By Lucinda Bain
I thought I knew something of death. Until, on the 20th of May 2016 – my 34th birthday – I found myself breastfeeding my third baby in the same room as my dead grandfather. It was at this point, sitting stunned and limp, feeling only the gentle tug of Pearl’s round-o-mouth around my nipple, that I realised: I knew nothing.
My mother had phoned me in January that same year to tell me of my grandfather’s illness. It was a shock: my tanned, robust, skiing, camping, stoic grandfather unwell? His mother had lived to 93 and to me, even in my thirties, he still held that kind of dream-like invincibility of my childhood.
In my mind I knew him to be at home by the sea, looking out over the black windows of evening alone, as my mother told me the news. At that moment the water was crashing into the cliffs of Cape Woolamai just as it had always done, caring little for the man sitting with death inside him, a stones throw from where it relentlessly hurled itself upon the shore.
Lucinda Bain’s has won third equal prize in the 2020 Bass Coast Prize for Non-Fiction with Paper Thin. A parallel memoir of a grandfather’s death and a daughter’s birth, the story draws you in from the first intriguing sentence to the last powerful moment.
When the rich red flowering gums popped on the Island, it was my favourite time of year. When was that? I can’t seem to remember now, having spent so many years unable to visit. Late winter? Early Spring? There was one growing alongside my grandfather’s driveway and it hung heavy and low over the bonnet of his car, thick with phosphorescent blossom and curvaceous gumnuts. It surprises me now, looking back, that I never picked any, only looked and smelled and noticed. One day, while sitting in Gramps’ tiny lounge sipping coffee brewed in a faux Italian, stained aluminium percolator, he passed me a small dog-eared book: Trees of Victoria and Adjoining Areas by Leon Costermans.
‘You can have this,’ he said.
‘Why don’t you want it?’ I asked, as I noted its worn appearance, the numerous pink post-it notes poking out from between the pages. What looked to be a well-utilised book.
‘I’ve identified every tree and plant on the Island. What’s the point in keeping it?’ Replied my grandfather, the old-school minimalist.
Recently, during Covid-19 lockdown at my home in Eltham, I began bringing samples home from my walks to identify in the book: Melaleuca ericifolia, Acacia longifolia, Eucalyptus ovata. I find myself toying with the pink post-it notes, wondering where on the Island Gramps had been, and what he was doing when he carefully ticked off another plant. It’s too late to ask now.
Six years before my grandfather became sick, as my first baby slipped into this earth – slick and warm and wet – the veil between what I knew of life, and the illusive constellation of death became paper-thin. My first installation of motherly instincts had me on high alert, telling me in no uncertain terms that I held the very existence of this infant in my twenty-seven year old palm, and with this realisation my heart turned white with shock and horror. When Nella was days, weeks, months old, I held my cheek centimetres from her mouth as she slept, waiting for a tiny puff of breath, holding my own until I felt it, warm and short and moist on my skin. In those early days I could barely sleep with the knowledge that her life was on the brink, merely due to the fact she was alive. I’d wake in the night and swing wildly from my bed, fuelled by the irrational thought that death may have had nothing better to do than to swoop in on her while I was recklessly asleep. Now, with three daughters and a decade of motherhood under my belt, I still creep through the house in its darkest hours, plagued by my self-imposed superstitions that somehow something – anything! – might happen if I don’t check each small girl before I allow myself to rest. Blankets accidentally twisted over faces, a fall out of bed at the wrong angle, a lamp left switched on too close to a curtain, an unnoticed necklace pulling at a thin neck. These imagined, yet vaguely plausible perils wrap their tendrils around my brain in its primal half-awake state.
When Nella was 11 months old we took her on one of our regular pilgrimages to the Prom. It wasn’t her first visit, but it was her first extended family trip, one that is religiously held each Labour Day weekend, the only thing keeping us away: fire or flood. She was, so far, the only grandchild, so we crowded around her as she bathed in a bucket of warm water on our 34th Avenue campsite, splashing and looking around at her doting relatives. He was there, and they had already forged a good and special friendship. As she became older she would sit on his lap and whisper things in his ears, things I was never privy to. He would read to her and she would listen, intently.
Back in 2016, my grandfather was becoming increasingly unwell, and had to take up a bed at the Caritas Christi Hospice in Kew. I knew being drawn back to the city away from his seaside home was something of a nightmare for him. He had recently just moved from the centre of Phillip Island to Cape Woolamai. He rode his bike 10 kilometres each morning and was a member at the Rhyll Yacht Club. Not long before this I had sat in the summer sun with him in Rhyll, having a coffee at the café on the corner. My girls wore hats and ran along the flat sand. It was hot that day and I was conscious of keeping my pale skin under the shade of the café’s white umbrella while he sat with his olive arms browning in full sun.
My aunty, Jos, brought some pompom makers in to the hospice with a bag of colourful wool. Anyone who felt the urge could make one, and before long many idle hands, collectively lulled by the comfort of repetition and rhythm, had made a bright string of pompoms that were slung over a shelf on the wall facing his bed. On this same shelf my mother placed a CD player. During labour, I listened to Laura Marling. Now we listened to Chopin, Bach, Mozart. The music and the pops of colour strung along the shelf brought a shred of hope, a flicker of colour that seemed to suggest in a query: Maybe not everything is bad?
For a few weeks he was sharing his room with writer Robert Greenberg. For the short time we knew him, we called him Bob. He was a friendly man and he gave a copy of his book The Greeblies to Nella with a message for her inside the front cover: Dear Nella, keep reading! Bob. Gramps gave it to her and she held it tightly to her chest for the rest of our visit. One morning I arrived and Bob’s bed was empty. The white sheets were pulled oh so tight. I’m sorry about Bob, Gramps, I typed into a text message later, having been unable to mention Bob’s absence while we had been face to face. I don’t remember if there was a reply. My grandfather was moved to a private room after that.
As I moved towards each of my three labours I felt my body become heavy with secrets. This body I lived in began processes I didn’t know were possible, or even necessary. It worked tirelessly, fussing around me and brimming with maternal wisdom. My own body – that I had never before understood to be separate to me – tried to tell me what I needed to do, tried to hint: move here, slow down, do this, do that. Tried to tell me in the manner in which one frustratingly shouts in the face of a person who speaks a different language, as if the volume will help them to understand. My muscles tensed and shrugged, and those first waves of contractions always felt like rehearsals for something much bigger than my scope of understanding. They ebbed and flowed, building momentum, surprising me with their strength and vigour. Midwives would say, any day now. And I would mope and cry because they didn’t know, and neither did I. I was stuck in this place of unknowingness, and as a human, it was my first lesson in truly understanding and accepting that I had no control. I had to be patient and wait, and my body would know when we were ready.
Soon we were told it was getting closer. It could be tomorrow, or maybe over the weekend, said a nurse with a cheerful pink smile and soft plump features. Back in January when I had first heard about the illness, I knew he would die on May 20th, my birthday. I even wrote it down in my journal to prove to myself that I didn’t somehow invent it after the fact. I knew it just as I knew my name, just as I knew the pale oceanic tones of dusk and just as I knew when the embryonic cells of my babies were curling warmly into the corners of my womb. It was a calm knowing, that’s the only way I can explain the sensation of it.
One Saturday, when my grandfather was still talking just a little, I went with my mother and Jos to see him. It was a sunny autumn day and the breeze was light. The nurse with the pink lipstick said he was well enough to go outside and trolleyed his stretcher through the guts of the hospice until we reached a large yard cocooned by the u-shaped wings of the building. I trailed along behind, easily adopting my status as child among my elder family members. He couldn’t say much, and someone - either Mum or my aunty – carefully placed their sunglasses over his eyes so he could look out over the trees towards the north. As they sat by his side in the sunshine, chatting about this and that, I wandered a little further away on the grass to lay flat on my back under an old oak tree. I remember the sky that day, it was a piercing blue and I stared straight into its expansive nothingness until all I could see when I blinked was a stark and bright white. The white, the grey, the conformity of the hospice: we were so far away from the expansive blue of the sea.
Later, weaving our way through the dim squeaky corridors the nurse had led us through earlier, we passed a number of unused rooms. This part of the hospice was clearly not being utilised for patients and had an eerie quality, and only some of the lights were turned on. I imagined the zombie apocalypse might have begun while we were outside in the sunshine, and those great loping half-humans were rolling through the wards, hurling themselves out of their beds and towards my exposed flesh. Soon enough though we were back in the main part of the hospice, and all appeared to be well. We passed a reading room with floral couches and I wished desperately for one of the sweet white-haired Christian women inside to notice me, to see my grief and confusion as I traipsed sulkily behind the stretcher. I thought if I walked slowly and miserably enough, eyes downcast, one of them might spot my weakness in the face of all this, might bundle me up into her soft cushioned arms and tip sips of milky tea into my mouth. But everyone was sad here. I chided myself for being such a brash attention seeker and turned my focus back to the trolley, to the context of the companionship that was required of me.
On weekends we would phone Gramps from our little bolthole in Korumburra and arrange to meet him for coffee at Kongwak Market. He would sit at one of the rickety tables and people watch as we wandered the stalls, flicking through vintage dresses, woollen jumpers, old crockery and books. He would always want to look at the ‘Penguin Wall’ as we called it: a bookshelf accidentally colour coordinated with all manner of Penguin classics. No doubt he would find something of interest there. On warm days we might meet at Inverloch instead, so the kids could have a splash at Andersons Inlet. We would order fish and chips and eat it in the shelter of the pine trees behind the dunes, licking salt and oil from our fingertips and calling to the girls on the play equipment. Thoughts of death and the ending of things as they were never entered our minds on those sunny briny days. I’d be more concerned about when we’d have to make the trek back to Melbourne, and what I’d make for school lunches that week.
I was sitting by his hospice bed one evening nearing my birthday, I had escaped the house after my three girls had gone to sleep. I was bickering by his bedside with my mother, we were discussing what shoes I should wear on an upcoming hike. Mum thought I should buy hiking boots, I thought walking shoes would be best. Gramps’ eyes were closed. After a few minutes of this, he cleared his throat and said, ‘Walking shoes,’ in a gruff, authoritarian tone. These were the last words he ever spoke to me.
Google says that every second, four human babies are born and two humans die. I imagine a great wailing wave of incoming humans every hour, arriving in pools of sweat, triumph and misunderstood womanhood. Each hour also signalling endings, departures. People who once found themselves being born into their mother’s arms; leaving. Their deaths, not unlike their births, may come on thick and slow and heavy, or nimble and fast and breathless. Just as labour follows a distinct pattern of stages and transitions, so too does death, and again: grief. As I writhe in the discomfort of all this unknowing, of these concepts too big to cope with, I realise that one day I too am going to die. I’m not ill nor am I old. But one day, it will happen to me, and in the moments I allow it, I am acutely aware of it.
Soon enough it was my birthday and there were long gaps and great gasps now, and we huddled around the bed calling his various names: Gramps, Dad, GG. We each held a hand on his hardened body and cried shocked, heavy blasts of tears: my mother, three aunties, my cousin, my youngest daughter Pearl, a baby then. She was momentarily silenced and calm, as if she knew. His rasping breaths were uneven and of the silence between them I have little recollection. The air in the room was thick and full. Time snapped at its hinges too, and, like his discarded body, became nothing. If Bach was playing then, I have no memory of it.
Some part of this lull in time, these slow transitions from one stage to another, this language of body and bone and breath was intensely familiar to me, despite never having witnessed it before. When birthing my three babies, my own body had morphed and heaved. My breath was shallow and then full, as I worked to control it, to ease it in and out of my throbbing, panicked lungs. This body was ejecting something, something was coming, where there once was nothing. The vastness of nothing has eluded me ever since. How can something appear where nothing was? How can nothing seemingly devour something that was once so solid, so known and true to me? The truth of my grandfather feels whisper thin now, it has an airy quality. If I close my eyes I can hear his voice, I can see his wry smile, the way he held his arms across his chest by his elbows, the way he listened and looked. I have a photo of him with two of my daughters standing on the sand of Nelson Bay at the Prom. He is wearing a maroon jacket and the hood is up. It was windy that afternoon and in typical Prom fashion gusts of air were flushing the beach, whipping up sand that flicked and stung our cheeks. Along with my mother and stepdad we were the only people on the beach. We had just arrived. It was Labour Day weekend and my two eldest girls, Nella and Saffron, were small but not babies. My belly was in full bloom with my third daughter, Pearl. Gramps is standing with his arms folded across his chest, holding his elbows, next to my girls and Mum. None of them are looking at the camera, they are all facing Mt Oberon, quite and thoughtful, as is standard for us each time we arrive there: breathing slowly, taking it in, eyes wide in our favourite place. I still remember him holding Saffron’s tiny hand as we walked back up the ramp to 34th Avenue that day.
Mum gave me a white envelope containing some money after Gramps died. I kept it in my underwear drawer. ‘Spend it on something that reminds you of him,’ Mum said. I scoured the internet; searching, clicking, scrolling. Eventually I came across a pastel-toned photo of a Great Egret, a waterbird standing in the shallows, all greys and whites and subtle blush pinks. The water was so immaculately still the bird’s reflection was mirrored: long and thin and grey. It reminded me of the last time I had seen him: long and thin and grey. Diluted from his normal self. My mind continues to play back that moment, that hospital grade chair, sitting stiff and upright with Pearl at my breast, staring into the dark space of my dead grandfather’s wide gaping mouth, noting that moment where life and death were colliding in front of me. After he had passed, we evaporated; me wandering out to the courtyard to sit in a stunned silence, the others, who knows. I don’t know where they were when I was alone in the room, feeding Pearl. Was it inappropriate to be breastfeeding here? The thought, at the time, scraped through a thick fog of grief and confusion. Moments earlier… an hour? Two? He had been breathing. An uncertain breath, but breath all the same. It was ok then. I had been naïve to death back then. I knew nothing of what I knew now.
I emailed the photographer who appeared, from his website, to have a connection to Gippsland and asked hopefully: Where was this photo taken? I desperately wanted it to be somewhere significant, to give me something to hold onto, to wipe away this hollow feeling void of answers. I’m not sure why I felt a picture could do this.
I opened the reply from the photographer: I took the photo at Anderson’s Inlet, Inverloch, in South Gippsland. It was a peaceful late afternoon on a low tide, 19th May 2016.
While the photographer was walking a beach, one so familiar to us, considering the light, eyeing the long, elegant neck of a grey waterbird lingering in the shallows of a cool sea, a golden orb of sun lowering heavily in the sky – no doubt – I was sitting in Caritas Christi by my grandfather’s bed on what was to be his last night on earth.
I took the envelope out of my drawer, counted it, and ordered a print. It hangs on the wall in my living room, over a small mid-century bookshelf that I bought from Peta and Peter at Kongwak Market one time. Sometimes I place some flowers in a grey-blue pottery vase beneath it. Right now the vase is filled with pink proteas.
Nowadays I think often of death, and I can no longer hide from it behind my own innocence. I think of its brutality, finality, monstrosity. And also its gentleness. Of its parallels with birth and the transitions of labour. Of its magician’s charm as it whisks something away, pausing time and space and stars, rendering a body dull and lifeless. Ta da, it cries. I wade through the space it has left in my mind, a space that is senseless and wild, a space that disregards my urgent need to know, to understand. What is it?
I look at the Egret on my wall as I walk past, sometimes with my arms full of washing and discarded toys, or a child pulling at my leg. Scenes of domesticity act out around it as we move through our days. I wonder if the bird is still alive and where it might be now. Is it scooping its wings over the tops of the grey and familiar seas of Bass Strait? Is it watching eagerly as picnickers as Eagles Nest leave behind a discarded sandwich crust? No. It wouldn’t care for that and would surely leave such slovenly matters to the local brood of silver gulls. Is it rotting on the long expanse of beach at Sandy Point, its bones delicately poking through sheets of skin and feather? How long do such birds live and of what do they die? What of its image on my wall signifying everything I know about life and death and all that comes between?
One day I hope I might be able to return to the Island, there are some coastal walks I would like to do. Maybe I will take my copy of Trees of Victoria and turn to the marked pages. Maybe my eyes will land on the same tree that spurred another post-it note entry. Maybe.
I’ll end with this: a day on which there is that kind of summery warmth where it feels as though there is no temperature at all. Where your body moves effortlessly and feels neither cold, nor hot. The sky is clear on days like this, the air must be still. My grandfather is crouched in his back garden, some sort of tool in hand. Khaki shorts, dirty-ish polo shirt, brown legs. He is crouched as a child would crouch, despite being in his 80s. Numerous grey coastal banksia and the flowering gum I told you about earlier, form the backdrop. We are on the Island. He is tinkering with some part of a boat motor. I have no desire to know which part, so I don’t ask. On his right at ground level, balanced on a red gum sleeper, is an impromptu barbeque slash camp stove on which he is periodically flipping sausages. There are no frills here, no additions. It is quiet. Everything then is simply as it was, and there is no need or requirement or desire for it to be anymore than this.
It felt confusing to note it, and still does, but as I sat in those weeks and months and years afterwards the only thing that held true, that I could grasp or understand or connect, was that the rhythms of death reminded me deeply of labour and birth. That our correlation to place and time and body is the thread that binds us. It helps us enter, and guides us as we leave. I didn’t know where to put that information, so I’ve documented it here as best I can. And this is where I’ll leave it, for now.