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Authors: Lucy Palmer

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BOOK: A Bird on My Shoulder
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I later realised that talking about his situation was my need, not his. Like many women I found a sense of strength and comfort through talking; empathy and connection had always been very important in my emotional world view.

Selfishly, I really wanted to understand what Julian was feeling in order to lessen my own feelings of fear and isolation. He said so little about what he really felt since his diagnosis and I could sense myself retreating from him, a little bruised by his apparent self-absorption, muted by the vastness of everything we could no longer talk about.

Later that year Julian went to another alternative cancer treatment workshop, this time in Brisbane. Again there was lots of talk of meditation and a diet free of alcohol, sugar and meat. He returned with a huge bag of apparently immune-boosting vitamins.

I remember him lining up all the bottles of co-enzyme Q10, vitamin C and I honestly can't remember what else along the open kitchen shelf. Every morning he would down several of these tablets with his morning juice.

‘Delicious,' he would say with heavy irony.

•••

The most obvious obstacle to Julian's continuing good health and the possibility of receiving the best treatment was the fact that we lived in Papua New Guinea, where medical care of the kind he might need was almost non-existent.

But this was our home and we both had careers, friends and a life neither of us wanted to leave. With Nina and her extended family, we had a quality of loving care for George I knew would be almost impossible to find in a Western society. I had certainly thought I was in PNG to stay for many years to come and I know Julian did too. Where would we go and what would we do?

We put off any decision for as long as possible. While Julian was relatively well and trialling low-dose oral chemotherapy, which seemed to have little ill-effect, there seemed to be no real pressure to leave. So we coasted along in denial, working, living, enjoying our daily walks and life with George.

Then we experienced first-hand the potential horrors of the health system. A young man, Joe, had travelled to Papua New Guinea by ship from Australia, bringing horses. While breaking them in with Edward, he had a terrible accident.

Julian and I arrived in the emergency department at Port Moresby General Hospital to find Joe in agony with a partially severed foot – the horse had reared, he had fallen backwards and been dragged along with his foot caught in the stirrup.

The sweltering waiting room was full of people, and there were patches of dried blood on the walls and floor. This painful vision illuminated the true human cost of years of corruption and ineptitude in the country's public service. The triage team insisted they could not administer any pain relief until the doctor had come. I stood next to Joe as he lay on a dirty mattress, gripping my hand in agony.

Port Moresby, despite its status as the country's capital, was basically a small town. Julian knew a surgeon who was not rostered on that day and drove around the city looking for him. It took two hours and eventually, after brief surgery at midnight and three days in recovery, Joe was flown back to Cairns for further treatment.

Up until that point Julian had always been quite light-hearted about the failings of the health system, often pointing to the safe birth of Edward many years before as an example of its adequate levels of care. He wasn't light-hearted anymore. Even as a relatively wealthy foreigner who could afford to fly out in an emergency, he could see that the time would come when he might need a much higher level of expertise and care. It probably would be wise, we agreed, to leave PNG in order to give Julian the best chance of keeping cancer at bay for as long as possible. We began to talk of moving back to Australia by the end of the year with a degree of melancholy resignation and inevitability.

•••

While Sydney was an obvious option and certainly the one that I preferred, Julian was keener to investigate the Southern Highlands – which also happened to be within striking distance of St Vincent's Hospital. Like a lot of men who have spent much of their working life in an office, there was a touch of the gentleman farmer about Julian. He wanted wide open spaces to imagine a new life, new possibilities.

All of my adult life had been spent in towns or cities – London, Sydney and now Port Moresby. I loved a more bustling existence and had no great hankering to live permanently in rural Australia or, indeed, rural anywhere. However, given the situation Julian was facing, I decided I had no right to deny him his wish. If it had been the other way around and I was the one dealing with a life-threatening illness, I would have wanted his wholehearted support.

After visiting Julian's brother John and his wife Mary in Sydney, we headed off to the Southern Highlands. I hid the fact I felt somewhat bleak as we rattled along the country roads in a borrowed car, past mile after mile of paddocks. George was not overly thrilled to be pinned into a tight car seat for hours on end and there were frequent stops along the way.

Despite the distance from Sydney, though, I had to admit I liked the area. The main towns – Bowral, Mittagong, Robertson,
Moss Vale – were all uniquely different and it was the first time in many years that I had been in a place which reminded me so much of England with its rolling green hills. After a few days, I began to see the benefits that a new life might offer and we made arrangements to rent a house outside Bowral the following year to give ourselves time to find a permanent home.

•••

At the end of our visit, I had planned to stay on alone at the Douglas Park monastery south of Sydney for a two-day retreat. Julian was returning to Port Moresby with George. I wasn't a Catholic, but the retreat centre had been recommended to me by a dear friend. Many people made fun of me when I said the retreat was silent. ‘You'll never last,' they said.

I was not so sure. As sociable as I could be, there were times when I needed to escape, and the desert had taught me a great deal about the necessity of solitude – it was the only way to reconnect with myself. The last few months had been especially challenging. Shortly before Julian's diagnosis and the relentless demands of the Sandline affair, I had also suffered a devastating late miscarriage. Even though Julian was more accepting of the loss, I grieved for the life of our second child. I wondered what the future now held in terms of the larger family I had set my heart on.

There is something about being in the presence of someone who has spent a lifetime focusing on mystery and contemplation,
something so beautifully simple about the peace they possess. Immediately on meeting Father Terry Naughton, I sensed that nothing I could say would disturb or surprise him.

‘Tell me about yourself,' he said.

For so long I had been able to ride the wave of my more uncomfortable emotions and often pretended to others that I was feeling alright. But from the moment I began to speak, all my defences fell away. I held nothing back, pouring out all my anguish about Julian's diagnosis and the loss of our baby; I finally felt free to acknowledge how lost and bewildered I felt. It was an opportunity to bring the darkness of my more difficult emotions into the light.

I had been trying so hard to be positive around Julian, to be encouraging, but the truth was I also felt a deep sense of loneliness in our marriage now that the ghost of cancer threatened our future.

Whatever I said, Father Terry did not flinch. When I told him how angry I felt at times, he responded with compassion and understanding.

‘Do you think you can befriend your anger?' he asked after a while.

I looked into his kind eyes. What could he mean? How could such toxic emotions be acceptable? My hope was that simply by voicing them, these deeply uncomfortable feelings would magically disappear.

Father Terry suggested that I spend the rest of the day contemplating the words of Christ: ‘Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.'

‘Is that it?' I asked.

‘See how you go,' he said.

I wandered off to my room to collect a hat and a journal. The monastery had been built in the most beautiful bushland and the prospect of a long walk was irresistible.

The suggested mantra echoed in my mind as I strolled down to the river. The day was bright but the light in the winding forest was dappled and soothing. Eventually I found a lovely spot under a tree.

Since childhood, I had felt a strong connection to mystery and was captivated by the stories of Christ. Much to the bemusement of my atheist family, as a young teenager I had covered our garage wall with bold green and orange stickers proclaiming
THIS WAY TO JESUS!
I had never really pursued my spiritual curiosity in a more formal sense and was absolutely averse to what I felt was the impersonality and rigidness of religious institutions. I sat alone by the riverbank, my mind in turmoil.
All you who are weary? You have no idea.

My discomfort began to border on embarrassment. I fidgeted, looked in my bag for something to eat, and tried to feel inspired. Nothing, just the hot day, the buzzing flies and the distant drone of the freeway.

I felt like a fraud. I did not know how to hand over my burdens – whatever that meant. Someone like me was clearly not cut out for a contemplative life, my mind was too busy, too relentless. The novelty of the retreat was wearing off, and my hopes for a blinding light on the road to Damascus were clearly far too ambitious.

I had created this opportunity for a deeper experience of life, a way to gather myself and find an unshakeable place of peace, but all I could hear were the endless voices in my head berating me for being so pretentious, so inadequate.

I took out my journal, hungry for distraction. I leafed through the pages, ashamed of my past attempts to say something profound or insightful about my life. Instead I sounded like a tormented teenager. I quickly flicked to a blank page, unable to bear reading any more.

I picked up my pen and waited. Surely I could find something to write, to slip unseen past this watching moment and find the peace I was seeking. I felt my breath dropping down into my lungs, my exhalations heavy with anxiety.
Come to me.

The sounds began to melt into one: the brooding wind, the swish of brushing leaves, the staccato call of a distant bird. I leaned back on the rough tree, its bark rough against my hair, and began to write, so slowly it was as if I was a child again, looping each letter together with unusual care.

There is so much silence.

I closed my eyes, allowing a sense of deep exhaustion to wash over me.

•••

For the rest of the retreat I mostly slept or walked around in a minor trance. During those two days, there was no great moment of revelation. However, I did find unexpected solace. I allowed myself to speak to mystery and to consider that my words would be heard and understood, somewhere, somehow. It comforted me but gave me no answers. For the moment, that would have to be enough.

•••

When the retreat ended, I was handed a fax from Julian.

Darling Lucy,

Porgy is keeping me happy taking the stuffing out of his nappy where it was torn by a plant on the veranda. He is now into the paints. Next he will be back to the films. In a little while we will set off for the beach. He is extremely nice and I would like to hear him speak. When he does I don't expect complaints!

Today is perfect. It is nice in this house and in many ways I would like to stay and not move away from it. But I also think a move would be better for us. I find it difficult to see us growing without a new start in a new home.

There is more that I want to say but at 11 pm I have lost the wit and the energy. I am looking forward to seeing you, my darling, and I confess a small part of the reason is that Porgy is a bit of a handful without help. We had a nice day together and played with a lot of laughing instead of talking. He managed to make a terrific mess and we sort of slobbed out together. I am very much in love with you.

Lots of kisses,

J

To: Julian Thirlwall

From: Your loving wife!

Darling,

I just happened to see your fax – I shall follow your lead and write instead of telephoning.

I am glad for you that this break has given you some breathing space as my retreat did for me. You have really needed it.

I don't feel as though I have been much of a support to you at times this year. The bad news has taken a long time to sink in and I think I tried to pretend for a while that I did not feel terribly sad. Thank you for being patient with me.

My greatest fear is that this myeloma will drive us apart, and that you will withdraw and not share the difficult times. I hope we can find a way of being more and more united as
time goes by. I want to be your rock, to be strong for you when you need me.

We have a lot to grapple with – after only a year and a half of marriage there is so much to digest. You have enriched my life in so many ways and given me so much to be so deeply thankful for. You have given me yourself and allowed me to feel such a sense of completeness to be entirely yours. You have also given me George, Edward, Henry, Charlie and Oliver to love and share my life with.

Let's have some special time together soon, darling, before we leave Papua New Guinea, to help prepare us for the next chapter in our happy and unforgettable marriage.

All my love,

L xxxx

•••

To mark our imminent departure from Papua New Guinea, Julian and I decided to go on a long walk from Goroka down to the Ramu Valley with a group of local guides. We had initially talked about going on a boat trip up the mighty Sepik River – Julian had never been and it was one place he really wanted to see. But ultimately, we both wanted a real adventure, to do something we would never forget. We arranged that George would stay in Port Moresby with Nina.

I always knew most Papua New Guineans who lived a subsistence life in the mountains were robust, but on this expedition
the resilience and good humour of our guides was extraordinary. It wasn't actually a walk, more a bush-bashing scramble up and down ridges, hanging on to slippery tree vines and trying not to look down into the chasms below. At night we camped in heavy rain, our meagre tent buckling under sheets of water, the incessant noise of the forest animals making it almost impossible to sleep.

BOOK: A Bird on My Shoulder
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