When Frankie’s wife rang from Dubbo base saying he wanted to see us, we knew Frankie wasn’t ever coming home. The operation had bought him more time but now that was used up and we were trudging down those long antiseptic hospital corridors to say goodbye. I can’t remember what we’d told the kids but by the increasing volume of whimpering it mustn’t have been convincing. Protecting children from death was pretty tricky in the farming game. Puppies got run over, ponies got colic and it was tears on toast for tea. They loved Frankie and his role as ‘uncle’ in the Aboriginal sense would never again be filled. They had lost a grandmother before but she hadn’t played any real part in their lives. Frankie was the man who knew all about animals and bush things and could spot an Emu rising from his clutch a kilometre away. If not in the yards or fixing stuff in the workshop then he would be out in the paddocks somewhere. They hadn’t been told he was sick but kids overhear adult conversation and generally absorb the state of play. So when we eventually found Frankie in the intensive care ward surrounded by a lot of medical paraphernalia no one was believing the ‘home for Christmas’ line.
Frankie’s wife sat at the end of his hospital bed and seemed relieved to see us. I had only met her a few times as she lived in town and wouldn’t move out on the property with him. We all crowded in and I took the chair by Frankie’s bedside and his hand as well. That gentle brown hand with the surprisingly soft pink palm. He was pale under the oxygen mask but fully conscious with a glad smile for us. We’ve missed you Frankie I declared and started on the litany of livestock disasters that had occurred in his absence. A big old bimblebox had fallen on the boundary fence and the stud rams had absconded. Ruby had a new litter of black and tan pups under the veranda. We’d lost three heifers calving and had brought the rest in to sell down south. The Wallangilla tank had dried back and the weaners were bogging. Talking seemed better than crying so I chattered on with determination. The dread silence from the kids made me persevere with the lost dog stories long after I should have quit trying to set everyone at ease. For there wasn’t any ease to be had in that place really, only pain and regret and death. Frankie waited patiently for me to shut up so he could say what he had called us down there to hear. Carefully removing his oxygen mask, he looked directly into my eyes and said, ‘I love you’.
Rain changes everything in our lives out here… but so does love. Not the love that simmers on in the background like the family slow cooker but the love that is spoken out loud and must be heard. That sudden clarification of feeling that makes you go….YES, of course. Of course its love, what was I thinking? That richness of the senses and pleasure in a shared smile. The casual body mirroring and familiarity of stories. Why hadn’t I realized it before now? Why did you wait this long to tell me Frankie? In front of our families at that? A dying man can throw caution and declarations to the wind but the living face consequences. We love you too Frankie I promised escaping to the plural and relinquishing his hand. Carefully easing the oxygen mask back down I kissed his forehead and gestured vaguely towards the exit sign. ‘We will see you when you are home again’ I called confidently over my shoulder as I shepherded the teary children out of intensive care to avoid meeting death in the first person. Who was I fooling? The kids were still bawling as we breached the hospital doors.
So confronting that day you would have thought I would have been better prepared for the funeral. Well you should have been there Frankie you would have enjoyed it… four men on horseback, two black two white, leading your coffin down the main street. Cars backed up to the river like you were a bloody king. And you were to me Frankie. Plenty of wailing from the women and enough gruff whitefella talk to see you into whatever spirit world you were headed. Always a point of contention between us, but really, where was God when we needed him? Neither yours nor mine ever helped us on those blistering days when the searing westerlies blew full on face full dirt. Remember the Kumbo camp yards that time Frankie. No race divisions that day. No class or gender divide, just sweat and swearing and the swirling dust. I never go past those yards without thinking of you, of us working there. Muck encrusted skin with white eyes and teeth barely visible in the churning earth. Hot as hades and too many swarming flies to open our mouths to yell at the sulking dogs. Impossible to get a decent count on the sheep, just thousands of the bastards. The worst of days at the time but the best of days now in my memory.
God help us Frankie can we do that deathbed scene again? Can we replay that final day in Dubbo hospital without the reluctant audience? Not that they existed for us in that moment, when time tapered down there was really only the two of us. So black and white the whole show was, could have been from the 50’s. White patients linger on for months; you were dead the next day. Can we just have that hour again please, me holding your hand and rambling on about missing sheep, dead cows and promising puppies. You holding onto your secret until we’d run out of time. We never had a time did we Frankie? Or a place. Just a love story without the story. Just love.