My father, Stanley Graham "Gray" Dunstan, died in the Stawell Hospital, 7 am Sunday 12 November 2000 aged 88 years.
When the call came from the hospital, I was camping out at Lake Lonsdale about 20 km away with my nomad friend and mentor, Jack Wayward. The morning light was bright and the call was not unexpected.
When I got to the hospital 30 minutes later, my father's hospital bed was enclosed by the curtains and his body still warm. His eyes were closed, his colour present but fading and his toothless mouth was wide open, as if he had died mid snore. For dignity's sake, 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 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.
My part of the conspiracy was that I had encouraged them and indeed was 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 into his drip and on the previous day I had purchased the lethal dose in preparation.
When the prognosis came after the stoke he had suffered back in August, that the arteries in his neck were clagged and that they would continue to throw off clots which would cause a series of random stokes, he and I knew he was a doomed man. We all are.
While I was on the road with the first Drug War Freedom Ride, news came that he had another minor stroke, which had knocked out some of his capacity to swallow but in came back over a few days and he was released from hospital to return to live alone in the house he had acquired in Stawell, the old gold town in western Victoria where my mother had been raised and where he had met and courted her.
News of another stroke came as I was driving to the s11 World Economic Forum Blockade in Melbourne 11-13 September. This time my aunt Doris, his primary carer, had called to say it had become too much for her and that she wanted me to take over.
I wondered at the strange twists of fate that had led to this. We never got on. As they say in the mytho-poetic mens' movement, we worshipped different gods. 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. Always quick to raise and blame me for the opportunity lost by my dropping out of Duntroon, he never expressed any curiosity about what I had done with my life instead. For him it was forever "wasted".
For me he had always been a tight fisted, angry and contrary old bugger and we never agreed on anything. If it was going to be a challenge for me, imagine the challenge it was for him to become dependent on the prodigal son who had left home as soon as he could so as to be as far away as he could from that angry and contrary old bugger.
But the fact was that he had no choice, no one else was volunteering. My sister Wendy, older than me and the only other living sibling, had wiped him as irreparably stupid, stubborn and mean; she never visited him during his decline nor came to his funeral. She told me her severing of filial ties had been made final by the capricious meanness which he had dealt our mother towards her end.
No question that my father adored our mother. He said it often that she was his true friend and companion and although it seemed to me that their dialogue was endless bickering there was often laughter in it too. But as it has been often observed, ask a man who his best friend is and he will nominate his spouse; ask the spouse and she will nominate another woman.
My mother Bessie Edith May (nee Sumner) had a close companion in Melbourne, an friend from primary school days, called Edna. Together they were part of a Stawellite group who were preparing for the 150th anniversary of Stawell Primary School. The planning had been going on for years but just a week out from the celebration, my father with that characteristic capricious meanness, had announced we would not be attending. Which meant our mother, who had never learned to drive, could not attend.
My sister and brother in law offered to drive her but she declined saying she could not attend without her husband. My sister believed it was her subsequent brooding resentment and unexpressed anger at this betrayal that had brought on the stroke that laid her low and left her incommunicado.
The first thing my father said when i arrived at the hospital was that he wanted me to take him home. I did and settled in as his carer, surrendering to a meditation on human decomposition.
After the death of my mother five years previous, my father had sold up the Moonee Ponds house where he had many neighbourhood friends, and bought the house in the Stawell, where he had none but aunt Doris. He made no secret of his expectation that my aunt Doris, who had been widowed about the same time, would marry him and be his spouse and carer. He had always been fond of her and it just seem like common sense to him.
Not so for Doris who having nursed her husband through a long and difficult death by liver cancer. It was not just that she didn't want the burden of another ailing and cantakerous old man, she had found herself, unexpectedly given the painful demise, in deep grief. But she did become his primary carer visiting daily, managing his managing his affairs and his moods and delusions with skill and patience. Until now, the final decline.
It was no great inconvenience for me to take on the care because I had become so thoroughly detached from careers, relationships and householder responsibilities that I had plenty of time to be immersed in my father's death. Indeed it felt like some karmic obligation as besides it fulfilled a promise I made to him 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."
His hips were painful, he was deaf in the left ear from the roar of diesel engines of his career as a heavy transport driver and his eyesight, already weakened was severely reduced by successive strokes. The district nurse would come once a week but there were few other visitors.
Strokes not withstanding, my father held 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.
Meals on Wheels chow was delivered to him but the dog and I ended up eating most of it for the freezer became chocker with the stuff. He liked to send me out to fetch a hot meat pie or fish and chips.
Mostly he sat in his chair and got angry at the radio. His idea of conversation was a contest of opinions, an angry assertion about some hear say or other. His poor hearing prevented him from hearing much of others, so he did most of the talking. 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, Jennifer the Maremma.
With Jennifer it was love at first sight. She was a large and purebred Maremma, an Italian breed of sheep guard dog, born of the first litter of a breeding pair imported from Tuscany by my cousin Lance, son of Doris. When my father had moved to Stawell after my mother's death, we had urged him to get a dog companion. He had resisted at first but accepted Jennifer in lieu of an $800 debt owed by Lance when his farming enterprise went belly up.
To give the dog some company appropriate to her breed, he also acquired a sheep he named Molly. He saved on gardening too, and the garden that had been so lovingly established by the previous owners with underground irrigation and a fernery was soon reduced to stubble. Molly even ring barked a shade tree.
Molly was absolutely bonded to Jennifer and Jennifer was her entire flock and security. Molly would panic and bleat plaintively whenever Jennifer was out of direct line of sight.
Jennifer did her duty to Molly but in truth she was depressed by being penned up in the small yard all day every day with a sheep. Sometimes she would express her frustration by barking loud and long and without much cause with the other aroused neighbourhood dogs and sometimes by attacking the bewildered Molly, turning on her with savage snarls and once tearing her ear.
Jennifer loved our walks and came alive, new lustre in her coat from the healthy exercise. She loved me, barking with joy whenever i returned from being away, dancing up and down on her rear legs, lifting her forepaws, an undulating dance of white shag. When I sat in meditation on the back verandah we would come sniff the air about to me, for the pure joy of my scent.
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. My van under repair, one day I took the Hyundai 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 use 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 agreed that all he said was true. I had been terribly cruel son to abandon my mother so and 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. He could charm if he wanted to but he had always acted as if he didn't need friends. After 35 years service as a senior driver in the Commonwealth Heavy Transport Division he had come away with not one lasting friendship. He was content to sit alone and work alone in his shed. An outsider just like me.
After I returned from Ballarat and my Hyundai defiance, the air in the house was poisonous and I was filled with remorse for my harshness. I had to go off to a friend's house out at Deep Lead about 15 km away to find spiritual nurture.
But 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, no place he wanted to go.
All he wanted was to be assured about the distribution of his assets: three way split between sister Wendy, his grandson, Aaron (only child of deceased brother Hadyn) and myself.
"Do you want the money?" he demanded of me.
"Rather have your blessing", I said. At this he turned his face aside with a wince of exasperation.
Next day Doris blasted him or so she told me. "He is a good son, the only one willing to be with you, etc etc." 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 turned up loud. He was bored by it: "Too many experts", he said. He enjoyed watching the Molly the sheep and Jennifer the dog in the back yard and would call to them and sometimes go out to them.
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. Though I had my bearings, in truth 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.
When another minor stroke took out vision from the left side of his right eye, he made the announcement when I returned from my Big Hill sunset walk with Jennifer. "I am blind", he said. "Which means I am fucked and will have to go to a nursing home. Who the fuck would have thought I would have gone blind!"
But nursing home was not 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 and after all, while effectively operations manager for the Nimbin HEMP Embassy, 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 was the local drug dealer - but tobacco only! He smoked about 15 rollies a day and I started slipping in cannabis. I noticed that he started singing took more interest in the backyard and was more accepting of me and the food I offered him.
But his deafness made conversation difficult between us, that and the vast gulfs in our interests and experience. For example I was interested in death and he wasn't. Every morning I would put out my blankets on the back verandah, chant and meditate on the teachings of Padmasambhava and Phadhampa 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. My 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.
This was my second and final attempt to be full time carer for my father; first attempt had come to despair two years earlier. All too hard I soon ran away back to Nimbin and social activism again.
But when I first arrived I heard a long the way that Big Hill, central landscape feature of the town, a tourist lookout and the towns traditional lovers lane, was up for pit mining. Big Hill was where the quartz gold mining began that established Stawell. 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 back then and as a kind of tribute to my mother, I joined up with the Big Hill Action Group and organised a mass lantern spectacle on the Hill. It was intended as a show of strength for Big Hill lovers in the face of a mining company, Stawell Gold Mines which was two thirds own by a US corporate criminal, Pitson Mining and which was making lots of false 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 the house to help me make lanterns in his shed out back.
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.
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. (She did. We won the campaign against the pit.)
My father resented the bond that grew between Jennifer and I gave me lots of reasons why I should not take her out. "She is unbiddable and has no road sense," he would say. "But she is learning quickly," I would counter. Besides Stawell is a country town with very little traffic.
Finally it came down to causing too much stress for Molly sheep. Molly would bleat plaintively, loudly and continuously while we were away.
One day Molly made a bolt for freedom through the house and out the front door following Jennifer. What a delightful sight it was to see them together in the street! Jennifer leading, Molly following close behind, eyes wide with fear in the big outdoors. Children from St Patrick's Primary School across the road lined up on the fence to pat Jennifer and behold the spectacle. Everyone smiling.
Thus we became an eccentric parade in Stawell each afternoon, Jennifer following me, Molly trotting behind Jennifer, always putting Jennifer between herself and any potential danger, excited and sometimes terrified by new places and encounters.
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 and I was able 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 Falcon 500 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 had been out of town in a week and I had made care arrangements for my father with Doris who 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 lost his swallowing and his speech permanently. He would never speak to me again or anyone else for that matter.
So my hospital vigil began. Three times a day I would go sit with him. His communication through grunts and gestures was poor but his will prevailed. When I expressed by regret for having deserted him in his crisis, he snorted angrily.
The speech therapist assessed him as having no swallowing capacity (a sign was put above his bed "Nil by mouth") and his brain scrambled both in word assembly and cognition. She warned about the dangers of projecting my meaning onto his gestures and grunts. For example 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 a map to hidden treasure.
He could make basic wishes know though. He ripped the saline drip from his arm and twisted the plastic tubing into knots. When asked if he wanted to die (the consequence of taking out the drip) he answered independently both to me and the nurses, a vigorous "yes!".
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 pretty young thing.
"I advise against this", she said
I held the cup to his mouth and he sipped with determination, me 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 went down his windpipe and he coughed and spluttered, went red in the face and wheezed like an old walrus. But I presevered for dying of thirst is no easy death.
I also tried reading to him Peter Cary's new book "The True History of Ned Kelly". But he could not follow it.
One evening 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 bedside, 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 always reviled religious talk from me and now he threw back his bed covers and pointing first to me and then the door of the ward, let me know I should leave at once. I laughed out loud at he great spirit.
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 in his near blindess, he had found the ward's 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, led 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 Ð on the carpets, on my clothes, on my boots.
Defeated, he agreed to return to the ward. So the routine set in that my little procession of sheep and dog would go to the hospital where nurses and patients would greet us with delight. Pet therapy.
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 terminal stuff was filling up the wards because of the lack of nursing home beds. One guy was dying of some blood disorder. Seems his body could not assimilate the blood he was being given and he had swollen up like a leech.
Apparently the body makes anti bodies to resist foreign 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 more swollen he became, and the harder it became to find acceptable blood. Not a good prognosis.
Each visit 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 coughning and trying to swallow.
His doctor, Phillip Woods, was at best distracted and worst useless; he was taking fees but rarely present at the bedside. Seems he was hoping for a return of the swallowing. My father having pulled the drip, resisted a catheter up his nose, the last option was a tube inserted into his stomach so that liquid foods good be delivered. This required surgery and the surgeon came to Stawell from Ballarat only one day a month. 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 my father 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 Gray at the end of the day in a state of neglect, the administration 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 tinned baby food. As we come into the world so we leave. He handled this better but it was 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 fondly 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 bathe him, washing the shit off his shrivelled piles. The nurses appreciated my efforts
On Wednesday my nomad friend Jack Wayward arrived and it was so good to see him. It is my faith that in times of trouble saints and angels, hear the cry of helplessness and gather. 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 found me at the Stawell Laundromat (me drying pyjamas) and I took him on a tour of Big Hill, St Patrick's Church, and my father's pets Jennifer and Molly before finally taking him to the hospital to meet my father.
After 15 days of fasting, no medications and major elimations of sputum, my father was frail but glowing pink faced with clear inner light, a benign old Santa Claus now. Jack is a big man and medically trained. In his boots and outdoor gear, he stood a giant in the ward, a visiting alien, and beheld my father. Introduced, my father seemed to sense his compassion and he walked towards him, took and held Jack's hand and together they sat side by side on the bed in silence and in great dignity.
Jack watched as I spoonfed him. My hand trembled and we both wept.
Together we did the Big Hill sunset ritual with Jenny and Molly. Jack loved the sheep and dog act and told me it was a blessing, an eccentricity handed on by my father. Later that evening we camped out at Lake Lonsdale, Jack cooked and by a campfire under stars, we got drunk on corn whisky. Jack my carer.
Another surgery date had been set for Monday 14 November in Ballarat and I was to drive him there. But at 4 pm on Thursday afternoon 8 November, I came to his bed to find his face tender and swollen. A bulbous swelling had formed on his right jaw and under his ear in the three hours since I had last seen him.
It was an infection in a salivary gland and this, I learned, was one of the hazards of not swallowing. The saliva was not cleaning his mouth and for want of effective disinfectant swabbing (my father had resisted the foul taste of it), food remains were fermenting there. His resistance low, the infection had taken off and now he had blood poisoning and was in great pain.
By the next morning his distress was aural: he bellowed and groaned 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, got on the phone and pushed absent 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.
It was Jack who gave me the code words for invoking euthanasia, to wit: 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 than the Dunn's of Ararat to whom he was related by marriage. More of my father's insults and contraryness. Funerals are for the living not the dead, I decided and called cousin John Dunn to help me out.
In a morphine cocoon, I feared that he might have died without knowing it. 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 I began the telephoning family and friends telling of the news and inviting them around.
Next morning John delivered the refrigerated, dressed and closed mouthed corpse. He had a veil over the face. A blow fly buzzed by. "These, Graeme, are the enemy," he confided professionally.
When the encoffined 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 disgust at 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, for all those years he worked supporting his family, getting me through school and onto university. I also 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 grandfather. She prayed that angels would watch over him and guide him.
When we finished there was absolute peace about the corpse and through out the house. The rays of setting sun shone through the shade trees and the window and illuminated the coffin with golden light.
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 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 including my younger daughter, Holly High who had come from Canberra. Neighbour Margaret Johnston, my father's former smoking companion met through the Big Hill campaign, 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 certainly made a lot of people laugh.
At the close of the ceremony, as my father had requested, we mixed the ashes, marvelling 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.
A small procession of cars bore intimate family and the 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.
19 November 2000
POSTSCRIPT: It was my father's wish that Jennifer and Molly be not separated and he had promised them to the District Nurse who had land out of town to house and graze them. But by the time of my father's death, Jennifer the Maremma was so thoroughly bonded to me that she had to be coaxed and dragged to go to my father's side so that he might pat her.
So I decided to claim the inheritance and take both dog and sheep on the road of my nomad life. I used some of my father's money to acquire and fit out a covered box trailer to carry Molly; Jennifer preferring to ride in the van with me.
We took a little while to sort it out because neither Jennifer nor Molly had travelled much before. The flighty Molly had to be fitted with a collar and drag chain to make it easier to catch her when it was time to load her up. I chose a black leather collar with chrome studs - sheep with attitude! Soon they learned the routine and would jump aboard at my command.
We travelled many thousands of kilometers together, our little procession through streets and parks ever evoking smiles of delight. Molly became a protest veteran and heroine at many a police line. For example the Coolum CHOGM protests of 2002.
When I had first met Molly I had disparaged her and my father as stupid for the destruction of the garden wrought by Molly. But travelling together i got to appreciate her sensitivity and intelligence. She was certainly more alert than Jennifer and maybe smarter too, but being a sheep she was quick to panic and that always led to trouble. The sober and dignified Jennifer was ever the problem solver.
My life as a shepherd and I was soon the bonded one. In this bond with sheep and sheep guard dog I came to know the softness of my father's heart so long denied to me by my anger and resentment during his lifetime.
Hear the gratitude of your son, Stanley Graham Dunstan.
drafted December 2000
refined April 2007