Southerly by David Haywood


I Fell Down

The last time that I seriously put pen to paper (digitally speaking) was in September 2014, shortly before my grandfather died.

My grandfather had a good death. Until a fortnight or so before the end, he was in remarkably fine health: living in his own home and still driving his car all over Auckland. My aunt, a former chorister, was holding his hand and singing to him as he died. His funeral was on his 98th birthday. As I type I can hear him saying that a funeral isn't really what he wanted as a birthday present.

I'd always had a good relationship with my grandfather, but over the last few years we'd drawn even closer together. He had written two books; I had (inadvertently) become a builder. He would email me for advice on his manuscripts. I would phone him to draw upon expertise from his long career as a joiner and carpenter. A typical question from me would take the form: “I've figured out a way to do X, but I'm sure there must be a simpler method—is there a clever trick that I don't know?” There usually was.

My grandfather's absence has left a surprisingly large hole in my life; and there have been many occasions when I've found myself wishing that I could talk with him again. I certainly had a lot more to learn from him. Not only about joinery, cabinet-making, carpentry, and design, but also about the psychology of a long project on a limited budget.

My previous engineering jobs had been conducted more-or-less in series; a new project was started only after the previous one finished. But my ongoing earthquake relocation/repairs/restoration have been conducted massively in parallel: extensive landscaping, building a garage and sheds, repairing and repainting the house exterior and roof, and restoration of every single indoor room—all at the same time.

I find myself rushing from crisis to crisis, often working inefficiently as a consequence, occasionally making a rod for my own back by not dealing with a crisis in time. A recent example is the repair of a complicated bay window that I only managed to get finished and under-coated a few days before cold weather struck. In all probability the undercoat will lift over winter and I'll have to scrape it off and re-prep in spring—a depressing waste of effort.

Thrown into this mix is my son Bob's ongoing difficulties with the educational system, which has resulted in home-schooling him one day per week. We call this our Engineering Day—the theory being that Bob learns arithmetic, basic physics, problem-solving, and design via a series of small engineering projects (admittedly there might not be any actual educational evidence to support this as a theory of learning). In the evenings, a video is uploaded to his YouTube channel to prove to school that he has genuinely been doing something all day (a typical example can be found here).

I certainly don't begrudge Engineering Day with my son in any way, but the preparation and execution time further slows my building work—and, of course, makes any of my proper jobs (such as writing) even more difficult.

Undoubtedly, however, the most stressful and upsetting event of the past 18 months has been my father's near death. It seemed that we had scarcely buried my grandfather when my father became seriously ill with a bacterial infection that he contracted via a minor scratch. I know that he won't want me to dwell on any of this—but as a consequence of the bacteria infecting his heart valves, he had a stroke and then full heart-valve replacement surgery. He was left apparently paralysed (even down to his eyelids) for a frightening number of days; in a semi-coma for 24 days and under serious medical intervention in the ICU for 38 days.

Those who have been through a similar experience won't need to be told how shocking it is to see someone you love undergo an experience like this. Witnessing my father apparently paralysed and completely dependent on life-support machinery is one of the most harrowing sights of my life. As someone who finds conversation with even non-comatose people rather difficult, my attempts at cheerful and reassuring dialogue with my comatose father weren't a notable success (my brother likened it to someone saying something exceedingly stupid whilst leaving an answer-phone message, who then keeps on talking in the desperate hope of making what he's said seem somehow less stupid, during which time he manages to say a number of even stupider and more ridiculous things).

Astonishingly and thankfully—and despite the probably damaging effects of my attempted conversation—my father has managed to pull through his illness. Mentally he is completely unaffected by his ordeal; bodily he's made extraordinary progress. He has regained virtually full physical functionality, but his endurance is still very low and he must rest often. No doubt this will mend in time. He (and we his family) have had the nearest of near misses.

Perhaps this is all something of a dog-ate-my-homework-ish explanation as to why I haven't written for so long. At any rate, I should probably take this opportunity to apologize to regular readers of Southerly (if there are any left) for the very long silence. I feel that the February earthquake literally and metaphorically knocked me off my feet—and that somehow, unfortunately, I've never managed the metaphorical getting back up again.

I'm attempting to think of ways that I can provide material for this blog in my post-earthquake circumstances, but nothing is particularly coming to mind. I don't think that prose is the format for documenting my current life as a builder (my sole attempt was deathly dull); and regardless of its suitability (or not) as a format I fall asleep as soon as I sit down of an evening these days.

Something will no doubt come to mind eventually. In the next few weeks I do hope to post a few pieces of writing that have been nearly finished for some time. In the meantime I'd like to thank you all for your patience.

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