- I once asked my mother whether she thought she would live to 100. I had recently heard about people who had reached this age and I suppose I wanted to know if my mother thought this was possible for her. I’ll wait till I reach 50, she replied. Then I will see.
The summer before my senior year in school, my parents and my sister went on holiday to Europe. I stayed home to work at the Faribault Daily News and to ride my horse. When they returned, my mother, perhaps thinking that there was something amiss, went for a medical checkup.
The doctors did tests and told her that she had an ovarian cyst. Nothing serious; nothing dangerous, but she was advised to have it taken out as soon as possible. She told her sister Inez that in the operation the doctors decided to take out her uterus ‘as it was tipped and out of shape and position’. She awoke after having had a complete hysterectomy.
When we visited her in the hospital I got the impression that she was surprised and not happy about the drastic form that the operation had taken. She was making the best of it. ‘At least I won’t have to worry about periods any more.’
In those days doctors often didn’t tell patients when they were suffering from a life threatening illness – especially if it was cancer. They also did not think that they had to get consent from a patient for a major procedure. What they did not tell my mother was that she had ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer is a bad one to have because there are no definite symptoms and when they finally appear the cancer is usually advanced. Even today less than half of those who get the disease survive for 5 years and about a third survive for ten years. In the late 1950s the chances of survival would have been slim.
I do not know what the doctors told my mother when she was sent to the University of Minnesota hospital in Minneapolis for radiotherapy treatments. When we visited her she was cheerful, telling us about the people she had met who were also undergoing treatment.
But when she returned from the hospital she was very ill. To her mother and sister she wrote, ‘The doctor told me I will snap back now that I can eat and hold it down. However it is Sunday today and I am weaker than ever. I have never been sick like this before and it is hard to take, but I have faith that each day will strengthen me.’
My sister is convinced that she was killed by the treatment rather than the cancer. This is very possible. Massive doses of radiation were all that they had to combat cancer and her case was serious.
Perhaps at first she really did think that she would get better. But she did not and at some stage during the next weeks she must have realised that she was dying. The doctor or my father might have finally told her the truth or maybe she worked it out for herself.
No one said anything but everyone knew. I found a book by her bedside about how a Christian should face death. But even without that discovery I knew what was happening. Although we never talked about it I am sure my sister also knew.
In her last days my mother called me to her bedside and asked me to promise that I would not lose my faith and would continue to go to church. I promised. Then I went up to my bedroom and threw myself on my bed, angry that I had been forced to make a promise that I could not and would not keep.
My anger came from a conviction that she had no right to try to force me to adhere to her beliefs and that it was wrong of her to use her deathbed as a means for exerting control over my life. I had been forced by her situation and my fear of making her unhappy to be untrue to myself. I was right to be upset. But it prevented me from appreciating that she had broken the conspiracy of silence that surrounded her illness and had done so for my sake.
A few days later my mother’s condition worsened and she was rushed to the hospital. Late in the evening my father returned, gathered us in his arms and told us that our mother had died.
She had just turned 49.
- Relatives on both sides of the family came for the funeral. They brought containers full of food but I was kept busy washing clothes, doing dishes and other household tasks. I was glad to be busy.
At the funeral I was dried eyed. This too I was glad of. I cried when a story or movie had an unhappy or even a happy ending, when I was criticised by my parents or when things didn’t go right for me. My tears were too cheap, I decided, too ready to flow over trivial matters. It was right that they didn’t flow now. But if someone had asked me how I felt I would have been hard pressed to answer. Something had happened that overwhelmed my ability to feel. I was hollowed out, empty of emotions.
My grandmother Ollie – the mother of my father – kept a diary. I found a row of volumes, one for each year, on a bookshelf in my uncle’s house. The entries for each day were brief. She began with a report on the weather – a natural preoccupation of country people. Then followed an account of her day’s activities: quilting with a circle of her friends, going to church, hosting relatives, and so on. In the last years of her life the entries described the illness and death of friends, for she lived to a great age and survived almost all of her contemporaries. I was struck by the fact that that she never wrote a word about her feelings. Never did she even express sadness about the death of a friend or relative. Perhaps she thought that describing something so private was improper or unnecessary. Perhaps she didn’t know how to go about it. Probably it never occurred to her to try. She had had a hard life. Her mother died when she was quite young and she raised her siblings and then a family of her own. I doubt if she had much time to think about her feelings or that anyone ever asked about them. I come from a people who have never found it appropriate or useful to dwell on our emotions.
If I had written a diary entry for the week of my mother’s death and funeral it would have gone something like this. ‘Mother died Tuesday. Funeral Saturday at the United Brethren Church. Relatives visiting from Redwing and Iowa. Am busy.’
- Taking my grandmother as my model, I expected to take over most of my mother’s role in our household. One of my new tasks was to prepare the evening meal. I had never really learned to cook. I had paid little attention to the cooking lessons taught to girls in home economics at school. My mother made no attempt to teach me anything – perhaps because I never showed any interest in learning. But I soon managed to prepare basic meals out of a piece of meat, potatoes, and some vegetable or other. The difficult part was to make everything ready at the same time. For a dessert I went to the basement to fetch a jar of my mother’s preserves. I wondered what I would do when they ran out.
I did my best with the housework but my father was never satisfied. Sunk in his grief he had the impression that the world was deteriorating around him and sometimes he complained to relatives about how badly everything was going. I was stung by his criticisms. I had not yet realised that nothing I could have done would have made a difference.
At school I cut off my contacts with my old friends. My life had changed; I didn’t know what to say to them and did not feel like trying. At the stable where I worked I found an old leather jacket in a heap of manure. I brushed that smelly thing off and wore it to school – my way of announcing that I didn’t want anything to do with anyone. A teacher later told me that she would have liked to have taken me in her arms and given me a hug. If she had done that I might have burst into tears. On the other hand, I might have frozen and pushed her away.
We visited Iowa in the spring and my aunts decided that they needed to do something about my appearance. They would give my hair a permanent wave. I knew that their efforts would merely make my hair frizzy and unmanageable but there was no way I could stand in the way of their determination to help us out. Later I cut the worst of it off with a scissors.
The concern of his sisters made my father feel that he had neglected his duty. He had been too occupied with his own feelings to pay much attention to me but now he thought he had to correct my faults and so intermittently he would complain that I wasn’t wearing the right clothes or doing the right things. I was getting more and more on his nerves and he was getting on mine. Fortunately there was a solution. I was 19 and finished with school. I could leave. The University of Minnesota offered a summer semester and beginning my studies early was a good excuse for moving away from home. And so I left my father with his grief and my sister to cope as best she could. I had not been able to follow in the footsteps of my grandmother.
- I had been living near the campus of the University of Minnesota for almost a year when I met my father coming back from an evening event. He introduced the woman who accompanied him: Dorothy Gerber, someone working in a similar profession.
I was not really surprised when Dorothy came to see me a few weeks later and told me that she and my father planned to get married. She wanted to know what I thought. I told her that I was glad that my father had found someone. Later I found out from my father that she was not altogether pleased with my answer. But I was merely saying what I thought. My father could not go on the way he was.
Dorothy had a son, Jon, by a previous marriage and they lived in south Minneapolis with her mother and sister. Jon had been raised by the three women. Dorothy was intelligent and competent but she was also often opinionated and judgmental. She liked to lay down the law. I learned early on that getting along with her required diplomacy.
But there was no doubt that she was good for my father. She brought him out of the shell that he had borrowed into. They went out in the evenings and ate dinner in Minneapolis restaurants. They drank cocktails and if I accompanied them, my father would order one for me. A daiquiri is a good drink for a woman, he said. For him this was unprecedented behaviour that would never have happened in my mother’s time. My father gained in weight and also self-confidence. He joined the Rotary Club. He quit his job as guidance counsellor at the high school in order to become one of the directors of a new vocational college. He ran for mayor of Faribault.
I was living overseas by this time and for the first and last time I went through the trouble of getting voting papers for an American election. Hubert Humphrey was running for President. I voted for him and I voted for my father. Neither won.
- The last time I saw my father was just before I left for Australia. He and Dorothy drove me to Minneapolis to board the plane. It was not a very happy send off. I thought that he should be pleased with me for doing well in my career. But he had never been happy with my choice of philosophy. He thought I should try to do something more useful with my life. We could not get over the barrier between us that had existed all through my childhood. I wanted his approval and he wouldn’t give it to me. He wanted me to be different from the way I was – and though I wasn’t really sure what he wanted, it was clear that way I was did not please him. The time for my flight arrived. We said our farewells and I departed.
About a year later I received a telegram from Jane. ‘Dad was killed instantly in car accident tonight call Dorothy.’ I had no phone in my house and after wandering around in a daze I made my way to the house of friend who helped me with mechanics of dialing long distance – a task that was at that moment beyond my powers.
Dorothy told me that my father was driving across an intersection when his car was hit by an oncoming truck. The truck driver insisted that he was not to blame. Dorothy later told me that she had her doubts, but she had no evidence to back this up and there were no witnesses. Further enquiry seemed pointless.
The funeral, she said, was in less than two days time. There was no way that I could attend. My greatest regret is that I did not protest – that I did not ask her to postpone the funeral. Probably this would have done no good. The arrangements had obviously been made. But I wish I had tried.
My sister told me that we were now orphans. I said that we were too old to count as orphans, but I knew what she meant.
I have sometimes envied friends who have, or recently had, living parents. On the plane of equality that time must bring into being there is surely a chance for a different kind of relationship. And so I imagine a world in which my parents and I sort out our differences, accept each other for what we are, laugh about old grievances and forgive each other for our trespasses. However, I suspect that this imagined world is as illusionary as the Christian heaven where we are not only supposed to meet our loved ones again but meet them in a perfected form. All the differences of opinion that put us at odds, all the personality traits that got on each other’s nerves are supposed to disappear. In the actual world this is not only unlikely. It is also incompatible with being the individuals who we are. If my mother had managed to live for 100 years we would have remained at odds over religion. If my father had had his three score years and ten or more, he would still have disapproved of many of my choices. But this doesn’t prevent me from wishing that I had been able to know them from the perspective of greater maturity and they me when I had had more experiences of the world.
- When I used to drive to Welch village in Minnesota to visit my cousins I would stop on the way at the cemetery in Vasa. The cemetery is on the hill at the edge of the village overlooked by the Lutheran Church. When I was a child visiting my grandparents I sometimes played there, being careful to obey my mother’s prohibition against stepping on graves. The cemetery is a peaceful place – a good spot to be dead in, which of course means a good spot to think of being dead in. It is green and well tended and spacious. It is not an over-crowded metropolis of the dead, as are city cemeteries.
Many of my relatives are buried there – uncles and aunts, my grandparents, cousins and more distant relatives who I never met or don’t remember. I visit these graves and if long grass has grown up beside the stones, I do some weeding.
I have also visited the graveyard in Grandview, Iowa where my father’s family is buried, including the great-great grandfather who marched with General Sherman through the South during the Civil War.
I have never visited the Faribault cemetery where my parents are buried. It’s true that I have little reason to go to Faribault but when I did go back one time for a class luncheon it did not occur to me to visit the cemetery. I cannot offer a ready explanation. Perhaps it is because I have not ever come to terms with the loss of my parents and do not want to remind myself of it. Perhaps it is because cemeteries are for me a connection with family heritage. This heritage exists in Vasa and Grandview but not in Faribault where my parents are buried among strangers. Perhaps it is simply because I think I would not like the look of the cemetery in Faribault. I would not think that it is a good place to be dead.
I have written about duties to the dead. I believe that such obligations exist. It is true that nothing we can do will harm the dead (though some philosophers do argue that they can be harmed). But each generation has moral connections to its predecessors and successors. We can make legitimate demands of our successors and we acquire obligations to fulfil demands that were, or could have been made, by our predecessors. Most of our duties to the dead are duties of memory. We should remember what they have done for us and honour them for their sacrifices. We should make an effort to appreciate the heritage and inheritance that they tried to provide for us. Of course we are entitled to determine our own goals and to live according to our consciences. I was not wrong to fail to keep the promise I made to my mother on her deathbed. But I now think that I can be faulted for failing to appreciate what she was trying to do for me.
If my mother had asked me to visit her grave I would have promised sincerely and I would have done it. I would have regarded it as a way of fulfilling the duty of memory. But she would not have asked me to do that. She was not sentimental.
- Once I gave a talk to a group at the University of the Third Age about duties to the dead. Afterwards I was approached by a woman who wanted to tell me her story. She told it to me at her home a week later, talking without a break for several hours. It was a Holocaust story. Her father was a businessman in Poland. She had a sister about the same age. When the Nazis came they confiscated the business and life became more and more difficult for her family. She got a job in a factory and after one long day she came home to find that her sister was wearing shoes that she had bought with her hard earned money. She was furious, quarreled with her sister and stormed out. That was the last conversation she ever had with her sister, for the next day her family was taken away to a concentration camp and she was the only survivor. What haunted her was regret that she had parted forever from her sister while they were on bad terms over something so trivial. She had lived a full life, married, moved to Australia, had a family, but this unfinished business with the dead weighed on her mind. She couldn’t achieve a reconciliation with her sister so the best that she could do with her feelings of regret was to tell her story.
Regret I think is what we often feel when we think about the dead, though the causes are usually not so terrible. Sometimes it is regret about something not said or done while the person was alive, a conversation not had, an apology not given, a question not asked. Sometimes it is about lacking them in the present or about a common future that cannot now be experienced. We are told not to put things off in mending our relations with others. This is sensible and well meant advice but it is impossible in many cases to follow and it doesn’t cover all the regrets we can have. It might seem sensible to try to avoid such a useless emotion but even if this were possible it would be the wrong thing to do. We ought to remember the dead and regret is one of the tokens that we place on their graves.
- When I was 52 – a few years older than my mother when she died – my uterus began leaking small spots of blood. At first this did not bother me very much. I had already experienced symptoms of menopause and I figured that this was another. Nevertheless, this continual bleeding began to make me nervous. When I went to the toilet I was careful not to look inside the bowl before flushing. Out of sight, out of mind.
I was living in Berlin at the time. I decided that there was nothing sufficiently wrong with me to make a visit to the doctor necessary and when I returned to Australia I continued to delay. When the bleeding became worse I finally consulted my doctor who agreed with me that the cause was probably menopause but suggested that I might be able to clear up the problem by having my womb cleaned out. She sent me to a specialist who agreed with the menopause hypothesis and admitted me to a hospital for the procedure. When I regained consciousness I was told that I had cancer of the uterus.
(How do you feel about having cancer? the specialist asked – perhaps in an awkward attempt to be consoling. Not good, I replied, but not to worry – I am not going to go to pieces over it.)
Uterine cancer is not such a bad one to have. The womb is an isolated system and it can simply be taken out cancer and all. My problem was that I had let it go too long. There was a danger that the cancer might have spread to other parts of my body.
I needed an operation as soon as possible but it was almost Easter and nothing could be done until after the holiday. I sat in the sun room of my house occupying myself with a jigsaw puzzle and listening to the voices and laughter of my neighbours who were having a garden party. I wondered if I would ever again be so happy and carefree. (Some years later my neighbours were both diagnosed with forms of cancer when I was relatively problem-free. O Fortuna, velut luna statu variabilis.)
At the time I was writing a book and I wondered what would happen to this project. With my usual overestimate of the importance of what I was currently writing I worried that the world would miss out on what I had to say. I would at least have to live long enough to finish it! (As it turned out the world largely ignored this piece of work – and I think rightly so.)
I had my operation. I have a scar running up the side of my abdomen where the surgeon opened me up to have a good look around. He also took out a nearby lymph node to test it for signs of cancer. I knew that I would be in serious trouble if the cancer had got into my lymphatic system. It was Sunday morning and I didn’t expect to hear the results of this critical test until Monday. But right then, even before the hospital served breakfast, my surgeon appeared and told me that the tests revealed no cancer. Perhaps he had other reasons to come to the hospital early on this Sunday morning but his taking the trouble to visit me was a great kindness.
Was there a connection between my mother’s cancer and my own? Did I inherit the bad gene that killed her? My oncologist thought that this could be so. The kind of cancer she had is highly heritable. But I was much luckier than my mother.
I had escaped the worst threat but I was told that there was still a danger that the cancer could appear in my cervix and that I should have radiotherapy to make this result less likely. I was supposed to lie on my back for 8 hours while a source of radioactivity, inserted into my vagina, did its work. This treatment turned out to be more onerous than I expected. Flat on my back there was nothing I could do except to listen to the radio. Every time a nurse entered the room the radiation had to be turned off, which not only prolonged the time of the treatment but also reminded me that my body was being poisoned.
That was it. I still had to appear for checkups every four months and each time I was tense with anxiety and then flooded with relief when all was clear. After a few years the oncologist wanted to see me only every six months, then once a year, then once every two years and when he said I needed a checkup only after another three years I stopped going altogether.
I have had brushes with death. Once I lost my footing on a New Zealand mountain and just managed to arrest myself with an ice axe before falling down a steep slope into a pile of rocks. Once my canoe got caught under a willow tree in a fast moving river and I was upside down in the water pushed up against among a tangle of branches. But incidents like these are quickly over for better or worse. They leave you feeling shaky but you soon get over them and carry on. My encounter with cancer – though it may not have been all that serious a threat to my life – forced me to think in a more sustained way about the prospect of death.
The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus argued that death was nothing to fear. Where we are, he said, death is not and where death is we are not. His point is that we have no reason to fear something that we can’t experience. To be sure Epicurus reaches this conclusion only by abstracting away legitimate concerns that we have about death. He admits that he is not considering the experiences that we might have while dying – which can be very unpleasant. He is also ignoring the reasons people have for not wanting to die: the loved ones that they will be leaving behind, the plans that they will not be able to carry out, the goals that they will never be able to achieve. But so far as it goes, he is right. Given that you don’t believe in an afterlife, there is no reason to fear being dead.
But it is hard the keep the light of reason burning in the presence of death. My usual way of dealing with the contingencies of life is to imagine the worst thing that could happen and then to work out how I would be able cope. But if the worst thing that could happen is death then this technique clearly doesn’t work. Death is an insurmountable barrier – the end to your ability to reason, to will and to act. When I was face to face with the prospect of death this bothered me – along of course with the desire not to leave a life that I found good.
When I realised that I was probably not going to die of this cancer, at least not in the immediate future I made a few resolutions – as do many people in this situation. I would not put off the things I wanted to do and I would not get fussed about small matters. The first – the easy one – I’ve kept; the second not. I finished my book and wrote two more and lots of other things besides. I travelled, I took whatever opportunities came my way. But habitual reactions are not so easy to change. In any case, motivations to make changes to the way you live tend to get whittled away in the course of time. What seemed for a time to be a watershed in my existence turned into just another event in my life.
- My friend Thea had a difficult life. She got rheumatic fever as a child and like many people with that disease had to learn to live with a damaged heart. She married a man who abused their children and when she discovered this and threw him out her family took his side, refusing to believe that such a nice man could do something like that. She became a feminist and a community activist. She was also the source of my only lesbian experience. She suggested that we go to bed together as an experiment. We did and that was enough for both of us.
When her health further deteriorated, she had an operation to replace a valve in her heart. Her life seemed to be going well when she died suddenly of heart failure not long after her 50th birthday. Her son and I buried her ashes beneath a sheoak on Wilson’s Promontory – a place she had loved. I have a picture on my lounge room wall that I bought because it reminds me of that spot.
I have outlived all of the relatives of my parent’s generation and now, like my grandmother Ollie, I am at the age when some of my friends and colleagues have died. San I knew for many years because she once taught philosophy at a university in Sydney. When I came to Sydney I stayed in her house in Paddington and when she came to Melbourne she sometimes stayed with me. She had a wicked sense of humour and an unconventional approach to the world. She also distrusted doctors so when she was diagnosed with breast cancer she refused to follow up her operation with further treatment. Perhaps that would have saved her life. But perhaps not.
She was buried in the cemetery in Waverly, high up on the hill overlooking the ocean. Her funeral was in August but it was one of the warm, almost balmy days that Sydney can put on even in the depths of winter. I was one of the pallbearers. Her son had arranged that we be all women, though I think that disconcerted the funeral directors. They looked nervous as we carried the coffin to the grave site. There was a reception afterwards in her house. I drank a last glass of wine, said goodbye to San, goodbye to her place, goodbye to the times we had together and left a piece of my life behind.
I bought my lounge room picture when San and I were travelling together on the way to her place in the country, and so it has also become a reminder of her: an image reminiscent of lost friends.
Don and I had a long association going back to the first year I lived in Australia. We were lovers for a short time and then friends and bushwalking and canoeing companions. Don was originally a New Zealander, a climber of mountains. He came to Australia to work and though he sometimes talked of returning to his home country, and perhaps for that reason did not become an Australian citizen, he never did. He was good at everything he did: certainly a better navigator, walker and canoeist than me. He was also eccentric in a tradition of bushwalking eccentricity. No fancy gear for him. A cane that could be purchased in an op shop was as good a walking stick, in his opinion, as an expensive version sold in a mountain equipment shop. A pair of old pajamas could serve as a perfectly good protection from the sun while out on the trail.
He was also a photographer. He firmly believed that every picture of landscape had to have a person in it and I was often the only person available. I gave up protesting about being photographed and let him have his way. And so I have a drawer full of prints of me on skis, in front of views of mountains, beside trees, sitting on rocks, at campsites, in a canoe. I do not have much to remind me of Don, so these pictures – always of me – have to do.
The pajamas didn’t protect him well enough. He got a melanoma which for some reason wasn’t treated in time. By the time it was dug out the cancer had spread to the lymph glands under his arms. After my experience with cancer I was inclined to be optimistic. He had had the affected lymph glands out. He had been treated. Probably that was the end of it. I clung to that belief because I was soon leaving to take up a visiting professorship in Canada and I did not want anything bad to happen to him, especially while I was gone.
The last time I saw him was when he drove me to the train station. I had left my car to be watched over by him and Dot – his wife and also my friend – while I was away. We simply said good-by and then he drove away.
He died while I was still in Canada. Before he died, while he was in a hospice, I wrote him a letter. He never replied. Though I wanted very much to hear from him I was very firm about telling myself that I shouldn’t expect to. After all he had more important concerns. He had children; he had brothers and sisters in New Zealand.
In the letter I tried to tell him what his friendship meant to me. I did not do a very good job of this. I have never been good at conveying my feelings. I also tried to offer him some consolation. I told him that he could at least get some comfort from knowing that he would never have to experience the loss of the powers and abilities that were so important to a person who prided himself on his competence.
Perhaps I was being insensitive. After I sent that letter I began to worry about whether this would be his reaction to my attempt to console. But I was simply offering him the same consolation that I had given myself when I thought I might be dying.
Recently a journalist wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly stating that he hoped to die at the age of 75. By this time, he reasoned, he would have accomplished whatever he was capable of achieving and had only the decrepitude of old age to look forward to. By avoiding a decline into old age and the experience of losing his physical and mental abilities he would be doing himself a favour. To this end he would from now on refuse all diagnostic tests for cancer and other diseases and would accept whatever nature served up to him.
His strategy for dying at the right age has obvious flaws. Left to itself, nature might act too soon or too late. Perhaps he could take matters into his own hands by committing suicide at the age of 75. But this plan also has its flaws. I am not far from this cut off age and I do not think that I have lost so much of the ability to do the things I like to do, physical and mental, as to make me ready for death.
If I were diagnosed with a fatal disease I would take what consolation I could get from missing the decline into very old age. But if I have a choice in the matter then I am not so sure that I want to miss it. Another problem with the journalist’s position is that not all the joy of life comes from what you can do at the height of your physical and mental powers. I can get pleasure from small things: the way that the light of the setting sun burnishes with silver the leaves of a tree; the colours on the bark of a river red gum; the way the shadow of leaves dances across my bedroom wall in the late afternoon. Sometimes when I look out of a train window my breath is taken away by the march of clouds across the sky.
When my recovery from cancer was still uncertain I stopped, on the way back from a day’s skiing, to look at snow covered mountains bright in setting sun. It seemed to me that I could not take in so much beauty. ‘Whatever happens,’ I said to myself, ‘I am here to see this.’
I will probably not live to a great old age. I take risks; I am not all that careful with my health. But I would not mind doing so. I am sure that there would be consolations and I am also curious. Old age will be an awfully big adventure.