Thursday, October 02, 2008


Firstly, thank you again, to all you well-wishers. I'm always touched when I get so much niceness for so little real social effort.

One of the reasons I used yesterday's LOLcat was the bittersweet quality of it; you have the cake, you lose the cake. It's your birthday, it's a magic day, everything is supposed to go right. It's a very privileged Western fantasy.

Yesterday was lovely; I got to sleep in, my son rang me from his grandfather's fishing tinnie on the Tathra River and wished me Happy Birthday; I went to school and some of the students who have passed through the BookStud went out of their way to bring me a fabulously lush birthday cake and have a relaxed and happy morning tea with me:

Shellaine brought the cake.

choc cake
OMG it was like a dark choc pudding in a pastry flan, with strawberries and kirsch cherries and dark choc shavings. We nearly died of choc overload.

Bellinda gave me a gorgeous spray of Clematis vine. Bron made homemade berry friands. Dan and the others brought themselves. Mary gave me more dark chocolate. I'm going to look like a Terry's Choc Orange soon...

We had fun.
cherry ears
This is me, just before I overdosed on alcoholic cherries.

[other presents, BTW, were: chocolate (everybody knows my loves), Kate Atkinson's latest book, a whippersnipper (a hint from Colonel Duck) and a Zelda game for the Nintendo DS (for my recovery period)]

Then, after a few hours of work, I decided to go to the movies and see The Edge of Love, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and then I went to Zoe's house for dinner, a bottle of champagne, a nice bottle of white wine, and a few mouthfuls of red wine. I was offered whiskey, but I try not to mix the grape with the grain.

That was sweet. But the night before, Colonel Duck had rung to warn me that my grandfather was on the brink of death. It might be 12 hours, 24 hours, or 36 hours, but it was imminent.

That was bitter. It was hard to sleep that night, and all through yesterday I was aware that my beloved Papa was lying in a bed, breathing slower and slower, just... giving up. At 91, who could blame him?

I'd finished dinner with Zoe, we were halfway through the white, and I got a phonecall from my father's phone. It was my 11-year-old son, sounding strained but trying to be as grownup as he could as he told me that the nursing home had just rung to say that Papa had drawn his last breath. Bumblebee visited him at the dementia ward the day before, and his simple description of how Papa looked had haunted me all day:

his eyes were closed but really sunken. His mouth was open and his breath was loud. His hands were closed tight and twitching, as if he was fighting something.

He probably was, having served all six years of WWII, even though he came out the other end completely pacifist. He could have been fighting his commanding officers, his mother, his dementia, anything. Hopefully he's at peace now.

Papa was a very gentle man, a good grandfather. He wasn't always so; my mother and her sisters tell stories of a raging temper, a frustrated father, but he'd made enough life changes by the time I came along (being the eldest grandchild) to share a lot of fun and wisdom with his grandchildren.

Poor Papa had grown up in the Bega Valley with very respectable, strong-willed parents who owned a dairy farm and served on the Town Council. He'd been desperate to escape, not be a farmer, try something else, but the expectation was always that he'd take on the farm. Little wonder then, that he enlisted as soon as war broke out. He served in a number of WWII arenas, doing the same sort of war duties that Spike Milligan did (Papa was a great SM fan), and served for pretty much the whole span of the war. He even called himself by a completely different name for the whole time -- his name is Horace, his army mates only know him as Jim.

When demobbed, he found himself back on the farm. And stuck there, for a long time.

He managed to escape dairy farming when my mother (the eldest of four girls) was in high school. He finished high school in Canberra at the same time as my mum, went to uni, and had enough of a public service career to be able to retire with a pension.

papa's graduation

When I was old enough to be aware of my grandparents, they were living on the land again, buying somewhere, doing it up, selling it on, and moving again. They were/are great dreamers, and he was always very creative. They always had plans to travel, but they never did. I always thought of them as being more adventurous than my Western Australian grandparents, but the truth was that wherever we moved as an army family, my WA grandparents would come and visit, but my Eastern grandparents never did. Papa always wanted to ride a bicycle through China, but he never did. I don't think he ever really knew exactly what he wanted, he just yearned to do things. He was a restless soul in some ways, but outwardly he was calm, considerate and dreamy.

papa on a horse
He did do a lot of things: farming, horse breeding, goat breeding, renovations, reading, art, and he brought up four fantastic daughters who are all remarkable women in their own way.

I'm almost shocked by the depth of my feelings about Papa's death. I've been mentally preparing for it for so long, and I said goodbye to my actual grandfather a long time ago, from the day I went to visit him and realised that he had NO idea who I was. I'd 'disconnected' with Papa somewhat. When I visited him in the dementia ward (so infrequently my gut hurts as I write this) he was a shell of the man I loved, and I had to hold back. But when I heard he'd reached the end, I was/am revisited by memories, and they persist. I'm glad, because I thought I'd lost some of them.

I remember his hands. They were square, and held each other a lot, either behind his back or on his lap. He liked to walk, and clasped them behind his back as he walked.

beach walking

He loved watching other people achieve. When I graduated from uni (the first time), he clapped as hard for everyone as he clapped for me.

He got depressed. A lot. But I can most clearly see his face, laughing. For that I am thankful.

He loved animals. He and Nana always had at least a dog or a cat. But often both. Or multiples. He once bred goats, and I have a photo of myself with a baby goat on my back. He was a vegetarian then, and people would order baby goats from him and when they picked them up Papa would realise that the goats were going to end up on spit-roasts. I think that was the reason he gave up goat-farming.

He was a vegetarian for years until he forgot that he didn't eat meat and by that point he probably really needed to eat it. He also made his own (terrific) bread, and grew and ground and drank his own wheatgrass juice waaaaay before it became trendy to do so. He grew his own vegies. He loved gardening.

Later in life he hated collars and ties. He loved Chinese-style collars and I remember Nana cutting all the collars off a batch of shirts she'd bought.

He loved musicals. Apparently he adored My Fair Lady, and wore out his copy of the record. I like to think it was the journey of self-improvement he admired.

In his retirement he took up art, which I think was always his aspiration. He did mostly painting and pottery. I don't have a painting (they are hotly treasured within the family) but I have pots and bowls he made. I like to think I got some of his creative genes, along with some of my cousins.

I'm missing him now. But, I understood the moment I was told of his death, I've been missing him for a long time. There's half a century between us, and the last ten years have been quite non-existent. But the time we had was valuable.

I'm very grateful to the people who became his family, his carers, who became very attached to him in his special-need dementia ward. He was rarely unhappy, and I think that is important. He was pared to his essential core, but that core was still lovely. I'm glad they experienced that.

I'm spending part of today with my grandmother, driving her from Canberra to Cooma after a medical appointment. After being a weird kind of widow for ages, it's suddenly happened. She's a widow. I have no idea what she's going through, but I'm looking forward to talking with her one-on-one, for the first time in ages. It'll ease the guilty pain, a bit.

So you see? Bittersweet. Shit happens, even on your birthday. I'm ok with that.



fifi said...

You are so blessed and so beloved.

How wonderful that all around you, folks open themselves to you. Celebrate you. Because you are truly special, and have an incredible family woven into your spirit.

Throwing a small stone into the great vast sea for Papa today.

I think I would have had a great deal in common with your grandpa. A lot. How lucky to have had him: I never knew either of mine.


Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Yeah, see, this is what blogging's for, really. I can't think of any other way/place you could have said everything that this post says. At all, much less straight away.

You seem to have lost a few too many people lately, &D. Hope your Papa is the last for a good long while.

In the immediate meantime, I recommend more alcohol with Zoe. Maybe grain this time.

Ampersand Duck said...

Oh, do, Fi. That is such an appropriate gesture. He adored the sea. Thank you.

Pav, I agree. Blogging has blissful moments. And actually I think this is just the beginning of perch-droppings. We've been a very well family, but we're all aging fast!

Anonymous said...

My heart is very much with you on this. Six years or so ago, I lost my great-grandfather to dementia. At the time, I felt like I had lost already him many years before, and when the day came and I got the phone call from my mother, it was not much of a surprise. I decided not to make the trip to go to the funeral, and I have regretted that decision ever since. Partly for my mom and grandmother, but mostly for me, if I'm honest. My great grandfather— we called him Grandpa Eli— was a great guy; he spent his life working a bunch of factory jobs, but in 1940, with the memory of the great depression fresh in his mind, he went in with a friend to buy the farm that I grew up on, thinking that if times ever got tough again, at least he wouldn't have to see his family go hungry.

And he was also very directly responsible for my getting my first printing press. At some point he was too old to do hard farm work, but sitting around the house drove him crazy, so he used to volunteer at the local food bank. One day when I was on summer break from high school, he asked me to come with him, and I had no good excuse to get out of it, so I went with him; we ran into a friend of his from one of his jobs in the steel mills, who had an old Kelsey 5x8 that he hadn't used in years, and was looking for someone who might use it.

Anyway-- happy birthday.

Zoe said...

And sorry about the hideous hangover too, Duck. Can't be helping



Ampersand Duck said...

Actually Zoe, it is helping to physically feel bad. And it was nice to be with you when I heard.

Ezra, how lovely to have that printing connection with your g-grandfather. I'm definitely doing the funeral thing. I know that feeling of regret!

lucy tartan said...

I was overseas when my grandfather died and didn't go home, although they didn't have a funeral for him. He was like your grandfather I think, in some ways - he was in New Guinea and it affected him similarly. And he too was a good grandfather to me despite it all. Such a wonderful post, Duck.

worldpeace and a speedboat said...

my Pa (maternal) died when I was 11, but I only got to understand what was gone when I was in my 20's.

also, I remember my dad's hand a lot. I'm a hand person. I touched them just after he died. they were still warm.

we don't do a lot of funerals in my family. my dad didn't want one, so we didn't have one. I didn't miss it at all but some of our relatives and friends were really cranky.

on the other hand, the funerals for both of my best friends were the most amazing things. I couldn't imagine not being involved.

who are funerals about? who are they for? what are they for? now there's a basket of eggs.

lovely post Duck-o-matic.

genevieve said...

Sorry to hear this, Duck, my commiserations to all your family. And what a magnificent post.

I hope you don't mind that I've saved that beautiful shot of your grandparents on the beach for my screensaver slideshow collection. It is outstanding - did you take it?


Enny said...

I'm sorry for your loss - I'm not sure if having it chip away over the years makes it easier or harder, but the loss is still a very sad loss.

Very well written, and thoughts are with you and yours.

M-H said...

belated happy happy happy. And thanks for the lovely post.

Penthe said...

I'm so sorry. It's such a hard thing losing the people you love, more than once like this.


Ampersand Duck said...

It took me a couple of days to think about that, Genevieve -- not the use of the photo (which, after all, I've put up there for the world to see!) -- but whether I took it or not. It was so long ago. After some contemplation, I'm pretty sure I did take it. The only other person who wields a camera at moments like that is my mother, so it may have been her, but I think I have the neg somewhere.

Michelle said...

I'm so sorry about Papa. But what a magnificent tribute you've written.

Elsewhere007 said...

Sorry, I missed this somehow. It's always sad, even when someone has come to the end of the road there's that wrench. All the best. You sound very brave in your last post.