Elly McDonald

Writer

The alternative history

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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.

Author: Elly McDonald

Art lover. Loves her family and her dog. Worked in the Australian rock music industry as a journalist and published widely as a poet before moving to London and spending the better part of a decade in advertising agencies. Returned to Australia and briefly tried teaching, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees but also as a high school classroom teacher. Has travelled Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Northern India, East Asia, coastal USA, some Pacific Islands, and Australia.

4 thoughts on “The alternative history

  1. Thank you so much, Elly, for letting me share in this account of a life against the backgrounds/foreground of your family and your father’s death. It is a very precious and lovely piece of writing. I hope the writing is helping you to come to terms with all that has heppened.
    I was particularly touched by hearing that your father was a dissenter as this is also how I understand myself, but mixed in with a small dose of Quaker as well.
    I hope you are beginning to mend from the strain of the past few weeks. The stress will go though not the memories or the awareness of loss. I get over that by having fairly regular conversations with my father.
    Go well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ian. Dad was an atheist schooled at a Church of England college, with a Presbyterian mother and a father who fiercely rejected his birth family’s Roman Catholic faith. It’s my maternal grandfather who came from a Wesleyan background, though he, too, rejected religion. My mother would like to think the “silent funeral” was Quaker, but we have no known Quaker antecedents, and I think my grandmother’s family simply hadn’t gotten it together to think of a funeral service.

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  2. Dear Elly

    My condolences to you all. I have read and re-read all about your Family with such emotion and remembrance as your Grandfather “Old Angus” was my Grandmother (Phoebe Bedford nee McDonald was his sister, your beloved Father Donald Angus and my mother ( Margaret Stewart) were cousins, so I guess that makes us cousins.
    My parents Marg and Harry Stewart lived in Balwyn and I remember as a child going to your parents home, maybe Canterbury I cannot recall exactly where, also memories of the house at Jardine St, Mount Gambier.
    Mum and Dad were killed in a car accident on their way to Boort for great uncle Jack’s 94th birthday.
    To read your Eulogy was both sad and up-lifting and you will always have the beautiful memories of being with “Dad” in his final hours. Hope all of you are coping and sharing your mutual Love. Love and fond regards, June

    Liked by 1 person

    • June, thank you so much for this beautiful, and kind, response. The pieces I write are public posts but I write them for me and it’s always a slight shock to realise people read them. Yes, we had a family home in Camberwell through my teens. I remember your parents’ accident; I am so very sorry. That must have been unimaginably hard on you. At present, Mum and my sister and I are managing better than I think any of us expected we would, though I don’t doubt there’ll be waves of grief and difficult times ahead. I think we’re managing well because at present, we’re so conscious of being grateful that the feeling of being grateful displaces being sad. We’re grateful we had him for 3 months after diagnoses, not 6 weeks as expected; we’re grateful he was in good spirits and relatively good shape throughout almost all that 3 months; we’re grateful that the downhill skid was confined to the last 48 hours; we’re grateful the period of pain and distress was brief; we’re grateful he died as he intended, at home in his own bed, with his loved ones around him. We think it was a “good death”. And we’re grateful we had him till age 85, bright and inquiring and loving. Very best wishes to you, June. Love to your family xxx

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