Just a Day

John Cullen, Powerhouse, Geelong

I underestimated this ordinary day in December 2014. His brother had been gone a week or two. His soul mate really, soul twin, the ‘other’ that grounded his 80 year life.

He fell asleep after the Eulogy, a speech he gave without prompt or pause. The grand speech of his life. He had clawed himself awake in the days between Bill’s last breath and that final tribute by some cosmic strength. And then he slept. At the top end of Sydney Road, in the passenger seat of the Lexus, en route from Fawkner to Fitzroy. And again on my couch. And then in my spare room. And in the weeks that followed, at my brothers’ places too.

We were at a baffled loss. We just knew that for 23 hours of each day, he slept. At the kitchen table, with a mouthful of food, he slept. In the GP’s waiting room, he slept. He was just asleep, as if making good of his words to Bill, that ‘I won’t be long after’.

I was in Melbourne one day, at home with my sleeping father. It was the day that I was supposed to take him back to his place, but it just didn’t feel right. So I packed the car and bundled him into it, for a longer drive to St Leonards, where my wife was waiting for us at our beach house. It was an old familiar town for Dad, as Bill and Jim and Esther had a place there in the day. I thought it would do him good, the air, the familiar trees.

He slept in the car, of course, over the Westgate, past the view of the housing commission flats he once called home. Past Werribee, where his ‘forever’ house sat vacant, and his answering machine was full.

As we neared Geelong I woke him. I had an idea and told him I wanted to show him something. He yawned but obligued, and I pulled up at the Geelong Powerhouse. I took his arm and guided him inside. And once inside, he awoke. He gazed around, with dodgy vision, and took it in. He wandered in awe, mouth open, repeating ‘fantastic’ and ‘fucking brilliant’. It was maybe ten minutes, and he wanted to go. His eyes were closed again as I started the engine.

It was, this day in December 2014, the last time Dad truly engaged with the world. I didn’t know it then, but he was dying of a broken heart. They say he had a stroke a few weeks later (the fifth of his life, but the one that took his language skills away). We don’t quite know when it happened but gradually he started calling cereal ‘British’. He started having seizures then too, but we found that out when he was in St Vincent’s. He had constant seizure activity apparently, and possibly for a long time.

Within a year he was in a good nursing home near me. Within two years he stopped asking to go home and was happy. He ate the food the nursing home gave him, and he even had a routine. Yet still he slept, most of the time, as if willing his subconscious to get him to the other side.

I asked him once how he missed Bill. I had to ask because he could not initiate, that conversational skill had gone. It was by then a few months before his fatal fall. He looked surprised by the question, and with paucity he told me ‘I sort of feel him here. We talk all the time’.

The last time I saw him he was hunched and frail, surrounded by hunched and frail people, eating soft food slowly as we watched with pained expressions. We were desperate to assist but refrained, as the clock ticked on and our time ran out. We had a plane to catch. We were leaving for the States, for a wedding.

After one long, particularly slow mouthful, he laughed at himself a little and said ‘you may as well go’. We all laughed then. My wife, my Dad and I. He stopped eating to walk us to the lift. He waved as the doors closed. It reminded me of Granny and Grandpa in Willy at the flats, seeing us to the lift, waving us goodbye. It was a fitting last moment between us, two and a half years after that day at the Powerhouse.

This is how moments become treasures.

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