The wooden hand formed in the famous Hawaiian hang loose sign sits on the formica bench in my parents’ apartment, between the kitchen and the dining room. “Hang loose!” Dad would always say when the going got tough. Hawaii is part of my father’s DNA. A holiday at the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki decades earlier sealed his undying love for the islands, his go-to attire is the Hawaiian shirt. So it made total sense to theme our family Christmas this year Hawaii.
The lead up to December 25 was not typical. It would be my first Christmas at home since leaving Australia eight years earlier. Now reluctantly back in Sydney and desperately missing the crisp London air, the sparkly Christmas markets and of course the mulled wine, it mattered little where we spent the day. Nowhere in Australia could match where we’d come from.
It would also be my father’s last Christmas, if he makes it that far. Seven months into his fight with metastatic melanoma, having survived both lung surgery and brain surgery and now in the process of immunotherapy, he will be given day release only if he can walk with the aid of a walker.
For ten days he pushed himself, up the stairs and back down again, closely watched by the rehab physio in the hospital gym. Up and back the long corridor. Then back to bed to sleep and recover.
Finally, the green light from doctors two days before Christmas and the family rallied to create an unforgettable experience. Dress code; Hawaiian shirts. Food; Tiger prawns fresh from the fish markets, McCumstie salad, potato salad, pork, turkey and ham – all dad’s favourites. Location; mum and dad’s apartment, the smallest venue in the family but where he desperately wanted to be.
So Operation Get Dad Home for Christmas swung into action. First task was a trip into Lowes in George Street where the racks bulged with a visual cacophony of Hawaiian shirts. After a flurry of iphone pictures and messages back and forth I selected four shirts for my own family and sent a memo to the extended family on the dress code. My sister grabbed twelve leis from the $2 shop and joked it would be the only one she’d get this Christmas. We hired a wheel chair, co-ordinated designated drivers and cleared space for our final family celebration.
Dad arrived bang on time (part of the perfect experience) and his son and grandsons helped him into the apartment. At mum’s instruction we lit the several dozen tea lights in the entrance hall and the grandchildren streamed Kenny Rogers on Spotify. When Dad shuffled through the front door he stopped and dropped his head to his chest and began to cry. He quickly composed himself and continued the slow walk through to the living room where his blue chair waited.
We opened champagne, shared nibblies and took photos, too many photos – as if there’d never be another chance. Mum fussed in the kitchen laying out platters of Christmas goodness. “Don’t let me forget the lollies,” she kept saying. Of course we all forgot.
Out on the terrace, the in-laws (my husband and my brother’s wife) sat on the low wall and joked it was the new Wall of Knowledge. The actual Wall of Knowledge is at the local beach where Tom would meet his mates, 4pm sharp every day, until most of them died and he was too sick to walk the two blocks. Mum called it the Boulevard of Bullshit.
With some meandering, we positioned Dad in his usual seat at the outdoor table and placed a plate of Christmas food in front of him. He finished it before the rest of the family had time to sit down. We gave him a second plate and pulled apart bonbons. While we put on the coloured paper hats and laughed at the corny jokes, Dad finished the second plate and asked for more prawns. We handed out gifts – we do Kris Kringle in our family and I had drawn Dad’s name from the hat. I’d put together a book of family photographs and anecdotes picked from our interview sessions through the year I’d dubbed The Tom Diaries. More tears, some wonderful old stories from Dad and music requests – The Gambler, Little Old Wine Drinking Me and Patsy Cline’s Crazy.
Instead of pudding and custard, Dad decided he wanted to see the beach. Time was ticking and fatigue was setting in. With Dad in the wheelchair and all of us wearing Hawaiian shirts and leis, our Christmas Day convoy headed down Oaks Avenue. The boys took travellers of course. My brother pushed the wheelchair and we stopped for a group photo. At the beach all the cafes were open and busy, hundreds of people gathered in groups on the grassy foreshore. We parked Dad in his wheelchair at the Wall of Knowledge, put a takeaway cappuccino in his hand and sat alongside to watch the passing parade.
A man in his early twenties repeatedly practiced bouncing on a fit-ball and flipping backwards onto the sand. Kids wobbled past on shiny new bicycles and a heavily pregnant woman walked slowly up and back the promenade, a Boxing Day arrival looking very likely. The sky was dark and stormy with patches of blue. Dee Why beach is hit and miss, today with no swell and piles of seaweed on the beach it wasn’t one of the hit days, but no-one seemed to care. The European tourists sitting alongside us were painfully sunburnt, an irony not lost on us as masses of melanoma tumours decimated our beautiful dad.
Within half an hour Dad said he wanted to go back – to the hospital not the apartment. We skipped dessert, left the presents where we’d unwrapped them, bundled him into our car and drove off. It was a long trip back from the beaches but we lived only a few minutes from the hospital so we left the rest of the family to the washing up and headed back over the Spit Bridge.
Sitting once again in his hospital room – Banksia 8 on the second level – Dad pulled his mobile table in front of him and arranged his reading glasses, the TV program with pink highlighter markings on selected shows and his mobile phone in their rightful positions. He looked up at us and said with a shaky voice that today was the perfect Christmas. “Now where’s dinner,” he said. “I’m starving!”