My Grandfather’s Dive in the Port Hacking River

“Oh, it’s Nancy!”
My grandfather’s eyes are suddenly alight at the sight of a woman standing with her back to us in the kitchen of the Cartwright wing.
To his credit, whoever the woman was, at a distance she did resemble his wife.
But he had been told three times Nancy won’t be visiting today.
“Nan was here yesterday, Dad,” my Mum says absently as she files back the nail on his index finger.
“She’ll be back tomorrow,” she says.
“Oh. Oh of course. Would you like some iced coffee? I can get some iced coffee for us.”
This was the first thing he asked when we arrived, surprised at the sudden appearance of guests and making an attempt at hospitality.
He repeats it as an automatic response which failed to mask his confusion as to who I was, and whether or not he had seen his daughter today.
But his confusion did not lead to anxiety or anger, which is the response I would have expected when I last saw him three years ago.
A concoction of medications dulls his character, and the golden retriever licking at his free hand placates him.
“This is a nice hospital, isn’t it?” he says without emotion.
The use of the word hospital, instead of something less specific, catches me off guard.
He seems aware of the world and his place in it.
He is aware of the lack of control he has over his situation, and maybe even of his degrading mental state.

Despite his easy confusion he was amicable and animated so we asked the nurse if we could take him to town for a coffee.
The nurse said it was fine and Grandad agreed, though I don’t know if he knew what he was agreeing to.
He hummed and muttered as we walked out to the car.
It was a tick he apparently recently developed, and which reminds me of an idling outboard motor.
It annoys my Mum but doesn’t seem to signify any distress or discomfort.
He sits in the front passenger seat of the Subaru Forester which he drove across the country only a few years prior, but which now seems unfamiliar to him.
He mentions the beauty of the eucalyptus forest across the road as we pull out of the Carramar driveway, but otherwise stays silent as we drive towards town.
I am more cautious of his movements than I need to be as we walk through the crowds of the Noosa Harbour’s Sunday markets.
He walks slowly, intrigued by the couples dancing to the live music being played at the wine bar and by the young boy riding his scooter along the docks between the boats.
We make our way into the cafe next door to the fish and chip shop I worked in as a teenager, and Grandad attempts to clear the plates of patrons sitting out the front.
I apologise unnecessarily and usher him inside for the long-promised iced coffee and half a chocolate chip muffin.

Sitting next to my Mum with a spoonful of ice cream in his hand, he looks up with a smile as I ask him about a nickname friends knew him by as a young man.
He’s wearing the Shark hat which I can remember him wearing anytime he left the house during my life, and reminds me of how he used to be known as the Great White Hunter.
A keen fisher and freediver for much of his life, he used to sit my brother and I down in front of the same spearfishing film any time we visited as children.
He hasn’t been in the ocean in over a decade, but at the mention of his old nickname he launches into a story about diving in Sydney’s Port Hacking River.
Suddenly coherent and alert, he regales us with the time a humpback whale mother and calf appeared in the harbour waters in front of him as he dove with friends as a teenager in the 1950s.
It’s a story my mother and I have heard ad nauseam over the years, and we are able to fill in the blanks when the dementia steals the words from him.
But I smile as I listen, because selfishly I feel it is a personal victory that I can elicit some excitement in a man who has forgotten how to do it for himself.

He is not a perfect man, and there were times in recent memory when he was not even a decent man.
Since I was young he battled depression, self medicated with alcohol and refused treatment.
I left Australia in 2014 and afterwards he made a quick slide into the throes of dementia, and has lived in supervised care since October last year.
His mental state had been on the decline for years, so from the other side of the world I gave little thought to his changing circumstance.
But he was there on my 10th birthday when all I wanted was to play golf with my grandparents.
He always made sure there was a bag of Minties in the old Land Cruiser’s glove box to sneak my brother and I when he would take us for a drive around the Cooroy ranch.
He always had a story to share of his travels and a photo to go with it, and that inspired me.
He still has the stories, and the memories.
His words may fail him now and new memories won’t last, but when we returned him to Carramar he bid me farewell with a handshake and a grin.
“It was great to see you, after all these years!”
The moment of recognition was a shock to me, and perhaps to him, and I stumbled out of the hospital barely containing tears I hadn’t expected to come.



4 thoughts on “My Grandfather’s Dive in the Port Hacking River

  1. Phil owen says:

    I knew your grandfather when he lived in sydney he was a mentor to me I worked in his factory making tennis strings in my university holidays we spent many hours discussing business and he gave me my first ( and glowing ) reference which I still have , we used to go fishing off port hacking and he used to let me take his beloved boat on my own he was a great man who I hold in very high regard it saddened me when I recently learnt of his condition I would have loved to meet him again to discuss business and fishing but sadly this will not be

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