This morning, at about 0740, my maternal grandfather, Hugh Slattery, died. He was 90.
### The event
Dad called me at around 0800, and told me, his voice shaking a little as the call ended. He’d died peacefully, Dad said, “just stopped breathing.” He had been suffering from both emphysima and myelodysplasia, both of which decrease the body’s ability to take in and use oxygen, so I assume that he died mainly of a lack of it.
After the call, I went straight back to sleep, having been up until 0530 playing _World of Warcraft_. I’d feel a little guilty for being so detached, but guilt is for suckers.
Hugh and I weren’t close in the last years of his life. He was a committed Catholic and anti-communist, and for the last ten years or so his children have walked on metaphorical eggshells around him, failing to communicate about many things for fear of unsettling him, an old man who everyone feared might be about to die. This meant that many of the people close to him didn’t communicate some of the most important things happening in their lives. Mum eventually told him that I was a Buddhist, but I doubt he knew I am also, and more strongly, an anti-Christian. We never talked about things like why I wasn’t married after six years on and off (he would only have known about the on) with the same girl (the answers are that we’re not sure we’re the right partners for each other, and that I believe marriage is an antiquated form of union that treats people as property, and not as free agents). Mum, I guess, never told him that she doesn’t entirely believe in god anymore.
### A tragic story
Here’s an example of how well-meaning concern for people’s feelings can cripple family relationships:
It’s Sunday 5 September, 2004, my 23rd birthday. In the Sunday Age, I unexpectedly find my first ever letter to the editor. I am ecstatic. The letter, which the letters editor has entitled “Let teens decide,” reads:
Why is it so often assumed that sex between adults and teenagers is morally reprehensible? ‘Don’t stand so close to me’ (Agenda 29/8) repeatedly implies that it is immoral for a teacher to have sex with a high-school student, even when that student wants sex and consents fully.
Our laws make such a consensual act a crime. But nowhere do we hear compelling reasons why consensual sex is anything other than morally neutral.
As a teenager, I always found the idea that anyone had “a duty to protect kids from themselves” incredibly insulting. Teenagers can make their own, rational decisions.
Hugh is staying with my parents, who are helping to take care of him after he had a fall that put him in rehab, where he was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a blood disorder that a doctor told him would kill him in ten weeks. (This was several months ago, probably close to a year.) Hugh Slattery was a very intelligent man: not an intellectual not by training, but arguably so by inclination. He is proud of me, and wants to know what the letter was about. I have to avoid him all day, because Mum flips out and begs me not to tell him, or to let him read it. I’d always thought it was disrespectful to keep things from him, as though he couldn’t handle it, and was quite content to have impassioned debates in front of him with my family about such things as why the government shouldn’t get involved in trying to regulate internet porn, or why it was ridiculous to insist (as one of my aunts did over lunch at the Rivoli some years ago) that a husband and father ought to be the ultimate authority in a family. But this time I caved. At dinner, he asked me about the letter directly:
“What was the letter about?”
“You’d better ask mum that,” I reply.
Minutes later: “What was the letter about?”
“You’d better ask mum,” I repeat, deadpan. The reply is against my nature, and it treats Hugh like a child whose parents each pass the sex talk off to the other until he finally gets his answers by reading medical reference books.
### A man I learned to admire
From my late teens onwards, we had disagreed about religion and politics, and it stopped us from talking to each other as much as we might have, in the way that ideological disagreements never should stop dialogue, especially between family members. Finally, towards the end of last year, I started to see things in him that I respected as I never had before.
When he had the fall that made it clear he couldn’t live alone in his house any more, he didn’t press the emergency call button hanging around his neck. Instead, he spent two hours crawling to the phone, just to do it himself. Some of his children clucked disapprovingly: “he should have just pressed the button.” But I firmly believe that if he’d been the kind of person to do that, he would have died in ten weeks, just as the doctor ordered. He didn’t listen to the doctor, somewhat unwisely in my opinion, fantasising that the doctor had actually told him he had _five years_ to live. Better to face the reality if you really are going to die, but in practice that’s what he did: he put everything into living as well as he could, despite being crippled by conditions that so destroyed his ability to utilise oxygen that he ended up having it permanently fed into his nostrils just to maintain a healthy person’s mental functions and a fraction of their energy. Here, I realised, was an absolutely self-determined man. His body was failing, but his mind fought on. For his 90th birthday, in January, I’m glad I had the guts to send him a card that told him how much I admired his tenacity.
A few months earlier we’d had another conversation, where I told him how I’d changed my mind about socialism, that I’d realised how its proponents didn’t tolerate dissent. He was so weakened by illness that our conversation couldn’t last long enough for me to tell him that it was also because I finally realised that government interference in economic matters was inconsistent with my uncompromising insistence on maximum personal freedom (provided that one’s actions do not infringe another’s right to self-determination). I didn’t get to tell him how a colleague’s argument that to achieve socialism (a thing this colleague desires) we would have to abolish individual subjectivity, fills me with horror.
Hugh had, for a time, been National Secretary and National Vice-President of the National Civic Council, a body dedicated to fighting the perceived threat of communism in Australia, linked with the Democratic Labor Party and the Catholic Church. He was a social conservative, and wouldn’t have agreed with most of my politics. He’d told me himself that though he often didn’t agree with what I said, he found me interesting to listen to. I’m glad he appreciated my being spirited enough to speak my mind in front of him.
“I’m glad,” I told him, “that people like you and Bob Santamaria were around to fight against communism.”
“I’m glad to hear you’ve changed your mind,” he told me.
I heard that he was so pleased by my phone call that he remained animated for a whole afternoon. I’m glad I could do that for him. We said we’d talk about politics again, but we never did. The last time I saw him, at Christmas, he was overtaken by a coughing fit that stopped him from having a conversation with anyone. But here, again, I had seen a way in which I could respect him: a way in which I thought that it was right and admirable to live the way he had.
I don’t believe it makes sense to think there’s an afterlife: that since we don’t know if there is, we have to live as though there isn’t. Publicly, Hugh believed there _is_ an afterlife, and that he’d be going to heaven in return for his good works. Whether he believed it in his heart, I’ll never know. My guess is that whatever doubts he had would have vanished before the immediate prospect of death, the fear that it would be the end, and the hope that it wouldn’t be.
I’ve said it before: I don’t want to die. I think we humans can aspire to better than being snuffed out by our faulty biology just as we’ve begun to understand life properly. Hugh deserved better. We both deserved more time to live, and to talk, and to overcome our differences. We all deserve more time.
I raise my coffee cup to the memory of a man who was determined to live until it was no longer possible. Since I won’t cry tears, I cry words for him instead. Oh, damn it, now I _am_ crying tears.