I had plans to spend New Year's Eve the same way I usually do, keeping out of the heat as much as possible, and writing up my Year in Books blog post. But something very dramatic happened that changed not just the day's plans, but an awful lot of my life. Around 4:30 am on December 31st, 2016, I found Mr CJ dead in the garden. This is the story of how that came to be.
Followers of this blog will have noticed that I've spent the last several years as a carer for Mr CJ. He had been sick for seven and half years, slowly declining all that time.
It started with a headache that wouldn't go away, no matter what. Some months of hospitals and testing later, it was discovered that he had arthritis in his neck, featuring a growth spur that was pressing on the nerves as they exited the spinal column at that point. That meant chronic pain in his head, neck, arms and shoulders, limited mobility in his arms and hands, and reduced sensitivity in fingers that limited his dexterity. We slowly got used to this new life, revolving around visits to doctors and hospitals, keeping track of meds, and living with endless pain.
Then three and a half years ago, he had a short stay in hospital with pneumonia, and it was discovered that he had emphysema. Yes, he was a heavy smoker. The lung specialist thought it likely that he had lung cancer, and if he did, he'd probably only have around six months to live. It took more than two months to get through all the testing that confirmed that he didn't have cancer, just emphysema. It gave us a long time to think about the idea of him dying soon. But he hung in there, huffing and puffing and inhaling enormous quantities of Ventolin and other medications. Before long he could not lie down at all, as he couldn't breathe lying flat. He slept in a chair. He basically spent most of his life in his chair. But he was still really happy with his life in a lot of ways.
He really loved this place we have been living in, this house in Nimbin. Nimbin was a wonderful experience for him. It's like very few places in this country in that Aboriginal people are respected as traditional custodians here, and have higher status in the community than white people. He'd spent a lot of his life, especially the early years, copping shit pretty badly just for the fact of being Aboriginal. All that was turned around here. He was respected when he walked down the street in Nimbin, and addressed as Uncle. Not that he did a lot of walking down the street, especially toward the end when he could only manage to walk about 25 metres at a time, but word had spread and everyone knew who he was. I don't think he ever dreamed that he would experience such a thing in his lifetime, and it meant a hell of a lot to him.
It was only about six months ago that another spell in hospital revealed that he had congestive heart failure, a complication caused by the emphysema, and also two blood clots, which meant he had to take blood thinners forever to reduce his risk of stroke. His legs swelled up because his heart wasn't pumping the fluid around properly, and often developed cellulitis, requiring antibiotics. By now he was taking up to 20 or so tablets of all different kinds daily, as well as three different kinds of puffers for his lungs. We knew he didn't have too long to go, but whether that was a few weeks or months or years, we couldn't know.
He had one thing on his 'bucket list.' He wanted to go to Sydney to see this brother, and he wanted to drive. We did it. Later, the doctors said it was a wonder that he survived the trip, and made him promise never to drive more than a hour or two away, ever again. He promised. He had done what he wanted to do.
There was a bit of excitement two months ago when he died for 31 seconds while having a cardiogram, but was revived. We all wanted to know, what happened, but there were no reports of seeing his ancestors or a white light. He just remembered hitting his head on a monitor as he was jolted into consciousness. The funny thing is, he seemed to really perk up for a while after that. I used to say the shock must have done him good. He became more wakeful and generally involved with things, his mood was positive, and everyone said he was looking well.
Everything seemed normal in his last few days, if this abominably hot weather we have here in the summer can be called normal, which I maintain it is not. Around 10 or 11 pm on the night of Friday 30th, I found him looking around the kitchen in that expectant way. I made him a toasted cheese and tomato wrap. He sat in his chair, eating it and watching The Big Bang Theory on DVD. I went back to sleep.
When I woke up, I didn't know what time it was, but it felt like the early hours of the morning. He wasn't in his chair. I needed to know where he was at all times, in case he'd fallen over or passed out, which had happened several times. I got up and looked out the window, and he wasn't in his chair on the verandah, either. I looked all over the house. It seemed impossible that he could just not be here anywhere. I looked in every room again. Finally I went out into the garden, and there he was, lying flat out on his back, with his head on the wormwood bush, looking so peacefully asleep, like he'd fallen over and passed out again. But this time, he didn't wake up. For all the wondering how much longer he would live, it seemed impossible that it could be today, now. I bent down to listen to his breathing. There was none.
The thing to do in such a situation, of course, is to call for an ambulance, so that's what I did, post-haste. And this is where we get to the bit that I wish, of all the things that happened that day, could have been different.
The people who answer the phone for these emergency calls have a certain script they have to follow. He told me to do CPR, and how to do it, which I knew well enough in theory, though I'd never actually performed it before. And so I started doing CPR, pushing hard and fast on his chest, then breathing into his lungs, and hearing and feeling my own breath come out of them in the exhale. It was hard, really hard. He was lying in such a spot in the garden that he had the concrete path running along one side of his body, and the fishpond on the other. I had to get up high above him to push down on his chest with my weight, and then get down low beside his head to reach his mouth to do the breathing. A lot of scrabbling around with my bare legs on the rough concrete. My knees were scraped, and stung for the rest of the day. The palms of my hands grew blisters from pushing against his chest. Did I mention that it was unreasonably hot? Even at this traditionally bitter pre-dawn hour. I don't think the temperature had dropped below 27℃ the entire night that night. I can't think of another occasion where I put so much sheer physical work and effort into one short block of time in my life. Did I say short? I don't know how long I was going on like this, but if felt like a long time, and I know that it must take an ambulance the better part of half an hour to get from Lismore to Nimbin, even with sirens and lights and high speeds. I kept telling the guy on the phone that there was no point me doing this, he was already gone. He kept saying "You've got to give him the best possible chance." So now I know what their script tells them to say when they get these calls. I was terrified when I heard something crack, but the guy on the phone said that that meant I was doing it right, and to keep going. So I kept going. I kept fucking going. Sweat was running off me in rivers. I didn't think I'd be able to keep going, but I had to, because the man on the phone was telling me to. I wondered what would happen if I collapsed. I kept going. It was hot and hellish and horrible and so violent. That's what I hate the most about this part of the story. It was such a fucking violent way to treat his body, when he had only just finally attained the peace he so deserved. I wish so much that I could have just sat in the peace of the quiet of the night and been present with him at this most sacred moment. I knew, inside myself, that that's what I should have done. But instead I followed instructions. The air smelled of fresh wormwood.
It was a great relief to just stop when the ambos arrived and let them take over and hook him up to their little electronic machine. I knew he was gone, but it was a whole new level of real to actually see the flatline running across the little screen. A moaning noise came out of me when the ambo said out loud, "Yes, he has passed," and I didn't understand why, because I already knew he was dead, and why should it make a difference for him to say it?
Immediately I rang his brother to tell him, he's gone. I held the phone out over his body so his spirit could hear the cries. That was when our housemate, Sister F, came out, alerted by the lights of the ambulance and the noise. And I told her too, he's gone, he's gone, he's gone. They put a white sheet loosely over his body.
The light of day was just starting to break by now. One of the ambos got a proper look at me, and it was clear from his reaction that I didn't look so good. He said I needed to drink some water right now, and Sister F brought it to me. Then they all went out the front of the property to wait for the police to arrive, and I was alone with him, and had that precious moment of peace that I wished I could have claimed from the start. I lay down on the concrete alongside him, and I held his hand, like I had through so many painful tests and procedures and long dreary hospital hours, and I got to hug him without causing him pain by doing so, for the first time in seven and a half years. I breathed in the scent of the crushed wormwood, now stained with his blood, and I let my eyes drink in the sight of the deep peace that his face wore. He had wished to die at home, and not in a hospital. He got to die lying on this good earth, in the garden he loved, under the stars. It was just so beautiful, beyond any words, so I took photos.
It just so happened that a local elder of the Bundjalung nation, upon whose land we dwell, had been living in the shed in our backyard. He heard the whole thing, and he waited. When Sister F first asked me if she should go and fetch him, I said no. I didn't want any more people coming along, I just wanted to be quiet with him. But a while later I realised it was the right thing to do, not for me or for him, but for the land, for this land that had carried his pain for all this time and now held his spirit and was witness to its passing. He came striding through the grass and the dawn light, dressed in his totem colours and carrying a stick that is sacred for reasons that I will likely never be privy to, speaking to the spirits of the land in their own language, this man's own mother tongue, the language of the Bundjalung. I recognised one word - bugelbeh - it's all right. It was so beyond real that it was like being in a scene from a movie.
I'd always imagined that if or when this happened, the ambos would just load him straight up in their ambulance and take him away, and that would be it. So I wasn't at all prepared for what came next. Firstly, if they attend a DOA, the ambos have to call the police, wait for them to arrive, and hand it over to them, without disturbing the body any further. It took at least a couple of hours for them to arrive, I think. I sat by him the whole time. An enormous bruise started spreading out over his chest - that had been caused by me doing CPR. He started to cool down - though not by much, as air temperature was near 30℃ anyway, and he slowly started to stiffen into rigor mortis. When I wondered what might be a good way to mark this event with ritual, I thought of how he would always buy a beer for his loved ones and ancestors on the dates of their memorials, have a drink with them, and then pour their beer onto the earth. I don't drink beer, but it just so happened that I had a bottle of Pink sparkling wine in the fridge, for the first time since last summer. And I knew what to do - I would have a drink with him. I got the Pink, and opened it, and poured a little of it into his mouth, and drank my toast to his spirit. I drank the bottle over the course of the morning. God knows what the coppers thought of me polishing off a bottle of champers amid all the goings-on, but I felt they knew better than to be judgemental. They were pretty good. They did their job.
There was a lot more waiting for a special forensics guy to come out and declare that this was not a crime scene, and then more waiting again for the doctor to come on so he could sign the death certificate. There was a statement to be made and recorded in the little notebook and initialled on every page, and a form with which to identify the body. Then some more waiting for the 'contractors' to arrive, which was how the police referred to the undertakers. Sister F and I found this rather hilarious, in a very noir kind of way.
There was one really amazing thing that happened while the waiting was going on, and that was the ants. First, there were just a few ants crawling on his feet. Nothing unusual there, that's what happens to any feet that happen to stand still for more than about 30 seconds around here. It was quite surreal to see them swarm and for him to remain still, and not brush them away and kick his feet to shake them off. Then more came, and more, and they climbed higher and further across his body. It was Sister F who first noticed this, and the highway they had formed between their nest on the other side of the house and his body. She called out, "Look, the contractors are here!" They had already begun to take him, tiny drops of sweat and blood at a time, into the earth, where they lived. It was wonderful to know this had happened, as he would have loved to just be buried right there in the backyard, if only that weren't completely unacceptable and illegal. They swarmed for about an hour, concentrating on the juicy bits, and then just faded away once they had collected what they came for. Many blessings were given upon the ants for their work.
The sun was high in the sky by the time the human contractors arrived, well on its way to reaching its daily high of over 38℃, and it beat down horribly upon them in their shiny little black suits, as they wrestled to fit a 90+kg corpse into a body bag without falling in the fishpond. When it was all done, it was near midday. His body had lain there on the earth, crushing the wormwood bush, for around eight hours, and I could finally go and lie down. There would be a smoking to do after sunset, and then a New Year to ring in.