This (re­veal­ing)

Life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Pat­tie Collins

I AL­WAYS knew he was a good man but un­til he started to de­velop de­men­tia, I didn’t know just how fine a man my fa­ther was. As he lost con­trol of his mind and body, some­thing mag­i­cal hap­pened. His true na­ture ap­peared to emerge: dig­ni­fied, tol­er­ant, po­lite, stoic, brave. When he was healthy these qual­i­ties had in­fused and coloured the roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties he had — as a par­ent, grand­par­ent, sports­man, businessman, sol­dier, air­man. They were vaguely known, but not felt, by me. They were just Dad.

When all the masks were gone, how­ever, there was a shift in tempo. A space ap­peared in which we could speak, and lis­ten, to one an­other in a new way. Even when our con­ver­sa­tions had no clear mean­ing in a con­ven­tional sense, their au­then­tic­ity moved me to tears.

These con­ver­sa­tions had a mul­ti­di­men­sional qual­ity that shifted my think­ing about my fam­ily, and re­vealed new ways of see­ing and be­ing in the world in a deeply felt way. My dad made amus­ing re­marks about the risk of look­ing at an art­work too long be­cause it might wear out; he be­lieved he was liv­ing in a lost world and looked for ways to get home; while hav­ing a war-time flash­back, he showed me how to blow up a train; he asked achingly painful ques­tions such as, ‘‘Did I have a car be­fore I van­ished?’’

In rare lu­cid mo­ments he had the in­sight that ‘‘the good things in life of­ten come when other things crash’’. He told me how much he loved my mother and his par­ents, es­pe­cially his mother; that there should be medals for the courage and kind­ness of women.

His words had a pow­er­ful ef­fect on me. The right words said at the right time in the right way for the right rea­sons can al­ter per­cep­tions, dis­pel fears, of­fer hope. Yet se­ri­ous ill­ness proves the op­po­site; it plays scrab­ble with the lan­guage, cre­at­ing all the way. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, of course, is more than words; what was con­veyed was a deeply felt ex­pe­ri­ence, of­ten of suf­fer­ing, that expressed a truth rather than a fact. It was lan­guage from the heart, and could not be faked.

Nor­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent: it might have a con­ven­tional logic, a pur­pose and an ex­change of in­for­ma­tion; it is lan­guage from the head, can eas­ily be faked, and there­fore is less af­fect­ing.

When some­one close to you is dy­ing all that seems to mat­ter is the pro­found sense of love and com­pas­sion you feel for them. Ev­ery­thing else fades into in­signif­i­cance.

I’ve come to re­alise it’s not the fear of death that con­cerns me as much as the fear of dy­ing in an undig­ni­fied man­ner. But I’m hop­ing courage is con­ta­gious, and that when my time comes I die as well as my fa­ther did, hav­ing lived as well as he did. In his last months I came to know the man be­hind the man who had de­men­tia. My grat­i­tude is be­yond words.

Re­view wel­comes sub­mis­sions to This Life. To be con­sid­ered for pub­li­ca­tion, the work must be orig­i­nal and be­tween 500 and 550 words in length. Sub­mis­sions may be edited for clar­ity. Send emails to this­life@theaus­tralian.com.au

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