Saturday, December 14, 2013

Meteor showers, fathers, and happiness

Someone reminded me.

Maybe only a few people will read this, but if I've written it, I'll remember it better.

The scene is a very suburban verandah of the 1960s. In those days, there were still eaves on red-brick project homes, they were mostly single-storey, and they always included a covered verandah of at least a few square metres.

The night I'm thinking of must have been in the summer school holidays, because as a (roughly) nine-year-old I rarely even got to stay awake late enough to see the TV test pattern! And this night, when the TV ended for the night, the whole family retired not to bed, but to the verandah.

And I was maybe nine years old. As the change-of-life child of the family, that meant my siblings were already 16, 18 and 20: old enough for long adult conversations while I tried to butt in (I guess) and doze while trying to stay awake.

No, the numbers don't work. I must have been eight, because by the time I was nine, the eldest had left home for university.

Was being awake this late exciting? You bet.

And it was summer, which in Sydney means it doesn't cool down early in the night. So I lazed around with the rest, and don't remember any details, but I do remember the meteor shower dad kept us all awake for.

There was a mattress or maybe an inflatable that I was lying on. There was adult talk all around. The night was muggy and dark. Even the suburbs, in those days, still had stars.

And the stars started moving, flashing across the sky. And every time he spotted one, dad would laugh and call and point.

And I remember, because that was one of the very few times I knew him to be happy.

I remember how deliriously happy he was when, in a rented Halvorsen cruiser, we ran into a wild storm trying to get to Pittwater. He was a seaman in World War Two: the waves crossing the mouth of the Hawkesbury were taller than our boat; mum and my siblings and me were cowering (I was put near dad for my own safety).

He was laughing like the Old Man of the Sea, swinging the boat towards every towering wave, turning it after the wave passed, yelling “turn you bastard!”, inching towards Pittwater, alive and mad and loving it.

Once, he bought me a gift I didn't expect, a whole new drum kit when I thought I was getting him to buy me a new pedal. My reaction made him happy, I think.

He wasn't happy that often. To my 50th year, my mother's explanation didn't go far beyond her standard explanation, that “the war changed him”.

I guess he may have been happy in the affair that, sometime when I was a kid, caused misery everywhere else. Or perhaps it may have only been a small relief of his own misery and madness. Mum once said she forgave him partly because of the war: because she had loved someone who took ship and never came home, but she understood.

He was over-the-moon when a vet said our Labrador, Denny, could be saved after he'd been hit by a car. It cost $1,800 – a considerable price in 1974 – but Denny repaid him by caring for dad when Alzheimer's degraded his brain. The dog would take him out each day, and always return him home.

There was one more time. The year was 1977, I think. I don't remember the reason for the trip, but it took us through the lower New England, and dad wanted to seek out a friend from the 1950s, when he was surveying roads around Barrington Tops.

His memory was perfect, then. He found Tom Meehan's place through unmarked dirt roads without trouble. It was a classic post-and-corrugated-iron shack, abandoned, but because it had no locks, we walked through it before we continued the search.

A road crew stopped us, and dad asked if they knew Tom, and they did, and pointed us to the right road. We drove for a while on the dirt, and an old man leaned against a rail-type fence.

Dad stopped the car, got out and yelled.

I'd know your beret anywhere on earth! Damn you, Tom! I thought you were dead!”

No, just had to move closer to town. How are you, Stan? This one of your sons?”

He was happy that evening, as well.

There's a photo of me, eleven or twelve years old, perched on a fallen tree, on the path that leads to The Ruined Castle in the Blue Mountains.

You weren't happy that day; perhaps you were worried about work, or quite possibly you resented being detailed to drag me out on a proper bushwalk.

But I was happy, and I've taken Ms T and the boys on the same walk, twice, and we love it. And I don't say so, but I think of you when I'm on that path.

Because I was happy, that day. So much so that I keep you in my mind whenever I tread that path.

And here I am, transported to the late 1960s by a friend's casual remark and wondering why.

I can't wish my father alive again. He wasn't particularly lovable. As mum said, the war changed him. What sanity the navy left him with, he saved to make sure he could provide for his family. It didn't leave much sanity for the home front. He was volatile, fey, dangerous.

I'm volatile and fey, but I've worked hard, and I'm a lot less dangerous.

My sons will at least remember happiness, because they've seen plenty. I may nag and carp and demand they do better, but I also laugh and love. Maybe without realising it, I've set myself the task of healing the wounds of my father's war, so my sons can somehow manage to be more sane than was given to he or I.

And I want them to know that a happy father isn't so unusual.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Twelve wishes of Christmas for 2013

There are too many people, and I don't have the money for so many gifts. So here, in my small way, in my little corner of the Internet, is my Christmas list of people I'd like to wish well to for 2013.
    1. RPA Hospital
Keeps my wife alive. Sometimes, that's been hard. And the names are too many to list, but Dr Roger Garsia of Immunology has worked well on a difficult case; his interns are without peer (in particular, Dr Myanh Nguyen deserves great success); and Ms T's chemo is down from fortnightly to quarterly.

A special out-of-2013 mention to Dr Gok Paven, now at St George, who led the team that first worked out what was going on, and is still a pillar of our world.

I must mention the nurses in Gloucester House, now the poor cousin to the famous suit-run joint over the road, who still get to handle the miserable cytotoxins that keep Ms T alive.

  1. The Register
I've never had so much fun in my job as I have had working for The Register, and along the way I get to work with good people. Simon Sharwood, APAC Editor, is one, but there are plenty of others. I hope you know who you are.
  1. Dr Colin Lim
Our GP. He gets the day-to-day stuff, the boring “just here for ten prescription refills” stuff. He still feels bad that four years ago, he didn't spot what was wrong with Ms T – even though it later took six specialists to get to an inconclusive choice of possibilities. That was the worst coin-toss of my life, and I can't blame a suburban GP for not cottoning onto what was going on!
  1. Guests at Bunjaree Cottages
It's not just that they pay bills. Or that they're helping my main mission with Bunjaree Cottages, which is to keep 14 hectares of bush – including my beloved Lyrebirds and Antechinus, and a big hunk of hanging swamp – out of the hands of concrete-lovers.

This year has been a signal year of “nice people” and “people who get it”. People who treasure the bush and the environment and the values. Once, in a desperate circumstance, I had to teach a guest over the phone how to find and then start the backup electricity generator: he was insanely pleased with himself at the idea of going back to his family with a new set of “real bloke” credentials to show off, so he didn't complain – he even wrote nice stuff in the guest book!

Making people like that happy, giving them a relaxed holiday … to quote “black hat guy” from XKCD comics, “that's how I roll.”

A special mention for @Ponder_Stybbons and another local to the Mountains whose name can remain private, for all their help in 2013 in keeping Bunjaree Cottages clean, and making things nice for the guests. I've rarely met people with such unfailing good humour.
  1. My old friend from school
I don't resent your calls for help in depression. I treasure them. On your good days, you remind me why my depression damn well won't win. On your bad, I somehow help, and talk it all through with Ms T afterwards, and life is built out of small victories.
  1. Stilgherrian
Stil would, anyhow, resent a December 25 7am phone call saying something like “Merry Christmas”. So I promise it won't happen, and anyhow you don't just haul gas bottles in emergencies, you also tolerate and even encourage conversation from my sons. Which isn't something everybody can manage. So thanks.
  1. Shara Evans
A long time ago, Shara took me in out of the rain with a job that lasted years. I already owe you for that, friend. This year we haven't been in touch so much, but when we have, I've always enjoyed it. And you are loyal in a way that few people can manage. Thanks.
  1. Twitter friends and blog-commenters
Damn, I've been lucky. When people re-Tweet this blog, or comment on it, I'm in terror. But what I get is a world of friendship and wonder.

Look, in person, I'm a bit difficult, a lot awkward … to quote the kids' movie “Mouse Hunt”, I'm a “cat that's … difficult to love.” But I've found so many friends, fellow-travellers, fellow-sufferers out there in the odd and sometimes hostile world of Twitter.

There is love in the world.
  1. You know who you are
You'd never forgive me for naming you in public, so I won't. At a great distance and in touch only by Skype and e-mail, you've become a rock of this household, a treasure beyond price. You've listened to me on the darkest mornings when merely facing the day looked beyond me. 

You're loved by both me and Ms T, because somehow I managed to finish this year saner and better able to cope than when I started it.
  1. My first wife
One of the great treasures of my life has been to find that we still can love each other, in spite of history, and in 1976 you were one of my first genuinely close friends, and I'll hold you forever in my heart.
  1. My sons
Don't tell them. They think I'm an insufferable nag. I am. I'm also a critic and a scold.

On the things they do well, I'm insanely proud of them. And their job-seeking frustrations I remember from my youth. But they've already defeated some dragons that the world threw at them, and I get the upside of their intelligence, their devotion to Ms T, and their sunny natures. I don't know how I managed to be even a moderately good parent, but luck sometimes delivers the parcels that skill left behind.
  1. Ms T
You are my Christmas present. I want no other. "Stuff" has lost its allure.

Last year, doctors would have called up a bookie for odds against you making it. And we still hold each other each and every night, and at 2am when the world is cold, you're still warm. And when the day comes, you will fret and grouch your way through your unchangeable Christmas feast, and when it lands on the table, you'll relax and grin and drink champagne. And I'll pray that next year, we'll still be there to carve the roasts and laugh and drink, caress and kiss, because we both know there is a last Christmas in our future.

My love, let this Christmas not be our last. That's the only gift I desire.

The Thirteenth Trump

There is a last, a thirteenth wish. A silent prayer for the memory of an old woman Ms T and I knew only briefly as a customer. Who tapped my cheek and called me “that young man”, and loved her every visit to our little corner of heaven. If I'd known, I'd have stood quietly near the rear of your funeral and slipped away unnoticed. 

You reminded me of my mother, who died before you at a similar age, and I loved every minute of the handful of hours I spent with you. Go well, dear Pat, and where you are, may you be young and flirtatious and beautiful again.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Depression #2

There's RUOK day, there's the famous mental health charities with famous founders, there are the Order of Australia awards, and there's the public adulation. 

Then there's the suicidal friend. Right now, with medication, we can talk without me having to worry that I'm picking the wrong words and making things worse and triggering the knife or the pills.

Today, I was a bit gratified at a turn the conversation took.

“Richard, shut up.”

“But ...”

“No, shut up. Shut up. Shut up means don't talk. Count to five without talking.”

So I counted to five. Slightly too slowly, because I missed the opening …

“See, you didn't know what you were saying next, and it made you stutter. I've known you since we were fifteen, and it's always given me the shits. Just slow down sometimes and you won't stutter.”

Which is right: I get like that, lost in the sentence, all the nouns fleeing my mental grasp like the mozzie you're trying to whack in the dark, and I'd fear it was Alzheimer's except that I really have always been like this.

So I was grinning at my end of the conversation, that my friend has recovered enough conversation and confidence to tell me to shut up.

So the next thing I said was, “It was bloody marvellous to hear you tell me to shut up. Now, when's the appointment with the counsellor?”

The conversation got difficult again. Four weeks after a GP agreeing that help was needed, and the same GP promising to do his best to get things moving, and writing an emergency prescription for strong anti-depressants to get through the wait, the only thing now known is which facility can fit my friend in, and the name of the counsellor.

The date? Well, you know, it's a difficult time of year, and Christmas is coming, and there's probably a counsellor on leave because they have to take leave as well, and really we don't know.

And that's good enough?

In the country of “RUOK” and “get help”, help is at the other end of an indeterminable wait list? - No, that's not good enough.

Someone else I know well was referred to a BMRI doctor – Brain and Mind Research Institute to its friends, but I'm not one of them and never will be – by their psychiatrist, but got fobbed off by the receptionist with “we will review the referral and call you back”.

The bloody receptionist acted as the road-block.

That was in January. The call-back never came. Calls were made to follow things up: it never got past the receptionist. The individual in question eventually abandoned medications, thankfully without incident, and is doing just fine, again thankfully.

The third aspect of this post comes from the ABC: “Australia second in world in anti-depressant prescriptions”.

No kidding.

A GP, looking at someone threatening suicide in the consulting room, has to act, must act, and with no prospect of immediate help, the GP prescribes pills for a crisis, and that is becoming the public crisis instead of the lamentable lack of mental health services... sorry, I'm ranting.

Help is not on its way. Help is somewhere out there, queued up, under-resourced, dealing with last month's urgent cases, dealing with last night's hospital admissions, and so on.

It's all very well for high-profile case histories to be paraded for their success, to teach people the “get help” message, and to incidentally solicit donations via radio-appearances from Famous Australians Doing Good in the World.

It's quite another for people who desperately need help to have to resort to call-a-friend to stop them using the knife or pills, and keep them talking for an hour or so until they find the strength to cook a meal for their family (which in the case close to me includes one disabled child) and take themselves to bed.

The friend I have in mind brought up her children, including the one with a disability, and stayed employed until, over the age of fifty, the last factory in the region closed a while back. I guess the unemployment plus the disability of the child, plus the prospect of a lonely future …

Shit, it would be too much for me. Ms T's illness hasn't broken me, although it's come close. And I have already told you that I suffer from depression.

But here's the thing.

Ms T was desperately ill, when her condition took her to hospital. She was admitted immediately, and kept until there until there was a diagnosis and she was fit to be sent home and there was a treatment regime in place.

The friend I'm thinking of was so close to death that hospital was needed for the self-harm, let alone the mental state. Discharge was next day, and the treatment regime is still on hold.

That sucks. A mental illness can be life-threatening, and no amount of moralising changes that. In the case I'm talking about, a suicide would leave a disabled young adult without a connection to the world, not to mention the ripple effects.

I'm not – absolutely and utterly not – anyone's Best Last Hope in a mental health crisis. My sole qualification is, as I mentioned, that I am intimately familiar with depression.

While I'm happy – wrong word, find a better one yourself – to offer myself to help a friend cope, it doesn't come without cost on my part. But I have a support network of people who treasure me even when I'm an utter shit (Ms T, I'm looking at you, and you love and treasure the others that also help), and I have to pass on their strength because that's what you do.

But hearing famous people telling we at the bottom of the pile that we need to get help that isn't available in a crisis?

It shits me to tears.