Sunday, October 21, 2012

This is what love looks like

It’s also what “strong” looks like.

I’ve met any number of “hard men” in my time. I’ve known someone who could win an argument with the now-dead, once-infamous basher Tim Bristow (really).

But the real lesson of “tough” is this: you’re only tough if your character will survive the worst that life can throw at you. Intact. Without guns or fists.

I didn’t know my aunt, Hazel, very well. My father was itinerant for much of his working life, moving between cities or towns. His elder sister, my aunt, had a different life. For most of my life (I can’t speak for hers), she lived in one place – Kiama – married to a former railwayman turned butcher. I only found out about their early life – the “life in a tent” of the railways in an older Australia – at her funeral.

What I mostly knew of her was an extravagant ebullience that beggars description. She greeted you like a pirate’s cockatoo might yell: loudly. With a huge smile and wide arms. And a greeting that could have split glass. Even my father, who had known her all his life (she was older) could still flinch at her greetings when they were both alive.

It was always worth it, to survive her voice: her talk, her stories, laughter and hugs made up for ringing ears.

But this story isn’t actually about Hazel, it’s about her husband, John. Who I knew even less than she.

My familial affliction seems to be Alzheimer’s. My grandmother suffered it. My father died of it, and eventually, his elder sister, Hazel, died of it. I suppose I’m in danger: please kill me when the time comes.

(Most people probably don’t realise that there are mechanisms by which Alzheimer’s can be the agent of death. I know, from my father, what happened: his brain lost control of his immune system, and he died of pneumonia. I don’t know the final cause of my aunt’s death.)

But this is about her husband, John.

He had it worse than my mother: his wife’s affliction lasted years longer. Through all that, he was her primary carer – until, I presume but don’t know, caring became too much and she went to a nursing home.

The last time I saw him was at her funeral. He was no longer the tall-and-craggy that I recalled from childhood, but the crags remained. So did a lopsided smile. And he still talked about his wife with the kind of boundless love that survives even the intolerable burden of caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s.

And he lasted only a handful of weeks after she.

He didn’t look like a dying man at his wife’s funeral: he looked, if I may be both cruel and honest, like a man fulfilled. He’d committed himself to her; the fact that she became a burden didn’t dim his commitment.

But without her, and with his burdens removed, it seems that something changed: “now I can die.” Happy? I can’t know.

It pleases my fancy to imagine that caring for her – the shell that once held his beloved wife – held such power as to hold off death.

And it pleases my fancy that whatever hope of an afterlife as he had, might include the hope that the wife he would find there might be one that remembered him, and still loved him.

What I know, however, is this. Buffeted by what must have been miserable beyond my understanding, he was so tough, such a “hard man”, that his nature remained intact.

Violence, the fist, the gunplay are the props of the miserable and weak. The character that can stand in the face of the storm, and say “you will not change me, or my life, or my worth, or my love”?

This is the hard man: someone who takes the bomb, and is exactly the same after as before.

That’s what “strong” looks like. It’s also what love looks like. I hope I can be such a man.

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