What happens when you learn your father is dying of cancer. Peter Malcouronne went on a voyage of discovery with his remarkable father, Brian.
There was nothing notable about my father wanting to meet me at university. He liked to hang out with his sons on their turf: he’d often come in on his 450cc Honda, wearing his leathers, sometimes with a spare crash helmet strapped to the seat. Once, when a funeral service he’d taken ran late, he turned up in his cassock.
We’d usually meet in the Lower Café, a dark, smoke-choked grotto I didn’t like much. But Dad didn’t see the mountains of Marlboro butts, the abandoned nachos caught in curdled cheese, the coffee dribbling out of split styrofoam cups, mopped up with a discarded Craccum editorial. “Atmosphere, my boy,” he used to say. “This place has soul!”
He’d been a student here in the late seventies, completed a history degree part-time while he was Methodist minister. I doubt there’s been a prouder alumnus than my father — he had an Auckland University tie, heraldic crest and cuff-links. Now he couldn’t keep away from the place.
I had stuff to do and tried to put him off, but he insisted. We’d meet in the quad. When I arrived he was already there, wearing his captain’s hat, his Colonel Gaddafi sunglasses and a jacket the tennis player Brett Steven gave him after Dad took his wedding. I remember telling a friend that my father had the face of a philosopher — a grand if rather unhelpful description. For Dad didn’t have a wild Nietzschean stare or the smouldering intensity of a Wittgenstein, rather a contemplative serenity that was more sedate, more zen.
Today, though, he looks different. He stares straight ahead, his arms folded tightly, tense. My stepmum, Liz, and my brother, Andrew, are here too. This is a departure from the normal routine — Dad liked his ‘one-on-ones’.
I wonder if his prostate’s prompted the family meeting. Six weeks ago Dad had gone to hospital for a TURP (Transurethal Resection of the Prostate) — a routine operation where the tissue in the core of the prostate is cleared away, facilitating an “unobstructed flow”. But it can’t be that. The operation was successful.
We walk over to Albert Park and sit by the fountain. A strained conversation follows. I draw ever-decreasing circles with a twig, then build a miniature Stonehenge with gravel. Abruptly Dad says, “I have some not-so-good news I have to tell you about my health.”
I look up at him. His jaw is clenched, closed, and he can’t speak. He gets up and walks away.
Liz clears her throat and says quietly, “I’m afraid your dad has cancer.”
“What? Prostate Cancer?”
“How bad is it?”
“It’s not very good,” she says. The cancer has metastasised … it’s spread to his bones.”
“God. So he’ll need a bone marrow transplant?”
“No. I’m afraid not. There’s nothing that can be done. It’s terminal.”
The end. Dad comes back, sits down and says nothing. I can hardly breathe. I stare into the sun, squinting my eyes shut, trying not to cry.
We’re on the road, trying to make it from Te Anau to Queenstown before dusk and we’re talking about the All Blacks. Like many New Zealand fathers and sons, sport is the demilitarised zone where we express our feelings. I ask: “Do you remember those letters I used to write to you when I was at Wesley College?”
Of course he does. They were bonkers — absurd, intemperate and fanatically anti-Australian. After the New Zealand cricketers were “shamefully denied” a famous test win in 1987 by “unabashed cheating”, I opined that this game would “forever be remembered in infamy”. Another letter named an All Black World Cup squad which, faithful to a “rewarding youth selection policy” excluded players over 25. Then there was a bizarre Father’s Day card that featured a graphic depiction of the Australian centre Brett Papworth being crash-tackled by my father and “sent off to intensive care with a punctured lung and internal hemorrhaging”.
We’d been planning our Southland trip for a decade, but the return to the homeland hadn’t gone as intended. First, Dad’s delusional theory that Southland is never more beautiful than late autumn had been exposed by a southerly that ripped through our singlets (though it did help me slot my first-ever goal from halfway at the Bluff Rugby Club).
Dee St Hospital in Invercargill where I’d been born had been demolished and was now a McDonald’s. Dad didn’t seem to mind much. He paced the carpark out and worked out exactly where I’d entered the world. He wanted a photo taken, of course, and so I had to stand there, leaning up against the drive-thru menu. And then there was the pilgrimage to “the old church parsonage at the bottom of the world”.
Dad has been appointed to Bluff, then a small port town of 3000 people, in 1968. Twenty-three years later, Bluff was, to rework the town’s unofficial motto, doing it tough. Its famous oyster industry had been decimated by the bonamia parasite, the Ocean Beach freezing works had closed, and Lyttelton was now the South Island’s main port.
Bluff’s population had shrunk to 2000 and perhaps a third of the houses were now empty, including our old house. Dad and I peered in through a front window, then let ourselves in through the unlocked back door. It was like entering Captain Scott’s old hut: a china cabinet with neatly stacked plates beside the coal range, paint peeling off in stalactite strips from the bathroom roof, a broken door blocking a fireplace.
“This is, um, a shame,” he said. “You wouldn’t remember this house — you were only 18 months old when we left — but there’s a lot of good memories here. First house, first church, first wife, first son.”
But this was more than just a sentimental journey South: Dad confided in his travel journal that he hoped to have some good father-son bonding time. So I didn’t notice when he tacked away from John Kirwan’s defensive frailties, to the safer ground of the Black Caps’ impotent opening attack, and then to the mystery of women. I tell him about a girl I liked so much that I wouldn’t talk to her. Dad’s aghast — “The man’s the hunter, my boy,” he says. Sage advice from a man who didn’t have a girlfriend until he was 28.
I change the subject and ask why he became a Minister.
“I didn’t know what to do when I left school,” he says.
It was 1956. First Dad worked as a clerk for the ANZ bank for four years. Spent seven months at a freezing works as a wool scourer. Worked as a labourer at the railway yards, then down at the navy docks. Drove buses for the Passenger Transport Company. Then he had “his calling”.
“I was very devout then. Very idealistic.” He started training as a Methodist minister at Trinity College in Parnell. He had a picture of Jesus by his bed. On his way home at night he’d stop under street lamps and read a verse from the Bible. He’d memorise it, then walk to the next street lamp, where he’d read another verse.
He’d become a very good minister. Buddy Te Whare, who trained with my father, later told me, “Brian had the walk. They don’t teach you how to walk at training college — most ministers scuttle down the aisle to the pulpit — but Brian instinctively knew how to walk. Slowly, deliberately, reverently nodding at the congregation as he went past.
“In another church, it would have made him a Bishop.”
I think Dad would’ve liked that. He always had Catholic tendencies: he loved the history and ceremony of the Catholic Church, very nearly became a Priest, and even asked my mother to marry him in a Catholic basilica. When he was younger, and before experience tempered his idealism, he wanted to be “the one who reunited the Protestant and Catholic churches”.
But his instincts were liberal. He wrote in his diary: “I believe that we have the right to seek in life what is true and meaningful to us. No external authority has the right to govern a person’s thinking… the capacity to reason, to create and to choose are gifts of God, and we have a responsibility to use them.”
We arrive in Queenstown. It wasn’t until much later that I realised this was the first adult conversation we’d had.
There’s a faint smell of Borkum Riff cherry tobacco in the air. The lamps are already burning, including my favourite, a model of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Dad tees up Enya on a CD player and instructs me to switch the faux coal fire on, though “just one bar, my boy… don’t want to give Mercury Energy any more than we have to”.
He pours himself a glass of All Black port, pours me a glass of orange, and sits down at the desk in his study — what he calls the “inner sanctum”. A bookshelf as long as a wall and as high as the ceiling houses his theology tomes. Another contains tennis books, shoeboxes stuffed full of two-finger tapped sermons, Reader’s Digest truncated classics, his Funk & Wagnalls encyclopaedia set and my favourite childhood book, Alan Bullock’s History of the 20th Century.
This is the room of a fanatical archivist. There are journals that record every trip taken; photo albums meticulously organised by date, place and person, and hundreds of folders and files. There are four lever-arch folders for me alone — Dad calls them the Peter Files — containing school reports, every article I’d written, every letter and card I’d sent him.
This is also the room of a poet. Right behind Dad’s desk is his ‘Wordsworth Corner’ with its framed poems, pictures of Wordsworth’s Grasmere home, and Wordsworth souvenir bookmarks, coffee mugs and thimbles. Dad liked all the Lake poets but he loved Wordsworth. He took a line from the poet — “The best part of a good man’s life… His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love” — as his maxim.
“I want to talk about your letter,” he says. I’d spent two weeks on the internet downloading everything I could find on prostate cancer and presented him with an eight-page exhortation, packed with military metaphors that advocated fierce resistance, no surrender and then, if all was lost, a “fighting withdrawal”.
“Several studies show,” I wrote, “that a low-fat, high-fibre diet may slow the progression of prostate cancer.”
He opens his medical file. The first couple of pages refer to the various PSA tests he’d had. PSA — Prostate Specific Antigen — is a protein normally present in the blood in minute quantities. Prostate cancer usually increases the release of PSA, though Dad’s PSA result of 1.4 was well below the level of 4.0+ considered a worry.
He shows me the bone scan scintigrams which include eight small pictures of his skeleton. There are tiny black spots in a rib and a darkened area in the pelvis. “The appearances are consistent with metastatic disease,” the radiographer notes, “from the known prostate cancer involving the spine, the pelvis and the right sixth rib.” The cancer was incurable.
There was a time when I looked on
with compassion those
afflicted with cancer;
Little children, young and old
From whom the gift of life
I do not look on anymore,
But now sit with them
across the same table.
I put out my hand
and feel it held
by this vast host of people,
And I hold their hands too
in a communion
as deep as life
As mysterious as death
- Brian Malcouronne
“I feel like a boxer,” he says, “knocked to the canvas. I dragged myself to my feet just before the count, then I got the bone scan results — and I’m down again. And then I got this lab report.”
He lets me read it: “Specimen 2 consists of multiple chips of prostatic tissue… there is extensive intraduct carcinoma in most of the fragments. Very focally there is invasion of the stroma by high-grade adencarcinoma. Gleason Grade 5 + 5 = 10.”
Sensing my confusion, he passes me a book, having marked the relevant chapter. It tells me that the Gleason scale is the most common measure of cancer severity. That low grade cancers — Gleason scale two, three or four — are the least dangerous and tend to be slow-growing. High grade cancers are are graded eight, nine and 10. These are the deadly ones, the book says: “the absolute worst are so wild that they may not even secrete the PSA enzyme, but this is rare.”
Dad’s watching me read. I half close the book and look up at him. “This is you, isn’t it Dad?”
“Yes, my boy.”
He’d been given his prognosis — “18 months to two years tops” — a few hours earlier. He lights his pipe and tells me about a native American belief — that the call of an owl signals that someone’s about to die soon. “Today,” he says, “I heard the owl call my name.”
“But… Dad,” I say. “Dad. The Androcur. The hormones. They’re working. Dad, you’re looking… you’re looking great.”
“For now,” he says. “For the moment. But the cancer will ultimately win.”
I shake my head. “No, Dad. No. You just don’t know. You can’t say that.”
“I don’t seek a cure for an illness I know is incurable,” he says. “In my work, I’ve heard so many people with terminal illness say they’ll be miraculously cured.
“Not one of them is here anymore.
“So I don’t hope for a cure because I do not believe it. Instead I hold out for a healing. A healing even more miraculous than a cure — a healing of heart, and mind and spirit. A wholeness and completeness I’ve never known before.”
He goes upstairs for a refill of bad port. I sit at his desk and think nothing much has changed here in 20 years expect, perhaps, the absence of the Hellenic castrato Demis Roussos. There’s an in-tray chock-full of clippings: a Canterbury University law lecturer advocating the death penalty, Mike Moore banging on about something, and his Peter Ellis file. There’s also a full-page Herald feature about prostate cancer dated November 1995. He has underlined several paragraphs and put an asterisk by the recommendation to have regular PSA tests.
“On a still autumn day like this,” he says, “I don’t think there’s a more beautiful city in the world than Wellington.” It surprises me that he says this since three years ago he backpacked — alone, aged 56 — through Venice, Florence and Paris. And yet he means it.
He has spent the day squiring me round his old hometown, pointing out particular places of interest with his carved kaumatua stick. We drive past the ruins of Athletic Park where he camped out one freezing winter’s night in ’56 to get a seat on the western bank to watch the All Blacks play the Springboks. We stand at the end of Wellington Airport and get blasted by departing jets and he remembers a fire at the airport that burnt for a week.
We search in vain for the Melville Maternity home where he was born in 1939, then drive across town to the top of the Tinakori hills where he once built forts in the pine trees with fellow members of a fierce gang under the command of King Colin Curtis. Crowned King “because he was fat and couldn’t run very fast”, Colin would be told what orders he had to give — “usually some variation on ‘Charge!’” — and then his hordes would descend upon old guys out walking their dogs.
Once Dad nearly died. He was having a swordfight at school and after dispatching four pirates and a Turkish sultan he slipped over, a fennel stick jagging into his left thigh.
“Six days later I was in the bathroom getting ready for school and I said to Mum that I couldn’t open my mouth.”
Dad had lockjaw — tetanus — and the doctor’s notes show just how serious his condition was. On 22.10.47, a Dr Orgias writes: “Neck and spine rigid today. Having convulsions.”
“I was in hospital for eight weeks, spent six in isolation. I was kept in a blacked-out room as any stimulation could cause me to have seizures. It was totally dark — I had no sense of night or day. I remember them bringing me two things that I loved as a little boy. That I love still. A pocket watch — I was fascinated by time as I had no idea what time it was — and a torch.
“My parents weren’t allowed to visit me as the excitement could set off a spasm. They’d watch me through this little peephole in the door and all they could see was this torchlight dancing round the walls.”
Next we head to his favourite “pocket of the world”, Wilton’s Bush. We walk along the gravel track saying nothing, and then he stops and says, “I don’t mean to sound melancholy, my boy, but I’m aware that most things I do now… I’m doing for the last time.
“Everything, even if it’s just popping into a shop or driving a particular way home, I’ll never do again. It’s not as sad as it sounds — it’s a bitter-sweet feeling actually — but I know that I will never come back to this place.”
The last act is a visit to Karori Cemetery to see the grave of his brother who died in 1946 aged just 10 months. Dad was seven.
“I can remember hearing my mother crying. There was this commotion upstairs… and a very cold, eerie feeling in the house. I looked out my bedroom window and saw my father carrying this little baby, wrapped in a blanket, up this steep, cracked path. And, in my memory, he was hardly ever talked about again.”
When he returned to Wellington as a man, Dad would sometimes try to find his brother. On his third attempt, he was told by a gravedigger that the grave was behind former prime minister Peter Fraser’s. And so he searched again until he came across a small, unmarked mound. He ripped out the kikuyu, found a broken headstone, scraped the yellow lichen off.
“The name was John Colmar Malcouronne,” he says. “It was the most moving experience of my life.”
The caller reckons the All Blacks are going to beat Australia by “30 points, mate”.
“C’mon. Get real!” the talkback host scoffs. “We’re talking about the best side in the world here, mate. Are you calling from Mars?”
“Nah mate… from Masterton actually. Yeah, I reckon the Blacks by, um, 45–15.”
Another caller reckons it’s going to be much closer — “just a point or two in it, mate” — ABs 22 Aussie 20.
And so it goes on for the half-hour drive from Titirangi to Bethells Beach. Dad is disbelieving. “Is this normal? Do people actually listen to this?”
We used to come out to Lake Wainamu five or six times a year when I was a kid. I commanded a desert army in the dunes and would often sweep down from the high ground and capture my family. It’s my favourite place in the world.
We walk across the sand, both our right feet sticking out the same as his old man’s did, but Dad no longer runs up the dunes. A couple of months ago he had to give up tennis when he fractured his cancer-weakened pelvis.
We sit down by the muddy-brown lake, Dad gets out the squished egg sandwiches from his bag and we’re soon arguing. It bothers me that my father, otherwise a decent and progressive man, votes National. His Tory tendencies were partly inherited from his father, Captain Malcouronne, a gentle patrician, but I think also from personal experience. When his first marriage ended when he aged 43, he had just $5,000 and a motorbike. He worked double shifts as a bus driver for the ARA — I used to squeeze in behind his seat when he drove the 113 to Glendene, him driving, me opening and shutting the doors. He had to work very hard.
So, he says, people need incentives to be enterprising and hardworking. Well that’s all very good, I say, but it doesn’t explain why a factory worker, who’s productive and actually makes things, gets paid nine bucks an hour while his long-lunching, do-nothing, decree-issuing manager gets paid 10 times more. Dad puffs on his pipe, agrees that “workers are treated very unfairly”, “wage differentials are immorally high” and jokes that he only votes National because his local MP, Marie Hasler, “has good pins”. But don’t worry, he says, he’s decided that his last vote will be for Labour. Just to shut me up.
I can hear the condescension in his voice — the “when-you-get-some-experience-in-the-real-world-you’ll-understand” tone — and, shit, it pisses me off. Sometimes I don’t think my father understands me at all. Worse, I don’t think he bothers to try.
I find myself craving his approval and simultaneously resenting him for this. His One Network News world-view infuriates me as much as my simplistic eco-socialism annoys him. So what he was about to say to me was kinda out of nowhere. As we slosh down the stream back to the car, he says, “I respect your political principles, my boy. You make me think.
“I’m proud of you.”
When I get back to my flat after dropping him off, he’s left a message on my answerphone.
I’m reading his journal beside his bed in ward 7B. On May 22 he writes “Strange and bewildering things are happening to my body — the most worrisome is marked unsteadiness on my feet. I cannot walk in a straight line but sway and sometimes lurch suddenly from side to side. There is numbness and a loss of feeling around my upper pelvis/abdomen area… I feel this is a natural progression of my illness for which little can be done — apart from walking sticks to stop me falling. The downward slope, I feel, is steepening.”
A few days ago he’d taken Dave Crowe’s funeral at the West Stand at Eden Park. There was a picture in the paper of the cricket writer’s coffin being carried by his sons down an 80-metre aisle with Dad, head bowed, leading the way. He writes in his journal, “I was thankful for the pattern in the carpet which assisted me to walk straight.”
The pain in his spine is becoming unbearable and his medication — Voltaren, Panadol, and aredia infusions — seems to have little effect. His latest bone scan report — “significant interval progression of the known skeletal metastases… and additional lesions in other areas” — makes grim reading.
He wakes. It’s been a hell of a day, he says. He came in to hospital first thing and was nil by mouth, meaning he couldn’t take any of his pain-killers. Then he had a MRI scan; half an hour on a hard bed having to lie completely still. The scan showed he had a spinal compression — a large tumour pressing on his spinal cord.
“Not the best of developments, my boy,” he says in his understated way. He needs to rest now and I return to his journal. He has just finished reading a book Learning to Love Your Cancer.
“Strange title in a way,” he writes. “I think I know what is meant by the words — accepting that you have cancer, that it is very much a part of you, that your body has produced it… I can agree with that.
“But ‘love my cancer’? I think that’s asking too much. Cancer is an alien, an enemy to be countered — a destroyer of life.
“Over the years, I’ve seen too many good-living, beautiful people living healthy lives cut down by the scourge of cancer. It’s a curse, an imperfection, something an all-wise, all-knowing, caring creator would not have allowed to blight creation.
“Cancer is one of life’s great mysteries… I have no simple answers except, perhaps, it challenges the human spirit to rise above suffering, loss and death. Having no answer, I must live with the questions.”
Cancer has forced dad to reassess a lot of things. He gave up being a minister after his diagnosis. I asked if he thought God had forsaken him, but he said, no, God had not, his “spiritual journey” had just taken him elsewhere. A few months ago he finished a book outlining his spiritual philosophy. In Dad’s words, his was a “spiritual understanding which encompassed other world religions and, more than that, contemporary expressions of spirituality and human thought, enlightened by modern psychology”.
By the time I finish reading his journal, it’s after midnight. He’s being sent in for emergency radiotherapy. “You must be pretty special, buddy,” the Samoan orderly smiles as he pushes Dad’s bed through the hospital corridors.
First up, the simulation. Dad lies on his stomach as a coffin-like scanner whirs above him. The axis and angle are selected — points in fields X and Y and blades X and Y are marked — and these are tattooed onto Dad’s skin so the radiotherapy machine can be focused precisely. The procedure takes half an hour and I notice Dad’s eyes are watering when it’s finished.
In a corridor outside the radiotherapy suite he starts talking about his funeral. He’s very particular about the service he wants. “There’s not a lot of time,” he says. “It’s not the end stage yet, but I want to have everything worked out.
“I want to lie in state in the study. Leave from home and be taken to Dil’s Chapel half an hour before the service.
I’m writing this all down.
“Make sure you mention my books,” he says. “Maybe set up a stall in the foyer — flog off a few after the service. Say… two for 30 bucks.”
“Dad! You’re not serious.”
“Captive audience, my boy. They’ll feel they have to buy one.”
It’s now after 1am. Read to me, he says, pointing to Peter Singer’s book, How Are We to Live?
“Is there still anything to live for?” Singer writes. “Is anything worth pursuing, apart from money, love and caring for one’s own family? In this book I give one answer. It is as ancient as the dawn of philosophy, but as much needed in our circumstances today as it ever was before. The answer is that we can live an ethical life.”
“Do you want another set, my boy?” my father says, with just the edge of a sneer. “Or have you had enough?”
He’s just won the first set 6–2, which may sound like a whipping only it wasn’t really and I hadn’t played that badly — much closer than the score suggests and all that. He’d won all the deuce games — like he always does— and then there was this net-cord at 2–2 where I’d come to the net behind a skidding backhand approach that died as it bounced. Somehow he got to it and fired back a death-or-glory passing shot — the old boy’s got wheels, everyone knows that — but he’s gone now, way out of position, tangled up in the fence, the court wide open. Only his ball clips the net-cord as it comes through, skips up into the frame of my racquet, then dead ducks into the net. Fuck! You’re a fuckin’ tin-arse. Back to deuce.
Bloody hell. It’s not fair, not at all and I’m ridiculously hard done by. Robbed. But the truth is that I know I’m not good enough to beat my father and he knows it too. I’d often take the first set: I’d have the edge on power, but he had the superior fitness and speed. He was seriously quick and he just never missed a ball. His consistency would overwhelm you.
He’d always been a very good tennis player, only a point or two away from being great. There’s a picture in his study of his Wellington College tennis team which included two Davis Cup players, a third who played for Wellington, and Dad. There’s another picture of the Bluff team that Dad led out of nowhere, out of dormancy actually, to the Southland A-grade title. His tennis folder is filled with yellowed clippings bearing excited headlines — “Bluff has good win in tennis,” “Bluff wins again,” “Bluff shocks in city tennis”.
Now, in his mid-50s, he’s playing as well as he ever has. His Caro Bowl reserve interclub side includes Mark Thompson who, a year later, will play on the men’s ATP professional tour.
Dad’s easily the most competitive person I know. A few weeks earlier, we were leaving Eden Park after the footie, walking along Walters Rd, when one of us reckoned he could beat the other to the end of the street about 100 metres away. I had a metre start and held it, but I could hear Dad a step behind me, hissing like a kettle. I’m still ahead at halfway and glance around and he’s right there, right on my shoulder, eyes as wide as the sea. And I start laughing and perhaps 20 metres from the Sandringham Road intersection, he shoots past, sidestepping a cement truck on his way to the tape. This is what I’m up against. Of course we’ll have another set.
“And you’d better have that 50 bucks in your wallet,” I add, “because I want to pick up a couple of CDs on the way home.” (Fighting words these, a reference to my father’s promise a decade earlier that he’d pay up $50 when I beat him over three sets).
The second set starts like the first. I pounce on a short ball of his, thump a heavily topspun approach to his backhand and rush to the net. His flat backhand down the line is his best shot and, really, I know it’s coming but I can’t cover it completely because, if I do, he’ll whip it back across court. So here I am thinking about all this and trying to second-guess him, only he scorches that ball past me down the line which is demoralising enough on its own without him intoning that the ball has gone by me “like a tracer bullet”.
“Shut up!” I snap. I hate it when he starts commentating, thinking he’s on TV, replaying the point shot by tedious shot to anyone stupid enough to listen. It’s his thing. Another backhand snakes down the line. “Magnificent shot… magnificent! Like threading the needle.” Blah blah blah.
And then something extraordinary happens. I know where he’s going to hit the ball before he does and the passing shots that were spitting past me are now sharply-angled volleys that he can’t reach. When I hit a drop shot from two metres behind the base-line — two metres! — and hit it so perfectly that the ball wafts over the net, drops, and he can’t even get to it on the third bounce, I hear the most glorious commentary ever from his lips. “Fuckin’ hell.” It’s only the third time I’ve ever heard him swear.
I win the second set 6–0. Hold on, let’s hear that again. I destroy him, I smash him, I school him, I take him out the back and whip him like I’m his daddy six games to love. To none. To zero. To naught. What a beating. What a slaughter. This is Sparta!
We change ends. The third set. The deciding set. I’m thirsty as hell: I gulp some water down and feel his eyes trying to engage mine so I look up towards the sky, following an airliner as it floats past. Now he plays better — starts chipping and charging the net — and I start choking back my shots and hitting the ball long. He wins the first two games and the third goes to nine deuces except this time I hold my nerve, don’t start smacking the ball as hard as I can out of frustration and fear. I take the game, then the next, and the next. Dad’s rattled. He’s on the rack. He asks: “Do you remember the game we played on your 18th birthday, my boy? What was the score that day?”
“Don’t ask stupid rhetorical questions,” I say. “You know bloody well what the score was.”
“Oh, yes. That’s right. 6–1 6–2 6–0. Eighteen games to 3. One game for every year of your age.”
“Shut up. Serve.”
Now it’s so dark I can hardly see him down the other end. It doesn’t matter — I break him again. 4–2. Four games in a row. Usually my arm would start shaking so much that I could hardly hold the racquet. My hands would be sweaty and the grip would feel like soap. But not now. Not today. Not this time. I’m going to serve-volley that old fool into the fence.
Only it’s really, really dark now and it looks like he’s walking off the court.
“Where the hell are you going?” I say. “Get back on the court. Face up.”
“It’s ridiculous playing in this light,” he says, in a growl.“This is not tennis.”
“Finish the game,” I say. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Really? Well. You can walk home then,” he says. He picks up his racquet bag, starts up the car, and heads off up Rathlin St.
I never did win the 50 bucks.
October 2, 2000
“How are you feeling, my boy?” I ask.
“Not so good,” he says.
Just five days ago, we’d gone around Auckland and filmed what he called “significant places”. It was the next This is Your Life instalment after Wellington. We’d started at Trinity College (now the Whitecliffe Art School) where he trained to be a minister. We stood at the pulpit of the Pitt St Methodist Church where he’d given his first reading as a minister and where, this time, he cajoled a music student to play him a few bars of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (the song my mum walked down the aisle to). We walked along the Ho Chi Minh Track at the Domain “to see the new life” — a spring ritual he’d followed for 36 years.
A lot’s happened since the last scan. Dad had showed me his latest: there are several large tumours in his spine, pelvis, legs, shoulders, ribs and, now, in his skull. The tumours come up white on the screen. “I’m lit up like a Christmas tree,” Dad jokes but the pain, particularly from the tumours in his spine, sometimes makes him cry.
And he has, very suddenly, lost all his strength and is so weak he can’t flick a lighter or even click a ballpoint pen. A blood test revealed why. His haemoglobin count was very low, the blood-producing tissues of the bone marrow have been replaced by cancer. His white cell count is almost nil. An ambulance rushed him to Auckland Hospital where he was hooked up for an all-day blood transfusion.
That was yesterday, and now he’s back home and I’m sitting beside his bed regaling him with fictional tales about my not-nearly-finished thesis and wondering why the blood transfusion hasn’t picked him up, why he just lies there on his stomach, his head turned towards me, and doesn’t speak.
Mind you, this is just the sort of audience I like and I blather on for another half hour before his sister, Heather, pokes her head in and says she wants to have a quiet word “out in the lounge”.
“The hospice nurse has just visited,” she says, “and said that Dad has between two days and two weeks to live.”
“What?” I cry, “No! It can’t be. It’s just in his bones. It hasn’t spread to any of the soft tissue yet. He just needs to have blood transfusions.”
“No, it’s too late for that,” my aunt says, tucking me under her arm. “It won’t work any more.”
“It’s too early,” I say. “I’m not ready. It’s not the right time.”
I rush back into his room, lie down on the bed beside him, and try and tell him how I feel. I have mumbled that I loved him, said so in letters, but I’ve never really told him. Not properly. Now I can’t say it — I only get as far as “Dad, I want you to know this,” and I’m choked with sobs.
“I know,” he says. “I’ve always known. You don’t need to say anything. The father-son bond runs deeper than them all. We’ve had a special relationship — more than just father and son.”
“Dad, I don’t want to lose you.”
“I don’t want to leave you either, my boy. But I will always be with you.”
Later that evening, he’ll pass me a page he’s photocopied from Doctor Zhivago.
Yuri tells Anna on her deathbed:
“However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity — in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people.
And now listen carefully. You are in others — this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life — your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you — the you that enters the future and becomes a part of it.”
October 4, 2000
Now I’m reading to him. The article, The Tennis Artist, is about the incendiary John McEnroe. “Do you remember that tiebreaker?” he asks, referring to the fourth set tiebreaker in the men’s final of the 1980 Wimbledon championships between Bjorn Borg, his favourite player, and McEnroe, mine.
Of course I remember that tiebreaker. I was nine years old. Dad woke me in the middle of the night, made me a Milo, and then I snuggled up in bed beside him and watched perhaps the greatest game of tennis ever played.
The metronomic Borg had won Wimbledon four times straight and a fifth title seemed inevitable until McEnroe forced that tiebreaker that lasted 20 minutes — Borg had five match points — before McEnroe prevailed 18–16.
I finish the article and now he asks me to shave him. As I press the electric razor against his loose-skinned face, and marvel at how little white spikes of hair still grow as the rest of his body withers, I realise this is probably the first time since I was a boy that I’ve really touched my father. After his diagnosis, I’d started giving him slightly awkward East European autocrat’s hugs good-bye at the end of a visit, but this is something more.
We talk. I ask him about some of his funeral stories from his 10 years as a funeral celebrant. Tell me about the Te Atatu 8-ball club, I say, and he laughs, coughs, then tells me about a man who’d gone to the great RSA in the Sky. His coffin passed under a beer-bellied guard of honour holding pool cues. “Who’s the man with the big red nose?” they sang. “Hoo. Ha. Hoo Ha Ha. The more he drinks, the more it glows. Hoo. Ha. Hoo Ha Ha.”
I open one of the Peter Files — the one with all the cards inside. “Dear Santa” reads one, “Please can I have a Tasmanian tiger.”
“Remember that time when I stayed up all night hoping to see him,” I ask Dad. “It must have been after 10.00 o’lock— I was so tired — when you came into the room — yes YOU did! — you read the letter, ate his Anzac biscuits and drank his orange juice too.”
Yes, I remember that well,” Dad says, grinning. “You were so upset I had to put on my Santa suit and come back the next day, pretending I’d got lost the night before.”
Dad sure loved his cards. I show him a Father’s Day card I’d made when I was 15. The Deloittes Supercomputer Superdad Reading shows that BJ Malcouronne was ranked first on 994 points ahead of I. Amin (822), A. Hitler (649), Attila T. Hun (627), B. Mussolini (585) and J. Stalin (577). “Congratulations Dad,” the card says, “you held on to your №1 spot comfortably, though the quality of the field leaves a bit to be desired.” It seemed funny at the time.
Next I open a photo album. “Ah yes, there’s nothing you like more than looking at photos of yourself,” Dad scoffs. He had taken a photo of me each birthday, and the icing on the cakes reveal evolving obsessions: Batman (aged six), a cheetah (aged seven), a tennis player (aged eight) a praying mantis (aged nine). There’s a black and white photo of me peddling away on a tricycle shackled to the roof rack of our old Triumph Herald, another sitting beside Humpty Dumpty on a Tauranga wall. There I am standing on top of Lion Rock at Piha. Fending off a paternal shark at the Helensville Hot Pools. Standing to attention in my All Black pyjamas, and sitting on brown summer grass with a monarch butterfly resting on my hand. “You always loved animals, my boy,” he says and reminds me how I’d be late to school whenever it rained because I’d try to save fat, drowning worms from the clattering hooves of Glen Eden’s schoolchildren.
We go through his photo album now. Dad in an army helmet, lying, grimacing in a trench. He used to tell me this was a photo taken when he fought the Germans on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu, but even as five-year-old I knew the war had finished way before 1957 (and this was in fact a photo of the last year of CMT).
“This is my favourite photo,” he says. It’s Dad, my brother and I at Whale Bay, “the most beautiful beach in New Zealand”. He’s leading us, “the two dearest little boys in the world”, into the sea, the waves up to his knees, up to our waists. He is wearing outrageous yellow togs.
“My boy, look at those abs!” he boasts. “Not a bad body, eh? You’ll be doing well if you have a body like that when you’re 37.”
I look at him now, that strong, taut body twisted with pain, and I ask him one of the more inane questions: “Dad, do you ever feel like you could… through anger, through will, through sheer bloody-minded rage… get up, start throwing bombs” — I start punching the air — “and, and… just do the haka?”
“No,” he says.
October 6, 2000
My stepmother cries out to me and I jump out of bed — it’s just gone 6am — and scramble next door in my undies, to his bedroom. She is holding his head up: bile — a thick, mustard broth — slops out his mouth. His unfocused eyes are sunken in his head and I’m sure he’s about to die.
But the moment passes. I grab my laptop from my room and read him the eulogy I’d started writing the night before. “Very good,” he says. “Now go put some clothes on.”
I read him one of his poems.
“Stay here keep watch with me”.
Said Jesus to his disciples.
He then went into the garden alone
To contemplate his death.
He returned to find his disciples
There is a certain aloneless
In walking through this valley,
While others sleep
Or climb the hills
To see a distant horizon
No longer visible to me.
Death is a reality which others
Cannot stay with for long.
But I know that,
As the end draws near,
They will stay here,
And keep watch with me.
- Brian Malcouronne
He hardly talks today, sleeps most of the time. His breathing — a rasping gurgle that sounds like a tissue being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner — is terrible to listen to. He has fluid on his lungs, my Aunty Di, a nurse says, “It sounds awful I know, but he’s not in pain.” The doctor has told her to turn his intravenous morphine up to the maximum level of 3.
I remember him telling me about a book he read, A Good Day to Die. “When a person found that it was his destiny to suffer,” he said, “he had to accept suffering as his ‘single and unique task’. Suffering became a work, a monumental labour of mind, heart and will. Suffering had to be entered into. Embraced and re-perceived. The chance to discover what life means lies in our acceptance of suffering, deprivation and loss.”
His last night comes. Candles, incense, Enya playing on the small stereo. He slips into a coma — he probably won’t wake up my aunt reckons — and the realisation that he’ll never see me again sends me tearfully into his wardrobe where I hide, watching him through a crack in the door.
Just after midnight, my sister-in-law Heidi who’s sitting beside him, yells at me to get out of the wardrobe. Dad has opened his eyes.
“Am I awake,” he says. “I thought I was still dreaming and you were still here.”
“We are here, Dad. We’re all here.”
He speaks slowly, slurred. “You’ve given me some wonderful times. It isn’t fair,” he says, and goes back to sleep.
I watch his breathing get more ragged. I see the pulse in his neck beating, feel it in his hand — I hold it, trying to infuse him with life, and somehow fall asleep on the bed beside him.
He wakes up. “Peter,” he says, “Are you all right?”
“I’m okay, Dad,” I say.
“Good,” he says, and he shuts his eyes.
Sun sneaks through the curtains. “Good morning Dad,” I say. “It’s a new day.” Sparrows wait outside his window in the birdfeeder tray, attached to a gnarled, leafless maple tree.
He whispers, “I give them sesame seed. I’ve got some. I might be able to do that.”
These are his last words.
January 14, 2001
I’m sitting beside my father’s grave on Waikumete Hill. It’s not much to look at — just a white wooden cross bearing his name, flanked by toi toi sentinels pushed into the clay.
I come here a couple of times each week, not because I’m especially dutiful or virtuous, but because I talk to Dad whenever I’ve done something wrong. Only rarely do I realise that he doesn’t talk back to me.
Today it’s my 30th birthday and Dad’s got me a card. The envelope has my name and date in the top left corner. I open it and see a hand-tinted photograph of a small, barefoot boy in a captain’s hat, trousers rolled up, arms stretched out like a seagull, looking out to sea. Inside, in his distinctive miniature print, perfectly straight along pencilled guide lines, my father writes:
My Dear Peter,
It saddens me, as I know it saddens you that I am not able to be with you today on your first birthday following my death… I have always been at all your previous birthdays, and they have been very special days for me. However, I do not want you to be sad today, but to be happy and consoled as you remember us together and all the good times we have shared.
Thank you for your personal care and support of me as my illness ran its inevitable course. I know how much it affected you to see me wane and eventually die. But, through it all, I felt strong and centred and, at the end, was ready to take my leave after living 61 very fulfilling years, the last three being the most creative and enriching of them all.
I wish you well in your future life’s journey. I know that you did your best to present me with a ‘Mrs Malcouronne’ and grandchildren, but was glad you didn’t rush it. I respect your talent and ability… however, you need to keep working on your serve! Most of all, I love and admire the person you are…
So wipe away those tears, my boy, and enjoy your special day and all your birthdays to come.