Facing death with a 68 year-old bullet by Jarad Henry

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I was once told that nothing in life is impossible. That some things are just harder than others.

The person who told me this was my father, who learnt it from his own father, who in turn was brought up to believe that you only get one shot in life, so make the most of it.

Work hard, play hard, and leave your mark on the world.

In crime writing we leave our “mark” in various forms. DNA, blood splatter, fibres, gun shot residue, fingerprints. In real life, our books and words are the “marks” we leave on the world. Our fingerprints, if you like, proving that we were here.

We also write about death.

It’s a staple ingredient, vital, like meat in a hamburger. There are formulas, conventions and devices we use to control plot and characters, action and emotions, but in real life everybody faces death in their own way. Religion, culture, life experience and a range of other factors get thrown in the blender and the pulp that comes out is different for everyone.

The end of June and beginning of July hold special significance for my family. Two weeks ago my grandfather, a veteran of the Second World War, who is still recovering from a stroke, turned 94 years old.

This week my father would have turned 62.

He passed away in 2011 after a long slide into the eventual degeneration that Motor Neurone Disease delivers to all its victims.  I was there when he was diagnosed. One of those rooms in the hospital with couches and a box of tissues on a coffee table, which the nurses and doctor’s refer to as “the gallows”, where death sentences are dished out in a bored and rehearsed monotone, like a medical court room.

“Six to twelve” was my father’s sentence. No parole. No appeal. Life means life.

After delivering her sentence, the doctor left us in the gallows, my mother and father silent, in shock, knowing it was one of those turning points where you question everything you’ve been brought up to believe. That maybe some things in life are impossible.

My father took the “6-12″ month sentence literally. He drew graphs, charts, tracking his progress, making forward projections and timelines, like a pilot planning a flight path. When 12 months turned into 18, he drew new charts, re-mapping, re-plotting and re-estimating arrival and departure times. He wasn’t used to this. Timetables were to be adhered to. The doctors had messed with his schedule and the uncertainty of this, of not knowing his departure date, chewed at him daily.

To pass the time he set about doing odd jobs, keeping busy, fixing his house, one project after another, having at least some certainty in the knowledge that there would always be another project.

One of those was to write his memoirs.

It wasn’t a ‘warts and all’ memoir. It never could’ve been. A career airline pilot knows the Captain goes down with the ship. He doesn’t take others with him. But with the help of a carer, who acted as his ‘ghost writer’, he produced an abridged version of a life lived with the one-shot theory in mind, making the most of the time he had on earth. Work hard, play hard. Eight hours between the bottle and the throttle, sometimes even less. Enjoy the moments and leave your mark on the world.

Euthanasia is illegal in Australia, but as with any law – especially those that restrict people’s personal choices – there are always ways around it. So the day my father passed was a scheduled event, like an execution date, set for exactly 1300hrs, on January 11th 2011. Having so many number ’1′s in the schedule, perhaps my father thought would make a difference for the doctor, or more likely it was a nice, simple and pragmatic choice. This was his final decision in life and he didn’t want it to go wrong, so he made things easy. But, as in Murphy’s Law, when something can go wrong, it will.

Doctor Doom was running late, more than half an hour late. My father was furious. How could he mess this up? The doctor had no idea, probably figured it didn’t matter. Give the guy another hour with his family. Clearly he didn’t know my father. On any ordinary day my father hated waiting and he hated doctors even more because doctors always made him wait. And when you make someone wait, you make them late. Being an airline pilot, if you’re late, you make a lot of people late. Schedules are important. They keep everything in order. Uncertainty is the enemy of order.

So for the doctor to run late on this day was unacceptable.  My father had an important flight to catch, his last, and it had to leave on time. He was sick of waiting, sick of the uncertainty. He was sick of the fear.

Eventually the doctor arrived and, like a Captain’s First Officer, prepared the aircraft and its solo passenger for take off. With a final salute to my mother, brother and myself, in went the needle and we watched as the lethal dose of morphine pushed flight GWH 06/07 down the runway. The jet finally lifted off, climbed into the air and banked at exactly 1000 feet, a strobe light on the left wing tip winking one final goodbye.

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Like my father, my grandfather has also recently written his memoirs. He is stoic man of pride, intelligence and dignity. A military man, proudly independent, he never lets age interfere with life.

In this part of the world we call men like this the Australian & New Zealand Army Corp, or ANZACs. They are sacred and to be respected. Given the sacrifices they made, and the suffering thereafter, the respect is well earned and deserved.

A classic song by Red Gum called “Only 19″ was remixed by The Herd, demonstrating respect and a new generation of dedication to ANZACs.

Like many ANZAC’s, my grandfather has a rogue sense of humour. For many years he owned a queen size snooker table and his skill honed over the years can only be described as that of a ‘pool shark’. My father secretly idolised this talent (and the table) and when he finally saved enough money to do so, he built a room big enough to fit a king size table in it. Then he invited my grandfather over from New Zealand to see it and play him on his brand new, and even bigger, table.

My father lost the first few games, but my grand father took pity and decided let his son win, so he threw a few games, deliberately losing. My father called his bluff, and took offence, so my grandfather declared that he would play ‘fair and square’ but instead of using a pool cue, he would give my father a slight advantage by using a broom stick instead of a billiard cue. And sure enough, he took a broom from the laundry, unscrewed the stick and proceeded to beat my father again on his own table with a broom stick.

During the war, my grandfather and his battalion drove their tanks through deserted parts of Italy. At one point they came across an abandoned bank. Now, what would you do? Keep going or make the most of such an opportunity? A safe was carried out and a mortar shell used to blow it open. It was empty. So they found another safe, blew that open, and millions of Lira floated down on them. On another occasion, he was shot in the leg and ended up in hospital. After the doctors operated on it, he learned his battalion was on the move, so he discharged himself and set off to continue with his comrades.

Many years later, at a family dinner, he told me he was having trouble with his knee. He had been to the doctor and had an x-ray, expecting to be informed that he needed a knee replacement. That wasn’t the case. Instead there was what the doctor described as a “foreign object” lodged behind his knee. The doctor held up the x ray and there, plain as sight, was the outline of a bullet.

“I’ll be buggered,” he said. “They told me they took that out!”

My grandfather showed me the scar on his calf, which runs from his ankle to his knee.

“It’s been in there 68 years. Jesus, no wonder it hurts.”

“What are you going to do,” I asked, bemused.

“Nothing. It can stay there. I’ll take this one with me.”

More recently, I asked what his thoughts were on war in the current global context. His response was unequivocally anti-war.

“When I was young I was excited, we all were, not out of patriotism, but adventure…. It seemed too good to be true, but it turned out be an unexpected and never ending nightmare. The world is a very tender place and it doesn’t take much to start a war, but it takes a lot to more to end one.”

Perhaps that is because war is big business and a major part of the global economy. Many countries need weapons, bombs, guns and missiles to survive. If that is the mark we’ve left on the world, then that, if you ask me, is a real crime.

So to my father, the Captain who taught me that nothing in life is impossible, that some things are just harder than others, and to the ANZAC I know as Grandad, a trooper with a 68 year-old machine gun bullet in his knee, I wish you both a happy birthday and thank you for creating our family. However humble, we are your mark, your fingerprints on the world.

When I come to face my own mortality, staring back at life, I hope I am as brave as you.


Pink Tide is available online. Click on the image below if you wish to buy a copy.

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