I never saw anything so beautiful … you cannot conceive how the Orchids have delighted me.
Charles Darwin to Sir JD Hooker, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, 1892
Last Sunday I went to church to be with my father, to say goodbye. As I looked in from the vestibule, I could see he was already there; he was early, the church was empty. I saw him before he saw me, his face to the pulpit, sitting in his wheelchair down the front at the end of the pew near the window, out on his own. His head was bowed like a church orchid, an altar display, as if he were praying. His body curled over like a ball – he looked so small I thought he could very well roll away during the service and disappear under a pew. He was leafing through a hymnbook, ruffling the corners of the pages. He knew exactly what it was he was looking for – at least he looked as if he did: a hymn number, a title, the first line perhaps, a favourite tune. Later, when I was close enough to help him, I saw that the book was upside down and back-to-front.
My father is a six-day creationist, the sort who thinks God made everything in six twenty-four-hour days, and that our planet, indeed the whole universe, is just a tiny 6000 years old. He would call himself a creation evangelist, if asked, believing that only those Christians who have faith in a literal interpretation of Genesis are in fact Christians. The other sort, those Christians who are loose with their thinking and their hearts – ‘devout but unthinking Christians’ is the way my father phrases it – who believe in metaphor and parabolic interpretation, the coupling together of science and theory with literature, even the most holy kind, will go to hell along with all the other heathens. God never discriminates between the goats. ‘Our concept of God has gone soft,’ he writes, ‘God is absolute, sovereign good, a hater of evil.’ My father’s archenemy, of course, is Charles Darwin. ‘If evolution is true, there was no Fall. If man did not Fall, then there is no need for a Saviour.’ I’m not making this up: it’s true.
As I write, we’re in the middle of Darwinmania, a yearlong festival of events and celebrations that began in February with prayers at St Paul’s in Melbourne. At the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, in an exhibition about Darwin’s life and work (‘for twenty-one years he kept his theory secret’ runs the tagline), I find carefully preserved letters written by hand to his closest friend, the botanist Joseph Hooker, confessing the imminent publication of The Origin. In one letter, Darwin writes in an elegant hand: ‘at last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable’ (11 January 1844).
Then, in a curious afterthought written in pencil at the foot of the letter, he adds: ‘I do not know anything.’ American writer Flannery O’Connor once famously said, ‘The more I write the less I know about writing.’ Maybe, like O’Connor, Darwin knew just this, that he really didn’t know where he was heading – he was being honest and open, not a faux naïf. The more he pieced together this new tree of life, the less certain he became of its currency.
It is like confessing a murder.
If my father were aware of Darwin’s birthday, if he knew what a fuss everyone was making of this great legend, touted as one of the most creative and influential thinkers of all time, if he knew about all the books that were being published about him, the talks that were being given, how Christian evolutionists were having their say through YouTube, if he could see the intense interest ordinary everyday people were showing in Darwin, he’d be ropable, spitting chips.
But the only chips my father spits now are those that come up from an industrial kitchen in Brisbane to his nursing home, nestled into the side of a highway on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Nowadays, the nurses sometimes have to feed him his lunch with a teaspoon.
(Am I committing murder with this writing?)
Alzheimer’s suits my father.
As I sit with him in his room, we smile at each other about nothing in particular. We smell cut grass, listen to the caw-caw of the birds outside, to the sound of heavy rain on the galvanised iron when it pours out of the sky like gravy, or to the sweetness of his favourite hymn, ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’ on a video of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performing in the Albert Hall in London. I know it’s his favourite hymn because at the opening chord he leans forward listening, his body pulled in by the melody, his eyes watery when he turns to twinkle at me and say: That’s beautiful, isn’t it? He extends his vowels like the cooing of an owl so that the middle word is all oo: That’s bootiful, isn’t it?
To get a grip, I read about Alzheimer’s, everything I can find, how it is a mental deterioration occurring in middle or old age owing to the progressive generalised degeneration of the brain. Senile (premature) dementia, the most common form of dementia, is named after the German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer, who first described it in 1907, when an autopsy of the brain of a 55-year-old woman with the disease showed up neurofibrillary tangles. It can change personalities, turn gentle people into angry monsters. Or, as in the case of my father, soften the spirit; give him heart. It allows my father to express his emotion.
I imagine tangles in his head, knots on the underside of his skull. I imagine trying to untangle them too, the time it would take, how carefully you’d have to do it with the tips of your fingers, fingers aching. Imagine untying the tangles by laying them out on a flat surface to make sure the knots didn’t tighten.
I read, but still fail to understand.
I wish my father would explain it to me in the way he liked to explain what goes on with the body. These sorts of bodies interested him – bodies with medical conditions, diseased bodies, bodies with congenital abnormalities. If it wasn’t theology he was talking about over lunch and tea, then it was the ins and outs of medicine. Sometimes I fancied he liked being around sick people so that he could talk about diagnoses and prognoses. He sparked up. Nowadays, the only medical intervention he has a part in is his medicine, which he refuses with alacrity; obstinacy as the last vestige of control.
If my father could see the book in my hand now, the 1968 Pelican Classic of The Origin, edited by JW Burrow, I wonder what he would say. It’s a scruffy old copy, borrowed from the library, dog-eared with pencil marks and some pages torn out. I want to talk to him about it, to show him the delicate diagram at the centre of Darwin’s thesis, which reaches out from the inside pages and from long ago like a willowy sea anemone. I want to read him passages – the final words, for instance: ‘There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’ Wouldn’t you say: He writes bootifully? Surely my father would agree. I fancy I could hold a conversation with him about the book and Darwin’s writing – am I dreaming?
I doubt that he would have even had this book in his study, even when writing his own treatises on creationism. In 1981 my father published the book Man, Ape or Image: The Christian’s Dilemma (Creation Science Publishing, Queensland) and in 1998 Green Eye of the Storm (The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh). The latter is an exploration of the creationist debate told through the biographies of four Christian men, including my grandfather, the surgeon Arthur Rendle Short.
As a younger woman, I tried to engage my father in conversation about something more than Queensland’s sublime weather or the platter of cheese and crackers we were eating. So I tried throwing him a line, such as: How’s your book going? To which he would reply: It’s at the publisher now.
Have you worked with them before?
Yes, it’s the same publisher as last time.
So did you like what they did?
To my book? You mean in terms of the editing? The cover?
Yes, I suppose I do, the editing – was it a good experience?
Oh yes, you know about this sort of thing, don’t you?
But then we both would go cold, it was too stilted. He didn’t want to find out anything more from me, about what I did and the books I was reading, about the stories I was writing and the sort of writing I was into reading and writing. Nor me from him, either.
Growing up, my father was always disappearing into his books and his writing. No matter where he sat in the house, no matter how much noise we made with our games. Sometimes he’d disappear into his study and we wouldn’t see him for days.
He lived for his books and his writing; my father lived in his head. He boasted that he and his father had been in continuous print for more than eighty years. ‘Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method,’ Walter Benjamin once remarked in his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’. This is what my father did: he wrote the books he wanted to read, the latest on creation apologetics. In young-earth circles they refer to him as ‘the Prof’. He was the founding chair of the Creation Science Foundation in Australia, mentor to Ken Ham, who is now the CEO of Answers in Genesis USA and the force behind the multimillion-dollar Creation Museum in Kentucky. By its own count, after six months, the museum received over 275 000 visitors; by the end of 2008, more than half a million.
I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.
Charles Darwin, On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1859
When my father wasn’t doing his ward rounds at the Royal Children’s Hospital or lecturing to medical students about the intricacies of becoming a good physician, he was preaching the Word of the Lord, peddling the rightness of creationism. He hated Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. He thought what Darwin did was evil, blamed him for the state of the world today, for the breakdown of society and the family unit, school violence, abortion, homosexual behaviour, gay marriage, lawlessness, feminism, etc. If it wasn’t for Darwin we would all be creationists safely bound for heaven. He wrote: ‘[There will be] a cataclysmic end to the universe … And this plan, designed before the foundation of the world is being executed by a God of love, to cull out a group of men and women, to live forever in the beauty of a new earth.’
Never mind his children, of whom some are heathens, atheists even, some who ‘live in sin’ and with partners of the same sex, no less. He never talked about these sorts of abominations. He didn’t know how, especially homosexuality. He could barely countenance the idea of not saying grace with morning tea. If I were to press my father on my own ‘lifestyle choice’ (his words, not mine) you could see his body stiffen, curl into itself, lips shut tight like the shell of a clam. In fast retreat. I’ve tried it once or twice since my mother died. To press the point maybe. In an attempt to live more honestly and more openly. To challenge the security of my own internalised homophobia, share the burden. But the hurt in his eyes is insufferable. A failed experiment of slow dissolve.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when I took my father out in the car for little jaunts into the Maleny hills, for mugs of coffee and cream cakes in Montville and Mapleton. Even though he was unsteady on his legs, he was able do a slow dance on the balls of his feet, a swivel into the front seat of the car, and pretend he was doing a pirouette for me. He’d purr with the effort and his eyes would sometimes sparkle if he had had a good sleep. Then he’d shuffle backwards or forwards – it didn’t matter which – holding onto my arms for support, pleased with the artfulness of the moment.
He loved getting out of the nursing home, any excuse.
But I can’t help my father into his wheelchair anymore. He’s lost all movement, he doesn’t know what his feet do anymore, or at least he can’t get them to do what he thinks they should be doing. He was always a big man too, although he has lost a lot of weight since I last saw him. Sometimes the gold signet ring he always wears on his little finger falls off. A nurse spotted it once on the carpet, suggested she tape it to his little finger for safekeeping. One day it will disappear into somebody’s pocket, for sure.
On one of those jaunts we ate fish and chips beside the Maroochydore River: grilled dory, all fat and juicy with wedges of lemon my father liked to suck on. Gorgeous, he exclaimed, to the rill of water lapping the edges of our feet. Mostly we munched away in the stillness, in silence: my father in his wheelchair and me cross-legged on the sand, body beside body, flesh in the company of flesh. It’s just you and me now, he volunteered. His words sent a trill of sighs through my veins out there under the blue, blue sky; we were at rest somehow. Something must have passed between during the morning and in the cemetery, when we visited my mother’s grave. It’s just you and me. My heart pumped a little louder than normal.
Once upon a time, and not so long ago, I didn’t know what I was going to do when I was with my father, I didn’t know what to say to him. I was afraid. Yet here I was – just take a look at us, will you – having a picnic lunch like seagulls with a flap of words between us every now and again, it didn’t matter what about. If a passer-by thought to comment they might say: Look at those two, they’re so at home in each other’s company; how sweetly they must care for each other. I’d like to have what they’ve got.
There’s a photo I return to whenever I think of my father. I was a teenager when I took it: my father and his orchids (you’re not very good at taking photos of people Francesca, are you?). Just feel the hot Brisbane sun on my father’s back through the grapevine, the cold patio concrete under his feet; his concentration of muscle with the curl of toes, that forefinger holding the orchid pot.
My father loved his orchids. He was very good at growing them too; he’d split them and feed them and get them to flower. Each new flower, a miracle. He tended them each morning before going to the hospital, shuffled them around in their places to rearrange the collection, fed them a special mixture with a little watering can, snipped off dead roots. He’d exclaim when an orchid grew a bud, insist everybody have a look and admire, ooh and ah. In full flower they were allowed to come into the house, to perch in the middle of the dining table on a ceramic saucer. On full display. Sometimes, with some varieties, they’d stay there in full bloom for more than a lunar month.
Imagine my intrigue when I discovered that Darwin liked his orchids too – he described his plant experiments as ‘a grand amusement’. He tested his theories of cross-pollination on lady’s slipper orchids, Cypripedium reginae, amongst others, and moths. ‘Wonderful creatures, these orchids,’ he wrote, ‘beautifully adapted to leave pollen on the two lateral stigmatic surfaces. I never saw anything so beautiful.’ Did my father read Darwin’s considerations in his 1862 book, On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and On the Good Effects of Intercrossing, at least out of mutual interest? Was he seduced by Darwin’s methodical approach, his careful analysis?
I kiss my father hello and goodbye now; he likes that. He holds me when I lean down to his body to press my lips against the skin and bone on the top of his head (I can’t stop imagining the tangles). He’s so hungry for contact, sometimes, he doesn’t want to let me go and grips my arm. When I really do have to leave, in a hurry to catch my plane, he blows kisses at me with his hands from where he sits, stuck in the chair – I won’t get up, he offers. He blows kisses the way a child blows bubbles through a straw. His whole face lights up like a candle, burning bright.
Before my mother died, I never really thought about my father – not serious thoughts. He didn’t exist and I didn’t care. In the weeks leading up to her death he forgot what food looked like, the shape of it on his plate. He didn’t know how to pick it up and put it into his mouth. It was only after we told him the news that he woke up. But by then it was too late to engage with his head. All that remains now is his body (in my family we never mentioned bodies unless it was for a medical reason). Death unhinges a life, I’m thinking, it creates definition. You know where you are.
My father doesn’t read anymore; he can’t make sense of the line of words. He doesn’t know how to hold a newspaper or a book, doesn’t know how to turn a page. What invariably happens is that he might read a word once, then twice, three times, four (and I know this because he sometimes rereads the same words out loud). Then he jumps forward and reads another single word from the bottom of the page, once then twice, three times, before doubling back to the beginning again. His brow knits together. His index finger tugs at the paper. Oh dash it, he says, looking at me with pleading, watery eyes. With each try it is as though he has never learned to read before, let alone written thousands upon thousands of words in published and unpublished volumes and for lectures and sermons. Occasionally he will remember to say, with unforced clarity: Did you know Father and I were in print for over a century? It’s such a surprise when he speaks like this: in a complete sentence, a whole thought. There is a trace of something gone before.
More often, though, he may as well be back in kindergarten, learning the basics about books, about writing and the sequence of letters, learning to point words out with his fingers, his body hunched over the page in concentration, learning to sound syllables in his mouth for the first time.
The Red Notebook of Charles Darwin, 1831-1836
Last Sunday, at the end of my visit, I went to church to say goodbye. The air was warm and a bit blowy as it shuffled in after me. It teased the top of my father’s head, rustled his wispy hair so that small strands wafted like a flight of kites on the Mooloolaba sands. I thought of the warm salty water holding the bodies afloat out there, everyone swimming on this last day of school holidays, and how inevitably the road into Brisbane would be chockers with cars. That’s why I ended up in his church.
If I was going to spend a morning with my father, then spending it in the church was my best option, the only option really. I wanted to beat the rush. I wanted to get ahead of the traffic jam. I couldn’t wait until the service was over to see him, it would be too late. I had to swallow my pride and beliefs. What difference would it make, I reasoned? I could sit with him in his room in the nursing home listening to a videotape of Hymns of Praise, or sit with him here in church amidst the chorus of Presbyterian worshippers. The latter was more public, it’s true, and slightly more awkward at first, given I normally refused my father’s offers ‘to worship God’. I comforted myself by watching the morning air push around the trees outside the vestry window and listening to the preacher stumble on the word ‘hedonist’ when explaining why the ‘children of the sun’ riding boogie boards and frolicking in togs in the Sunday surf would rot in hell, and take their families with them. Perhaps it didn’t matter in this instance that the church didn’t believe in women praying and thought homosexuality was an unforgivable abomination. I just wanted to be close to my father.
The hymns were quite nice too in the wafty warmth of a Sunshine Coast morning, especially the familiar doxology: ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow’. This morning it was sung rather beautifully by all and sundry – maybe because they knew it so well with its theatrical chordal progression, because they sang it each week. Maybe it was just the way I heard it, my heart open to this particular carriage of love.
What I didn’t take into account was my father’s reaction to me being there. He kept saying over and over, well done, well done; he was beaming. He must have thought I was saved on the spot. He was BESIDE himself seeing me waltz into church. He had a direct line to God at that moment. Through the service he kept coming back to it as well, holding my hand, turning towards me, looking up at me, smiling, saying over and over and over, well done, well done, well done, with enough energy in his body to spin himself out of his chair, to circle above us exclaiming: I’m off now I’m on my way! Truly, I would not have been surprised if we’d grown wings together that day. My father certainly thought we had – he was in heaven. And if he took me there to keep him company on this Sunday morning, I didn’t mind so much, I didn’t mind at all.
[F]rom so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859
All images by the author and Hephzibah Rendle-Short.