Book extract: 'My Father's Island: a Memoir', by Adam Dudding
In this extract from a new memoir by Fairfax reporter Adam Dudding, he recalls the death – and life – of his remarkable, eccentric father.
My father's face was always thin, even before his years of ill health, but no one has told the mortician that. He has restored Dad to a Platonic ideal of the ageing, bearded patriarch – plumped out the deep cheek hollows, smoothed his frown-lined forehead, painted over the broken blood vessels on his nose, deflated the bags that used to hammock beneath his eyes.
His skin is a healthy pinkish colour, not the grey I've grown used to, and his white beard has been brushed up to double its normal thickness. I haven't seen it so voluminous and dense since the 1970s, when it was still black and extended halfway down his chest and almost as far width-wise. His lips are closed, but only just, as if he's thought of something quite funny and is considering whether to say it out loud.
The coffin is balanced on a folding trestle in the bedroom I used to share with my youngest sister. We've walked the coffin down the garden path – an uncle, two sisters, a couple of my nephews and me – past the sandpit built for grandkids and neighbourhood children but now colonised by Dad's staked tomatoes, across the treacherously rotten wooden deck and through the French door which, three decades after installation, can still only be secured by wedging a thrice-folded piece of paper between jamb and door.
Younger nieces and nephews look on. One asks why, if this is a cardboard eco-coffin, it looks just like wood. Another ducks under the coffin to assure himself the undertaker has set up the trestle correctly.
My father lies there for a day and a half, never quite getting round to telling his joke. I don't remember doing it, but I imagine that I touch his cheek and that it is cold and waxy. Apart from the closed eyes, he reminds me of the heroic portrait of Karl Marx on one of the USSR stamps someone gave me for my album when I was eight. Dad looks healthier dead than he has for some years.
A month earlier we'd gone for a meal at a Korean restaurant with Formica tables and strip lighting to mark his and Mum's 50th wedding anniversary.
By then, Dad had his oxygen tank with him all the time, the plastic tubing hooked around ears and nose like an ill-fitting military chinstrap. He kept resting his head on his hand and taking anxious little sipping breaths. He barely ate or spoke.
Chewing and swallowing were becoming too difficult, the latest in a grim checklist of the activities systematically ruled out by emphysema over a decade and a half. First, the running and cycling and strenuous gardening. Later, lifting grandchildren and walking long distances. Later still, walking even short distances. Then driving. Then reading out loud to grandchildren. And then, near the end, swimming (he had clung to that for so long), walking across a room without stopping for rests, and sitting up straight in a chair without feeling like shit.
I took photos that day, annoying everyone by shoving a digital camera in their face for individual close-ups.
We were getting used to Dad's semi-absent status at occasions like this, so it didn't seem too callous that we were still trying to enjoy ourselves even if one of the two guests of honour was plainly having a bad time.
I'm looking at the photos now. An adult nephew gurns. A brother-in-law looks startled; his daughter grins. Another nephew blows across the top of his soft-drink bottle and his brother is chewing his chopsticks. Another brother-in-law has puffed his cheeks out and crossed his eyes. In her photo my mother has pursed her lips in what I think is amusement, and she's looking ceiling-ward.
The photo of Dad, which I think is the last I took of him alive, is awful. He stares down the barrel of the camera, too exhausted even to pull a silly face or an ironic grin. He's thin and grey. His eyes, though, are as piercing as ever. He knows the game is almost up.
A couple of weeks after that meal, Dad dictated an email (my sister Anna typed) to his six children, thanking us for the new bed we'd bought as their anniversary gift.
"It's absolutely lovely to lie on," he wrote. "No movement at all and I don't think either of us will fall out of this one [. . .] Many, many thanks and lots of love."
The bed we'd replaced wasn't entirely unusable – just old and broken down and squishy and, as the email suggested, prone to ejecting sleepers – but once upon a time my parents' bed had been one of the two mortal embarrassments that made me reluctant to bring friends home from school.
From the time I was three, our family of eight lived in a two-bedroom house in Torbay, the second-to-last major bay of Auckland's North Shore as you head north. Even with children stacked into a triple bunk (the topmost the perfect height for graffitiing the ceiling) and a trundle bed, there weren't enough bedrooms for Mum and Dad, so their double bed was in the corner of the living room (or in the back garden, where on cloudless summer nights they'd drag the mattress and bedding, creating a brief mystery in the morning for children looking for a bed to climb into).
Once old enough to compare our home with other families', I realised this was unconventional and thus terrible. If a school friend visited, I'd claim the bed was actually a really big, flat couch, then suggest we stop talking about it and go play in the bamboo forest at the end of our section. Older still, I came to admire the eccentricity of the public bed, which was just as well, as even after the house gained two extra bedrooms and four children left home the double bed stayed in the living room for years.
The bed was nothing, though, compared with our toilet.
For the first half of last century, much of the Shore had no sewers, so toilets were semi-detached affairs whose small tanks of shit and piss were collected by the 'night soil man'. When sewers were installed in the mid-1960s, most people put their new loo somewhere inside. Dad didn't.
To find our toilet, you had to go out the back door of the house and down some wooden stairs that were generally slick with algae, missing several steps, or both. (After the stairs rotted completely, Dad replaced them with a sloping plank, with smaller boards nailed width-wise to reduce the chance of skating to the bottom.)
Once at the bottom of the stairs you entered the wash-house – a narrow, tunnel-like lean-to butted against the broken fibrolite exterior of the house, with its own broken louvre windows and cracked concrete floor. Through the holes in the wall you could catch glimpses of the dark, spider-filled crawlspace under the house. Along the other wall was a noisy, rust-coated chest freezer, whose interior was melted and smoke-blackened from the explosion that followed when Dad put a kerosene heater inside to defrost it and closed the lid.
The toilet cubicle itself was separated from the wash-house by a small curtain. Inside, the bowl was tilted off-square, as the concrete floor there was cracked too. Depending on household finances, there would sometimes be shop-bought toilet paper, and sometimes tidily torn squares of newspaper impaled on a nail. Mum always claimed that once you'd crumpled and rubbed a piece of inky newsprint between your hands for a while it was as good as the real thing, but that was a lie. To save on water bills, Dad had put a large brick in the cistern that reduced the amount of water used per flush, and he'd also added a lead weight to the flusher mechanism so you had to hold it down for the duration, making a swift exit impossible.
By day, all this was embarrassing; by night it was terrifying. At 10, I was still asking my mother to accompany me to the loo after dark. Fortunately Dad encouraged me to wee on his citrus trees on the other side of the house, which slightly reduced the number of visits needed.
My embarrassment reached its zenith when I was 11 and brought home for the first time my new best friend, Philip. I'd already been often to his house, which had many bedrooms, a swimming pool, a games room with a pool table and dartboard, and an Atari videogame console, and couldn't put off the return visit forever.
When Philip said he needed to go to the toilet I offered a lemon tree, but he said he needed the real thing. I simply couldn't bring myself to tell him where the toilet was. Increasingly desperate, he went searching, but didn't think to look beyond the back door.
"I'm really sorry," I said. "We actually don't have a toilet."
Philip grabbed his schoolbag and ran the hilly mile to his own home.
In any case, Dad got just 14 sleeps in the lovely new bed.
Around three in the morning on Monday the 21st of April 2008, he got out of bed, probably with the aim of heading for the loo – still outside, but now accessible via a sturdy new staircase, complete with handrail and rain-shelter.
He stood, then fell to the floor.
My brother-in-law Graham, lodging at my parents' house while in Auckland for a new job, heard my mother, Lois, trying to call his name. Four years earlier Mum had suffered a major stroke that affected her right side and her speech, so her words didn't always come out right.
When Graham reached their room (my parents had, eventually, laid claim to a bedroom), Dad was lying naked on the floor, unconscious or very nearly. To Graham it seemed like he was still there, but his eyes were closed and he couldn't speak. He wasn't exactly dead, but he was awfully heavy.
Graham lifted him back onto the new bed, shaking him and shouting at him to wake up. Mum was still lying on the other side. Graham told her to press the button on her medical alarm pendant. Dad wasn't breathing so Graham began mouth-to-mouth.
When the ambulance arrived the first thing they did was drag Dad back off the soft new bed onto the hard floor, the better to perform CPR. It looked like he'd had a massive heart attack. They zapped him with their defibrillator paddles, then put him on a stretcher and carried him to the ambulance.
As Graham stripped the bed and mopped the floor, the sibling phone-tree tipped us out of our beds around the country – I don't remember which sister called me. I crept from my sleeping house and began the short drive to Sealy Road, but before I got there I got another call telling me to head for the hospital.
I drove, gritty-eyed and dazed, jaw clenched with adrenaline, through the empty suburban streets. I was in a bubble, disconnected from the real world, like I was halfway through a long-haul flight, in neither one place nor another.
I was already taking it for granted that this was a heart attack, and that even if Dad was still alive he wouldn't be for long; that his heart, grown large in compensation for pumping blood that wasn't carrying enough oxygen, was in no shape to recover from anything.
The sun wasn't up yet. As I drove I made more calls – to my wife, to my sisters. Should we wake our two young children and get them to the hospital before he dies? Do I need to hand over any projects at work if I take a few days off? What about Dad's honorary doctorate ceremony on Wednesday evening – what will we do about that?
Not far from the hospital, as I passed the row of pines lining the Pupuke golf course, I stopped thinking and cried for a bit.
* Extract from "My Father's Island", published November 2016 by Victoria University Press. © Adam Dudding
- Sunday Star Times