View From the Sidelines


Spring has officially arrived in Sydney, where we are also at the tail end of a flu epidemic, despite a very mild winter. Local media have declared this city the ‘fully sick’ capital of Australia. Supplies in pharmacies have been depleted, particularly of Tamiflu; classrooms and workplaces emptied of staff and students. There are four influenza strains floating around.

I too was a victim and as a result, everything stopped for me in August, days and weeks disappearing off the radar. The world narrowed down: moving from couch to bed and outdoor lounge. I lost all sense of routine, focusing only on getting better and trying not to worry that it was taking so long.

Illness brings its own kind of routine – medications to buy (and tissues!), doctors’ appointments to attend. And lots of sleeping in between. Sitting on the sidelines watching the world pass by, wishing I could walk barefoot on my favourite beach.

I dreamt that I was hunched inside a big cardboard box with a little gap in the top corner where the sides and top meet. A drinking straw poked through the gap and I was struggling to breathe through it.

Interesting things happen when you stop. I listed all the birds that visit my tiny back garden (10 in total) and noticed new shoots sprouting. The whirring of wings woke me one morning – a pair of Spotted Doves nesting in the climbing jasmine on the front porch. They fussed and fidgeted, plucking long strands from the foliage for their project. I imagined being a drone and following them, to see where they spend the rest of their day. A Wattlebird rustled in the paperbark tree outside my bedroom window, its weight drooping the branch into a bow.

There were joyous moments: one tiny bird launched itself from a palm tree, zooming past me so close that I could feel its feathers brush against my cheek. I didn’t get to see it. Or the unexpected sweet sound of the girl next door singing a Vietnamese lullaby.

A Superb Fairy-wren with its magnificent blue head hopped right into the kitchen one morning. It got caught in a trap that was meant for a very cheeky mouse, who had been eating the succulent shoots of the newly planted sweet peas in the garden. The splendour of the birds’ feathers struck a stark contrast against the wood and steel of the cheaply made trap. Fortunately, its demise was quick.

More sounds dropped themselves in my lap for further inspection: a goods train rumbling in the early dawn, its carriages clicking and clacking as it drew closer; a school marking time with its automated bell; the hum of local traffic punctuated by sirens and trucks; an announcement on a PA system; someone vacuuming to Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits.

I heard my neighbour talking on the phone – his laugh could fill a room – and took soup to another who struck with illness too. Smoke from a burn-off heralded the start of a bush fire prone season as the hours melted away.

A friend sent me a book during this time, Light and Shadow by the recently deceased journalist Mark Colvin. I was humbled by his optimism, especially as he suffered ill health since reporting on the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. There he contracted a rare auto immune disease, a precursor for ongoing health issues that involved a kidney transplant and dialysis. More recently he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, which took his life in May this year.

The following is from an interview with Julia Baird on the ABC’s (Australia) The Drum shortly after his transplant in 2014:

The best thing is the three days I get back. You have no idea…you might think, well, that’s only six hours in the chair, but it actually stretches out, the travel time, putting the needle in, and then there’s the awful stuff of when things go wrong and you bleed for an hour afterwards and things go even wronger (sic), and you get septicaemia and you have to be in hospital for a number of weeks.

I’m rid of all that, touch wood. And that’s really good. I have a lot of arthritic pain but other than that I’m absolutely fine.

A colleague from my writing group emailed to check if I’d succumbed to daytime television while recovering. No! Though one night I did watch a program about the founder of RUOK? , a suicide prevention charity based in Sydney. Founder Gavin Larkin set the organisation up as a response to his father’s suicide and concerns about his own depression. Gavin passed away in 2011 from cancer at the age of 42, after a total of 19 months battling the disease, and a bone marrow transplant. His 15-year-old son, Gus, died of a brain tumour two years later.

That certainly put my predicament in perspective.

Footnote: National RUOK? Day is on 14 September