By SARAH GRANT
For the best part of the last decade, I have spent Australia Day in the same way that many 20 and 30 somethings do – having a barbie with friends at the beach or park, drinking too much, chasing the next party. It’s always been a fun day, albeit more of an excuse to stretch the hedonistic Sydney summer vibe to its full capacity than a celebration of patriotic pride.
Last Australia Day, I went to a house party in Bondi – the kind of affair that gets shut down by the police before 10pm, hordes of boozy blokes and girls clad in cut off denim spilling into the street, itching to take the party onwards and upwards. To be honest, the memory feels distant, like it belongs to a file in my mind archived long ago.
This year, Australia Day was poignant to me for reasons completely unrelated to being born in this country, or celebrating the fact. Sure, I drank a beer, I listened to the Hottest 100, I had a swim at the beach – I even chased a sizeable skink out of my bedroom. (That’s pretty bloody Australian by anyone’s standards). I wasn’t in Sydney, I was in the bush, at my Dad’s property on the outskirts of Margaret River, W.A, where I have spent the best part of three months.
Dad has advanced Parkinson’s disease and sometime midway through 2012, my sister and I made the call – we’d pack up our lives (for me that meant putting work on hold, for her it meant also relocating her husband and one year old son) to spend time with Dad.
To experience a continual stretch of time with him before his disappearing speech is lost forever, before his largely impaired mobility gives way altogether, restricting him to a wheelchair bound existence. Australia Day was my last day with him, an occasion that happened to fall on the date we raise our beers to collectively cheer our country. I toasted to my time with Dad instead.
It’s been a time of soul souring highs and heart aching lows, challenge and triumph, expression and introspection, acceptance and wonder. In some respects, I feel like I’ve learned more in the past three months than I have in the past three years. I’ve learned that life is fragile and precious, but it is to be consumed, inhaled and never taken for granted.
Two months into our WA sojourn, my brother in law’s mum, a very special lady named Gill, died suddenly following a massive stroke. The sad irony of the fact that my brother in law Tim was helping us deal with the difficulty of Dad’s situation, only to be plunged head-on into his own devastating family tragedy, was not lost on any of us. But even in death, Gilly was still weaving her maternal magic, bringing people together and reminding us all of just how special time spent with loved ones really is.
Suddenly, Dad’s debilitating illness didn’t seem so difficult, so hard to handle. We could still have a cup of tea with him, share a laugh and a meal. It was a renewed perspective, and one that I thank Gilly for.
The past three months have shown me the strength that can be found in grace. To see my Dad, a man once renowned for his impatience and grumpy temperament, accept the fact that he can no longer swim, fish, run or drive, let alone slice a loaf of bread or open the lid of the ice cream. He doesn’t show the pure frustration he must feel every single day, when he struggles to get out of a chair, or when his impaired speech is not understood.
He doesn’t ever get upset, or lash out with anger. He just keeps attempting the required movement or repeating the word, time and time again, until the goal is achieved. He has accepted his situation, irrespective of the huge physical and emotional toll it must take, and does what he can to prevent it from becoming a burden for anyone else around him. I have so much admiration for this acquired sense of patience and grace, attributes I never knew he had.
This time has enabled me to understand the things in life I put unnecessary emphasis on, namely physical appearance and material possessions. By stripping back my day to day existence to aid Dad’s simple way of life – cooking, household chores, supermarket shopping, doctors and carers appointments – I’ve realized the often shallow existence of my world in Sydney.
Being in the bush has provided a welcome relief from city expectations; I don’t care what I’m wearing, what my hair looks like or how much exercise I have or haven’t done on any particular day. I’ve made slices, cakes, pies, curries, pastas and roasts for Dad and his wife Karen – and enjoyed every guilt-free mouthful.
Living on Dad’s long treasured patch of land has been also been an incredibly peaceful experience. The property not only captures the essence of who he is, but has also served as a firm reminder of how essential it is to connect with nature.
I’ve caught marron in the dam, pulled the nets over the peach trees, fed the guinea fowl and picked the lemons. I’ve spent very little money, bought no new clothes or had any big nights out – all things I frequently repeat in my normal life. But I’ve had a sense of contentedness and a level of quiet self-assurance I’m not sure I’ve experienced before.
Overwhelmingly, it has enabled me to see the values worth prioritizing in life. To understand the virtue of family, the strength that comes from challenge, the calm that can come with acceptance. It has surprised me how many people have complemented us on our decision to spend time with Dad, like it was some great act of kindness or compassion.
For me, it feels like I was the one who was given the gift. A snapshot of time I’ll cherish forever.
Sarah Grant is the features editor at WHO magazine. In her spare time she likes to delve into topics that aren’t quite as glossy as the world of celebrity. You can find her blog here.
Where did you spend Australia Day this year? Does the day mean something else to you?