DEATH OF A FATHER

My father, Stanley Graham "Gray" Dunstan, died 7 am Sunday 12 November 2000 aged 88 years.

When the call came on the cell phone I was camping out at Lake Lonsdale with my nomad friend and mentor, Jack Wayward. Jack and I had shared a bush full moon together, with camp fire, mash whisky, strong ganga and deep friendship for we were two old grey headed men uprooted, adrift in our lives and savouring it.

My father's hospital bed was enclosed by the curtains and his body still warm when I got there 30 minutes later. His gummy mouth was wide open, his eyes closed, and his colour still present but fading. It was if he had died mid snore. For dignity I reached at once to push his jaw closed but though his face reluctantly yielded, the jaw opened again when I took my hand away.

The nurses gathered around me distressed and grieving. We had become good mates over the three weeks I had been visiting daily.

One of them two days previous had told not to expect neither recovery for my father nor euthanasia from the hospital. On the previous day he had been put on a morphine drip to ease the pain coming from the ulcer in his mouth. This morning the morphine had taken him out and part of the distress of the nurses was the knowledge that we had together entered the grey area of unspoken euthanasia.

I was part of the conspiracy for I had encouraged them and was indeed looking for the means to do it myself. My son the vet, David, had advised me on the efficacy of injecting 30 ml saturated solution of potassium chloride in the drip and I had purchased the dose on the previous day.

He was a doomed man (we all are) when the prognosis came after the stoke he had suffered in August that the arteries in his neck were clogged and that they would continue to throw off clots which would cause a series of random stokes. It had been declared an inoperable condition. His time had come and he knew it.

While I was on the road with the first Drug War Freedom Ride, he had another minor stroke, which had knocked out some of his swallowing but in came back over a few days. He was in hospital after another turn when I arrived after the s11 World Economic Forum Blockade in Melbourne 11-13 September. He greeted me and said he wanted me to take him home. I did and settled in as his primary carer, taking over from my aunt Doris who had called to say it had become too much for her, surrendering to a meditation on human decomposition and wondering at the strange twists of fate that had brought about this.

My sister Wendy had wiped him as irreparably stupid, stubborn and mean. No one else was volunteering except this prodigal son who had left home as soon as he could to be far away from the angry and contrary old bugger.

We never got on. We worshipped different gods as they say in the mytho-poetic mens' movement. Maybe it was Oedipal, for as a boy I had adored my mother and had become a super achiever to win her approval. But I have no recall of ever hearing a word of praise or appreciation from him.

Now I found myself so thoroughly detached from career, relationships, and householder responsibilities that I had plenty of time to be immersed in father death. This also fulfilled a promise I made to my father shortly after the death of my mother. "I will be with you when you die", I had said. "And I will do as you wish - mix your ashes with those of Bessie, your wife my mother, and scatter them in The Grampians."

My father was not enthusiastic about me staying around at first. He still had visions of living to 110 and talked as if old age was some sort of survival race with lots of people watching and cheering as one "did the ton" and more. I would shake my head. "Old age is suffering. No one is watching and no one really cares whether you live to 110 or die tomorrow", I would say.

His hips were painful, he was deaf in the left ear and his eyesight, already weakened was reduced by successive strokes. He sat in his chair most days, eat a little of the Meals on Wheels chow but I ended up eating more of it for the freezer became chocker with the stuff He liked to send me out for a hot meat pie or fish and chips.

A few visitors came but mostly he sat in his chair and got angry at the radio. His idea of conversation was to assert an angry contention about something heard. His poor hearing prevented him from hearing much of others. I withdrew from the aggravation preferring to sit at the other end of the house with my Mac iBook, or taking long walks with the dog.

My father told me I had no social skills and let me know he resented me running up phone and power bills.

We had a major domestic dispute over my driving the Hyundai Excel, which he had registered in my name and which he was now too blind to drive himself. He had been refusing me use of his cars since I was a teenager. One day I took it off to Ballarat to do some business without asking and when I returned he was sitting in silent fury.

"You have no right to drive that car", he told me. "I will call the police and report it stolen if you do". "Get real," I told him harshly. "If I am to be here as your primary carer, I will need the car to do business. Get used to it."

Once again he told me what a failed son I had been, leaving home and not contacting my mother for years. I agree with him for all he says is true, that I had been terribly cruel to my mother but the reason was that I could not bear to be around him.

It appears my mother was the only one who could endure his company. Now very few people came visiting. He could charm but also offend. He had always acted as if he didn't need friends, and he was content to sit alone and work alone in his shed. An outsider just like me.

The air in the house was poisonous and I was filled with remorse for my harshness. I had to sneak off to a friend's house out at Deep Lead to find spiritual nurture. Next day he was over it.

We talked about his dying for the first time. He estimated two years. "What do you want to do before you die? I asked. "Any unfinished business?" But there was nothing he wanted to do, no one he wanted to see.

He just wanted to be assured about the distribution of his assets. A three way split between sister Wendy, his grandson, Aaron and myself. "Do you want the money?" he asked me. "Rather have your blessing", I said. At this he turned his face aside with a wince of exasperation.

Next day Doris blasted him. "He is a good son, the only one willing to be with you, etc etc." she related saying. Thus he accepted that I was it as far as care was concerned and offered me a $1,000 in lieu of a blessing.

And so the days passed. Me sitting at one end of the house tapping at my computer, composing and sending e-mails, he at the other in his chair, listening to ABC Regional radio up loud because of the deafness in his left ear (from the roar of the diesel engine of his heavy transport). He was bored by it "too many experts", he said. He enjoyed watching the sheep and the dog in the back yard and would call to them. Sometimes they would respond.

But he couldn't walk far and he didn't trust adventures in the car with me after I took him 30 km along a Grampians bush track, not seeing another car for an hour of driving. And though I had my bearings I was driving by intuition, in his blindness he was doubly lost and had no faith in me at all. On return he was so stressed he went to bed early and slept long. No more car trips after that.

Another minor stroke took out vision from the left side of his right eye. (He had lost the left one to glaucoma the previous year.) He made the announcement when I returned from my Big Hill sunset walk with Jennifer dog. "I am blind", he said. "Which means I am fucked and will have to go to a nursing home. Who would have thought I would have gone blind."

But nursing home was not really an option. Thanks to economically rational government neglect and cut backs, there were no beds and even if there were, what sort of a life would it be in the hands of total strangers in a totally unfamiliar environment? So he began to accept my offers of help. And for three weeks I cooked for him, made his porridge in the morning, rolled his cigarettes, guided him around the house, did his washing, made his bed.

He had always been resistant to trying cannabis. But I figured for brain damage it might help ease his days. After all I had been the founder of the NSW Compassion Club. So I brought a rolling machine and bag of tax-free tobacco. (A neighbour in the back lane out back was the local drug dealer tobacco only!) He smoked about 15 a day and started slipping in cannabis. I noticed that started singing took more interest in the backyard and was more accepting of me and the food I offered him.

His deafness made conversation difficult between us, that and the vast gulfs in our interests. For example I was interested in death and he wasn't. Every morning I would put out my blankets and meditate on the teachings of Padmasambhava and Phadampa Sangya. He wouldn't talk about death other than in terms of wills and the distribution of his estate. Death was just something he would do when he had to do it.

After all the rush, travel and intensity of the Freedom Ride and its s11 climax, I found the change of pace difficult. The body sorely needed rest but my mind sloshed about like water in the bilge of a boat suddenly stopped. Inner voices loudly delineated my worthlessness and failures as a son, husband, father and human being generally. My productivity came to zero and I sunk into sorrows.

After the death of my mother five years previous, my father sold up the Moonee Ponds house and bought a house in the Victorian country town of Stawell. A central goldfields town, it had been where my mother had grown up. There was still clan there and my father made no secret of his expectation that my aunt Doris, who had been widowed about the same time, would marry him and be his carer. He had always been fond of her and it just seem like common sense to him. Not so for Doris though she did become his primary carer managing his managing his affairs and his moods and delusions with skill and patience.

My first attempt to be full time carer for my father had come to despair two years earlier. All too hard I soon ran away back to Nimbin and social action again.

But when I first arrived I heard a long the way that Big Hill was up for pit mining. Big Hill is a mining reserve where the quartz gold mining began that founded Stawell. It is a central landscape feature of the town, a tourist lookout and the towns traditional lovers lane. Whenever we visited Stawell - and we did regularly because we were working class poor whose idea of a holiday was to visit relatives - my mother would take us kids up to Big Hill where she would gaze in wistful silence out over the town of her childhood and to The Grampians beyond.

To give my life some purpose and as a kind of tribute to my mother, I joined up with the Big Hill Action Group and organised a mast lantern spectacle on the Hill, a show of strength for Big Hill lovers in the face of a mining company, which was two thirds own by a US corporate criminal and making lots of promises of enduring prosperity. The event was a big success. Even my father was drawn in and got to meet lots of neighbours who came to help me make lanterns.

But returning this time my efforts to do a post S11 rev up of the beleaguered Stawell Big Hill Action Group were at first rejected out of hand. I was declared too radical! An outsider again.

But I did a lot of lonely walking the dog and Big Hill meditations on sunsets over The Grampians. Every evening (weather permitting) Jennifer dog and I would walk to the Hill and I would smoke a cone and drink a stubbie of Coopers Stout and mellow out on the grandeur of the landscape. I figured that, so long as I could sit there, the Hill was safe from pit mining.

The Pioneer Memorial on Big Hill is elegantly fashioned as an Athena wind temple and I resumed my worship there, invoking Athena, Goddess of craft, invention, strategy and resourcefulness, protector of adventurers like Odysseus, to bless me and guide me on my journey. May you protect the Hill, I would pray.

My father resented the bond they grew between Jennifer dog and I gave me lots of reasons why I should not take her out. She is unbiddable and has no street sens, he would say. But she is learning quickly, I would counter. Finally it came down to causing too much stress for Molly sheep. Molly was absolutely bonded to Jennifer, the dog being her entire flock and security, and she would panic and bleat plaintively whenever Jennifer was not in direct line of sight.

My father told me it was cruel to have Molly bleating all the time while Jennifer and I walked together. One day Molly made a bolt for freedom through the house and out the front door following Jenny. What a sight it was to see them together. Children from St Patrick's Primary School lined up on the fence to pat Jennifer and behold the spectacle. Everyone smiling.

Thus we became an eccentric parade, Jennifer following me, Molly trotting close behind Jennifer, always putting Jennifer between herself and any potential danger, excited and sometimes terrified by new places.

Soon we were the talk of the town and my father loved it too, loved the stories I would tell him about our adventures. On Big Hill molly would graze and strangers would come talk to me. So I began to hold court on Big Hill talking to strangers about the pit mining and globalisation.

I was caring best I could for my father but when the crisis came I missed it. Stubborn like my father I was still sleeping in my van, Happy Wheels, now parked in the back yard (displacing his Ford from the carport much to his displeasure) preferring it in the frosty nights to the stuffy, tobacco smells, and saggy beds of the house. At dawn I came in one morning and was startled to find my father standing stiff and cold in the shadows of the corridor. It was apparent at once he had got lost and must have been standing there for hours.

His body was near rigid as I steered him back to his bedroom. There I found his bed bemired in shit. I changed the sheets, cleaned up best I could and tucked him in. He was groaning and I presumed it to be due to cold.

That day I had a Eureka Dawn Walk meeting in Ballarat. It was the first time I would be out of the house in a week and I had made care arrangements for my father. Doris had promised to check him at 10 am. Locked in, I stuck with the plan and drove off to Ballarat at 9am leaving my father alone and distressed. At least he was resting, I rationalised.

Bad call. During the meeting Doris rang me on my cell phone to say she had found my father agitated and trying to get out through the bedroom window. He had shat his bed again and she had called the ambulance. It had been another stroke and this time he had lost his swallowing and his speech permanently. He would never speak to me again or anyone else for that matter.

So set in my hospital vigil. Three times a day I would go sit with him. His communication through grunts and gestures was poor but his will continued to prevail. When I expressed by regret for having deserted him in his crisis, he snorted angrily.

The speech therapists assessed him as having no swallowing capacity (a sign was put above his bed "Nil by mouth") and scrambled both in word assembly and cognition. She warned about the dangers of projecting our meanings onto his gestures. He would draw a square in the air and count off with his fingers, one, two, three, and four. No one could work it out and began presuming stuff like it was the map to hidden treasure.

He could make basic wishes know though. When asked if he wanted to die (the consequence of taking out the drip) he indicated independently both to me and the nurses, a vigorous yes. He further demonstrated that by tearing the drip from his arm and knotting the tubes. During the interview with the speech therapist he indicated to the cup of tea a nurse had brought me and placed on a self behind. "Watch this for communication," I said to the beautiful young therapist. "I advise against this", she said

I gave him the cup and held it strongly and sipped with determination, checking to see how much he had swallowed. Without the drip he became very thirsty. Very little went down. His swallowing was very weak, most dribbled out and soon some would go down his windpipe and he would cough and splutter, go red in the face and wheeze like an old walrus. But I preserved for dying of thirst is no easy death.

I tried reading Peter Cary's new book "The True History of Ned Kelly". But he could not follow it. One night as I came through the hospital garden in the evening, Jennifer found the dried out carcass of a black cat, just white bones in bag of dried skin and fur, and carried it to the hospital door. An omen of death, I wondered.

By his bed for something to say, I told him about it. He liked Jennifer stories. "Which reminds me of a verse in my Buddhist text", I added and then intoned with my voice resonating in the quiet ward: "Flesh and bones though joined together in the end must separate. Think not your life a lasting good. Soon it endeth."

My father had made it clear he wanted no religious talk from me. He threw back the bed covers and gestured for me to leave at once. He still could make his will clear.

When my daughter Softly and son Silas came down from Sydney to say their goodbyes, I drove to Tullamarine to meet them at the airport. When we returned at the end of the day, my father was waiting in the ward's nursing office. Somehow he had found the nursing admin centre and was plainly making his point. He wanted to go home.

He recognised my voice and greeted me with a smile when I came up to him. He took my arm and shuffling from ward to ward, lead me along peering in with his poor eyesight then moving on. It was plain he was looking for the exit. We resisted for a while but then surrendered to his will. "Maybe he just wants to find something, I will bring him right back", I rationalised to the nurses. But when we steered him into the house, his face lit up with a grin as he took his seat in his chair and patted Jennifer. After an hour he got up and made his way to bed.

It was a brave attempt to die at home. But he had a terrible night that night, thirsty, hungry (4 days without food) and coughing. The next morning he had shat his bed again. I took him to the bathroom and showered and cleaned him up. Then cleaned up the shit in his bed and smeared about his room. That weekend Silas, Softly and I were haunted by the smell of shit. It seemed to have got everywhere on my clothes, on my boots.

He agreed to return to the ward, defeated. So the routine set in that my little procession of sheep and dog would go to the hospital where nurses and patients (pet therapy) would greet us with delight.

As a regular visitor I came to know the stories of the other broken down old men in the ward and their carers. Strokes, dementia, and other weird terminal stuff filling up the wards because of the lack of nursing home beds. One guy was dying of some blood disorder. For some unknown reason, his body could not hold the blood he was being given and he was swollen up like a leech. Apparently the body makes anti bodies to resist the blood so every transfusion had to be one step ahead of the anti bodies generated by the last lot. The more blood he was given, the harder it became to find acceptable blood.

I would tie up Jennifer outside, get Gray into a wheel chair and take him out for some juice and a cigarette. For a while there I was drowning him in apple juice. The risk was pneumonia but that seemed easier way to die and preferable to dying of thirst and starvation. Better some fluids than none. He would drink, splutter, cough violently, bring up the yellow sputum, sit for a while with his cigarette, and attempt further drinking. Then I would take him in and he would sleep, resting for the exertion of trying to swallow.

His doctor, Phillip Woods, was at best distracted. He was hoping for a return of the swallowing. My father had pulled the drip and resisted a catheter up his nose. The other option was a tube inserted into his stomach so he could take liquid foods. This required surgery and surgeon came from Ballarat only one day a month in Stawell. The risk was infection and that he might just pull it out like he had done the drip.

The surgery was supposed to take place on the Friday, 10 days after his admission. It was all agreed. But although he had been prepared for surgery and wheeled in to the operating theatre, the surgeon had refused to proceed because Dr Woods did not have a written consent from me. And me only a phone call away. I found him at the end of the day in a state of neglect. The balls up had temporarily demoralised the nursing staff.

Then I started feeding him thickened foods in earnest. Three times a day I would spoon in baby foods. As we come into the world so we leave. He handled this better but they were still not enough. He was getting weaker and weaker, comprehending less and less. I would find him wandering in the wards looking for me at meal times and light up with a smile at the sound of my voice.

The speech therapist reckoned he had some right brain communication (tone of voice, body language, and basic words). He certainly loved the visitors who came. Genuinely recognising them and attempting to speech. He grasped my sister in law, Margaret Flavell's hand and held it.

At first he resisted wearing nappy pads and using a bedpan. When he could not find or be guided to the toilet he would piss on the floor. The smell of stale urine surrounded him and every day I would collect the wet pyjamas wash and dry them and return them to the ward. He had become a "problem patient" and I helped best I could to bath him, washing the shit off his shrivelled piles. The nurses appreciated my efforts

On Wednesday my nomad friend Jack Wayward arrived. It was so good to see him. He had driven from Perth. My faith is that in times of trouble saints and angels gather and Jack was one such. He had come, sensing my need, unbidden out of the western deserts to be beside me in those dying days.

He met me at the Laundromat (me drying pyjamas) and I took him on a tour of Big Hill, St Patrick's Church, and Jennifer dog before finally taking him to the hospital to meet my father. Jack held his hand and they sat together in great dignity. My father was frail but, after 15 days of fasting and no medications, he was glowing with clear inner light, a benign old Santa Claus now. Jack watched me spoon feed him and my hand trembled and we both wept.

Together we did a Big Hill sunset ritual with Jenny and Molly. Jack loved the sheep and dog act and said it was a blessing, an eccentricity handed on by my father. That evening we camped out at Lake Lonsdale with a campfire and Jack cooked and we got drunk on corn whisky. Jack became by carer.

Another surgery date had been set for Monday 14 November in Ballarat and I was to drive him there. But on Thursday afternoon 8 November, I came to his bed to find his face tender and swollen. A lump had formed in front of his ear on his right jaw in the three hours since I had last seen him at 1 .30 pm.

An infection had formed in a salivary gland and this, I discovered, was one of the hazards of not swallowing. The saliva was not cleaning his mouth and for want of effective disinfectant swabbing, food remains were fermenting there. His resistance low, the infection had taken off and now he had blood poisoning.

The next day he was in great distress, bellowing and groaning like a wounded walrus, tossing and turning. Across his bed I asked the nurses the prognosis. Not good. One told me: "All those stories about nurses giving lethal injections are bull shit. Hospitals are terrified of euthanasia."

But really the nurses decide what goes on in the wards. Sister Pam McKay, who I had met through the Big Hill Action Group, pushed Dr Woods into approving a morphine drip (15 ml every three hours). I watched the morphine take effect. In seconds he relaxed into a deep coma.

Jack advised me on the code, which was to ask for more morphine. Are you sure that is enough" And so I did and the nurses were encouraged. So it was that my father died in a morphine dream the next morning.

My father had been adamant that there be no funeral or religiosity at his death. He certainly did not want me to arrange his funeral and had specified that in the will, even nominating the undertakers, someone other that the Dunn's of Ararat to whom he was related by marriage. More of my father's insults and wrong headedness I decided and called cousin John Dunn to help me out.

I feared that he might have died without knowing it and so I got John Dunn to get the body from the hospital morgue, so that he might dress it and return it to the house the next day for a "traditional" lying in. Then began the telephoning family and friends.

When the body arrived at the house so did emotional turmoil. I was certainly emotionally unprepared and neither were the mourners who all arrived at the same time as the body and took refuge in the kitchen, talking about everything else except the corpse in the living room.

All about I sensed my father's displeasure at my presumptions, and judgment on my impropriety.

After the discomforted mourners departed Jack Wayward sat with me for a while, a calming presence.

When my sister in law, the widow of my long dead brother, Margaret and her husband arrived from Bendigo, Jack departed, knowing that this was now a time for family business. Margaret had been very close to both my mother and father and had nursed my mother through her death.

A former maternity ward matron, Margaret is now deeply into pastoral care for the Catholic Church in Bendigo and did a lot of work with the aged and the dying. She had come at my call, driving 200 km to be with me and lead a prayer session over the body.

So we sat about the coffin and talked to my father's spirit as if it was in the room. I thanked him for his fathering asked his forgiveness for my failings as a son. Margaret spoke and thanked him on behalf of her children who had all adored him as a grand father and prayed that angels would watch over him and guide him. The rays of setting sun shone through the shade trees and the window and illuminated the coffin with golden light.

When we finished there was absolute peace about the corpse and through out the house.

We shared a meal and then Margaret and husband Rod returned to Bendigo. I wanted to be assured he was at peace with me so I sat meditating on his life and death, on fathers and sons, and fell asleep beside the coffin.

In the night a wind came up and I was awoken by knocking at the windows and a guttering candle which caused a small fire. But I took these to be vexatious spirits, hungry ghosts maybe, drawn to scene, and wished them happiness and went back to sleep.

When the undertaker, John Dunn, came next morning to take the body off for cremation, it was just a body, old clothes going off for recycling. My father's soul was far away.

The following Thursday 16 November I led a Remembrance ceremony in the back garden of my late father's house. About thirty friends and family came. Neighbour Margaret Johnston catered and we set up a small table bearing his ashes and those of his partner in life, my mother, and also photographs and other memorabilia. I told of his death and invited family and friends to speak of his life. Many stories were told and there was much laughter. My father was no saint but he had, in his lifetime, made a lot of people laugh.

At the close of the ceremony, as my father had requested, we mixed the ashes, marvelling add how much more ash by mother had produced compared to my father who was of a much bigger build. "Maybe there is someone else in here", I whispered to cousin John the undertaker. "We are an industry of the highest professional standards", he assured me with a macabre grin.

In a small procession of cars bore intimate family and mixed ashes out to The Grampian National Park for dispersal. High on a cliff that looked east across the plains towards Stawell, the grandchildren and great grand children took turns to take a handful of the ash, say a final farewell and bury it in the leaf mould or throw it into the wind.

For some the capricious wind blew the cloud of bone dust back on the thrower. Hey what's a bit a grandma and grandpa on the lapels?

As we began this ceremony a small cloud of fine rain blew up the valley towards us. The air below us began to take on colour, faint at first then growing in intensity until a full rainbow was glowing at our very feet!

Auspicious! Completion and the bountiful blessings upon an extended family affirmed.

Graeme Dunstan
19 November 2000

 

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