Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Highs and lows and a surprise trip to the sub-tropics

Thursday was one of the most emotional days I have had for a long time. It was Marcus’ last day of Primary school, and I was expecting to have a bit of a quiet blub at the end of the final assembly. Turned out the blubbing happened a bit later on.

This year there was a certificate assembly a few days before the final one, to get a lot of the long lists of names and lengthy ovations out of the way. Marcus and Michael both raked in a great deal of certification for maths, science, spelling, chess and so on, to the extent that the principal said “they won’t need wallpaper at the Rees house”. She’s not given to jokes so by her standards that was a ripper.

Now to the final assembly. The senior marimba group were divided against themselves and struggled to agree on a tempo. As ever the junior marimbas showed them up. The brass ensemble were very bad, sure, but possibly not as bad as last year. The best thing musically was during the getting-settled period right at the start, when small girls took turns to sit at the piano and play a variety of things from memory, as we all filed in. It was lovely and refreshingly competent.

Each grade had one or two Teacher’s Prize winners. After one of the grade 1 or grade 2 winners were announced a mum behind me blurted “Jesus!”

Most subject areas had a prize, and there were others for environmental awareness, social justice etc. Elf was quietly disappointed that Marcus didn’t win the PE prize, as he has been a bit of an all-round star and is famous for his fairness and encouragement of others. No good at swimming though.

Michael was called up and won the ICAS gold medal for outstanding performance in the international maths competition. While he was up he also received a book voucher from Rotary, a prize for all round academic excellence. He was very happy and fairly gracious - there were no fist pumpings or brief mime performances as we have seen in past years. He’s just a lot less self-conscious.

Then Marcus was called up to get the same gold medal as Michael - amazingly the fourth year running he has won one. The first time in 2010 we were all told how rare these medals are, but it doesn’t seem that way now. He also won the same Rotary prize as Michael (I believe they spent their $50 gift vouchers yesterday). (And while I am doing asides, I just passed through a train station named Fassifern).

Marcus was asked to stay standing, as he had also won the ICAS gold medal in Science. Then, as it is apparently outrageously rare for one kid to win two medals in one year, he was presented with a special plaque in honour of his two medals.

Next, he was given a trophy and certificate for his effort in the Maths Olympiad, where he got 24 out of 25. Then came a special framed testimonial the school had put together listing his five medals and various other academic gongs he has won over the last four or five years.

We were all completely agog by this stage. We had got the nod that there would be some awards but the sheer number of dignitaries and teachers all standing beside Marcus at this point was staggering. He was a little stunned. Each time the principal said “but stay there, Marcus...” the crowd gave a little gasp, mixed with a cheer and a good-natured mock-moan.

Finally, a vice principal from Taroona High was called up, and she presented Marcus with a bursary towards next year’s school costs. This has never been awarded before, but they are giving onset at each of the five or six feeder primary schools.

So about fifteen minutes of the final assembly was all about Marcus. Soon they moved on to the a farewell to the leavers, this year it was done as a series of short filmed statements from the kids projected on the big screen. Then they went out to ... Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. So no chance of a good cathartic cry with that. They really need to consider Bohemian Rhapsody or The Rose by Bette Midler or something by Johnny Cash or Edith Piaf.

The local paper had sent a photographer, and he arranged Marcus and all his loot then took about 200 photos. (The article was terrific). Finally he was allowed to go, and I went off with Elf and Mum and Dad to have lunch at a cafe near the school and digest everything that had just happened. 

Now, important background to this bit is that my brother-in-law in NSW has been suffering from leukaemia for a couple of years, and has been going downhill. The news had been generally poor and we didn’t expect him to live very long, maybe two or three weeks. On Wednesday we got some good news, that an operation to put a stent in his throat had gone very well, and he would be heading home from hospital. During lunch I sent a ‘hooray’ text to my sister Jacki, but then got a very sobering reply that things had suddenly changed, he now had only days to go and may not survive to Christmas.

I went out and called Jacki and got the details, had a bit of a weep and went back in to break the news to the happy and celebrating family. This is not something I have a lot of experience with. My mum has been the news source and the link between us and Jacki and Tim. 

Elf and I and the boys are going to Perth for three weeks from Jan 1, and suddenly I had to think about going to a funeral. Jacki and Tim live at Smiths Lake, two hours drive north of Newcastle. Getting there from Tasmania is a complicated business. And not knowing when you need to go, it is very hard to plan.

I am usually guided by my mum and dad as to what is the right thing to do in family dramas, but I thought this one I had to work out for myself. So I decided to go and see Tim while I could, right away. And Mum, Dad and my younger sister Sally decided to come too.

I had a meeting on Friday so we made it Saturday. Less than two days after we got the news of Tim’s downturn, we were in Sydney on our way up. I had booked a car in Newcastle but after walking to Budget from the train station in the baking heat, I found they had closed a couple of hours earlier. (Fortunately I did not buy the 2kg of prawns I was tempted by on the way).

I found a cab, went back to the station and collected everyone, and thankfully Sal found another car hire firm on the phone who were just closing but would wait for us to get there. So huge thanks to Thrifty Newcastle and also to Harry the cab driver.

When we finally got to Smiths Lake in time for dinner, the news was good. Tim had held court on the front verandah all day, was feeling better and had just gone for a rest. He got up and met us at about 9, and I think we we all relieved to see him able to walk with a stick, have a conversation, and still his old self inside. He is self-administering morphine but doesn’t need it so much that he’s away with the fairies.

So, we spent the evening and yesterday, and a brief time this morning, just enjoying each other’s company, telling stories again that we have mostly heard before, getting drinks and pillows for Tim, and mostly doing all the usual weekend-at-the-shack things people do. His drama on Thursday was the result of a bowel obstruction which seems to have sorted itself out, and he is confident of being around for Christmas. We will do a family skype and try to keep talking every day or two so we are in touch with what’s happening.

Tim is really looking forward to the Boxing Day test on TV too, just propping in front of it with his family and mates around him.

We took the car back to Newcastle this morning, and we are currently on the train back to Sydney. Tonight before the kids go to bed I should be back home. There were no tears or deathbed confessions, not too much deep analysis of what it’s all about - that would be out of character for Tim and for us too. There were a lot of shared beers, laughs and plenty of hours of just quietly sitting together on the verandah while the cicadas shrieked.

I am very thankful we got the chance to do that.

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