When the cancer diagnosis comes, it is September and we are at a family wedding 1000 kilometres away. At first, there’s mention of radiation therapy but that talk soon dies away. Bob is 91. His bones are riddled with disease, which explains the recent trouble he’s had with walking.
My mother-in-law, Jenny rings from the hospital. Bob is in a ward, form-guide at hand. He knows the cancer is terminal. ‘So the doctor comes in, asks how he’s going and Bob says Pretty Good thanks. I’ve had two seconds and a first.’
Still got his humour then.
My father-in-law, Robert Dickerson, was a depression era kid, born into a family where shoes were a luxury and didn’t matter much because all the other Surry Hills urchins were skint as well and didn’t own any either. Education was an interruption to the family business, a backyard tin factory and at 13 Bob left school for a job in a hinge factory.
For a while, the bright lights of the Jimmy Sharman boxing troupe lured, but the near constant pain and brutality took the gloss right off it. Art was always an interest but it wasn’t until the war that Bob got a chance to see something worth recording. As an RAAF guard on the Malayan island of Morotai, he started to draw and paint the local children, who seemed to have an even more deprived childhood than he did.
Back home, he married the girl next door, packed gas cans by day, then packed his three kids into the kitchen at weekends so he could paint. Eventually, one painting sold, and then another and the Heide crowd started watching. Writing in Ern Malley’s Journal, arts patron John Reed praised Dickerson’s ‘new sense of beauty, a new truth.’ Abstraction was on the rise but the figurative artists were fighting back. In 1959, they wrote a manifesto, got a group show together and called it The Antipodeans. Names like Blackman, Brack and Perceval joined Bob’s in the catalogue and for a while, he was an art world firebrand – a big drinker and sometimes punchy to boot. It could have all gone off the rails there and then, but in the 1970s he met Jenny – the woman who would be his third and final wife and they had a son, Sam, now my husband. By the 80s Bob had stability – both personally and professionally – and by the 90s he’d found a quiet life on the south coast of painting, punting and jogging.
When I met Sam on a drunken night at the pub, I had no idea who Bob was, didn’t realise that, like so many Australians, my dad owned one of his pictures. A legal print, inspired by Bob’s years of custody battles over various children. The big public galleries never rated him as highly as the public did, but they all have his pictures. When we see them, we make our three daughters stand in front, wait till the security guard disappears, and take a surreptitious photo. His paintings have substance. Narrative. A spare, bleak elegance. Our smiles are prideful.
The oncologist suggests he’ll make it to Christmas and despatches him home to the farm where Bob has always said he wanted to die. From here on, the care will be palliative, pain management, as if we are somehow in charge. But this disease is a beast unleashed. One week, Bob is having trouble standing and an electric lift chair is organised through veteran’s affairs. By the time it arrives, he’s having trouble walking and needs a hospital bed. When the bed arrives, he’s wearing an eye-patch and a nappy, for neither his eye nor his legs are working terribly well. The morphine makes him nauseous so he stops eating and every time we visit, the skin is stretched more tightly against his bones. He is disappearing into himself. The spiral is all downward and breathtaking in its speed. Jenny moves her cot into Bob’s room so she can be near him when he sleeps. For the first time in ten years, they are sharing a bedroom and in this last season of their married lives, there is a late bloom of intimacy with Jenny tending to him with tenderness and care.
The house has a hum of busy-ness. Purpose, almost. Well-wishers come with cake and cups of tea and Bob’s physical needs are met by a cast of medical personnel. People like Eva, who has a bunch of teeth missing, four kids still living at home and a husband who’s in jail for some reason or other. Every day, she comes to the house to give Bob his shower. She refers to his genitals as the crown jewels. Later, when Bob is gone and Eva comes to collect an unused box of adult nappies, she will cry in Jenny’s arms.
October comes around with a strange burst of humidity and there is a fierce storm on the farm. One of the more promising thoroughbreds spooks in the lightning and runs into a fence. Without delay, the vet is summonsed and the horse is put out of its misery. In that context, Bob’s request for a gun doesn’t seem unreasonable, just impossible.
Exhaustion sets in. Sam is travelling from Sydney once,twice a week to spend every spare minute with his dad. Jenny has barely slept. On the pretext of needing ‘tests’, Bob is taken to the hospice. Once there, doctors decide to put him on a morphine drip which will take him into an unconsciousness from which there will be no waking. Sam and I again find ourselves on the highway south. This time knowing we have spoken our last words to Bob.
From the outside, the hospice has the bucolic air of a decaying country manor. The gardens are almost shamefully green and the view of the escarpment is uninterrupted, except for the highway, which is a beehive of construction activity for the new by-pass. Inside is more like a conventional hospital, except for the flowery beds and noticeable absence of high-tech equipment. No one is saving lives here, just assisting them gently towards death.
Bob is fitfully unconscious. He knows we are there. Every time our voices are raised, he pulls at the blankets.
‘He never did like his legs being covered,’ says Jenny.
But the nurse doesn’t want us to speak. We are unsettling him, she says. He knows something is coming.
‘You haven’t done this before, have you?’ She is kindly and firm and she is right. We haven’t done this before, and we won’t do it again. A loved-one, this loved-one, will only die once. It cannot be practice for.
That night, when Sam says good-bye, he tells Bob that we will be back which, of course, we will be. But to what?
A phone ringing after midnight is always too loud. In bed next to me, Sam wakes quickly. It is his half-brother, Steve. The hospice has called him to say that Bob died half an hour earlier. A nurse was with him. He went quietly, they said. Sam wakes his mum and she rings the hospice. There is no need to come unless we want to. He’ll still be there in the morning and we can see him then. Around the kitchen table, we sit and have a cup of tea, not saying much. I go back to bed, and Sam follows later. As his head touches the pillow he sobs, and we cling to each other.
On TV, I once saw a scientist try to burn a lettuce leaf. The flame was pathetic – thin and smoky – then she added salad dressing and whooshka! Up went the flame, alive and enthusiastic. It was the energy from the oil, she explained. The calories, going up in smoke.
In the afternoon, Sam makes a bonfire of Bob’s half-finished drawings and studies – things which, in less scrupulous hands, might find their way into the dodgy on-line auction market and thus devalue Bob’s reputation. The fire burns bright and strong. From a small pile, the flames reach chest-height. We cough in the smoke. I think of Bob’s hands, moving across the page, creating something from nothing with just the energy of his fingers and that energy now fuelling the flames before us, returning the pictures to the nothingness they once were. It is quite a thing. The burning of his work.
Nearly two years on, I write this at our dining table, overlooked by one of the many pictures of Bob’s that we are lucky to have in our house. The painting is of two men at the races, collecting used betting slips in the vain hope of finding an uncollected ‘winner’. In the background a figure dressed only in black watches on, disapproving. The three of them together, but also alone.
At least we have this, I think.