Reflections on Remembering Loved Ones From Near and Afar

Warren and Tracey Dunston.

I had to hold back the tears upon hearing the news of the death of legendary Australian journalist Peter Harvey who died on the weekend. I remember first hearing his beautiful booming voice as a child when I watched the six o’clock news with my nan and pop during summer holidays in Sydney in the Seventies. It was those evenings in front of their old black and white television that inspired my admiration for great journalism and fascination with politics.

Peter Harvey died of pancreatic cancer, just as my own dad, Warren, did eleven years ago. Dad died six months short of his 59th birthday and six months after my husband Terence and I took he and mum on a holiday to Asia before his chemo began. Six months before that they’d been told the devastating news that nobody wants to hear, that he had six months to live – a “death sentence” dad called it.

Terence and I were on a winter holiday in Italy when mum and dad got the news and were about to leave our hotel in Cortina d’Ampezzo when the receptionist gave us the message to phone home. As it was already late in Australia and we had a long drive ahead, I decided to call from our next destination. After getting stranded overnight in a snowstorm, it was a couple of days before I was able to phone. All the time I knew something terribly wrong and in a way I was thankful that the horrendous weather kept me in the dark a couple of days longer.

It was in Verona that I was finally able to call my parents from a public phone on the main square. I remember mum and dad taking turns to explain the situation to me, handing the phone to the other when one would break down in tears. They loved each other desperately and it tore me apart that they might soon be torn apart. I wept openly there on Piazza Bra. As clichéd as it sounds, my world stopped and nothing else mattered. I loved mum and dad equally, but I had that special bond with dad that daughters often do – my little sister did also – and I was heartbroken to learn we might soon lose him. At 58 years of age dad was too young to die. He still had so much living to do. I don’t think he’d done half the things he dreamt of doing.

Soon after arriving back home in Abu Dhabi I was on a plane back to my hometown Sydney. That flight, as well as a few more I would do alone that year, would be excruciatingly long and painful journeys, me drowning my sorrows in glasses of Australian wine, listening to nostalgic old songs on Emirates radio so I wouldn’t have to speak to other passengers, tears trickling down my cheeks most of the time. When I saw dad, however, I held back from blubbering as much as I could. And for the most part I succeeded until the very last trip.

Dad had always been a tough bloke. Brought up on a dairy farm near Singleton in the Hunter Valley, he was hardworking, strong and brave – sometimes a little too much for his own good. In his youth his bravado and confidence would get him into trouble, but it served him well during this difficult time. He was what we call an Aussie battler, through and through, and he was determined to win his biggest battle yet. For the most part dad remained positive and confident that he would ultimately beat “the big C” as he named it – even after his surgeon opened him up to attempt the Whipple procedure, only to abandon the plan after seeing how far the cancer had spread.

That was a turning point in dad’s fight and mum’s state I mind that I thought might kill them both. Yet after the initial disappointment it seemed to motivate dad more to fight and mum to explore other avenues. He went on an extreme vitamin kick, taking dozens of pills each day, stuck to a healthy diet, and cut down on his drink – he’d given up the cigarettes months earlier. Later, dad would be very proud of the fact that he out-lived his doctor’s six-month “death sentence”. For a while there he looked better and healthier than he had looked in years – he was trim, he had colour, and his face regained some of the boyishness you see above. For a while there it was hard to believe that he was dying.

It wasn’t until close to the end that he started to look gaunt and pale and weary, when he was continually tired and often in pain, ill from the chemo, and exhausted from the long battle. The mask began to slip away and there were signs that dad no longer had the strength to continue the fight. It was then that he began to eat the treats that mum would buy him – all his favourite (unhealthy) foods – that he’d occasionally have a puff of a cigarette, and he started drinking enthusiastically again. Dad knew he didn’t have long and wanted to enjoy it while he could.

Dad never came to terms with his impending death as I’ve read so many people do. He clung onto life as hard as he could until the end. He didn’t want to stop living but equally he didn’t want to leave us – mum especially, the great love of his life. He and mum often said to me during that period as we sat by his hospital bed, them holding hands and recounting stories of how they met on the train to Bondi and the life they had led since, that they were the closest they had ever been in their 36 years of marriage and more in love than ever. Tragically, “the big C” does that to people.

On my last trip back to Australia, dad told me that he couldn’t stop worrying about mum and how scared he was of leaving her on her own. He was worried about how she’d look after herself and asked that I promise that my sister and I would look after her. The fear and sorrow were more evident in his eyes than they’d been before, and would be again a few days later when I’d have to hug him for the final time – hug him hard, again and again and again – knowing it was the last time I’d see him. It broke both our hearts.

But before then we got to spend some special times together. A year before the news that would change our lives, I’d brought mum and dad to Abu Dhabi to stay with Terence and I for a while, and they’d had a blast. We took them on weekends away to Dubai and Al Ain and on road trips around the country. We took them shopping in the souqs, to fancy restaurants, and to watch the sunset from waterfront bars. We cooked at home and we had friends over, and when Terence and I were at work they’d hang out by the pool and work on their tans, and do the chores I asked them to do, like dropping off my laundry or picking something up from the supermarket – all excuses just to get them out and about and explore our neighbourhood.

Although dad didn’t really need excuses. He was the quintessentially gregarious Aussie guy who would have long conversations with strangers in the street, and make fast friends with everyone he met. I would come home from work and find dad elbow deep in soapy water doing our dishes (despite the fact we had a dishwasher) and mum putting on make-up in preparation for the evening’s outing. As I poured us gin and tonics, dad would recount stories about his conversations with our Pakistani doormen, the Lebanese baker, our Syrian laundry guy, and the Indian bloke who packed our shopping bags at the supermarket downstairs. In a month dad had learned more about the people in our neighbourhood than I had in a few years. After my parents’ return to Australia, they would all ask after dad when I saw them, and, much later, would be saddened by his death. Dad had that effect on people.

My father had a tremendous lust for life. He never did anything by halves. But his love of life was most evident when he travelled. He was in his element on the road, especially driving long distances, and had driven vehicles his whole life – from those semi-trailers that seem to go on forever that we call ‘road trains’ in Australia to those massive pieces of earthmoving equipment that look like they belong to giants. But most of all dad loved sitting at the wheel of a big 4WD with a caravan on behind, driving across vast empty landscapes. Dad was proud of the fact that he and mum had been almost everywhere in Australia, a country he adored. They had been around the thing twice, the first time for five years in a caravan when my little sister and I were kids. That they had ‘done’ Australia would be one of his biggest achievements. And rightly so.

Dad’s dying wish? Naturally, it was one last trip. He wanted to come and stay with us again in the UAE – or even go to Europe. I was ready to play fairy godmother and wave my magic wand, but the doctors wouldn’t let him travel so far away. Insurance was an issue. Dad had always wanted to go to Asia, to Thailand and Vietnam mainly, but his doctors were worried about him there too. They recommended Singapore instead and dad and mum managed to persuade them to also let him go to neighbouring Malaysia.

It was a special trip. I remember Terence and I meeting them at Changi airport with balloons and seeing their eyes light up when they spotted us. They were as excited as little kids. As soon as we dumped their bags at the hotel, we were out on the street, sipping ice-cold beers from cans in the sultry evening heat at a no-frills eatery in Chinatown, the owners of the joint slurping soup at the next table, and rats scurrying about the place. Dad and mum just loved it. He had a blast that trip. We all did.

One of my greatest memories is tucking into fiery chilli crabs, cracking open the shells, the spicy red sauce dripping down our hands and arms. I don’t think any of us enjoyed a meal as much as that one – dad most of all. But it was bittersweet seeing him still get so excited about travelling, and experiencing new places and meeting new people, even when he was ill and tiring easily. It was bittersweet because we knew deep down that this would probably be his last travelling adventure.

Terence and I returned to Abu Dhabi and back to work, but I would fly back to Australia once more before dad died. We had agreed that they would call me when dad wanted to see me again and I would go home. Eight weeks later I was on a plane again. It’s hard for me to write about that last trip. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to see someone you love and have to say goodbye and know that it will be the last time you ever see him. Even now, eleven years later, it hasn’t got easier. Shamefully, I still haven’t been to visit dad’s grave – at a cemetery overlooking the ocean in a beautiful part of Australia that he adored. I only went back to Sydney last year for the first time since dad’s death, but still I couldn’t bring myself to visit him, and made excuses that I was too busy. Of course I was, but still…

But I’m dreadful at dealing with death and always have been. I can’t control my emotions and I find it hard to play the pillar of strength. Before Mick, one of dad’s oldest and closest mates, died late last year of cancer (his second battle; he won an earlier one many years ago), I had desperately wanted to see him. Despite the fact that knowing he had “the big C” brought back all the pain and that horrible sense of helplessness I had when we were losing dad. When Mick died I was overseas, having just recently left Australia. Somehow I felt he would beat it. Not having seen him will go down as one of those awful regrets of my life.

Here in Vietnam, where we’ve been for the last four months, barely a day goes by without me thinking about dad. I also think of Mick, and my grandparents, and a dear uncle who died tragically too young, and my best friend’s father who also died of “the big C” a couple of years ago and was like a second dad to me. Because here in Vietnam, as we stroll the streets, the dead smile out at us from every home, from black and white portraits, framed in gold or antique wooden frames. Their images are placed with pride on peeling walls and on elaborately decorated shrines, furnished with flowers, fruit, fake paper money, and all sorts of other offerings, from whisky and wine bottles to packets of cigarettes. Incense sticks are nearly always burning, calling my attention to their presence as I amble by.

The atmospheric old town of Hoi An, where we are currently based, is crammed with ancient houses with dimly lit interiors with wooden pillars and central courtyards, and these shrines to the ancestors dominate a whole room, even a floor. Late at night, when the streets are dark and deserted – the time when Terence and I can often be found wandering back to the hotel after dinner and games of pool – the houses are all closed up, with no signs of life, other than a room upstairs with pulsing lights or candles illuminating a shrine dedicated to long-gone loved ones.

And this is really what these rambled reflections are all about, the motivation to jot down my thoughts about things I’ve held back for a long time being Peter Harvey’s death. Essentially, I envy the Vietnamese their ancestor worship. They seem to show their love, respect and devotion to their loved ones with such regularity and such ease. It doesn’t seem to pain them in the same ways it does me. I’ve carried around the photo above, along with a few other photos I treasure, in an old plastic passport holder in my handbag. I’ve carried them since we’ve been on the road these last seven years – they’re the only family photos I have, the rest being in storage in Dubai and Sydney – and yet I struggle to look at them without feeling a terrible sense of loss and heartache and getting all teary.

My best friend Lynley is like the Vietnamese. We stayed with her and her husband Steve in Sydney last year and portraits of Mac and his shining black eyes smiled down at us from the pastel walls and the mantelpiece. What’s their secret, I wonder? Lynley’s and the Vietnamese? Or, I could ask, what’s my problem? Does always being away have anything to do with it? Does distance – geographic and temporal – make it harder to grieve and harder to remember?

This post today on this poor neglected blog of mine (yes, I’m busy) is partly an attempt to be more like the Vietnamese, seeing it’s impossible for me to cart a shrine around. Thank you Peter Harvey, for being such a fine storyteller, such a great journalist, and from all accounts, a very good man. Thank you for motivating me to get that picture out and place it here today.

Rest In Peace
Warren Dunston 2/1/2002
Mick Tislovich 22/11/2012
‘Mac’ (aka my second dad) 8/8/2010
Peter Harvey 2/2/2013