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

Happy Birthday Rabbie Burns! And Thank You Mum and Dad – In Praise of Reading and the Value of Books.

Through and through th’ inspired leaves,
ye maggots make your windings;
But O respect his lordship’s taste,
And spare the golden bindings.’

Robert Burns, 25th Jan 1759 – 21st July 1796

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Today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns – ‘oor Rabbie’  and my Father’s favourite Scottish poet. In many countries of the world, as well as Scotland, his contribution to literature will be celebrated at a Burns Supper with haggis piped in, songs sung, poems recited and much Scotch whisky, even Drambuie consumed. If you have an ounce of Scots blood, or lay claim to Scottish heritage, put an attendance at a Burns Supper on your bucket list!

It’s an opportune day to reflect on how my parents influenced me in different ways regarding reading as they inculcated a love of books into our family life. Both parents were strong characters with strong beliefs, but they came from different backgrounds (Dad, Scottish working class, Mum, Irish middle class) and so each had eclectic tastes. Fortunately, they agreed about issues that mattered – ethics and values to guide our lives, the importance of humanity and spirituality – and as prolific readers, both valued education.

Mum read more novels and fiction than Dad, who favoured technical manuals and non fiction books on subjects such as theology, philosophy, and politics. However, both loved history and poetry, and the classics. They kept abreast of the popular literature of the day, and the books considered to belong in an educated person’s library.

When my Dad died, I found an exercise book where he had had written stories, poems and even a short play. ‘Scraps of Paper’  so poignantly captured by Eric Bogle, who also had an erudite railwayman as a father. I realised the reason Dad nurtured and supported my love of creative writing was because it was an unrequited dream of his own. All my life, I knew, he valued the written word,  had a talent for speaking and writing, but sadly never saw his way to living the writer’s life.

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November 1962 – an image etched in my mind of Mum and Dad sitting in our almost bare lounge-room the week before we left Scotland for Australia.

Two packing cases sit in the centre of the floor, greaseproof lining protruding as if a surprise package has just been opened, but these are set aside to pack books for the hold of the ship taking us to Melbourne. Their pungent woody smell almost overpowers the musty smell from piles of books garnered from every room, drawer and bedside shelf in the house and scattered in various sized bundles around the room.

Mum sits on a cushion on the floor examining stacks –   book by book. Dad sits on a kitchen chair (the lounge suite already gifted to a needy neighbour) and he has several books balancing on his knees as he thumbs through a green leather volume in his hand.

Mum looks different, not relaxed as she usually is at night, in an armchair, engrossed in a book, cup of tea by her side, cigarette smouldering in an ashtray, and one hand twirling at her popular Toni perm.

Tonight, she’s wearing new reading glasses and a serious face. There are no guffaws of laughter (a frequent occurrence when she reads a Para Handy novel), or serious sighs (from absorption in an Agatha Christie mystery or Arthur Upfield’s Bony series), or dreamy smiles inspired by her favourite Mills and Boon author, Australian Lucy Walker.

‘We’ll take this one,’ said Dad, handing over Ivanhoe, a Sir Walter Scott Waverley novel, ‘which pile is going?’

Mum looks up, ‘Aye, all right – and this one too,’ she adds, pointing to a pile next to one of the packing cases and placing the Tartan Pimpernel by Donald Caskie on top.

‘Have you been through this pile?’ Dad leans over to check a bundle of books near his feet.
‘Aye,’ said Mum, ‘they can stay.’ She smiles as Dad picks them up to glance at their spines. He doesn’t check inside to see if they belonged to Papa, Granny, or one of his sisters and brothers, instead he mutters, ‘they’ll go.’

Mum laughs and holds up another bundle of books. ‘You decided these should stay?’
Dad nods. ‘Well,’ said Mum, ‘I want them to go.’

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I’m not sure if any books actually remained in Scotland. The evening progressed slowly, books Mum discarded, Dad decided to keep – and vice versa. Thank goodness even our children’s books were packed. No wonder the family home, including my current one, the bookshelves always bulge.

From my childhood, I learned to value books as prized possessions, a necessity for living. In the 50s and 60s, Sunday School and regular School awarded books as prizes – for attendance and for achievement. Books were expensive until the cheaper paperbacks were produced and for working class children like me an amazing gift to receive.

Father Christmas left children’s annuals like the Beano, Dandy, Topper or Bunty plus a popular novel, whether it was Capt W.E Johns Biggles series for the boys, or Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series for the girls.

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My godmother and other relatives and family friends knew to give me books as presents, were aware of my dream to be like my fictional heroine, Jo March.

No surprise I became the swot of the family and only sibling to attend university, the teacher and writer with floor to ceiling bookshelves in several rooms – the one who has happily lost countless hours of  life rummaging in bookshops.

I hear Dad’s voice, ‘I don’t care if you choose to be a street cleaner. Just stick in at school and be the best educated and qualified street cleaner there is!’ and Mum’s plea, ‘never waste the brains or talent God gave you.’

I’ve passed on the love and value of reading to my daughters. They understand that education is not the cramming of knowledge, but nurturing the desire to learn. I wonder what books will bulge from their bookshelves because despite technology they both love the feel, the weight, the smell, the comfort of a ‘real’ book! And they have both become exceptionally creative people in their own fields, including a love for the power of words.

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Summer days Enjoying the Present, Pondering the Past and Looking Forward.

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.

From the television show The Wonder Years
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Yesterday, I caught up with a writer friend who can no longer come to our workshop nights because she works late afternoon shifts to fit in with caring for her 89 year old mother. It was a lovely morning exploring her suburb of Edithvale, or Edie as the locals refer to the seaside town, two train stops away from Mordialloc, on the Frankston railway line.

I enjoyed hearing her praise Edie; see her smile with pride when relating stories about her love for the place. We both appreciated the blessing of living in a beautiful and safe area. We sampled tea in two different cafés, starting off at the one by the beach and having another cuppa in one ‘up the street’. We explored and grabbed bargains at St Vinnie’s Opportunity Shop while I absorbed her local knowledge.  To learn about a place from someone who loves it, to see through their eyes, a great way to explore the unfamiliar. I was pleased she still writes and keeps a journal, recording stories, events, thoughts on books she reads and films she sees –  no lull in our conversation or awkward silence as we chatted about authors and poets. A great catch-up even although we don’t see each other as often as before!

We shared admiration for Philip Larkin, but I was able to introduce her to Roger McGough.

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Mecurial Melbourne decided to give us a taste of winter as we sat huddled in the beachside café watching the wild sea. Not alone,  venturing seaward we laughed as three preschool children entertained onlookers by racing along the beach, playing chasie, throwing seaweed at each other and exclaiming at shells and stones discovered. Having uninhibited fun as children do, in-between returning to the table to interrupt the conversation of their  mothers  and remind them to ‘Look at me, Mum! Look what I found.’

Their joie de vivre triggered a memory of the first time I visited a beach in Melbourne with my brothers and sisters. We’d migrated  from Scotland in the summer of 1962. The pictures taken at Seaford, a beach in close proximity to Edie. No doubt, we would have driven by this place, or even stopped to sample the swimming here too, all those years ago. Another newly-arrived Scots family accompanied us – the pictures show a crowd of lily-white bodies excited about being in a warm sea!

img367   first swim in oz at seaford

I thought too of the days spent on Mordialloc beach with Anne and Mary Jane.

ScanI even recalled memories of visiting Pencil Point in Largs for that one day of the year we could call summer on the west coast of Scotland! (An old Andy Stewart joke – ‘of course, I remember summer! It was a Thursday!’)

I’m sure most people, if they sit in a café by the sea, could conjure memories of childhood, or of their children growing up, so if you are a writer don’t forget your pen and notebook! Relax and enjoy the aroma of fresh tea or coffee, listen to the rhythm of music, birdsong, voices, the sea – whatever surrounds you. Write what you see, hear, touch, feel; what you think, what you remember, what story you want to share…

The Shell
Mairi Neil

The sea a bright smudge of paint
reflects the powder blue sky,
now dotted with wisps of clouds
as if a child applied sunscreen –
long smears and uneven dollops.
My daughters prance in the shallows
collect shells and splash each other.
Laughter and joie de vivre contagious.
Tiny hands tremble with excitement
and clutch a pretty conch shell.

Let’s listen to the ocean, I whisper…

Childhood fantasies return as I
hear lapping waves caress the shore,
recall the whorls and serrated edges
of a giant shell sitting by the fireplace,
in a Scottish home. A relic of the sea;
frills worn smooth by tidal dances.
Children fascinated, imagination inspired.
The salmon pink interior, examined ––
What creature abandoned this home?
The answer forgotten, but not the whoosh
and echo of ocean waves.

The girls pocket their treasures.                                                              DSC_3702
Walking home, I share the story
of a bleached skeleton from the Irish Sea
transplanted 12,000 miles to Australia,
along with other family treasures.
Science suggests ambient noise –
not the whispers of distant seas,
but in the soothing songs of shells
Life’s mystique remains, and the girls
ponder connections to distant lands,
Life’s mysteries; the vastness of the sea.

Shell Cinquain
Mairi Neil

Shell
robust, resilient
dazzling, whorling, adorning
eternal colourful valuable mysterious
Dowry

Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.

Pierce Harris, Atlanta Journal