Thursday, June 16, 2011

Loss

Within a few hours of waking I'd heard the news that an old family friend had died, the son of an old work colleague had fallen to his death while on holidays and that my pet cat had lymphoma. There's nothing like death to come crashing on in when you're having a good time and spoil the party. The latter may seem trivial, but since growing up, pets have been family members and their loss has always been grieved. Pusskana was rushed to the vet by our housesitters, having been vomiting and then losing movement in his back legs. An ultrasound showed a giant cyst on his intestines and so an operation was called for. The discovery of lymphacites in his blood showed that his condition was terminal and that he now only has a limited amount of time before shuffling off. The vet has recommended a chemotherapy treatment which is apparently not quite as severe as that for humans - no nausea, no hair loss and allegedly no depression, though I'm not sure how they can be certain of that one. With that treatment maybe he'll live for another year, but there's no certainty of him even lasting that long. I hope that he is still going and in reasonable health when we return to Melbourne in another seven months.

The first real pet drama that I experienced was as an 11 year old. Natalie and I were left alone at home with our pet dog Rusty on Christmas Eve while Mum and Dad were off at some party event or other. One minute Nat and I were happy watching TV and scoffing down Mint Slice biscuits, the next Rusty was convulsing violently on the floor, his mouth frothing with white foamy bile. I couldn't contact our parents in those pre-mobile phone days and so ran in tears to a neighbour's for help. We then raced him off to the vet but it was all too late. It seems that he had been baited by a chunk of meat laced with snail poison and so died an agonising death. It was an unwelcome introduction into the way that life can end with no real warning and it had a huge impact on me and Nat. Until this day, now almost 40 years later, neiither of us can eat Mint Slices without recalling that terrible night.

In those days of the seventies Mum and Dad were very social. They were often out partying with friends or having friends over for elaborate dinner parties or fondhu nights. Mum would spend the entire day preparing the most amazing feasts with Nat and I buzzing around her feet trying to get a taste of anything we could. That is until she inevitably snapped under the duress of "the guests will be here any minute and I still haven't finished preparing the appetizers". Dad, normally the more volatile parent, would calmly assure us that the best place to avoid any grief was somewhere away from the kitchen and far away from the chaos of Mum in those moments. The guests would arrive to a welcoming drink, some fine savouries that mum had knocked up and a Burt Bacharach tune or the soundtrack of Hair playing on the radiogram. I loved it when their group of friends that included Grahame and Gill would come over. Grahame had worked with Dad at Business Equipment and I felt that I'd known them all my life. Certainly as far back as I could recall. He always seemed bouncily happy and full of energy, usually with a wide grin on his face and a laugh that was never too far away. He was one of those rare adults that seemed to give us kids plenty of time and treat us as real people rather than the annoyance that undoubtedly we often were. Gill was stunningly beautiful. Even as a young boy who barely tolerated girls as a necessary annoyance, her beauty was self evident and I couldn't help but stare at her at every opportunity. She seemed to have a warm glow around her and a gentle and welcoming presence. The morning after the dinner party I could always tell which had been Gill's glass from the shade of lipstick surrounding the rim. Some years later when I was a perpetual tertiary student majoring in card playing and bong smoking, Mum asked Grahame over dinner if there was any chance of a job at Tandem Computers for her seemingly very lazy and directionless son. And from that simple question and the helfulness of Grahame, the career that I have today began and has now stretched out for more than 25 years. I loved the fact that as the most junior person working at Tandem that I had a special relationship with the Managing Director of the company. It felt like some kind of insurance policy that at the very least I would always be treated fairly by everyone. And on the occasions that I saw him at work he was exactly the same as he had been my whole life. There was no pretence at all about Grahame. He always had time for me. And so it was with exceptional sadness that I learned of his death. He had been sick for some time and over the last few years had been suffering dementia. A horrible fate for a man who was so sharp in his prime. Gill I was told was still visiting Grahame every day. An incredible but unsurprising level of commitment and devotion from such a beautiful person. While his passing is probably almost a relief in some ways due to his deteriorating condition, it is really just the end of a long drawn out and sad process. Finality. I think with the death of each person that we know comes the death of a sliver of our life. While the memories are the same as they ever were, there is the reality that no new memories with that person will ever be created. And those that exist will fade and merge over time.

While working at Tandem, I became friends with Pete. He has just suffered his own incredible loss with his son being killed in an accident while travelling overseas with his girlfriend. By the time your kids are 25 you are probably expecting that they have survived the danger periods of youth and never dream that they will die in their prime. I can't even allow myself to imagine the pain that Pete and his family must be experiencing.

I guess for me, this day of horrible news is a reminder that all of our days are numbered, just as they are for those we love. I don't believe in any tangible form of afterlife. I don't believe that those we have loved and lost are waiting for us anywhere and that we will see them again. It would be a more comforting thought, but I just don't believe it. So to me death speaks with complete finality. Memories and photos are all that are left. Along with our own strong feelings and emotions for that person. Perhaps this is one of the motivating factors for me to have taken this journey now with my family. I know that it is a snapshot in time for all of us. Soon Jazzy and Finn won't want to be travelling around in a van with their uncool and boring parents and will be moving away. It seemed important to shift my family clearly to the very top of my priority list and make sure that I spent more time with them away from the distractions of day to day life as they had become in Warrandyte. And at the same time give them some strong family memories to carry with them through their lives along with a load of photos and a swag of stories. But the message is clear. Even when this particular trip is done and we return back to Melbourne, it is important for me to remember where my priorities should lie. This is merely a smaller part of the one journey. And it too will be completed before we know it.

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