The question mark

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‘See this swelling here, the left half of the globe is being pushed up against that side of the skull by the bleeding.’ The surgeon was twirling his pencil around a sketch of Dom’s brain. Dominic was an uncle. ‘We would go in here, and put in a drain to get the blood out. This is pretty standard, it’s what we normally do.’

Behind us, in casualty, parked in a station surrounded by machines, Dom was writhing, twitching, unconscious. He had always been so welcoming and amiable. It was a wrenching sight. He had fallen in his bathroom that morning and  deteriorated during the day.

‘Sure,’ said the brother who had come on behalf of Dom’s Order. I was not so sure, but rationalised: ‘The brother probably had the legal right to decide. Dom probably wouldn’t survive the surgery, so what had we to lose? He would go that night, with it or without it.’

Playing for time to think, I asked, ‘Can you decide by yourself, or do you need to check with someone?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘I can sign.’

Casualty was worse than usual: they were renovating, it was half its normal size, noisy and messy. The people, though, were poor, ugly and squabbling—that was usual.

They got ready to wheel him to the theatre. It was time to go. The brother stood a foot from the bed and did not touch him. He peered at him. There was no evident emotion. Dom had been in this all-male religious Order for 60 years, as if in a family, and still the bonds had not softened into touch.

Angry—about a lot of things—I made sure I kissed Dom on his prickly sweaty forehead in front of the brother.

I was rung the next morning. Dom had made it to intensive care. He had a dedicated nurse, the cheerful Delia, who managed all his machines. She was trying to get pregnant. In her loud, nasally Australian voice she negotiated over the phone with her husband and doctor about whether this was a good day or not to make love.

Despite her fly-swatting voice, Dom writhed, unconscious for 36 hours. The longer he was unconscious, the more I regretted the decision to do the operation. The chance was that if he did regain consciousness he would have brain damage from all the internal bleeding his fall had caused.

The surgery had left him with a giant question mark traced out in steel staples, which began up above his eyebrows on the crown of his head, curved towards the back and then swung down under his left ear to his neck.

He was 80 now and had joined the Servants of Christ over 60 years ago. He was the seventh boy in a row born to a poor northern suburbs family of devout Catholics. I often saw him in black-and-white Depression-era photos with all his brothers, trussed in ill-fitting suits and ties, just as they were trussed in their poverty, family and Catholicism. They all looked shrewd, competitive, energetic, independent and a bit feral. Their era seemed to have little connection with ours but it was only a decade or two before I was born. I know now how little decades mean. They were taught Latin. It was a way of yoking them to an international and ancient autocracy, incongruous with the lanes, creeks and cricket paddocks they haunted.

Their parents were stoical, resilient, not given to indulgence or affirmation. What peasants can afford such luxuries?

During his decades of teaching Dom ran a small business on the side. He made rosary beads and gave them out with medals to the boys. Corny and eccentric it might have seemed, but because it was Dom they would take them and love him. Everyone loved his impish charm and good humour, especially the mothers in the tuckshops of the various schools in which he taught. He had survived into the late ’90s, still coaching boys who were struggling.

May was Mary’s month and each year Dom would have the boys build an altar to the Virgin. The centrepiece would be a large statue of the woman, dressed in blue, white streams of lace flowing from her hands, and flowers, blue and white, and lemon wax candles. There were, in the pictures I saw, curlicued paper banners pinned to the blue curtain at the back. They read: Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Comforter of the Afflicted and Mystical Rose. It was the high watermark of both the cults of Mary and of Communism. Mary was standing on a snake that represented the latter. Dom joined
organisations dedicated to Mary and the use of her powers. She seemed to be the devotion of his life.

I don’t know if there is any truth in the rumour but it had been said that before Dom left for the seminary he was keen on a young woman from the parish, also called Mary. She was my mother. When we got to the hospital bed where she was already yellowing, Dom was there, saying his rosary. Now I was at his bedside.

Eventually he did regain consciousness. During the two or three days that followed, Dom did not ask for his beads and neither prayer, nor Mary, nor God seemed to cross his mind. Nurses came to his bed regularly to test his neurological function. ‘Can you squeeze my finger, Dom?’ they would ask. Each time, his whole body jerked and a beatific smile spread across his face, giving and receiving. He was thoroughly charming and unashamed in his delight. The other time he blossomed was when a nephew brought in his five-year-old child. Children melted for Dom. They recognised with joy that he was one of them.

I stood for many hours stroking his arm. I remembered that only two weeks before his fall, I had visited him in the hospice. He was sitting on his bed when I arrived. He suggested that we go and see his sweet peas. As he stood, his pants fell down. I stooped to pull them up for him. I was embarrassed and touched at the intimacy of the moment. He could do no more than shuffle out to the garden. His breathing was faint and thin. I got a chair for him to sit, while I weeded and watered. Over my shoulder he told me that he loved women. I was astonished and turned to look at him. His arms were raised and there was an energy in him. ‘How wonderful they are. It was wrong that as young men we were kept apart from them.’ It was the only radical or daring thing I had ever heard him say. He had always seemed content with the company line. By then, it was too big a topic for me to follow and he was too fragile.

Reflecting on this moment, as I stood beside his bed, I felt angry again. How cruel it was to take him into an order and ask him to vow against intimacy and his sexuality before his puberty was even over.

I saw him as a 20-year-old putting out the lights of a dormitory of hundreds of boys, thousands of miles from home. I saw the grimace on his face as he strapped the big rugby players to keep order in classes of 60. I saw him handing me a letter sent to him from one of the other brothers that had helped him cope with his depression.

I saw him stand on a hill during a family picnic and spread his arms out towards the countryside. ‘I am the Lord of all I survey,’ he declaimed. Later he said the doctor had got the dosage wrong. He was embarrassed about being so high. He had told me, too, of the time during his training when he’d been made to eat off the floor for three days because he had broken a plate.

Dom soon slid back into a coma. There was a phase when his eyes manically scanned the ceiling as if in desperate search for an answer to the question that had been sliced and stapled into his skull.

Opposite him in the six-bed room, a man was tied to the wall—his bed on the floor, so he couldn’t harm himself. He too was writhing incessantly. It was unnerving. I had to hassle the weary nurses to get Dom a room by himself to die in.

At one stage he opened his eyes, smiled and said, ‘Trust you.’ Was it affirming or ironic? I don’t know.

I watched and sat for hours, synchronising my breathing with his as a joint prayer. It was as if he was the father I had needed, and I a son he should have had.

I got too sleepy. The nurses gave me a pillow. I was lying on the floor when I heard the breathing stop. I checked my watch; they would want to know. It was 3am.

In the darkened room, before I went for the nurses, I rubbed his arm, fervently, confident he could still sense it. Who knows when the soul leaves and where it goes? Thank you Dom, I said, thank you, on behalf of all those who loved you, that big clan, everyone.

I kissed the already tight but still sweaty forehead. I let my lips linger, trying to make up for what I thought life had done. I could have left them there a long time.

Terry Monagle is a writer, farmer and public speaker.



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Existing comments

Terry how I love and thank you for your writing. Footprints was given to me when I was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2010. I was unable to read anything for avert long time. Your words gave me such strength. My faith always strong was with me. Your writing filed me with comfort joy and a new spiritual perspective. The words you gave to your mother in law as she was dying I used with my dearest aunt as she died and have repeated and used for myself. I've just read The Question Mark and am so moved. You give a beauty a dignity to the act of dying. I have a gay son who thinks he is condemned and barred from Gods love. Your article on on gay Catholic activism gave me encouragement. I want thank you, for the beauty of your words, for using so beautifully the gift God gave you and for sharing it so generously. I hope you health is good and strong.

Mary McKenzie | 13 July 2013  

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