I’ve been internalising a debate about posting this. Seems a bit personal, a bit naff. And then I read a few of Stylist Erena’s blogs, and she said that she writes some of her posts for herself, it reminded me that I write for me too. I’m also writing for my Nan, so I can remind her of who he was, and for mum, who will lose her mind one day too (sorry ladies, I love you, but it’s true). And then it will be my turn and dementia might affect the part of my brain where he is stored, and there are things about him I don’t want to forget.
He died on the first day of summer in 2012 – the inaugural Ladies Crate Day. The day was rather fitting, we all look forward to the first day of summer, and the man was partial to a schooner or six.
It was 13 years from the first time he was told he had six months to live (they told him that four times, and the last time they were right). Thirteen years from when they removed his bottom jaw, his teeth and half his tongue, and crafted him a new mandible from part of his femur. In those 13 years he had lung cancer, oesophagus cancer and prostate cancer, every time the diagnosis was terminal, and he beat them all until it got to his brain.
Brain cancer turned him into a skeleton of a man, in a big bed, with a shock of white hair and the biggest blue eyes you ever did see. There was no talking, no walking, no writing, no reading, just blinking. There’s not many people who deserve to die like that. OK, I can think of a couple, but this isn’t about them.
He was raised in a Catholic orphanage. He and his siblings were from Australia’s stolen generation, a government initiative well known for removing indigenous children from their parents to ‘make them white’, and lesser known for removing Irish Catholic kids from parents living below the poverty line. Apparently being poor was worse than being beaten and starved by paedophilic priests, I beg to differ.
He joined the Navy as soon as he could, and met the cutest Italian cook you ever did see. They popped out a couple of girls, and a few years later a couple of boys, and settled in Western Australia, where he worked his lungs out (literally) in the iron ore mines in the Pilbara.
They lost every thing in the stock market crash of 1987, so they packed up the Statesman and road tripped across the Nullarbor to Queensland, moving into a big house on the side of a hill that is still home to many gypsy souls.
He was the calm in our storm, and since most of our temperaments have thrown to the Italian side, the storms can be pretty intense. When we are together, we talk about him so much that you’d think he’d just popped down to the shop to “put on a Lotto” and get some fresh bread rolls (crunchy for Nan, soft for himself).
Though most of the time he was cool, calm and collected, he was Irish, and in his younger days was known for his quick duck and his snappy right hook. Nothing was too much to ask if you were family, and everyone was family. The man stood up for what he believed in – no matter what. “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog” would have been his #qotd every day had he been the type for Instagram.
His sense of humour was dry, sometimes you only knew he’d cracked a joke because he’d be rocking quietly in his chair, laughing silently to himself with his eyes squeezed shut. After his facial surgery, his dietary requirements were quite particular and his longest standing joke was that Nan chewed his food for him and spat it into his mouth like he was a baby bird. The hormones he took to fight prostate cancer were female, he started to bud breasts and he would muse aloud about buying a bra.
He loved birds, and fed a family of magpies every day – Frank, Francine, Frankie Jnr and Frankette. His personal collection started with Rosie, a yellow cockatiel with rosie cheeks who could talk and dance and sing and whistle. One day he caught Rosie rocking out with her cock out, so Rosie became Rosebud and had gender issues forever more.
The arrival of an aviary meant that Rosebud was moved outside, and the bird collecting really kicked up a gear. There were two finches, that became forty-two finches seemingly overnight, and a couple of cutesie quails that hatched babies resembling pompoms with legs.
The man had everything that he could ever need…except for a breeding pair of rare red canaries. These red canaries were the gift to beat all gifts, they were very rare and came with the price tag to prove it. The rare red canaries arrived on Christmas Eve, and were introduced to the aviary – ruffling the feathers of the common cockatiels and their friends.
Within a couple of weeks though, the canaries had faded to an every day orange. It turned out that rare red canaries were just every day orange canaries that had been fed a diet of red foods, resulting in the rare red appearance.
He was solutions focused, so despite being urged to return his now every day orange canaries, he put red food colouring in their water. Within a week he had two rare red canaries, two rare orange cockatiels and forty two rare pink finches.
Mum’s sister made the move from Victoria to the sunshine state, and it was her first Christmas in the Queensland climate. Nan suggested a fan for the patio area, and was thinking that she would end up with a lovely outdoor ceiling fan, complete with a wall switch. He had other ideas, he went to Bunnings and got the biggest industrial fan he could find. He set it up at the far end of the table, with an extension cord, it sounded like a jet engine and it blew like a category five cyclone.
Christmas chatter was kept to a minimum that year, party hats were blown off, serviettes were scattered and paper plates were flipped, but we had excellent air flow, and the flies were unable to come within 20 metres of the table. He sat at the head of the table (closest to the fridge), looking like the cat that got the rare red canary.
He loved a good yarn, and the best ones I got would be just before he would go to bed. He would tell me stories about his brothers and sisters, and give me life saving advice. Once he gave me step by step instructions about how to save my life were I to be bitten by a venomous snake in the bush. It involved taking a photo of the snake (important for anti-venom), slicing out the piece of infected skin with a bush knife, and making a tourniquet out of a bandage and a tennis ball. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that if I was bitten by a snake I would rather die than ruin my modelling career with an unsightly scar.
He was a better listener than a talker but when asked, his advice was always sage and succinct. He would do anything for anyone, even those he didn’t like very much, and they’d never know unless they asked that he thought they were a bludging piece of shit.
Despite the awful childhood, the losing of their life savings, the years of operations, chemotherapy and radiation, he never once complained: “any day above ground is a good day” he would say – every, single, day.
It’s when life is a bit shit that I miss him the most. Which is a bit sad, but it’s true. I miss his carefree attitude, and his example of courage under fire, his eternal optimism and his straight talking.
I chat to him all the time. Mostly in my head, but sometimes out loud. That’s a bit weird, but I’m OK with it. If I’m pondering a problem I try and channel my inner Kenny and ask myself what he would do. There are days when I swear I hear him say “go around there and smash her face in girlie” and other days when I’m sure he says “take the high road Chicken, every dog has its day”.
I interpret this in my own way, so I go to boxing and punch the shit out of those pads (that’s the fighting Irish in me), and I buy myself shoes, because that’s what the high road is, right? Wearing high heels on a sloping footpath?
He continues to be the symbol of hope for our family, we all cheer for the under dog and we’re a bit blasé to diagnoses of terminal illness, we try to maintain a positive outlook on life, and we stand up for what we believe in (although most of us have outgrown our pub scrapping days). We are a judgement free family. It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl who was into girls, who is now into boys, or a boy who’s into boys, or if you were born a girl and now you’re a boy. We don’t care what colour you are, or if you spend all your money on the pokies, or if you blew all your inheritance on cocaine, or if you have children to different women all over the world. We look out for each other, and we back each other, and we love each other, even on the days when we don’t like each other very much.
What a legacy to leave behind. We’re forever grateful for the days we got – the good ones and the bad, even though we don’t feel like we got enough of them.
So that’s the cliché moral of the story: make the most of the days that you do have. Listen to the stories, ask questions, tell them your hopes and dreams, learn from their failures, celebrate their successes, and make memories, collect as many as you can carry, and hold on to them for as long as you can.
Peace out KRH xx