Aboriginal for ‘Black Cockatoo’, Nowra is the regional Australian town that serves Currarong, the tiny fishing village where I live.
Nowra is framed by the spectacularly beautiful Jervis Bay on whose shores is located HMAS Albatross, a big naval base and Air Fleet Arm of the Royal Navy. (The sonar pings from the doomed Malaysian flight MH 370 were sent there for analysis).
From time to time I encounter former sailors in the waiting room at the chest doctor’s clinic. It is not a place for the faint hearted as emphysema, lung cancer, as well as asbestos and dust related diseases can be seen close-up and personal in the patients waiting to see our esteemed chest doctor perhaps the man on whom Doc Martin was modelled. I owe him my life several times over.
We all arrive huffing and puffing at the surgery and while waiting for the call up to do the dreaded spirometry (see post ‘keep going, keep going, keep going’), we patients chat rather than flick through old National Geographics.
We have the instant comradeship of shipwrecked souls. Nothing else matters when you can’t breathe, nothing. And COPD is an equal opportunity disease.
‘I was kept in smokes all through the war’, a wheezing ex-navy man told me. He’d been at the sharpish end of things in Japan and had smoked heavily since touring bombed out Nagasaki. Smokes were part of the troop’s rations and now he had emphysema and a recent diagnosis of lung cancer. His raspy breathing, constant cough and blue lips told me he was still paying a price for serving his country.
ANZAC day here in Australia and New Zealand marks our terrible defeat at the hands of the Turks at Gallipoli in 1915. Paradoxically, it is a nation-defining moment for us. Out of our weakness came our strength and resilience, and our devil-may-care middle finger salute to death.
My family has the sad distinction of being one in which a father (who lied about his age) and his three sons all enlisted in World War I. Two of the three brothers were killed at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.
Smoking and war go together. Firing up a cigarette in a cold, wet, louse-infested trench must have felt so good. It was meat and drink to those doomed young men. And their loved ones back home, glued to their crystal sets, also breathing in cigarette smoke as the sombre announcer reported on battle casualties. By night, people in the crowded, smoke-wreathed bars lived like there was no tomorrow. For some poor souls this was true.
Smoking and war are forever entwined in my life also because it was on ANZAC Day (April 25) that my beautiful, inspirational mother June, aged 71, died from COPD.
In remembering her today, on the 15th anniversary of her death, (see Post ‘Little Fish Are Sweet’) I would like to restate my mother’s unswerving belief in the power of positive thinking.
She would tap her temple and say, ‘It’s all up here, you know.’
‘That’s where you meet your disease.’
My Mum fought uphill and down dale in an era when all they had was prednisone and antibiotics. And she was allergic to those. She had countless infections and near death scrapes. Then came the common fungus aspergillus that coated her wounded lungs. The coughing was relentless. She was a fighter all right.
She wanted to live.
Right up to the end, one of Mum’s lifelong sayings was, ‘Little Fish Are Sweet’.
I know that Mum’s little fish are gratitude. That any little thing life offers up can be sweet.
All things are possible.
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