Eighteen months ago my father came alone to spend a weekend with me. His purpose was clear: to pay for his funeral and instruct me in the arrangements. He said he couldn’t talk to my mother about it so he had to tell me. For about a year or so I’d been periodically receiving his tools – crowbars, axes, shovels, bench grinder, power drill. “Here,” he said, finally giving up his chainsaw. “I’ll leave this here. I won’t need it.” I was in my mid-forties and I’d never used a chainsaw, I was always the idiot holding the log while he did the cutting. It had been a long apprenticeship. He’d tried to instruct me on its operation and maintenance but my attention always strayed.
It had been a gradual decline for my father until he could no longer do the things he loved. No wood to cut. No building to erect. No trench or post-hole to dig. No working bee to lead. Reluctantly he accepted there were no more jobs for him to do. For someone who thrived on physical work, he felt he’d outlived his usefulness. He had endured a couple of dodgy hip replacements and now he couldn’t walk without a crutch. And there was something else. Something had taken root inside him – “plumbing problems” he called it.
We set off on the drive to Ararat. The day was sunny and clear, the surrounding land a straw brown. It was mid-summer and the harvest was in full swing. While I drove, my father cast an eye over the passing scenery, making observations about the state of the farms. It had been his life, this western district country of Victoria, it had raised him and he’d carved out a living, labouring on its plains. He’d seen some changes.
We were driving through what was now industrial farmland for a global market. Huge, gleaming, self-propelled machines were prowling the grain-laden hills and plains, churning out hectares of cut stubble in their wake. When my father was a kid, horse-drawn harvesters would have been inching their way into delicate crops that grew without herbicide or phosphate. We passed hay paddocks where symmetrical, tank-sized round bales lay discarded like the play blocks of some monstrous child. They had been pumped out of a machine that one man controls, whereas once there had been horse-drawn binders cutting oaten hay into sheaves, and teams of skilled, fit men tossing them high with pitchforks, working in rhythm, building stacks which grew up and outwards like giant loaves of bread. My father had been one of those skilled men.
In the 1970s we were the last in the district to handle our grain in hessian bags. I remembered the grain spilling over the side of the field bin as my father and uncle cursed and bagged off at a frenzied pace, trying to empty it before the self-propelled header returned with another load. Bags. Bags of oats or bags of wheat. Row upon row of bags standing mute and dumb in the stubble. I’d helped my father sew and lump those bags of grain, days of it, threading a bag needle in the heat, slowly working through the heap that seemed to stretch a hundred yards ahead. Only the sound of us puffing the flies off our faces would break the baking quiet. Now semi-trailers with silver bulk bins rested in every paddock, waiting to be filled with golden cargo and delivered to towering concrete silos and football pitch-sized grain bunkers, nestled beside every country town from here to the Murray River and beyond. As a child, my father had known the night-time wail of stone curlews. He remembered the odd bandicoot turning up on the farm. Bandicoots and curlews have long since vanished from the district.
I had to keep reminding myself what we were doing: attending to arrangements for the disposal and internment of my father’s body. An event at least five years away, I thought.
“What about a song?” I proffered.
“Do you have a favourite song you might like played at your funeral?”
My father thought for a moment, studying the road. The Grampians were on our left, basking on the western horizon. I expected him to suggest “Danny Boy”.
“These are my mountains.”
“These are my mountains, this is my glen, the braes of my childhood will know me again,” he sang in a soft croak.
“Is that it? ‘These Are My Mountains’?”
“Have you got a tape of it or something?”
“I know a bloke with a cassette, I’ll have to get it for you.”
“Good, I’d love to hear it. I might be able to learn it.”
At the funeral directors he wrote out a cheque. An air of nonchalant humour prevailed, as if this was just another ordinary purchase for some tools or timber. “Will it be at the Uniting Church, Alister?”
“No, a graveside service, that’s all.”
“I’m not sure who the reverend is there now.”
“I s’pose there’ll have to be someone.”
My father had not been a church-going man except for once a year at Christmas; he liked to sing the carols. But he cut even that out in later years. His view was that only those who could afford it went to church. He was always too busy working. Besides, it did nothing for him. He didn’t believe in God. If there was a God, how come he lets innocent children suffer and die? Once you’re dead you’re dead, he’d said.
The funeral director, ‘Dunny’, was of similar vintage to my father and knew him. The Dunn family business had buried my grandparents, and their parents too. The easy rapport between Dunny and my father was evidence of the chiacking they’d done in their youth.
I attempted to join in. “What if he carks it in Geelong, who picks him up from there?”
“One of us’ll slip down in the ute and get him,” said Dunny with a grin.
“Right, just throw him in the back under a bit of old tarp,” I said, warming to a theme. For some reason my remarks weren’t making it. Dad scowled good-naturedly and steered us back to business, speaking directly to Dunny.
“Another thing. No flowers, just donations to the children’s hospital.”
Dad had given to the Royal Children’s Hospital all his life. In recognition he had been made a lifetime governor of the charity. He’d also donated blood, more than a hundred pints. Perhaps it was his way of compensating for an inadequate God. If God wasn’t a help then he, in a practical way, would make a difference to the lives of sick children. Some would say that was God’s way of working through my dad. “Bulldust – I did it myself,” I can hear him say.
“Righto Alister, that’ll be taken care of,” said Dunny, carefully making a note. “And you’ll want ads in the papers.”
“I s’pose, the Advertiser, Courier and the Sun. There’ll be no one there.”
“Like hell,” I said, “there’ll be heaps. What about a wake? We’ll have to have a barrel.”
“You’ll have to see the golf club, or the footy club, they might put on something,” said Dad soberly.
“What about pipes?” I asked.
“Aw gawd, you’ll have to pay for those,” chuckled Dad, shooting a glance at Dunny, who grinned. I realised then the protocol of a simple truth; the bloke paying for his funeral gets to call the jokes.
“I don’t know how we’d go gettin’ a piper. There’s a few around but sometimes they’re hard to get,” Dunny explained.
“I’ll find one,” I said. “It’d be good to have a piper walk up from the lake to the graveside.”
“He might have a bit a trouble getting through the fence,” said Dunny.
“Is there a fence there? I thought it was clear back to the lake,” said Dad, with renewed interest.
“No, there’s a fence there now,” said Dunny.
On the drive home we didn’t talk much, and Dad dozed mostly. It occurred to me that this drive might be one of the last times we would ever be alone together. And we had nothing to say. There were things I wanted to say but didn’t know how. Once he mentioned that I’d have to convince my mother in the next few years to pay for her funeral too. My father liked to have everything organised in advance. It was his way of exerting control over the world and easing the worry one might otherwise have.
That afternoon we sat out in the wood shed. The shed he’d built. It was one of the last things he built before his condition worsened. Now he could hardly lift a hammer. He’d always wanted to be a carpenter but he lost the opportunity of an apprenticeship when his father became ill and needed help back on the farm. Dad regaled me with yarns of his younger years, of hard work and shearing and fencing and rabbiting. He had me bent double with laughter about the day he fearfully held the trotters of piglets for his rabbiting boss, who was castrating them while their angry mother – a big old sow – ripped wood off the railings of her pen not five yards away. I wished I’d recorded his yarns but he never expressed any interest in that. You just had to be there when he was in the mood and the stories came tumbling out.
Once, that afternoon, he asked me: “You got any bullets for the pea rifle?”
“Yeah, some there.”
“I might want it one day. I’ll go down the back paddock and make it look like I had an accident getting through the fence.” It was delivered intentionally deadpan but like a joke that falls flat, leaving an awkward silence.
“I couldn’t let you do that Dad.” It was not the last time he would mention it.
Less than a year later he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “The doctor said it’s all right to have a bit of cancer, it’s slow-growing, you can end up dying of something else,” Dad relayed. But I would find him catching his breath, leaning against a fence post, bracing himself against an interminable rising pain. He began a series of treatments but, being a public patient, he had to wait weeks or months to see anyone. He got by popping a multi-coloured array of painkillers. Stoic as he was, with formidable endurance born of a lifetime spent pushing his body to its limits, his deterioration was inevitable. His own prognosis was that he had ten to 12 months. We wondered what quality of life that would be. His days were reduced to keeping a track of his drug intake and measuring his urine, or trying to get comfortable in a chair long enough to read a cheap western paperback. That’s all he’d read, like it was a distraction from the wait.
One of the reasons I had moved back to my home region and bought an old house was so that my father would have somewhere to stay and things to do on his visits back home. He set himself up with a permanent caravan and ablution block at the back of my house, and he was as happy as could be with a few maintenance projects, a bit of yabbying and eeling. Two days before he was due to visit I was spooked by the discovery of a mopoke camping in the shed. Shortly before my father arrived it left, flying out silently over my head and into the daylight, to be worried by magpies and wagtails. I mentioned it to my father and he glanced at me with an odd, keen interest. “Really?” he said. I wondered then if he perhaps knew that the mopoke is a harbinger of death for Aboriginal people.
A couple of months later my father said he wanted to come to my house again. Ostensibly it was to peruse the renovations I had completed, but really it was because this was the last time he would be able to travel. I made up a bed for him inside the house but he insisted on sleeping as usual in his caravan. I helped him out of the car and onto his crutches, then on the walk to the caravan I could see he was struggling. I followed him into the annex and found him hesitating at the steps to the van. He couldn’t get his leg up. His entire lower body was swollen and his legs were hard like bags of wheat. His upper torso was thin and emaciated, his shoulder bones sticking out through his jumper. I went in before him and gave him my hand. He took it and I pulled him up. He exhaled, and his eyes were dark orbs in his sunken face. It had been an enormous effort.
“That’s it,” he gasped between breaths. “I can’t come up here anymore,” he said, looking through me.
“Why not sleep inside, there’s plenty of room?”
“No, I’ll be right. I’ll listen to the possums and frogs out here.”
Later after dinner, when he had retired to the van, I could see his light on so I went out. I now knew what it was I wanted to say. He was in bed with the telly on, fiddling with the remote control. A tube trailed into a bucket on the floor beside his bed.
“Look, I just want to say thanks, for being a strong dad and for bringing me up in a safe home.”
“The fifties were the best time to bring you kids up,” he muttered, cutting me off and turning up the TV.
“There’s so many that don’t get a stable home life and it mucks them up,” I said, attempting to continue. He was focused on the screen; it was obvious he didn’t want to talk further. So I got up and left, and took some relief for having been able to tell him that much. My father wasn’t one for sentimentality or emotion. You had to be tough. Boys didn’t cry, nor were they given over to soppy goodbyes. “Goodnight,” was all I said as I left the van.
In the morning I went out the back, prepared for the worst.
“You still alive?”
“Yeah,” came the disgruntled groan. He’d had a bad night. The tube had come out from his catheter feed and spilled urine all through his bed. I could see he was disgusted – another blow to his dignity. With a great effort he managed to shower himself but was knocked up afterwards. He opened the door to the shower and called me in.
“Look,” he said exasperatedly, his shaking hands letting the towel drop from his loins. His genitals were grotesquely swollen.
“Oh Jesus, Dad.”
“Feel that.” He got me to touch his thigh. I crouched down. There was no give in his flesh. His leg felt hard and packed as a wool bale.
“Oh God, yeah, no good. Will it ever get soft?”
“No, it’ll stay like that. And look here.”
He pointed at the swelling that was climbing further and further up his body. I looked up at his haggard face and saw shock, disbelief, shame, resignation and defeat all dwelling there. His jaw was set, mouth slightly agape and teeth clenched, and his eyes roamed vacantly, looking everywhere but at me. Soon visitors began arriving. I found my mother crying in my kitchen. “They’re coming to say goodbye to him,” she said tearfully as I held her.
Word had got out that my father would not make it to his home district again. He received everyone cheerfully, though it was an effort just to stay alert and upright on the couch. His sisters and brother were there, cousins and old mates. The conversation was nothing special. He explained his ailments and treatment, softly and matter-of-factly, concluding that there was nothing to be done for him and that it had to take its course. When the last one finally left he took some more pills and retired to bed. My mother and sister were to drive him back to Geelong next morning. He was ready to go before anyone else, sitting in the passenger seat, taking in the morning sun. I went out to see them off.
“Well, if I don’t see you, I’ll see you down the track on the other side,” I said, clasping his feeble hand.
“Righto, be good,” he said, his usual parting comment.
I had to travel away for work for several weeks but I fully expected him to still be around. We hoped he’d make another Christmas. When I told him my plans on the phone he seemed astonished that I would not be back until mid-September, though he made no comment either way. I later learned that he had joked with my sister about being put on ice until I returned. I got the call while I was in Darwin. My father had been admitted to hospital and was expected to have only a few days. The doctor said his kidneys had effectively stopped functioning and he was refusing any further treatment. Well, we knew he’d had enough. It was too late for the pea rifle now. I flew to Melbourne on a red-eye flight then drove straight to Geelong Hospital. When I walked into his dying room he managed a weak smile.
“You got here.”
I sat down at his bedside. He looked at me wanly and spoke in a croaky whisper. “It’s not much chop.”
I nodded. “Are you in any pain?”
He was on a morphine pump that injected itself automatically. But he’d always crack hardy for me anyway.
“You didn’t have to come … but I know you wanted to,” he said softly.
“It’s all right, Dad.”
For the next week I would watch my father trying to die. Relatives visited but Dad was unable to converse freely, and they left quickly. Dad’s younger brother, shaken after seeing him in hospital, smoked his first pack of cigarettes in a decade. My mother, my three sisters and I kept a bedside vigil rotating for as long as we could. Each evening we would leave the hospital drained, hoping he would go in his sleep overnight.
“What’s life for?” I heard him say out of the blue one afternoon. When I went to his bedside he seemed to have drifted off to sleep again.
Another day, when the nurses were turning him, he announced: “I’m going tomorrow.”
“Oh, where are you going, Mr Murray?”
“To hell,” said Dad.
One morning I walked into his room and thought he was dead. Head back, mouth open, gone for all money. Then I looked closely. His chest was rising and falling with breath. Later in the afternoon he opened his eyes.
“What day is it?”
“It’s taking a while. It’s no good sitting round here for another three or four days, you got no money coming in.”
“It’s all right,” I said, “I’ve got things postponed.”
Dad told us next morning how he thought he had died during the night. “I went to this beautiful place, there were a lot of friends and family there.”
“Go back to that beautiful place and stay there,” we would urge quietly, taking turns holding his hand.
The next day I walk into his room and he’s wide awake and agitated. He sees me.
“Here give me a hand.”
I gave him my hand. He wanted to get up.
“All right, pull,” he said. It was an order – and I pulled like I always had.
He was now sitting upright in the bed, his upper body at right angles to his legs. “Keep going,” he said, his eyes hopeful that I, his only son, would be able to get him out of there.
“Dad,” I pleaded, emotion welling in my chest, “it’s no good. Your legs, remember? Your legs won’t work. You can’t get up. Just relax.”
A look of puzzled bewilderment and disgust fell on Dad’s face as he sank back. Again his eyes did not meet mine, they roved away elsewhere, to some place beyond the walls and ceiling. I had to go to the men’s room to compose myself. As much as I wanted to help him, to save him, I couldn’t. I couldn’t pull him back into life. I couldn’t even get him out of bed, let alone the hospital. It was hard this dying business. Dad’s body wouldn’t let him go. We all thought he would slip into a coma and drift off. It wasn’t like that – he kept waking up and getting agitated and delusional. He wanted out of there. The place was claustrophobic and stuffy.
“Why can’t they open a window and let in some fresh air?” I muttered to my sisters and mother. “Why can’t we wheel him out in the sun?”
His single window faced west, with a view over drab rooftops. Spring was a long way off and the late winter showers were blowing in, peppering the double-glazed glass window with raindrops. The nurses would come in and turn him, or check his pump. Dad would monitor the time on his watch and know when the meals were coming. But he couldn’t eat a thing. He’d offer it to us but I didn’t have the stomach for it. Each afternoon when the sun set, spearing beams of light from behind stiff clouds, I wondered if it would be his last.
For the next few days he’d grip our hands hard and his toes would tap under the sheet, his favourite old-time tunes spilling from a portable stereo. He’d mouth the words to songs, a glint of pleasure in his eyes as sweet memories of his dance-hall days came back. “Get me a bottle of beer,” he’d whisper, or “where’s the port, girl?” Nat King Cole, Victor Sylvester’s Orchestra, 50 All-Time Irish and Scottish Favourites – all on high rotation. When “Danny Boy” came on we couldn’t keep a dry eye. But Dad partied on. One evening, as my mother and I were leaving, he suddenly woke and gestured to us. He took our hands and held them to his chest, then spoke softly as if from some place far away: “No rush – all’s well.” We lingered, savouring the few precious moments of his lucidity, my mother desperately not wanting to lose him but not wanting him to suffer either. We were exhausted; and though we felt awful leaving him alone to the night, we had to get some rest.
Gradually he couldn’t hold our hands anymore, and he could no longer look at his watch; it slipped from his wrist. We kept the music playing but communication became more subtle. A slight rise of his eyebrows would let us know he was there. It occurred to me how fine and sensitive communication would need to be when he finally left his body. Only someone with a rare sensibility, or a psychic gift, might sense his presence then, if at all. But then he would abruptly regain consciousness and become distressed again. Even though he couldn’t speak his eyes would tell us: “Do something.” We’d punch the call button and the nurses would come to drain the phlegm from his chest that he didn’t have the strength to clear. Something had to give. I was becoming ill myself, the strain of it all in the stifling atmosphere of the hospital.
It was a week to the day since I had arrived. I decided I would make my last visit to Dad then drive home and wait there. Just after midday I entered that dreadful room. He appeared to be in a deep sleep. I clasped his hand gently. It was limp. When I began to speak the slightest tremor flickered on his cheek and eyelids.
“Dad, I’m going home today, I’ll wait for you there at the lake. Stay calm. When you see the clear light, go towards it. I’ll see you one day. I love you, Dad.” I put his hand down. I placed my hand on his forehead for a long moment. Then I left the room.
As I drove up-country, back to the land where we were both born and raised, I felt the weight lift from my shoulders. The country was good, the grass was tall, there was water moving by the roadside, filling dams and swamps where the swans were making their nests. As I drove I imagined that I had Dad with me, that we’d escaped that damn hospital and I was taking him home for good. I thought of all the images of him, of his vitality. I saw him, with particular clarity, on a day when we were knocking off late and he just took off, running against the falling dark, far down the paddock to where I was to meet him in the ute, and I’d wondered what he was doing, and now I realised it was because he was fit and strong and could.
After getting into bed I prayed that my father would be taken. I didn’t realise my mother and siblings were doing the same. I fell into a deep sleep and was woken by the phone at 2.30 a.m. My mother’s voice: “He’s gone. Thank God. It’s such a relief. He’s not suffering anymore.” Her hard days of grief were still to come. I rang Dunny in the morning, and in the afternoon a cow cocky down-country, named Donald Blair, who could play the pipes. I booked him to come in three days.
I got out my suit. It only sees court and funerals these days. My mother, sisters, brothers-in-law and nephews all arrived at my house. Arrangements were set. We took our photos. I had a eulogy prepared and I had Dad’s song. It was fine but windy at the cemetery. The hearse was there already, and I found Donald and placed him at a distance with instructions to wait for our signal. About a hundred people were gathered. There were people there who had never met my father but came anyway, out of respect, or because I’d been to their father’s funeral, or because they’d simply heard he was a good man. There were people who understood the dying business; they knew the importance of the ceremony.
The pallbearers assembled. At the front were two of Dad’s grandsons, in the middle a son-in-law and another grandson, and at the rear were Dad’s brother and myself. For some reason I took note of the sky, the position of the sun, the direction of the wind, the relationship of the land and the lake to a freshly dug grave. Plunged into ceremony, vision and emotions intensify, actions are made eternal. The pipes started and suddenly we were galvanised by a calling older than ourselves. Did we know what to do? It came to us with the pipes.
The crowd moved in behind the approaching piper. The coffin slid out of the hearse and we hoisted it high. The moment had come; I had my father’s body on my shoulders. The weight of duty and honour descended. My uncle and I put one arm around each other’s waists and walked steadily forward, following the piper towards the graveside. I watched my own tears spurt like jewels into the fresh green grass blowing in the winter light. When the pipes stopped there was calm, time for sermons and eulogies, for messages from grandkids who could not attend. And there was time for song. “These are my mountains and I have come home,” was sung with fervour, driven by its own truth.
My six-year-old daughter could not come to her grand-father’s funeral. When she arrived a couple of weeks later she gathered a posy of flowers and wattle and gum blossoms from the yard. She was in fancy dress, all long dresses and headscarf; from a distance she looked like a nun or an angel. We drove out to the graveyard and she took off, seeking her own solace exploring among the headstones. “Where is it?” she asked. I pointed to the fresh mound of yellow-brown soil. She placed the posy on top. Then she found a marble in the soil beside the grave, then another and another. They were glass bots from old lemonade bottles.
“Seannair is giving me these,” said my daughter.
“Yes, it seems that way doesn’t it? He knows what little kids like.”
I looked across at the other graves, the headstones, the repetition of family names, the lives lived and ended, the sky, the lake, the mountains. I had yet to consider where I might end up when I heard my daughter speak. “I want to be buried here, close to Seannair,” she said quietly, checking the ground for treasures between the graves.
Since my father’s funeral I have been moved to tears on two occasions. Once, while driving west of Quilpie in western Queensland, I tuned into a radio station – 2WEB from Bourke – that was playing classic songs from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. It was all Dad’s music, the stuff he’d enjoyed in his youth and listened to on his dying bed. The second occasion was when I was writing a song about him. I could hear his voice telling me: “When I’m dead, you’ll have to follow.” I don’t specifically recall him telling me that when he was alive, but it was so much like the kind of instruction he would deliver that I was convinced I had heard him say it. It had his trademark humour. It was at once the serious transfer of responsibility and the acknowledgment that death will happen to us all. Dad always loved Spike Milligan’s epitaph: “I told you I was crook.” Even now he figures in some vivid dreams, the kind where the conversation is as real as daylight and it’s a shock to wake up.
“I miss you too.”
That’s what woke me. The sound of speech in my mind. My words spoken in reply to someone. My waking broke the contact. I was left with the sense of someone having just left the room at the end of a conversation. I couldn’t remember what was said. But I knew it was him.
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