A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s
R e v i e w

Bird Song Thunder & A Few Drops of Rain

merv lilley writing personally

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Thursday, another day. I get here before 11 slightly, usual. Dorothy asks me am I really here is it me because she says she's dreaming and I'm in the dream, I say it is me, I'm here in actuality. She wants to see Dr Christmas. I say his name is Noel, as in the Last Noel. Dr Noel is in the passageway with the tall thin Canadian Dr we don't seem to know his name, but he is a smiling doctor and liked, sort of everyman type of Doctor. He wears a leather belt with something on it, it goes through loops in the pants, and he's a shirtsleeves sort of angular Doctor with sandy hair and he is Noel's offsider. Dorothy is watching them to see they don't escape without talking to her. Now and then she calls out Doctor Christmas! He is short, thick set, older, head of once black curly hair and he has a beard, it became that he was always referred to by our mob as Father Christmas, and that's what Dorothy calls out in her half dream delirium, I constantly correct her. I'm not quick on names but Noel has at last sunk in, if we haven't seen each other for a while we shake. I ask Dorothy what she is going to ask him, she says, "What happens next" is the question he must answer and she constantly tells me to watch them to see they don't escape, and to go out into the passage way and speak to them. She gives these orders urgently. I go out and close in on them. They are talking to the nursing staff as they come from room to room, and stuff has to be written down, they politely look at me, indicating that I may speak, I say Dorothy wants to see you gentlemen to ask you a very pertinent question. They (Noel) indicate that they are listening somewhat cautiously, I say she wants to ask you what happens next. Smiles, nods, smiles deepen between us into big grins, I go back to report to Dorothy who is watching wide eyed story anxiety seeing we all of us don't escape with the question unanswered. I say they are coming as soon as they've done what they have to do now about the last room they've been in. Eventually after more Father Christmas corrected to Noel calls, they ooze into this room, 28. I need a cup of tea or hot water to finish this scene. My leg is numbing from this chair. Get up. Go. Come back bearing coffee. They are looking after a writer looking after himself very well. I will go down and see if I have been looked for being in a ten minute area three and a half hours. I will tell you what Father Christmas said to Dorothy etc soon.

I was not booked. I ease Volvo into a bit of the disabled square where a VW caravelle takes up most of it. Dorothy's question being asked, Dr Noel says, the answer is a few things. On Monday we'll look at whether we'll move you again into rehabilitation, then from there to Springwood, then from there to a nursing home if one can be found. We will look at all this on Monday. You are looking much better today. If you continue to improve, that can continue to happen. You have to eat more. Build up strength for it. We discuss food. That is where it rests.

There was blood everywhere from in her yesterday. I stopped the nose bleed by twirling a tissue up and running ice water tissue up her nose many times something a nurse would never have done. You invent things that's not in any book - only a bushman would do. The mouth bleeding, suck ice. They were swabbing her mouth but I don't know what with other than collecting the blood, perhaps putting saline on the swabs. A bad day. The discussion today also touched on getting her off morphine type drugs. It's the fight to get her head working clear again. It's close to 3, another 7 or 8 hours for me to go before I can go back to Faulconbridge where I fall into sleep until I get into Volvo and head back here. I left an irate message on Katie's machine this morning. I might as well in fact would be better if I hadn't. This is good writing time in here once Dorothy is asleep. It's all go, one way or another.

Have a go at that coffee. Half cold. It's good hot, it's good very cold, but this? Nah. The right hand side leg starts to say the blood's not circulating again. I'm too heavy. There's no exercise machines in my vocabulary though they look OK on the TV in the early hours of the after midnight TV I wake and see occasionally, alone, it's an alone world. I'm the only one in the family that lives it and I would say that Dorothy is living it, no matter how much I rearrange pillows, lift her, tilt her this way or that, she is alone with cancer, she knows that few come out of here and above drugs etc the fight for the mind.
She wants cold water sprinkled over her. I get ice. Mash bananas. She eats one spoon of it. More ice water.

4pm. This seems to be the easy part of the day. It's been through heat, this country down under the mountains is the last of Sydney West, full of banked up smog. I wonder if there should be a hospital here. It doesn't worry me as I sit here making marks on paper, I'd carry a typewriter except for the noise they make, a very good thing to have in the centre of Australia - I must try it out one day soon, I've watched that county on TV which is not being in it, heat ants, flies, its for those that want to be tough. I've passed it by, many a time, to come back to coastal towns, Townsville, Mackay, Yeppoon, I don't know about following any of these tracks again, they're no longer romantic, I don't know what they are.

Dorothy is now convinced that the conference with the Doctors happened yesterday. She says that today she has been on an Ocean Liner and she couldn't find me there until I appeared at the foot of the bed.

3.30am Saturday Aug some date
so many words to say
It's awful to smell death
bent above the body
of the woman you have lived
as part of the world of words
for going on towards
half a century out of reach
the smell tells me
more than all the onlookers
can ever smell or see
lurking in the back of the mind
of the word crazed Merv Lilley
worn out pens laying around
is it that I think through ink
grudgingly flowing from the nib
of the unarticulated stick in fingers
rather than indifference from
the keyboard
to the smell of death below my nose
as I work to help her breathe.


Springwood 14.08.02

We are back. We leave Nepean hospital 10.30. D is in the passageway in her bed when I get there, they are saying goodbye to us, to her in particular when I arrive. I have to think of something to say. I tell the assembled nurses standing on both sides of their counter as a mark of respect for the person they know she is.

My on the spot story, they are watching me as you might watch a snake that has glided in, I start talking about being attacked by a driver. I think I might be in for a fight. He drives into the back of me, gives my Volvo a good bump. I have been trying to park. He yells a few words I don't know the meaning of, its not my English, I shift enough to let him pass then pull over behind him. He parks in an empty area that is illegal. I had been booked for parking there a while back. He drives another Valiant into that spot. He starts to get out of the car. I think this might be it. I know he is hot. [am speaking to them slowly dead pan. They are hooked waiting] When he's right out of the car I see a man with one leg. [they burst into high laughter. I wait for it to go down they are watching me being deadpan what did he do what will he say next] say ' I only had to kick his pins from under him.

I leave it at that, there would not have been a chance for me to go on. I am still deadpan. They are laughing another way. They are not quite sure what they are looking at now except a storyteller they've seen writing and caring for Dorothy, helping them lift her about, doing it himself mostly. One nurse speaks for them, smiling, appreciative 'goodbye Mr Lilley, goodbye. Mr Lilley stays deadpan, drifts away after the bed, the ambulance men, Dorothy who has said she is being sent back to Springwood to die. The Oncologists have been defeated in their best attempts to get her well enough to write her second autobiography. I'll do the best I can while I can.


About the man with one leg. The other leg was bandaged up from end to end. It doesn't look as if it's all there. He goes past me on crutches assisted by his wife, I take it, following him. He emits some sort of foreign curse on me, spits at me. I reply with two words spaced out that's all. I've wondered if he understood them. The truth is not the best story, stage wise.

I have been recording the feelings of the Elvis Presley dilemma the sadness sorrow the depression the Heartbreak Hotel the last intelligible unintelligible sounds of dying from a super gifted childlike creature who has for a while inhabited human space in a sense describing herself in a poem to her youngest child

When first she came we were afraid
for moving she displaced the air
as if some small and glittering shade
had from the fields of heaven strayed
and nestling in her hair
upon the dull earth gravely played

And I might add for her, my partner, a few words about her lifelong use of words. A unique lifelong melody of unrepeatable intricacy sentence by sentence, and I write in the faint hope of catching from a wind from the wheat floating by while I have paper and pen in my hand and can write swiftly well enough to transfer the scent and sound to paper, from borrowed exquisite language thoughts and words from her for the earth she knew to be abundant where it wasn't dying from salt and therefore mans rapaciousness.

Days have passed, a week perhaps, I have been through exhaustion, dislocation, wondering where I am coming from. I have taken up night time residence in Springwood hospital, where she lies in state as it were, tonight, Wednesday, I have brought in the music now playing Leonard Cohen, a firm favourite of hers. He is saying
Everybody knows the dice are loaded,
Everybody knows the boat is leaking. Everybody knows even John Howard and his crew, they are trying to plug it up but there's hundreds of holes, thousands of tons of wheat pouring all over them, everybody knows by the feel of their pockets and that's a very strong leak in the boat for wheat to pour through, and wheat means money and votes.

Cole Porter gets a kick out of you. Our Johnny has a kick or two on his way to purgatory or wherever dishonest callous little cowards get to hang out when the boat sinks under the weight of wool and wheat unless it pours into the bins of the third world, with an endless want for what this gasping for water continent waits for. A continent being asked for more than it can give and live to tell about it, much more than it can promise the future, to respond plentifully to industrialisation in whatever field it is asked for handouts.

She lies there wordless almost, this woman from the wheatbelts of W.A. and she knows how the country she grew in and loved all her life has been destroyed by overproduction, and her father knew it and I look forward to giving you yet another picture of her family journey in and out of the wheat. I promise you a slight view of that history taken by her mother's box camera era.
I think that anything else I might record in what remains of her future days will only add to the agony of it.

The doctors come and go and know they are beaten by the inevitable. They try to find slight alleviations from day to day, but man's longings to bring some health back to someone who has so much perhaps to still give has in fact given their all as inspiration for those with the gifts bestowed genetically to make their run, wherever it takes them to fixing up the small leaks to give the boat life to stay afloat.

It's time to call in the typist, the sub editor, the agent, to release me from this particular track, the heartbreak to be faced, which must be the great force that spins the world around. Bye now: me.

Merv Lilley is writing a memoir of his forty years with Dorothy Hewett.  His most recent book is The Channels, published by Vulgar Press in 2002.  Earlier books include Gatton Man and Git Away Back!  Merv lives in the Blue Mountains.

In Australian Humanities Review, see also