The Day before Australia Day

The day before Australia Day, 25th January, fell on a Sunday. It was a long weekend. I went for a swim at the local pool when I got up, before it became too busy and swimming laps would prove difficult.

When I drove home down our communal driveway I noticed activity at my recently deceased neighbour’s house. I knocked on the door. Her three daughters were within, dressed in varying shades of black. I offered my condolences. They invited me in. We progressed to her bedroom where they were still deciding what to dress her in for her funeral.

On the bed next to her porcelain doll was laid out a black and white patterned dress, a black lace shawl, a pearl necklace and a pair of elegant open toed shoes with a black heel (were her feet that small?).

I wondered if they were they going to worry about the underwear and stockings.

She had worn the outfit being deliberated on by the women to a wedding not long ago, one of her happiest moments that they remember vividly. She had done much dancing in those shoes that night.

The middle daughter suggested that she be buried with her wedding ring on, as that would solve the potential dilemma of who would inherit it.

I looked around her humble home of some sixteen years. There were photographs of three daughters’ weddings and of her late, much loved husband Bill. And more recent shots of her eight grandchildren, their vibrancy adding colour alongside the faded monochrome of the older portraits.

One of the grandchildren had come along with the grieving black clad women. She was standing in the kitchen looking out of place in her denim shorts, sleeveless checked shirt and long perfectly brown legs against the dusty net curtains and venetian blinds.

It had happened so fast, the shock and disbelief still showing on the daughters faces. Their mother complaining of a funny taste in her mouth and pain in the abdomen a week before Christmas. Tests revealed a gall bladder ridden with cancer that had progressed to her liver.

The specialist advised that Palliative care was the only option available.

Another neighbour arrived. I administered hugs all round, still in post swim wet clothes, realising too late that I hadn’t cleaned my teeth and secretly hoping that the chewing gum in the car on the way home had had some impact.

I left the grieving women with their important decision of attire still to be finalised.

The incident reminded me of the time when my father died, eleven years ago. The day after his funeral all seven siblings embarked on his flat above his surgery to restore order from chaos. Not that there was much chaos to restore, my father being a meticulous man.

It was a more difficult day for me than his funeral. We were confronted by the raw memory of the private man without the parameters of ritual, not the man whose public life had been celebrated the previous day at the church.

We took to the task of sorting through his private documents, his clothes including sixty five shirts hanging neatly in his wardrobe, most of them unworn gifts from grateful patients over the years.

I commandeered the kitchen as my area of responsibility. This is where I remembered him most fondly, stirring a simmering sauce as we sipped on pre-dinner gin and tonics or a dry sherry. It was a tiny space that he navigated deftly. Everything within easy reach. A tight labyrinth of drawers, bench tops and cupboards, not unlike a ship’s galley.

His ironed tea towels were carefully, meticulously arranged in a neat stack in the drawer, the creased sides all matching. I could still feel his presence even though he hadn’t lived there for six weeks.

I wept quietly when I discarded his little containers of home-made soup and chicken stock from the freezer, his illegible doctor’s handwriting on the labels. And again when I opened his fridge and inspected its sparse contents. So unlike him: a half-eaten bar of dark chocolate, four eggs, a plastic tub of butter. Fridges are for living people not dead people. Its uncharacteristic emptiness matched mine.

The day unearthed a few surprises, in particular a menu he had kept dated 1956 from a restaurant in Nice where he proposed to our mother.

I thought of the daughters in black in the house opposite mine and what lay ahead for them, the many weeks and months of mourning, of my neighbour, their mother, who knew little English and always shouted in her frustrated effort to be understood, of giving her lifts to the shops and to a few suburbs away to visit her sister in law, of her cleaning our house on special occasions and putting flowers in the vase for a surprise when we staggered home at the end of our working week.

Vale Eleni.