Letter to Laura

My daughter Laura recently realised that, having reached the age of 70, my time on earth is beginning to peter out. “Would you please write me a letter that I can read once you’re gone, Dad?” she asked me recently.

“What sort of letter?”

“Just one I can read on days that I miss you.”

***

My dearest Laura

On the day that you popped out of your mum at the Royal Women’s Hospital here in Melbourne I was so happy to see you that I wept unashamedly. You were one of the ugliest babies that I had ever seen – yellow with jaundice and with a puffy face. Poor little thing, I thought sadly, no-one will ever want to take you out on a date. How wrong I was!

We bathed you in a small plastic bath on the kitchen table. The little bath was too big for you, so I would put my hand under your head and hold your head up to keep you afloat. I would look at you intently in the bath and try my best to imagine you as a schoolgirl and as a young woman, but I just could not. And look at you now!

When you were a little kid you were painfully shy, always clinging on to my leg whenever there was someone around that you didn’t know well. That certainly also changed. You are now one of the most extroverted people I know. But when you were small you were never shy with me. One morning they played Robert Palmer’s song “Simply irresistible” over the radio. “That’s you, Laura. You’re simply irresistible!” I picked you up and danced around the lounge room with you, singing along, while you shrieked with laughter.

We went to England when you were about two years old to visit Granny and Granddad. In those days we did not have much money and we were living on one income, so the overseas airfares for the four of us were a major expense. I suggested to your mum that she stayed on in England with you and your brother for a while longer after I had returned to Melbourne to go back to work. You remained in England for a further two months.

I was getting worried that you might have forgotten me completely by the time you got back to Melbourne. I was quite relieved when I met you at the airport and you put your arms around my neck when I carried you to our van. But as I was putting the bags in the boot, I heard you whispering to your mum, “Is that our Dad?”

Early in the piece I discovered that you had a really mischievous streak. Remember how you tricked me when we went to Warwick Castle in England. You were about six years old and we were walking on the castle wall. You peered through a gap in the wall and said, “Look down there, Dad.”

“No, I’ve got a terrible fear of heights. I can’t look down from here.”

“Just look down there, Dad. I want to show you something.”

Hesitantly I shuffled closer to the wall and peered down.

“Now just imagine you’ve fallen down and you are lying there at the bottom with all your bones broken,” you told me, laughing gleefully.

One of the highlights of my life was when the two of us went on that road trip to Queensland when you were thirteen. Your mum was visiting Granny and Granddad in England and we stayed behind. On an impulse we had decided to go to the Great Barrier Reef. It took us two and a half days to drive to Airlie Beach. You listened to a talking book and to your music CDs and read your books.

On the first day I stopped briefly to have a sandwich at a picnic spot next to the road. “Hurry up, Dad, we’re wasting time,” you nagged me. For a kid you were the best long distance traveller ever, never once asking how far we still had to go.

When we approached Airlie Beach in the late afternoon there was a hold-up in the traffic. In the distance we could see a bus and many cars, as well as the flashing lights of various emergency vehicles. As we approached I warned you, “I think there has been a terrible accident with a bus and there will probably be dead bodies. Close your eyes tightly and don’t look. I’ll tell you when we’ve passed the accident.” You peered eagerly through your window. Thankfully it turned out that the traffic jam was due to the torchbearer carrying the torch for the Olympic Games.

We went by boat to Hook Island and pitched our tent in the backpackers’ camping spot. It was sheer bliss.

Afterwards, we were just about to leave Airlie Beach to return home when you had your first period. I panicked. “Damn it, where is your mum when I really need her?” I groaned. In desperation I went into a pharmacy and asked the lady behind the counter for advice. You were totally unfazed by it all.

We had barely left Airlie Beach when you asked, “Hey, Dad, could we go to Sydney on the way back to Melbourne?” And that is what we did. Our whole road trip took a mere ten days. You never complained once. No wonder you have always been my very favourite travelling companion.

We sent you to a boarding school in Cape Town for six months when you were barely fifteen. I missed you so much that it felt as if my heart had been ripped out. Every week I called you. Your main topic of conversation was about money. “Dad, I’ve run out of cash. Can you send me some more please?”

The next year you went back to Cape Town, this time for the entire year. I’m not sure how I was able to survive it.

On your return to Melbourne you barely scraped through your VCE with very poor marks, despite having studied hard. Laura isn’t academically inclined, I thought to myself, but that’s not the end of the world. I’m sure she’ll find her place in life. But when you began studying nursing you aced everything and eventually went on to get your university degree. You certainly have found your place.

You haven’t lost any of that mischievous streak of yours. We would sit at the dinner table and you would describe in horrendous detail how you had seen a liposuction or a Caesarian operation at your work. I would start gagging on my food and beg you to stop. “Don’t be so precious, Tim,” your mum would admonish me. “You can see Laura is really interested in what she has experienced at the hospital.” But I knew full well that you were doing it on purpose to make me nauseous.

I am so very proud of you Laura, for what you have achieved and for the kind of person that you have turned out to be – one who respects and cares about your patients and about other people generally. You have brought me so much joy over the years. I will miss your cheeky smile enormously when I’m gone.

You will be reading this letter when I’m no longer here. You know me well enough to know that I would not want you to wallow in misery because I have departed from this life. You have your own life to get on with and other people who love you and who care for you greatly. You owe it to them to be positive and happy and to look to the future, instead of backwards over your shoulder at what has been.

Thank you for everything, dearest Laura. I was so blessed to have you in my life.

Love

Dad

Laura Jan 2017 - Fraser Island 01-1

Laura (January 2017)

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The marvels of modern medicine

In 1983, while working in Port Moresby at the National Library Service of Papua New Guinea, I contracted a terrible ear infection. In time the pain almost drove me insane. Blood, pus and black goo leaked from my ear all day and night. I had to sleep with my head on an old towel and I lost my hearing completely in the infected ear.

Over the next two months I tried two types of ear drops, went to see the doctor five times, underwent an ear syringing, completed five full courses of four different antibiotics and had three injections, with absolutely no effect.

An acquaintance at the University of Papua New Guinea, who had heard about my ongoing problem with the ear infection, rang me and told me that a certain Dr Ghosh, an Indian ear, nose and throat specialist, was in town on a temporary training attachment at the Port Moresby General Hospital. I promptly went to see my doctor and asked him for a referral to see this Dr Ghosh.

On a steaming hot day in March, nearing the end of the wet season, I walked into Dr Ghosh’s office, introduced myself, and told him, “I’m getting really depressed about this ear infection, Doctor. The damn thing appears to be incurable and the pain is driving me around the bend.”

Dr Ghosh raised both his hands as if to fend off my words. “Depressed? Depressed? My dear fellow, there is no need to get depressed. This is the Twentieth Century, after all. We can now cure almost any infection!” I nodded and kept my disbelief to myself.

The doctor proceeded to peer into my ear. “Ha!” he exclaimed triumphantly, after a minute, “no wonder the antibiotics have had no effect. What we have here is a fungal infection, not a bacterial one. Oh, no, no, there are no bacteria in that ear. Only fungus.” He then proceeded to tell me with great merriment how he had recently cured a young fellow’s nose problem by advising him to get married! It was with difficulty that I managed to hide my lagging confidence in the good doctor.

He wrote out a prescription for anti-fungal drops, which he handed to me. He noticed that I was looking a tad sceptical. “Oh,” he said, brimful of confidence, “you use those drops and within three weeks’ time you will say to yourself, ‘My goodness, Dr Ghosh has cured me!’”

Having no alternative but to hope desperately for a miracle cure, I thanked him and set off to the chemist to get the anti-fungal drops. As I was leaving his office he shouted after me, “Depressed? Oh, no, my dear fellow, no need to get depressed! This is the Twentieth Century, after all!”

The prescription I collected from the chemist was for Tinaderm drops. I carefully read the instructions on the label, which stated that Tinaderm would cure things like tinea, foot rot and crotch itch. There was no mention of using them in one’s ear.

I had little choice but to trust Dr Ghosh, so I gritted my teeth and put a few drops into my ear, repeating the process the next morning and the next evening. After two days I woke up in the morning and discovered to my amazement that my ear infection had vanished completely.

“Oh, the marvels of modern medicine,” I mused to myself. “No, no, there was no need to get depressed.”