Elly McDonald

Writer


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Easter Uprising 2017: on being Christian – a sequel to Buddhist Thoughts at Easter 2014

Last night, on Good Friday, I spent too much time responding to a meme posted on Facebook that read “Religion makes fools of us all”.

I was irritated that people feel a need to post atheistic aphorisms on the second most important date in the Christian calendar (after Easter Sunday), and on the Jewish Passover.

I was also frustrated by the terms of debate. What was meant by “religion”? Did it refer here to religious institutions, or to spiritual beliefs and practices, or to faith? If religious institutions, was it directed primarily at Christianity, or a catch-all statement? If Christianity, did it target traditional Roman Catholic Church dogma? Church abuses? If dogma, did it reflect an accurate understanding of the history and doctrines of church institutions?

What I found was people who claimed atheist positions decrying what they perceived as church positions. If I, as a Christian, disputed their interpretations of church positions they told me I was wrong, that my understandings of Christianity are faulty.

I have many faults. Christianity has many faults. The Christian Church has many faults – indeed, Christian churches have many faults. Religious institutions have many faults. Religion generally has many faults. Mea culpa.

But I cannot let stand attacks against religion that are attacks against straw man positions. Dust in the wind we may be, but straws flying loose in hot wind are ridiculous.

What I do NOT believe:

I do not believe in an old white bloke with a long white beard perched On High in a Celestial Firmament.

I do not believe that said old white bloke stretched out a finger and pronounced LIGHT and then created Earth and the universe in seven days.

I do not believe that when I die I will ascend to fluffy clouds and play a harp throughout eternity.

I do not believe that when I die I will descend to a place of fire and brimstone to undergo eternal torment supervised by demons.

I do not believe I will be bodily resurrected on a day of judgement that will see the apocalypse of John’s Revelations.

I do not believe I will meet my dead loved ones – or any others dead and departed – in a conscious after-life.

I do not believe in the laws or prophesies of the Old Testament a.k.a the Hebrew Bible.

I do not believe the literal truth of the Christian gospels.

I do not believe everything the apostle Paul taught. I do not believe Paul always taught in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, whom he never met.

Things I am not sure I believe:

I’m not sure a man named Jesus (or the Aramaic version of) who lived and died as described in the gospels actually existed.

If he existed, I’m not sure the accounts of his last days, trial and execution are historically accurate. Scrub that: I’m pretty sure they’re not.

I’m not sure of the nature of God. Currently I have a concept I embrace, but it’s just that: a concept. Any ‘God’ is beyond human capacity for conceptualisation.

Here’s what I do believe:

Religion is valuable, even essential, and spiritual belief and faith are innate in humans.

Religious belief has brought at least as much good to the world as it has harm.

All ideologies are subject to corruption and abuse. Secular ideologies have within a short recent period caused immense destruction, comparable to the destructions caused across centuries under the banners of religion.

Love is what matters most, is ultimately all that matters.

God is love (my concept, within my limited understanding).

God is the context, the ground of being. God is cause.

In first century Judea, a wandering healer who is remembered as Jesus practiced in Galilee.

His followers believed this man they called Jesus fulfilled the prophesies of Elijah and Isaiah.

This man they called Jesus, who they wrote about after his death, changed history and changed the way human beings view(ed) their responsibilities to one another.

I believe people of religious faith have more in common with each other, in terms of their worldviews, than they might with people who don’t understand and relate to religious faith.

I believe the People of the Book – Jews, Christians, Muslims – are spiritual cousins.

I believe the foundational teachings of the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, are compatible with the foundational teachings of the man we know as Jesus.

I believe nothing is lost, everything changes.

I reject any argument that defines a religious faith as a belief in the literal truth of religious texts. That argument attempts to define all religious people as fundamentalist. We are not. Nor are we all members of a church that claims an infallible authority as its earthly head.

Archaic language taints understanding.

To “sin” is a medieval archery term meaning “to miss the mark”, “to fall short”.

To “repent” is to “turn away from”.

“Mercy” is compassion and forgiveness.

“The Church” is the people, the followers of Jesus’s teachings. It is not a building or an institution. The term “church’’ originally meant heralds sent out to spread news.

“Gospel” means “good news”.

“Saints” originally refers to all followers of Jesus’s teachings, not only those formally designated “saints” by the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, “the communion of saints” – the coming together in companionship and mutual affirmation of those who follow Jesus’s teachings.

“The kingdom of heaven” is a state of mind, a state of peace, compassion, integrity.

“For what does your Lord ask of you? To act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” – Micah 6:8. That’s all there is. (Yes, Micah is a prophet – it’s the laws and prophecies of the Old Testament I reject, not the wisdom teachings.)

Specifically, in relation to the Easter narrative:

As I experience faith, religion provides a spiritual source of strength, support and consolation, which I will term ‘Jesus’, which I can access (pray to or find companionship in) in times of brokenness: those times when I feel frailties, failings, inadequacies (“sins”) threaten to overwhelm me and disable me from choosing kind and just attitudes and taking constructive action. This is not secular, a psychological strategy. This is a spiritual practice. The crucifixion is a metanarrative reminding me there are no depths, no despair, I can sink into where Jesus has not gone before me, where Jesus will not meet me, and from which he has not, metaphorically, risen – and with this spiritual guidance, I can ‘rise’ too.

This is not just me, and not some pathetic, vulnerable “them”. We are all us of broken, in some ways, at some times. There is nothing shameful in being broken. We can heal and grow, though “God”. Our “reborn” self can be a fuller, wiser, kinder self.

I was not born a miserable worm, a piece of smeared shit the Old Man On High looks down upon and scorns. This is not what “Original Sin” (a term I have never heard used in my church) means to me. In so far as there might be “Original Sin”, it is the recognition that we are not born tabula rasa, a blank slate: we are genetically encoded with specific strengths and vulnerabilities. I embody genetically-programmed weaknesses but they do not define me. I am also in a state of grace, always already loved. In the words of the baptismal service, “We love, because God first loved us.”

I can celebrate “God” in the world through loving kindness and service. Loving kindness and service are “God” in action, “God” being in the world. We bring forth “God” in the quality of our interactions with others.

Which brings us to the thorny question of the Trinity, for those who care. The Triune God: Father/Son/Holy Spirit as one being (concept). What if we see the Trinity as a metaphor for inextricable relationship – what Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “Interbeing”?

We make sense of our lives through stories. The religious tradition into which we are born is a metanarrative, framing our own stories, helping us understand and shape our stories. Atheists deride religions as “fairy tales”. It’s true religions intersect with the domain of poetics and metaphor. Are poetics and metaphor not “true”? What about the extraordinary art humans have created to express their religious experiences – visual art, music, architecture, writing? Is the only truth the materialist dogma?

It’s undeniable religious institutions, religious dogma and religious fervour have caused immense pain and damage over millennia. On the other side of the ledger, if you ask “What has religion ever done for us?” you can get a Life of Brian-esque liturgy: literacy, schools, hospitals, the evolution of social welfare (e.g. through the Minsters); the principles that drove many of the nineteenth-century Progressives (Abolitionist, prison reformers, asylum reformers, attempts at equitable profit-sharing); a social code nominally based on humans’ innate value, including the value of the most marginal (Jesus made a point of hanging out with the most despised and those usually excluded: madmen, foreigners, women, prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman centurions); the primacy of compassion, love, forgiveness… And that’s just the Christian contribution.

The question I ask of people who post atheist memes is this: “Is it so hard to recognise there are many forms of religious experience and understanding, some of them very sophisticated, some very personal, born of ancient traditions, and they have validity in the lived experiences of their adherents?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is mainly froth and bubble

But two things stand as stone

Kindness in another’s trouble

And courage in your own.

angus-with-liz-in-fiji-2016


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The alternative history

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

It’s Adelaide, summer 1972/73.

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

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

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

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

scan

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

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

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

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

1953 (written 1983)

with grace, head held high

she carries herself serenely

(King Charles walked and talked

half an hour after…)

unassailably regal as those who have learned

to ignore homemade bombs peasants

pitch in their faces

she carries herself

no support

she knows

she knows

she believes them, and believing

will never trust again

moving?

as if on castors, slightly stiff but

caring?

unbowed. Steadfast, her face composed

grey-eyed

she must know

dry-eyed

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

Telling (written 1985)

My grandmother, in the kitchen,

is talking to herself.

‘I had a friend called Alice,’

she intones, low voiced.

‘My friend called Alice baked bread;

she baked bread, ever day,

She was ill, and never told anyone

(I never told anyone

this, but she never did.)

Then she died, and nobody worried

no one had worried, she never

told anyone – so,

nobody ever did.’

My grandmother, in the kitchen,

keeps talking, telling herself. She says

she had a friend called Alice – she

says this baking bread, her daily bread –

and I know she never did.

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

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

My mother sat by the bed and wept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because no one had told her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was an Indian Summer and a precious gift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We did good.


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

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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.


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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.

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Schleswig-Holstein

Hello to the current residents at 22 Jardine Street

My father, Angus McDonald, was born in 22 Jardine Street in 1931 and grew up there. He sold the house on behalf of my grandfather Angus McDonald in 1974.

My dad Angus was diagnosed yesterday as having an extremely aggressive, untreatable pancreatic cancer. He’s unlikely to see out the year and will probably spend much of his remaining time heavily medicated, in palliative care.

He wrote this short piece about the history of your house as he knows it quite some time back, but felt shy about posting it, and considered it unfinished. (It could never be finished. He has a rich trove of memories of that house and his childhood.)

I am mailing it now on his behalf as I think he’d be thrilled to think the current owners care about the house’s history and its past residents.

I hope the house is as happy a home for you as it was for Angus and for my sister Cathy and me as visitors throughout our childhoods.

Best regards

Elly McDonald

My father writes:

My name is Angus McDonald. I am 85 years old and I grew up in your house, 22 Jardine Street, which my parents Angus McDonald and Edith McDonald (nee Gibson) purchased in 1928 and moved into with my older sister Ila.

I wondered if you might be interested in the history of the house as I know it and some photos of its earlier incarnation? I can email jpeg.

22 Jardine Street was built in 1909 for Mr Jens and his wife, who owned and ran Jens Hotel. They had two daughters and a son, Dr John Jens who practiced in Ballarat. It was built – on the wrong north-south orientation, from a European architectural draft – to the design of a castle-style grand house in northern Germany and was originally known as Schleswig-Holstein after the north-west German state. During WW1 this name was changed for obvious reasons. My mother renamed the house ‘Gazebo’. Huge 16 foot high cypress hedges formed the boundaries on Hedley and Jardine Streets.

My mother Edie was a ferocious and skilled croquet player, so the area which I believe is now a pool was then a croquet lawn, with thick cypress hedge on two sides and purple hydrangeas in the flowerbeds alongside the house. The formal dining room overlooked the croquet lawn and had a small ‘butler’s room’ adjacent. My mother had a mahogany dining suite with the chairs upholstered in red and white striped satin, with a mahogany and glass cabinet to display crystalware, and an upright piano lacquered black. My mother and her sister Maude were both enthusiastic pianists. On the walls were Edwardian idyll pictures of the flower gardens overlooking the lakes in Northern Italy, Como or Bellagio.

The bedroom on the south-west corner, alongside the dining room, was my sister Ila’s, then later, after my mother died in 1957 and my aunt Maude moved in to keep house, it was Maude’s (“Ainee” for Aunty). During that period the famous ‘Green Lady’ exotic Chinese beauty print hung there (The Chinese Girl painting by Vladimir Tretchikoff, 1952).

In the large foyer area with the stained glass dome, two porcelain orange and white cocker spaniels stood guard along the fireplace. In the front bedroom, overlooking the path winding down to the front corner gate (Jardine/Hedley Streets), tall pictures of cranes in white and pink and turquoise tones flanked my parents bed, which had a white bedspread with pastel blue and pink embellishments, marzipan-style. I was born in the front (north) bedroom.

The porch area out front had a waist-high wall and overlooked the rose garden. My father Angus was a very keen gardener and also maintained a thriving vegetable garden alongside what was then the driveway. Edie did most of the planning and he followed instructions.

An extension was built at the kitchen end of the house which had a toilet, a laundry, lower-bedroom (Ila’s for a time) and a cellar. The concrete floor was painted emerald green. Ila was very colour-sensitive and went through phases where she was, in turn, passionate about green, then mauve, then bright yellow. She updated her décor to suit her favourite colour. The huge courthouse to the south-east of the house was a cellar used as storage (for instance, for the manual lawn mower) and a wood-shed and loft overlooking the lawn. My young daughters found my father’s Digger’s slouch hat in the loft one time and were fascinated.

Ila had been physically disabled by the polio epidemic of 1921-22. She never married and remained sharing 22 Jardine Street with Angus after Maude moved to Melbourne and through to when the house was sold in 1973. Angus and Ila downsized to a more manageable home just around the corner on Hedley Street. Angus died in 1977 and in 1982 Ila came to live in Point Lonsdale, Victoria, where my wife and I live. She passed away in 1994.

My father Angus was an Alderman and member of Mt Gambier Council for 27 years and was a committed Rotarian. My mother Edie was active in the Presbyterian church and, of course, her croquet club.

In 1950 Jardine Street was an unmade road or track from Mitchell Street to Crouch Street, and Hedley Street was merely a survey plan. Mitchell Street north was a cattle track down to the sale yards in North Terrace. Schleswig-Holstein sat on 4 acres of grazing land below the hillside between Hedley and Crouch Streets.

On his death, my father gifted land which was then pastoral (despite being on the main through highway) to the Council for the purposes of building a visitor information centre. That land is now developed. This area was known as the Frew Estate. He also sold land 2.5 acres as allotments on the north side of the highway across from the boundary greens.

[unfinished]

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For Steve (2012)

Time was, you set the rhythm.

You kept the beat.

Singing, all the time, your head

Nodding to a melody line,

Your feet forcing out that beat.

You kept

The best memories, the ones that made me

Laugh. And smile. And grow pensive.

And now

I cry for you. Cry me a river, jazzman.

Let that river run through

A cavern, where the beat boys

Burst into the night.

Take me to that river.