Summer’s End By Carolyn Nicholson
Despite feeling the February sun’s rays burning the back of her neck, making Shani wish she’d taken the time to apply sunscreen all the way round, she gently tucks a woollen blanket across her father’s legs.
Shani, who was christened Sharon but, for reasons she can no longer recall, insisted on being called Shani from age five, has always thought of her father as a big man. Both tall and broad, with an even bigger personality, John Whishart, known to all as Jock, had a presence that filled a room. Now, aged ninety-one, Jock is half his size and has a permanent chill in his bones.
‘You okay there, Dad?’ Shani asks.
‘Yes, Love. Good as gold.’ Jock replies.
‘Where to today?’
‘What about the back beach? We can see what state the pool is in after last week’s storm. You loved swimming there as a kid.’
‘I did. But not as much as I loved fossicking in the rock pools.’ Shani exits her father’s care home car park and points her car towards Sorrento Ocean Beach. ‘Remember the time I nearly wandered to Point Nepean and you and your mates came searching for me.’
Jock laughs, a deep rumbling sound that fills Shani’s heart with joy. ‘I sure do. I was so scared. Thought I’d lost you. Half the cricket club came to help with the search.
Pat Cummins found you. On the other side of London Bridge, lying on the edge of a pool with the top half of your body under water. Poor Pat needed three shots of whiskey before his hands stopped shaking. He thought you were dead.’
‘I nearly did die, of a heart attack, when Pat dragged me out of the water. He didn’t see I was wearing my snorkel and goggles, that I was perfectly safe, watching my undersea friends.’
‘You were seven years’ old. I should never’ve let you wander so far. Your mum would’ve kept you close.’
‘You don’t know that, Dad. You were, are, a great dad, the best.’
‘Your mum would’ve been better at all of it.’ Jock replies softly.
Shani wonders if that were true. Parenting came late to Jock and Bev Wishart, having lost hope of children, they were both heavily involved in the community and from what Shani has heard, her mum preferred her social life to parenting.
Jock, a builder with his own construction business, coached football in winter and cricket in summer, was a member of the local Lions Club and was the first to lend a hand to anyone in need, even crotchety Mrs Williams who lived on the corner of their court and continuously complained about noise, no matter its source.
Bev did the books for Jock’s business as well as a number of other businesses in the area, was president of the local Country Women’s Association, volunteered at the local primary school and loved hosting parties.
According to Shani’s Aunt May, Jock and Bev tried for years for a child. Aunt May wasn’t sure of all the details, infertility wasn’t discussed in those days, but she was aware of a couple of miscarriages and an extended hospital visit when Bev was in her early-thirties, by Aunt May’s accounts, it was a traumatic experience for Bev.
It was on return from a trip to Italy, when Bev, at age thirty-nine, thought she was suffering from food poisoning, went to the doctors, only to be told she was pregnant. Jock was overjoyed. Bev was less enthusiastic, thinking ahead to sleepless nights and dirty nappies, she was worried she didn’t have it in her to start parenting in her forties.
When Shani arrived, Bev was determined to maintain her lifestyle and a series of babysitters were hired to watch over her. Bev was diagnosed with breast cancer when Shani was three. It metastasised quickly; they lost her within a year.
Jock, though heartbroken, stepped up and became a hands on, loving, patient, always present father and Shani cannot imagine a better parent.
‘You ready for a cuppa, Dad?’ Shani reaches into the back of her car for the basket.
‘Sounds good, Love.’ Jock watches a surfer catch a wave. ‘How’s my other girl? Is she still with that young fella from next door?’
‘Charlie’s doing great, Dad. Her and Nathan are excited about starting university this year, they’re going to be living near campus with one of Nathan’s aunts, in an apartment above her garage. They’re getting it almost rent free. I’ll take you for a visit when they’re settled.
It’s in a lovely, leafy street with a tram stop at the end. Charlie’s already got herself a part-time job. Nathan will keep working in his dad’s business.’
‘It’s different from when I was their age. There’s no way I could’ve lived with your mum before marriage. Her father would’ve killed me.’
‘I know, Dad. They grow up much quicker these days. But I couldn’t have picked a better partner for Charlie. Nathan’s totally devoted to her and they’re lovely together. Being together for so long, they know exactly what they’re getting in to, there’ll be no surprises.’
Jock chuckles softly which leads to a coughing fit and he folds into himself.
‘You okay there, Dad? Here, let me take your mug.’ Shani packs their dishes into the basket. ‘Looks like it’s time to get you home.’
Jock leans back and pulling the blanket further up his body, lowers his eyes.
Watching her father sleep, Shani can’t help but wonder how many more summer days she will have with him. How many more drives? She brushes a rogue tear from her cheek. Dad was never one for tears.
Their regular drives to a scenic spot for afternoon tea have become a big part of Shani’s routine, she will miss them when they end, when her father is gone.
The thought of Jock no longer being part of her life causes Shani physical pain. She rubs her chest.
‘I’m not ready.’ Shani whispers. ‘Please, God. I’m not ready.’
‘Hiya, Grandad. Good to see you. Did you watch the test yesterday? The Aussies are looking good this summer.’ Jamie bends to hug Jock, then squats beside his wheelchair.
‘Hello, Grandson, you keeping well? The new batting order appears to be working for them, India will have to work hard to make the runs.’ Jock pats Jamie on the back. ‘Did you bring lovely Lizzie?’
‘Not today. She’s finishing up a design job but she sends her love. We’ll drop by later this week.’
‘You’re a good grandson, Jamie. You needn’t spend your summer holiday hanging around an old people’s home. I’m sure you and Lizzie have better things to do.’
‘We want to come. And you know, if I time it right, I may get some of Sally’s famous scones.’
‘You’ll have to fight the oldies for them, Jamie lad. Sally was sick recently and the place almost went into lockdown there was such a kerfuffle.’
Jamie laughs. ‘Imagine what that would look like, Mum. Fifty oldies in wheelchairs chasing staff around the halls demanding scones. Bet Mrs Mac would be the most vicious, she’s always ready for a fight that one.’
‘You got that right, lad.’
‘I got this for you, Grandad.’ Jamie pulls a chair over and places a real estate flyer on his lap. ‘I saw it in the window and thought of you. Isn’t this one of your builds? They’re asking $3.5 million for it. Can you believe it?’
‘Look at this, Shani. It’s one of my later ones. I retired a year or so after building it.’
Shani places a hand on Jamie’s shoulder. Touched by his thoughtfulness, she swallows a lump in her throat. ‘I remember, Dad. Didn’t I help with the landscaping? There’s the Banksia I planted. Look at the size of it now. House prices are getting ridiculous. Our children can’t afford to own property here anymore.’
‘Tell me about it.’ Jamie stands. ‘There is no way Lizzie and I can afford to buy around here. Even a block of land is out of our price range.’
‘Have you and Lizzie been looking?’ Shani looks nervously at her son. He’s too young to be thinking about mortgages and debt. He’s never lived away from home. Never travelled.
‘You don’t want to be worrying about all that yet, Grandson. You’ve got a lot of livin’ to do first. Lizzie’s still at school and you’re getting your business going. Owning your own business is tricky, takes a lot of your time, needs your focus.’
‘I know, Grandad. We want to get a sense of our options.’ Jamie looks up at Shani. ‘Don’t worry, Mum. You’re stuck with me for a while yet.’
Shani releases the breath she didn’t know she was holding.
Everything is changing. Everyone is leaving her. She can feel it. A subtle shift in the energy around her. The sense of something pulling at her. Forcing her off balance.
Stepping back, she looks at the two men, because Jamie is a man now, whether she likes to admit it or not. One nearing the end of his life. One getting started. Both so dear to her.
What will she do without them in her life? What will life be like when it’s just her and Brad?
‘Earth to Mum. You still with us?’ Jamie calls from across the room.
‘I think Grandad’s asleep. Want me to take him home when he wakes up? I’m heading over to Lizzie’s anyway.’
Knowing that each time she leaves her father she fears it will be the last time she sees him, it would be easy to say yes, to avoid the grief.
Pushing her fear aside, Shani smiles at Jamie, ‘Thanks, it’s good of you to offer but I’ll take him.’
‘I’m sorry, Charlie but I’ve arrived at Grandad’s. I can’t help right now. We still have a week before you move and I’ll be home later today. We can go through it together then.’
Ending what was the third call of the day from Charlie, Shani has mixed feelings about the conversations. Knowing how excited Charlie is about moving to her own home, she wants to be supportive, to make the transition easy for Charlie.
But Charlie’s her baby, her only daughter and damn it, she’s not ready for her to leave. The summer has flown by and next week Charlie will be living with Nathan, going to university and working, all of which are separate from her life with Shani and Brad, taking her further away from them.
‘Hey Sharni, before you go in, can I have a word?’ Asks Lisa, the Centre Manager.
‘Sure Lisa, is everything okay?’
‘Jock had a bad night. It’s time to talk about his advance care plan.’
Shani’s heart sinks. Jock insisted on a plan when he moved. Not wanting to prolong suffering or to be a burden, Jock wanted to ensure his wishes would be followed. Wishes which include no resuscitation or life-prolonging treatment.
‘We didn’t get to that stage last night but we may soon. Jock’s getting weaker. The signs are there. I think you need to prepare yourself.’
Without warning tears flow and Shani gratefully accepts the proffered tissues. ‘Sorry. Thanks.’ Shani wipes her face before blowing her nose. ‘I know I should be prepared but it feels sudden. He looked so happy at Christmas, spent the whole day with us, laughing and telling stories.’
‘It can be like that. They push themselves to reach a milestone, a point in time, then let go, they accept the next phase of life and their body responds.’
‘Was he distressed?’
‘A little but we were able to settle him quickly. He’s been sleeping most of the morning. He didn’t come for breakfast. We took him a tray but the last time I checked it was uneaten.
You may want to make arrangements, for your family to come and say goodbye. It won’t be long now.’
‘Dad’s always loved summer. It’s his favourite season. He loves being outdoors with the sun on his back. I’ve been taking him for drives. We sit in the car, talking about growing up in Sorrento, about my two, cricket and about Mum.
He still misses her. After all this time. He never re-married. Never even dated that I know of. It was always just the two of us. I couldn’t’ve asked for a better father or grandfather for my children. They adore him.’ Feeling on the edge of tears again, Shani sits up straight, takes a deep breath. ‘I think I’ll go and see him now. Thanks, Lisa. I appreciate you taking the time.’
‘I’m hear if you need me.’
As warned, Jock is asleep when Shani enters his room. Careful not to disturb him, she pulls a chair close to his bed, taking his hand in hers, she settles beside him.
His hand is cool to the touch. His skin papery. Shani can feel the callouses from his years of building and remembers a time when Jock’s hands seemed as large as dinner plates. He would throw Shani into the air and catch her in his hands, laughing loudly as he did.
Those same hands carried her into the emergency department, the year her appendix almost ruptured and he drove her to the hospital himself, not trusting the ambulance service to get Shani there in time.
He held Shani’s hand as he walked her down the aisle. He was the first to visit when both of his grandchildren were born, and his hands gently scooped them from their cribs, holding them close as he whispered secret messages of love.
With his hands, he taught Charlie to bowl a spinner and Jamie to mark a footy, and taught both the art of building something from scratch.
‘I love you, Dad.’ Shani whispers softly as she kisses his hand. ‘I know you’re tired. I know you’re ready. You’ve been a wonderful father. If you want to go, Dad, go peacefully. I’ll miss you but we’ll be okay. You’ve done your job, Dad. We’ll be right.’
Jock continues to breathe softly but doesn’t wake and after a couple of peaceful hours by his side, Shani reluctantly let’s go.
‘We’ll let you know if anything changes.’ One of the carers assures her.
‘Thanks.’ Shani kisses Jock gently on the forehead. ‘See you soon, Dad.’
‘What do you mean you’re moving out? It was only last week you said you and Lizzie were saving up for your own place.’ Shani can hear the tone of her voice and doesn’t like it.
‘It’s not permanent. Scotty’s grandparents are going overseas for an extended holiday, their last big hurrah apparently and they’ve offered their house to him. He doesn’t want to live there alone so he asked me to move in with him.
It’s only for a few months. It’ll give me a chance to see what it’s like. To be independent, before Lizzie and I move in together. I thought you’d be pleased to have us both out of your hair.’
‘Pleased! What are you talking about? When have I ever made you feel unwelcome. This is your home.’
‘Shani. Honey. I don’t think Jamie means he doesn’t feel welcome here.’ Brad places a hand on Shani’s thigh.
‘Of course not, Mum. Not at all. But I’m nearly twenty-one and I’ve never lived away from home, never fended for myself. I’m not even leaving Sorrento, I’ll be five minutes away, if that.’
‘I know, Jamie. I’m sorry. First Charlie’s moved out, now Dad … well, Dad is getting near the end and here you are telling me you’re leaving too. I feel like everything is changing.’ Shani lifts her head. ‘Sorry, love. I’m so used to being needed, by you and Charlie and by Grandad too, I don’t know what I’m going to do without you all.’
‘We’ll always need you, Mum but more importantly we’ll always be family, so we’ll never be far away. I love you, Mum.’ Jamie, all six feet two inches of him, wrap himself around Sharni.
‘Thanks, love. Now ignore me. Go and pack. You can’t leave Scotty on his own, someone is going to have to make sure he doesn’t burn the place down.’
Turning to Brad, Sharni looks into the eyes of her husband. ‘Guess it’s just you and me now.’
‘And aren’t I lucky.’ Brad kisses Sharni softly on the lips. ‘Now leave Jamie to me, you go and see Jock. You’ll be on edge until you do.’
Entering her father’s room, Sharni is surprised to see Jock sitting up in bed, with a smile on his face and some colour on his cheeks. ‘Wow! Look at you.’
Sharni leans over to kiss Jock on the cheek, feeling hopeful for the first time in a week. Since meeting with Lisa, Jock has slept more than he’s been awake. Taking Lisa’s advice, the family came in, each spending one on one time with Jock and though he still chatted with them when awake, he hasn’t left his bed.
‘The Aussies won the test and Sally made a special batch of her lemonade scones for me. I’ve had two with jam and cream.’
‘Don’t let the other residents hear you got special treatment. They’ll all turn poorly in the hopes of getting their own stash of scones.’ Knowing Jock has been off his food for the past week, Sharni is heartened to hear he has managed to eat something.
‘The Couta boats are out today, Dad. They look glorious in the afternoon sun, with the Bay as smooth as glass. I think I saw Micky’s old boat out there.’
‘Poor Micky, went too early that one. I missed having him at the poker table.’
‘Gosh, remember those nights. They were a great bunch of guys, though I remember Pat getting into trouble because of his potty mouth. He put a dollar in the kitty every time he swore.’
Jock laughs softly. ‘That’s right. You were supposed to be asleep by the time they got there but you somehow always managed to talk me into letting you stay up.
By the time you were ten you played the first few hands. By fifteen you were taking money from us. Remember the time you bluffed Sully into folding and all you had was a pair of eights? Ha! Sully turned red, he was so mad.’ Jock laughs at the memory.
‘And I opened my first bank account the next week, started saving for a car. I’d say over half my car funds came from those poker nights.’
‘Wonder what the parenting experts would say about that.’
‘They’d say you provided me with a well-rounded education and a healthy respect for my elders. Not to mention food on the table, a home to feel safe in and a community who looked out for me.
I never felt alone or scared because there was always someone looking out for me, no matter where I was or who I was with.’
‘Do you remember the night you went to a party at the Draper boys’ house and one of the older boys tried to spike your drink. Sully was there picking up his daughter and got wind of what was going on, put you in his car and brought you home, not before giving the boy a good clip round the ear.
The next day, the boy came over and apologised. Looked like he was going to piss his pants he was so scared. Old Tom Draper told him I kept a gun at home and threatened to shoot anyone who messed with you. He mowed our lawns for a year until he finally wizened up.’
‘Is that why? Dad, you’re a shocker.’
The colour faded from Jock’s cheeks and his eyes became heavy.
‘You look like you need some rest, Dad. I’ll get going but I’ll be back tomorrow.’
‘Sharni, love. You’re a wonderful daughter, I’m so proud of you, of the family you’ve raised but I’m worried, you look tired. I don’t want to be a burden. You don’t have to come every day. I know it’s hard on you and I don’t want Brad feeling neglected.’
‘Dad, Brad can fend for himself and you’re not a burden. I want to come. Don’t you worry about me, Dad. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Sharni gives Jock a kiss on the cheek.
‘Goodbye, Sharni. Safe travels my love.’
As Summer turns to Autumn, thinking back to that day, to her father’s final words, how Sharni didn’t recognise them for what they were she’ll never know, but two hours after arriving home, to find Brad making dinner and Jamie ready to move out, Lisa called to say Jock passed peacefully in his sleep, a smile on his face, a touch of cream on his lips.
It helped knowing Jock was happy in his final days, that he still recognised his family, right up until the end.
Jock was a builder, a coach, a business man. He was grandfather to her two children and a leader in his community but to Sharni he was simply her dad. She thinks about the summers that will come after Jock, knowing in her heart they will be a little less warm, a little less bright, without her dad to share them with.