in Camperdown when the War started. He worked in London Stores (in Melbourne) then Hamilton and then Mt Gambier, eventually setting up his own highly successful men’s wear business, known as The Spot for Men’s Wear. He became a town councillor for 30 years, an alderman, president of the South-East and Western Districts Football Association, The Adam Lindsay Gordon Literary Society, a Rotarian from 1928 to 1977, president of the town band, and he opened branch stores in Naracoorte and Millicent despite the headwinds of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

I was born into the depths of the Great Depression in 1931. Nobody saw me coming and pretty soon nobody will know I’ve been here. 1931 was quite a dramatic year. The New York stockmarket had already imploded and the unemployment rate was over 30%. Adolf Hitler was gearing up to seize power from a democratic government which had become feeble. Josef Stalin had harnessed the false hope of Communism and killed 10 million of his own people. Tojo had control of Japan and invaded China’s province Manchuria, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was about to launch the New Deal in America, Chiang Kai-shek ruled China but Mao Zedong was taking advantage of that Japanese invasion to carve out a power base for a successful revolution, Mussolini was planning military aggression against France and Abyssinia, and in Spain, the monarchy was removed and replaced by a republic while General Francisco Franco watched, shocked, and waited his moment.

My father saw the inevitability of World War 2, and so when I woke up on my birthday in 1938 he had given me a .22 rifle and bullets as a present: “You’d better learn to shoot, son. It could save your life.” I was 7 years old and I did kill lots of hares and rabbits and won cadet shooting competitions. Luckily I missed World War 2, Korea and Vietnam.

During World War 2 my father was appointed chairman of the government fund-raising for the War for the south-east of South Australia and chief Air Raid Warden for Mt Gambier and District. In this capacity he had a brush with American allies. The USA had taken over and expanded our airfield and had a squadron of Aerocobras stationed there along with other installations. They had compulsorily acquired five or six local garages for storage and supply depots and on one night at about midnight Dad received a call from an Air Raid Warden to say that one of these depots had a major light over the forecourt, in contravention of the blackout, and the officer in charge refused to put it out. He got out of bed very angry, probably just sufficient whiskey to prompt direct action, and he arrived outside the offending building and confronted the officer in charge. There was the light, 60 or 70 feet above the ground, and the Yank said, “We’ve come here to protect you, Aussie. If you want the light out, you put it out”.

“Right!” said Angus. “Can I have that sentry’s rifle?”

“Sure, Aussie, sure.”

Dad cocked the rifle and took aim and blew the globe to smithereens.

The Yank looked on and said, “You know, Aussie, I think we are going to win this war between us.”

I turned 12 in 1943 and I distinctly remember the day I became convinced we would win World War 2. The news in that year was bleak. Hitler was at the gates of Moscow, Rommel’s panzas had reached El Alamein and Tobruk was under siege. In the Pacific, the Japanese were everywhere. But on that day a flight of 20 or so Aerocobras came to my home town. They hedge-hopped at phenomenal speed over the paddocks, even up and down our main street, less than 20 feet above the ground. And then they would hit the thrusters and let out an ear-piercing whine and hurtle vertically up into the clouds. We had become accustomed to Avro Anson trainers flying at 110 mph and these dare-devils thundered across our skies at 400 mph and, like the Yank from the story of the shot lamp, I said to Dad, “We’re going to win this war!”

The great turning point came in that year with the Battle of the Coral Sea, on Australia’s doorstep; the break-out from El Alamein across the North African desert; the Russian victory at the gates of Moscow, St Petersburg and Stalingrad; and the beginning of the thousand bomber raids over Germany. I recall a cartoon in The Argus: “At the going down of the son (S.O.N.) and in the mourning (M.O.U.R.N.I.N.G.) we will remember THEM – Hitler-Germany Mussolini-Italy Tojo-Japan THE AXIS!”

I had some really great bosses during my working life but I think the best was Basil Glowrey, who was managing director of Myer in South Australia when I was there. He joined Myer after the War but only after he recovered from being a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese. He came back from Burma weighing 5 stone but when I knew him he was again a robust 14 stone. Glowrey was shot down over Sumatra. He was patrolling solo in a Wirraway and got sighted by three Zeros – not a fair fight. They took him to Changi in Singapore and like many others he was transferred to the Burma Railway. He was in the same camp as Weary Dunlop and witnessed some appalling scenes. If you haven’t seen Bridge Over The River Kwai you really should.

One of our Myer directors, Geoff Errington, was another ex-serviceman. He had been a bomber pilot in New Guinea and told me when they were stationed in Milne Bay a crew with a fully-loaded bomb-load took off on a mission from the short air-strip beside the heavily forested hills. It failed to climb fast enough and blew apart when it hit the hillside. The crew were all their close mates and they went up and surveyed the scene. No one was alive and there was a flying boot with a severed foot in it and helmets and jackets mixed with human flesh. Supplies were so short they salvaged everything they could and reused them when required. This became a practice and reusing dead men’s gear out of their lockers was usual.

Geoff told me he and some of these pilots from New Guinea came back to Australia and were stationed at Laverton and Point Cook as instructors. One day they were sitting in the bar and a trainer aircraft took off. It stalled and crashed back to earth and burst into flames. Geoff raced to the phone and contacted the control tower. “Who was the pilot and who was the instructor?” he asked.

It was one of his best mates. The boys in the bar followed tradition and went to his locker and each took a piece of clothing or boots and retired to the bar to have a farewell drink to their mate. Suddenly the door burst open and this guy waved his hands and shouted, “Put it all back! Put it all back!”

Their mate had been thrown clear and he knew exactly what they were doing, saying goodbye to him.

“Not yet,” he said.

He had resilience, like the old Jewish lady crossing the road. An aggressive motorist flashed by and knocked her flying. As she began to get up he stopped and leaned out the window and shouted, “Watch out!”

She shouted back, “Whatsa matter? You coming back??”

Friday 14th August we celebrated the end of WW2 Victory in the Pacific. It’s worth thinking about what life would be like today had we lost!

When my family – my wife Elizabeth and our daughters – lived in Adelaide we were adopted by the American ex-pat community, most of whom were engaged in oil search Delphin Santos as they found and developed the SA Moonie oil field. They were extremely active in the Australian-American Association and Liz and I were each year guests on that table, a huge square in the middle of the ballroom. We were the only Australians with several dozen Americans, mostly engineers and their wives. One year I was seated next to a guy from Oklahoma named Tom Manuel. His company actually sold the drilling equipment to Delhi and he was the US consul for South Australia. Tom was a man of few words and although I knew him quite well we really didn’t converse very much at the table. All of a sudden at midnight the double doors were thrown open and an American brass band from the visiting aircraft carrier came striding in playing Colonel Boogie and other Yankee tunes and precision marching up and down the aisles between the tables. It was really very exciting but Tom turned to me and said, “Don’t these Yanks give you the shits!”

Back in 1967 the term ‘marketing’ came into widespread use and I was lecturing at the South Australian Institute of Technology and flew to Sydney to the first conference of the Institute of Marketing. The key speaker was Professor Britt from California. Part of his lecture was to define ‘marketing’. In doing so he told us this:

“I was flying out to Australia to address this conference and our flight followed the Tropic of Cancer across the Pacific to Japan and then on to Singapore and Sydney. The crossing of the Pacific became very hairy when we hit a typhoon. Before that however I was chatting with my neighbour in the next seat who was a bishop, he told me, and who was wearing his bishop’s vest and clerical collar. He enquired what I did and I explained I was a professor of marketing. He pressed to find out what this was all about, and so I explained there are those such as salesmen and sales managers whose job it is to sell but marketing embraced much more, such as advertising and broader policy issues including product innovation, and then on top of that there was in the company hierarchy the term ‘management’ – people who oversaw the whole structure and process of general management.

“About this time we hit turbulence and the plane began to thump and bump and shake unbelievably. Passengers started screaming and crying and several were injured. A young lady broke free from her seat-belt and raced up the aisle. She spotted my companion the bishop and grabbed onto him and pleaded ‘Father Father save us!’

“He turned to her and said, ‘I’m sorry, my dear. I’m not in Management. I’m only in Marketing.’”

Here’s another aeroplane story.

At an exciting time in the history of Myer I was appointed team leader of a selected group of eight directors and senior representatives tasked with reorganising the company nationally. This did not include Target but it embraced McWhirters in Queensland, Western Stores and later Grace Brothers in NSW, Myer Melbourne and Southern Stores in Victoria, Myer South Australia, and Bairds and Boans in Western Australia. At that time I seemed to be on an aircraft five days a week and wouldn’t you know the economy had a nasty downturn and all directors and others used to First Class travel were sent a Board instruction not to travel First Class to help the company economise. Which we all did. Several weeks later I ran into our chairman Ken Myer in the departure lounge bound for Perth. When the seatbelt signs came off a hostess came to me and said, “Mr Myer is sitting five rows back and would like you to join him”.

I walked up the aisle and found Ken sitting by the window with a spare seat beside him.

“Gee,” I said. “You were lucky to get an empty seat on such a full flight!”

“Oh,” Ken said. “As chairman of the Board I carefully oversaw the wording of that edict about travelling economy class. You will notice it does not prescribe how many seats you can have. I always buy two.“

“I’ve got long legs,” he said.

I’ve always been keen on tennis but no champion. In 1958 I married Liz and moved to Melbourne from my dad’s retail business to become personal assistant to John Young, one of the pioneer Australian management consultants.   Must have boasted to him of my tennis powess when I found he was president of Kooyong Tennis Club and Lawn Tennis Australia Victoria hosting Davis Cups. He asked if Liz and I would come down to his Portsea house for a barbecue and tennis day and of course we accepted. On arrival he said there were four couples and suggested the men play a set before lunch, now!

The others were twice my age but I quickly found they were no pushovers. John Young was partnering me and I said, “I’m getting sick of this old guy down there on the backhand court, keeps returning my serve with ease and he’s giving me the shits!”

“Okay,” John said. “I’m sorry, I forgot to introduce you. That’s Harry Hopman!”

In Adelaide our neighbour was a close friend of Lew Hoad and he came over and stayed with them and I saw a lot of him. By then he was almost out of top tennis and was coaching in Spain. One day he showed me his problem from thumping his foot down as he served – his right foot and ankle was cold and solid like pottery. He had to have shoes made to fit and yet that week he played exhibition tennis with Rosewall, Sedgeman and John Newcombe.

Incidentally John Bromwich retired down here where we live in Victoria and used to play a little with his wife Zelda and two beautiful blond daughters. John had severe arthritis and could scarcely move about the court and died many years ago.

Later I had a chance meeting on a plane with Peter McNamara, who with Paul McNamee won the Australian Open men’s doubles and two Wimbledon men’s doubles. His knee was cactus and he had the management of the Pro Shop and brand new stadium in East Melbourne. He was trying to stir up interest in business for the courts and I formed a group to play there each week because Peter offered to play with us. We did this weekly for about five years and sometimes Paul McNamee showed up too. One day Peter was partnering me and said I would do a lot better if I watched the ball. I told him I was helping to partner him but I was too old to be coached!

On another day I asked him if he preferred me or McNamee as a partner. He said, “Well, McNamee is boring, because he’s so predictable. You? You’re not!”

He told us that when he and Paul McNamee won their first Wimbledon doubles at a very young age, they were totally nervous the night before the final and decided to go to the club house, have a lemonade and sneak to bed. When they came into the bar there was their idol Lew Hoad propped up on a stool. McNamee pulled his shirt and said “Don’t go near him, people will think we’re trying to get some tips”. But Hoad had seen them and beckoned them over to him. Sheepishly, they approached and Paul couldn’t help himself. He blurted out, “Lew, what are we going to do?”

Lew looked at them both and said “It’s all in your serve”.

“What do you mean?” Peter asked.

“Just throw it up and hit it like shit,”

And that’s just what they did.

Champions don’t need coaches.

 


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The alternative history

This is the alternative history, the eulogy for my father I will not deliver. Some of the details may be incorrect. The chronology might be out. It’s as I remember it.

It’s Adelaide, summer 1972/73.

Our house is built into a hillside, and my parents are terracing the back garden, building rock retaining walls to prevent earthslides. My mother is beautiful, in her red singlet and denim bell-bottom jeans, with her auburn shag hair-do. My father is funky, his terry-towel flares broadly striped white, yellow and blue. A black kiss curl falls across his forehead.

angus-w-bonI have the camera and I am taking my first photos ever, my parents, and our family dogs, the standard poodles Bon and Mouse. The sun shines and I am so happy with my portrait of my father. I am 11.

At some point during the wall-building project, my father hurts his back. Or maybe it’s his neck. Doctors can’t figure out where the problem is. For sure, he has back pain. He also has tingling sensations in his fingers. Over time, he loses sensation in his left hand, then there’s loss of sensation rising up his left arm. He considers consulting a chiropractor but decides against. He doesn’t want to focus attention on his back problem because he’s just been handed a major promotion and the family is preparing to move to head office, interstate, in Melbourne.

He’s thrilled with the promotion but the move is problematic. My mother, a senior lecturer in Sociology at a young university, has been offered tenure. For her, that would mean permanent employment till retirement and the likelihood of achieving professorial status, like her father. Moving to Melbourne, with its more traditional, established universities, might present difficulties in terms of her next career position. After all, although it isn’t yet essential to have a PhD to secure academic employment, my mother hasn’t yet completed her MA.

scan

There’s a further problem: the Melbourne school my sister and I have won junior scholarships to attend can’t accept us till the new school year commencing February 1974.

It’s agreed my father will relocate to Melbourne and live temporarily in a hotel while my mother stays with the children in Adelaide to organise the sale of our family home, the move to Melbourne, and to complete her MA.

This is not entirely satisfactory. My father sends us photos of him dining out with female family friends: a friend estranged from her husband; an old friend newly divorced. My mother picks up the scissors and bisects those photos, cutting out the smiling women.

The sequence is confused in my memory but my grandmother dies. She and my grandfather, my mother’s parents, were travelling in their homeland, England, on academic sabbatical. Nanna is ill, but, a bit like Angus, she doesn’t want to draw attention to that. In fact, she does not want anyone to guess. I should have guessed. The previous summer, when we holidayed as a family on Rottnest Island, she told me in the kitchen about her friend Alice. Alice, I now know, was actually her cousin, and they were best friends. Alice died very young from breast cancer. My grandmother also had breast cancer young, at 41, but a family friend, a surgeon, ensured she had the most radical extensive surgery possible, removing the diseased breast, lymph glands and much of her ribcage muscle, leaving her with scarring from her neck across her chest and past her shoulder. This was at the time believed to be her best insurance against recurrence.

1953 (written 1983)

with grace, head held high

she carries herself serenely

(King Charles walked and talked

half an hour after…)

unassailably regal as those who have learned

to ignore homemade bombs peasants

pitch in their faces

she carries herself

no support

she knows

she knows

she believes them, and believing

will never trust again

moving?

as if on castors, slightly stiff but

caring?

unbowed. Steadfast, her face composed

grey-eyed

she must know

dry-eyed

Anyway. Nanna told me that Alice hadn’t wanted to distress her family, so she’d continued taking care of her husband and her children, preparing meals and cleaning, without telling anyone she was ill. And then she died.

Telling (written 1985)

My grandmother, in the kitchen,

is talking to herself.

‘I had a friend called Alice,’

she intones, low voiced.

‘My friend called Alice baked bread;

she baked bread, ever day,

She was ill, and never told anyone

(I never told anyone

this, but she never did.)

Then she died, and nobody worried

no one had worried, she never

told anyone – so,

nobody ever did.’

My grandmother, in the kitchen,

keeps talking, telling herself. She says

she had a friend called Alice – she

says this baking bread, her daily bread –

and I know she never did.

When Nanna – Gladys, also known as Judy – first had breast cancer, it caused chaos in her family. Her husband, my grandfather, was bipolar, and did not cope well. Her daughter was travelling in France. Her son… well, I can’t speak for her son. The emotional fall-out from Gladys’s illness was so painful that I can understand why she wouldn’t make it known when, 21 years later, she realised she was ill again. The consequence this time was that by the time her daughter-in-law’s father – another surgeon – had arranged for her to be put on a plane from Heathrow and flown back to Perth as a medical patient, she was no longer conscious. My mother flew to Perth and sat by her bedside. Her mother couldn’t recognise her.

“Have you met my daughter Elizabeth?” my grandmother asked my mother. “She’s so beautiful. She’s so talented.”

My mother sat by the bed and wept.

The funeral was silent. Either no one had had emotional space to plan a commemoration, or, perhaps, my grandfather’s non-conformist Protestant religious background influenced his choice to have no service, no speaking. My mother would like to think this might have been intentional, a Quaker funeral. But my grandfather’s family were Methodists. Methodists do funerals with sound.

At the point when the coffin slid away, my mother let out a shriek and collapsed. No one came back to the family home for the post-funeral niceties.

Back in Adelaide, a close friend, a psychiatrist (we’re so lucky in our circle of specialists), gave my mother Valium. It helped, but not enough.

In Perth, my grandfather went grandiosely mad. In Adelaide, my mother struggled, and fell. Heavy rains came in winter and the earthwall behind our house turned into a mudslide. The back section of the house was flooded. The carpets were ruined and my mother’s MA paper was irretrievably damaged. She abandoned the project.

In Melbourne, my father was experiencing increasing back pain and mobility problems. Of course, he couldn’t let his employer know: his new job had senior responsibilities. His back seized up completely and he couldn’t walk. He dragged himself through the hotel lobby and from the sidewalk, he hailed a taxi. He asked the cabbie to drive him to the hospital Emergency Department, all of about 500m away. He couldn’t bend to get into the cab.

The taxi driver glared. “You’re not going to die on me, are you?”

In A&E – Accident & Emergency, or A for Angus, E for Elizabeth – Angus stood for hours. Being the person he is, was, convivial and caring, he talked to people near him in the queue. People came and went but it was never his turn. Eventually, after I think about 4 hours, a nurse asked him what he was doing there still. He explained he was waiting. She told him she’d assumed he was accompanying another patient. The hospital sent him ‘home’.

When my mother, my sister and I arrived in Melbourne for a visit we phoned up to his room from his hotel lobby. There was no response. His key was in, and the concierge had not seen him go out. When his hotel room door was opened, my father was found to be unconscious. He’d taken painkillers, more painkillers for more pain. Effectively, he’d OD’d.

My father was moved into hospital where doctors experimented on him to determine the nature of the pain. One doctor tried bending his numbed arm back. Dad screamed. The doctor was impressed. He waved a colleague over.

“Here,” he said. “Check this out!” Then he bent back Dad’s arm again and my father screamed in agony, again.

Eventually it was decided my father’s pain was caused by a ruptured disk at C2/C3 in the spinal column – the upper neck. Probably displaced playing tennis years before, now disintegrating. Fragments were micrometres from the spinal cord. The fragments had to be removed surgically. Any error at all and my father would be a quadriplegic. That’s what they told my mother.

My mother has variously said she was told by doctors my father had a 50% chance of being quadriplegic, or a 99% chance. I don’t know what she was told. I know she was extraordinarily stressed, not just because she loved him but because she still had the option of retaining her job in Adelaide. As a widow, or wife to a quadriplegic, tenure as a senior academic with guaranteed fixed salary super would be the smart option. But she didn’t know what was happening and she didn’t know what to do.

Truthfully, hospital staff did not tell my mother much, because she lived in Adelaide and he lived in Melbourne and it was assumed they were legally separated. When my father went into surgery, my mother was not advised. Instead, an old university friend of my father’s (this time, a lawyer) phoned her quite angry, demanding why she wasn’t in Melbourne to be with him.

Because no one had told her.

My father was in intensive care for 11 days. Next to him, a young man with head wounds who’d come off his motorbike screamed for 48 hours until he died. Another man died and wife, unawares, came in to visit. When she saw the empty bed she shrieked.

When my mother arrived, Dad had been moved to a different bed. There was pool of blood under the bed where he had been. Or am I confused? Was that the other woman, the one whose husband died?

Angus – that’s my dad – came home from hospital to our new house in Melbourne. He was heavily drugged up and sat on the downstairs sofa, huddled in woollen blankets, completely spaced out, listening to Nana Mouskouri with a dazed faint smile. He believed Nana Mouskouri – the Greek soprano singer – was an angel. He believed Nana Mouskouri was the voice of God.

Somewhere in there our cat died. In amongst all the other things she had to organize in our truncated preparations for the Melbourne move, my mother had overlooked cat flu injections when our cat was put into a cattery for a few days. Annabella, the black cat, the witch’s cat, the stray kitten we’d adopted, the first pet my sister and I can recall, contracted cat flu. We couldn’t clear the phlegm out of her mouth. We couldn’t help her eat or drink. In the end, she died a soft empty husk in front of the heater, in the downstairs living room, with Dad sitting on the sofa staring, wrapped in his woollen blankets, and my mother, my sister and me in a crescent around her, watching her softly cough up her life, anguished.

Eight weeks later when my father went in for his medical check, the specialist told him he was recovering well and could return to work soon.

My father looked at him. “I’ve been back at work for a month,” he said.

Almost as if all was well. But it wasn’t.

My father was 41 then. He lived till age 85, and died two days ago. He played tennis right up till 10 weeks before his death. He died in my arms.

I must take care not to make myself sound like a hero here. It’s not about me. It’s about family. My mother and my sister and my wonderful brother-in-law Peter, a psychiatrist (and, being a psychiatrist, also a medical doctor), were present too. There was a 48-hour lead-up to my father’s death and we were all vitally involved throughout.

I suppose I could say there was a 3-month lead-up. Dad was diagnosed on 24 November, the day after my sister’s birthday. As a family we’d gone to a ‘destination’ restaurant, a place where I’d wanted to eat for some years, to celebrate my sister’s birthday. Dad didn’t have much appetite, which is not unusual, and no appetite at all for wine, which is out of character. We’d barely got into the car to drive home than he threw up out the car window.

I ran across the road to a milkbar (that’s Australian for a small convenience store in a country town) to buy some bottled water and beg some paper towels. I mentioned my father was throwing up in the car. Another woman shopping laughed. I guess she thought he’d had too much to drink.

But Angus had barely sipped alcohol and medical test results showed he had pancreatic cancer. He also had a blocked bile duct, and his liver was failing. Surgery for the blocked bile duct was successful. His colour returned from canary yellow to something approaching normal, for a terminally ill man aged 85.

I thought we’d lose him before Christmas. My mother had hopes he might last till April, May, but my father put his energies into making sure all the family finances, legal documents, and practical arrangements were in hand within the shortest time-frame. He had that wrapped up within about a month and then we had a window of about two months where he was ‘well’ to most intents – functioning, cheerful, calm, good company.

It was an Indian Summer and a precious gift.

The last 48 hours were tough. On the Friday morning, there was blood in his stools, and that alarmed him. His mood, which until then had been quite upbeat, became depressed. He’d experienced increasing fatigue but now, he was suddenly listless. The visiting community nurse in conjunction with his GP advised us to drive him to hospital, straight to Emergency.

But the Emergency Ward is for emergency treatment. My father had an Advanced Care Plan that instructed no further treatment once death was imminent. Death was imminent. A very kind, very young doctor named Martin advised us to take Dad home. Martin was impeccable: sensitive, tactful, and honouring my father’s wishes. We couldn’t drive Dad home ourselves, but two paramedics – may I call them angels? – delivered him back to us at about 8pm.

Angus, my dad, had a bad night. He was in bad shape in the morning. Peter and Cathy had stayed at my parents’ place overnight; I arrived within minutes of Peter phoning me, breakfast half-eaten. The palliative doctor visited and explained his pancreatic tumour was also in his liver and that the bile duct that had been blocked was now infected. His belly was distended, taut, with bile and blood. From now, he was in the care of morphine and his family.

After the doctor left, Cathy and my mother, Elizabeth, took care of everything outside the one-metre perimeter I claimed as mine, its epicentre my dad’s head. They spent time sitting with him, stroking him, talking to him. Peter sat on a chair by the bed, by his feet. Peter held his hand, touched him, provided morphine at appropriate periods as agreed with the palliative care doctor. I sat on the bed behind Dad’s head and cradled him and held his hand and petted him, as I held and petted my dog as my dog was dying. (This comparison is not trivial.)

Dad wasn’t very coherent. He could hear, and when the doctor was present and asked about pain, he could say, “Excruciating”. “Ten out of ten” (repeated). “Yes” (to more morphine).

After the doctor left he interspersed “Jesus”, “Jesus Christ” and a few “Fucks” with “Elizabeth” (many times), “Lizzie”, “Where’s Cathy?” (when Cathy was out of the room), “Where’s Peter?” when Peter was briefly elsewhere). Cathy tells me he said “Little Pelly”. I didn’t pick that up.

He said “Family”. He said “Love”. My sister told him, “We love you too”. He said something that sounded to my mother like “optimist”. He repeated that, as if trying to make us understand. My mother and I think he was trying to say “Optimists’ Club”, to remind me I’d promised to deliver his scheduled presentation at the April meeting of my parents’ local Optimists’ Club on his behalf. I don’t know what Dad originally intended as the subject for his April talk, but we’d agreed I’d read from some memoir sketches he’d written last year.

There were stretches of time when Cathy and Elizabeth were taking care of things outside the sickroom and Peter and I were alone with Dad. During those times, I told Peter I didn’t know how people coped with loved ones dying before the ready availability of morphine. I said I knew there were herbal medications but I couldn’t believe they were strong enough. Morphine was not enough to dull Dad’s pain.

I thought of a friend’s death, a neighbour who had been much Dad’s age. Dad told me when ‘Judy’ (Julius) was dying, he lay quietly, surrounded by family, watching the seconds hand on the wall clock.

I said I imagined it was not uncommon for relatives to place a pillow over their dying loved one’s face. Peter replied that depending on how long it took, that was painful too. I said even so it would be relatively brief.

I said I was a fan of morphine. I said if I had a daughter (which isn’t going to happen, because I’m 55), I’d name her Morphia.

There was a period where every time Dad exhaled, black bile gushed from his mouth. My mother had found a plastic medical sick bag which was less cumbersome that the steel basins we’d been using to catch vomited bile till then. So much black bile was gushing from him I was frightened it would splash back and soil his face. He already had dried bile in his nostrils and facial stubble from his vomiting overnight. He’d complained his teeth hurt so it wasn’t easy to clean that dried bile off, but I tried, using a damp face cloth.

I hate black bile. One thing only I appreciate in bile: so much was coming up, so much coming out, that his belly, distended over the previous few days, was visibly reducing. He was swollen and distended by bile and bleeding in his stomach. I didn’t want that shit inside him when he’s buried.

The last hour or so he was relatively calm, at times making happy baby noises.

Then his breathing became irregular. Then it stopped. Then restarted. Then stopped.

I tried to read his pulse, place my little finger under his nostrils to check for breath. There was nothing. I said, “I think he’s gone.” Peter checked. Angus was gone.

Not long after Angus breathed his last the palliative nurse arrived and was brilliant. My sister was brilliant. My mother was too.

I can’t help but feel in our family we suffered when my father was so ill in 1973 and a perfect storm of linked events made the suffering much worse. No one’s fault. It was how it was.

This time, a lifetime later (Angus doubled his life span), we did better. The circumstances were better. We wanted to make it better.

My father died at home, as he wanted – well, perhaps less bile and less pain – and his family were with him.

We did good.