Category Archives:Chronicles of Life and Death

A Long Farewell.

My dad has called me countless times over the years. Until recently, due to the nature of our relationship the appearance of “Dad” on my phone’s screen usually resulted in apprehension, but little long-term emotional impact beyond that.

For three of his phone calls, though, I can tell you where I was, and exactly what I was doing.

#1. January 2012.

I was standing on a ladder at work (third office from the left), my hands behind a wall-mounted television, as I attempted to plug a recalcitrant network cable into the TV. My pocket started buzzing. I fished out my phone.


What proceeded was of the most bizarre phone calls I’ve received in my life.

My father wanted to – and tried to – casually tell me that my mother had stage 4 breast cancer, while downplaying the seriousness of it, so – and I quote – “You wouldn’t be worried”.

He failed. I panicked, immediately jumped online to try and find out everything I could about stage 4 breast cancer.

My mother, ever so modest, had refused to see the doctor about the lump in her breast until it became ulcerated. Only then did she seek treatment. It was almost too late.


Against the odds, she survived. By 2013 she was officially in remission.

In August of 2014, as we returned from a road trip to Queensland, we diverted to visit my parents at home in Cooma.

Mum didn’t look well. She was recovering – or, more accurately, not recovering – from a nasty bout of the ‘flu. She told us she’d be fine. I took a photo of them standing on the front patio of the rental property they’d been forced into, their house having been repossessed by the bank after her cancer diagnosis.

It was the last photo I’d take of them together.

A few weeks later, dad would call me to say that they’d seen the doctor, and the cancer had returned; with chemotherapy & radiotherapy she had a pretty good chance to beat it again.

#2: November 13th, 2014.

It was my son’s 14th birthday. Per family tradition, birthday dinner was chosen by the family member being celebrated. As such, it was fish and chips. I’d just placed the order when my phone rang. I reached into my pocket, expecting to be told I’d need to add something to the order.


I answered nervously. He was frantic. “You need to come to Canberra now. She might not make it until the end of the week.”

Just a few days before, he’d been telling me that the doctors were very impressed with her progress, and the prognosis, while not fantastic, was reasonable.

“The cancer has spread to her liver.”

I knew what that meant. The other patrons tried to avoid looking at me as I started to cry. We ended the call, I collected my son’s birthday dinner from the counter, and drove home.

His birthday dinner was wolfed down, followed by frantically packing the car and making phone calls, before we drove through the night, hoping against hope that we’d be able to see her once more and say goodbye.

We made it. My brother & sister-in-law and their children had already arrived. My aunt & cousin too. My youngest brother & sister-in-law had been frequently visiting due to their proximity to the hospital.

It was the worst kind of family reunion.

Dad was sleeping on the floor of her hospital room. Mum was almost unrecognisable, her complexion yellowing, her eyes sunken. She drifted in and out of consciousness.

When she was awake, she was lucid – for the most part. She’d occasionally drift off mid-conversation, but by-and-large she recognised all of us. While leaning on the counter of the Nurses station talking with her nurse, I caught sight of her doctor’s notes; a heavy line across the page, in all caps underneath: “PALLIATIVE CARE”.

Whatever doubts, whatever hopes I had were extinguished at that moment.

Thank God, we all had the opportunity to spend time alone with her and say those things that needed to be said. Mum had never really been one to hold grudges; for the most part she forgave easily. Our conversations were wonderful, light things, with only a tinge of the dark shadow of what was coming. She spoke of her faith, still strong in spite of it all, and her joy at her children and grandchildren.

As she sang the praises of her African nurse, I discovered – belatedly – her hidden, inherited racism, as she renounced it and asked for forgiveness. I knew that my grandfather had been racist, but in all of our years, I’d never heard mum even hint at such feelings; yet now she was admitting her regret at something that I had never known.

We all have our secrets.

I asked her “Are you happy with the way your life worked out?”
“I am… other than having cancer.”

I guess I got my sense of humour from her.

Our time to leave was drawing near. Her doctor had placed her on a saline IV to keep her alive long enough for us to be able to see her, and say goodbye. Once we’d visited with her, she’d be moving to hospice palliative care at Clare Holland House.

I turned my voice recorder app on, and asked her to call me the nickname I’d always hated, one more time. As much as I despised it, she was the one who first called me that. While it recorded, she told me that she loved me. I can still replay that, when I need to hear it. Some days you just need to hear your mum tell you that she loves you.

I’ve never been good at knowing when time is up, when it’s time to say goodbye. This was infinitely worse.

I quietly asked her “What one thing would you want me to remember, mum?” She looked me in the eye and clasped my hand.

Be yourself. Above all else, just be yourself.”

I reached over and hugged her. I kissed her on her cool forehead and told her I loved her, and that I’d see her again some day.

That was the last time I saw her alive.

We drove back to Melbourne. The next few days were a surreal haze. As I was living each day, she was dying in a hospice hundreds of kilometres away. I was helpless. I spoke to dad regularly; within a couple of days, she spent most of her time in a morphine-induced sleep.

#3: November 23rd, 2014.

Alone on the right side of the bed, while my family was at church, I stared at the ceiling. The occasional truck broke the Sunday-morning silence, rumbling by on the main road outside our home. The late-spring morning light played on the wall in the half-darkened room as a breeze ruffled the vertical blinds that I hated so much.

My phone started vibrating on the bedside drawers. I picked up the phone and began to sob.



My mother, Pamela Rendell, passed away from secondary cancer of the liver on November 23rd, 2014, 3 years ago today.

It was two days short of my parents 42nd wedding anniversary.


Thank you to the staff at Clare Holland House for looking after my mother when I couldn’t be there.

Please, if you detect a lump in your breast – or chest, because men get breast cancer too – see your doctor.

If you’d like to make a donation, Monaro Cancer Council do wonderful work for those with cancer in the NSW Snowy Mountains, or the Cancer Council’s Pink Ribbon campaign.

Lest We Forget

I never knew my grandfather.

The family photo album contains a photo of him holding me as a toddler, but I don’t remember him. Other photos show he was a barrel-chested man with a receding hairline. I have two younger brothers; I was the only one who inherited his hairline. Lucky me.

During World War 2, he survived a near-miss explosion. The details were horrific. He died that day – it just took thirty-odd years for his body to catch up.

Today, he’d be diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, but those were different times. When he returned from the war, he took to self-medicating with alcohol. I remember my mother telling me how sweet and kind he could be when he was sober, but how dark moods would descend, and he’d deal with it the only way he knew how… and he’d become a different – and violent – man. Soon, that was the only man he was. Several years after he returned home, his co-workers tried to get him help.

He refused.

It was a long, slow suicide. According to the medical reports, cirrhosis of the liver killed him early in May 1978, when I was four years old. He died alone, his alcoholism & violence having driven away everyone who’d once loved him.

Were there already dark threads running through his life that the PTSD brought to the surface, or were the seeds sown on that day in a war zone? How different could his life, and the lives of those around him have been, had there been ongoing support for him and all those men like him after they returned from the war?

Did he feel it wasn’t socially acceptable to take advantage of that support? Did he feel that it made him weak or “less of a man” to admit he needed help? Maybe he refused to admit it. I’ll never know. Even now, in 2016, there’s still stigma attached to being a man who admits to having mental health issues; that stigma is one of the reasons I refuse to be silent about my own mental health experiences.

As we remember the fallen this ANZAC day, think also of those who returned and still return from war zones. Some have have physical scars, but for many their hearts and minds are scarred by unimaginable experiences; experiences that they maybe can’t – or won’t – talk about.

Whatever you believe about war, both those who return from war, and their families, need and deserve our support. They also need immediate and ongoing support from the government that sent them there. It’s rare that these experiences can be processed without help; our returned military personnel require the tools and support to help them deal with the outcome of their experiences.

Far too often “going solo” results in these brave men & women becoming dependent on alcohol and/or drugs to cope. The results may be homelessness, exploding in violence towards their loved ones or others, or death at their own hands, their violence turned inward.

The effects of my grandfather’s experiences in the war, and the consequences of his choice to deal with those experiences through abusing alcohol and his subsequent violence still echo today in my own life, and the lives of those who knew and loved him.

Even while writing this post and discussing it with my cousin, I learnt new & painful things about him, and what he did to my grandmother, my mother, and her siblings.

It’s been said that “War is hell”. It’s not just hell for those who survive it, but too often for those who love them.

Lest we forget.

A question of loss.

What can you say after a year like this?

If everything had gone to plan, at this point of the year, I’d be cuddling up with my six month old daughter, watching her roll noises around in her mouth and attempt to make words with them; battling with my wife and kids over who changes the next nappy, and wondering how long it would be before we’d need to start putting baby gates up around the house. Excitedly awaiting her first Christmas.

Instead, I live with the loss; I’ve lost more than I expected.

There’s been other things happen, mostly good, a few not so good. Nothing in the order of what happened with our little Jessica. Although we laid her tiny body in the ground on that hot summer’s morning in January, I didn’t realise until much later that I’d taken something away with me too. A seed of doubt, planted by questions thrust upon me by circumstances outside my control.

Oh, I’ve tried to ignore them, to push them away, to drown them. But they refuse to leave me alone, to go away quietly. They nag at me, nipping at my heels.

Happy Mother’s Day

Today was the first Mother’s day in the last 14 years that was hard to celebrate. We got gifts, but I forgot the cards. I usually try to make this day something special for my wife, but it was so hard today.

We were supposed to be in the last couple of weeks of our pregnancy. Tan lying on the lounge like a beached whale being cared for by her team of enforced volunteers. It was supposed to be exciting and full of anticipation, this last mother’s day before our family of five became six.

Things don’t always go as planned. We’re in surroundings that are slowly becoming familiar as “home”. The cradle and cot are packed away in our new garage; the bouncer lies empty atop a pile of boxes.

Instead of joy and celebrating the ones who are with us, the day is tinged bittersweet as we ache for the one who is not. The undercurrent of sadness is so strong; as we both sat sobbing in church this morning, it felt like it had become a rip dragging us away.

Please, spare a thought or say a prayer today for the mothers whose arms are empty against their will; whose hearts ache for those they’ve lost, or for those that may never be.

How to say goodbye.

Blue Sky
I remember the time leading up to the birth of our eldest son. When you’re having your first child, people want to tell you so many things. Sometimes its things you don’t know, but you need to know; “when she’s yelling at you in the delivery room, and blaming you for everything, try not to take it personally”. Sometimes it’s things you don’t want to know, but people will tell you anyway… I’d tell you, but trust me, you don’t want to know (more than one of those things involved poop).

You may find yourself the willing, or unwilling, recipient of books on pregnancy, childbirth, natural childbirth, child names, name meanings, biblical name meanings, child rearing, child discipline, parenting… until you find yourself wishing you had a personal GPS transponder for someone to dig you out from under the avalanche of books.

Still, it was exciting the first time around. The anticipation leading up to the due date. Being shaken awake with “I think it’s time” in the middle of the night. The second and third times around were different every time, but just as nerve-wracking and exciting.

None of that prepared me for Jessica’s birth.

Memorial Service for Jessica Caitlin Rendell

Our daughter, Jessica Caitlin Rendell, was stillborn at 9:13pm on Monday the 17th of January, 2011.

This is an open invitation for friends and family to join us in laying her to rest at 11am on Saturday the 22nd of January in the Avenue of Rainbows at Bunurong Memorial Park, 790 Frankston-Dandenong Rd, Dandenong South (Melways Map 128 A5).

Afterwards we will be gathering at The Eating House, Wellington Village Shopping Centre, Wellington Road, Rowville (Melways Map 82 C3) at approximately 1pm. Finger food, and tea & coffee will be provided, with cold drinks available for purchase.

Thankyou for your prayers, love and support at this difficult time.

The ineffable sadness of waiting.

On December the 16th, I took the day off work, and Tan and I drove to Monash Medical Centre for our 18 week ultrasound. There was an infinitesimal chance that the 12 week ultrasound was wrong; maybe there had been a miracle.

We waited in a small alcove surrounded by happily pregnant women. No-one tried to start a conversation with us, which was a relief; we’ve got a few friends who are also pregnant right now. I feel awkward a lot of the time, because I don’t want our situation to take away from their joy. We’re joyful for them even if our journey ends differently.

One by one the women filed out for their ultrasounds, leaving the two of us waiting… and waiting… and waiting. Eventually, I went looking for a bathroom; of course, that’s when they called us. We followed the ultrasound technician into a re-purposed hospital room, awkwardly filled with ultrasound equipment and posters for Disney movies proudly displaying that they were “NOW AVAILABLE ON VHS!”.

She was friendly and efficient, explaining to us what we were seeing. She took some 3D ultrasounds as well; one particular image will be burned into my brain as long as I live. Once she was satisfied that she’d obtained all the images she required to verify the diagnosis, she excused herself and departed to find the obstetrician.

So we sat there together in a darkened room, with Ariel the Mermaid staring down at us, waiting…

Eventually two obstetricians showed up. They had reviewed the images, and told us that everything was as we had been told to expect. The 12 week scan was correct. There was no miracle. What was left of our daughter’s brain at the twelve week scan was now gone. Her brain stem remains intact, but there is no chance of her surviving. They took us through all the options available to us, we explained to them the path we’d decided to take, given this particular outcome.

On the 17th of December, our waiting began anew. Phone calls were made, obstetricians called other obstetricians, who called hospitals. We waited for a call from the hospital that never came. More calls were made, and eventually our obstetrician called us back to tell us that we were booked in for induction on the 17th of January, 2011.

We spent Christmas in Sydney with Tan’s family and our friends, and saw in the New Year in Canberra with my family. While the date grinds inexorably closer, we chose to make some memories for our family, in the hope that our children will remember this time in our lives with joy, tinged with sadness though it may be. It was a blessed time; like being in the eye of the storm.

We both went back to work on the 4th of January. I got the easy part of that bargain; Tan runs the creche at a local gym, looking after toddlers… and babies. It’s been a difficult time for her.

It’s constantly there in the back of my head. I try not to think about it, but I can’t shake this terrible sadness; waiting for the inevitable. Over the past week at work I’ve become increasingly unfocussed; my employers have been great about it. It’s like the old canard “the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train”; except in this case, it’s not just cynicism.

And right when my wife needs me to be there for her, I’ve been struggling (and failing) not to withdraw into myself.

This week has been particularly hard. Watching the flooding in Queensland, seeing the grief of people who’ve lost their homes – or loved ones with whom they’ve spent their lives. A boy the age of my eldest son giving up his life to save his younger brother – the age of my youngest son. Stilgherrian’s suddenly having to say goodbye to his beautiful cat, Artemis. So much tragedy this week. I don’t know how to balance the sadness of and for others with my own grief.

It’s now Saturday the 15th of January. Our time with our daughter is nearly over. On Monday, we’ll meet our daughter – and say goodbye. The funeral has been tentatively booked; the funeral director is waiting for my call. We took the kids to visit the cemetery this morning; this time next week, we will have laid our daughter to rest in the “Avenue of Rainbows” beside other children whose families had to say goodbye too soon.

Our waiting is nearly over. I just don’t feel ready to face it.

On heartbreaking decisions…

If you haven’t already, please read this post first.

One week ago, Tan and I were still trying to decide what we’d name our baby. We couldn’t agree on a name. We’d decided to find out the gender, if possible, during the ultrasound we were so eagerly anticipating. The cot we’d been given was standing against the wall in pieces awaiting the decision about whose room it would end up in.

All of that changed in an instant last Tuesday. The days that followed the ultrasound were full of appointments and conversations with doctors and specialists; as much as I wanted someone to take the decision out of our hands, there was no one. The decision was ours alone to make. The doctors and specialists expanded the information we’d been able to gather on our own, but there wasn’t much more to find out.

Acrania is fatal. Our daughter will not survive. To add to our grief, we were advised that if Tan chose to carry to full term, there are additional health risks for her in this situation.

The worst day of our lives.

I’ve had bad days in my life. Depression will do that to you. I can catastrophize with the best of them.

This was not one of those days.

One of the things that I knew about my wife from before the time we got married was that she wanted four children. I, on the other hand, wanted two. I’m the eldest of three, and I know how that plays out. We had ‘J’ 15 months after we got married, ‘E’ came along a bit over three years after that. Eventually, I changed my mind, and our daughter ‘B’ was born just before Christmas in 2003.

As far as I was concerned, three was it. We moved to Melbourne in 2005, I bought a Commodore sedan (“Big Red” as the kids call it) which seats a total of five people, and we settled into our new life here. Tan still wanted four kids, but I stonewalled. Between dealing with the depression, and our aspie kid(s)… No way. No how. No room in the car for another one.

A few months ago, I changed my mind. Several reasons behind it, but the summary is that I did change my mind, and we decided that for us, four would be a magic number. My depression is largely under control. We’ve worked out (mostly) how to manage the ASD stuff. The kids were all very excited, and Tan was over the moon. We started preparing emotionally, and Tan started taking folic acid tablets. Doctors recommend taking folic acid to reduce the instances of neural tube defects. After Tan fell pregnant, we saw our doctor, and she discussed having an amniocentesis test for birth defects. Tan and I had already had the discussion, several times over the past fifteen years, and we still feel the same way. If our child was born with any of the defects they can detect with an amnio, such as Downs Syndrome, we’d find a way to make it work.