By the time my husband and I realised the garage had flooded, it was too late. Black mould had crept up the sides of the cardboard boxes and dark, stinking fingers had clawed their way into our belongings.
We hired a dumpster measuring four cubic metres and, with a utility knife, slit the cartons open one by one. It was like cutting loose the guts of your history and letting it bleed onto the damp floor. Among the dozens of letters were a few from you, Dad. This one was written 24 years ago and sent to 15-year-old me on a student exchange in Germany. ‘A Wednesday evening and I am alone with my computer!’ you wrote. ‘And classical music at high volume for company, with Pat not here to rein me in.’
The last time we ever spoke was hurried and awkward. Not knowing you’d die on the day of the big race itself, you rattled on about the Melbourne Cup. Impossibly, you were always able to pick the winner and 2012 was no different. ‘Green Moon is the horse to back. Number 14. I’ll put the money on and you can keep any winnings,’ you said.
‘I’ve got to go, Dad,’ I replied impatiently over the top of my pregnant belly, ‘I’ve got work tomorrow.’ Not long after that the terminal agitation set in. The nurse prescribed morphine and your withered body slipped into raspy unconsciousness.
Reading the typed letter now, the delight at finding yourself alone with your music all those years ago is palpable. On account of your deafness mum was constantly telling you to ‘turn down the noise’. In your inevitable style, the letter goes on with the mundane and factual details of purchasing a car and discussing the hot weather. ‘Continue to work hard at school and do your best,’ you wrote towards the end of the second page.
Yes. You knew education mattered and during my childhood you tried to explain the depth of this to me. A university degree lifted you out of the working-class suburbs of your childhood and eventually led you to become a diplomat. As I grew up you repeatedly told me there were no books in your own family home. To stave off the past, you crammed my own childhood full of books.
The kitsch wooden statute of a long-legged crane that you gave me when we lived in Thailand was up on a shelf and somehow survived the damp unscathed. On the bottom you had written in block letters: ‘To Claire with much love from Dad, Bangkok Dec 93’. (That was before people even gave me the nickname Ginger. You never cared for this much. The French spelling of ‘Claire’ was the name you chose for me.)
It’s strange to think you bought this statue for me. You weren’t a huge one for either buying presents or spending money, unless you were giving books. Remember those Enchanted World books you and mum ordered for me, in the late 1980s? Despite their expense, they really were enchanting—pages and pages of princesses, elves, dragons, witches, wizards, demons and magic.
As a child I pored over them endlessly and painted and drew pictures inspired by the images and words within. The books were in storage for the day my own girls were old enough to love them. Now they smell and decay. I’m in tears as they are placed into the rubbish. Some of those framed drawings of mine are tarnished with water and mould too. They’ve gone in the dumpster along with the books. Seems like a long time ago that I used to sew and draw. You were always so proud of my artwork.
Is it stupid to keep this white plastic folder? It’s the power of attorney you signed at my request nearly a decade ago. I had cancer and thought I might die. Leaving you in charge of my affairs seemed like the logical thing to do. I’m flicking through the paperwork desperately trying to find your signature. And when I do find it, there’s an involuntary sigh of relief at something so familiar. You scrawled this combination of letters hundreds of times in your lifetime but now the B, the S, the G are all fixed in time. You aren’t here to write those letters again.
I know you kept everything. All your papers: old bank statements, receipts, textbooks from 40 years ago. That was another thing that used to drive mum crazy.
While not one for emoting, you did repeatedly say that marrying mum—along with her eccentric eastern European Jewish heritage—was the best decision you ever made.
There’s a big black-and-white photo of me in a silver frame taken 20 years ago. Brown water stains and black spots of fungus have crept their way up from the base. When I first showed it to you, you warmly described it as ‘unlovely’. A friend who was studying photography snapped it in our student days. At the time, I was on the way back from my casual cleaning job, unkempt and unshowered.
Among this mess there’s a black-and-white photo of you at about the same age. That’s where the similarities end, though. Your portrait is a formal one, taken when you graduated from college. The faded ink says it’s an ‘unretouched proof’ and seems to give the date as 8.22.64. You’re wearing an academic gown, a thin tie and the earnest expression of a young man with his whole life ahead. Instead of being short and prone to plumpness, I could have done with those striking good looks and athleticism from your side of the family.
Here are scans from the cancer in my thyroid. The pale white lump is obvious. What joy to hurl them away along with all my old, wet medical papers: the biopsy; tests for hormones that I’d never heard of before the doom of April 2007; thyroid stimulating hormone, thyroglobulin, Free T4. On and on the medical records go, written in language and numbers that a layperson can’t understand.
Now I’ve got my own daughters, I wonder. What did you think? Were you terrified that your 30-year-old child might die before you? Of course with your stoic, Catholic upbringing you never let me suspect a thing. On the contrary you were almost standoffish during the treatment. You did practical things for me, like making preservative-free soup and bread. There’s the plastic hospital wristband I wore during the radioactive iodine treatment. It says ‘radioactive material’, as if cancer patients are not human. I’ll keep this.
Forty-eight hours after the surgery to remove my diseased thyroid, death did come looking for me. The tingling in my feet and fingers spread to my face and grew more intense. It was a busy night on the general ward without enough staff to go around. I tried to buzz the nurses. Through the walls came the sound of other patients buzzing as well, fighting for attention. When she finally came the young dark-haired nurse regarded me with ill humour. She checked my vital signs and they appeared normal. In a rapid-fire volley of words the nurse explained the duty doctor was seeing to someone who was having a heart attack.
‘You’ll just have to wait,’ she snapped before walking out.
Acute dropping calcium—or hypo-calcemia—can cause cardiac arrest. At the time this medical knowledge eluded me but my instinct did not. I was alone and in deep trouble. I wondered, if you find yourself dying in a hospital, can you call 000? Would the operator even believe you? Eventually the duty doctor appeared. With alarm, he yelled out for liquid calcium. I was the emergency case.
You’re not the only one here in this shed, Dad. There are boyfriends you only semi-approved of too. I’d forgotten that BT—the only serious long-term love before my husband—used to write me notes on any piece of paper he could find—napkins, the backs of envelopes, brown paper bags and receipts.
On this tiny piece of notepad paper he hastily wrote a poem titled ‘Eulogy to Impermanence’. The last line says: ‘a love, I hope, forever’. Well, BT, it wasn’t forever. Young love usually isn’t.
There’s a small, framed cross-stitch with greenish mould creeping up the back. Granny embroidered my name and the date of my birth, 25 December 1976, onto the white fabric along with a simple Christmas tree. That was when parts of New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, flooded and you drove mum to hospital early on Christmas morning to give birth to me. You recalled gingerly steering the car along roads that had been partially washed into a ravine while mum screamed ‘Go faster!’
Among these soggy relics, your handwritten letters seem scant. While some greeting cards are from long-forgotten friends, most are from mum. She diligently posted them off to so many different locations—Thailand, Germany, England, Ireland.
‘I’m missing you so much,’ she writes in one 1992 letter addressed to my former exchange family’s home in Hamburg. ‘It’s funny to think how long we planned this and now it’s nearly over,’ she continues.
As I toss them into the steel bin, the colourful envelopes inscribed with different handwriting and postage stamps land on top of each other. Who writes letters now? No-one. Letter posting is in ‘terminal decline’. Staring at the nearly full dumpster, I’m overcome with a kind of irrepressible grief. All those once-open doors are now closed. No world-travelling, no letter writing. Just living in the suburbs and scraping by. My long-time friend Sarah brushes this off. ‘There’s no point looking back on the past like that,’ she says, ‘just look at everything you have now.’
Just a few years after me, you got cancer yourself and became obsessive about small illness-related details. Fading, you retreated far into yourself. I lost the thread of our closeness. Even when the chemo stopped working and death was coming, you flatly refused to discuss it. You chose denial and I boiled with anger. The single thing you said was: ‘You’ve been there too, Claire. You understand what it’s like.’
But I didn’t.
Today you’re here with me again, Dad, in this filthy shed. And how grateful I am for this unexpected chance at a second farewell.