Father’s Day

Skull by coda, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  coda 

Sunday, the 6th of September 2015 was Father’s Day in Australia.

Saturday, the 25th of October 2014 was the day my 61 year old Dad passed away from liver cancer.

You do the math.

I had anticipated that a lot of days following Dad’s death would be painful. Christmas was one of these. Not that my Dad enjoyed Christmas, he despised it openly and vocally to anyone who visited our house at that time of year. He would sit in his usual corner of the living room (every Dad has their own I suppose) ranting ineffectually about the money wasted, and the crowds, and the spoiled children. Meanwhile my Mum was hoarding presents in the linen cupboard and the top shelves of wardrobes, in preparation for the big reveal. The pain of Christmas day that year was less about his contribution than his absence. He wasn’t there to complain.

To be honest I can’t remember how we spent his birthday in early January. My guess there would have been a lot of forced jocularity between my brother and I, in an effort to keep Mum’s head above water. She is barely buoyant at the best of times, but on this occasion I was worried she would disappear altogether.

At least I anticipated that though. A milestone people ‘warned’ me about. “It will be hard” they said, and in response I gritted my teeth and thought “it can’t be any harder than what has preceded it”. Marking the first of his birthday’s after his passing would in no way be more difficult than witnessing the way cancer ravaged his body and stole from him his ‘grey nomad‘ dreams. Following his diagnosis and his rapidly failing health our small family, my Mum, my brother, my Dad and I, closed ranks, drew closer, while in the shadows, in the alone time, we fell apart.

While his birthday was fucking hard, in no way was it harder than experiencing that.

After my Dad died, I took a week off work. The “work” I reference is of course paid employment. I was lucky that I both had access to paid leave, and a job I could return to. However this was not time “off”. I would rather attend a thousand lunch time meetings than organise my father’s funeral. Discuss payment plans with a funeral director. Sit in a house full of stuff which has become unmoored. Existing in a weird in between place of not being ours but not exactly being his either. Sorting through belongings and wills. This of course does not fall under the banner of work. However it was expected and it was needed and it couldn’t be outsourced and so it was done. I had known this moment was coming ever since I learned of Dad’s diagnosis, and when it came it was every bit as horrendous as I imagined it would be.

No one thinks planning their father’s funeral is going to be easy.

My daughter started school this year. There have been hat parades and book parades and endless events at which grandparents are always fucking invited. Please come to grandparents day! said the push notification from the school’s app (which as an aside seems to be programmed to remind me that I am a shitty Mum at the most inopportune moments). Some of these moments pass by with a whisper, some with a wail, but each of them I see coming. I prepare myself. I give my very best ‘stiff upper lip’ and by god they won’t see me cry.

Which is why I was surprised at the intensity of my grief at Father’s day.

I got a sneak preview. I had come home from work and I was flicking mindlessly through a pile of catalogues. They were thematically linked but my tired brain didn’t automatically put together the pieces. There were boxer shorts and cheap, embossed tool sets. T-shirts emblazoned with ‘World’s coolest Dad!’ and car washing kits. I flicked and I paused and I flicked and I paused and two thoughts passed through my mind in quick succession: 1. Shit, not again. What are you going to get Dad for Fath.. 2. Oh.

Oh.

Perversely I even felt a sense of relief. Dad was difficult to buy for, and made a big deal out of not wanting anything to the point that giving him gifts was an awkward exercise all around. On the father’s day before he died my Dad was on a week long trip that my brother and I paid for in order to give just a small (far too small) taste of the retirement travel he had spent his entire adult life planning for. So he got no tacky “gift” last year either. In the years directly preceding his diagnosis we would take him out for Indian food, and strangely he would insist on having my brother and I order. My daughter, then a toddler would spill rice all over the ground and inevitably get butter chicken all over her “good” clothes. My brother and I would compete to see who could make Dad laugh the most. While he was a morose man he loved to laugh. His favourite saying was “Life’s shit and then you die” which sounds horrendous, but made sense in the context of a man who went through some extraordinarily shitty things in his short life.

With a lapful of catalogues full of laughing male models and their placid wives and their giggling children I sobbed. I sobbed in a way I had managed to avoid for some time.

When Dad died my grief was all enveloping. It wasn’t just an emotion, it was a physiological experience. I was wracked with full body sobs. I would talk to my daughter about whatever it was that was happening at that time (which I can honestly say I don’t remember) but it was a very clear feeling of surviving, white knuckling through every single moment of every single day. I didn’t register her presence, I just did enough to get through the interaction so I could get back to the full time occupation of existing. Even though I spent most of the early days preceding and following the death of my Dad in a state of tight lipped obstinance, inside I felt as raw and bloody as an open wound. Vulnerable, exposed, and ultimately ashamed of my very human-ness. A yawning chasm of pain.

I appear to have now passed my socially sanctioned “grieving time”. My Dad doesn’t come up in conversation, and unless asked I won’t bring him up. A few days after returning to work a few cards appeared on my desk, signed by colleagues I barely knew, with all of the appropriate platitudes. I was told by a well meaning manager to “take all the time [you] need”, however this offer wasn’t followed up with any kind of concrete support (who would do my work in my absence?) and the matter was never raised again. Now friends don’t ask and I don’t offer. When my Mum brings him up in conversation I will contribute, reminisce, but at the same time my jaw is set. This isn’t the day my resolve will fade. This isn’t the day I will bleed my pain over everyone, not when they need me. At least this is what I tell myself. Perhaps the pain is too much to feel so I avoid it all costs. The grief is too messy. It bleeds into my professional demeanour, into my closely guarded private life. Perhaps it is a wound I salve with work, and business, and the emotional labour of motherhood. Perhaps I don’t sit still long enough to come to that conclusion.

Over time the pain has mostly dulled. The taste of blood has left my mouth, the scab has fallen off. I am aware of my grief now as more of a background emotion. It is a brittle bone, flesh dissolved by hungry ants and bleached white by the unforgiving sun. It exists, but fades into the background, disappearing into the sand. However as bones age they splinter, and the sharp edges cause me to bleed when I don’t want to, or least expect it. I am beginning to learn that I can’t avoid my grief because the shards are embedded in me.

Father’s day came and went, as do all days. To mark the occasion my family and I visited a horrendous “all-you can-eat” buffet which my Nan insisted we go to, despite it being entirely unsuitable and completely lacking on food suitable for vegetarians. We raised a toast to the Dad’s not with us (my Dad and my Pa) and we talked about other things. My daughter ate far too much toosghetti and I drank far too much wine. The day was entirely unremarkable, yet entirely out of the ordinary because my Dad wasn’t there, and wasn’t ever going to be there again.

My daughter won’t know him. She won’t buy him a gift from the school’s father’s day stall. She won’t make him a card which sheds glitter all over the house, giving him something to complain about. We won’t share another Indian meal. He won’t laugh at something my brother says. He won’t call me girl. He won’t call my brother boy. No one else calls us that.

The bone stands in stark contrast to the blue horizon. It could easily go unnoticed, half buried as it is in the white sand. However, take the time to look and you just might see it.

I’m trying my best not to.

Out of the Frying Pan and into the Toaster: the casual who coveted the fractional appointment

Anyone who has followed my blog would probably be aware that it has been a hell of a year. Among other things, I have gone from being a long-term sessional academic, to a professional staff member employed on a coveted fractional appointment. I am privileged enough to be able to continue to work within the sector I have spent so much of my time involved with and dedicated to. I have invested a lot into this sector and enjoy the challenges it presents.

In the past year I have established a profile for myself within this space. I have been the lead investigator on two successful grant applications for 2015. I work bloody hard, and invest much of my emotional and physical energy into making sure that my work is done efficiently, transparently, and to the highest possible standard.

Be that as it may, my contract is ending on the 31st of December. My position is going to be advertised, and I am going to apply for it. This isn’t a reflection on my capabilities, and was not the decision of anyone ‘up the chain’ from me to. Rather it is an interpretation of a clause within the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that when my current funding ends, it is expected that my job will be advertised internally to my institution. Regardless of my performance, and ongoing responsibilities. My one comfort is that this situation is not unique to me, and affects many of my colleagues, as well as many across the sector.

To adopt the parlance of our time I am more than aware of my own privilege. I have had access to sick days, and family leave when my daughter has been unwell. I was able to reduce my hours in order to deal with the illness and subsequent death of my Dad. I have access to a computer in an open-plan office, and get a lot of satisfaction and meaning from my job. But much of my time recently has been absorbed not only with processing the death of my Dad, a husband who is unable to work due to a back injury, and a 5-year-old daughter who selfishly insists on eating every bloody night, on top of that I have been running the bureaucratic gamut of trying to ensure all of my ducks are in a row for my impending job application.

Most frustratingly, my job has yet to be advertised, and with the end date of my contract looming, it is appearing more and more unlikely that my new contract (were I successful in my application for the job I currently do) would be in place before the end of the year. There are a few side effects of this (other than sheer inconvenience) that I will outline:

  • As my position is only being advertised internally, I will need to be on a current contract in order to apply. If the appropriate measures are not put in place before end of year, the possibility exists that I would become ineligible to apply for my own job. The job that my colleague and I wrote successful grant application for. For the project that with our combined efforts we made a success.
  • If my contract was to end without me having secured ongoing employment, I will need to remove all of the files from my computer, in order to format it and return it to the Information Technology people. Likewise I will need to return swipe cards, and empty out the space in which I have been working. Effectively I would need to erase any evidence of my existence, only to bring it all back in again if and when my contract was reinstated.
  • I will lose any accrued leave entitlements (sick leave, long service leave), as any contracts you have need to run back-to-back in order for these to carry forward into the next year or period.
  • The project I am working on currently, into which I have invested so much emotional energy, would be in jeopardy without someone to continue the work or preparing for project activities ongoing.
  • In my unique circumstance I am afraid to reduce my hours or take too much advantage of the flexibility afforded to me following the death of my Dad, because a part of me worries that it will reflect badly on my work ethic and impact my chances of getting my job again next year.

People ‘in the know’ have advised me to pursue an extension on my contract, which would allow me to continue working, while the lumbering cogs of bureaucracy tumble into place. This will address some of the above issues (such as being ineligible to apply for my own position) however this only delays the stress, and doesn’t negate it entirely. An extension on my contract offers no guarantees as to my employment status ongoing, it only buys the institution time to fulfil their obligations while allowing my important work to continue. It is a band-aid, it isn’t a cure.

As I have stated before, I don’t think these decisions have come about as the result of any one individual’s cruelty or poor judgment. Rather I think they are the result of business decisions, decisions which take into account bottom lines and balancing cost centres, and not valuing the knowledge and experience of the staff you already have. Their personal circumstance. The emotional and psychological impact of precarious working conditions. Higher Education is a business, and while business has been better (the push for deregulation has suffered a setback);  it is still a money-making enterprise.

I was asked by someone, in a completely innocuous fashion, why my contracts should run consecutively. Why, it was posited to me, couldn’t I in fact start back again in Autumn session? There was no malice in this question, and my understanding was that it was in response to a ‘business case‘ type scenario. The appropriate boxes needed to be ticked, the right questions answered with the right key words, and HR would gloss smoothly over my position before examining the next. However the fact that question was even asked was honestly a shock to me. The scenario offered was that at some Australian institutions (thankfully not mine) the regular practice is to end contracts on the 15th of December, and not start then up again till mid way into the next month. The justification being that across a whole university, the savings are immense. No paid concessional days. No carry over of leave entitlements. This was explained to me in a matter-of-fact way that perversely makes sense in a literal ‘money comes in, money goes out’ way, but all I can see is the human cost. The emotional cost. The angry, disillusioned, and frankly tired staff who have spent the year working hard and achieving objectives and managing budgets, all to have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of the employment process (complete with rigorous selection criteria and three-people intensive interview panels), all in order to continue on with the work they were already doing. And they don’t even get a bloody paid day off for Christmas.

I was sitting in my open-plan office today, trying-not-to-but-not-quite-avoiding-to overhear the conversations of some of my colleagues in this same space. They were talking about the leave they were planning to take over the new year period to spend time with their kids. These same colleagues have been busy putting up displays of tinsel and decorations on their cubicle walls. Leaving their mark in this shared space. At the same time I am receiving weekly emails reminding me of the end of my contract, reminding me that my place in this sector is temporary, contingent upon me yet again jumping through the bureaucratic hoops and again proving my worthiness. There is every chance I will be continuing my job next year, mostly because I am damn good at it. But that isn’t 100%. I don’t dare pin my tinsel to the cubicle wall in case I need to again pack it away in a month’s time, put it in the boot of my car, and take it home.

I think about the plight of sessional academics working in higher education currently. It was only six months ago that I was the exploited casual. Then it happened, I got the contracted appointment I had wanted for so long, with all of its associated perks and entitlements. I was and remain grateful for that opportunity. However now that the end of the year is fast approaching I am feeling that familiar unease that I don’t know what the next year will bring. I am experiencing again the itch, the compulsion to go above and beyond, to prove time and time again that I am worthy of working in the sector, that my ideas are valuable, that I am valuable. However rather than the hot-oil immersion of casual labour (13 intense weeks of teaching followed by months of radio silence, or inconsistent research opportunities), I am experiencing the slow burn of the short-term contract employee. The closer it comes to the time of my contract expiring the more I am sweating it out, my anxiety rising, the assurance I took in my own competence not shielding me from the growing feelings of unease. I sit at my desk and write and email and make plans for the coming year, all the time thinking: “…but what if I don’t get my job back?”

Keep me in your thoughts, along with all of your professional and academic colleagues on short-term contracts. One of the people you share a cubicle wall with in the office, or see in line at the coffee shop, or share a joke with at the copier, might not be a successful applicant for their own job. They might not be successful in getting the grant money to fund their own position or might bugger up the interview process… they are probably feeling the heat right now and who knows; they might well be toast.

Roll Up Your Sleeves

I was trying really hard to maintain a steady voice. “I’m so sorry sweetheart” my Mum said into the phone. “It’s okay it’s okay” I repeated, to what end I don’t know, as things were just about as far from okay as they could possibly be. My Mum was ringing me from my childhood home to tell me that my Dad had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and likely had less than six months to live. It was the C word. The diagnosis was grim. There was to be no happy ending or valiant battle narrative. The disease would take him, sooner rather than later.

My world collapsed from under me.

The pain I felt was immediate, visceral. I howled into my pillow and couldn’t get respite from my feelings of despair. I took a week off from work (which is unheard of for me) and lay in bed staring at the ceiling. I became physically ill and was unable to even see my Dad in case I risked his already compromised immune system. Instead I lay in bed and sobbed about my Dad’s missed opportunities; never to retire and travel how he had wanted, never to watch my 5 year old daughter grow up and go to school, the fact he was leaving my Mum, was leaving my brother, was leaving me.

After a week my small family rallied. My brother and I set up a regular roster of visiting him at home. My Dad, such is the man that he was never took to his illness laying down. In the last months of his life he installed additional powerpoints in their home so Mum could replace the wood burning stove with an electric heater. He threw out years worth of tax documents and detritus in order to save us the trouble of clearing these items out after he was no longer with us. He fixed cars and cooked roasts and walked as much as he could. And during this time I drove ‘home’ two to three times a week and just spent time with my Dad in a way I hadn’t since… well probably ever. So we talked.

It wasn’t the conversations you think you might have with a dying person (or as my Dad called it in an odd clinical terminology, “limited lifespan”). We didn’t dissect old disagreements, or ‘make peace’, or cry about lost opportunities. Instead we ate a lot of Chinese food. We watched Ms 5 playing. We talked about politics and cars and my work. We tried desperately to be happy in the face of a reality that was devestatingly sad.

And sometimes we were happy. I know he enjoyed watching my daughter play with her bubble rocket on her 5th birthday. We laughed and joked and shared stories while we ate that chinese food. My brother and I sent our parents to Broome for a week for a much-needed holiday and while he was sad about the limitations his failing body placed on him I know he enjoyed it immensely. My brother and I enoyed even more the fact that we could gift that to him. He came back invigorated, and entertained us with stories of his younger days. He enjoyed telling these stories and I appreciate that I got to hear them.

I watched him like a hawk during this time, surreptiously as he hated a fuss. I watched for new and developing symptoms but he was horrendous at being a patient and never made this process easy. However his medications appeared to be working after a time. Blood tests revealed that he had stablised to an extent since his diagnosis, that his condition, while not having improved, had not gotten any worse. My brother and I kept up the regular roster of visits, under the guide of normalcy, but I started to relax. I knew the end was near-ish, but not imminent.

The flashing of my phone woke me up. It’s a grotesque cliche to say (with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight) that I knew, but when I saw the missed call on my phone at 2 in the morning, there was only one thing it could be. When I called Mum back I learned that my Dad had suffered two seizures at home in bed, and had been taken by ambulance to casualty. He was dying but somehow we never saw it coming.

We drove down to my home town an hour away to sit with him in the hospital. From the hospital he was transferred to a palliative care ward. Here he lived for a further 2 days, although he never regained consciousness. I will not speak of his and our time in that place here, except to say it was not the end I would have hoped for, however it was dignified and quiet, and in in the end peaceful.

I can never do this story, or my father justice. Partially because this is the story of his death, and not his life. His story is not mine to tell, although there are fragments of this that exemplify the whole. He was an electrician who prided himself on his attention to detail. He was a quiet man who had no patience (a trait I inherited), and wasn’t one for shows of emotions. He called my brother “boy”, myself “girl” and my Mum “woman”. He was pragmatic and until the end wanted to be useful, even though though he already was in ways he didn’t understand. In these last months he cooked and cleaned and vacuumed and looked after everyone (to the chagrin of the nurses), which was his way of showing that he loved us. He could never really articulate his love for us, as is common with men of his generation. But he showed us with everything he did, and continued to do, even while staring death in the face.

Dad died almost three months to the day of his diagnosis, in that palliative care ward. It was October 25th. It was early in the morning and my Mum was with him. It was really sunny that day. We went to MacDonalds for breakfast. These facts are etched in my mind as if they are significant. I want them to be significant because it was the day my Dad died and that is siginifcant to me in a way that it never can be for other people. The problem is that death happens, but people still need to eat, and put petrol in the car, and make vegemite sandwiches for 5 year old girls. It seemed grotesque that life for some can just continue on as normal, while for others that life ceases to be. It seemed disrespectful to my Dad to be eating, and even laughing while he was dead. Is dead. He’s fucking dead. and I drank a Soy Hazelnut latte at a MacDonalds.

We buried my Dad on October 31st. Dad had already decided on some of arrangements to be made for his funeral. Amongst these were the two songs he wanted to have played at his service. Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ was one of his choices, which I knew gave him a great amount of joy.

Dad loved music, some of the stuff you would expect for a man of his generation (like Queen) and a lot of stuff you wouldn’t (he loved the Triple J Unearthed CDs). You will never know my Dad, not many can really say they did. He was intensly private. He was really funny, but very cynical. He didn’t trust this government (a sentiment we share). He loved his wife and kids, and his 5 year old granddaughter. He thought his son and his daughter were the smartest and most capable people he knew. I thought the same of him. I love him. He was my Dad. He will never be replaced.

It is now a month since he passed. I am not sure how I should feel at this juncture but I know that it doesn’t seem any easier. The pain is as intense as the day he was diagnosed with that wretched illness. I want to lie down and cry. I want to scream into the wind that it isn’t fair and he doesn’t deserve this, but who did? Who does? Instead I will keep walking, one foot in front of the other. It’s what he wanted for me, for all of our family. It’s hard. It’s really fucking hard. Sometimes the pain is so raw it’s like a flesh wound or a bloody bone. There is a yawning chasm in my chest where he used to be, and I didn’t really know how bad that pain was until his death was imminent and then he was gone.

This is the second song my Dad chose to be played at his funeral. It was his message to us, and it is what I know I must do.

Goodbye Dad. I love you.

The Disneyland Dilemma

Disclaimer: I am not judging anyone for the parenting choices they make, these are just my thoughts on the role of memory making in parenting decisions. I have one kid, what the heck do I know!

“Memory is identity…. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.” Julian Barnes

Earlier this year I made what I thought was a thoroughly unremarkable decision for myself and my family: I decided we were going to Disneyland.

There wasn’t a lot of forethought put into this decision. My husband and I visited Disneyland in 2008 after we got married in Las Vegas, and I enjoyed the spectacle of it. I thought the production values on everything, from the rides, to the displays, to the shops, were really very well done. Before having children I would probably have no compulsion to go there again, but it occurred to me while watching my 4 year old daughter, who loves Disney and princesses and all things ‘magical’, that she would really get a kick out of it. Furthermore, while international travel is hardly a light undertaking (I am The Smart Casual after all, not the Smart Full-Timer) this is something that is feasible if my current rate of employment is maintained throughout the year. I thought about it, I emotionally invested in it, and dang it, the Smart Casuals were going to Anaheim!

What I was ill-prepared for however, was the reaction I got from others regarding this decision. In the course of conversation with friends and family I would bring up my future plans. While some asked questions of the more benign variety, a significant portion responded to this proclamation with some variation of:

“What’s the point of that? It isn’t like she will remember it anyway”.

This reaction really took me by surprise. I was prepared to engage in all types of discourse about the topic of international travel with a 4/5 year old. Some could argue that the plane ride would be too long, or that the time of year we plan to travel would be too expensive. Heck, someone could argue that the Disney universe perpetuates racist and sexist stereotypes, and I would be hard-pressed to disagree. (My own thoughts on this is that because my daughter has only watched a few Disney movies, she is only familiar with the Disney princess as a fluid concept, rather than a gender limiting archetype, but I digress).

Instead it was being posited to me that the experience we would have in Disneyland was somehow not worth doing at this point in her life because when she grew up, she may not remember it. My initial reaction to this was confusion, but after some consideration I think I understand a little more why I really found this troubling:

1) Rather than Ms 4 having an experience in and of itself, it has become currency in a transaction. By taking her to Disneyland, I am effectively buying myself “good parenting credits”, exchanging hard-earned cash for a good time my child can take with her for life. However if I instead choose to take her to Disneyland at an age when she may later be unable to remember the experience clearly, then there is apparently “no point” to have gone in the first place. If we take this to be so, then what is the age at which she will reach peak memory recall? You could substitute just about any other experience for Disneyland within this transactional scenario and the problem still exists, if you argue that an event is only worthwhile if it is remembered, then we can save ourselves a lot of carnival rides and zoo visits as well.

2) I don’t agree that an event need to be remembered to have resonance in our lives, to “count” or be worthwhile. My Pa  was diagnosed with Dementia with Lewy Bodies, and died from this disease only a few years ago. After he was diagnosed his health deteriorated very quickly, and it soon became evident that he was losing all of his memories. He was a man who adored his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was also very clever, known for his ability to beat just about anyone at Trivial Pursuit. He had the most beautiful singing voice. Towards the end of his life, before he was put into palliative care, I would go and visit him when he was still at home with my Grandmother. When we would arrive he would invariably greet us the same way, by saying “Mother! (his nickname for my Nan) Just look who it is!”

He said this to cover the fact that he didn’t know who we were. While he was losing his memory, he still had the social wherewithal to try and hide it. But we knew. He was hospitalised and died a few months later.

This was a man with over 70 years of memories, most of which were gone, or confused, or hidden in the depths of a damaged brain. In the end he forgot me, and my daughter, and my Mum, and maybe even his wife. But his life was still well lived. It still happened. I like to think that even if he didn’t have his specific memories, of me, my daughter, of his time in the Navy travelling the world, he at least had the essence of those experiences, because what is the alternative? As Julian Barnes writes in his book Nothing To Be Frightened Of (and in the quote featured at the top of this post), did he instead die before his body shuffled off this mortal coil? Did he “cease to be” as a result of ceasing to remember? And if so, what was the point of it?

My Pa went to Anaheim Disneyland once, he was stationed in the area when he travelled with the Navy. He told me that when he went there, that the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride was closed and that he was disappointed because it was the only one he wanted to go on that day, and it was closed for maintenance. I plan to take my daughter on this ride, regardless of the fact she may well not remember it. My Pa almost certainly didn’t remember any of these things at the end of his life. While Lewy-bodies is not an inheritable disease, a time may come where I may not remember our trip to Disneyland either. But it will happen. While the memories may fade, hopefully in the short time we are there, we will spend far too much on Disney memorabilia, take more photos than we could ever hope to print, and my daughter will have the most fun she has ever had. Maybe that can be the point.

a picture of my Pa and my daughter

a picture of my Pa and my daughter