He died with the 6th hole flag stick in his hand

Burnley Golf Course - view from 5th green, across 6th tee,and down the 9th fairway. May 2003 - photo by Mark Nolan

Burnley Golf Course – view from 5th green, across 6th tee,and down the 9th fairway. May 2003 – photo by Mark Nolan

“He was not an advertisement for early morning exercise.”

For 7 years, starting around the year 2000, my very old friend Iain and I played dawn golf  (up to 3 mornings a week) at Burnley golf course in Melbourne’s inner east. The course was short and very “forgiving” (you could slice savagely onto the adjacent fairway and still confidently find the green on your next shot), so we could play a quick 9 holes and be on our way by 8.30am most days. We would tee off in the pre-dawn gloom using fluorescent balls, tapping the ice that collected under our shoes with out putters (during winter), and leaving zig-zagged foot-print trails stenciled into the dewy fairway behind us. Sometimes those footprint trails disappeared into bushes and reappeared out the other side. Sometimes the trail even led over fences. And I use the word “sometimes” liberally. Sometimes after teeing off we would crouch and shudder and wait for cars to crash beyond the protective nets to the far left of the first fairway. The onward ramp to the Monash freeway from the 7th tee was Iain’s best effort – we always joked that he had the world’s longest drive because one of his balls had hitched a ride to Frankston in the back of a truck.

We repeatedly asked ourselves why we did it? What would possess two idiots to get up in the dark and chase a little white round thing around a park? What were we thinking? I guess people the world over often ask themselves the same thing. You only have to execute 1 decent stroke each round to lure you back for the next game. That’s golf.

Iain and I grew up together, meeting when we were 7 years old. I am 2 days older than Iain, but he will tell you that he looks a lot younger than I, which I tend to let ride, because, standing us both side by side, the court of common sense (and the laws of gravity) would find in his favor. He also has a very relaxed and observational dry wit. Being friends for so long (and having lived together in our 20’s), we are comfortable in our own combined space, and we don’t need to talk if there is nothing to say. We have played entire rounds of golf without talking at all. Not one word, except maybe “hello” and “goodbye”. During other rounds, if there is something to talk about, you can’t shut us up.

On one particular frosty morning, we teed off in the dark and were just approaching the 1st green, when we noticed a dark bulky shape on the 6th green off in the distance. There was a clearing halfway up the our fairway so we had an uninterrupted view down the length of the 6th hole. It was still too dark to properly make out any definition on the shape, and although it struck us both as being a little odd, we dismissed it, thinking that someone had left their golf bag on the green. We continued to navigate our way casually around the course. I don’t think Iain and I spoke at all as we took in the crisp morning air, although we had both already played our “lure” shots – the ones that would bring us back for the next game later that week.

The penny dropped at the 6th hole, when we suddenly realized that the bulky shape that we had seen earlier was a dead body.

We raced to the green and along the way we calculated in our minds how long he must have been there for. When we arrived it was clear that he was beyond help. He had been there for at least an hour, and by the way in which he was positioned on the ground, we knew that this man had died instantly. We found out later that his name was Kent, and that he was in his mid 50’s, and a regular at the course. He was a large man both in height and girth, and looked to have enjoyed the good things in life. Perhaps he was working on his fitness with early morning exercise but, sadly, had left it a little too late.

As we stood there on the green, taking in the situation, we noticed something odd. There was 1 body, but 2 balls in play, both sitting within a metre of the hole. We suddenly felt an extra chill run down our spines.

Was there a second golfer?

We conducted a forensic survey of our surroundings, like they do on CSI, and concluded to the negative, that this was a clear case of 1 golfer, playing 2 practice balls. Nothing untoward or sinister. The landscape was pristine, and there was only 1 set of tracks in the dew, apart from our own. We also knew that Kent had died this morning, rather than last night, because his tracks were fresh in the overnight dew.

Kent had been practising very well indeed, as both of his tee shots had neatly carried the 117 metres in the still morning air and dropped within a putter length of the pin. Normally shots like these would “lure” you back for the next game, but sadly for Kent, these were to be his final approaches to the green. Kent’s footsteps down the short par 3 fairway were purposeful. He had probably already congratulated himself, and was now visualizing these two “gimme” birdie putts sinking into the pot.

Instead, Kent walked up to the flag, hoisted it out of the hole, and died.

Kent’s lights went out so suddenly that his shoes were still planted on the ground, facing the flag, but his torso had buckled and twisted to one side as it sharply descended. There was no doubt that he was dead before he hit the ground.

We alerted the paramedics and the clubhouse, but there was nothing else we could do for this man. We both stood there on the green with Kent for a few minutes, saying nothing to each other, in a degree of shock.

Kent had a really nice gold-plated putter. It was resting beside his body. The same thought crossed both of our minds at the same time. We looked at each other, looked at the gold putter, the balls, and at the hole.

“If I were in his shoes I would want us to finish off those putts” Iain said quietly, with his hands linked across the back of his head, as if what he was saying was making his brain hurt.

I agreed, wincing. My head was hurting too. “And do you think he wants us to use his putter to do it?”

The rules of golf – that you never hit someone else’s ball – was being weighed up against a dead man’s possible final wish. It was tempting, in the same way that I get irrationally tempted to randomly put my hand up at house auctions. It seemed like something that needed to be done, but we just couldn’t do it.

Apart from the fact that it would have been very inappropriate to disturb the scene of a death, and that it may have been enormously disrespectful to Kent’s family, we also knew we didn’t have the right to change the circumstances. Kent’s life ended when and where it did, and that’s all there was to it. As passers-by, we had no right to interfere with Kent’s final mortal imprint.

Still…the balls were just sitting there, and the hole would never be properly finished!

Then another thought surfaced. What if we putted and missed! I’ve missed putts (without any pressure) from far shorter distances than what was in front of us at that moment. It was just too unthinkable. I just hope that Kent’s soul wasn’t standing there next to us, willing us toward his putter and pointing at the hole, beckoning us to go ahead and tap those balls in for him.

As we heard the paramedics arriving we continued on our way. We decided to finish off the 7th, 8th and 9th holes for this fallen golfer. We could still do that for him. We didn’t talk much, we were both deep in thought and still somewhat in shock. We both agreed that there were worse ways to end your life, albeit that is was way too soon. There is a lot to be said about going out whilst doing something that you really enjoy. And I would definitely rather die playing golf than surfing – Getting eaten by a shark is not the same as setting up for a birdie putt.

From that morning onward, for every round we ever played at Burnley, Iain and I played the 6th hole differently. We always chatted on the tee because we had a lot to talk about. Iain had inscribed the words “Kent’s Hole” in pencil onto the back of the timber information sign at the side of the tee, as a sign of respect. If the flag was located on the forward, right hand side of the green, it was regarded as being “On-Kent”. If we drove that green from the tee, it was considered “Kent-like”, and if you were ever left with a putt within a metre of the hole, well, you were shooting for a “Kent” – and for the purposes of this story, they always went in. Neither of us are overly superstitious, but we never played extra practice balls on our own at Burnley, because that would have been just asking for trouble.

Many years have now passed since we last played early morning golf together. Iain eventually moved to Byron Bay in northern New South Wales with his wife Yvonne and now they both live in the French Alps, so the opportunity to play together no longer exists. I play very intermittently at a different golf course now, and I do miss the times that we spent together, happy in our own shared space, half asleep, scouring bushes and climbing fences, crouching and shuddering, and both wondering why we did it.

Iain made the comment last week that Kent “Was not an advertisement for early morning exercise.” Of course Iain was only being playfully dry when he made the comment, and he would equally agree that, on the other hand, Kent’s circumstance was very much an advertisement for any form of exercise.

For Kent, it was a case of “too little, too late”. For us, however, it is a grisly reminder that, when it comes to exercise, it’s never too little, and it’s never too late.

And we still wonder if we should have made those final putts.

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Changing for gain.

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“You are going to have to change your lifestyle, my son!”

I understood what I was hearing about embracing change, but as this consulting doctor and I were both middle-aged, and we didn’t look remotely alike, I wasn’t clear on how I had suddenly become his son. His field of specialty was Haematology and Oncology, not Anthropology or the practicalities of reproduction – but It could have been worse, I could have just as easily become his dear old fellow, or an old sport.

“What sort of lifestyle changes do you have in mind, Peter?” I asked.

Addressing him as champ, or big fellah had crossed my mind.

Dressed awkwardly in sagging brown corduroy pants and flaunting deplorable handwriting skills, Peter informed me over the top of his tethered bifocals that I have non alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which can be managed with a new diet and exercise regime, but if left unchecked, could lead to serious complications down the track. After absorbing the news, I wondered briefly if the good doctor dressed himself in the dark in the mornings, because, though far from being fashionable myself, not even I would be caught wearing those pants in public.

“You are going to have to give up a lot of the things in life that you enjoy.”

As he reeled off a list of junk and fatty foods and beverages that I was to ban myself from, Peter also scribbled rapidly on a notepad and sent it across the desk between us, as if, by reading this piece of paper, I would be doubly illuminated. Of course it meant nothing to me. It was just scribble. However, through the unbridled jagged doodling, I was able to make out what looked like the image of a fried dead possum dangling from a power line.

“And whatever exercise you are currently doing, you’ll need to double or triple it.” he added, for good measure.

Our appointment ended, I thanked Peter and left, but not before I told him that he had, in my opinion, the worst handwriting on the planet. He laughed and confirmed that pathologists and chemists all over town agreed with me. I decided not to comment on his pants.

I was pleased that I now knew what was ahead of me. The 3-4 weeks of tests and scans and not knowing was stressful.  I knew something was clearly shutting down, with symptoms of extreme fatigue/weakness/nausea etc, but until I knew what it was, I was left to freely google my symptoms and self diagnose every terminal illness ever documented, which was unhelpful.

So fixing things with a new dietary/exercise regime was something I figured I could easily manage. How hard could it be? My wife Susie eats sensibly and slots Pilates and Yoga into her busy work schedule most days. In stark contrast, I eat whatever isn’t nailed down and collapse on the couch after work. I walk our dog Rosie in the mornings, so I guess that counts a little. Friday night fish and chips have been a ritual for me since early childhood, and I am no stranger to pizza, hamburgers, souvlaki, snack foods, biscuits, cakes and ice-cream. I am a pantry inhabitant. A chocolate bandit.

But above all of those things, I am a fresh, warm, crusty white bread lover. I can eat it all day. And although I enjoy drinking good white or red wine, my general alcohol preference is frosty cold beer. I don’t play nearly enough golf (usually a quick 9 holes before work when the seasonal daylight permits), and our garden may feel a sense of abandonment.

Now, I had a long-held the belief that our BBQ would not light unless I had a beer in my hand, but a few nights ago I cooked on it holding a large glass of iced water and miraculously the grill still functioned. That was a turning point.

Breakfast now involves blending fruit and raw vegetables into what my extended family affectionately call “Pond Slime”. It is green and slimy, and looks like something that collects on the walls of a fish tank, but it tastes pretty good. But no crusty white bread.

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Lunch is home-made soup and fruit. Snacks are nuts and seeds, no biscuits, no white bread. Dinner is whatever we are all eating, but smaller serves and minimizing the carbs. No beer, wine instead (preferably red) and only socially. No junk food.

It has been 3 weeks since the possum doodling man of corduroy said I’d be giving up a lot of the things in life that I enjoy, and on that point, I think I’d now have to disagree with him.

I have started to gain back other things in life that I truly value, such as energy and vitality, an optimistic clear head, and a healthy functioning body; and on balance, these gains far outweigh the sluggish and fatigued world of fish and chips and beer. Just as we emerge from a dead cold Winter into a warmer, vibrant, and regenerated Spring season, I am finding a new appetite for life. I don’t want to give up feeling this way. Losing some middle-aged kilos doesn’t hurt either.

The garden is starting to get some attention, the dog is getting walked, and early morning golf will hopefully start again in the weeks ahead.

And you know, fresh, warm, crusty whole grain bread (every now and then) doesn’t taste too bad either.

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Catching up to the future.

em fingers at birth

Sometimes the future arrives early and catches you by surprise.

When our first-born child arrived, late in August 1994, we were totally unprepared – and then we had to roll the dice.

Let me preface this story by apologizing for its length, detail, and gravity. I can promise a positive overall outcome, so please bear with me for the duration …

The doctor delivering our baby physically pulled me into a tiny room next to the operating theatre and hurriedly blurted out, “We don’t have any time to talk. It’s not good at all. Get ready to lose your wife or your child, or both.”

My mouth opened but nothing came out.

“Your wife and your child are both 50/50. There is a 25% chance you will lose both of them, and only 25% chance they will both live.” The doctor fixed a stare deep into my eyes for a moment, just to make sure that I had received his message. I nodded. Then he fled, and I was left alone in that tiny room, with the dice.

An hour earlier, I had been at work, stuck in a meeting, when a message came through saying that I needed to urgently collect my 7-month-pregnant wife Susie in the city from her pediatrician’s rooms. I arrived 20 minutes later, without knowing how serious things were, and saw the pediatrician, David Francis, running frantically down the hallway toward me. He shouted, “No time to explain – Susie has a very rare but deadly Liver disease, known as ‘Fatty liver’, and she needs to be Caesar-ed immediately.” I was now starting to panic; the hallway had suddenly become very small, and David’s anxious face ballooned into my whole field of vision. I started to ask what we had to do next, but David cut me off, saying “Get her to St. Vincent’s as fast as you can. Every minute counts. The faster they can get the baby out, the better Susie’s chances are. I don’t care where you park, just do it anywhere you can; on the footpath, in the middle of Victoria Parade, anywhere.”

So we parked across the footpath at the front steps of the hospital, after erratically turning in front of, and cutting off, homeward bound peak hour traffic on Victoria Parade. The long honks and toots from irritated motorists seemed far off and remote. Hospital staff were waiting in numbers on the steps outside the front door and quickly rushed us inside.

The hospital “machine” took over; everyone knew what had to be done. We found ourselves in a room up on the third floor, smothered by staff, waivers, and technology. It started to sink in that Susie was going to have the baby NOW, and not in 7.5 weeks as scheduled. We were both dazed. Whilst the nurses and midwives hooked Susie up to monitoring machines, drips, and took blood samples, I gazed out the window from the third floor out across the inner eastern suburbs of Melbourne, wondering how such a gloriously sunny day could so rapidly dissolve into a nightmare. The deep blue late afternoon sky was cloudless, and the shadows of the outer city buildings were now starting to stretch out far across the rooftops, shading the homeward “tooters” as they bustled their way through the congested side streets below.

This moment was wonderfully captured by photographer Greg Elms, documenting Melbourne’s cloudless skyline during the deep blue dusk of August 24th 1994. One of his shots, taken at 6.17pm found its way into the centre-fold page of “The Age – Good Weekend” weekly magazine a month or so later. This beautiful photo was taken an hour before our baby was born. I can still see that sunset from the hospital window, but this photograph has allowed us to remember that moment forever.

Photograph courtesy of Greg Elms - Wednesday 24th August 1994 6.17pm, as it appeared in The Age - Good Weekend Magazine.

Photograph courtesy of Greg Elms – Wednesday 24th August 1994 6.17pm, as it appeared in The Age – Good Weekend Magazine.

I tried to distract myself by calling people to let them know what was going on. I found my voice choking whilst trying to make sense of the whole ordeal, and looking at Susie being taped up, tapped, and torn. One of the nurses cleaned Susie’s fingernails with nail polish remover. Apparently the color of your fingernails is an indicator of your well-being during an operation. When her fingernails were clean, the nurse looked puzzled. Susie had only put fake fingernails on that day, and although her fingernails looked nicely shaped and rounded, there would be no well-being analysis conducted on those fingers. They’d have to operate on her fingernails first to find out!

Suddenly my gazing moment was over and I was alone in the preparation room. I wandered out into the hallway and was rescued by one of the midwives who directed me to the men’s change-rooms. After covering myself in white robes and plastic shoes and headgear, I was moved to a small surgeon’s waiting area, where I met up with David Francis again who would perform the operation. This was when he fixed me with that deep stare and explained about how we were going to roll the dice.

The birth was a very quick blur. I was positioned directly behind Susie’s head at the operating table. We held hands tightly. Susie was remarkably calm with sedation. There was a sheet obscuring our vision of the incision and all the activity. It seemed like only seconds later that it was announced that our baby had arrived, and it was a “girl flavour”. I saw a tiny little body being lifted above the screen. To be honest, neither of us had had time to even ponder our baby’s sex, and when she arrived, I can remember being genuinely taken by surprise. After she had been weighed and wrapped up for warmth, I held her in my arms. She was buried in a white bunny rug, so very small and petite. I cautiously carried her across the room to meet her mother, who was only allowed to briefly introduce herself to her little girl.

Then I watched everyone suddenly evacuate the operating room, carting out equipment and trolleys and my two girls with them. One gurney turned left, the other to the right.

Suddenly I was left alone again, wondering which cart I should have followed. Where should I be, with mother or baby? I understood why I was left behind – every available resource had been allocated to saving lives. I asked someone in the hallway where everyone had gone, but they couldn’t help me, so I took the lift down to the ground floor reception to get directions back up to the intensive care units.

Susie looked yellow, Jaundice, but still surprisingly calm. Our baby had immature lungs and was breathing hard to keep herself alive. She was laid out in a humidity crib with oxygen being pumped down her throat via a tube.

The waiting rooms filled up with family and friends. Jacqui and Geoff Larkin quickly grabbed some clothes for Susie from our house, and Anna Marsh and Caroline Mews sat with me outside intensive care, making calls and looking after everything.

At midnight it was recommended that I go home and try to get some sleep, because I was going to need it in the days ahead. Anna and Mews came back to our house and pumped a few quick strong brandy and dry’s into me. We tried to celebrate the birth but I found it difficult to feel anything yet. I was just hoping the next 24 hours would not bring any unwanted news. I was wrong.

At roughly 2am, shortly after Anna and Mews had left, a call came through from a very curt doctor. “You need to come back in straight away”, he said. “Your baby is experiencing a lot of difficulty in breathing. We need to transfer her to the Royal Children’s Hospital where the facilities can maintain oxygen support above 50%.” As it turned out, our baby would require 90%.

Thank god for the Royal Children’s Hospital, and it’s world-renowned Neo Natal Unit. It saved our little girl’s life.

I reversed my car along the curb for about ten feet, but then could not physically move to change gears into drive. I sat motionless, sobbing, in the driver’s seat, in shock, not able to function, for about 5 minutes. I retreated back to the house and called Anna Marsh. Her car pulled up abruptly outside the house instantly, bless her soul. She must have driven like a lunatic. Anna always drove like a lunatic. I remember thinking when I landed in her front passenger seat that Anna really needed to do something about cleaning out her car. There were empty soft drink cans and lollie/chocolate wrappers lapping at my shoes. Every time we lurched around a corner, a wave of cans would swirl around my ankles. I tried to make a smart remark about the mess (something about drowning in stale Coca-Cola) but I don’t think Anna heard me – she was too busy planting the pedal and driving like a lunatic. I told Anna that I didn’t care which Australian rules football team my daughter chose to support (even Collingwood); as long as she would live long enough to see them play. In hindsight, that was a ridiculous statement, one that I have since tried to distance myself from having ever said. As we flew into the hospital, Anna frantically asked me for directions – “Quickly, are we turning left or turning right?!” Each time she asked, I stuttered for so long with the answer that we were already halfway around the corner before I could finish. “R, Ri, Righ … oh, okay, we’ve already done it!” These days, with a few wines, we often sit around and laugh about that crazy car trip. Even when things are dire, there is still somehow room for a little bit of comedy.

We arrived at Susie’s bedside just as the mobile humidity crib unit arrived with out little girl to say goodbye and then be transported to the Royal Children’s. A Polaroid snapshot was taken so Susie at least had an image of her still un-named daughter to look at. Our daughter was transported in a NETS capsule (Neo Natal Emergency Transport service), which looked like Superman’s Krypton escape pod. She was wired up to all the machines, and looked so tiny. We didn’t fully understand that mother and child would then be separated for 3 days, in separate hospitals, Susie consigned to looking at only a Polaroid snapshot memory. I can’t imagine how that must have been for Susie.

An old friend Mathew Collopy arrived on our doorstep at 8am the next morning, holding out application forms for the Melbourne Cricket Club (M.C.C.) to be filled out and signed. We had a major problem. We still didn’t have a name for our daughter. So I drove back into the hospital to see Susie and we settled on Emily Louise, named after Susie’s great-grandmother. Emily was formally registered by a cricket club a week before she was formally registered as a person.

Thankfully, 24 hours after the birth it looked as though Susie was going to be okay, and Emily was stable at the Royal Children’s Hospital. Susie would need to undergo further tests on her liver, but the doctors were confident there would not be any permanent damage. They said she had “more chance of growing a second head” than having the disease again.

We had rolled the dice and won.

I then happily became the meat in the sandwich, ferrying expressed milk between two hospitals. The level of support from family and friends was overwhelming. Our doorstep was thick with casseroles and Susie’s room was like a florist shop. 

When she was well enough, after 2-3 days, We were able to mobilize Susie in a wheelchair, and drive her over to the visit Emily in the Neo-Natal unit to finally properly meet her daughter. My sister Rachel later also arrived and brought with her a fluffy pink teddy bear. She peered into the humidity crib at our tiny baby, hooked up to all the electronic equipment, and burst into tears, sobbing. At just 3 kilos, Emily’s whole hand could wrap around the tip of my index finger. I will never forget seeing my sister’s reaction. She had already produced 4 children of her own, and what she saw really emotionally affected her. At that moment, I wish that someone could have walked up to us and reassured us that everything would be OK, and then had whipped out some before and after photos to prove it.

Emily owned a lot of soft toys in her early years, but this fluffy pink bear, from her sobbing Aunty, has always been her absolute favorite. When she was old enough to talk, Emily proudly named this pink teddy bear “Bob”. Today Bob still sits next to her pillow. Bob has been threaded and stitched, machine washed and spun dry more times than most other teddy bears would surely be comfortable with. Bob will be with Emily forever. A silent witness and guardian angel, all rolled into one dearly loved fluffy pink little fellow.

The first six months of Emily’s life were loud and dramatic, as she had a lot of catching up to do. She screamed continuously for the first few months because she was constantly needing more food, and on top of everything she also endured a double Hernia. We were all sleep deprived in our household, rotating feeding and screaming shifts. During those months I nodded off at the wheel at a traffic intersection (my head hitting the side window to wake me up); I changed lanes on a highway without knowing, and I drove off from a service station without paying for petrol, prompting a visit at work from the local constabulary. Emily’s two grandmother’s (both nurses) helped guide us through Emily’s early stages, as we had no idea what we were doing.

It is amazing, however, just how quickly she transformed into a normal sized infant. Within 6 months Emily had completely caught up. Life for us, as parents, also returned to a filtered kind of normal; a shade of constancy that is reserved for parents “pin-balling” their way through uncharted waters, and enjoying a new chapter in life that is slightly compromised but non trade-able.

em as 2-3 year old

The rest of Emily’s life to date has also been loud and dramatic. She is feisty, outspoken, strong, sharp, and in your face. You get the sense that she is still fighting to catch up to her future. I think that if Emily stands still, she feels that she is going backwards, because the world keeps marching forward, and she wants to get ahead of it.

Emily doesn’t walk into a room. She explodes into it. Regional seismologists are often left scratching their heads, baffled. Her personality is infectious; there is so much going on. She spends every moment of her day immersed in fashion, is time poor in every sense, and like the rest of her generation, wants to do everything now.

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Emily’s laughter (more like a shriek) is unmistakably hers. In a darkened cinema, people have been known to yell out from the other side of the room,”Emily Nolan! you are here somewhere, that laugh has to be you!” Susie and I have been shopping, deep in the busy supermarket aisles, and have suddenly become aware that Emily is also in the building. “Listen, Em’s here … somewhere!”

Now that Emily is soon to turn 21, It seemed like the right time to revisit and tell the story of her beginnings.

Sometimes, on rare occasions, we have the opportunity to catch the future, and bring it back with us.

I would very much like to go back to the Neo Natal ward at the Royal Children’s hospital, and introduce Emily to the parents of other premature babies, so they can physically experience the before and after, and take comfort in knowing that everything really will be OK, and that they don’t have to wait and see. If they could witness what the future promises, it might ease their passage through what is a very traumatic period of their lives.

And maybe we could give these parents a new fluffy pink “Bobbie” as a reminder – to hold in waiting – just while their tiny babies catch up to their own futures.

Emily Nolan, 2014, (Picture courtesy of "Oscillate" by Zoe Blow).

Emily Nolan, 2014, (Picture courtesy of “Oscillate” by Zoe Blow).

Posted in children, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The morning.

Rosie at 5 months.

Rosie at 5 months.

I recently started walking our 8 month old black Labrador “Rosie” in the mornings before work. She enjoys it so much, and I now cannot deny her these special moments.

I’m not a morning person, let’s be upfront about that. The day usually only dawns for me through a fog of rapid-fire coffee jolts. Conversation before 8 am is not recommended. If you move to stand in front of me I will lethargically bump into you, bounce off weakly, and then keep bumping into you again until you move out-of-the-way.

Rosie is now nearly fully grown (the picture above was taken 3 months ago), and she wasn’t getting enough walk time, as it is currently the dead of winter in Melbourne, being pitch dark when the family gets home from work or school, and pre-dawn when we wake up in the mornings. And it is freezing cold, apparently our coldest June in living memory. There is too much going on when we get home At night with getting dinner prepared, so realistically the early morning option was the only fair alternative available. I wasn’t very optimistic about being able to drag myself out of bed 30 minutes earlier each day, but thought I’d give it a try.

Dogs can detect a routine a mile off, particularly if it is one they like. The Day 1 walk was a pleasant surprise, day 2 a sequence that might hopefully lead to a trend, and day 3 for Rosie was absolute confirmation that she would be walked at 6.30 every morning for the rest of her life. Dogs have very accurate watches. She appears outside the back door at 6.30am sharp with 2 promises firmly in hand; the first, in order of importance, is that food is imminent. The sound of her tin bowl scraping across the courtyard as she inhales breakfast and chases the bowl across the bricks must surely awaken the entire neighbourhood. Secondly, she has a rock solid belief that I will immediately reach for the leash and overcoat and follow her out the front door.

So try to picture a wildly exuberant pup doing backflips at the front gate whilst I’m trying to lasoo her with a lead, and then see me practically skiing down the street behind her, as she drags me toward the park at the bottom of our street. Once off the lead at the park, Rosie melts into the darkness. There is a jogger doing laps around the park perimeter a few mornings a week and I make sure I yell out that Rosie is on her way, so he can turn sideways and deflect the impending full hit to the stomach. Rosie launches and hurls her whole body at joggers and slow-moving old folk. If I see anyone at the park I try to put Rosie back on her leash, as she is still too young to realise that being a foolishly youthful and overly friendly Labrador doesn’t include ripping clothing and decking the elderly.

The dawn breaks while we walk a path through wetlands, and ducks skim across the water in the half-light, and unseen water life move about in reeds at the water’s edge. The  frost covers the park and our footprints mark our travels, with Rosie’s prints erratically crisscrossing mine, occasionally darting off to track a scent. It is quiet with human interaction but delightfully noisy with birdsong. These are things that I haven’t experienced, in relaxation, for very long time.

I walked our previous, eternally adored and sadly missed, black lab “Daisy” for 10 years during daylight evenings, and although totally different dogs, I am constantly reminded of their canine similarities; the way they stop and smell the flowers, zero in on scents and trails, hopelessly chase ducks and birds, and never moving more than 10 metres away from you, checking all the time to make sure you are ok. Each time I walk Rosie I see, remember, and reflect on some small part of Daisy. I like that.

Each morning as we walk back up the street toward the house it suddenly occurs to me that I am wide awake, refreshed, and ready for the day ahead. No coffee (yet). I have been exercised, entertained, and I have strengthened my friendship with our dog. I say that it suddenly occurs to me that I am awake because I make the startling realisation each day as if it is an original thought – such is the density of my mental morning fog.

I release Rosie from her leash once inside the front gate, and she ritually licks my hand and wags her tail to say thankyou. Once inside the house, Rosie races off the jump on beds and lick faces and I head directly to the kitchen to crank up the espresso machine.

It’s not until the third so-strong-you-can-stand-the-spoon-up-in-it cup of coffee at work that it dawns for me a second time each day. This is the moment that I realise that Rosie is doing far more for me, than I for her, during our new morning ritual.

And we enjoy it so much, we now cannot deny us these special moments.

 

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The blowfly mountain

"Aberfeldy" By Mark Nolan 1980

“Aberfeldy” By Mark Nolan 1980

My father drove my younger brother Barney and I to Aberfeldy, an old gold mining town in Victoria’s Gippsland ranges, 2.5 hours east Melbourne, back in 1980.  Dad had a part share in an inactive mining lease up in the hills there, which, at the time that gold was discovered back in the 1860’s, had a population numbering in the 1,000’s, and was thick with of gritty prospectors, living in tents and lean-to’s, frequenting dozens of pubs, and pinning their hopes and dreams on the unearthing of precious metal trapped in quartz deep beneath their feet. High up in the hills, this area was now riddled with old abandoned mine shafts and tunnels, cut deep into rock, following seams in search of the mother lode, and finally left as dark, silent reminders of a bygone era. Whilst the tunnels had been long boarded up, many of the deep vertical shafts had been left unsealed, covered now by dense scrub and bracken. Fumbling around up there in the hills after dark on your own was not a such good idea.

I was under pressure to produce an oil painting that weekend, to complete my year 12 art folio. We were staying in an old mining hut, perched at the end of a long and winding gravel road. It was a warm November day (30 celcius, 90 degrees) and whilst my father and brother went for a long walk, I set up my easel and canvas on that road and went to work on my folio piece. It was so quiet there, I was completely alone. Except for the blowflies. These agitated airborne missiles had mutated to the size of small birds, and were totally ambivalent to insect repellant. In fact, repellant just made them angry. I sat there in the brilliant sunshine, in a T-shirt, shorts, and thongs (flip-flops), painting and swatting. Three brush strokes, one swat. Incoming assailants, outgoing mortar fire. My air defence campaign became intrinsically woven into my brush stroke technique. Get some paint on the brush, dab it on the canvas a few times, then slap my face and arms to ward off the incoming attacks. It was like a war dance.

Despite the annoying blowflies, I still managed to lose myself in the moment and drift away. Painting does that to you. I thought about what it must have been like back when gold was discovered in the area, and how the prospectors must have lived. I thought about the hut and how it had weathered the years, with its rusted roof and awkward timber structure. My mind meandered through dozens of other subjects that seemed important to a 17-year-old.

I woke up from my drift when the painting was finished, feeling completely refreshed, sun-burnt, with sore arms, and with a discovery.

I had completed two paintings instead of one. The second one was a self-portrait.

There was nearly as much paint on me as there was on the canvas. And with the earthy colors I was painting with, I was practically camouflaged. I looked like something out of Rambo. My face was spattered, my shirt and shorts streaked, and my bare arms were crisscrossed with streaks of color.

I felt a bit silly at the time, if the truth be known, with all that paint on me – but what I was about to do next would plumb new depths of personal stupidity.

It was now late afternoon and my father and brother Barney emerged from a trek up the steep hills that rose up next to the hut. Once they saw through my camouflage and realized that I wasn’t a tree, they told me about the abandoned but uncovered mine shafts up there in the hills. I decided that once I’d cleaned the paint off, I would take a walk up the steep hill through the dense scrub and check it out for myself.

Dressed for the beach, late afternoon, on my own, no provisions, totally isolated terrain, and wandering off aimlessly into the hills.

Really clever.

I initially followed a path up the hill that was so steep that it was hard to keep your footing without sliding backwards in the gravel and leaves. My brother Barney was chopping wood next to the hut, and the sound carried up the hill through the bracken and echoed through the trees. I decided to make it to the top of the hill, which was a good 30 minute climb. I didn’t see any abandoned mine tunnels or shafts along the way. At the top of the hill I found what appeared to be a fire track, a winding road that ran long the mountain ridge. I decided to walk along this road for a while, but I was conscious that I needed to re-enter the scrub at the same place that I came out of it. I could still hear Barney chopping wood way down below in the valley. The walk along the windy ridge road was very pleasant but probably took a bit longer than expected. It was very late in the afternoon now, and I figured that it was time to return to the hut. The heat had gone out of the day and there was now a breeze freshening in the air. Retracing my steps along the fire track, I followed the sound of chopping wood. Yes, Barney was still chopping. It was not uncommon for him to cut him to cut wood relentlessly for hours. He was a very fit and strong young human being. I kept following the sound until it was suddenly behind me. I turned around, took several steps backward, and looked up in horror. The sound I was following was not Barney chopping wood, it was a large piece of stringy bark, hanging off a gum tree branch, tapping against the tree’s trunk. This was not good. I had walked along the winding mountain ridge for a few hundred metres using a false guide, and I now no longer recognized my original point of exit from the scrub. There was no other human settlement on this mountain range, and with the road being so windy, I knew that if I commenced my descent at the wrong point, I could be heading back down on the wrong side of the mountain. I walked up and back along the track trying to make sure of my bearings. The light was starting to fade. I figured I had roughly 20 minutes before nightfall, and the descent may take 20-30 minutes given how steep and dense the forest was. That was, of course, if I was on the correct side of the mountain.

I eventually had to make a decision. I settled on a point of re-entry that felt correct but really was only marginally better than a complete guess. The descent was steep and tough going, given the density of the bush vegetation. It was hard to keep my footing and I slipped a few times, falling backwards. After about 10 minutes I found myself on a small clearing with a shallow dug out pit with side walls about 3 feet high. Dusk was maturing to darkness. I was seriously worried by this point because I had not seen this clearing on my way up the hill. I noted that the wall of this pit would provide some degree of shelter should I need it. I decided to press on for another 5 minutes and then, if I was not confident I was heading in the right direction, I would retreat back to this clearing and stay put for the night, and then return back to the top of the hill to the ridge road in the morning and stay there until someone found me.

The final 5 minute descent did not bring any joy. I was now calling out, trying to get some validation that I was going the right way, but my calls went unanswered. The temperature was dropping at a rate commensurate with my self-confidence. With a cloudless sky, the temperature was likely to get as low as 2-3 Celsius (32-33 degrees overnight), and I was dressed for the beach. If I was to spend the night up in the hills, I would survive, but it wasn’t going to be a lot of fun, and it would be worse for my father and brother, left to wonder if I had fallen down a mine shaft.

I had no choice but to retreat back to the pit for shelter. It would offer at least limited protection from the wind. This was not looking good at all. I started the slow ascent back up the steep incline through the bracken to make it back to the clearing before total darkness finally fell. I kept calling out, in hope that someone would respond. There was no moon that night in the hills of Aberfeldy, and it was now cold, and getting colder. I prepared myself for a long and difficult night on my own.

Then I heard my father’s call.

It was very distant, and with it came an overwhelming sense of relief. I was on the correct side of the mountain. I called back and established a connection.

It took another 15 minutes to reunite. I saw a torchlight occasionally bouncing off the tops of tree trunks, but the scrub was so dense the light did not find its way through to me directly. We kept calling so dad could track me. It took a long time for him to navigate his way through the last 20 metres (60 feet) because the undergrowth was so thick, and because dad was physically exhausted. He had grabbed a torch taken off up that steep hill in a mad panic to find me, and, for him, it was the second climb for that day.

We took our time carefully making our way back down to the hut, using the torchlight to guide our footings and to find branches to hang onto.

Poor old Barney was very pleased to see us when we got back to the hut. We ate dinner in front of the best open fire I have even seen. I described to Dad and Barney the pit that I was going back toward, to shelter for the night. They knew about this clearing, because they had seen it during their climb that day. There was an unblocked vertical mine shaft at that site. I hadn’t spotted it as I went past on the way down, but in the near total darkness, on the way back, it may have found me.

I slept that night, fully clothed in a sleeping bag covered in blankets, and I was still cold, but I didn’t care. I have never been so grateful to be a little bit cold.

My painting of the old rusty roofed hut on the winding gravel road sits on a wall at my parent’s place, and whenever I visit them I look at that painting and return vividly to the events of that weekend. I remember the blowflies and waking up with paint all over myself, and I remember what it felt like to be briefly lost in the dark up in the hills of Aberfeldy. I remember how relieved I was to be warm with food, fire, and family, and that dad had exhausted himself, racing up that hill, to find me.

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The yarn.

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My clever mother spun me a yarn when I was 14 that, apart from scaring the living wits out of me, thankfully also gave me the incentive to give up smoking.

There was a short but opportune window in time that was too good for her to ignore. It’s all timing, isn’t it? I revived this story with her on Mother’s Day recently, and curiously, she now has no recollection of having said anything at all on the subject, and has satisfied herself that I might have simply manufactured the story in its entirety. There is a very slight mischievous sparkle in her eyes when she feigns ignorance.

I started smoking a year earlier at 13, and, I have to say, we smoked a lot for such young folk. I use the collective “we”, as everyone I knew smoked as well. It wasn’t too long before my parents found out. They both smoked a lot at that time too. They were cool parents, but did not want to see their kids following in their footsteps, particularly since the data was now clear on the harm that smoking caused. But the “do as we say, not as we do” routine just wasn’t cutting it, and fell largely on deaf ears.

I had just started summer break after my last year of junior secondary school and in the following February I was to elevate to the senior campus for my last 4 years. Despite all being a part of the same school, the senior campus was this enormous awe-inspiring place sitting up on a massive hill kilometers away, and it was like a whole new world. I didn’t really know much about this new place, and my mother was fully aware of this. It was too good an opportunity for her to pass up. She could tell me anything and I would not be able to check its validity. She could have said that The Beatles had reformed and were playing in the senior school hall, and I would have believed her. And that Martians had landed on the main oval and were hiding themselves in the maintenance shed, and plucking out stray students and beaming them back to Mars for research.

Anyway, my mother waited for me to come home from school one afternoon. “Have you heard the big news about the senior school?” she quizzed, as I flew past her in the kitchen and beyond into the hallway, hurling my schoolbag purposely toward the stairwell but missing and grazing the delightful mustard colored velvet “flocked” wallpaper that covered every square inch of our household. I honestly don’t know what decorators were all thinking back in the 70’s. I shrugged off my school jacket and hoisted it toward the the newel post at the foot of the staircase bannister. It missed, but I wasn’t going back for it – I had more important things on my mind. My stomach. Mum waited patiently back in the kitchen. She knew I’d heard her, and that I would be coming back, because that’s where the fridge was.

No, I hadn’t heard the big news from the senior school…

“They’re weeding out the smokers from year 9!” she announced firmly as I re-appeared and levered the fridge door open to start grazing. I figured I would start with a bowl of Weeties (purchased in a bulk single 20 kilo box that was lowered and stored in a cupboard via the roof by crane), followed by ice-cream with chocolate topping, and then maybe a milkshake if my younger brother Barney hadn’t already drunk all the milk. He was the “milk bandit”. We were able to “unmask” him through fine-tuned statistical consumption analysis based on milk volume accumulated when he was not there. Our household consumed 4 litres a day, but If Barney was away for the weekend we would have to start freezing it or giving it to our neighbors. If you wanted a milkshake, you had to make it before Barney got home.

I considered what mum had said about the smokers. “Weeding them out? Really?” I replied, “I haven’t heard anything about weeding out smokers!”

My head was head deep in the fridge, starting to take on an antarctic glow, with hands rifling through the shelves, checking behind the 4 litre Riesling wine cask that lived in one corner, and excavating through to the known hiding spots, hoping to find something that may have magically appeared since the last time I checked. The items toward the back of the top shelf had been disturbed since my previous foray, so I knew then that my secret stash had been scavenged and polished off. I had a rock solid list of known suspects.

“They’ve decided that anyone who smokes in senior school will be well and truly booted out by year 10…the trouble-makers and the smokers … all gone!” There was a brief theatrical moment, where she mimicked a puff of smoke escaping from a magician’s hand. “What do you think about that?”

I closed the fridge door and asked if Barney was going to be home anytime soon. There was still a few litres of milk left and I wanted to get in early. If he was getting home soon, I might have to work in a milkshake before the Weeties. I stopped and looked at my mother. I could see that she was actually serious about the booting out thing. “No! … Are you serious?” I asked.

“Yes I’m bloody serious!” she warned, “The headmaster briefed parents at a school meeting a few days ago. This is real. They know all the hideouts, they know where to look. They will be doing locker checks and they are going to come down on all smokers like a tonne of bricks. They are treating smokers the same as chronic waggers, thieves, vandals, and violent bullies, and If you’re still smoking when you start there next year, you will be expelled by the end of year 10.”

It did sound serious.

I was about to say something but my elder brother Red suddenly appeared in the kitchen, also wanting to know if Barney was home yet, and he then jostled me out-of-the-way so he could stick his head in the fridge. From there the conversation shifted to what we were going to have for dinner. We knew it was going to be something good, and dinner was a far more important subject than that of expulsion from school.

After that smoking topic did not ever surface again, but my mother’s stern words stayed with me, as they often did.

We were about to spend 7 weeks over summer down at Sorrento, a popular coastal town on the Mornington Peninsula (90 minutes from Melbourne), and everyone I knew was looking forward to smoking themselves senseless on the beach for their whole vacation.

So I set myself a challenge. If I could resist the temptation and peer group pressure for 7 weeks, when everyone else was puffing around me, then I knew I would never smoke again. Rather than removing myself from situations where I would be tempted, I figured it would be far better to confront it head on.

It worked.

I can vividly remember sitting in the middle of our large teenage group on the front beach at Portsea that summer, clad in “Golden Breed” T-shirts, with ridiculously long board shorts, and shedding our second layer of summer sun-burned skin. We were almost totally invisible from the outside world because of the constant Marlboro/Winfield curtain of cancer that enveloped us. I remember thinking that there could be no bigger test of my intestinal fortitude. In terms of passive smoking – sitting there amongst the group day after day – I may as well have had a carton myself.

Many of those friends from back then, upon reflection, now wish that they had joined in on the challenge. Although some have successfully given up smoking in recent years, many are still madly puffing away. Some have questioned me on my motivation in giving up smoking at that particular moment in time, and more importantly, before I was seriously hooked. My answer to that question has always been simple.

“My clever mother spun me a yarn.”

 

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The comfort sponge

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The freshly whipped cream, with a hint of vanilla, oozed just slightly out of one side of the cake before my mother, Jill, swiftly troweled it flush, and then applied the broad knife to the sponge’s multi layered sides to correct it’s towering lean. All it needed now was a single candle on top. After all dad was 82, and he neither had the lung capacity, nor the inclination to tackle too many candles, and in the absence of roman numeral shaped sparklers, we were going to have to abbreviate his age into a far more manageable quantity. So 1 candle was just fine. There is something magnetic about a lone lit candle standing proudly in the centre of a deliciously sweet glaze of passion-fruit icing. A miniature plume of smoke was still rising from the extinguished waxen monument when the grandchildren jostled for “front of the line” serving honors. They all knew what was coming. Nothing in our solar system tasted as good as grandma’s sponge cake. And they reappeared, applying heat for seconds, before the grownups could even be served their first slice.

It is no secret that all mums make good sponge cakes, but there must be a secret to my mum’s sponges, because no-one I have ever met has been able to produce anything that tastes as good. Mum is a bit younger than dad (a lot younger by her own reckoning), and we tell her that she shouldn’t continue to go to all the trouble of baking cakes and preparing feasts for us, and that we can go out for dinner instead or help with the preparation, but to be selfishly truthful, I just don’t want her culinary triumphs to end!

So what is it that makes our mum’s or grandma’s food taste so good? What is the miracle ingredient?

It’s the comfort that they add to it.

You will not find this ingredient in any recipe book, and it is not something you will spot on a supermarket shelf. Fittingly, it is only made available to all loving and caring mum’s and grandma’s, who surreptitiously add it to mixing bowls in oven-warmed (and often outdated) kitchens around the world every day. Whether it is baked, roasted, fried, or sautéed, they stealthily add comfort in liberal measures to everything they create, whilst all grateful beneficiaries invariably emit unashamed food noises like “Oooh!” and “Mmmm!” and rub their bellies with delight, and talk about it for a long time after, just like I am doing now.

Having said all that, I still think that mum’s sponges are the best in the world. At our large family events, wizened relatives walk in the door and the first thing they say before they undertake a search is “We’ve heard that Jill has baked a sponge! Quick, let me see it!” One of my aunts once informed me, at such a gathering, that she was prepared to fight me for the last slice of an all but demolished sponge cake that was resting, exhausted and nervous, on a nearby dessert table. “That’s mine,” she announced, “I saw it first!” Of course I informed my aunt that I had been to the table earlier, when she wasn’t looking, and had already laid claim to that slice, but she wasn’t having any of it. “I’ve been standing here since you walked in,” she countered, “And you haven’t been anywhere near that table. The best I can do is go halves with you. That’s my final offer!” It was a big slice and a fair deal, but secretly I still selfishly wanted all of it. Mum’s sponges can do that to you. I considered a diversionary tactic or a distraction, but my aunt was way too sharp for that. She quickly seized a knife and cut the piece of cake in two. We both stood there, “Oooing” and “Mmming” and rolling our eyes and grinning as we ate. Comfort is achieved far more powerfully in allied numbers.

Not entirely on topic, but worth mentioning, is that my mother Jill has also been known to commission a sponge for the purpose of entertainment. When she was working as a mothercraft nurse back in the 80’s, she produced a fabulous birthday sponge cake for one of her nursing friends at the Royal Women’s hospital in Melbourne. All the staff gathered to watch as the birthday girl inserted a large knife into the cake, only to find it impenetrable. The knife kept bouncing back at her, time and time again. It became quite an awkward moment. Jill appeared all the while to be both dumbfounded and profoundly offended, but had, in preparing the cake, devilishly substituted the baked sponge sections with the foam rubber padding found in a round stool seat. Once the laughter subsided, I’m sure they would have all leaned forward and picked away at the icing just the same, and perhaps poked a finger or two into the whipped cream sandwiched between the perfectly cut rubber foam layers. No point in letting the edible bits go to waste.

Now that we have correctly isolated Comfort as being the key mystery ingredient for successful cooking, let us debunk a myth or two, starting with “The great chocolate addiction” myth. Scientists will insist that addiction to chocolate is due to the ingredient cocoa stimulating the secretion of endorphins in the brain, triggering off a heightened sense of “well-being”. Well, I can tell you that this feeling of euphoria is more likely due to chocolate being produced by a bunch of certified bona-fide mum’s and grandma’s, secretly co-opted by the chocolate giants (under the cover of darkness), to add their comfort touch – along with full cream dairy milk – to each production batch! Another myth is that “School tuck-shops don’t sell healthy food”. School tuck-shops the world over are manned by school mothers, who, by merely being there and presiding over the food, are able to make it taste better and can magically extract any additive and calorie nasties that may have attached themselves along the way. A sandwich prepared by yourself at home does not taste nearly as good as the same one handed to you by a tuck-shop mother, because it is served with a warm smile and kind regards to be passed on to your family, and a tongue-in-cheek inquiry as to where you think her offspring might be lurking, in order to avoid the embarrassment of being seen with her.

Some readers may assert that this post is no more than a cunning plan to encourage my mother to continue making sponge cakes. And Anzac cookies. And roasts with Yorkshire pudding, and crumbed cutlets with mashed potato and peas, salmon patties, coleslaw, and sausage rolls.

Okay. I might be “bustable” on that assertion. So charge me with “seeking comfort by improper means”.

Mum’s sponges can do that to you.

Mum's Anzac cookies, not quite as good as grandma's were, but pretty damned good all the same. We are splitting hairs there. Gone in seconds.

Mum’s Anzac cookies, not quite as good as grandma’s were, but pretty damned good all the same. We are splitting hairs there. Gone in seconds.

 

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