Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
Death after lunch
Sorrow is a timeline, drawing together memories old and unlearned.
Sorrow is a timeline, drawing together memories old and unlearned.
My grandfather died between lunchtime and after school the year I was in grade four. My Nan and Pa lived across the road from the school oval and we went there most days for lunch. At first I did this with my older brothers and then, when they moved on to high school, with my little sister. These were my Dad’s parents. Both my grandmothers were called Nan. Their husbands were Pa and Granddad. It was Pa who died of a heart attack between lunchtime and afternoon tea.
Nan Rose made the best lunches. I hardly remember eating a lunch bought from home. It must have happened, but in the wonderful tapestry we stitch from childhood memories, the primary school lunches I remember were those seated at my Nan’s formica table with Irish stew, or corned beef and white sauce, or roast lamb with mint sauce and crunchy baked potatoes, or shepherd’s pie. There was always, every day, a jelly of lime, raspberry, strawberry, orange or port wine. There was almost always custard and sometimes there was ice-cream. And often there was apple pie or apple crumble or apple charlotte or apple snow or apple cake or baked apples. It was Tasmania in the 1970’s. It was the land of apples.
I don’t know if Pa was in the house or the garden when his heart gave out. I prefer to imagine him standing up from the table and knowing, in the moment, that he was a lucky man. And then he collapsed. The ambulance was called in haste, my father was summoned home from town, and although I think my Pa liked life, he died.
I remember him in a blue singlet with a two-day growth. He had a tower of Reader’s Digest magazines in the toilet, a place he called his Throne. He could balance his false teeth on the end of his tongue and make them click at me. He had the gravelly voice of a smoker. He was an alcoholic. Not in the way lots of people are. He only got drunk every Saturday. Every Saturday he drank all day from 11am opening to 11pm closing at the local RSL. He’d done it for a long time, until the week he died. I didn’t know about the Saturdays. I liked Saturday mornings at my Nan’s because we got to watch TV shows. This was huge because we didn’t own a TV at home. I didn’t think much about the fact Pa always disappeared.
I do remember that after my Pa died, my Nan seemed to breathe a huge sigh of relief. She started saving for cruises. I heard her say to a friend, “Saints preserve us!” (This was a saying she used for all manner of upsets and surprises.) “I lived through that, so I hope I get a bit of time to enjoy myself.”
She didn’t get long. Another ten years. But she did do a few cruises.
Pa and I had a lunchtime ritual. I would sit on his lap at the kitchen table while Nan steamed the vegetables or stirred the gravy. Pa would enthuse me to plant a kiss on his cheek but the stubble always hurt my mouth, so I refused. He would ask, “Are you going to give me ten kisses today?” And I’d say “No!”
And on until he got to “Zero kisses?” And I said “YES!”
On the day Pa died, he wasn’t in the house at lunchtime. I vaguely absorbed that he had gone to hospital, but this fact did not seem to interrupt the normal serving of lunch. I ate. I went back to school. And then after the 3 o’clock bell rang, I walked back to Nan’s, as we did every afternoon. When I got there, someone told me Pa had died. I don’t remember who. I just know those words were said. Pa is dead.
Nan and Pa lived in a little two-bedroom weatherboard cottage on the main road. It was a small seaside suburb but, because of the traffic, we weren’t allowed to play in the driveway. After I heard those words, Pa is dead, I quietly exited the front door and stood in the driveway. It was the one place I knew I could be alone. I stood there for a long time. I thought, You can die between lunch and after school. Death can come really quickly.
This felt like a very important thing to understand. I was 10 years old.
I had sat on my Pa’s lap the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. But now it was my Pa who had done the most remarkable thing I had ever come across in 10 years of life. He had died. And I knew without a shadow of a doubt, that once you’re dead, you’re good and gone.
I went back inside and through the kitchen to the back porch where I could look at the garden. There wasn’t an inch of lawn. That little suburban block was cultivated to the tips of its toes. The narrow raised vegetable beds ran north south and east west. Other than a lily patch by the fence at the bottom of the stairs, everything in that garden was edible, or fed things that were edible. There was a chook pen and a grand compost bed in the far right corner. The sun was catching on the cabbage leaves and turning the potato foliage silvery. The chooks were chucking and the flies were buzzing. Nothing there had changed at all, despite Pa being dead. Gooseberry and raspberry canes were growing, tomatoes were ripening, carrots were busy underground, corn was rustling near the back fence, bees were humming, butterflies were fluttering. This all had a singular effect on me. Things go on just the same after you are dead. How could that be?
Inside the house the voices were different. The whole house felt foreign. My Nan was the warmest, softest, kindest woman who has ever entered my life. But that afternoon, I don’t remember being able to find her. Maybe she was in the embrace of others, or maybe she’d gone out, but in that house the death of my grandfather had also somehow made my Nan disappear.
So I talked to the parrot. Na and Pa’s parrot was a great, green feathered thing prone to outbursts of conversation and the occasional sharp snap at our small fingers when we fed him sunflower seeds. I told the parrot that Pa had died. I think I told the parrot because I wanted to reassure him that nothing would change. It would be like the things in the garden. Life would go on. And it did. He was called Cocky and he outlived my Pa and my Nan. After that the parrot’s story gets lost. He might be alive still.
Perhaps in parrot world, he tells a story about a little girl who once told him her Pa had died. How she was in a green check uniform and her two big front teeth were just coming down, so she had a lisp. How she had short black hair and large brown eyes and looked as if she’d understood right from the beginning that there was a lot of fun to be had in being alive. How she had leaned against his cage and whispered, “It’s ok. We’ll still feed you. Nan will still look after you. And you have to be nice to Nan. She might be sad.”
I don’t remember my Nan being sad. As I’ve said, in the coming weeks and months, she seemed relieved. My Dad had been the last person in the family to speak to Pa before he died in the hospital. My Pa’s last words to him were: “That man there has my glasses.” Pa was indicating the nurse who had accompanied him from emergency to upstairs.
After Pa’s death, my Dad sat in our lounge room at home with the curtains closed listening to mournful classical music. My Dad had given me Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea when I was six. He had selected it from a shelf in the State Library. It was my first adult novel. I had absorbed the character of Santiago as if he was a family friend. Santiago, fragile with age, who has a great battle with a last fish that refuses to be captured. I had understood Santiago’s loneliness out on that sea and my young mind was tattooed with the image of the marlin skeleton on the beach. But I didn’t see sorrow in a real person, someone I knew and loved, until I saw how my Dad looked after Pa died.
What I didn’t know then, and learned only years later, was that my Dad and his older brother had borne the brunt of their father’s drunken Saturday nights and hungover Sundays. My Dad had watched the daily wear and tear on his Mum that being married to Pa had caused. And other than us, his family, there was no-one more precious to my Dad than his Mum. My father had borne his father’s derision when, as a teenager, my father wanted to be an automotive mechanic. Pa had insisted that my father join the public service instead. Pa told my father it was the only way he’d have any stability. While my Dad was away doing three months of compulsory military service, Pa tore up a job offer for my father, a job my father had really wanted, and hid that information so that my Dad was forced to return to that same boring government job. My Dad went on to be a public servant for 44 years.
I said, “Are you ok, Dad?”
He said, “Thank you darling, but there’s nothing you can do. I’m just very sad.”
I sat with him for a while longer and we didn’t say anything. The music was loud and I tried to imagine why that music was comforting for my Dad. Sorrow, I thought, sitting beside him, was a feeling you had when nothing could be done. There was no going back to change anything, and there was no going forward without remembering that something could never be fixed.
The next person to die in our family was possibly my brother, but it may have been my other grandfather. We’ll never know. They died together two years later. And I was to discover that sorrow isn’t simply a feeling. It’s a timeline and a sacred wound.