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Father’s Day

Storms around Nimbin often come from the south-west, rolling in from behind Nimbin Rocks with a sound like that of some weird, mysterious train.

From the verandah, where I’m sitting, the thunder in the mountains seems like the echo of events taking place in another country. When I think about some of the things that have happened to me in this bizarre experience called Life, to date, I couldn’t be more surprised than if, say, a giant cicada suddenly ate the suburb of Five Dock. Hunter S. Thompson repeatedly said that life could never get weird enough for him. Well actually it did, Hunter. That’s why you topped yourself, you dickhead.

In the same way I often think, If I’m going to die – and I am, and in fact could do so at any time – then why the hell am I doing whatever it is I am doing? Whatever you believe, we only do this once and if I knew I were going to die, say next Tuesday, then I might suddenly be concerned with a whole lot of stuff I’m not currently bothered about. For example, I probably wouldn’t be sitting on my verandah with disconnected oddments of thought assembling themselves in what I believe is called my mind, thoughts spliced together like images in some weird forgotten Bunuel film, thinking about my dinner, that my ute needs repairs, and wondering why so many songs I’ve been working out on my guitar lately seem to have B major and C minor 7th chords. And about the fact that one of the Overland editors is curiously named Sparrow, a name shared with other somewhat more notorious Sparrows, such as Jack, and Sally, and Rebecca, and Roberta, though some of these Sparrows are imaginary, I can’t remember which, still it seems weird that … etc etc, and so on and so on.

Most of the people I know who have died suicided. People who knew very well when they were going to die and how, sometimes using strange Heath Robinson contraptions to find their way out of here.

Surviving sometimes feels like going through a mix of bizarre and frenetic slapstick and the Basra Turkey Shoot.

Though in fact the only question I might want to put to myself at the point of death, should I have time, might be, Are you kind, which as odd as it may seem to you, is the most politically loaded question I can think of, as my father seemed to know.

My father died a couple of years ago of mesothelioma, a working-class disease if ever there was one.

In the early 60s he worked in a chemical factory in Lancashire, where huge dryers of some kind were insulated with asbestos. Frequently cracking, the asbestos was repaired by hand. The factory was the main UK supplier of raw plastic product for the record company EMI, and when the Beatles signed with EMI in 1962 and began their ascent to a stardom and ubiquity no-one then could imagine, the factory production skyrocketed. When the asbestos cladding on the dryers could no longer be easily repaired, it was ripped off by hand in sheets, the invisible fibres of asbestos floating through the air like snow and settling on the factory floor and on the clothing and in the lungs of factory hands.

My father had a bit of a soft spot for John Lennon, a contemporary of his, and I recently discovered that as a child Lennon was a frequent visitor to the English fishing town where my father grew up and later worked (at the factory where he would acquire the causes for mesothelioma). In fact, when Lennon was in town during his school holidays visiting a cousin, he stayed just a few streets from where my child father was living. I imagine them in different gangs throwing rocks at each other down by the nearby seashore.

The night before my father died, I visited him at the hospice, a rundown grey building with many dismal-looking cupboards and storerooms. While I was there, my father shat himself. I rang for a nurse. We waited. He refused to me let me clean him up, looking at me as though I’d just suggested he compose obscene limericks about the Madonna, and so we waited a little more. He sat on the edge of the bed in his own shit. I searched the corridors for any nursing staff. There were none. I began to boil with helpless fury. My father said in a faint rasping voice, That won’t bluddy ‘elp. They’re overwurked and paid tupp’nce. Be patient.

Mesothelioma killed him in four months. I stood in the aisle in the suburban church and looked at his embalmed corpse dressed in his best blazer and tie as though he were going to a wedding in the 1970s. His hair had been brushed in a way he’d never brushed it and he had been given a smear of lipstick. But nothing could disguise the appearance of his hands, which had somehow become huge and misshapen like the hands of Mr Hyde, the nails wide and flat and yellow. He looked like a dummy corpse placed there as a joke in old hilarious clothes.

Just before he entered the hospice, my father had repeatedly insisted that nobody at his funeral was to wear black but to dress in whatever colourful clothes they possessed. Whatever his reasons for this – and he made a lot of odd pronouncements in the last few weeks of his life – it seemed like a reasonable request and I decided to take him at his word. On the day of the funeral I wore a pair of green pants, my red gym boots and a bright blue t-shirt with the toothy grin of Miyazaki’s Totoro on it.

Totoro shirtEveryone else of course, wore black, so when I stood up to deliver a brief eulogy I felt like a clown who had been chosen to announce that a tragedy had occurred. I muttered a few words about my father’s relentless dedication to the Beatitudes and returned to my seat. Whatever it is that clowns of any kind do, they do not preach at funerals.

When talking to myself, or to others, doesn’t make enough sense of the day, I write and draw short comics. I wrote one last year called The Tale of Argyle Flute, that narrates a story that goes in part, ‘On her travels across many strange lands, Argyle Flute thought about death every day, and wondered how hers would appear to her. Traffic accident? Lingering terminal illness? Tripping over the garden rake? She realised that nearly everyone who dies, does so unexpectedly without even knowing what happened.’

'Flute' comic

In the end Argyle Flute gets eaten by her feral cat after her house burns down.

We continually accumulate invisible soundtracks to our lives, soundtracks only we can hear, all misbegotten memories and odd regrets and unfilled desires like a million cut-and-pasted and disconnected YouTube videos tagged onto stories we try and tell ourselves about ourselves. We have no choice as to how we will be remembered. For the most part, we will not be remembered for long and, after a little while, not remembered at all. And we don’t have much choice as to how we will die either. All I have learned is that lives burst apart without warning; that everyone dies; that happiness is possible; that all we will ever have are moral and political problems.

I also learned this week that as brilliant John and Paul and George undoubtedly were, they couldn’t play drums for shit and that Back In the USSR, a Beatles track sans Ringo, proves it. Though it occurs to me that if all four of them had been permanently crippled by STDs in Hamburg in 1960, we’d not just be minus The White Album, I suppose there’d also be a chance that my father would still be alive.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. He was writer-in-residence for the 2015 Mesmerism new music festivals. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also recently won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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  1. Stephen, what a warm, funny, sad, thoughtful post about life and death and a lot of other stuff – I loved it. This is my first Father’s Day without my father so your post really resonated. My father used to say that for all the fuss we make about death that in the end all memory of us passes within a couple of generations. I’ve often thought that one of the problems, in western society at least, is that we live as if we’re never going to die.

    • Hi Trish and Clare,
      Just for myself, I think that a day in which I haven’t thought about the fact that I’m going to die is a wasted day. I have a lot of wasted days as a result, but the days I remember are the best days.

      • Hi Stephen. My parents are still alive – both 78 and 81 but it isn’t them that makes me think of death most days … it’s the old dog. She’s 16-and-a-half and half across the threshold already – running on pure love and devotion, I think.

        Mysterious, the sense of alive.

        I don’t know about wasted days. Sometimes I think everything is perfect – everything.

        Sometimes I think the absolute opposite and death (pain, loss, suffering) is cruel.

        Hmmm

  2. Oh was that today? I wondered why you mentioned it earlier. I thought the same thing about Granddad’s body, looked like a shiny dolly in weird-fitting clothes and facepaint.

    I always thought Hunter shot himself because life stopped being weird. He was sick of being slow and bored and inside a body that couldn’t take a ton of drugs and tear around on motorcycles anymore.

    Why do you write such depressing bleak comics? Your names are always great (Rhubarb Celestial is still my screen name on a few websites) but jeez. Go brood on a beach in Sweden already.

    • Actually I think my comics are kind of optimistic in an odd way. Like my blogging and other things. I just say the same thing over and over and over. But I think we have to be able to understand where we are in a sense to be able to have some kind of grounded happiness.
      You’re half-right about HST maybe.But what was happening to him – growing old and frail and so on – was a common weirdness he couldn’t deal with. I was kind of making a Thompson-esque crack about Thompson.

  3. Thanks Stephen for this wonderful mosaic.
    One cold July day in the 70s dressed in a grey crushed velvet skirt and black velvet jacket and black tights (my entire winter wardrobe) I tried to look suitably attired for my mum’s funeral. At the wake I noticed how shiny my velvet gear was, in fact, the skirt looked silver. I realised I looked like I was off to a disco.

    • Funerals are inherently weird. So why not make them even weirder I reckon. Maybe we need a thread entitled ‘Weird Stuff I Have Worn At Funerals That Was Only Hilarious Afterwards’.

  4. I’m classically anxious about death in the way that Freud said we all were. Recently I made myself write a will, I also became an organ donor and I’m just about to apply to be buried on my property, all of which I’ve been putting for years because I thought that I would then die because I’d done these thing. I do, strangely, (or perhaps not) feel a little stronger about death as I work my way through the list.

    Recaptcha is: well avoids

  5. I’ve known people who won’t even discuss dying in case they make it happen. Wills, burials, organ donating (which everyone should organise, now, today) and so forth are good things to get sorted, not only because it probably helps us realise its not such a big deal – just taking out the garbage in a sense – but also because it saves others from having to clean up the mess.

    • That’s a good question. The short answer is I don’t know. Which means I now have to invent some backstory in which a classical-Greek-cursing chicken wanders a gothic forest in company with a giant feral cat, terrorising all.
      In relation to your suggestions of Swedish gloom, the full text of the comic is:
      Argyle Flute lived alone in a small house near a very gothic-looking forest. She had a cat named Isak that she never saw. On the night of a full moon, Argyle Flute dreamed that she died, the world suddenly became still, the grass seemed to glow with light, the sky cried for peace and an angel in a blue robe seemed to fly over the house. Argyle Flute’s life became very strange. The stove and the fridge seemed to be singing to each other constantly. The tomato seeds she planted came up sunflowers. Her chooks started speaking Ancient Greek to her. ‘Nai ton bolbos!’ they cried. ‘Ball’eis korakas!’ and so on. Argyle Flute decided to leave home and wander in the world. Dread black shadows moved swiftly across the sky behind her, but she did not see them. The day after her departure, her house burned down. Such are the ways of destiny. On her travels across many strange lands, Argyle Flute thought about death every day, and wondered how hers would appear to her. Traffic accident? Lingering terminal illness? Tripping over the garden rake? She realised that nearly everyone who dies, does so unexpectedly without even knowing what happened. One day Argyle Flute stood on a hill overlooking the City of Moderate Splendour, in the country of U-Phang, and as the great silk airships airlifted out the city’s main export of cloned beef-hamsters, thought, “Everything I know is wrong.” This frightened her so much that she went straight home. It took her six months. But when she arrived and saw that her house had burned to the ground, she started laughing. She laughed and laughed. She was still laughing when her cat Isak stalked out of the forest. He had gone feral, and was now the size of a cougar and extremely ravenous. Isak pounced on the still laughing Argyle Flute from behind, killing her instantly, and ate her.
      Moral…
      We have no idea how we will die, but it probably won’t be pleasant.
      If you die tomorrow you’ll regret a whole lot of stuff, so for heavens sake stop being so deranged and self-centred.
      Feed your cat.
      Everything you know is wrong.

    • How so? I thought it was pretty Ok for an end-of-the-day what-the-fuck-am I-doing-here kind of narrative. It’s not ‘Transmetropolitan’ or anything, but it has a certain fey charm, no?

  6. My father died over twenty years ago and as time goes on the more I miss the bastard. He taught me a love of books and learning but he was also a member of Mosley’s blackshirts http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oswald_Mosley and if there is one memento I lack it is his membership badge. I guess I’ve learned to love the man in all his facets, to love those bits I hated most when I was younger.

    • Gus
      Thanks for this very intriguing story. All fathers are fascists in some aspects – it comes with the territory I think, because it can be so hard for their children to relate to them as persons, and from the fathering side so difficult to cope with the false suggestions of power fathering evokes. An actual memento of a father who was an actual fascist would be a fine thing.

  7. I agree: he was not the common Oedipal fascist but a real one. He came and bailed me out when I was arrested for street marching under QLD’s Joh. I think he gave me that spiel that being political when young was right and proper but not so when older. He must have been at least a tad proud. As well as having a love of learning he was irreligious. I was absolutely shocked when someone said to me recently that Freud thought the first half of your life was spent thinking about sex and Jung said the second half was spent thinking about God. What a twisted combination of thoughts. My mother, a pious catholic, retained her sex drive well into her eighties. I shared the amusement of a middle aged son who rang his dad on this last father’s day and his father asked why the hell he was celebrating a crap commercial idea like father’s day. I celebrated with my two sons because dads get such bad press: German Fuhrer is not cognate with English father.

  8. Gus,
    I think any theory that divides life up according to Freudian and Jungian slogans is probably suspect in many ways. Politics is never just a dichotomous thing. Father’s Day, a bizarre event that my daughter and I have refused historically to take note, has a different significance to me now as it occurs three weeks before the anniversary of my father’s death, of only because I remember I once rang him on Mother’s Day to wish him a happy Father’s Day. Father’s get under our skins unlike anybody else. Even when they are absent, they are present. And becoming a father, you can never tell what you will turn into.

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