The photograph shows Paul, a young man with light ginger curls atop a tanned head, with a gap between his two front teeth. His face is round, cheeks full and healthy, and he smiles at the camera, kneeling down on the sand and the rocks. An old photograph with faded hues and scattered dust spots in front of the greyish background of sky and ocean, its corners are rounded and frayed. A man in his late twenties. A man who builds pergolas. A man who has just married the love of his life. A man who earned his scuba-diving license. A man who owns two copies of every Pink Floyd album. A man who used to drive a yellow panel van. A man who will live an extra nine months than what is destined for him.
In the photograph, Paul wears a navy diving suit, tight against his toned arms and slightly chubby stomach. His hair is messy, evidence of the seaside winds that must have blown across the sandy hills and beach grass on that early morning. The photograph’s colours are pale from age; the deep brown of the eyes he will pass on to both his children are not as dark as they are in real life. His blue oxygen tank lies in front of him in the sand, six large orange crayfish lined up along it.
At twelve years old, Paul left Australia and moved to Malta for a while with his parents, two sisters, and one brother. It was the home of his father and grandparents. Paul’s Australian accent and dark blonde hair set him apart from the other children in his new Maltese school, but the deep brown of his eyes revealed his connection to the country. His hair was just as curly then as it is in the diving photograph, but longer, skimming his shoulders. His nose – the same nose his daughter will have when she turns twelve – was covered in freckles from days at the beach. In Malta, he skipped school to go diving in the Mediterranean Sea, to find the heavy, rusted, and thick chains left from the war that hid somewhere deep off of the coast. The chains were evidence of the Siege of Malta during the Second World War, and now the depths held decaying pieces of history.
The war chains, attached to a huge anchor, remained held in place from their days of use, and Paul free dove, healthy lungs holding in oxygen, until he found them. Covered in algae and peeling layers of rusted metal, he ran his hands over them, and touched a piece of history, a piece of his father’s own home and childhood. The feel of the cold chains underneath his fingers reminded him of his father’s stories of the war in Malta, of the way Paul’s grandfather used to carry his son at his hip as he ran towards the bomb shelter, away from the burning streets. Later that day when Paul returned home from the ocean, hair damp with salt water and eyes alight with wonder, his father smacked him across the head for skipping school.
The diving photograph taken of twenty-something Paul was shot at the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, on the sandy, rocky cliffs that overlook a beach known for its surf. The eerie sight of a shipwreck, the jagged remains of a wooden skeleton can be spotted over the cliff, jarring out of the sand, a seaside cemetery. Scattered pieces of a ship from the early 19th century lie silent on the beach behind where Paul poses with his six orange crayfish. Eyes squinting against the sun rising behind the camera, Paul’s smile is eternalised in the faded piece of film. It is a smile of youth and joy, of naivety towards the future and how much it will test him. He has no idea that the gap in his teeth he hates so much will one day disappear, no idea that the thick sun-lightened curls will be cut shorter and shorter as years go on, and will, in his forty-fifth year, fall out completely, a symptom of the medical treatment he will be forced to have.
On the back of the photograph in blue ink his wife’s flowing handwriting reads ‘diving for crays’. Just nine months after meeting this woman he will knock on her father’s door with a ring in his pocket and a promise in his heart. He will wait for her as she sets off on a four month adventure around the world, and when she returns, they will marry in a cathedral for his Catholic parents with bright yellow flowers and bridesmaids’ dresses. Standing beside him in a white dress her own mother sewed by hand, Karen will return Paul’s promise to care for him through life’s toughest battles. This is a promise she will not break.
Hands, callused from woodwork yet smooth from the salty ocean, rest on Paul’s legs in the photograph, wearing the gold wedding band but not the silver watch that will pass onto him when his father dies. These hands have not yet touched his first born, his daughter, who will be so tiny she fits perfectly in his two palms, nor have they worked on improving all the homes he will share with Karen and their children.
Paul has not yet thought up the joke he will pull on her as they begin to build what they think will be their first house, on a block of land all their own in Kapunda. He has not yet laughed as he hides on the floor of their car as he puts it into drive, letting it roll down the hill and calling out “Karen, the car!” He will peek out the window and laugh, watching her sprint down to the bottom of the hill and attempt to catch the car with her own small hands.
Months before his thirty-third birthday, Karen will give birth to their second child, a son. Looking down at the brown eyes and cheeky smile of his baby boy in his arms, his blonde three-year-old daughter clinging to his leg, he will be inspired to join the Australian Air Force, to work hard and build the life he wants for his young family, to be healthy and strong and ensure he will always be around to protect them. His body, still slightly chubby as it was ten years ago, will grow fit and strong as he trains. A recruit in his thirties, he must work harder than all the twenty-something’s in his unit, but he will rise to the physical and mental challenges and make flight sergeant in just twelve years of service.
The lives Paul and Karen will give their two children are magical. They will travel, across Australia, across America, living for three years far across familiar seas where Christmases are white and the world can do them no wrong. Looking back on it in six, nine, twelve years time it will all seem but a dream. Was it even possible for life to ever be that perfect, for the inside of a home to be as blissful and innocent as the watercolour sunset dripping behind snow-topped Colorado mountains just beyond the window pane?
In his forty-fifth year, with short hair that will have darkened to a brown as deep as his eyes, and skin tanned from years of training in the sun, he will make a dentist appointment for a routine root canal, which will not go routinely at all. A fast-growing tumour will be buried in his sinus and pressed against his aching tooth. The surgery to remove the tumour attached to his jaw, cheekbone, mouth, and eye will change his face. The full cheeks of the young diver will be left swollen from surgery; the eye that he so feared he might lose will survive in a sunken cavern of an eye socket. And yet he will still always look like Paul, with the same cheeky grin and eyes that tear up when he laughs too much. His cheekbone replaced with titanium, he will proudly call himself the Terminator, character of his fitness idol Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It’s not a too-mah!” he will joke ironically from that day on. The entire right side of his upper and lower teeth will be removed, and fitted with fake ones. He will ask the dentist to make the gap he once had disappear.
Three years will span the gap between his two cancer diagnoses. After the eleven-hour surgery and months of chemo and radiation to remove the cancer in his sinus, Paul will wake up and get dressed and drive himself and Karen to his last doctor’s appointment. He will leave with a grin similar to the one eternalised and frozen in the diving photograph, for he will be declared cancer-free.
“I am positive you will never get cancer again,” the doctor will tell him.
The doctor will be wrong.
In the third year of my Dad’s remission, I will take a trip to China with him. In the middle of spring, the air will be warm and humid, and on the day we climb the Great Wall, the sun will hide behind wispy, stretched out clouds. The steps will be steep and slippery, the humidity of the day creating a film of moisture that sticks to the grey stones and metal railing. Halfway to the top I will stop, clutching a stitch in my side and heaving in cold air that stings and stabs at my lungs. I will say I cannot go any further, cannot make it to the top; the air is too thin and the steps too steep.
“I can’t do it,” I will shake my head at him. “I don’t care if I stop here, I don’t need to reach the top.”
Dad will not accept this. He will hold my hand and walk with me up the winding steps, noticing the shortness and thinness of his own breath at the high altitude.
“You will make it. We will make it. Don’t you want one of those plastic gold medals? I’ll make you a deal – you reach the top and I promise I won’t embarrass you for the rest of the trip.”
We will reach the top, climbing into the highest lookout tower, and look out over the deep green forests and grey fog that fills the sky. Standing there atop this magnificent structure of hard work and sacrifice, suddenly feeling but not caring about the pain in his chest, Dad will feel invincible. He will breathe in a mouthful of sharp mountain air, filling the lungs that unknown to him are already growing tumours within them. This is the last week in April, three months before he will be told he has only twelve months to live, and exactly two years before he dies.
He will not accept the words when he hears them. Twelve months to live, he thinks, the doctor’s words loud in his head. Twelve months to live. Stage-four lung cancer. Nothing to be done. Twelve months.
Well, that’s not good enough.
For what the universe has decided is our last Christmas together, our small family of four will travel to the beach. The pebbles that cover the ground will make my brother Chase and I hop quickly with our bare feet towards the cool, calm water. Mum sits upon the sand with a book; Dad walks through the dampness at the water’s edge, the feeble waves tickling his feet and inviting him back in. At this point the lungs he uses to breathe in the sharp winds are crowded with six tumours. His scuba diving license expired years ago, but his lungs wouldn’t let him dive anyway.
He will choose this time, his second diagnosis, to get the chemo and radiation out of the way first. He will then heal himself the natural way, the holistic way, through diet and meditation and natural supplements. This will work, for a while, and he will break down and dissolve four of the tumours in his lungs. But they will come back. Back to his lungs, to his bones, to his brain.
Dad is forty-nine, with a patchy baldhead and a thin, gaunt face. His shoulder blades jut out and his legs have lost their muscle. He hasn’t been able to walk for a while. With closed eyes and an open mouth he breathes in rapid breaths, his chest rising and falling quickly as he lies in the bed with starch-white sheets. Mum sits beside him, in one of the waiting room chairs covered in scratchy woollen fabric, holding his bony hand that once touched underwater war chains and turned buildings into homes and cut the umbilical cord of both their newborn children. Chase and I sit around his bed, and tell him we love him over and over, for at this point there is nothing else to say.
A month ago Mum and Dad celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Dad is only months away from his 50th birthday.
Dad’s ashes will be scattered in three different places. Some are scattered on Christmas morning, the first Christmas without him, into the ocean in the middle of the South Pacific. Mum, Chase and I will stand on the edge of the ship and hold a handful over the railing, letting go and watching the ashes fly through the air before falling into the depths below. The wind is strong and whips our hair across our faces, strands sticking to wet cheeks. From the phone clutched in Chase’s hand, the guitar solo of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here will sound out over the black foaming waves.
Some of the ashes will be saved, for an unknown number of years, until Mum can fly to Malta and visit Dad’s family. She will find the spot he went diving to touch the abandoned chains, and return him to this place and time of childhood curiosity, wonder, and happiness.
On the weekend of his 50th, just five months after his death, Mum will drive us to the Eyre Peninsula, to the same beach where all those years ago a single photo captured and immortalised her husband with his proud catch. The shipwreck still stands, silent and eternal, the rotted wood determined to survive the weather, sand, and harsh waves that break upon the shore and the cliffs. Here our family of three will squint through the grey rain and spread the last of Dad’s ashes over the wooden frame that he climbed and the sand that he trod on as he lugged his six crayfish and blue oxygen tank up the cliff. Climbing back to the top, we stand in the same spot he knelt, rainwater seeping through our coats and umbrella fabric beating furiously. Wind whips through the beach grass. We look over the cliff to the shipwreck below, where a thunderous wave will break and crack over the sand and the scattered wooden remains, before it exhales and pulls Dad back into the familiar depths of the ocean.