couples

'Conversation was the glue in our 42-year relationship. Then ... silence.'

Mary Moody is a much loved Australian journalist and author. She has appeared on our TV screens, delighted us with her books about travel and gardening and her wonderful down to earth life. Three years ago her husband of 42 years was diagnosed with cancer. They embarked on a long and harrowing journey. Last year he passed away. For the first time Mary tells her incredible story of illness, togetherness and grieving the man she loved.

Three years ago my husband David and I embarked on a trip together, as we had done so often during the 42 years of our relationship. However, unlike our previous journeys, this one had an unknown destination – and the possibility of a very bad ending.

David was having trouble swallowing, and with an initial diagnosis of gastric reflux (which didn’t respond to medication) further tests were ordered. I thought nothing of it, although he later admitted he knew at that moment something was seriously wrong. I helped to settled him in for a gastroscope at the local country hospital, blithely went shopping and arrived back just as the anaesethetic was wearing off.

‘They couldn’t get the scope into the stomach,” he said groggily. ‘There is an obstruction.”

The procedure needed to be done again, this time at a larger hospital.

Mary and David at his last birthday. Image supplied.

Henry, the specialist, didn’t have good news. A large cancerous tumor was blocking the base of the oesophagus. It required radiation and chemotherapy followed, possibly, by surgery.

David responded in his inimitable style.

‘Well Henry, this is definitely NOT part of my plan,’ he boomed.

Aged 73, he was convinced he should live to be 90, work until well into his 80s, then do some cameo acting parts and finally write his film industry memoirs.

At home I naturally googled ‘oesophageal cancer’ and was immediately despondent. It was one of those cancers with a very poor survival rate. The odds looked pretty grim. I responded to the news in my own inimitable style.

‘I better not think too much about this.’ My own form of denial.

At this early stage of the journey we argued a lot. We had always had a lively relationship with lots of talk and debate. Both strong-minded and highly opinionated, the glue of our ongoing conversation was probably what held us together against the odds over four decades.

David and Mary at the farm. Image supplied.

I wanted to stop work immediately to be David’s fulltime carer. He wanted me to keep working and carry on as if nothing was happening.

How could I? Something WAS happening and I couldn’t imagine being able to work while in a constant state of worry about his medical condition. He wanted to sell our small farm and downsize to a smaller house in town; to me the notion of moving house during the grueling treatment that lay ahead would only add to our stress.

He was embarrassed to have cancer, and didn’t want anyone except our children to be told. Imagine that? Imagine feeling ashamed that your body had somehow failed you. I wept for him, but not when he could see me. He also felt he was letting people down. Scriptwriters, co-producers, directors and actors. He had several film projects in various states of development, and feared that if ‘the industry’ knew he was a dying man, these collaborative projects would also die.

So we fought out battles that hinged on priorities. My priority was to care for him (I won). I stopped writing and put my work as a tour guide on hold. David slowly admitted to friends and colleagues that he was wrestling cancer. His priority was to fight, and to care more about himself and his family, who loved him dearly, than his career. This was hard for a driven high-achiever with a strong sense of his role as a creative force.

David and Mary with their 6-day-old duaghter, Miriam, in 1972. Image supplied.

Once the dust settled and the treatment progressed, we fell into a most convivial routine. Our lives had often followed separate paths although we both joyously came together in the family home with our children and subsequent 11 grandchildren, making films took David away for lengthy periods, often weeks or months at a time. One year we hardly saw him at all – he was filming a clandestine anti-apartheid epic in South Africa during the years before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

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I travelled frequently too, especially once the children left home. I took people on botanical treks in the Himalayas and one year I spent seven months on my own in France, living out many middle-aged women’s fantasies (but that’s another story).

Indeed, during those two years we spent more time together than we had over our long and feisty relationship. Before he became ill, David had an early morning ritual, bringing me hot tea and toast in bed whenever he was at home. Knocked hard by the chemo, he was awake half the night, falling into a deep sleep around 5am. I would get up, tiptoe out of the room and start my day alone. Go for a walk, check the livestock, work in the garden and prepare something tasty for lunch.

It was my mission not to allow his weight to drop, so I tempted him with rich and flavourful soups and stews, and his much-loved poached fruits and baked custards. I had always kept hens and grown my own herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. I appreciated this fresh, organic produce more now than ever before.

David winning the Raymond Longford Award at the (then) Australian Film Industry awards night. Image suppplied.

David would get up late, have a simple breakfast and coffee, and spend the rest of the morning in his office checking emails and chatting to his film buddies. He was delighted that instead of feeling rejected, his cancer battle was embraced and supported by all his friends and colleagues.

Living for periods in France, I had developed the habit of enjoying a glass (or two) of wine with lunch. So we would sit together by the fire in winter or on the front verandah in summer, chatting and partaking of a meal made with love. We would cuddle up in bed during the afternoon, for a cosy snooze. The conversation between us went on and on, now tempered by our changed circumstances and our mutual support.

David was supporting me as much through this major life transition as I was supporting him.

I could write a book, and I probably will, about our last two years together and the way our relationship mellowed for the better.

The end was swift and caught us by surprise. A sudden emergency hospitalisation and the difficult emotional and ethical decisions about what constitutes ‘life support’. Against the odds and the concerns of the medical team, the children and I busted him out of intensive care and took him back to the farm. Our kids and their partners took over his day and night palliative care, and gave me endless love and support.  We shared our bed for those last three nights and even after he died that Monday evening, I slept with him at my side.

Mary and David during his chemo round. Image supplied.

When I woke, just before dawn, and slid my hand over his midriff, his belly was still warm. But his head was like ice and I knew it was over.

We had a do-it-yourself funeral. One son crafted the casket, one son dug the grave. We prepared soup, sandwiches and cake for the wake, to be washed down with gallons of champagne.

I miss the conversation most of all. David loved news and politics and film, and he loved to talk. The silence after his death was overwhelming.

Footnote: A friend in the film industry is putting together David Hannay’s memoirs for him, posthumously.
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