Elly McDonald


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Review: Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah (2013) translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2020)

I knew nothing about this novel when I opened the first page and for much of the following 152 pages I still felt I knew almost nothing.

Yet when I finished page 152 I was in love with this text. I kept reading and re-reading the final pages. I didn’t want it to end.

I read Untold Night and Day in 50 page chunks (yes, I’m obsessed with the numbers). To me it reads like a prose poem, so 50 pages was as much as I could take in at a time.

After the first 50 pages, I read Deborah Smith’s Translator’s Notes, at the end, which I found helpful:

Bae’s oppositions are emphatically not binaries. Her books are filled with repetition, mirroring, echoing, overlapping […] Simultaneously is another thread-word studding the text.

Many years ago, when I was a poet, an editor described my poems as “games of rhythm and repetition”, which was apt. I came to enjoy the circularity of Bae’s world in Untold Night and Day, and the chunks of repetition.

The quotes on the book jacket are similarly apt:

“As cryptic and compelling as a fever dream […] a vivid and disorientating exploration of identity, artifice and compulsion” – Sharlene Tao

“I loved its uncanny beauty, its startling occurrences. As it unravels you feel […] yourself unravelling too” – Daisy Johnson

“Haunting and poetic […] holds the reader in a suspended state, allowing us to explore the tension of the threshold” – Chloe Aridjis

Untold Night and Day is filled with oppressive heat and damp, small concrete rooms, dank alleys, circling traffic, recurrences, identity switches, blocks to communication, temporal distortions…

Very early on, I recognised the figure of a girl in a coarse white hanbok (traditional dress), wearing woven hemp sandals, with her hair tied back in a low pony-tail, as a figure from the Korean spirit world: the young girl ghost, or supernatural entity.

The main female character is called Ayami (and sometimes other names). Bae has explained that “According to Siberian shamanism [the forebear of Korean shamanism], ayami is the name for the spirit that enters the shaman’s body and communicates matters of the other world to them.”

But Deborah Smith rightly points out that Untold Night and Day does not proclaim or labor its “Koreanness”. She quotes the self-mocking Korean joke rejecting Other-ing: “Oh, let me go put on some hanbok.

So it’s contemporary experimental literary writing, rather than a hanbok tale.

What strikes me, reading during COVID-19 uncertainty and a wave of job losses and business failures, is that the narrative commences with two central characters being made redundant.

Ayami could be a spirit guide escorting a man to another world. Or they could both be casualties, on a more mundane level:

“Ayami [comforted him] for a long time, as though the repetitive gesture might conjure a shamanic power – the only way of keeping together, in the same place and time, two human beings in the process of disintegrating.”


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Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994 trans 2020) – translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder


The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, was published in Japanese in 1994, then in 2019 in an English translation by Stephen Snyder (nominated for the International Booker 2020).

It’s a bleak, Kafkaesque piece of speculative fiction, or allegory, or dark folk tale.

A novelist, writing in the first person, recounts how on the island where she lives, over a period of 15+ years, there has been a series of “disappearances”: the population wakes up some days with a shared sense of loss, that something from their familiar lives has ceased to exist, has been erased.

The objects of these disappearances don’t physically cease to be manifest, or become physically invisible. Instead, they remain as tangible presences, at least initially, but they cease to have meaning – their associations, their functions, are lost to recall, and eventually the very concept of those objects ceases to exist for most people, except in occasional flashes of semi-recollection.

To aid in this process, to make this process efficient, a fascist squad called the Memory Police ensures people dispose of the tangible physical remains of these objects promptly. Retaining relics of disappeared objects is forbidden, policed by house to house searches. Individuals who retain memories, who are not subject to the collective amnesia and do not collude in erasure, are frogmarched away by the Memory Police and themselves “disappeared”. As are those who attempt to hide those who remember.

At first, the objects the novelist notes as having disappeared are objects of joy: ribbons, perfume, gemstones, millinery, roses, music boxes, boiled sweets, fruit. So at first I was thinking this might be an allegory about loss of pleasure, of anhedonia (loss of joy). I was thinking in terms of depression, especially as the novelist telling the story appears to be suffering from imminent writer’s block: her novel in progress starts out as a tale of a typist who loses her voice but is still able to communicate with her lover (her typing instructor) via typewriter, until her typewriter breaks down.

The narrator-novelist within The Memory Police has a close professional relationship with her long-time editor, who has nursed her previous three novels through to publication. She learns her editor is one of the few who retains memory of the disappeared objects, and her immediate thought is that she must hide him to protect him, and also to protect her writing project.

Typewriters themselves are however obviously a “disappeared” artefact in our contemporary world, so the novel seems to be asking us to consider what, in our lifetimes, has “disappeared” and been erased. In the way that the category “hats”, and therefore the concept “millinery”, has been disappeared within The Memory Police, whole categories of consumer goods and therefore work skills and workplaces have become redundant in real life, often all but forgotten.

Some reviewers have broadened that thought to consider how elements of our natural environments are disappearing: animals, plants whole eco-chains.

Other reviewers home in on cultural erasure: cultures where language and traditional practices are banned, forcibly suppressed, resulting in actual absolute or incremental erasure of cultural identity.

There is also a layer of gender-based allegory. The narrator within The Memory Police feels her way through her narratives through her fingers, through typing, and sometimes her stories takes unforeseen turns. Her work-in-progress switches from being a gentle love story, with a supportive lover, to a Bluebeard-like contemporary horror story of captivity, domination, perversion and erasure of a woman’s will, faculties and ultimately existence.

The perverted parallelism of the novel-within-the-novel vis-à-vis the narrative that is The Memory Police is troubling. In the novel-within-the-novel the captive is the female first-person narrator, the malevolent entity is her male lover/abuser. In the actual novel, the person imprisoned is the writer’s male editor, and his story is told from the female narrator-novelist’s perspective. Is her version, in which she is his ‘savior’, self-serving? We have no direct access to how he really feels about being removed from his wife and his newborn, never-seen son. The editor has been persuaded by his novelist that it is in his best interests to abandon his wife and newborn and instead focus solely on assisting her stalled manuscript through to completion. He is always represented as grateful and acquiescent – but he’s dependent on his novelist for food and sanctuary. How do we, as readers, feel about the writer and her editor as lovers, given the typing teacher enacts the role ‘lover’ towards his typist captive?

The captive in the novel-within-the-novel is imprisoned in a turret (like Rapunzel). The captive in the main narrative is imprisoned in a too-small cavity between house storeys (‘stories’), beneath a trapdoor. Is this gendered symbolism: the woman imprisoned in a tower by a man; the man imprisoned in a dark enclosed space by a woman?

The ‘love’ story elements were, to me, disturbing. (I kept thinking of John Fowles’ novel, The Collector.)

The novelist-narrator has, on the face of it, a less disquieting relationship with a surrogate father, an older man who assists (aids and abets) her. He doesn’t have a name, and nor does the editor: they are “the old man” and “R” respectively. But then, the narrator has no name, either.

There are layers. Ultimately, I read The Memory Police as an allegory about mortality, ageing, and death – at its most blunt, as an allegory of dementia.


Life on the island diminishes through a series of small losses, loss of small joys; the loss of staples (food types, loss of appetite, as the remaining foods are increasingly unappealing); the loss of time and seasons, when “calendars” disappear, resulting in endless snow, snow that buries all it covers; loss of story-telling, of narratives, when “novels” disappear; then increasingly intimate losses. How does one adapt to the felt-loss of body parts – of a left leg, a right arm?

Once loss has progressed that far, how is it policed? If people retain the awareness of what was a left leg, but have no recall of its function, have lost any sense of relatedness, instead recognising the “disappeared” limb at best as a “tumour”, how is that policed? Can left legs be physically disposed of, the way rose petals can be? Can left legs be set free, as caged birds can be?

What will be the ultimate loss? What, at the last, will be left, will disappear?

I referred to “perverted parallelism” but in fact the relationship between the novel-within-the-novel and the main narrative is a chiasmus (if I remember Lit 101 Poetry correctly). It’s not parallel lines, it’s a ‘X’ cross-shape.

The first thing lost by the typist-victim in the novel-within-the-novel is her voice. More accurately, her voice is taken from her, as happens in totalitarian states and patriarchies, and as happens with writer’s block. But in the main narrative, the last element of the narrator’s being to be erased is voice. As her voice ends, so does the text.

As her voice evaporates, her editor climbs out of the cavity between floorboards.

He emerges to a ruined world, but he does not look back.



Michele Johnson In Memorium (18 March 2019)


I met Michele through our mutual friend Mary Christie when Michele lived in Sydney in the early 80s. We were neighbours in Kings Cross for a time. We reconnected through social media in more recent times. Michele as I knew her in her late 20s was very much the Michele I could hear in her Facebook posts, which were frequent, and always welcome: amusing, laugh out loud funny, provocative, informative, thoughtful.

I describe her to people who did not know her as “my fierce feisty beautiful friend”. She could be combative; also sensitive. She was caring, and outrageous. She was rock’n’roll. She was art. She was performance. She was politics. She introduced Presbyterian me to same-sex and shall we say less conventional sexual mores (I remained a bystander – dancing together at Kinsella’s was as out there as I got). Michele permitted me to give her a colour cosmetics makeover even though my hands were careless, I used frosted pink lipstick, and her beauty didn’t need any help from me.

She was a straightshooter who told it like it was. She was as generous as anyone I’ve ever known. Witty, acute, astute. Every human being is a universe, and every death is a cosmos lost. Michele was a star. Her loss leaves this world a darker place.


Michele en route to hospital for specialist appointments


Left aligned – always left aligned

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The shark with my name on it

It’s edging
into the narrows
between the reef and rocky outcrops.
It inserts its proboscis
its probe
and smiles that smile that is not
a smile.
The shark with my name on it
quivers with instinctive
connective drive
Its pale planetary
eyes dilate.
Sensing my proximity
the shutters come down
nictitating membrane.
Better than an eye roll
a full body twist
a wink that says
I’ve got your number.



Untitled (2018)

I nursed my father in my arms as he died
spewing black blood.
Do you think any residue between me and you
means anything
alongside that?

I do a lot of death.
The ones who grow old
The people who don’t
Those who barely made it past the cradle.
I wait in the market in Damascus and
no one is unexpected.

I stand on a bridge and
sooner or later they all pass by.
I extend my hand and
welcome them.

Hello, I say.
I have a room prepared.


All The Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr – how I learned to stop worrying and love the War (Doctor Strangelove moves in mysterious ways)


This is not the review I prepared to write when I sat down a short while ago.

I have a friend, a novelist, who is skeptical about Reader Response theory: a literary criticism theory that focuses on how readers’ individual life experiences and beliefs shape their understandings of a text, as opposed to literary criticism that focuses on the author’s intentions, or the formal qualities of a text – crudely summarized, every novel a Rorschach Test, capable of being read in multiple ways.

My novelist friend is clear his intentions are paramount. His novels mean what he means them to mean. If readers take from them understandings that he did not intend, it’s a misreading.

I tend to differ. (Perhaps that’s obvious – I blog my individualistic responses. I gravitate to themes and issues that reflect my own concerns.)

I believe we will read the same book differently at age 60 than we did at age 16, or 30. We will read books differently depending on our emotional environment at the time of reading – what we’re dealing outside the covers of the book. Mostly I think of this in terms of life stages, but today I had an acute lesson in how what we take from a book can depend even on what’s happening within a given 48 hour period.

Lots of people deeply love All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was a National Book Award in the author’s native United States, a New York Times #1 bestseller (as the cover proudly proclaims).

I liked this novel. I liked it quite a lot. Some aspects of it I liked very much indeed. But as the final 50 pages counted down, I grew less and less enamoured. By the time I closed its cover, I was nonplussed. That night, cynical. This morning, irritated.

There was no question All The Light We Cannot See is beautifully written. For me, it was just that bit too beautiful, that bit too soulful, too sensitive. It made me long for a punk or grunge riposte.

Here’s my draft review, written at that time:

There are two types of novel, it seems, at present. In one type, the author is a ruthless god, killing characters who logic dictates must die, or killing just because s/he can. The other type is humanist, somewhat sentimental; hopeful refractions of humankind. This type tends to be American.

All The Light We Cannot See is a novel about WW2 written by an author from Idaho. It is indeed “Sublime” (The Times) and “Magnificent” (The Guardian). Oprah magazine likes it too. At this point, 100 pages from the end, its dual narratives are both peaking, its dual protagonists both in extreme peril.

I am confident the author plans to rescue them, or at least let their deaths have meaning.

[If you detect snark, you’d be right. I was saying the narrative line struck me as predictable – and implausible. I was suggesting there is a cosy fairy-tale at the heart of the handkerchief wrenching.]

I wish writers in this genre [the humanistic war epic] knew when to STOP, or when to strip it back: there were important points Doerr wanted to make in those last 53 pages [the post-War ‘Whatever happened to…” section], but for me they were 52 pages too many. [Man-Booker 2014 winner] The Narrow Road to the Deep North [by Australian author Richard Flanagan] had similar problems, in a somewhat similar project [in Flanagan’s case, addressing POW experiences in Changi and on the Burma Death Railway, then continuing to examine at great length what happened to his fictional characters afterwards]. To me it reads self-indulgent.

[This is a hard call. I’m certain both Doerr and Flanagan would say that the sections of their novels that deal with how their characters’ lives unfolded in the decades after the War is where it lives. They intend to examine the lasting impacts of war. In Doerr’s case, especially, his whole point is what lives on.

Me, I frankly wish the characters were left at a point of unpredictability. I wish we were left not knowing, required to use our imaginations to fill in the future – left, like the characters, displaced, facing an uncertain world. The ‘arguments against’ of course include the educative function of novels of this type (later generations don’t necessarily have the knowledge to imaginatively inhabit those spaces); the authors’ own preferences, their planned projects; and the outrage most readers would feel if these characters were sent out adrift – the t’s uncrossed, the i’s not dotted.]


I see in American writing a tendency to look back to WW2 as “the last heroic age”. There’s a valid desire to ensure what happened is remembered, and to cast the events as fables, as warnings. A book like All The Light You Cannot See is actually extremely effective in presenting aspects of wartime human experience and historic episodes, obscure [in the Doerr book, the Allied assault on St-Malo in France, and the Schulpforta Hitler Youth schools in the Reich] and better known (The Narrow Road to the Deep North).

The turn-off for me is the tone: all that effortful profundity; the wise, sorrowful voice, the self-conscious delicacy. Yes, it’s elegant, but IMO it’s overworked and kind of smug, the literary equivalent of an “Oscar bait” movie, a Manchester By The Sea. As if we read it or watch it to remind ourselves of how sensitive we are that we are so moved by the tragedies of others.

Also, embedded in the noble soulful remembrance of times past stuff there’s a wartime romp involving a sinister German sergeant-major and a cursed diamond, and frankly I came to be more involved in that narrative than in the cosmic significance.

[That’s not entirely true. I enjoyed The Adventure of the Cursed Diamond, as I enjoy a Tin-Tin comic, or a Madeline adventure – the Ludwig Bemelmans children’s classics, not Proust – and I was amused. But the sequences in the book I found most affecting were those that traced the life of the young German, Werner Pfennig.]

The author IMO over-egged the “What you could have been!” waste of human potential till the novel came to read, for me, like a shaggy dog tale culminating in a one-liner: all that lost humanity transposed into a metaphor about radio and cyberspace communications – we/they as infinite ghosts in the ether. Violins played.


That was my draft review. What changed?

Here I was being a Grinch. The background was the lingering death of my sister and her husband’s nephew, who 48 hours ago was about to be taken off life support .

I did not believe in fairies. I did not believe in Doerr’s elfin blind heroine, Marie-Laure. I did not believe in her loving papa, her endearing (and miraculously healed!) great-uncle, her Mary Poppins housekeeper, her gently jovial mentor, her Man In The Iron Mask mysterious Resistance friend. I absolutely did not believe in her miniature intricately crafted plywood model of a town of 865 mostly medieval buildings (I could not for the life of me figure out scale). Not even as Magical Realism, I did not believe.

Then today, one hour ago, my sister texted. Wills is to be removed from his ventilator today, but not to die. He’s to be removed because now, it seems he will live.


I don’t know if there’s an author who planned to rescue Will (refer above). I do know that for his family and carers, Will’s death would have had meanings; as does his life.

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Review: Stone Mattress (2014) – nine tales by Margaret Atwood


Growing old is a sorcery, a transformation.

It’s liminal: the gateway to other worlds, other mysteries.

To grow old is to learn what Merlin knew, what Prospero discovered.

There are powers that come with age: powers of far-seeing; powers to forgive, powers to avenge; powers of release, powers to persist.

Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014), a collection of nine tales, builds on Hag-Seed (2007), her re-working of Shakespeare’s tale The Tempest, to explore aging through the tropes of fantasy, myth and folklore.

She’s particularly concerned with sexual karma (aging people reconnecting with past lovers); entrapment; with how we ‘write’ our personal mythologies; with how the act of writing exerts its magic, its power; and with contemporary ‘folklore’ – genre writing in popular culture, whether fantasy, horror, or crime.

The last tale, ‘Torching the Dusties’, is to my mind the crowning glory: who are “the aged,” in contemporary culture? What do they represent, for us? What do they embody?

The weakest tale, on the face of it, is ‘Lusus Naturae’ (Latin for “freak of nature”), which at first seems rote – I wrote a similar tale myself, aged 22. But this is a collection, where each tale is a facet of every other, casting light and shadow, and with its Frankenstein references, fire-fuelled mob rampages, ‘Torching the Dusties’ is the obvious counterpoint to ‘Lusus Naturae’:

“When demons are required someone will always be found to supply the part, and whether you step forward or are pushed is all the same in the end”.


These tales are so rich in mythic reference a tale by tale deconstruction would overflow a mere blog’s confines. But, as befits a collection titled Stone Mattress, the most obvious references are to Sleeping Beauty and its kin: the lover preserved, or preserved in fantasy; the lover’s kiss; the awakening. Atwood introduces ambiguities. The murderess who needs her “beauty sleep”. Who are the innocents, who the monsters? Who casts the spell, and when are spells benign?

Related, the trope of imprisonment: the lover spellbound, or cursed – the lover contained. A “stone mattress”, after all, is a stromatolite:

The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome. It was the very same blue-algae that created the oxygen they are now breathing. Isn’t that astonishing?

A stromatolite, a stone mattress, is analogous to the archetypal experiences men and women have enjoyed and endured since the dawn of time. It is the very air we breathe. It is our hearts, pumping, hardening. In the tale ‘Stone Mattress,’ the old folks on a cruise ship dance to Hearts of Stone.


The first three tales – ‘Alphinland’, ‘Revenant’, ‘Dark Lady’ – are a trilogy, concerning what at first presents as a dyad (Constance and Ewan) but transforms into the archetypal triangle (Constance/Gavin/Jorrie). Constance, who as “C.W. Starr” is the author of a massively successfully decades-long fantasy series set in her imagined world, Alphinland, is now a widow but was once the muse and lover of the poet Gavin, the Gawain of her youth.

Gavin has aged into a vain and cantankerous mediocrity, but Constance’s myth of Gavin lives on in Alphinland, asleep, a Sleeping Beauty, in a hidden cask – much as her husband Ewan lives on in a chest in her attic, embodied by his old clothes. (By the way – Gavin is contained within a wine cask, evoking the Duke of Clarence’s death as depicted in Shakespeare’s Richard III – drowned in a vat of Malmsey sweet wine. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest a Shakespeare reference here, given Atwood referred to Shakespeare’s Richard III in Hag-Seed, and given Hag-Seed explored containment, fantasy and the deep sleeps of enchantment in its retelling of The Tempest.)

Constance conjures a number of devices for metaphorical imprisonment: in her mind are filing cabinets; her mind is a memory palace.


Jorrie is the Dark Lady who came between Constance and Gavin, transformed in Alphinland into the Scarlet Sorceress of Ruptous (rupture, rapturous), “walled up in a stone beehive”, where “every day at twelve noon sharp, [she] is stung by a hundred emerald and indigo bees. Their stings are like white-hot needles combined with red-hot chili sauce, and the pain is beyond excruciating” – ‘Alphinland’.

Another standout is the title tale, ‘Stone Mattress’: an enchantress enacts a primordial (literally, primal) revenge on the male mortal who wronged her.


I’m a long time, life-long, aficionado of the fantasy genre. As I keep bleating, my attempted MA thesis was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Literature. I’m also a carer for an octogenarian mother, a daughter who held her father across his last hours through till his death. For me, a big part of the pleasure in reading Stone Mattress is how Atwood shifts her representation of various characters between their archetypes, their counterparts in myth – Nimue, Vivian, Bluebeard, Jessica Rabbit – and their actuality; between their spirit, as undying archetypes, and their material reality, as bodies experiencing decay.

A raven flies, overhead. Can it tell? Is it waiting? She looks down through its eyes, sees an old woman – because, face it, she is an old woman now – on the verge of murdering an even older man because of an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time. It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.

– ‘Stone Mattress’


Andrew Lloyd-Greensmith, The Inner Stillness of Eileen Kramer (2017)

Sometimes the trajectory is from youth straight to decay, as in the tale within the tale in ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’ (where a female Sleeping Beauty is wakened by a monster), and ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’ (another Sleeping Beauty – but who is the beauty, who the witch or monster?). Other times it ‘magically’ reverses: in ‘Torching the Dusties,’ a slightly ridiculous older man turns into a dignified, honorable Sir Lancelot; a cynical male pulp fiction writer is awakened by the touch of his princess (‘The Dead Hand Loves You’).


In the tale ‘Stone Mattress’, a ‘prince’ is ‘awakened’ in the rudest terms by a girl he turned into a monster, and a male Sleeping Beauty awakened by a touch fails to recognize the princess, or even the girl, seeing only the monster:

They say dead people can’t see their own reflections, and it was true; I could not see myself. I saw something, but that was not myself: it looked nothing like the kind and pretty girl I knew myself to be, at heart.

– ‘Lusus Naturae’


Underlying Stone Mattress is the problem of recognition: seeing through the spells, the glamours, recognizing people for who, for what, they are.

In ‘Revenant’ (which means, ‘The Dreamer’)

[…] Maria’s just a nice, ordinary high school girl making a few bucks, dime a dozen, nothing special. Hardly a nymphet, hardly the beckoning sapsucker from “Death In Venice.” […] Still, he likes the idea of Maria as the Angel of Death. He’s about due for one of those. He’d rather see an angel in his dying moment than nothing at all.

In ‘Stone Mattress’

Verna’s heart is beating more rapidly. If he recognizes me spontaneously, I won’t kill him, she thinks. If I tell him who I am and he recognizes me and then apologizes, I still won’t kill him. That’s two more escape chances than he gave her.

In ‘Dark Lady’

“She doesn’t recognize me!” Jorrie whispers. […] Who would recognize you, thinks Tin, with that layer of stucco and dragon scales on your face? […]

She [Constance] knows exactly who Jorrie is: despite the gold flakes and the bronze powder, she must have known from the first minute.


When Constance recognizes the truth of Jorrie, the two sorceresses experience a shared moment of truth. They have the opportunity to release each other.

“We live in two places,” says Constance. “There isn’t any past in Alphinland. There isn’t any time. But there’s time here, where we are now. We still have a little time left.”

There always was “an alternate vision stashed in Constance’s inner filing cabinet, in which Constance and [Jorrie] recognized each other […] with cries of delight, and went for a coffee, and had a big bray over Gavin and his poems and his yen for blow jobs. But that never happened. ” – ‘Alphinland’.


Even as Constance and Jorrie in ‘Dark Lady’ work through their karma, the spells that have bound them, a younger writer watches, recognizing this as her moment of power:

She’s embedding us in amber, thinks Tin. Like ancient insects. Preserving us forever. In amber beads, in amber words. Right before our eyes.

Because that’s what happens to old people. They either turn to dust, or they turn into myth.


Margaret Atwood as Prospero


Eulogy for my father Pt.2 – one year on


My father died a year ago this week. He died on my parents’ bed, at his home, with his head propped against my solar plexus, supported by my crossed legs, as I stroked his arms. At the bottom of the bed our family was arrayed: my sister, my mother, my brother-in-law – my brother-in-law attendant throughout.

My father labored some hours to die, spewing black bile in repeated bouts.

“Tastes bad,” he murmured.

“Amazing how hard the body holds on to life,” my brother-in-law said, quietly.

After my father’s body gave up, I checked under his jaw for a pulse, checked my finger under his nostril for breath. I scooped the black bile out of his mouth and throat with a damp washcloth, cleaned his teeth and gums, before the palliative nurse, who we’d met just once, the previous day, arrived belatedly.

“I forgive you everything you’ve ever done wrong, for this,” my sister told me.

That’s how it was.

I wrote my father’s eulogy two days before he died.

After I delivered my eulogy at his commemorative celebration, a packed event at a local community hall, I realized I’d left out something important.

I talked about my father’s sense of humour, his way with words, his way with people. I talked in code about what an argumentative cuss he could be, a dinner table bigot. I talked about his vast curiosity. I talked about how much we loved him, and how much he loved our mother.

I left out something so obvious it blinds me: I left out my father the carer.

When my father was diagnosed with advanced, untreatable pancreatic cancer 11 weeks before his death, his immediate response was ‘So now would be a good time to buy a new car?”

He bought a new car the next day, for my mother. The car she’d been using, the one with seats that were too low, he instructed should be for my use.

When his GP responded he wished all his patients were like my dad, Dad laughed “What, dying?”

Expecting to live six weeks or less, my father spent the next weeks immersed in ensuring financial and administrative matters were in order, that the family would be cared for.

He could barely eat, just crackers, tea and packet soup. He ate a stale Cherry Ripe. Then he hunched over a garden border bed and threw up, painful retching that raised his shoulders, thin strains of pink-strewn chocolate residue. I stood close by his side with my hands soothing his back.

When he was finished, when he straightened, he whispered to me, “That’s what I did for my Mum.”

He held bowls to his mother’s lips as she threw up, dying of cancer.

My father lived twice as long as expected after diagnosis. His mother held on for four years. My father was at university in Melbourne when his mother was first diagnosed. He thrived in Melbourne. He had close friends and exciting prospects. He was doing some tutoring, some teaching at his old boarding college. He had offers of work abroad for foreign governments, offers of postgrad study.

Instead, he returned to the country town where his parents lived, where they lived somewhat unhappily together, on the border of South Australia and Victoria. His parents lived with his sister and his mother’s sister, who kept house and nursed his mother.

He helped nursed his mother and he worked in his father’s shop.

Every weekend, as soon as he knocked off work at the shop, he leapt in his 1950s jalopy and drove as fast as he could – which was fast – to Melbourne. A bit over five hours. There he went on pub-crawls with his mates and bet at the racetracks. Then Sunday night he drove the 430km back to Mount Gambier.

After his mother died, after he’d married my mother, moved to Brisbane, had two infants, my mother would complain about him staying out late after work playing cards with his mates. I don’t know how frequent this was. I do know that before I was 18 months old we’d moved to Mount Gambier, stayed at his parents’ house, then moved to Adelaide, where we lived the next 11 years. Every couple of weeks my father would drive to Mount Gambier – about 5 hours, about 430km – to spend a weekend with his father and his disabled older sister, taking care of what needed taking care of.

Which was a lot. My grandfather had glaucoma and was blind. My father’s much-older sister had crippled legs and cognitive impairment, a legacy of polio in about 1920 compounded by some illness undetermined: meningitis, encephalitis, Murray River Fever. Something fearful.

Their house was huge, built in 1910. Maintenance was massive.

When it was obvious my grandfather and my aunt could no longer manage there, obvious even to my grandfather and my aunt, my father bought them a smaller house a street away. He arranged the sale of the big house. He fought court battles when the sale fell through and he stood accused by the erstwhile buyer of misrepresentation (the buyer claimed Dad had filled the bathtub with books, so the buyer couldn’t see the poor condition of the tub).

My parents, my sister and I were now living in Melbourne. When my grandfather had cancer and was dying, my father drove up and down that highway constantly. He was due the evening my grandfather died. Freak thunderstorms lit up lurid skies. My father decided it wasn’t safe to drive, better the next day. My grandfather lay in his bed in his new home and kept asking, “When will Angus be here?”

In his last days my father confided he was certain his father’s longtime doctor had given him a morphine overdose that last night, at my grandfather’s request, the both of them expecting my father to arrive for the death.

My father felt he’d failed his dad.

After his father’s death, my father bought a small house a short walk from the home where he’d retired with my mother and moved his sister in there. He supported her living in that house until she needed round the clock care. No facility was willing to take her – “special needs” – so he donated generously till a local aged care home relented.

When she died, he cried. He released yellow balloons at her funeral. He said, “That’s over. The Great Obligation.”

My father financially supported his mother’s sister, who’d nursed his mother through her dying years and remained to keep house after my father married and moved to Brisbane. He ensured his aunt could continue to live independently, in her own flat, through to her death.

I believe he provided some financial support for others in his father’s 11 siblings’ families.

When my mother’s mother died and her father went the full King Lear, my father provided what care he could. When others in our family periodically went mad over the next decades, he supported us.

When I struggled financially, which is to say, my late 20s, early 30s, and pretty much always past age 40, my father played pater familias and ensured I was not homeless. I resented that mightily.

When I had bouts of depression after his death, when I thought life tasted sour, my sister said, “You can’t check out. Not after all the effort he put into keeping you alive.”

Fair point.

Here is the eulogy I didn’t deliver, the eulogy to my father, the carer.

Thank you for my life.

Angus with Elly

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Review: Grace (2017) by Paul Lynch

Grace_Paul_Lynch_Elly_McDonald_Writer_6Let’s get this out of the way straight up: Paul Lynch’s novel Grace is a tour de force. Not everyone will love it. Let me tell you why I do.

A young man, still a teen boy, stands on an open road in defiance of an oncoming speeding vehicle. The year is 1845, the place is western Ireland: the first year of an Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger, the Irish Potato Famine. The vehicle is a horse-drawn carriage – six horses, galloping, the coachman whipping them faster.

They think they own the place, says the boy.

Afterwards, as he lies in a ditch, his head aching from the coachman’s boot, he delivers his manifesto:

He says, I am not stupid in the least. Don’t you see what’s going on around you? The have-it-alls and well-doers who don’t give a fuck what is happening to the ordinary people. You saw that village yesterday and how prosperous it was, untouched by this curse. The arrogance of that driver. This is the way of things now. It could be the end of the world for the likes of us, but to the likes of them, they aren’t bothered. Do you know what I think? Those who are starving on the roads still believe deliverance is going to come. But who is going to deliver them? Not God and not the Crown and not anybody in this country. The people are living off hope. Hope is the lie they want to believe in. It is hope that carries you along, keeps you in your place. Keeps you down. Let me tell you something. I do not hope. I do not hope for anything in the least because to hope is to depend upon others. And so I will make my own luck. I believe there are no rules anymore. We are truly on our own in all this. If they have left us to fend for ourselves then we will do just that. We should meet it standing up. I believe that if I want that goddamn carriage to slow down or get off the road I can make it happen. I really believe this. Either I win or they win. There can be no other. I will make it happen, for how else am I supposed to live? What is happening now is no different to the end of the world, the only difference is that the rich can continue to live without affliction. The gods have abandoned us, that’s how I figure it. It is time to be your own god.

About a million people died from starvation and starvation-induced illness during the four years of the famine. A million more emigrated. Two-fifths of the population were reliant on potato crops that failed; countless numbers took to the roads, hoping to find food and sustenance, some kind of salvation. The wanderers on the roads, the beggars, the walking skeletons, prefigure our cultural nightmare of a zombie apocalypse. Grace is the story of people who strived their hardest to live, asking all the time, what kind of life is this? 

Grace Coyle is 14 when her mother cuts her hair and shoves her out of their cottage on Blackmountain in Donegal. “You’re the strong one now,” her mother tells her. Go find work. Come back in a year.

Grace’s younger brother Colly runs away to join her; Colly is a resourceful, pragmatic presence supporting Grace in her quest to survive. Another ally is Bart, the young man standing in the middle of that road. For me, Bart is the most compelling character in the story.

There is love, of sorts, between Grace and Bart, as far as two young people scrabbling to survive can experience love. There are moments when “She knows they are ancient and young and will never die.”

But this is not a love story. This is a story about how the very determined insist it cannot happen to them – they will never die – and yet circumstances and history mow them down and sweep them away. It’s a story about how, to survive, we need to believe we are exceptions, and yet when the great winters, the great hungers, come, belief in itself is insufficient.

They walk past a young woman delirious in a ditch, the woman smiling now as the snow gives last drink to her lips. The snow gowning her white for the slowest of country burials. The woman becoming part of it all, she thinks, that is the sky and the earth locked together in white and forgetting. You do not look but keep walking onwards. This feeling she has. It is not that she tells herself she is different. She knows she is different from all these others on the road, that what she sees around her will not happen to her also. That she will make better choices. So why would you even look at them, they have made their choices and you made yours, they aren’t even people, just sitters and starers with their cramp hands held out like the grabby hands of the dead. They want what you want and would take it out of your hand or even kill you for it so why would you even begin to give them a sympathetic look?

Grace is identifying as a survivor, identifying with the strong. Yet when snows blanket everything and everything is hunger, she is categorically not among the privileged.

Watching such men in the coffeehouse and watching such men on the street and she thinks that these people have been born clean, born into a higher position, while all the rest of us on earth were born into a lower position and such a thing is all down to who you are and where you come from and the luck of the draw and there is nothing you can do about it but take it back off them, because a fish cannot become a bird but there is nothing to stop a fish from wearing a bird’s feathers.

Grace wrestles with the limits of transformation, with who she needs to be to survive. Earlier, she asked, “a fish cannot become a bird, or can it? Maybe it can.” Later, she asks

Tell me this, do you think that everybody in the world is born fixed into their position?

I don’t know about that. It is certainly the case that everybody takes the same position in death.

It seems to me that a fish cannot become a bird and that the bird will attack the fish if it tries to fly. Perhaps that is the natural order of things. But why must that be so? I just saw men belonging to a farmer beat to death a poor man with clubs. They dug a trap to catch him like an animal, or like a fish if you think about it – pulled him like a fish from a pond. Poked his eyes out with their beaks. Things have gotten worse now. I think it would take some kind of magical effort for the fish to leave the water–

[…] Finally she asks, do you think he was just unlucky? Do you think he made his own luck?

The transformations Grace rolls through are many, and none of her own volition. From a young girl on a mountain, she becomes a boy named Tim, a cattle drover; a developing woman betrayed by her menstruation; the target of would-be rapists; a bandit, the pirate queen of Connaught; Deirdre of the Sorrows, Grainne loved by Diarmuid; a zombie; a corpse; a miracle of God, penitent; the girl who says no; the girl who can say nothing, nothing, no word in the face of what she’s seen; the one taken by the pooka, the fairies, returning home to find centuries have past and she a ghost, unrecognized; the mother who brings new life, at the cost of letting go of the old, forgetting.

More than once, men ask Grace, “What are you?”

Throughout her journey Grace is accompanied by ghosts, mostly ghosts who help sustain her. In the end, the ghosts must go, and with them, memory.

The novel is deeply concerned with memory. Colly frets about its nature. He frets about the relationship between the soul and memory:

Like, when you die, where do your memories go– if the soul doesn’t have a memory box, how can you remember your life when you die, where do memories go–

Grace wonders

About her own soul, all that has been put in it, wonders how a soul can be of the same essence when you are changing a little bit every day, when you are no longer the same person, because you are not the same person at the end of the year as you were at the start of it, and sometimes you change during the day, depending on certain events. And if that is the case, and you die at one age rather than another, would your soul not be completely different?

The tragedy of sweeping cataclysms is that those who do not live do not get to become who they might have been. The inventor. The engineer. The philosopher. The political activist. The writer.

Colly frets about how the soul relates to the body. Is the soul embodied? Does it take its form from the shape of the body? Does the soul then change as the body changes? What if the body is radically malformed?


Paul Lynch, the writer, cares about soul and memory. In interviews he speaks of how the Great Hunger left survivors traumatized, unwilling or unable to speak of what they knew. He speaks of the legacy of trauma in Ireland.

That’s one summation of what he tries to do here: he tries to speak of the legacy of trauma left by the Great Hunger, and of the social changes, including changes in the role of religion, and changes to the heritage of supernatural belief, resulting from the Great Hunger.

I think he does this extraordinarily.

I understand from researching Paul Lynch’s previous writings that Grace is a sequel of sorts. Now I feel compelled to find his first novel (Grace is his third), which tells the story of Grace’s father: Red Sky in Morning.


I opened this piece by saying Grace will not be loved by all. Against my usual practice, after finishing my reading I googled reviews and articles on the internet. Many are rave reviews, particularly those written by professional reviewers and authors. Yet, many reader reviews online about Grace are negative. Mostly, the complaint is that the story is too unremittingly grim. Readers, apparently, can’t handle grim. Others complained there is no story. These are people presumably unfamiliar with the picaresque genre, who can’t relate to themes unfolded episodically within an overarching narrative. Some readers complained the language is impenetrable. The more highbrow critics complained the characters are stock Irish stereotypes. The most highbrow critics complained Lynch’s language reads like a parody of Irish literary modernism.

Some critics writing for major newspapers took Lynch to task for language overworked, overwritten, deliberately obscure. I found some critics for major newspapers lacking in credibility: two of them misidentified characters – one a character at the book’s start, one towards its end – which undermined my confidence in their readings.

The reviewer for the New York Times started her review by quoting P.G. Wodehouse:

To twist a phrase from P.G. Wodehouse, it’s not difficult to tell the difference between Paul Lynch’s writing and a ray of sunshine, and “Grace”, his third novel, reveals an undiminished appetite for the depiction of suffering. Through its young heroine, we experience all the indescribable horrors of the Irish famine. Lynch goes where only famished dogs should go, and it’s a measure of his skill that he keeps us with him all the same.

Oh my. A backhanded compliment. Never mind that it references what for me was the most touching moment in the book and makes a joke of that. Never mind that it foregrounds a review of a book about famine with reference to a twee humorist. The suggestion that suffering as a subject is unseemly, that such suffering is indescribable, is hostile and to my mind bizarre. If this book were by a black author, about American slavery, would Katherine Grant write this way? If it were a book about the Holocaust, by a Jewish author, could she write this way?

But I digress.

Lynch’s writing is without doubt deliberately, perhaps provocatively, poetic. His language in places is blank verse. His imagery is dense, his grammar as if translated from another language. He drops in Gaelic phrases. He drops allusions to Gaelic myth and folklore that might elude a reader unfamiliar with this heritage. It is difficult to read, and sentences, paragraphs, demand re-reading.

Paul Lynch says his writing is intuitive and yet he rewrites sentences up to fifty times. He seems to ask, if I value language to the extent of rewriting up to fifty times, is it so hard to reread that sentence more than once?

He seems to ask, if people lived these experiences, and couldn’t speak of them, and if I write them, if I write and rewrite and try to honour the experiences of the dead, is it so hard to bear with the grim, and see it through?

Paul Lynch does not believe that a novel set in an historical time is necessarily a genre novel, “historical fiction”. He believes his historical novel has contemporary relevance. His novel addresses the Irish Great Famine and also every other famine, pestilence, genocide, holocaust that has reduced humans to animals and reduced life to survival.

Is it so hard to remember?


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Mayhem: a memoir (2017) by Sigrid Rausing

Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing

Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing early in their marriage

The eye of the storm is a locked bedroom: it stinks, drug paraphernalia and littered clothes strewn about, drug dealers’ phone numbers penned on the walls. At the very centre is someone who is now dead.

That much is common to many drug tragedies. Flung from the storm’s centre are children, four of them, primary school aged. Clutching for the children are adults, siblings and parents of the drug-affected pair; and spiralling out from the distraught adults are lawyers, police, specialist doctors, psychoanalysts, rehab staff, staff at the children’s schools, distressed friends, well-wishers, haters, readers of mass circulation tabloids, writers and directors and stagers of operas, casual internet trawlers and readers of this book.


… an old English term for the crime of maiming. The term implies guilt, which is appropriate in this context, since there is no addict story that doesn’t revolve around guilt, shame and judgement. The guilt is indiscriminate, and so is the shame. We were all guilty, and none of us were guilty. We were all shamed, and we absorbed the shame.

Sigrid Rausing’s account of her brother’s and sister-in-law’s drug addictions, and the havoc wreaked by addiction, is at its centre not so very different from every other addict story. The story has some sensational embellishments that made it a public scandal. It could be ripped from the pages of a Stieg Larsson thriller: The Girl with the Flaming Stigma. It’s also made distinctive by how extraordinary Rausing’s writing is, by how painstakingly she steers her course between restraint and suppressed fury, by how intelligently she attempts to analyse and contain the issues and emotions stirred up by the cyclone that is addiction.

Rausing’s account is many things.

If you do not tell your stories others will tell them for you, and they will vulgarize and degrade you, said Ishmael Reed, quoting George Bernard Shaw.

I write, know that writing at all may be seen as a betrayal of family; a shaming, exploitative, act [how much do I love that extra comma]. Anyone reading this who thinks so, please know that I thought it before you. Anyone who thinks so, consider also how we were brought up: wealth, privacy, silence, discretion.

But someone died, early one morning or late one night.

When someone dies this way, must someone wear the guilt?

The story, its centre, can be schematised:

Hans Kristian Rausing, an heir to the TetraPak fortune, worth billions, develops a heroin addiction at age 19 or 20 on the beaches of Goa, in India.

Years later, in rehab, he meets a fellow recovering addict named Eva Kemeny. They marry, have four children, lead a drug-free life as wealthy philanthropists funding addiction recovery programs.

Eight years after their wedding, Eva and Hans celebrate the new millennium on New Years Eve 2000 with a glass or several of champagne. It is the end of their sobriety. The next 12 years are a whirlwind that tears their lives apart, culminating in that death in that bedroom in July 2012.

Should I say more?

I can only imagine the shame, the pain, Sigrid Rausing must have felt putting words to what happened.

The Rausings, Hans and Eva, had lived in a mansion in Cadogan Place, in Belgravia, possibly the most exclusive and expensive location in London. The mansion was maintained impeccably by their staff – except for the bedroom on the second level, the epicentre of the couple’s drug world, forbidden to all others.

When Eva died, sometime either late at night or before dawn, Hans was present, but could not cope with her death. Instead of reporting her death and ensuring proper procedures were followed, he heaped clothes, doonas, TV sets on her body, wrapped it in a blue tarpaulin, apparently sprinkled it with baby powder (to absorb the smell?), and continued in his drug nightmare until two months later, when some police officers stopped his car on Wandsworth Bridge, searched the car, found drugs, searched his home under warrant, and found Eva.

She was identified by a partial thumb print and by the pacemaker implanted six years earlier to support her damaged heart muscle.

Eva’s immediate cause of death was determined to be heart failure caused by inhaling crack cocaine. Hans Kristian was charged with preventing Eva’s lawful burial. He was sentenced to two years, suspended, with the requirement that he undergo a two-year rehabilitation program.

Then things took a weird(er) turn. Eva had been in communication with journalists and police in Sweden, claiming Hans’s father, Hans Rausing Snr, had ordered the hit on Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, who was fatally shot after a night at the cinema in 1986.

Eva was very often irrational across those years of relapse, sending threatening, quite psychotic emails and texts to Sigrid (and others?) with a frequency and degree of implied violence that constitutes harassment. She wrote in her texts and emails that she was omniscient, omnipotent; she hurled black magic curses. The investigative journalist to whom she sent her accusations against Rausing Snr did not publicly disclose Eva’s allegations until after her death, suspecting they were unreliable, not least because Eva admitted she had gained her information through a revelatory dream, a vision she admitted was not her first.

In a letter to a jailed killer she wrote

One morning, I woke up and looked over at my husband, who was asleep, and I swear, the thought came to me loud and clear. […] I’m scared. What I think that they could do is come into the house, gas me with some sort of sleeping gas, then they could deliberately give me an overdose of some drug or other and then, worst of all, they leave a note in what looks like my handwriting. Help! I know this sounds very far-fetched and completely paranoid but I swear to you these people are capable of anything.

Swedish police made no comment, as is their policy with ongoing investigations. In Sweden, where there is no statute of limitation, all investigations are officially ongoing.

In Sweden, Eva’s revelations were incendiary.

The background is complicated – changes in Swedish legislation in the 1970s and early ‘80s that proposed unions buy increasing shares in privately owned companies to become majority stakeholders – but Sigrid Rausing is adamant:

Eva’s idea, therefore, that Olof Palme had constituted a threat against the company may have been true in the 1970s, but by 1986 it certainly wasn’t true any more. And every newspaper editor in Sweden knew that.

It was Nordic noir, Scandi noir, at its blackest. In 2016 an opera was staged in Sweden with Hans Kristian and Eva centre stage, Sigrid, her siblings and her parents presented as agents of doom. The director sent a copy of the libretto to the family for comment.

The charge against Sigrid and her sister, Lisbeth, is that they took the children. Sigrid took the children; Eva couldn’t live with that and so she died.

Much of Mayhem is Sigrid wrestling with issues of guilt. Trained as a social anthropologist, a longtime proponent of psychoanalysis, Sigrid thinks like a philosopher. She worries away at issues of guilt, of culpability, of agency, from every angle she can conceive of. She is insightful, intellectual, intuitive. She is devastated.

One thing she never traces in her writing is the possibility that the children could have remained with their parents. Could that have made the difference? Could that have benefited the children, saved Eva Rausing?

Eva always believed so, and so, apparently, did Eva’s parents.

Could those four young children have lived downstairs in that mansion in Cadogan Place, maybe gone to boarding school, maybe as week-day boarders, cared for by staff, visited by relatives – and all would have been well?

Could those young children have been kept innocent of the darkness at the centre of that house, the room that was their parents’?

Sigrid and Lisbeth spent 2007/08 in court with lawyers arguing the case that this wasn’t possible. Courts are loathe to remove children from their parents, from their home. Yet the courts determined the children could no longer live with these parents.

The court action was prompted by a report from Social Services after Hans Kristian dropped out of yet another attempt at rehab. Social Services had informed Sigrid and Lisbeth that action would be taken to protect the children, and that if the children were taken into care by the state, the four siblings would most likely be split up.

Sigrid had been a director of the NSPCC – Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She knew what this meant.

Mayhem is

Dedicated to Hans and Eva’s four children. For legal reasons, they cannot be named in this book. That is one of the many reasons why the text remains as partial and unfinished as it is, since these young people, alongside my own son Daniel, were, and are, an indelible part of my life.

I thank them for their patience, their humour and their courage.

Sigrid Rausing

Sigrid Rausing

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Review: Idaho (2017) by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho_Emily_Ruskovich_Elly_McDonald_WriterOn a mountain-top in rural Idaho, a mother kills her 6 year old, in a seemingly impulsive, reflex action. She “waived her right to a trial, entered a plea of guilty, and, in a hearing that lasted twenty minutes was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after thirty years. During this hearing, the judge seemed to find her lack of self-regard unsettling, her adamant plea of guilt unusual. He pressured her to give an explanation, but she only said she had committed the murder of her child and she wished to die for it.”

Thirty-two years later, word in the Sage Hill Women’s Correctional Center is that Jenny told the judge: “I wish that you would kill me. But I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish.”

Word in the women’s prison is that during the sentencing, Jenny’s “husband didn’t look at her, not once.”




plural noun: lacunae

  1. 1.

an unfilled space; a gap.

  1. 2.


a cavity or depression, especially in bone.

Jenny is, simultaneously, the lacuna at the heart of this book, an emptiness of the heart; and Jenny is the heart of this book. Jenny is Schroedinger’s cat: When you open the box, the cat is either alive or it is dead; when the box is closed, reality is unknowable, paradoxical possibilities exist.

”Wade,” she says, “You break my heart.”

And you break mine,’” he answers.

By no coincidence, stray cats, missing cats, feature as a narrative motif, and Schroedinger’s cat is referenced.

After poetry class in jail, Jenny writes a note to her cellmate:

D says this poem in I’ams almost whole way through. Where meter breaks free (see where I circled the phrases he pointed out), imagine a voice breaking too. Form and content intertwined. (People seem to know what I-am means. I assume “first person point of view.”)

Later, she reports: “An I-am is a pair of syllables. The first one soft, the second loud. It’s the rhythm of the human heart, which is also the natural rhythm of human speech.”

Idaho is a meticulously crafted text, thesis material in its density but highly readable. It’s a narrative of paired ‘syllables’, a narrative of people bonded as pairs: husband and wife, parent and child, sibling with sibling, cellmate with cellmate. Every heartbeat of this story reminds us it takes two. The pair at the centre of this story are twin enigmas: the mother, Jenny, because like Christ before Pilate she refuses to explain, or even speak; the father, Wade, because like his father and his grandfather before him, Wade has younger onset dementia, his memory disintegrating while he’s physically hale, his life expectancy no more than his mid-50s, the awareness of darkness and death his life-long shroud.

Yet, the song of the heartbeat is I AM: the assertion of self.

The uber-I AM is of course God, G-d, Jehovah: the Old Testament God who declaimed I AM THAT I AM, who instructed Moses on a mountain-top, who ordered Abraham to kill his child. At one point a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses visit Ann and Wade on their mountain (Iris Mountain, a mountain seeded with wild irises, Iris in Greek mythology being a female messenger of the gods). I don’t think that’s coincidence, either.

Jenny pushes away I AM and has chosen self-abnegation: “I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish” – not even this wish. For Jenny, “Silence is something she can bear a little better than a failed attempt at saying what she means.”

Wade has lost much, is losing everything. But, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum, perhaps most dramatically enacted in a wilderness, on a wild mountain, and it is the human way to make meaning even out of absences and silences, to try to reconstruct significant events.

Idaho is constructed as a series of first person narratives, and through those first person points of view we see how driven the human heart is to construe events so that, ultimately, we, the storytellers, the first person narrators, are at the heart of the matter, at the centre of the story, and the story becomes ours.

And so it is that Jenny’s story is appropriated by the woman Wade marries after Jenny makes herself an absence, a woman who in her imagination projects such a vivid, sensual scenarios that ultimately she feels herself to be the sole custodian of this family’s story:

She knows from [Wade’s] casual gestures, from the simplicity of his smile, the absence of pain, that she has inherited his family wholly now, that nothing can bring them back.

For the first time, she knows for certain that they live only in her.

This woman, Ann, is a good woman, believes herself to be a good woman. Yet eventually she convinces herself that she is the reason the child was killed, convinces herself that she is guilty, through a kind of lovers’ telepathy, an osmosis through the medium of music. She believes herself guilty, too, of the death of a fawn, merely by her touch:

Had she known, when she reached out afterward, so softly, with just one fingertip, that she could do it harm? […] she thought of wiping the fawn with a wet cloth. But the cloth had a smell, too, of detergent. And so there was nothing she could do. […] Periodically that evening she forgot it, and then when she remembered, her fingertip tingled at the memory of that white spot, like peppermint. She thought of those woods at night. Wade had mentioned seeing a mountain lion before, not up here but down at the river, leaping right out of the water. So they were around. Coyotes, wolves. All those dark branches and dark trunks of trees and the fawn moving in the dark. Invisible except in one place, one white spot: Ann’s fingerprint moving through the woods like a point of light. Here I am!

Jenny is appropriated, too, to an extent, by the cellmate her comes to love her, who sees Jenny as her saviour and who, through a Cyrano de Bergerac act of ventriloquism,* eventually procures Jenny’s ‘freedom’.

Paradoxically, this cellmate is driven to violence by the paranoid perception that her previous cellmate had appropriated her history:

“It’s fitting that I stabbed her with her own mirror. That’s what they call in my poetry class ‘dramatic irony’.”

He says, in a dull tone to mock her, “You mean because she was stealing your childhood.”

“Childhood, soul, whatever you want to call it.”

“A person can’t steal someone else’s childhood.”

(But they can. Killing a child steals that childhood.)

When this cellmate, Elizabeth, again encounters the ex-cellmate she stabbed, Sylvia, she looks at her as a dominant, abusive partner looks at their object of abuse and wonders, ”Who is she now, without Elizabeth?”

Who is Wade, without his children?

Who is Ann, the second wife, if not a young woman with an empty life who found meaning as a medium channelling the ghost of someone else’s tragedy?

And who is June?

June is the other gaping absence in this tale.

When the six year old was murdered on a mountain, her nine year old sister, June, saw, and ran, like a fawn in the dark woods. She has never been seen since, except as a series of photographs issued every few years through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, showing how that nine year old might look at 11, at 13, at 15, at 20. Ann has commissioned an artist whose vocation it is to construct ‘living’ images of absent children, to paint how June might look at different ages, in different contexts, living different personae. Is this another appropriation?

There is a character, Eliot, whose function is both to provide a living link to June and to show how hollow, how filled with the breath of hope, Ann’s life was before June’s sister’s murder.

Eliot has his own story – or he thinks he has. He tells his story often, dramatically, to assert his I AM. Then one day, his girlfriend throws in a different interpretation, and Eliot cannot live with it, can no longer live with her:

But with a casual shrug of her sholders, Ivy had changed his story. She changed the people in it. The intensity had not followed him – he followed it. […] He had become a passive player in the opening scene of his life.

And if Ivy could make him feel that in one careless instant, what else was she capable of taking away?”

At the heart of Idaho, our own private Idahos, is the question, can our stories hold? Can we ‘own’ our stories? Can we clutch them to ourselves, can we protect and keep them private?

Elizabeth’s injured ex-cellmate finds herself through music, through a reconnection with the piano.

Elizabeth wonders, “If music can live in Sylvia’s fingers for sixteen years without ever revealing itself, are there things that live in Elizabeth that time won’t touch, that nobody can take away?”

At the novel’s end, when it might appear Ann has given ‘back’ Jenny’s life, there’s a disturbing final paragraph. We think we know this story now. The basics were never in dispute:

“My wife has killed my daughter in the truck. My other daughter is scared. I need to get to her.”

It was the lack of ambiguity that made William stumble. […]

So Wade tried again. “My wife has killed my daughter.”

He was about to say it a third time when William managed a reply. […] “I understand. You’ve told me what happened.”

Do we, as outsiders, ever know the story?

In the novel’s last lines,

Jenny says, “On a different part of this river, I saw a mountain lion leap right up, right out of the water. It was the only time I ever saw one.”

“I know that story,” Ann says. “I didn’t know you were there, too. Wade told me.”

“He did?” Jenny smiles, surprised. ‘What else did he tell you?”

Ann isn’t sure what Jenny means. Jenny seems not to be sure, either. She laughs a little, for the first time.

0812 tm emily ruskovich rabbits

Emily Ruskovich with rabbits


*Elizabeth’s act of written ventriloquism follows many years of literary ventriloquism, with roles reversed, with Jenny attending poetry class as Elizabeth’s proxy and handing in assignments written by Elizabeth under Jenny’s name. There’s so much in this novel to connect and unpick.






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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.


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Elly’s planned eulogy for her father’s wake – Sunday 5th March


Dad and I were sitting out on the porch one day when I noticed something unusual about the tree branch hanging over our back fence.

“That tree has a NUT in it,” I said.

Quick as a flash Angus responded, “Must be one of our friends dropping over for a visit!”

Thank you for visiting. Thank you for being our friends. And thank you for being here today.

Dad was very quick witted.

After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a visiting friend made a somewhat socially awkward remark about playing a harp outside the Pearly Gates.

“What will YOU be playing in heaven, Dad?” I asked.

“Tennis,” he replied, with a Cheshire Cat grin.

I am so lucky to be the daughter of Donald Angus McDonald. I have valued his wit, his warmth, his intelligence, his fierce opinions, his protectiveness. I have valued his endless curiosity about life, other people, current events, fingerprint technology.

I’m not joking there.

In the last week of his life Dad and I spent a precious hour or two finding out everything we could about fingerprint technology: its uses, its failings, its future.

A day or so later I said to him, “I feel a little guilty that I used time we could have spent talking about the things that have mattered most to you in your life talking instead about fingerprints. But then I read an article which discussed gossip and trivial conversation from an anthropological perspective, in terms of social bonding, as a process of affirming relationship, like monkeys grooming each other, picking nits out of each others’ hair. It doesn’t really matter WHAT we’re talking about. It’s the act of conversing that matters.”

He smiled a Sphinx smile, which I hope means he agreed.

There’s no question Angus loved conversing, and loved his friends, his visitors, loved social bonding – and, truth to tell, loved a verbal tussle.

We had nitpick conversations about etymology. Most recently, the origins of the surname Bassingthwaite. We don’t know anyone with the surname Bassingthwaite, but we thought it worth exploring, for the sake of exploring.

Which brings me to travel. Angus didn’t travel overseas until after he’d reached 40, but he made up for lost time. His interest in other people extended to an interest in other cultures.

Dad was a child in World War 2. All his life, World War 2 was a reference point, the most charged period within his memory and study. When Angus, Liz and I drove the Nullarbor together in 1985 we drove past a bicycle, alone on the highway, with panniers and a rider in a French Foreign Legion cap, and with a Japanese flag flying optimistically from the back wheel rack.

Dad overtook, carefully, then said, “He is taking a big risk flying the Japanese flag out here. There are still motorists who might take that as a provocation.”

And yet, when Angus visited Japan he fell in love. I think he made five visits to Japan within about 10 years, and there’s no questioning his very real admiration and respect for Japanese people and culture. He was capable of embracing new information and adopting new attitudes.

Speaking of love: my father loved my mother. When he was ill, he was clear she was his first priority. In the last day, when he was dying, it was her name, Elizabeth, he said repeatedly, even after very few words were coherent. Other words that were clear were “Cathy”, “Peter”, “Pelly”, “Family”, and “Love”.

Dad loved us, and we loved him.

After all the words are said, all the words explored, those are the words that count.

Daddy, I love you.

I’ll leave it at that.


Diary of my Dad’s dying

When my father was dying, across the Australian summer 2016/17, I wrote frequently on Facebook about what was happening.

I am very aware that there are people who consider it completely inappropriate, abhorrent, to post on Facebook about intimate family matters. There are people who find it distasteful to post about deaths.

I am, obviously, not one of those people. I use Facebook to post to my friends about my daily life. My daily life across those months centred on death – my father’s.

One of my friends, John Power, who has himself since died, asked if I was collating my Facebook posts as a diary. He said there was a book in it.

I have no urge to write that book, but there will come a day when I delete my Facebook account, and unless I collate those posts elsewhere, the record of those months will be lost to me.

This is not a blog post intended for a broad audience. This is me ensuring that what I wrote and the images I selected during these crucial 11 weeks in my life, the 11 weeks of my father’s dying, are retained.

A NOTE ON FORM: Perversely, I have set this in reverse chronological order. Like Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal – in my beginning is my end.

3 September 2017:

“I have two favourite children. Guess what? You are one of them. I have adored you both always! Angus”

Love you this Father’s Day and always 💌


29 May 2017:

Funnily enough, reading this article at the reference to Lear I immediately thought not of Shakespeare’s king but of Edward Lear.

Dad and I sat together every day, and he, too, quoted Lear:

“We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness.
So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon ’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies.”

My father had 11 weeks’ notice of his death and, although he was not religious, his and our preparations were very much as Phillipe Aries describes, minus the overtly religious elements.

We certainly would not have preferred a quick, sudden death, or a medicalised death ending in hospital.

Sorry not sorry to anyone bothered by me harping on about my father’s death.

15 May 2017:

Angus’s “proper” plaque is in situ. Cathy has planted pigface.

Visiting with offerings of Rocky Road. Now I’ll have to eat it on his behalf, here in the autumn sunshine with a cold sea breeze.


12 May 2017:

Digital art by Cathy McDonald – ‘Sisters’ series






9 May 2017:

To Melbourne to see the family financial adviser about my legacy from Dad. Feeling entirely awful and exhausted beyond belief. My psychologist suggests the exhaustion might be grief.

I’ve been reading H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s remarkable memoir of grief (and birds, and history, nature, poetry, photography), but my ability to concentrate is not great. The upside of today is that as of this week, my usual restricted cashflow is unchanged but my broader financial setup is suddenly quite grown-up. Possibly for the first time ever. Strange.

24 April 2017:

The NBN installers are due any minute. I have a flu-like cold and Liz, Cathy and I have a lawyer’s appointment this arvo about probate.

More nightmares: a final year English exam, to be done in our own individual apartments in a kind of grand hotel, except I’ve just moved my belongings into mine and it’s piled high with stacks of books and a dog knocks the pile where I put the exam paper and I can’t find the exam paper again and I can’t find an invigilator and I only wrote one sentence and I don’t know how long I’ve got and it’s so unfair because I know the texts backwards and the questions are a doddle, if only I knew what they were, in the absence of the paper, the paper that is lost…


18 April 2017:

Note from my reclusive octagenarian retired GP neighbour discovered today scrunched up and wet in my letterbox (the note, not the neighbour).

Despite 1/3/17 date, I could swear it hasn’t been there previously.

People are strange. Sometimes wonderfully 💝

John's letter

… strong possibility: he put the letter in Unit 1’s mailbox, and no one clears that mailbox because Unit 1 is a holiday rental, but it’s been cleared now because a buyer’s contract has just gone through.

16 April 2017:

Liz has Angus’s wearable clothes prepared for the Op Shop and has offered me my pick.

Not the best night to do this. Tired and sad.

She’s worrying a nuclear bomb will drop on Hong Kong while we’re there 😯

Angus clothes

I formally ended my friendship with my first ever ‘best friend’ after Dad’s death. She was the first person I contacted with the news of his diagnosis. She responded with a breezy text about everyone having to go at some time and said she’d find a time in her busy schedule to be in contact later. 20 weeks later she texted me happy birthday greetings (my birthday is the same week as hers). I told her in the meantime Angus had died at home in my arms, was dead, buried, there’d been a commemoration, and I was so disappointed I hadn’t heard from her. Nothing since.

I remember sitting in the Bayswater Brasserie in Kings Cross carefully composing a letter to her father when *he* was dying 30 years of so ago.

the day after Dad’s death I Unfriended a longtime FB friend in the U.S. who I’ve never met but who I like(d) very much. She has difficult life circumstances and mental illness and quite frequently posts suicidal thoughts or about hospitalizations. I always sent prompt responses I hoped were supportive and appropriate. My bro-in-law the shrink abd my sister would point out how aggressive it is to post suicide threats and attempts on FB, and how distressing for readers with issues of their own, and had been advising me to Unfriend her for some time.

That day she posted that she had razor at her throat. I didn’t see her post till hours later and I was blunt: Don’t kill yourself. Today I watched my father die in my arms spewing black blood. Life is precious.

She wrote a long response about how some day, some time, the inevitable ultimate ending to her story MUST be that she kills herself. No reference at all to my father’s death.

I told her I wished her well but I cannot remain her friend.

Very, very grumpy today. Watching Cats v Hawks (Cats bloody better win) and just adapted a line from The Rocky Horror Show, “There’s a spar-ar-ar-ar-ark [sic] BURNING IN THE FIRE PLACE” … remember breaking into that over dinner with parents one time and them both staring, and Dad saying, “Whatever THAT was, DON’T EVER DO IT AGAIN”.. 😻

14 April 2017:

After an uncharacteristically work-filled week it’s hard to get up, get dressed, and get to Geelong for church.

But after attending last night’s Tenebrae (Maundy Thursday) service – after a late shift – I’m reminded of the Christian significance of Easter by the words of minister Peter Gador-Whyte: “He shares our frailties to restore our dignity”.

Seems I’ve lived this recently.


How empowering is it for me to put myself in the place of Michelangelo’s Mary 💛 (That’s not a question)

… going to church dressed as an Italian widow. Some of us are incorrigible. (An Italian widow in sheer see-through fabric; limited black options in my wardrobe 😎)

8 April 2017:

Happy birthdayI am 56 today and last night my sister gave me a birthday card from my Dad.

It reads: “I have two favourite children Guess what? You are one of them I have adored you both always! Angus”

Cathy bought multiple cards when Dad got sick and asked him to write birthday and Christmas greetings into the future in them. He never got round to it. So she trimmed a note he’d written on scrap paper and stuck it inside a birthday card for me.

When it’s her birthday, I’ll transpose the love note to a card for her 👭

Favourite children

25 March 2017:

I dreamt my Dad wasn’t dead.

Instead he was entangled in the doona on my parents’ king-size bed, not well, but bright-eyed and smiling.

“Hello,” I said. “I thought you were gone.”

Angus interim plaque

19 March 2017:

Sisters 👭


16 March 2017:

All is well. In fact all is good 🌞

Enjoying cappuccino catch-ups with friends who live locally. Back at work at the Gallery. Gardening. Swimming 🐋

Thank you for all the well-wishes (and the fishes)

Go to the beach

6 March 2017:

Yesterday’s celebration of Angus was everything we could have hoped.

I cannot express how grateful I am to my FB (and real life) friends who were able to be there: in no particular order: Penny, Jen, Lou, Heather, Ian W, Ian R, Adrienne, Gail and Sonia, Vikki and others who are not on FB but who I love very much and whose presence is appreciated. I hope I haven’t dropped out anyone’s name. Please forgive me if I have.

I also very, very much appreciate all the care and patience other FB friends have shown me over this past 3 months since Dad’s diagnosis. I won’t name you. You know who you are. I am very thankful and I will not forget.

Much love to you

Angus portrait

We’re embarrassed that some people who planned to be there stuck with the initial tbc date 12 March and didn’t see the subsequent notices advising 3rd March. There were 150+ guests, maybe 200, with standing room only, and it really wasn’t possible to update individuals ahead of time, but sad some people – like Dad’s favourite of Cathy’s exes – missed out 😯

3 March 2017:











3 March 2017:

Singing this on the way to the crematorium.

Previous song was Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold singing I Remember It Well (from Gigi), which made us cry

3 March 2017:

Liz has tidied Angus’s closet. It never, for one moment, looked REMOTELY like this in his lifetime 😂

Angus's closet

2 March 2017:


2 March 2017:

Flowers and card from my workplace

Hand delivered by my wonderful colleague, Lydia Cover, who had me sing the Aaronic Blessing for her 💗

Flowers from my workplace

1 March 2017:


1 March 2017:

Notices from the Geelong Advertiser and flowers from our family dentist 🌞






Flowers from Dentalspa

… and also in The Age






1 March 2017:

The alternative history – a tribute

28 February 2017:

The format for the wake on Sunday has Peter as MC, short eulogies from me, Cathy, then Liz, lots of food and drink and conversation, and all Dad’s favourite music, with slideshow visuals of family.

This is a draft. It’s short. I’ve told Cathy she can do the timeline history of etc.

Anyone and everyone is very welcome – details published with Angus’s death notice in The Age and the Geelong Advertiser tomorrow (Wednesday)

27 February 2017:

Seems the wake is now confirmed as THIS Sunday, 5 March – 2pm at Point Lonsdale Bowls Club. All welcome.

I need to get that eulogy written, fast.

The private funeral is 11am this Friday.


There won’t be any religious element – just Peter as MC, short eulogies from me, Cathy and Liz, the music he most loved, eating, drinking and socializing.

26 February 2017:

Donald Angus McDonald
d.26/2/2017 at 1pm

at home with his head on my lap and his family around him.

… I think Cathy and I were feeling pretty good relatively speaking except since Dad’s death mum has been difficult and Cathy lost it with her and Hugh has been harassing us with multiple phone calls about his planned visit and taking us to task for how we announced the death (an email I wrote sent in Liz’s name) and our arrangements for the funeral and the wake and even accusing us of misinforming people of the date and time Dad died. Pretty sure it was 1pm Sunday; I was 100% present. I was holding him, I took his pulse, checked his breath, cleaned his body. Hugh thinks it was 3pm Saturday and somehow thinks his opinion matters.

I was so angry by Hugh and his partner’s 6th phone call within 24 hours I had to remove myself.

I’m trying to not let it affect me. But he’s coming for a week and now that Dad’s gone there’s no reason for him to stay at Cathy and Peter’s rather than in Lonnie and removal will be hard. The saving grace is with the wake now so soon NEITHER he nor Athena will be there. (I presume)

24 February 2017:

We watched cricket together. Lots of sleeping.

Angus plays cricket

24 February 2017:

Daddy’s girl

Still waiting for paramedic vehicle to bring him home

Update: he’s staying in hospital on a morphine pump, might come home on pump in the middle of the night, might not

Angus w Elly 3






Liz w Elly

24 February 2017:

Angus and Liz young

24 February 2017:

Cathy, Peter and I have spent the afternoon in St John of God emergency dept but in keeping eith Advanced Care plan Angus is now being sent home dosed heavily with morphine.

I went ahead to locate after hours Palliative Care contacts but CANNOT FIND the palliative care info folder or A.H. tel’s

Will be off FB for a bit now xxx

Palliative care manual

… the home visit nurse on Friday took it with her. It’s back now

24 February 2017:

It’s agreed: I will sing the Aaronic Blessing to my father’s coffin before it exits.

The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make his face to shine upon you
And be gracious unto you.

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you
And give you peace.

It’s only 19C and overcast, but it’s low tide (I wrote ‘tired’) and Dad has been dry retching sputum and blood and shaking violently, so I am heading to the sea for a swim 🏊

Photo taken by Angus on Wednesday when he and Cathy drove down the Surf Coast.

Angus's last photos


24 February 2017:

Family getting-to-know you meeting 11.15am today with my friend Michael Nolan, in his capacity as celebrant for Angus’s funeral.

Dad has micro-managed the wake. Properly speaking Mum gets the deciding say on things to do with the private family part, at the funeral. Dad got a little over-anxious a few days back and started dictating the details but I think, based on how well we’ve been doing, we’ll have consensus xxx

… he was really, really sick this morning. Too sick to participate. Community nurse arrived about an hour ago.

1 February 2017:

Liz’s friend Bev got knocked down by a kelpie on the beach and will need 6 months rehab to repair torn ligaments. She won’t be back at the beach.

Some of Liz’s beach friends whose dogs have recently died have decided they’re too old to walk dogs and are not getting replacements. Liz is very sad that her supportive beach network is evaporating, just as she most needs it.


21 February 2017:

Elly’s nightmares:

Heather you and I were to appear on TV and I didn’t have a thing to wear. Here’s how we decided to style me:

Pale primrose granny-pants, worn as hot pants
Sunshine yellow singlet, worn without bra
Mauve Isadora Duncan scarf
Dark red chunky plastic Pop Art ring

Minutes before we were due in the studio I was worried strong camera lighting might be unkind OMG 😨😨😨😨😨

Elly's nightmare

19 February 2017:

From Liz’s hidden photo albums – Angus 1972, and the first photo I ever took, Angus 1972 or 1973 building the retaining wall in our Adelaide back garden.






Those pants are towelling.

19 February 2017:

I’m due to meet up with an old friend from teacher training on the beach in 55 minutes but I cannot quite get vertical. (Nightmares again.)

I haven’t seen her since ’04 but saw her name as purchaser on the paperwork for the sale of my car.

Then family lunch.

I drank coffee

Parents’ house deluged with phone calls yesterday from WA family – from Perth, from Paris, from Texas. Hugh isn’t seriously sick. Low numbers on prostate count and no spread.

16 February 2017:

Birds sing

16 February 2017:

Clan McDonald sign up for their final resting places (Indigenous: weerona – the name of my great-grandfather McDonald’s property near Campbelltown).

Angus and Liz are the big upright rock (centre); Cathy and Peter are to the left; and I am the small irregular awkward stand-alone (right). I expect future vandals to pick me up and fling me. Plaques to come.

Moonah Walk

It’s beautiful. We’re thrilled. There’s a beautiful sandstone bench where a person can sit and reflect by our stones 💚

Moonah Walk, Point Lonsdale cemetery

Moonah Walk viewing

15 February 2017:

It’s official: my family ARE THE BEST 💖💖💖💖💖💖💖💖💖

We have agreed on everything for Dad’s cremation, and the wake, and have got through all that other Very Tricky Stuff.

It’s ok to congratulate us now 💐💐💐💐💐💐💐💐💐💐

The reason life works

14 February 2017:


13 February 2017:

It’s been a very intense and painful few days with family issues as Angus gets more ill. On Friday Angus and Liz visited Kings Funerals to discuss the funeral pyre and came away with a long list of questions such as: What will Angus wear? Do we want to view him? Who will wheel the coffin? Et al

We’ll have a family get-together this week to sort through all this.

We’re a long way from being on safe ground.

Dad has decided to include a couple of religious elements after all, one of which might be Psalm 23 and another might be my friend Michael Nolan, a former Catholic priest who once explained to me the role of a parish priest is similar to being the donkey in a paddock with horses: there to help calm the skittish ones.

Very very hard to stay ok but fortunately have a few horse whisperers to hand.

We’re racing ahead on suggestions for What Will Angus Wear? Rather than playing a harp in Heaven he says he wants to play tennis, so I suggested tennis gear. Angus rather fancies being buried in full Essendon Bombers supporters gear: then we could say the Essendon Saga killed him. It would have the dual benefit of disposing of the Essendon scarf I knitted him with decency.


12 February 2017:

[During family turmoil I won’t record here]

Laughing while watching Mulan:

Mushu: “Hey, c’mon, you did it to save your father! Who knew you’d end up shaming him and disgracing your ancestors and losing all your friends…”

You did it to save your father

5 Februay 2017:

Cathy did an icon-making workshop this weekend and made this icon of St Mary (me) and St Elizabeth (Cathy) hugging each other.

She wanted to make St Elizabeth’s robe blue but the specialist told her Greek Orthodox symbology requires that it be green.

We look very worried.

Sisters icon by Cathy McDonald

The other images are from the Nag Hammadi Library and a copy (the darker one) in St Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church, Roanoke, Virginia.






1 February 2017:

Things turned pear-shaped shortly after this pic. Very bad day. Angus off to GP.

Angus with Bella

Feels like a turning point. We’re poised for the down slide. Dad has apologized in advance to me and Cathy for when he’s angry or short-tempered over coming weeks.

We had a Monty Python moment where Cathy was trying to talk up how well he is and Dad and I were having Absurdist paroxysms lol

He was [calm and at peace in this photo]. He’s calm most of the time anyway, doesn’t have the energy to get agitated. As opposed to Liz, who was a nightmare yesterday. I had an awful day and an awful night and now I’m lolling in bed just dreading a future with my mother. Luckily Adrienne expects me paddle boarding with her at Barwon Heads at 9am so I have a distraction.

31 January 2017:

Since I keep having these horrible nightmares, I’m pondering what I can do with them creatively.

Take last night: my dream about Sarah. Sarah is a little person, a dwarf. But she has some kind of cultic significance that’s causing her to be hunted down to enrol her against her will in an ominous ritual. Sarah is trapped in a large house that’s designed to maximize surveillance, with mirrors, peepholes, angled corridors all set up to ensure she never escapes visual monitoring.

Someone remarked, “Imagine what it means to someone who’s been stalked all her life to be in this environment”. It was a voice in my ear, from outside the dream, and I thought, how TRUE!

Dad is envious of my nightmares because he never dreams. We discuss guided dreaming; I don’t think that’s the correct term but it *has* a term and it means developing the ability to direct the narrative within our dreams.



31 January 2017:



Dad and I were chuckling over this when suddenly when suddenly he became Saccorhytus and threw up very loudly for what seemed an eternity, whole body shaking. Mum is upset it was so loud the neighbours must have heard. Very distressing for everyone 😦

28 January 2017:

if you're lucky enough to get old

26 January 2017:

My sister left this card for me. She knows I’m seeing bands tomorrow – Jo Jo Zep and Sports at Melbourne Zoo – and staying over in Melbourne in hopes of doing it again on Saturday, Peter Garrett and Kev Carmody. Finances permitting.

Also tonight I’ll be on Dad’s arm as his date at his tennis group’s Australia Day barbecue 🎾

You know you're getting old

Angus waves the flag

Angus waves the flag

26 January 2017:

Reports of Angus’s weight loss are greatly exaggerated. He’s not 48kg, he’s a much more robust 63kg. Seems he leaned against the bathroom sink bench while weighing himself 😂

I did think a 27kg loss in 8 weeks was improbable, and he looks more solid than I did when I was an anorexic 47kg lol

25 January 2017:

Centrelink has lost my application for Carers Payment, mailed to them 18 Dec. So far I’ve been on hold with them for 40+ minutes and counting.

I am doing gentle yoga asana, all the seated poses and prone poses I can think of, moving into standing now. Had another ocean swim this morning and did aquaerobics too (auto spell suggests aquaerotica, which I might try another time) 💚

Boromir on Centrelink

26 January 2017:

Water dragon

23 January 2017:

Wildlife Photographer of the Year, People’s Choice Winner 2017

Mario Cea, The Blue Trail

Mario Cea, The Blue Trail 2017

Rainbow Wings, by Victor Tyakht

Victor Tyakht, Rainbow Wings 2017

21 January 2017:

Nightmare in which I performed a Wednesday Addams version of this accompanied by werewolves howling.

Marginally less scary than previous night, when radioactive tentacled indigo creatures from outer space caused people to fling themselves from top floor windows of a haunted house, in vain; and it was revealed my mother had had an affair with Vince Lovegrove.

I do not think this happened 😉 Dad’s facial expression response to my nightmare was priceless.

I think that came out of a conversation Dad and Mum and I had a few days back discussing the insurance liability implications of Grant Page dunking women from the foxline into Gill and Ron’s pool New Year’s Day 1970, 71. Reckon Liz found being dunked by Grant a bit of a turn-on 😂

20 January 2017:

Driving Dad to imaging appointment. He is a passenger seat driver.

We have marvelled at the discovery “40 zone” rhymes with “cortisone”.

We have agreed there should be a TV series called Braking Hard.

Dad has begun a verse that includes the lines ‘My underwear hurts me / course it does’ – corset does, geddit 😉 – which may go on to include the references to cortisone and school hours traffic limits.

He’s bright as a button, lots of entertaining conversation 💘






The GP just phoned to say x-ray shows no bowel obstruction, nothing bad. He said he knows the deal was he was only going to phone if it was BAD news but he didn’t want to leave us dangling. Dad so moved by that he cried.

We have agreed he will not only leave me a birthday card for my 56th birthday (he’ll be gone before April) but will write me a time-capsule birthday card to be opened on my 86th birthday. Currently he’s considering “You expected something profound? April fool”. I think he can do better.

… last night we (parents + me) were reviewing a butcher sheet filled with my writing c.1990 with headings “Angus – I like” and “I *don’t* like”. He got all happy at the “I like” list then sad at the “I *don’t* like”. I thought the lists were mine (they were all things I *would* write), but Liz and Angus believe they were lists where I acted as scribe on Liz’s behalf, mediating to save their marriage after he’d disgraced himself. Somewhere there was once a corresponding list about Liz, by Angus.

Then at bed time Mum left a card on his pillow with “Je t’aime” printed on the front and her message inside “Sleep well / Love you”. Dad and I joked today she couldn’t quite bring herself to say “*I* love you”, in English 😈

18 January 2017:

Dad and I tried to play #top10booksthatshapedmeasateen but he insists no books have influenced him, except economic theorists and the Scottish Enlightenment.

We tried #top10filmsthatshapedmeasateen but again, Angus says the only film that’s shaped him is On The Waterfront, which he saw aged 20 or 21.

I could immediately come up with one Ridley Scott (The Duellists, seen on my 17th birthday) and no less than 3 Scorseses seen as a teen (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz), but despite a youth misspent at the Valhalla Richmond I couldn’t think of others that I could say “shaped” me in teen years.

A little indie film from Canada I reviewed for The Nation Review in 1978, called Outrageous?

Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets

Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets

17 January 2017:

Shout out to all the plants

16 January 2017:

Angus with Bella and Liz

Angus with Bella and Liz 1

One might wonder, why is Elizabeth holding a breakfast tray in front of her face. Answer: she is using it to prop up her newspaper cryptic crossword 🙂






16 January 2017:

Angus has dropped from 75kg to 48kg. We’re feeding him carrot cake 💜

He has zero desire for food but more particularly, he can’t tolerate many foods, or much food. He either throws it up or has horrible digestive issues. He says he has a visceral instinct for what he can’t eat.


“Bleeding that takes place in the esophagus, stomach, or the first part of the small intestine most often causes the stool to appear black or tarry. Your doctor may use the term “melena.”

Bleeding in the upper part of the GI tract will most often cause black stools due to:

Abnormal blood vessels

A tear in the esophagus from violent vomiting (Mallory-Weiss tear)

Bleeding ulcer in the stomach

When blood supply is cut off to part of the intestines

Inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis)

Trauma or foreign body

Widened, overgrown veins (called varices) in the esophagus and stomach.”

Pretty sure I saw a small segment of blood vessel in his black stools yesterday 😦

Angus with Liz watercolour of motel

15 January 2017:

I so much enjoyed being at church this morning that I’m thinking it might be good to schedule regular weekly activities away from family and Point Lonsdale as part of my self-care program.

My initial doodles play with me having maybe a Geelong day every Friday, so I can sing with Wesley Singers Thursday evenings then stay over at Cathy’s ahead of singing with the Acabellas Friday mornings. That would mean lunch and early afternoons Fridays would be available for catch-ups with Geelong friends, if anyone feels inclined.

I might also designate Wednesday as a weekly Melbourne day, partly so I can catch films at the Nova I’d ordinarily miss out on and also art exhibitions. It would mean, too, I could do catch-ups with Melbourne-based friends on Wednesdays, it that suits. If I stay over at Cathy’s the previous night I could do a Yoga Dojo class Tuesday evenings. Alternatively, Tuesday could be the regular Melbourne day (Wednesday works better for cash flow).

In Point Lonsdale, Maureen Crawford has invited me to ocean swim with the Mermaids whatever mornings I can make it to the Springs for 7.30am. [Ian] we might be due a light lunch or coffee or a walk, too? Will message you xxx

Mostly we don't remember

Guys, I exhausted myself making plans. Will do what I can when I can [angel with wilting wings emoticon]

14 January 2017:

From the poem “Survey” by Elizabeth Willis

Survey by Elizabeth Willis

13 January 2017:

Point Lonsdale Racqueteers tennis group formally farewell Angus – Beach House, Barwon Heads.






Liz and Angus (lanyard reads ABSOLUTE LEGEND)

Liz and Angus

It was a lovely occasion 💗 Liz had an afterglow through till bedtime, which is wonderful.

Happy Liz

Glad people are actively supporting Liz now rather than waiting.

Mum was on a high all day. Dad had to stay in bed all [next] day but it was worth it 💕






The photo Dad wanted me to delete

Sad Angus

11 January 2017:

Angus’s DNA results are in! Amazingly, Donald Angus McDonald has DNA 46% Great Britain, 45% Ireland – 91% British Isles.

3% Scandinavia (but no Finland or northwest Russia), 2% Italy or Greece.

There are “trace results” (less than 1 percent, insignificant and possibly an artifact) for western Europe, eastern Europe, the Iberian peninsula and Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan).

We’re having fun imagining him as part of the Golden Horde but… no.

Zero from Africa, America, Pacific Islander, West Asia, South Asia, East Asia and all sub-regions thereof.

White bread everywhere

10 January 2017:

January 2017

4 January 2017:

Deep breathing at the Heads

Port Phillip Heads 4 Jan 2017

4 January 2017:

Jen Clarke thank you for that beautiful letter you wrote Angus, in the beautiful card.

The back of the card says, “It is said that the kind of dog you own says a lot about your personality. […] Bill Clinton owned a labrador named Buddy.”

Which may explain Bill’s inclination to hump everything in sight?

Dad and I discussed what our dogs say about us, which led to reminiscences of all the dogs we’ve ever owned.

We discussed who and what my next dog might be.

We agreed Joshua is a little beaut. Then Dad joined Josh in Dad’s bed, with the Tosh boy graciously making room.

Btw sadly Dad can’t drink red wine, has a visceral aversion now to any alcohol (or rich foods, or almost any foods). But he will enjoy the shortbread, in delicate-sized helpings.


Angus with Josh

3 January 2017:

ECG at Cardiology, Geelong Hospital.


Lovin this CD. There There.

ECG completed and I”m happy to report my heart is a rodent: tough as 💞

2 January 2017:

Elizabeth has found a book we think my paternal grandmother Edie had when she married in 1913: ‘A Friend in the Kitchen’, by Mrs Anna L Colcord.

Mrs Colcord was a Seventh Day Adventist advocating vegetarianism, passionately.

The little essays throughout the book are gems. There2 a 4-page essay arguing the religious, moral, social case for vegetarianism.

Dad says Edie was impervious.







1 January 2017:

Land art, stone circle mandala by Katie Griersar, ‘everything changes, nothing is lost’ (2014) #womensart

Katie Griersar, 'everything changes, nothing is lost' (2014).jpg

31 December 2016:

Obviously, 2016 has had its challenges. It’s obvious 2017 will have, too.

Cathy has a practice now of asking before she goes to sleep each night, “What can I do tomorrow to be kind to myself?”

My friend Michael asks www: What went well?

I gave my mother a book for Christmas called How to Hygge – “hygge” (pronounced “hugger”) being a mode-ish Danish word that loosely translates to comfort, contentment, cosiness, safety.

We’re not big huggers in my family, but recently we’ve been trying it out. It feels good.

I thought maybe this coming year I might aim for a hug, and a hygge experience, every single day.

Other than that, I hope it’s a year of birds and flowers.

I wish you hugs, and hygge, and birds and flowers, too.

Much love


31 December 2016:


The CDs I selected to live in the car-that’s-now-on-loan-to-me-from-the-parents fit PRECISELY into the Japanese box I never quite found a use for!

It must be meant 💘

Car CDs

Dad has gifted me his immense collections of vinyl, CD and cassettes. He thinks I might get $$ putting them on eBay. Meanwhile I have all the vintage 30s-70s stuff I could ever hope for 💘

It’s a random chaotic mess, like all his stuff. Eventually I’ll do an inventory 😊

31 December 2016:

“Black cockatoos are somewhere under the sun: / Down with the mattocks, let the wild couch-grass run. / Take the gully-road, slide on the sticks and stones/ And wait for the artists of Heaven, the crested ones.” Francis Webb

Black cockatoo

29 December 2016:

Words with no direct English translation, describing states of happiness 


28 December 2016:

25 December 2016:

Cathy and Angus consider dessert

Elizabeth (in the nightie we gave her for Xmas) with Cathy.

If Liz loses any more weight we’ll mistake her for mistletoe 🎋

Small white plastic beads from the Op Shop 😉 

We went for a beach walk – while Mum was still in full Op Shop finery – and several people she’s known for years failed to recognise her in her Sunday best. Might be because she’s got so thin.

The bag in the background reads: “For Xmas lunch. Do not eat or damage.”

Angus cops a shelf of trophies for Xmas: Best Story Teller, The One and Only, Most Loved Dad Ever, Favourite Father-in-law, Point Lonsdale Racqueteers Best Player Over 85… Spottiest Frog

Angus trophies

Angus and Liz eating toast and marmalade and drinking Earl Grey tea while watching Yogi’s First Christmas on TV, Christmas morning 2016 🎄

Merry Xmas 4 2016

24 December 2016:

Today is a new day

How to get up and get dressed

23 December 2016:

Elly McGrinch gives Xmas a two-fingered salute.






23 December 2016:

Merry Christmas all 🎄

Dad can’t drink and Cathy/Liz/I won’t but there’ll be champagne tonight when the McDonalds join [people] for Christmas dinner at Queenscliff marina.

I roasted a turkey last night and had turkey with cranberry sauce, corn cob and salad solo for dinner last night. Cherries for dessert. Turkey 2.84kg so it’s cold turkey with Angus and Liz for lunch today and probably a few days to come 

It’s actually rather beautiful when we as a family get to be together. Yesterday seemed like there wasn’t a moment without phone calls, visitors, appointments – way too much, constant responding to other people, and way too much of it creating anxiety, frustration snd anger. Peace on Earth? Like, yeah.

22 December 2016:

We have MORE interstate visitors arriving any minute. These ones will be in Point Lonsdale 3 days. CAN’T THEY LEAVE IT ALONE LONG ENOUGH FOR ANGUS TO REST? And for me to clean the house.

No one welcome 1-4pm. Piss off.

Things found randomly in my Dad’s study.


7 days. One of these people I have never met, or even heard his name. Angus introduces me and he replies (to Angus), “Very attractive”. I am thinking WHAT’S IT TO YOU, DICKHEAD?

The other, the bi-polar guy given to manic grandiosity, lurches in for a hug and I am like a 7 y.o schooled in Stranger Danger: MY BODY IS MY OWN. BACK OFF.

I decline to offer them tea.

20 December 2016:

To escape having a cold, and general malaise, I am time travelling: via Justin Hill’s Viking Fire, the second novel in his Conquest Trilogy, one of The Sunday Times’ books of the year, focused on King Harald Hardrada of Norway.

Last night I was 15 years old, wounded, trekking across winter mountains from Norway to Sweden. Then I was in my 20s, gifting a leopard cub to an Empress.

I know it won’t end well, but what a journey!


20 December 2016:

Whoever gave me a cold for Xmas, I hate them for eternity. I can’t see my Dad in case he catches it. It’s been one day and he says he misses me. My mum says it’s ok, he’s robust; but he bloody isn’t.

Don’t know don’t know don’t know. Will see how I am tomorrow

18 December 2016:

Beach village desperation.


17 December 2016:

My father shocked me today when he asked if pogroms predated Hitler. He seemed to think anti-Semitism started in post-WW1 Germany. I can only think this is cognitive slippage in old age and illness, as Dad, having been a child in the ’30s, went on to be a student of economics, politics and modern history.

Yet knowledge of modern history *is* vanishing, replaced by Hollywood distortions (Inglourious Basterds), denial, and a galloping cynicism that buys into conspiracy theories and a belief that everything we’ve been told is propaganda.

When I was 22, in 1983, I went to an adult education course where my classmates included 3 older women, post-WW2 Jewish refugees. Two spoke with heavy accents and the third, after 35 years in Australia, barely spoke English at all. Her friends explained she rarely ventured outside the Jewish emigre community.

I asked if they’d encountered anti-Semitism in their early years in Australia.

“Oh darling,” one woman laughed. “No. People here didn’t know what a Jew WAS.”

I suppose part of the problem is when we can’t admit our ignorance, and *think* we “know” the stranger.

Openness to learn is more important than ever. But in a media age, what media do we trust?

17 December 2016:

Angus has met up with the palliative care doctor and the palliative care nurse. The doctor, David, thinks Dad will make it to February, and says medication can manage the pain with Angus remaining lucid most of that time.

Meanwhile both Angus and Liz are suddenly quite skinny. We need to keep them eating.

Gotta get [Liz] to EAT. I think it’s vitawheats and tea unless there are guests.

I think as a family at the moment we feel like we’re doing well 💚

But it’s not ok. This is palliative care for terminal untreatable cancer.

17 December 2016:


15 December 2016:

Dad took Mum’s old Hyundai in for servicing ahead of it being handed on to me.

He pulled the “terminal illness, no time to hang about” line to make sure he could pick up the serviced car by lunch time.

When he got back the car was ready and there was this note:


Louise Eggleston, Dad was so moved by your letter, which I won’t make public. He burst into tears and said “I wish people weren’t so NICE! I can handle anger and aggression, but I HATE kindness!”

Translation: He loves you like a daughter.

15 December 2016:

Dad is very firm that palliative care should include checking out a time of his choosing.

He says he feels sorry for me (and Cathy, assuming Peter dies first) because we won’t have family around us when we die. But he got quite angry when I told him Cathy and I both plan to check out early; not having kids and a husband means there’s no purpose in me sticking around.

He said I can stick around as long as I like: not having loved ones dependent does NOT determine the value of my life.

On a similar note:- we’ll none of hang around “because there are books to write!” Uncle Hugh is trying to convince Angus to write a memoir about dying, because “it could help others”. I told him (yes! We’re speaking!) Dad could not be less interested. Interested in writing about his childhood, his youth, his birth family, his birth home – but not about death or dying.

14 December 2016:

Someone made a reference to their after-life, playing a harp by the Pearly Gates.

I asked, “What will you be playing, Dad?”

Angus (immediate, with gleeful grin): “TENNIS!”

14 December 2016:

Sudden overwhelming need to contact my friend Lou Benson, who I grew up with in Adelaide. Thanks to the magic of Google and LinkedIn, mission accomplished.


13 December 2016:

In my ‘Death & Dying’ reading list I have now read Australian writer Cory Taylor’s Dying: a memoir.

Cory Taylor investigates the big ones: Life, and Death, and Family, and Home. Oh, and Art and Time and Desire and Love. The relations between Body and Consciousness.

At times it’s a soap opera. At one point I put it down and thought, Is that all life is? A soap opera? Then she’ll make gold thread connections. I’m not doing her justice, I’m making her writing sound portentous when it’s delicate, sensitive.

She resolves it as a screenwriter would: Fade to black.


13 December 2016:

Reading Max Porter’s novella Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which is both a response to poetry (Ted Hughes, Emily Dickinson) and is poetry.

“We are all agreed the book will reflect the subject. It will hop about a bit.”

What between the bat-shit crazy allegorical Crow and that large tub of Macha Green Tea White Chocolate Wafer ice-ceram (how did I only see “green tea”?), I am finding it hard to concentrate. The book lets me peck at it.


12 December 2016:

Today my cousin Petrana, her two kids and my aunt Marilyn made Angus and Liz – and me and Cathy – very happy by visiting from Sydney.

Noah and Liv brought artwork as gifts for Angus: the portrait is by Noah, the thing-where-the-first-letter-of-each-line-spells ANGUS is by Liv.

The sun shone and Angus laughed and Liv and Noah went swimming in the sea and took turns walking Bella the poodle.






12 December 2016:

Two years today since Toby’s death.


11 December 2016:

The well-being room: featuring Dad’s exercise bike (gifted), step, Swiss ball, off-road bike, yoga mat, block and bolster, relaxation CDs and Bach cello suites, exercise shoes, my Great Gatsby party costume for Friday (Lord how I do NOT want to do that), Andrey’s painting, Cathy’s watercolour, Leeanne’s print, the Japanese painted hanging screen, and Doctor Who on the DVD player in the corner.

Haven within home.


10 December 2016:

The McDonald Xmas tree. Decorated by Cathy.


8 December 2016:

In an ambulance being driven to hospital. Suspected heart attack. But probably not.

I hear the paramedic say, “I gave her more morphine. It made her worse.”

7 December 2016:

Another task off Dad’s ‘To do’ list:- new shade sails installed.

There was a bit of a ruckus coordinating with the neighbour over the timing of the tree surgery, won’t go into it but Dad got very, very upset, which made me very, very upset; our kind friend Greg is liaising from here.

It was very not good. V distressed Tuesday night. Yesterday much better for all.


Josh has gained a kilo when he should have lost 2kg. He has pronounced thickening on his back right knee joint which will be bothering him. Business as usual – Loxicom for the pain and Synovan as his 6-monthly anti-arthritis treatment program. Vet is under instruction to make sure Josh outlives Dad; Angus couldn’t bear Josh dying.

The betting is on Angus going first 😦

6 December 2016:

Mum and Dad’s new car. Er, Mum’s new car.

Dad left a note in the trade-in car for the new owner, because he thought the CD system might be a bit complex: “Press LOAD and insert a disc while READY indicated in green”.


5 December 2016:


The current owners of the grand house where my father was born and grew up have replied to my letter with a wonderful email updating us on their plans to landscape the grounds and restore some of the house’s original features.

They made Dad so happy by telling us they see themselves as custodians rather than owners, and that it seems to them EVERYONE in Mt Gambier knows and loves this house.

Angus has responded by immediately writing long-hand notes recounting further house tales.


Dad says this was about 1946, and that during WW2 the maintenance on garden and house fell away. When his mother was diagnosed with cancer not long after, she made it a project to revive house and garden.

4 December 2016:

Wonderful to have our very dear friends Mary Christie and Seb Dickins visit from Sydney this weekend: it meant a lot to all of us.

A few local friends are dropping by without phoning first expecting Angus to be in shape for visitors any time. They bring casseroles. Angus is barely able to eat still – or yet – and Liz frets about freezer space. Lots of love though, and I’m grateful.

Angus was so happy to have Seb and Mary here, and he held up well yesterday, but today was difficult. It’s very confronting to see how unwell he really is.

2 December 2016:

Bringing Young Angus home from hospital in 15 minutes.

[My short story Old Angus] won The Australian’s 20th Anniversary Short Story Prize for Young Writers (under age 25) in 1984.

One of the judges – an old school newspaper editor – told me he liked its naturalism. “A lot of the stories weren’t stories,” he said.

Old Angus was 86, not 90. Edie wasn’t mad: she was sometimes angry. Ila is reconfigured as Laura, as a nod to Tennessee Williams’ Laura, his fictionalised sister, in The Glass Menagerie.

1 December 2016:

I turned into a viper last night and was still baring fangs and lashing this morning.

Fortunately my very kind friend Heather complicated her day by driving to Point Lonsdale with cappuccino and brownies, and spent time in the sunshine being companionable.

I am lucky to have caring friends. Thank you.

Pictures: Viper. Sunshine. One of these is healing.






30 November 2016:

Our beach is, still, strewn with bluebottles.

One of hundreds.


30 November 2016:

Angus plans the playlist for his wake.






I’m spinning out a bit today. I’m particularly pissed off at a person who I told to phone or email if she wished but not to visit, for good reasons I won’t go into. She phoned Liz today and asked to visit.

[Later] The surgeon has phoned to say the operation went well. Angus is just coming out of the anaesthetic now. Tomorrow he’ll meet with the palliative care team and then Liz and I can collect him and bring him home.

[Later] Angus won’t be coming home today due to raised blood pressure. We don’t want to worry Liz with this.

So happy [our friend Mary] and Seb and Millie are able to visit us 💚 There’s accommodation at my place for any or all of [them] and also at Cathy’s, 30 mins down the highway.

Angus pre-surgery

30 November 2016:

Tidal (1984)

In the laundry we found a postcard

Victorian erotica

a woman with blancmange buttocks and

a tentative smile

like her

malleable curves, bovine

eyes: a Gibson

girl, in sepia tones, her body

all graceful billows, as

rich as her husband’s wheatfields

her breasts, white as orchards in bloom


featured honey-lips and now

decades later, her country child

wades through pock-coral tidal pools


he still finds relics

of a ship smashed by the bay

shards of pottery

pitted like daguerreotype

shattered, once-sharp edges smoothed

now aged, in submarine silence

he assembles the fragments for

mantelpiece display – a voyeur


he holds them with the tenderness

of her remembered



29 November 2016:

Angus update: Dad will have surgery at 6pm tomorrow (Wednesday). The bile duct has been closed by the tumour in his pancreas pressing against it; bile is not draining, Angus has turned yellow, his liver is collapsing.

A metal stent will be inserted via a tube to enable bile to flow as it ought. If this operation is successful it will have zero effect on the progress of his cancer but he will be able to eat again.

I’ve just eaten a mega-bag of Smarties and I feel sick… but Dad tells me he’s had fish and mashed potatoes, orange juice, ice cream and jelly as his hospital dinner, and so far no probs, so that’s pretty good 

He said he felt emboldened to tackle the meal as in a hospital environment he has expert support. Also, yesterday when he said he was sometimes dizzy and was having trouble concentrating I pointed out he’d barely eaten for 10 days and was starving.

Smarties really crap idea. I am stacking on heaps weight and have gone up yet another clothes size. Eating for two?

I’m a bit wrecked – woke up c.1.30am and only slept patchily after that. Bloody Smarties 😉

28 November 2016:


28 November 2016:


28 November 2016:

Angus goes into St John of God’s cancer ward at 11am Tuesday to have a stent surgically inserted in his blocked bile duct Wednesday afternoon, so that he can hold down food.

He is yellow. Angus, but yellow.

25 November 2016:

Angus main street Mt Gambier

No concerns about going public: a Probus club member knocked on the parents’ door just now and asked Angus, brightly, “How are you?”

Angus: “I’m dying. No, really. I have aggressive, inoperable pancreatic cancer.”

So the cat’s well and truly out of the bag.


There was a friend he met outside the local store who he was updating when an acquaintance walked past and overheard. The acquaintance immediately burst into tears and flung herself on Angus, sobbing and trying to hug him. Friend A has to prise the interloper off.

24 November 2016:

So. Angus has an extremely aggressive pancreatic cancer which is untreatable. Palliative care only for the short time remaining.

He will have surgery next week for a blocked bile duct on his gut which has meant he can’t keep food down.

People who know Angus and Liz: please don’t contact them just yet.

Angus will be doped up quite soon, and his time-frame is short, so friends who know him and Liz and want to make contact while he’s still compos mentis, I will let them know today. […]

I’ve arbitrarily gone public: feel free to contact them from tomorrow on liz.angus@**** or (+61) 03-**** **** – if phoning, please don’t 1-4pm when he sleeps, or after 7pm AEST. Thanks

Also, if speaking to Liz, be aware there is a touch of dementia, which she does not acknowledge, and quite a bit of anxiety and depression.

I’m thinking of moving the agave [Lou] gave me (which I found, in my garden) across to the little sun-garden outside Dad’s bedroom, which Peter and Cathy are doing a makeover on to make appealing both to look at from the bed and also to sit in ♡

24 November 2016:

Initial test results for Angus very, very scary. Prayers please.

LOL Cathy texted to say on the admissions form under ‘Existing conditions’ they forgot to fill in “prostate cancer, emphysema, asthma”… and Alzheimer’s?

He’s handling it well right now.

21 November 2016:

Supposed to be 39C today, with high winds. Dad’s with the doctor, Mum has another cardiologist consult tomorrow. The dog isn’t moving. Don’t know what to do with myself.

Ahmo's picture of Elly and Toby 2002

Angus back from GP appt where various tests were done, more scheduled, imaging appt in Geelong tomorrow alongside Liz who was already booked for imaging.

Dad has a 9.30am appt Thursday to find out what his tests showed. The test process this morning he describes as torture. He still throws up if he tries to eat and has other gastrointestinal probs too. Liz was told the risk of stroke if they try to correct her arrhythmia is too high so if she feels better on the medications then that’s all that’s required. Liz says she has a greenlight to go to HK. Angus is anxious about his test results.

Glam factor not high.

20 November 2016:

Beautiful lunch for Cathy’s 57th birthday at Gladioli restaurant in Inverleigh, followed by Angus throwing his guts up out the car window by the side of the Hamilton Highway.

Peter and Cathy drove back so Peter could do an immediate medical check. Angus is rugged up with a water bottle and paper towels and we cleaned off the mess. Peter says he needs to see his GP asap tomorrow. He has no appetite and for the first time ever almost no capacity for alcohol. He was very unwell this morning but we didn’t want to cancel Cathy’s birthday lunch.

I can’t see how they [Angus and Liz] can possibly go to Hong Kong 😦

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Old Angus (1984)

Every Sunday, he used to stand by the front window and yell abuse at churchgoers. Sometimes he stood on the lawn and shook his fist at them. Directly across the road, a small Roman Catholic church lies meek in the face of aggression, its whitewashed walls shadowed by an Anglican cathedral towering alongside. Old Angus has no interest in the Anglican cathedral; his fight is with the Roman Catholic god.

He knows he’s losing. After a twenty year battle he’s all but yielded sight; now, his being is demanded. Knowing he’s dying, Old Angus resents it. He rages. For hours he debates unhearing politicians – they on radio and television, he in his solid, ancient bed. A spent force, he is unforgiving.

“I’m ninety”, he tells Young Angus. “If I were a cricketer, I’d have to say I’d had a good innings.”

Not being a cricketer, he doesn’t believe it.

Young Angus sits by his bedside and worries, caring so much he can barely listen.

“D’you remember”, says Old Angus, “That tale about Johnny? How you used to tell me about your girls?”

Young Angus, tired, looks blank.

“You remember, lad? I’d laugh at you. You know the one. In Scotland, the son would come to his dad and say ‘Dad, I’ve found me a perfect lass’. ‘Aye, aye, Johnny?’ the dad would say. ‘Father, I mean to ask her to marry me!’ Johnny tells his dad, and his dad says ‘Aye?’ Maybe she won’t have me’ worries the son, and ‘Aye’, says the dad, ‘Aye, aye’… You remember, lad?”

“Oh, aye”, Young Angus reassures him, truthfully. “I wanted to marry Beth, and you told me about Johnny. I’m glad you never told me what to do.”

“I thought you’d be disappointed again”, Old Angus sighs, shifting uncomfortably in his sheets. “I thought she’d be scared away by Laura. I though maybe Evie might scare her away.”

“Evie never scared anyone but you”, Young Angus reproves him, rearranging the bed clothes.

In the other bedroom, Beth is dying Emma’s hair with Laura looking on. Emma’s triple image, reflected in an old, three-way mirror, commands all eyes. The girl herself perches stiffly on the bed, her self-conscious, fifteen year-old body stretched regal and long. A scheming princess, arrogant neck destined for the block, she notes with satisfaction the way her hair rests in damp curls, piled up away from her face. (Emma, immersed in vanity’s haze, recalls an incident from early childhood, taunting as she yanked a playmate’s pigtail: “I have hair like a princess”, sneered Emma, “And you have hair like a rat’s tail!” Soon after, her blonde began to darken. Old Angus, gazing down from his superior height and seeing only nutmeg, had tussled the strands, saying “Never mind, lass – not every princess has golden curls”.)

“You look lovely!” grins Laura, and Beth beams back at her. Emma, coppoer-brown and all but naked in sheer underclothes, says nothing.

“Here”, says Beth. “Throw on a dress and go in and show Old Angus.”

Old Angus guesses at Emma’s dislike. The young, he reflects, would prefer not to have to acknowledge old age. Emma shouldn’t have to confront death yet.

“You look just like Evie”, Old Angus tells Emma, who momentarily feels insult and fright. Evie, to her, is a mystery madwoman only referred to in furtive whispers. Emma juts her chin.

“Evie was your age when I first saw her”, Old Angus recalls, disregarding the distance between this child and him. “She was fourteen, and I thought she was beautiful. The boss’s daughter, you know? I had to sweep the shop and the verandah, and I’d loiter outside, waiting to see her come home from school. her father couldn’t stand me.”

Emma remains silent, but she’s listening.

“Well, what was I but trash? And Catholic, too! We were shanty types – Scottish Catholics, and fifteen kids! We lived in a riverside shack that flooded when it rained. We’d eat the fish left tangled in the furniture. We couldn’t read or write. Or the others couldn’t, anyway…

“But I wanted more, and I wanted Evie. She was a dream, that girl! A beautiful, round-faced, round-eyed dream. By that time I owned a store of my own.”

He smiles across at Emma, and reaches out his hand. She takes it awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

“He’s telling you about Evie?” asks Beth, balancing a laden tray as she pushes through the door.

“I was telling her how we first started out, before Laura”, Old Angus says. “Her whole family was against us marrying, but she always had a will, had Evie. I remember years later when we got that car. A terrible contraption, a car – it had me beat, alright! But Evie, she was determined to master it. She took it down to the paddock behind the house (this was when we still had the old place), and she forced that thing to work the way she wanted. It fought! It ran amok all over the croquet lawn. But she got the better of it, finally, and it never gave her a problem again.”

“Yes”, Beth smiles, seating herself beside him and carefully handing him a mug of warmed milk. “Yes, Evie was a brave one.”

“Aye”, says Old Angus, meeting her eyes quickly. “She was brave. She was brave with Laura. It wasn’t like she had a soul on her side.”

“Tell me”, Emma Frances demands. Her initials are E.F.M/, like her grandmother’s were.

“About Laura?” asks Old Angus, spilling some milk down his chin. Beth gently mops his neck with a tissue, mentally dismayed at how fragile his skin is.

“Better not”, Beth cautions, quietly.

“Why not?” The old man turns on her. “Why not let her know? I’m not ashamed of Evie. She was worth a dozen of any other person I ever met.”

“Go on, then”, Beth sighs, and he hunches over his mug, cloudy-eyed stare trained on Emma.

“She was, you know”, he nods. “She was worth a damn sight more than what she got. It’s not Laura’s fault. Laura was born a normal child. It was illness that did it. Illness and doctors. First polio, then meningitis. They put her in plaster. Imagine a child’s legs locked away in plaster, for a whole year! They said it would stop them trembling.

“She trembled worse, and her legs were so stunted she could hardly walk. Couldn’t talk properly either. And something happened to her brain.

“Well, you know country towns, and it was worse back then. People round here didn’t understand. They said Laura being struck down was an act of God, that Evie and I had brought it on our child. They said Evie and I must be to blame. Said it was Evie, acting like a man. Too forward, they said; too bloody ambitious.

“She’d dived into politics, Evie-style. Talking feminism, socialism… ‘isms’ we’d never heard of till then. She aimed to be a town councillor, and women could vote here in South Australia, so she wouldn’t let anyone tell her what was what. Unnatural, they said. The children of bad mothers always come to harm; bad mothers like Evie deserve it.”

“That’s not true”, protests Emma, and Beth – taking in her city-bred, modern daughter – wonders if Emma will develop into someone Beth can point to proudly and boast “Yes, that is the child I deserve”.

“The Church believed it”, Old Angus glowers. His hands shake, and milk splashes. “Laura wasn’t allowed to attend mass. They said she was simple, and couldn’t understand. Like she was a dumb animal. So, that was it between the Church and Evie, for all she’d tried so hard to fit in with those women. She’d worked herself to rags on their goddam charities…

“Restaurants, too – they said Laura and her trembles turned people’s stomachs. The said it wasn’t right to feed her in public, the way she slobbers and sometimes spills her food. But she wasn’t any worse than someone old, and I’m still a person, aren’t I?”

Beth takes the mug from Old Angus’s grasp. There are tears of frustration in his clouded eyes, frustration unexhausted after sixty years.

“It’s okay, Dad”, Beth reassures him. “We’ll always look after her.”

“I gave Evie a rough time”, Old Angus continues, trying to wipe his eyes on a pyjama sleeve. “She was hurt, you know. It made her strange. She got so odd, so set in her ways! She was always stubborn, always fighting. I remember when she found my whisky supply – I’d hidden it in the woodshed, ‘cos she wouldn’t have alcohol in the house. I could have killed her. I nearly did! I chased her all around with a knife for twenty minutes, and Young Angus hid up in the big tree and cried.”

“Young Angus thinks the world of you”, says Beth.

“He was a joy, that one.” Old Angus smiles fondly towards the open window. “When we still had the big house, I used to dress up as Father Christmas every year for the town pageant. All the children would climb on my knee and tell me what presents they were angling after. Young Angus clambers up and whispers he’s hoping for a big hunting knife, for when he goes rabbiting with his uncle Jock. Well, says I, I reckon your dad might decide a hunting knife’s too big for a small boy. Young Angus, he looks at me. ‘You look like my dad’, he frowns, ‘But my Daddy would give me what I want’. And bless him, I did. I always did. We spoil the fruits of our old age.”

That night, Young Angus keeps Old Angus company. Quiet pervades the room.

“How do you want to go, Dad?” Young Angus asks his father, low-voiced.

“I don’t want to go at all”, Old Angus snaps back, somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

“No, Dad, I didn’t mean it that way. The old ones in the family are planning the funeral. They want to know if you’ll do it Church or not.”

“Which church?” Old Angus glares.

“Dad, don’t make it hard for me. They want to see you reconciled. They want to see you return to the faith.”

“I’ll not return till they give me back my Evie, and that won’t happen in this world.” A fierce old man, blind and sunken-faced. He considers a moment, then asks more kindly “What seems best to you, lad?”

“I don’t know, Dad. There must be a compromise.”

Old Angus and Young Angus sit shoulder to shoulder, the old man supported by a pile of pillows. Suddenly Old Angus laughs.

“Yes!” he chuckles. “There’s a compromise of sorts. Next to the church, there’s that new cathedral – the C-of-E number. If we book me in there, we can ring our funeral bells all through their mass, and hold up the pious with our funeral procession! If we’re canny, we can clog up their carpark with our mourners’ carss. That’s having it both ways! Can you do it for me, lad? Can you fix ‘em?”

Young Angus would do, could do anything. He kisses the damp flesh of the old man’s head.

“Aye, aye”, says Young Angus, and hugs his father.