Death At Home
“It’s your Dad,” Mum says. “He’s dead.”
I knew from the heavy tone of Mum’s voice when she answered the phone that something serious had happened. But I thought one of her dogs had died. Or maybe Nanna, who is 92 and has been suffering osteoperosis and dementia for many years.
My sister had sent me a Facebook message telling me to call home urgently. I thought maybe my sister was just late with the news that Mum had been diagnosed with diabetes a week earlier.
But Mum answered the phone sounding sombre but businesslike. Too businesslike for it to be one of her dogs.
“What happened?” I asked, as all the possibilities rushed through my head. Dad’s a keen cycler, only just finishing an 800 kilometer charity cycle through outback Queensland. Maybe he’d been knocked off his bike somewhere. He rode everywhere. He fell off his bike a few years ago and cracked a rib.
Then I remembered he was due to fly to the Solomon Islands with some of his Rotary Club mates to do some charity work at some schools. The project included installing solar panels at schools. Maybe he’d fallen off the roof. Or his plane had crashed.
But Mum told me that my active, vibrant, fit and seemingly healthy Dad, renowned for his outlandish outfits and booming voice, had just nodded off while he and his Rotary buddies were sitting around drinking tea, waiting to go to dinner.
Dad never did anything quietly – this story is unbelievable.
Mum is trying to give me a few more details, then she hands me over to the wife of one of the Rotary dudes, who tries to explain again. They are both devastated, but I can’t concentrate. I have to get home — how do I get home from northern Thailand to look after my Mum?
I tell Mum I’ll be home as fast as possible. I tell her I have to get off the phone to start calling airlines. Mum tells me one sister knows but the other’s phone is flat, so can I please not post the news on Facebook til they get hold of my baby sister. I am so focused on the logistics of getting home to Australia from northern Thailand that this doesn’t really register.
Darling Man walked into the room halfway through the call. He looks as shocked as I feel. I have tears running down my cheeks.
Our apartment phone rings and its my sister, who tells me she is just packing a bag and she should be at my Mum’s place in an hour or so.
We tell each other we can’t believe this news. Not at all. My sister says she’s shaking.
I rush back to my computer and start checking airfares. The kayak.com airfare search tells me it will be US$8,000+ per person to fly from Chiang Mai to Brisbane that day. And it will take 34 hours. That’s ridiculous.
I’m frustrated at every turn. Online search engines are giving me crazy prices. Airline websites are giving me phone numbers that go to long messages in Thai or fax machines. I call the airport and an operator tells me the Thai Airways office is shut.
I try a closed Facebook group I’m a member of. Suggestions start popping up. Someone suggests I call my travel insurer. I look up the number — it’s a U.K. number. I send Darling Man out to top up the credit on my phone, which was wiped out by my call home. I wash up and move piles of clean clothes around the apartment while I wait for my phone to come back. We haven’t been in Thailand long enough to know the quickest way to top up our phone credit. We are still relying on the guy at the local 7-11.
Darling Man comes back and I call the travel insurance company. A nice man tells me, over a crackly phone line, that I need to provide a death certificate before they’ll provide assistance in getting home. I can’t even explain that the assistance I want right now is a phone number I can call to book a flight. Mum had mentioned an autopsy was needed to determine the cause of death. I presume there is no death certificate. Although she also told me a local GP had declared him dead. Whatever — no way I can get a death certificate tonight.
The nice man begins explaining the second complicated option and I cut him off. I say that I’ll call back later, when I’m home. I don’t actually care about the cost of the flights. I just want to get on a plane and get to Brisbane.
I ask Darling Man if he can start packing. He’s dithery as well. He opens a suitcase in one room, then moves the piles of folded clothes I put in that room into the other room. He puts some food in the fridge, takes some other food out of the fridge and puts it on the table. He pours the baby a juice.
I run through a list of things we need to do to leave Chiang Mai. We don’t have time to pack everything up. We’ll have to come back to our pricey apartment. I don’t know how Mum will cope without Dad. I wonder if we’ll return to Chiang Mai just to pack up our stuff and leave again. Do I have to move back home, to look after Mum?
I force myself back to my list of things to do. I need a shower. I stink from a day of househunting. We need clothes for a week or two. Toiletries. My computer because I may have to work. My notebook because I wrote something important in it a few days ago and I might need the information. I can’t even remember what it was. Pens for filling out immigration forms. Food for Miss M, who ate a late breakfast but no lunch. Milk for Miss M. Juice for Miss M. Nappies. What’s the weather like at home now? October … should be warm. Our Chiang Mai clothes will be OK.
I move piles of folded clothes back into the bedroom with the suitcase in it. I have a shower. I pack up some toiletries. I wash the baby’s bottles. I tell Darling Man that he needs to pack clothes for a funeral. I throw a pair of cream dress pants and a tiger-print shirt into the suitcase. They’re not funeral clothes, I think to myself. Then I think of how my Dad dresses and think they’ll be OK.
“Do I need a black shirt?” Darling Man asks. And I realise that he only has a Hollywood idea of what happens at a Western funeral.
“No, you don’t need a black shirt,” I tell him. “We’re not the mob. Any nice shirt will do. And we can buy something if we need.”
I run, with wet hair flopping, downstairs to order a cab. I have two fist-fulls of tissues. The receptionist seems slightly alarmed, but orders the cab anyway. Once the booking is made I tell her the bigger problem. My Dad just died and we are going to try to fly to Australia NOW … so our apartment may be empty for a few weeks. I tell her a friend might come and clean out the fridge for us. I tell her another friend might come and take our rented motorbike away.
The receptionist asks if I’m OK and I say no, and tears start rolling down my cheeks again. “I just need to get home,” I tell her.
Back upstairs I try to throw Miss M’s toys into her toybox and compile the dirty clothes into one pile in the bathroom. I haul a few dirty items out of the dirty pile and throw them into the suitcase. I put a clean dress on Miss M and fill a daypack with nappies and toys and our cardigans.
It was just before 5pm, Thai time, when I heard the news that Dad had died about two hours earlier. At a quarter past six we are in a taxi heading towards the airport. We expect we could end up back at the apartment that night. But I need to move, to make some move towards home. I need to look after my Mum and my little sisters. Thank goodness Darling Man has a multiple-entry visa to Australia, valid til December.
At the airport we get the great news that we can check onto a Chiang Mai-Bangkok-Brisbane flight that boards in about an hour and arrives in Brisbane at 11.20 am the next day. As much as I hate overnight flights, I am thrilled by the news that I can be at my parents’ place by lunchtime tomorrow.
And so … we set out on another long journey with a toddler. A totally unplanned trip. It’s a long flight. Darling Man wants to look after Miss M, but she’s being a Mummy’s girl. I spend the long dark night trying to sleep, trying to comfort Miss M but mostly thinking about my Dad.
My loud Dad, who liked to wear rainbow-striped shorts and Hawaii shirts, mis-matched socks and custom-made mis-matched shoes. He had a cap with flashing lights and a velveteen bowtie with flashing lights. (The flashing lights were the only things in any of Dad’s outfits that matched.) My Dad, who created a different Santa outfit each year for my Mum’s school breakup parties and Rotary charity events. My Dad, who cycled the length of Vietnam with me. My Dad, who planned to get a hearing aid in December after 25 years of shouting “WHAT” anytime anyone addressed him. My Dad, who still came home every weekend with a new tennis trophy. My Dad, who gave up soap a few years ago and whose claim that he didn’t stink made me wonder if anyone had invented a smelling aid yet. My Dad, who was so patient with his grandkids. My Dad, who won’t be around for Miss M as she grows up. My Dad, who was also a loving husband, wonderful son and amazing brother. My Dad, who also had a special dad relationship with each of my two sisters. My Dad, who was only 64. His father died — too young — at 77. His mother is 92 and still going. How could this happen?
My aunt meets us at the airport, face strained and tears in her eyes. Her beloved older brother, gone. Miss M has an issue with the car seat, compulsory in Australia for toddlers, unheard of in Asia. Eventually Miss M wears herself out and she quietens down. My aunt drives, wiping under her sunglasses now and then. Miss M and Darling Man sleep and I stare at the familiar scenes rushing past the car window, every so often a squeeze of sadness pushes more tears out.
We arrive home to a busy house. Mum is on one phone, my sister is on another phone, my Dad’s mate is on yet another. They start trying to fill me in but I’m so tired and worried about Miss M, who hasn’t eaten for two days, that nothing sticks in my head. I’m told Dad will be choppered to Honiara, the capital of the Solomons, from Gizo, where he is. I’m told there’s no refrigeration on Gizo. I’m told the helicopter flight costs $25,000. Mum asks if I want an autopsy. She says he needs to be embalmed because there is no refrigeration, and embalming is required before a body can be brought into Australia. An autopsy has to happen before the embalming. A decision has to be made. Mum says an autopsy won’t change anything, she says she’s sure it was a blood clot or an aneurysm. She says my nephews want to know. I want to know, but I also don’t want to know. I just want Dad to walk in, hitching up his pants, talking as usual. I just want one more Daddy cuddle.
It’s quite cold in the house. I put some more clothes on Miss M, who takes them off and announces she wants a bath. Darling Man starts taking photos of the flowers that have arrived. I want a shower. I want a coffee. I want to talk to my Mum. I want to look after my Mum.
I’ve missed all the important arrangements and I’m too sleep-deprived to provide any real assistance. I hear my sister tell people about how bank accounts have been organised, funds released, a manager found for Dad’s business. “We had it all organised by 8 o’clock this morning,” she tells people. Mum is talking to someone from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She’s talking to a funeral director. My aunt leaves to go collect my other sister, who’s flown in from Darwin. Mum and Dad live — lived — an hour north of Brisbane. Airport runs are a pain.
Then Mum starts talking about insurance. She says the insurer will cover the cost of flying Dad home. (I hear her tell someone on the other end of the phone to stop saying “remains”. “He’s my husband,” she says.) Insurance will also cover the cost of the funeral. I am pretty sure our flights to Australia will be covered by insurance as well. Right now, no one is worried about the money. My crazy moustachioed Dad is dead and our family needs to be together. We don’t care about money at the moment, but we are very thankful that Dad was insured. Mum could have had to sell her house if she had to pay for everything that’s happening to Dad’s body now.
Mum tells me Dad always took care of these things. Before he left on what was supposed to be a two-week trip to the Solomon Islands, Dad filled up the car, went to the bank, put the rubbish bins out, bought bread and milk, made up a batch of home-made muesli … did all the small caring things he did for Mum during their wonderful 42-year marriage.
Thank goodness he also took out travel insurance.
10 years ago