People talk about famous last words. I think of them as that phrase you realise you uttered just before things took an unexpected turn. My most recent famous last words were only thoughts. Living alone you don’t always get to transfer the thoughts for them to become last words as such.
I didn’t only think October was going to be busy, I knew it was; I had a week of activities to host as the Artist in Residence at the Adelaide City Library on behalf of Mindshare for Mental Health Week. Other things I knew were scheduled for the month included an invitation to ‘live tweet’ the Sydney opening night of “Potted Potter” which I was very keen to do just to get away from home if I could afford it, there was also a face to face meeting in Sydney of a board I am on, of Arts Access Australia and a two day conference that I probably should attend, plus there is the removal of a centimetre thick wedge of flesh from my bottom lip.
My Mindshare residency at City Library was good fun, I enjoyed it enormously. I had a room in the library all to myself, so I set up a portion of my exhibit “The Fit In Room” and I made a display wall featuring a variety of projects I have worked on. I had arranged to provide a range of activities including screen printing, so I installed a few screens and set up an ironing board. A friend of mine was working with some actors getting ready to present a reading at the end of the week. It was going to be a very busy week for me. My first official Mental Health Week activity was a forum with a collection of writers, Sue Fleming Coordinator Professional Writing at Adelaide College of the Arts, Pat Wilson singer/songwriter, Annie Fox Creativity Mentor, Adrian Barnes writer, performer, director; we discussed creativity, the process of creativity and mental health, art and mental health, writing and mental health.
It was a very interesting conversation mostly acknowledging the good outlet for processing emotion art is; we are all writers, yet each of us on the forum panel are involved as creative individuals in other forms of art and creativity be it with music, movement, 3D Creations. Collectively we were speaking broadly about art including visual art, music, poetry, writing in a more general way, cross-genre art and performative art, physical movement. We chatted about variations on combinations and interactions between process and conception around the theme of mental health.
We talked about the transitory nature of art and emotion and certain predictabilities in relation to mental health processes. For example, I invited Sue to read an original poem about her daughter because I know Sue can speak about the process of the creation of her poem in a way that offers clarity. Sue’s description of her process was good information, useful for writers. Any insight clearly elucidated concerning how a mother experiencing feelings about her daughter may channel them into a piece of writing has points of interest. Likewise I know there are connections between writing, visual art and drawing something from the imagination. In the process of learning to write I was helped along by drawing.
My undiagnosed dyslexia had me mirror-writing quite well but not complying with the expected paradigm so I was sent to remedial reading and writing sessions. I remember finding the union of word and image far more potent than the notion of print writing. I understood the alphabet but it all looked the same to me. I don’t know what the font they were using is called but it didn’t engage me at the time.
At the forum we talked about using art, music, words to construct or reconstruct positive pathways through the brain due to the plasticity of the brain and its ability to evolve as an organ, all of this on day one of my Mental Health Week; a very stimulating conversation with a range of anecdotes from people whom attended to listen and engage.
Through the week I screen printed my poetry onto the garments of people willing to have my work on their back, or front. Several people took me up on the offer which pleased me greatly. It recirculates my piece, “Snake Song” from a play I wrote for the UN International Year of Peace 1986.
The snakes in the swamp
will leave you alone
as long as you leave them at peace
in their home
they wont bite
unless you give them a fright
then you could be dead and buried that night
Don’t step on a snakes tail
Don’t step on a snakes tail
‘cause snakes don’t wail they hisss
And if their fangs get you
And they’ll probably get you
you wont mistake it
for a kissss
I chatted to people about my work on display, answered questions; had some really good one on one conversation with a range of people. It was a busy week and the play-reading at the end in the early evening capped it all off very nicely. I packed my stuff up on Friday afternoon knowing I could collect things and ferry them home on the public bus come Saturday morning, even if it were to require two or three journeys it would be a reasonably relaxed bump-out for me and I could rest up a bit after all the extra activity I’d had.
My surgery was next on the list for October after my residency. I hadn’t had the opportunity to unpack and stow away my residency things when my father Alan, died. I needed to attend to him with my brother and my father’s wife.
Every day is a life changing moment, a page of prose riffing from within, bouncing or bashing against something without; attempting to raise an echo of awareness about something worth repeating.
My brother drove me to collect our step mother; we understood that dad was likely to pass away due to renal failure, and we had been informed that he had passed quietly after laying down for an afternoon nap.
I think we are all reminded when a person passes how important emotional engagement in life is; I feel it is a time to celebrate the life that was, honour the person. I know it is a time when the emotional needs of people are important and sensitivities need to be open and aware of the circumstances to hand.
I am the youngest child of three and had a different perspective of the world, being born into what was an established family. As my evidently secure and postcard-ready family eroded into a nuclear breakdown I was negotiating my way through some difficult personal torments, boxing up secret business that was threatening my life pursuit to be involved in the arts.
Driving along my brother asked about my experiences at Glebe Morgue in Sydney. In the early nineteen-eighties I was an Acting student at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) in my first year of study, our Observation Class instructor Bill Pepper was sending us out to find a work place where we could observe a work activity and then bring it back to the class and teach it to someone else. We had to write about it, do some demonstration in class. At the time I had enjoyed watching the series ‘Prisoner’ on television and imagined casting-wise I could fit into something like that, so I sought out a prison to go there, and also a morgue because I could imagine working on some kind of medical show. I’m not at all ghoulish, I want to make it clear that my motivation and sensibility to go into a morgue comes from having a parent whom volunteered as a paramedic on an ambulance in a semi-rural farming and fishing district; having grown up with the reality of accidental death in my face through engagement with this didn’t make the morgue an unnatural choice, I had also worked briefly in aged care as an occupational therapists aid, both my parents volunteered for the RSPCA for some time and had to euthanize domestic animals. As a couple my parents were very community minded always engaged in more than just immediate family business.
I slipped ahead for a few precious moments with him before my brother, his son and our step-mother got to his room. I knew there’d be no chance for me to have that moment unless I took it, so when I saw the chance on our way in to the establishment as the others were speaking with staff in low tones, I kept walking.
When I got into his room I could see him as he was. I was happy to see him. The last time I had seen him he was sitting up in the room. I’d told him I loved him then, but now he was dead I wanted to do so again, quiet, private.
We talked a little, my brother and I about the way our father looked dead. I pointed out he was still warm. I always think feeling that warm human is far better than the coldness later. It is nice to have that alive feeling still there, the softness and the immediacy of passing is easier understood. I do not know if any funeral homes lay an electric blanket or heat pad into any open coffin situations but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they did as it is a far better way to farewell by physical proximity. Even if one were not to touch the notions of rest and stillness, going for a long sleep give me warm feelings. I think engagement with life includes engagement with death in a meaningful way. The manifestation of that meaningfulness is completely individual to a person’s circumstances, boundaries, all of that. I imagine some people may feel it is not so good to say farewell to a warm coffin, it may give them a different signal to the one I get; maybe people like death to be cold.
I mentioned the expression on his face, in his eyes, how it appeared to me to be peaceful. There were no signs of massive strain or pain in his face or physicality. He had not been moved. It was a situation where you could sincerely say this person was at peace. He had lived one month shy of eighty seven years.
I had moved from Sydney to Adelaide in 2005 motivated by his increasing poor health, to be closer to the family, housekeeping. Now in 2014 he has passed away. We were required to clear his room and belongings, so that is what we set about to do over the next days.
Before having the chance to unpack my Mental Health Week residency stuff I was bringing in bags of Alan’s belongings to organise over the next few days. I wasn’t keen on his personal items going off to local opportunity shop donation bins with all of the mandatory aged care facility nametags in them.
He had spent his final year in a facility that was meeting his needs very well. We had arranged for his wife to move into an apartment that was part of the same facility so things had progressed well in relation to getting the two of them into a situation that was satisfactory. This had been a very taxing process over the past year particularly because it involved the sale of property and packing up of two lifetimes in order to relocate.
Surrounded in my one bedroom flat with my own autobiographical residency material along with my father’s family photographs dating back to eighteen eighty seven, along with his other bits and pieces, I was embroiled in an internal trauma focused on the surgery I was about to have.
They’re cutting a V-shaped portion in the centre of my bottom lip. They’ll be cutting a backwards-facing capital-L below the lip down into my chin and stitching it all together. My bottom lip will lose a centimetre in width. This will be procedure number four; one biopsy and three actual removals of skin cancer. Add two tooth removals earlier this year and you will appreciate my mouth has had a lot of maintenance activity in 2014.
I tend to feel things deeply and I have physical reactions to thoughts that are experienced as feelings while I’m thinking them. I feel quite cool calm and collected in the presence and process of death, yet I feel very differently when it comes to anything that employs any violent process and even though it is a medical procedure, I find the voraciousness of the skin cancer and the prescribed antidote perplexing because it seems violent.
I like my mouth. I like the shape of my mouth and I like the way my mouth has worked for me over the last fifty three years, so pre-operation I was experiencing some emotional agony, what I call “felt stress” in so much as I consider what they’re intending on doing to me, and the actions involved in their process totally sends my self-defence mechanisms into overdrive. My empathy with the flesh as the knife cuts; grief for the flesh removed, uncertainty. There may be more voracious cancer. An ever dwindling mouth, that needs to communicate.
Nightmare: attempting to drift off to sleep with the procedure revolving around in the head like the bullet in a six-shooter set for Russian roulette. Nice thought. Kind thought. Empty thought. Narrow thought. Cascading sunsets. Slice a wedge of face out! Wake up! Hours of undesirable anticipated agony.
The horror of landing on Halloween 2014 with a restitched face that I have to come to terms with; I remember telling my dad I’d sing at his funeral because that’s what he wanted me to do. When I was younger, he was still my father participating in what was our family.
We arranged the funeral to be five days after my surgery so I would have some time to heal. I also had to write something that was for his funeral because I would be hosting, rather than a celebrant or anyone else. My sister and my brother would speak, and there would be an opportunity for any other family members to say a few words. I would sing and we would play the snippets of music he had indicated he wanted played on the day. I would get some of his photographs organised. None of our family had seen these photographs for decades if ever at all. When people want to remove bits of your face and restitch it up in some new configuration I think it is reasonable for that to consume your thoughts to some degree and obfuscate other things that may be at hand.
I had to cancel the “Potted Potter” trip to Sydney, and I put everything else on hold for the time being because I wasn’t sure I’d be ready to attend a face to face meeting in Sydney either.
I need to maintain a very selfish approach to my life while dealing with cancer. It is voracious skin cancer; there are links between my immunity and my ability to manage healing so I don’t feel bad to be selfish these days. In the name of my own mental health and wellbeing I’ve disconnected from stresses and responsibilities beyond my arms length or family branch reasonably well. I had to focus on all of these things that were happening on a very personal level.
I wrote a great deal about my father over the next few days, more than anyone could bear or would want to read at a funeral.
This is what I presented for his funeral service:
First I’d like to extend our family greetings to you all and thank you for attending this service to remember and farewell Alan Jobling
We have met in this place before over the past decade some of us; each time we meet in this place we grow stronger in some ways. We meet to say goodbye to part of our family group and it is an occasion of sadness because we have lost someone who is connected to us in the deepest way. We are part of a river through time all of us.
All of us.
My sister, my brother, myself … Alan was one of our parents, our father, obviously.
In 1860 Benjamin Thomas Jobling and Jane Fawcett were the parents of Benjamin Richardson Jobling.
John Littlejohn and Margaret Center were the parents of Isabella Littlejohn.
These two got hitched up, Benjamin Richardson Jobling and Isabella Littlejohn, they got jiggy with it and had three children, Elsie, born 1918, Alan, my father, born in 1927 and Ernest born in 1929.
Of his immediate family Alan is the last to shuffle off this mortal coil. He wasn’t much for formality although he did enjoy a good marching band and a public spectacle, most of the time my dad would rather be the public spectacle but public in a private way. Dad was a wit; I remember him explaining it to me when I was little. See if my dad is a wit then that makes me a half wit, but seeing how I’m the baby and there are three of us I’m more likely a third wit which doesn’t make sense because there’s no such word so what I need to do is add the two from the half I started with and the three from the third and I get a one two three four F-wit.
That was my dad. A master craftsman and builder of many things, comedy being one of them. It wasn’t enough that he was a fine prankster; being a prankster is mostly gimmicks, plastic poop and fart pillows, Alan embraced the absurd. He pushed boundaries. We were stuck once at the bottom of a gully in the Adelaide hills somewhere; we’d been off adventure seeking on a picnic and the radiator in the car had run dry so Alan went and got a bottle of Woody Woodruff’s Big Sarse and emptied it into the radiator. We got home on it.
I’ve studied comedy writing at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, and the Australian Film Television and Radio School and I can say that I learnt more about comedy from my dad than anybody else both writing and performing.
He was an inspiration. Once you had examined a situation with my dad you had a much clearer perspective of it because you’d examined it, with my dad. He also knew a great deal about process. He could break down the process of creating something and had a very good mind for organising something.
He understood team work and he liked to play games, we had a great deal of fun playing board games and cards and fishing and hiking and camping.
Dad happily nudged me towards the stage. He designed that I would get up and sing “Jesus is my Saviour” at the Christies Beach Church of Christ when I was five. He was lay-preaching and writing service notes, very involved in the church.
I don’t do that particular number myself anymore; dad got me to climb up on the chook house he’d built in the backyard and sing “Oh Come Al Ye Faithful” at sunset, it may have even been Christmas. He was very encouraging.
We had some funny conversations; we were talking about – not dancing – at a funeral; we’d seen “Paint Your Wagon”.
Anyway, our dad says, “You see son it’s disrespectful to the dead,” and then he says, “You sing at funerals,” “You sing?” “Yes David. One day you’ll sing at my funeral,” he says, and I asked, “What will I sing at your funeral dad?” and he says, “Just think of the songs we like and sing some of those,” so. We did watch the cartoons together and we both really enjoyed “What’s Opera Doc?” a Looney Tune with Elmer Fud and Bugs Bunny doing their version of “Die Valkyrie” but the songs we liked…
There was a dead skunk in the middle of the road
Oh lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way
Always look on the bright side of life
War is over
Oh Danny boy the pipes are calling
Mull of Kintyre all mist rolling in from the sea my desire is always to be here
While tearing off a game of golf I may make a play for the caddy, but when I do I don’t follow through ‘cause my heart belongs to Daddy
If I invite a boy some night to dine on my fine fin an; haddie
I just adore his asking for more but my heart belongs to Daddy
Yes my heart belongs to daddy
So I simply couldn’t be bad
Yes my heart belongs to daddy
Da da da da da da da da dad
So I want to warn you lady though I think you’re perfectly swell
My heart belongs to my daddy
Cause my daddy he treated me so well
There’s some foliage here, you’re very welcome to take a sprig and place it on Alan’s coffin… we’d like to thank you for coming, bye bye Alan…
I feel my face, my lip. The wound is still fresh. I have been feeling a great deal, mixed feelings.
Feelings on a sensory level: the feelings that hurt.
Feelings on an emotional level: the deeper emotional eruptions of tears or laughter
Feelings on an intellectual level: unanswered self posed questions; seeking identifiable guideposts within the map of yourself.
Instability or the loss of familiarity with intrinsic perspective is my general way of putting it; the loss of feeling. The fear and grief of not feeling something that you could feel before, and that thing being part of how you confidently express your feelings, and knowledge that your facial expression is no longer a reflection of your true feelings. Feeling that attempts to start making alterations may cause damage; meaning I have no intention of immediately launching into a series of facial exercises in order to get my face into shape. I am waiting for the swelling to go down. Waiting for news on the next portion of my face they wish to remove.
Waiting as life goes on. I had the best part of a week after the funeral to try and relax, to heal. Then it was travel to Sydney for a meeting. Fly sleep meet fly. I was required to speak. I required myself to speak and eat even though it felt like torture. October, such a busy month this year, and now it is November, both my parents were born in November.
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