I don’t have the words to express how deeply this essay by Anthea Hodgson about her dad and his death from Alzheimer’s affected me. All I can say is that it’s beautiful and it made me cry. If you’ve never read a Writers in the Attic post before, today’s the day to start.
Anthea Hodgson is a country girl from the wheatbelt of Western Australia. She worked in radio for a number of years before producing two children and dedicating her life to Lego. She wrote her novel, The Drifter, in five weeks and two years later signed with Penguin Random House. She now writes every day, mostly early in the morning, and works hard to fill her daily coffee consumption quota in her inner city suburb. She dyes her hair red, she likes chocolate and puppies, she occasionally goes to the gym and she reads whenever she can.
The Drifter’s Heart
I wrote my debut novel The Drifter quickly, and I included in its pages the women from the hometown I loved, because I wanted to write about them, to show them as they were and as they still are, in all their glory. And in they marched, put the kettle on and sat down for a chat, and I found I didn’t want them to leave. And as I travelled back to my farm again, I found our old dog Mac there, waiting for me, so I let him come inside too, even though he was always an outside dog. And of course then everyone arrived, my friends, my family, our pets, the galahs down at the dam, the sunsets, the salmon gums, even the dog from the pub.
But there was one person I didn’t put into The Drifter. My father, Colin, was too big, and he wouldn’t fit. He was a gentle man, reserved, kind of old fashioned, intelligent, well read, a talented musician and photographer, a dedicated farmer. But he got Alzheimer’s and he died. Not quickly, but slowly, like leaving a room, then the house, crossing the yard, and wandering away from us across the paddocks, past the horizon. He left feeling shame and fear, until he had gone so far from us we couldn’t tell anymore what he was feeling. I didn’t put him in my book, because he was dead and I couldn’t ask his permission. Because if I started to say everything I wanted to about my dad, I would never stop. Because I didn’t think Drifter would be enough to honour him, and the way he loved me. Because my gratitude choked me, and it chokes me still.
‘Because if I started to say everything I wanted to about my dad, I would never stop.’
Alzheimer’s was a thief. It took everything from my father, apart from the ability to die. And when he did, we got him back. Because his disease was forced to release its parasitic grip, and he was finally free. The nurses placed flowers in my father’s hands; working hands, made for wielding spanners and shovels, for driving tractors, pushing sheep up the drafting race, patting dogs, drinking tea. Hands for playing the bagpipes, the flute, the saxophone, the guitar, for flipping vinyl and playing old records after a day in the yards, sitting on the floor like a schoolboy so he didn’t get the couch dirty. Alzheimer’s had taken it all.
When he died I was relieved to sit with his corpse, waiting for the police to begin their formalities. Pleased that his horrible rattling breath had ceased, and his shrunken body was stilled. Shall we cover him for you? The nurses asked, holding the sheet. No, I answered. We’re quite happy here together. And we were.
‘Alzheimer’s was a thief. It took everything from my father, apart from the ability to die. And when he did, we got him back.’
As it turns out, Dad came into The Drifter anyway, stamping the mud off his boots on the verandah, sitting beside me as I wrote at three in the morning, leaning on the kitchen bench as I made my first cup of tea in the darkness, laughing at my dumb jokes as I typed.
He was with me every day I wrote Drifter, and I found that I wanted to say something about death. I wanted to say that not all death is tragic, that sometimes it’s our time, and sometimes life is so awful to the people we love that death is all we have left. The Drifter was just going to be the story of a mysterious stranger who comes to town, but it grew and became so much more than that, because of my father.
‘One day perhaps you’ll teach your child to knit or bake, to make a joke, or sing a song, and there you’ll be. Not sitting on a cloud – back in your child’s heart, where you belong. That’s what I want, and that’s what I want for my Ida too.’ Audrey squeezed Cate’s hands again. ‘You can do that, Cate. Take her with you. That’s all. Ida is a fine woman, and she deserves to go with you.’
Dad is with me every day. If I see a band play, he’s standing beside me. If a willy wag tail dances along the fence, I know he’ll smile. If jazz is playing I feel him listening. Alzheimer’s has released him and he is with us again; not just the wreckage of what the disease had done to him, but our real dad, busy with shearing, drenching, off at a Progress meeting, playing his bagpipes to Mac, having a beer on the verandah at dusk. His laugh has come back to me, his soft voice and his smile. I can take him with me, and if I want Drifter to say anything, it’s that.
I want The Drifter to say that we never really lose the people we love, because we can take them with us—and even though my Dad isn’t really in The Drifter, he is at its heart, just as he is in mine.
If you have a story you’d like to tell for Writers in the Attic, consider this an invitation. The topic is anything to do with writing—about your writing life, what writing means to you, or, like Anthea, the people or events that influence or have influenced you.
600-1000 words seems to be a good length, and I enjoy reading every essay I receive, so don’t be frightened to take the plunge!
I acknowledge the time and effort involved in writing these pieces by sending a small gift as a thank you.
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