Monday, September 24, 2012

Dad's Heart

My father has a crook heart. About ten years ago, he went into The Royal Melbourne Hospital to have a quadruple by-pass. I went to visit him, far too soon after the operation, but nurses are often unaware of what constitutes a suitable visiting time. If a patient has his/her eyes open and is not screaming with pain, or covered in crap, they consider this patient to be in a perfect state for visitors. After all, they're used to trauma. Thus, when I first saw my father after the bypass operation he was lying on a bed, with a box on top of him. Through this box ran many tubes full of his blood. These tubes were hooked up to various supports, giving him the appearance of an insect trapped in a particularly nasty spider's web. My father did not appreciate having visitors, though he remained courteous.

His heart has been bad for the past year. He needed a new valve and it would be impossible for doctors to insert said valve without opening up his heart again. Since the loss of my driver's licence, and a particularly stupid moment when I nearly got myself run down by a car that I apparently didn't see (we talked about left side neglect in this blog before) I have become effectively barricaded in St kilda for my own safety. (That sentence is probably one of the strangest you will ever read.) But it's fine to be barricaded in St KIlda. I like the place and I love my partner, so life is pleasant. But I was rather keen to see my father in the Geelong hospital, to see how he was coping with the operation, and possibly even cheer him up. My sister kindly drove me from Melbourne to Geelong. It was a cheerful enough kourney, my sister and I reliving childhood outrages that might one day be resurrected as books. Then at around four in the afternoon we went to visit dad in the Geelong Hospital. Knowing how inured nurses are to the sometimes disturbing appearance and desire for visitors too soon after their operations, I made certain that Dad would not have a box with bloody tubes resting on his chest. He would be sitting peacefully, in the Intensive Care unit and would probably welcome visitors, I was assured.

I had forgotten that my father had to be shaved before the operation. He is particularly proud of his big bushy eyebrows (also mentioned elsewhere on this blog, as there is quite a story behind them) and his great muttonchop sideburns. Because the whiskers are something of a trademark, Dad protested and wondered why he would not be allowed to keep them. After all, the sideburns are a fair distance from the heart. The medico to whom Dad complained pointed to a grey hair on his jumpeer. 'That's from your sideburns,' Dad was told. 'If one of those things ends up in your body it could cause an infection.' Dad needed no further persuasion and agreed to losing his sideburns. He has a bad track record when it comes to infection. After every operation he has managed to contact some singularly ugly infections, perhaps caused by stray facial hairs, who knows?

THe ward sister gave me the number of the bed. I knew that the little character sitting next to it must have been my father. But it diudn't look like him. The scale was all wrong. Sitting in the chair beside the bed was a poor little soul who seemed half the size of my father, like one of those Ron Mueck sculptures that play with our perceptions of size and the human body. He was on several drips and he was indeed sitting upright. But his eyes were closed and his face bore the expression of someone who was doing battle with invisible demons. My sister and I both kissed him and patted his hand, then left him, saying we would be back the next day. I suspect he didn't hear.

My father loves steam engines as, I suspect, most fathers do.

I have just written a novel about a family coming to terms with the death of a beloved father. My favourite editor, Dmetri Kakmi, on his first read-through, suggested that I had allowed too long a period of mourning. I had allowed six months, but Dmetri said that a mere few weeks would be more believable. Dmetri recently lost his mother so he can speak from personal experience. But as I left the hospital I thought of what my world would be like if Dad didn't pull through. Dad was always the one who encouraged me when I made up my mind to be a professional writer. He always told the best stories, and we three kids would marvel as he read us bedtime stories. Dad, you see, had been more or less ordered by Mum to read the books that she had liked and that meant something to her. So it was that we discovered the world of Winnie The Pooh at about the same time that Dad did. He was a good reader, very theatrical.

 And somehow he could remember all the different voices he had created for the inhabitants of The Hundred Aker Wood. We liked his Eeyore voice the best. I think his enthusiasm for 'the books that Mum liked' might well be the reason why I was determined to become a book writer myself. I never really doubted that that's what I would be. My parents were worried about this and thought that such a career choice might lead to penury. They spoke with a writer friend of mine, Michael Dugan, about whether it was possible to make a living from writing stories and Michael told them that it was, although it might not necessarily be a posh living. My parents had no great fondness for poshness or 'putting on side' as my grandmother used to put it, even though she often did pretend to be posh, saying 'rum' instead of 'room' or 'hom' instead of 'home'. But MUm and Dad were not snobs. Dad worked at the Melbourne docks and later landed an office job at Australian Paper Manufacturers, and Mum made extra money working for a printer in West Heidelberg, where we lived. It had never occurred to me that West Heidelberg wasn't a 'nice' place to live. But then I managed to win a scholarship to a very fine school in Kew, which meant I could escape the truly shithouse state school that I attended (Maryvale High in Morwell, just before we moved back to Melbourne). My new schoolfriends had me over to their places, but when I returned the favour I could see the looks of confusion and maybe even disgust on their faces. It got around Carey fairly quickly that I lived in a crappy house and that my parents both drove cars that were complete bombs. I had finally learned about the class system, and it had taken me so long because most of ther other schools I had attended were fairly run-of-the-mill, and absolutely no one 'put on side'.
Dad had left school at fourteen, as was the done thing in working class families because the teenagers had to make money to support the family as soon as they were able. I wonder what would have happened if Dad had stayed at school abnd maybe gone on to get a tertiary education. He was a bright man, I knew that. He also knew a fair bit about classical music, though the reason why speaks volumes about his logic. When those thick black 78rpm records were first made available in the shops, and every home had a gramophone, Dad would buy a record a week from some of the money he earned through working at docks. He didn't particularly like classical music, but his logic was that contemporary music would go out of fashion and the records would become worthless, but classical music never wenr After all it had lasted for centuries. Unfortunately Dad had not figured technological advances intio the equation. Try getting a 78 to play on a CD player.

I have an image of my Dad taking the bus to work and reading one of 'Mum's books'. Dad was a fairly stocky man, but he wasn't quite comfortable about being seen reading a kids' book, or whatever volume Mum had handed him in her quest to 'improve him'. It was nothing of the sort, of course. Mum just wanted to talk with someone about the books, as she had done with her own mum and friends. So, Dad would make blank covers out of brown paper and wrap them around the books, so that no one could tell he was reading The Wind in the Willows or Now We Are Six or whatever. BAak then, books in plain brown wrappers were regarded with suspicion as they were usually pornographic. Given that most men on the bus would have been reading sexy James Bond novels, they would no doubt have been curious about what saucy book Dad was reading. I'm sure that those who peered over his shoulder would have been perplexed to read, 'Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.'

Dad had introduced me to all those wonderful books that Mum liked. Even though Mum could read aloud very well and had even done it on the wireless, we preferred it when Dad read the stories because he put so much effort into doing the voices, and he would laugh as if he had only just got the joke, which might well have been the case. As we kids grew older, Dad introduced us to other books, the ones he liked. I remember one of the first 'adult' books I read was The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle. 

It was a smashing science fiction story where the people of earth had to learn how to communicate with a giant approaching cloud that seemed to have less-than-benign intentions towards our small blue planet. It started me on a lifelong appreciation of science fiction stories. A book about malevolent clouds can do that to a person. Then I got hold of The Day of the Triffids (not sure if this was Dad's book or from the school library) but that one was was a science fiction fan's dream; a smart, original plot, situations we could recognise or identify with, and a relentless energy that meant you really couldn't put the book down. I remember discussing with Dad about whether the earth might really be subjugated by human-eating plants one day. He didn't discount the possibility. After all, we were about to put a man on the moon. I was, of course, a complete Apollo 11 nerd.

The crew of Apollo 11. I always identified with Michael Collins, the guy in the middle. He flew all the way to the moon, but he didn't land on it because he had to remain behind, orbiting in the command module Columbia. MIchael Collins, I am you. Always orbiting on the outskirts but never  really at the centre of things, escept in photographs, where I always end up looking awkward and dorky.


I had a model of the Eagle on my bedhead. Dad even bought me special postage stamps from Yemen, which depicted Columbia the command module, and of course Eagle, the lunar module. These stamps were lenticular: a word I have only recently learned that describes a sort of hard-copy 3D. (A lot of box-set DVD's feature them.) Those stamps, about the size of playing cards, were the coolest things I ever saw, and Dad knew that I would be just crazy about them. They've gone now, sold in a jumble sale during a lapse of judgment. I also had chemistry sets that were positively dangerous, so I was allowed to play with them only when Dad was around. Anyway, he was the one who ended up committing a scientific snafu when he lit some gunpowder and blew off his eyebrows (as well as mine, as it happens. His grew back, mine never did).

When my sister and I returned to Geelong hospital the next day, Dad was out of the intensive care unit and in a ward with three other beds. His whiskers hadn't miraculously grown back overnight, but somehow he seemed to have returned to his correct size as he sat up in bed, looking much more like the dad of old. Two days ago, someone had been opening him up and fiddling around with his heart. I hoped to god there were no stray hairs. Anyway, it was all pretty serious stuff, so perhaps I was asking too much of my father to appear more Dad-like when I'd seen him just the day before. He chatted and made jokes. He has always been able to make good jokes, or tell good stories just like his own father. I think it might be a Scottish trait.

I have to accept it probably isn't likely that my father will survive another big operation like this - and he's already had a few. But with all due respect, Dmetri, I can't imagine the period of mourning being a few short weeks.

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