My father was impossible to play Scrabble with, my mother would often complain. While she would look sadly at her letters and lament that we weren’t playing in Cantonese or Portuguese, my dad would happily fill up the board with bogus, plausible-looking morphemes. We’d challenge him, of course, but he could provide part of speech, definition, etymology, and literary examples without missing a beat. Often he’d pretend to read these out of the dictionary. I’d ask him to repeat it all, and he would, verbatim — or as near as I could tell.
It was all so convincing that when we’d snatch the dictionary away from him and find nothing there, it was genuinely hard not to believe him when he said: “Ah well, it was there when I was looking — they must have changed it since then.” Equally compelling was his gasp of horror when accused of cheating: “I never cheat!” — he would point at my mother — “she’s the one who cheats, by knowing all those words. I only know a few, but they’re always the right ones.”
He was — rather, he is — full of real knowledge as well. When I was scared of the dark as a child he calmed me down with a comical rendition of what I learned much later was Caliban’s speech from The Tempest: “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. . .” Whacking blowflies with his switch as we walked in the hills, he would recite Omar Khayyam — “the moving finger of time, having writ, moves on.” This was not erudition you’d naturally expect from a forestry major. But then I think his father was the same, and he’d left school at fifteen.
More congruous with his background were his practical abilities (here I must use the past tense): he could fix anything and build anything, as long as you didn’t mind a bit of explosive swearing along the way. He terraced our backyard with a crowbar and a shovel. A tree pruner who visited us wouldn’t believe he hadn’t used a machine. Spying the military tags around his neck, my dad replied: “Just an infantry grade trench, mate.” The tree pruner liked that, and Dad was very pleased with himself.
When he and my mother came to visit me in London for my last birthday, I saw him diminished for the first time. I could see him trying to remember my name before settling on “Hullo, mate”. His voice was as compelling as ever, but his stories were confused. A word or an image would set him off climbing the hills outside West Wyalong — into some strange amalgamation of his rural childhood, his time in the army, and a recent walking trip.
My mother tried to make him make sense to me, sifting out the grains of reason from the eroding banks of his thought, using her extraordinary intellect to reverse-engineer the infernal machine that was building monsters out of his memories. She, who knew so many languages, was now learning the language of his confusion. She could understand him by sheer force of will — a testament to a sort of love and sacrifice I might never fully comprehend.
He is still full of praise, as he always has been, for everything around him. But now he struggles to pin it to the right bits of the world. He is broken into fragments, but inside each of the fragments he is whole. The last time I saw him, we walked together and he would identify trees and birds. We sat together and he would look over the newspaper, underlining arbitrary words and reacting emotionally to them. It struck me that this was just an honest picture of how we all read the newspaper really.
I thought of our old Scrabble games as he tried to innovate his way around his disease. When a hot-air balloon went past our window he said: “Look! The window is bespotted!” When he mentioned how things were 90 years ago, my sister asked him where he was 90 years ago. “Me?” he replied, “I was already dead!” The last time I said goodbye to him, he said: “Well mate, it’s not a pen, but you can still write with it.” Somehow he’d found a way to shine wisdom through the clouds in his mind.
When time falls apart for somebody you love, you realise how many layers of time we’re always living in. If there is any philosophical idea that has helped me to cope with life, it is Bergson’s image of the cone of time. I would try to follow my dad down from the single point of the concentrated present through the increasingly dilated layers, towards the undifferentiated past in which every moment coexists as a teeming chaos of images. I like to think that the past — our past together — is all still there, just not in the linear form.
Maybe somewhere in that jumble, I’m still eating dinner with him and my mum, under the stars in the Blue Mountains on New Year’s Eve, nearly ten years ago. My sister had just given birth to my nephew, and Dad was telling me how he saw having a child as an investment in humanity. Of course he didn’t mean it in the ugly way some politicians speak of children as investments. Having a child, he said, is the proof that, however dark the future might look, you still want some part of you to be in it.
Right now my hopes for the future burn dimly. But I do try to remember that I carry with me a part of my dad that still wants to be in it.