THIS ( FATHER­ING) LIFE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - KEITH RUS­SELL

WALK­ING with my eldest son down the back­streets of in­ner- city Syd­ney, build­ing work­ers give us a par­tic­u­lar stare that in Aussie body lan­guage means:

Well, so what are ya?’’ It is a warm spring day and my son is wear­ing a large woollen jumper and an un­usual woollen hat. Both items are dis­tinc­tive hand­knits.

My son has hold of my arm so we are walk­ing as a pair. He is 28 and I am 30 years older. We cer­tainly look out of place.

But just what is it about us that trou­bles th­ese men? Their first re­sponse, to their own un­cer­tainty, seems to be to treat us as a ho­mo­sex­ual cou­ple, which, in plain terms, two men, we are. And yes, we are ob­vi­ously in­ti­mate. But why the hand­knits on this sunny day?

Al­ready the gang has started to frag­ment. Each man hes­i­tantly moves to­wards his mates, to con­firm their dis­quiet, and yet they re­buff each other and move away. They feel a sep­a­rat­ing sym­pa­thy. They don’t know why.

As we draw along­side it be­comes ob­vi­ous to th­ese strangers that my son is un­well and that he is in need of my com­pan­ion­ship and as­sis­tance. The group sud­denly con­sists of a half- dozen men, all of whom are fa­thers, all of whom are sons. To­gether, we say: G’day.’’

And if it were pos­si­ble, we might stop and talk about what had just taken place. But we don’t. We shuf­fle past. We con­tain our feel­ings and won­der why this is best. We are not ashamed, yet there is shame. We could look each other in the eye, but what might we see? Enough, per­haps.

My son is tired and sore. This is his first day in the out­side world since he had surgery to re­move a tes­tic­u­lar can­cer. He stops, props, and puts real weight on my arm.

I am sud­denly a pro­tec­tive fa­ther and re­hearse again the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of love and the awe of know­ing my son’s naked­ness, feel­ing my son’s fear. Briefly we re- en­ter the dark and silent spa­ces opened up by my know­ing that he knows that I know he has be­come an ac­quain­tance of death.

The knits are his own work, some­thing he re­cently took up to fill hours of dread and hours of pon­der­ing. He has be­come very good, very quickly. In hospi­tal, wait­ing for surgery, he was able to find him­self a se­cure place in the cold anonymity of drab chairs and quiet ap­pre­hen­sion. Soon he was known as the young man knit­ting. It gave peo­ple a way to approach.

Even the nurses, nor­mally po­litely pro­fes­sional, found the knit­ting al­lowed them to en­gage the pa­tient as a young man. There was much talk of nee­dles and stitches and free forms and wool types and what grand­moth­ers used to do.

There was much shar­ing of the care we find it so hard to ask for and pro­vide out­side our ever- re­duc­ing cir­cles of in­ti­macy. Around his bed, a com­mu­nity was formed through talk of skeins and scarfs and the se­crets of the craft of in­ter­lock­ing.

He has made for him­self a way to be and dis­play his cir­cum­stances, not ideally, not with the sure­ness of a sign that says: ‘‘ I am ail­ing.’’ But, rather, his jumper and hat an­nounce his tran­si­tion, his progress and his achieve­ment in mak­ing a thing, a fab­ric, a soft cov­er­ing for his some­time de­spair.

As we turn from the lane into the main road, the fu­ture opens up. He has made his way back into the ev­ery­day world. I too, have a sense of ar­rival. If he could, I’m sure he would skip.

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