Still Life – still alive!

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Feverish and aching from flu I couldn’t settle to read so took advantage of modern technology and decided to relax in front of the ‘goggle box’. The limitations of free to air television were soon apparent, so I chose a DVD I’d had for awhile, but never got around to watching, a film I’ve also wanted to write about because it has what all writers seek: a memorable character, engaging storyline that makes an emotional connection, conflict, and an unforgettable climax and resolution.

I saw Still Life last year with my older sister Cate and was so impressed that I never stopped talking about it – according to daughter MJ – and when JB HiFi had a sale, I received the DVD as a gift.

Now, choosing to watch a movie promoted as: “A council case worker looks for the relatives of those found dead and alone,” may seem a strange choice when your feeling so ill you might be his next case, but that’s what I did – and like the first time I experienced this film, I was profoundly moved by it’s life-affirming message and deep belief in humanity. Rare messages in a world terrorised by ‘the war on terror’ where refugees and ‘the other’ are demonised. A world where Nihilism often triumphs.

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For watchers of British drama, you’ll spot one of the best English character actors this century in Eddie Marsan, who plays the lead, John May with the right amount of melancholic sympathy and detached compassion you’d expect from a bureaucrat trying to instil dignity for those dying alone without becoming maudlin. ‘Mr May’ has been doing his job for 22 years when we meet him, finding the next of kin of those who died alone, or officiating at the funeral for those without friends or family interested in saying farewell.

The poignant opening scenes of sole mourner, John May choosing the music, listening to eulogies he’s written about the deceased using information on public record or gleaned from their belongings, and then solemnly sprinkling ashes on carefully selected flower beds is powerful cinematic storytelling. Beautifully scripted and shot by Uberto Pasolini, producer, director and writer of Still Life.

The film took four awards from the 2013 Venice Film Festival, but if you want to read a sour review Village Voice has a very critical, and in my opinion, harsh appraisal whereas FilmSchoolRejects understands “Still Life is a simple, small movie, but it has something big to say about the need for human contact.”

Conflict occurs almost immediately when John May is told he is being made redundant. His meticulous and organised search for relatives and then ‘appropriate’ arrangements for those left alone deemed too expensive and unnecessary in the world of bean counters and government economy drives.

When the downsizing is announced, John manages to gain a reprieve to finish his last case and this quixotic journey transforms his own life as well as others. His spartan dull life slowly changed, his obsessive neatness that borders on OCD challenged and a courageous liberating pattern of breaking the rules begins – all sparked by the realisation that the final “nobody” was Billy Stokes, a neighbour – unknown and friendless living in a flat across the walkway from John’s.

The wonder and talent of cinema is that so much story can be told visually, without words, explanations, exposition… Still Life is one of the finest examples of this I’ve seen in a long time – although I’d never set myself up as an expert on screen! The scenes where John pastes photographs of the deceased into a huge family album speaks volumes – not only about his own aloneness, but about giving a family to those who were friendless and isolated.

We writers must always consider our audience and filmmakers have the same brief – for me Uberto Pasolini’s “Still Life” ticks all the boxes. If you can borrow the DVD please watch it and I’d love to hear your opinion – and you don’t have to wait until you have a bout of flu!

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Vale Dear Friend – Have You Solved The Mystery of Death?

The sun exactly at noon is exactly [beginning to] go down.
And a creature when he is born is exactly [beginning to] die.


Hu Shih, Chinese Philosopher,philosopher, essayist and diplomat

On Saturday night I couldn’t settle. A telephone call from Canberra the day before said Margaret’s death was imminent – within 24 – 48 hours. The vigil of her final hours carried out by  two other friends – the remainder of our “gang of four” – sitting either side of her bed at Clare Holland House hospice each holding one of Margaret’s hands.

“You’re too far away Mum to do anything , but worry. Try and relax… we care about you.”

I started a jigsaw puzzle after my daughters insisted I focus on something pleasant. Their words of wisdom, sympathy and nurturing an appreciative role reversal.

“Remember your last few days together in January, focus on that image and all the good times you’ve shared.”

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Margaret’s dying had occupied thoughts and shaken emotional equilibrium for weeks. Daily text messages or phone calls from close friends, an ever present reminder someone I’d known since teenage was dying from breast cancer – a disease my body was fighting successfully – so far. Margaret’s lobular cancer, detected too late had spread to her brain stem and groin. Life seemed unfair and good health such a lottery!

I’ve experienced grief many times, especially over the last few years.  Friends and family farewelled; the most poignant goodbyes being husband John and my parents. I understand about complicated grief. For several years, I could identify with this state.  I appeared to “get on with life” , but my pain never fully receded into the background or diminished. It was even physical, with a permanent pain in my heart as if a stone lodged there, pressing its weight, interrupting normal rhythm. I became the great pretender, perfecting the art of an outward smile without any inner joy.

To endure life remains, when all is said, the first duty of all living beings… If you would endure life, be prepared for death.


Sigmund Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

Thoughts and memories of those I’ve lost circle in my head on a permanent loop. Each death a reminder of the one before: I don’t believe my yearning and longing for John will ever disappear and memories of others can appear unbidden, triggered by a smell, a piece of music, a photograph, a snatch of conversation… but I do “get on with life”!

And so when the call came at 6.00am Easter Sunday, to say Margaret had died the night before, I knew exactly when the moment had come. On Saturday evening, just after ten o’clock I’d had a strong urge to go outside again and watch the progress of the lunar eclipse. As I stood watching the clear night sky, the angst and worry about Margaret’s dying dissipated. I felt she was at peace, free from suffering and earthly worries .

She breathed her last breath at 10.15pm, April 4th 2015, 25 days short of her 68th birthday. Mary Jane’s photographs capturing my thoughts that Margaret joined all the others who have gone before, including her parents. “Who would have thought dying was so difficult,” she had whispered last week, insisting she saw her parents waiting.

That waiting now over.

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Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

After I received the news, Mary Jane and Anne bought me a beautiful orchid. Tall and willowy, like Margaret, a wonderful gift of life!

” To plant in Margaret’s memory, Mum.”

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Later, I went for a walk by the sea with a writer friend – another life-affirming pleasure and always a solace to me. Although it’s autumn, abundant signs of fresh growth promised new life.

Creating Memories

My garden reflects the rich tapestry of family life. The plants are a mixture of immigrant and native, just like us. Some are already memorials. Two sturdy bottlebrushes (callistemon linearis) remind me that two mothers grieve for sons. The wattle, as straight as a mast, thrives, but reminds me of a friend who died in despair. A rose from Coydon a link to the family home with Mum and Dad. There are cuttings from friends, plus birthday or appreciation plants nestling beside Mother’s Day flowers, nurtured by tiny hands.

Each has a story.

The rosemary bush by the mailbox extra special, an unexpected gift from a lady whom I‘d never met.  In September 2002, when John died after a heroic struggle with debilitating lung disease, a small healthy rosemary plant arrived with prayerful condolences.

In ancient literature and folklore, rosemary is a symbol of remembrance. It’s also an emblem of fidelity with a belief that its properties improve memory. Rosemary has particular significance for Australians because it grows wild at Gallipoli.

Rosmarinus Officinalis (‘Dew of the Sea’) is an evergreen shrub of the mint family. John loved the sea and often shared stories of his 16 years in the Royal Navy. His affinity with the sea led me to scatter his ashes at Stony Point. He’ll revisit many shores, including Mordialloc. And as the girls and I travel the world we know he’s always near.

The girls made tiny sprigs of beribboned rosemary for people to take home after John’s funeral, a custom since 1584. Rosemary even gains a mention in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Ophelia, decked in flowers said to Laertes: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.’ Shakespeare’s plays another love John and I shared – the ties that bind. So many memory triggers…

My garden will always be a work in progress. John’s announcement in 1984 when we bought the house prophetic, ‘the garden will have to survive on neglect. There’s enough to do inside to keep me occupied for years!’ However, like love, the rosemary flourishes and many passers-by and neighbours pick sprigs for their Sunday roast and other dishes. The other plants thrive too, like me they are low maintenance!

The ‘renovator’s delight’ garden still has the original couch grass with a small clump of Strelitzia regina (Bird of Paradise) and a bluey-mauve Blue Moon rose, shrubs spectacular when in blossom. Acquired plants fit the soil and landscape of the area; flora enriching the habitat for native birds, butterflies and bees. Drought-tolerant plants minimise water use and are wildlife friendly. There is beauty inherent in the evergreen native trees and indigenous plants produce the harmony I desire – native and exotic.

Bees and butterflies buzz and flitter from agapanthus to lavender, from rosemary to geraniums. Wattlebirds feast while insects scurry on lobed dark green leaves. A ringtail possum nests nearby. Blazing red hot pokers (kniphofia) create a rainbow in autumn.

Each day as I check the mailbox, or go for a walk, the rosemary reminds me that ’flowers seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity.’

I ponder where I’ll plant Margaret’s orchid to reflect on life and feel blessed.

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Death is an absolute mystery. We are all vulnerable to it, it’s what makes life interesting and suspenseful.

Jeanne Moreau

Impermanence, Inevitability and Dying with Dignity.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Steve Jobs

The telephone call comes out of left field. Tragic news to wreck quality time with a dear friend, yet it  is also a dear friend on the other end of the mobile.  My eyes sting with welling tears, but remain focussed out of the window of the Malt cafe in Beaumaris. I watch two young mums chat animatedly on the footpath. Relaxed and smiling they are probably enjoying the freedom of the first day of the school year; the little darlings who kept them busy all the summer holidays tucked into classrooms. Another couple on an outside table feed their Golden Retriever tidbits from their plates.

I’m surrounded by the chatter of other customers; the cafe almost filled to capacity. The aroma of  fresh muffins, fruit toast, and homemade jam mingles with my skinny latte and Lesley’s extra strong cappuccino. However, normality dissipates as I absorb the details of the call.  My body trembles. I feel as if I’ve been punched in the stomach and as usual Tamoxifen blesses me with a hot flush as anxiety peaks and emotions rage.

The day takes its first lurch into the surreal.

I’m on my way to celebrate a friend’s retirement from decades of teaching. She’s treating several friends to lunch at Sierra Tango, Cheltenham instead of us paying and hosting the celebration for her! The generosity of the invitation indicative of her warm, supportive personality and the venue a tribute to her knowledge of gastronomy, appreciation of fine foods and wine, and a commitment to support local businesses. Determined not to spoil her day, I seal my tragic news into an emotional compartment to be dealt with later…

I remember a poster I had on my wall at Burgmann College in 1971, when I lived on campus at ANU; my first year away from home. A poster long since eaten by silver fish when it was consigned to the garden shed, but there’s graphics with the same message – a sightly more colourful way of describing “left field”:

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The telephone call from Canberra, from a friend from those university days. She can’t keep shock and horror from her shaky voice.  A mutual friend, someone I shared a flat with in the 70s, is dying. She  was the first non-family member I lived, worked and studied with – we even shared the double bed that came with the one-bedroom unit – and thought nothing of it!  She’s now on borrowed time. How could this be?

A voice laced with tears explains that a late discovery of inoperable breast cancer, treated with letrozole, has metastasised to the groin and brain stem. The condition kept secret for two years, while she spent time travelling overseas and going through her bucket list. Now, she is in palliative care, her time to live numbered in weeks rather than months – or only days if she experiences a seizure or rapid deterioration of the brain.

I shared a picture of all of us at the Harmonie German Club in Canberra in 1973 in a recent post.  Tall slim M centre stage. She can’t be dying – and not of breast cancer. This news too confronting and scary. I think back to the old house we shared, living in one of the three apartments it was divided into.

I shiver. This news means all of the women living in that house, including me, have breast cancer: one double mastectomy, two single mastectomies and now M with metastatic breast cancer! Bad luck? Coincidence? A cancer cluster? A problem for another day…

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During the celebration lunch I receive another phone call with news that a European friend who had stayed with me early January had to have an emergency eye operation in Sydney because of a detached retina. There’s a danger she’ll lose her sight. This super fit friend, a world-renowned marathon swimmer came ninth in the Pier to Pub swim at Lorne this year. She’s supposed to be leaving Sydney for her home in Italy with a stop in one of Thailand’s resorts, but is now delayed in Australia until doctors allow her to fly.

The day has taken its second lurch into the surreal.

On my way home, I have the Serenity Prayer playing in my head as I try to put the sad news into perspective and decide on a course of action.

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The next day I’m in Canberra and over four days catch up with many old friends from university, make some new ones, and spend hours with M as she adjusts to the affects of radiotherapy and having only a limited time left. She copes well with the steady stream of people who want to help in some way, as well as say goodbye. The adage ‘bad news travels fast‘ proving true.

The busyness reminds me of  my husband John’s last days – the irony of  a  busy vibrant house,  comings and goings, laughter and noise, feasts and endless cups of tea and coffee yet someone is dying.

We share meals, laughs and stories. I spot photographs in an album – and snap copies with my camera.

 ‘Those indeed were the days my friend,’ I say,  ‘we had a lot of fun!’ M agrees. I listen as she describes the highlights of her overseas trips and of her intention to travel again. Deep down we both know another trip will never happen.

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Before I leave I water the plants and pick flowers to brighten inside.   M manages to negotiate back steps with some help and watches me water the garden, pointing out several special plants that came from other people’s gardens, or were received as gifts.

‘This can’t be happening,’ she whispers and I know she isn’t talking about my watering efforts. She alludes to her parents’ longevity, father ‘Digger’, dying a few years ago aged 93, her mother living into her 80s.

Her head shakes slightly, ‘I thought I had 23 years before I had to worry about all these decisions … what to do with things … ‘ Her voice trails off as her eyes drink in the beauty of flowers flourishing from the effect of an unusually cool Canberra summer that’s provided higher than average rainfall.

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I help her back inside wondering if this will be the last time I will feel the weight of her arm. The last time I brush fallen hair from her shoulders as her scalp reacts to the radiotherapy.

Why is the sun still shining? The magpies trilling? Laughter drifting from nearby apartments…

I recall a speech from one of the many Aboriginal women in our friendship circle. She thanked M for all the books she bought her children over the years, the encouragement to access education. ‘One son got his PhD last year, all my girls have tertiary qualifications – thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

Others repeated similar sentiments. ‘You may not have any children of your own, but what you have done for our children means they are yours too!’

The seeds we sow. A wonderful legacy indeed, but I wish she had another 23 years to sort out her life… I want the last few days to be surreal. I want someone to wake me up and say it was all a dream.

That (wo)man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men (and women) and the love of children; who has filled his(her) niche and accomplished his (her) task; who leaves the world better than he (she) found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he(she) had.

Robert Louis Stevenson