Sister Kath Callaghan
I lived across the street from Kath.
Kath always smiled at me even though I’m not sure how much of me she could see.
If I came across her walking down the street I was always the first to say hello. I’ll never know if she was half blind and might have walked on by without noticing me, because, as I said, I always said hello first and she would stop and have a proper conversation - smiling as she listened to me, smiling while she talked.
I only ever saw Kath in a blue coat and a nightie - blue coat in the street and nightie inside her house, as it should be I suppose.
I would see her on the footpath coming toward me in her blue coat.
For some reason Kath walked in angles - zig zag like.
She would start on one side of the footpath and slowly walk a diagonal, straight line, to the other side of the footpath. Then, when there was no further to go but into the gutter, she would hesitate, point herself straight, start walking again, but then head back in another diagonal straight line to the other side of the footpath, until a fence or a shop-front got in the way – always moving forward but not directly.
Kath would tilt slightly to the side as well with her head leaning forward. This gave the impression she was being blown along by the wind; but it was actually more like watching a yacht tack into a headwind.
As well as bad eyesight, I think Kath had a balance problem - but we never talked about it because she didn’t seem to mind that she looked like a yacht tacking into the wind when she walked.
Other people in the street were careful to manoeuvre around her as she walked across their path, seemingly unaware of their presence. If she were tacking like a yacht on the footpath these days, the same people would probably be on a mobile phone, not notice her, trip her up and snap her mast, or hip.
Kath’s blue coat was always a bit grubby around the cuffs, but she didn’t mind that either. I occasionally did some weeding for her because it never occurred to me to offer to wash the cuffs of her coat. Kath probably never noticed that her cuffs were grubby anyway. But then again, if I was right about her eyesight, she probably never noticed that her garden needed weeding either. I guess even if she couldn’t see the weeds Kath knew that weeds always grow and should be pulled out, whereas dirty cuffs are not a forgone conclusion when wearing a coat.
I saw Kath in her nightie too.
I would get home late at night after a gig and Kath’s front door was often wide open. I’d unload my guitars, amplifier and other gear from my HD Holden panel van that had been a Paddy Wagon in a former life, carry it all into the house, then walk across to Kath’s house. I’d knock on the open door and check to make sure she was ok. Then, when satisfied she was ok, I’d say goodnight, close her front door and go home.
Most of these times she was in her bed in the front room, right next to the front door. She was always still awake. Kath would say “Yes I’m fine”, then say goodnight to me, and that would be that.
Sometimes though, Kath would be in the lounge room deep in the innards of the house. Her voice was faint from there so I would walk up the passageway just to be sure, find her staring at the gas fire and then lock the front door as usual when I left.
Occasionally Kath would ask me to make us a cup of tea and we would sit by the gas fire in the lounge room and have our proper talks.
We had many cups of tea, but I only remember one conversation, and it never explained why she was always smiling.
I had wanted to ask her one question many times before but hadn’t. But this time, I did. I asked Kath if she had ever been married. Kath said, “No, never married”.
I thought it was a bit rude to be asking my elderly neighbour these kind of questions but ploughed on because it was 3am in the morning, a proper conversation, and anyway, I had watched her tack in the wind, always said hello first, noticed her dirty cuffs, weeded her garden and still hadn’t gotten a song out of any of it.
So, I asked her if there had ever been anyone.
Kath held her outstretched hands toward the gas fire, smiling as usual, and said that there had been a man once.
She whispered it slowly in a way that made me feel that I was the first person in the world to ever know this and that I wasn’t to tell anyone else. But it was probably more likely that most of the people she had ever known in her long life who knew about this had since died. What was not really a secret just wasn’t remembered by anyone anymore.
Only Kath remembered.
I asked Kath what his name was. She said, “Paul”.
I had never doubted Kath’s memory, but at the time I was sharing a house with a fella named Paul. I suddenly thought, after all the times I had checked on her and all the weeding I had done, that this long-gone man, whom she had never married, named Paul, had somehow morphed into my housemate. To my knowledge he had never noticed her front door was open in the middle of the night and checked on her. I wanted to ask Kath if she was sure his name was Paul, but of course I didn’t.
Instead, I asked her what happened to her Paul. Kath answered, “He was killed in the war”.
Before I could ask another impertinent question, Kath added, “There was no one else.”
We both stretched our hands out toward the gas fire and sat there in silence for a long time. I was thinking Kath could see her one and only, long-gone, young man’s face in the gas flame, and I didn’t want to stop what I thought she was seeing. So I said nothing. I didn’t want her to stop smiling.
I did however sneak a look around the semi dark room for any old photos that would have looked similar to the professionally taken photo I’d seen of my baby-faced father dressed in khaki; but if there was one in the house it wasn’t in this room.
Eventually though, and even with the long silence we had just shared and the sheer truth that I’d certainly had long enough to find the right words - as always - I say something stupid.
I was thinking about the enemy in the war that had killed her Paul and said, “Why does there have to be bad people in the world?”
I didn’t expect an answer, but Kath scolded me. She said, “There are no bad people in the world; only people who want you to think there are”.
I wanted to say that at the very least those people that want us to think that, well they must be bad people!
I was confused as to why this kind old lady who always smiled, walked in angles zig zag like, left her front door wide open for anyone to enter at anytime in the middle of the night, and had lost her one true love in a war would say such a ridiculous thing.
Nowadays I think Kath had long since decided to believe in everyone, no matter what.
People weren’t weeds to be pulled up and discarded.
Childish – I don’t know. Naïve – still don’t know.
Kath wouldn’t make the kind of world leader who sent the young to war. But she always smiled, left her door wide open, and I had been scolded, so I said nothing more.
One of the last times I had the pleasure to check on Kath and lock her door she was in bed.
Our routine of me knocking on the open door and calling out, “You ok Kath?” “Yes, I’m ok thanks, goodnight” followed, by me locking her door and going home, would be much different this night.
I knocked and called out the usual, “Are you ok Kath?” A long silence followed. Finally she replied, “No, no I’m not ok David”.
I remember thinking this is serious. But selfishly I was also aware that she had called me David, which I thought permanently lay to rest any notion I may have had that she thought I was my housemate who had the same name as her one true love.
I walked in and stood at her open bedroom door and asked if I could come in and she said, “Yes, please come in”.
I fumbled around in the dark until I found the switch for the lamp by the bed.
Kath was lying on her back. Her blue-veined hands were clutching the blanket tightly up to her chin and she was staring at the ceiling. She had stopped smiling.
I asked her what was wrong and Kath replied, “I think I’m dying.”
I said, “Well, I’ll go and call an ambulance!”
Just like she had done that once and only once before, Kath scolded me, “No you won’t, I want to die here, right here.”
Sitting down on the edge of her bed I took her hand and asked her if she was in any pain, “No, no pain David.” So, having no first aid training whatsoever and realising I had no idea what to do next, I asked, “Well what does it feel like then?” Kath’s answer, and she repeated it was, “I can’t explain. It just feels like I’m going home. I feel like I’m going home.”
I said, “Well Kath, please let me call an ambulance to give you a lift.”
Still no smile – only a shake of the head – “No.”
I thought my attempt at humour might lift her spirits and allow me to make the phone call, but it had failed. Now I was positively sure that I had no idea what to do next.
So I sat there thinking, thinking, thinking – I have got to do something.
When Kath dies - and she says she is going to – what will I say to those that ask me, “What did you do?” “You just sat there, held her hand and cracked jokes!” Yes I did, but she wouldn’t let me call an ambulance!
I had never had to call an ambulance for any reason before and I’m sitting there, confident that an ambulance was appropriate, and then I’m forbidden to call one by the very person who says she is “Going home.”
I sat there some more and nothing was coming to me. Where would it come from anyway?
I needed advice.
I made an excuse to Kath that I had to go to the toilet. “You won’t call an ambulance?” “No I won’t, I promise.”
I ran across the street to my house because Kath didn’t have a phone. As I dialed the number I thought I was wasting valuable time. I should have been calling the ambulance, but instead called my eldest brother.
John was living in Tasmania at the time and the call would cost what was for me in those days a small fortune. I was thinking about the cost of a phone call to Tasmania compared to the call for an ambulance that would be free when John answered the phone.
I told John about Kath going home and that she wasn’t in any pain. But nothing came to him either, except to tell me to follow my instincts. Great! “Should I call an ambulance though?” I asked. “Maybe, but just stay with her and follow your instincts”.
I went back and took up my position next to Kath, holding her hand until the sun started to shine around the edges of the curtained window.
We hadn’t talked much through the long night. I tried to focus on my instincts buried deep within me. But they may as well have been in a foreign country in a language I couldn’t understand.
I managed, “How are you feeling?” “Can I get you anything?” or “I’m still here Kath”. Which was followed by her replies about going home, no I need nothing, or, oh that’s good.
Through the night Kath had occasionally looked across at the window at the soft light gradually getting brighter. Sometimes, I thought she was checking to make sure the light was natural and not red and blue and flashing.
As soon as it was as bright as it was going to get she took a deep breath; then suddenly discarded my hand, threw back the blankets, got to her feet, walked to the window, wrenched the curtains aside, then said, “Well it doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere today. Do you want a cup of tea?”
I watched her walk out of the bedroom in her nightie, leaving me sitting there on the edge of the bed where I’d been sitting for hours waiting for her to go home.
I squinted at the sunshine, half blinded by it, thinking about instincts and the uncalled for ambulance, when I heard Kath shout out from down the hallway.
“Come on, what are you waiting for?”
A few months later I was staying in a town called Mt Beauty having a break from the city. I can’t remember how he got in touch with me but my housemate sent word that Kath had finally gone home.
Not long after Kath’s first aborted trip home, I was in her front yard weeding when one of her former nursing colleagues dropped around for a visit. She still addressed Kath as “Sister”. Then she said to me, “So, you must be Paul.” I tried to smile politely, pointed to the open front door and resumed weeding.
Kath’s friend and former colleague had somehow known about Kath’s nocturnal rendezvous with the young man who lived across the street that went by the name of David and sometimes went by the name of Paul. She thought either of us might want to go to the funeral.
But the news had reached me too late to get back to Melbourne in time.
Pity, I would liked to have known if Kath had died alone; or if someone else had followed their instincts and called for an ambulance against her will. If so, it hadn’t helped and I hope hadn’t hastened her trip home.
Originally published 6.2.16
Where’s the place you go
When you’re breaking
Tell me so I’ll know
To be waiting
I’d never let you break alone
(Excerpt from the song- All You Good People)