If Then Else


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If Then Else

Gill Curry's life was ordinary. He knew it; she knew it – Elsie, his wife of thirty-one years. Their one big difference was Else thought ‘ordinary’ meant ‘normal.’ Gill disagreed, vehemently, if anyone dared ask. He maintained his life was ‘unexceptional.’ And on average he wasn't satisfied. He still felt restive.

Gill was generally a mild-mannered man of his word. A good bloke. Always an intent look on his long face. Tall and sinewy he exuded integrity. Principled. But Gill wasn't above kicking ass; he just needed a decent excuse. Then he meant business. He had no time for any brand of religion. He wasn't strong on beliefs of any sort, even in footy. Yet he was definite about right and wrong, good and bad. Just ask him. No ifs, buts or maybes.

Else was always demure and homely, a Methodist, though not a churchgoer. Austere, she reminded me of a puritan in a bonnet, but that's a bit harsh. She could sport a mischievous eye, though not much beyond the cookie jar. She would rarely tilt at edicts, dismissing dogma out of hand. But she spouted truisms daily. Infuriatingly. Despite her taut frame, Else adored chocolate – just as a treat, mind you.

Gill had been in the second war, and the occupying force in Japan. I guess he learned their composure. Perhaps also their easy-come, easy-go attitude to the seriousness of life. Never laid-back like us colonized Aussies, in their imperial reality, life was easy to come by, and if minded, almost as easy to be rid of. Else on the other hand survived TB with one lung. She kept that determined furrow on her softly crinkled face.

Back home Gill ended up in civil administration, but not before wandering in a post-war wilderness. Else called them the anguished years, bouncing tween pillar and post. Night school eventually gravitated him to book keeping. Advanced numeracy came instinctively to Gill. Accounting became his forte – balancing public money, civic responsibility, legal liability and indemnity. After two decades with the state roads authority Gill landed deputy commissioner. All the while statistics were his allies. Gill justified and argued everything by the numbers.

The Currys' lives had been oceanic: random troughs and crests, but ironed out overall. One boy, one girl. Ross became a contrarian chip off repressed parenting. Else cherished him unaffectionately. To Ross Gill was too iffy by half. A case of the pot remonstrating with the kettle black. On Saturdays Ross sought solace in a Kombi as a skydiving thrill-seeker, and as a surfie roustabout on Sundays. Jade developed the head and shoulders to match her hips. Gill adored her. She also played hard, and nursed seriously, even after we married. I admired her gung-ho. Revering her father she placated her mother. Motorbikes were a case in point – we all rode them, Ross even raced Ducatis. The competitive friction between siblings was mutually suppressed. I should know.

The aging parents became as distant as the similarities between them. On retirement they re-materialized at the seaside, idling comfortably. Never blasé, Gill played golf studiously and Else shopped incessantly. Both for the companionship. He supervised weekend off-the-beach sailing; she lounged on the deck of their beach house, reading vacuous magazines and knitting tightly. Their hillside view rose and set routinely, before and behind them. Time slipped unnoticed. Except in my presence. I caused perturbations.

At each visit I felt the missed opportunities that still niggled Gill. Never mentioned, they echoed around him, and reflected off me. I couldn't help asking him questions like an elephant in the room. The rest of the family seemed impervious, perhaps invisibly saturated with the vibe. To me Gill wore his unfulfilled aura like an old trench coat. It weighed him down and out.

I once asked Gill, “Do you get bored at all, now you're out of the executive hubbub, no longer one of the movers and shakers?”

He replied matter-of-factly, “Boredom equates to melancholy, nowadays depression, and I'm rarely blue. It's the average across a lifetime that matters.”

I puzzled. See, newsworthy events still frustrated him, especially on transport funding, road building projects and the interminable politics. He'd write calculated letters to the editor, the local member and higher. Gill couldn't let an issue go. Yet he'd write them all off with a grumble, like “In my day a promise and a hand-shake meant something. You'd make them add up no matter what. Now it's all about point-scoring with the prevailing breeze.” I agreed.

Gill and Else ostensibly enjoyed their maturing adult kids. Ross was still single and hard to get along with. Too opinionated. But if switched off, no one could extract more than a grunt from him. Except Gill, who always got return of serve, often a volley. Ross still found his father a bit iffy. It took years for Ross to wisely terminate their rallies prematurely. By then Jade was emphatically separated – from me. We remained as cordial and independent as in our open marriage. Little appeared to change from our earlier days.

That's what Gill noted – the average. He didn't notice the highs and lows had departed the relationship between Jade and I. He thought we were still close. I guess the amicable mean of our five married years was a relief to him. He seemed as reconciled at the end as Jade and I. But to me Gill always smoothing life's graph smacked of artificiality. It irked me. Life can't stay the same for long. It's either getting better or worse.

The weathering since my brief son-in-law years had etched its toll on all of us. We had all eroded. Ross, Jade and I still visited ‘the olds’ dutifully, but rarely together – except at Xmas for a ritual BBQ on the Curry balcony overlooking Shark Bay. It was always a confined occasion. The pleasantries were excruciating. At least my conversations with Gill remained stimulating. Invariably Gill would saunter in for the festive feast as if he hadn't been flogging a ball across hectares in search of 18 elusive cups. I'd get up to shake hands. He'd always greet me with “How do you do, sir?”

To which I always replied, “Fine and dandy, Gill. And yourself?”

By which time he'd reached the kitchenette with a cheery “Hi Pet, how's your day been? Got a cuppa handy?”

Else would emerge, wiping her hands on her apron, to see Gill's back disappear in search of Jade. The Curry's silky terrier, Wammo, would prance along in tow, as if he instantly had a purpose in life.

Grand kids weren't likely now, but Else would never admit it. She knitted for younger friends' offspring instead. Gill did handyman chores for the older neighbours. The younger ones could do their own, he insisted. I got the impression he resented the baby-boomers, their easier go of it. Not that he said so directly. And he did go out of his way to help Jade and I set up home. There was just the occasional hint of ‘walk a mile in my shoes.’ Ross copped it harder, being more the hedonist, and less the materialist.

Gill hardly smoked a pipe anymore, though his nicotine-tanned fingers would never fade. Years ago his daring but conditional promise to quit eventually caught him up – his doctor friend finally won their 18-holes, twice in succession. Phlegmatic to the end, Gill still cleared his favorite snub-nosed barrel to punctuate his pronouncements. Gill didn't just chat. No matter the company, he'd tap the empty bulb like a gavel if he got impatient for an audience.

The Currys were once a tumultuous family, back in their working days and suburban family home. Strenuous argy-barge nearly every evening. Someone would fly off the handle, seemingly without provocation. Ross was often the catalyst. And Gill would ignite. The rest would be drawn in, like barking dogs gather. Then Else would retreat to bed with Wammo. Enflamed words eventually simmered. By then they'd forgotten who and what started the flurry. I knew, but it never paid to tell.

The rest of the time Gill was a subtle achiever – at cards, golf and community projects. And he was especially unflappable at work, so his friendly colleagues claimed. Home was the sole exception, when the fires and his sad eyes flared. There was never alcohol in the house to fan the flames. Else always blamed war wounds. Right or wrong, neither he nor his quarrelsome offspring ever apologized. Each and every squabble was simply accepted like any other storm.

Nonetheless, Gill remained a true gent, honest and direct. Even as the walls shook he never lied, deceived, manipulated, cajoled or conned. He just kept hammering his point, relentlessly. And as he retained everyone's trust and respect he could buttonhole anyone any other time. One on one he was menacingly subtle and calm. Consequently, outside of home, gentle persuasion ruled the waves.

Of course the family learned not to share a secret with Gill. Anything blurted or confided remained on the table for later argument. He could retrieve any indiscretion, and highlight its inconsistencies, anomalies, and consequences. Broken promises, and all manner of imprudence were his specialty. Gill managed this juxtaposition without ever getting unduly personal or judgmental. He rarely criticized character, morals and the like – only the contributing actions to the longer term. Gill was never one to let sleeping dogs lie, unless he put them to bed.

The last Xmas I saw Gill, varicose veins were only mentioned when golf had to be cancelled. An unusual malady for a tall thin man I thought, but his daughter the nurse grew concerned when surgery was recommended. Ross deferred opinion for once – a rare occurrence, given his predictable views on everything else. Perhaps he saw it coming.

In the following months Gill's demeanor began to flicker. He would unexpectedly look frustrated, like he was stuck on an invisible crossword. Out of no-where he would jump up, look around intently and pace about. If anyone objected he'd stare them out until Else reproved. Clouds were forming.

Increasingly I noticed him taking furtive photos; nothing special – the streetscape, the dog, the dinner table, a flower, everyone lounging in front of the TV. Hardly memorable stuff. So he'd pretend to be fidgeting with the camera rather than picturing normality. I knew why the sunsets missed out.

I decided Gill was finally accepting his ordinariness, absorbing it. Special occasions waned in his estimation, apparently no longer noteworthy. It was as if he declined to fully participate in anything memorable. Odd for someone who had grown tired of the mundane. Later, it occurred to me Gill considered each new highlight a mere blip in his overall existence. He'd often declared the ordinary – rather, the average – defined a life's journey. And in his case, he seemingly figured there wasn't enough time to change his overall course now.

I often wanted to know his definition of ‘average,’ me being mathematical too. Did he just mean the sum of N numbers divided by N? Or was it the median, the middle value between largest and smallest? Or perhaps the mode, the single number that appears most often? I reckon it would depend on how many outliers in his life. But Gill wasn't the type to raise his special moments, not births and deaths, and certainly not war stories. Any invitation was like poking a clamshell.

One facet everyone admired about Gill was his sense of injustice. He detested abusers of all persuasions – violent, sexual, financial, environmental, political ... the lot. For Gill ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ just means they are due for more of the same mistreatment. Hence Gill's immediate and continuing justification for fighting to ‘make things right.’ Yet in the end, it's the resistance that counts, not the degree of success. Resigning to fate is the utterly final resort.

What kept Gill awake at nights, he often claimed, was what we cop in life. Gill couldn't accept ‘tough luck’ if a life was born against the odds, or fell into an inescapable rut. A helpless victim without an abuser scared him witless. He could be as sympathetic as the next human but he wilted in the face of disability. Without fault of one's own a lifelong sentence was imposed. In Gill's terms a life average was preordained. Gill had no answer. He was at a complete loss, lamenting, “Disability is absolutely unacceptable.”

The day after Gill had a stroke at the fifth hole, he asked for me to visit him in hospital – alone. After the shock this request wasn't a surprise to me, or the family. As his ex son-in-law, we were still mates. During the divorce and its miserable preliminaries Gill never took sides. Perhaps it was a mere blip on the graph of our lives. In any case, he rose above it, or ignored it.

At the bedside I expected a ‘look after my daughter when I'm gone’ speech. Instead Gill cut to another chase, and drawled, “You know when you're dead?”

“Huh, me?” spilled out while I struggled for a better response. What was he asking? Looking around the ward didn't help me. Everyone lay under their own cone of silence, their mortality.

Gill leaned closer to me. I could tell he was anxious. “What if nothing changes?” he lured with the same long straight face as ever.

He must be dopey, I thought. But he was looking me in the eye in earnest. Still, he could be kidding, so I opted to humor him. After all, he was facing the biggest ‘change’ of his life. Perhaps he was making light of it. “Well,” I suggested lamely, “no one can take away your achievements.”

Gill shrugged and cleared his throat for something serious. “What if my average existence just continues, as if nothing's changed? Then what?”

“Heh? I don't get you, Gill.” I seemed to be the one struggling for a lifeline. “Are you worried you might vegetate in here?” He looked away sadly. “On life support I mean?” No response, so I insisted, “No way. The family will respect your end-of-life wishes. You've made them clear. Then we'd grieve,” I assured him somberly. He looked back, half smiling. Finally, I reassured, “Life wouldn't be the same without you, Gill. Else and your kids would miss you terribly.” And for good measure, “Wammo too.” On this point at least Gill snorted agreement.

“I won't know about all that,” he dismissed. “I guess the kids will still visit Else. You too, maybe. Either way, Elsie will keep knitting. Life will go on.”

“Yeah, Gill, but we'd all remember you.” I knew I wasn't getting through, but neither was he. I'm not sure who was getting more agitated.

Gill wriggled about. “Actually, my day to day life will simply continue.” My eyebrows arched. He continued without hesitation. “It will stop for you, but not me.” Then he chuckled awkwardly. “I reckon it will be like watching endless TV reruns. At least I'll be the star.”

I stood up for breathing space. For a moment I really wondered if Gill was zonked, or else just raving anyway. No, I decided. He was unerring – on a mission. Quite lucid, he was choosing his words carefully, albeit occasionally slurred. They were as coherent and deliberate as ever. I stretched, then sat down again, closer, and offered, “You mean like someone continues to feel an amputated limb?”

Gill's eyes rose. “That's right, sir! Exactly! In the amputee's mind nothing changes.”

“Maybe,” I conceded. Whatever gets you through, I admitted to myself. But for the rest of us, dead is dead. Our atoms drift into the either, whatever they contained.

The tea lady arrived. Gill approved it strong and black. His cup trembled. He sipped and savored, gazing aloft. I tried collecting my thoughts. Since he'd raised the topic, I ventured, “Gill, are you suggesting consciousness – our being conscious – survives death?”

“Not on your Nellie, sport. I'm not whacko!” Cup and saucer rattled. “It's just that all existence stretches backward and forward. Mine extends, before and after, and continues minus the personalities.” And with a fleeting grin Gill confided, “I reckon there's a melding.”

Feeling metaphysically awkward I struggled for terra firma. “You sound a bit like the Laws of Nature – about conservation between matter, energy, entropy, and all that equilibrium stuff.” I hoped I wasn't brown-nosing but I couldn't help currying a favorable impression.

“Don't know much about science. Just each life is a culmination of ages that dissipates too quickly. But overall, nothing is lost.”

“Or gained?” I wondered aloud.

“The average matters, young sir.”

Jumping right in, I ventured, “So, what does your view of life say?” I knew I was inviting a sermon but he deserved a chance to reflect. “More precisely, Gill, how we should live our lives – what's right and wrong, good and bad?”

“Glad you asked, my friend.” All buoyed, Gill launched forth.

“In the context of ‘Do No Harm,’ my principle is to preview each intended action: If acting will improve at least one life average, then act, else do nothing and think again. The more you can improve life averages, the better, including your own.”

“Wow, Gill, I'm impressed. Short and sharp. I was expecting a treatise. Still, you've given me a bit to chew.” What else can I say? I should have remembered Gill always preferred to leave a light footprint.

Next thing, Gill was nodding off.

A late night phone call wasn't unexpected. The motorbike accident was. T-boned, Jade died at the scene. I floundered, grabbing at whatever I could do for Gill and Else. I met Elsie in the hospital foyer. Gill had just been told. She was surprisingly stoic, perhaps not. Else was always dispassionately long-suffering. Ross hovered. Gill was refusing visitors. “No mourners,” the sister quoted. I insisted anyway.

Gill's eyes barely lifted. “How do you do, sir?”

To which I usually replied, ‘Fine and dandy, Gill. And yourself?’ But not this time. Instead I just shook his hand and sat down. Gill being bedridden and now heartbroken compounded my anger and loss. Rage stiffened my neck and shoulders. Why?

Gill's so sad eyes slowly found mine. “I'm glad she had her life on track, you understand. Jade's life average is what she would have wanted.”

I nodded, yet I knew otherwise. But now is not the time. I resolved to work through what I really thought of Jade's unsorted jumble and Gill's life legacy considerations. “Before you go, young sir, don't let them pile on the funeral crap. Alright? And to set the ceremonial tone, here's a brief note from me.”

On the way out I stopped to read Gill's pithy eulogy. ‘Jade lived each day, not as her last, but as she would have wanted the rest.’

Wishful thinking, I bemoaned. Jade took drugs to cope with being a dedicated nurse. She was even caught pinching pills from work, and subsequently deregistered. She was a habitual philanderer in a time when womanizing was no longer fashionable. Nearing our divorce we both decided on an abortion because the father would be too much of a gamble. And I never partook in lotteries. Aside from my faults Jade accepted she made mistakes, which I'd never tell Gill. Especially when Jade wasn't around to mend or defend them.

Else couldn't bring herself to deal with Gill's estate, orderly as all the papers were. She wasn't that distraught, just repulsed. And put out, snitchy. Inheriting his bequest was one thing, but executing his Will was too much. She moved out of their bedroom and couldn't enter his study. And Ross would only handle Gill's other belongings – the cars, the clubs. Fortunately, Jade was always curious about her dad, to the end. She had already handed me his too hard basket – a dissonance of Gill's note pads, clippings, handwritten snippets and sticky notes. Jade had been his soul mate.

I was astounded to find jumbled bumper sticker quotes, annotated extracts, and disheveled diary entries dating back years. At first Gill's unwieldy collection amounted to magpie warble: ‘death is only proof of life,’ scrawled repeatedly; ‘live the life you want ad infinitum,’ penned in bold or underlined; ‘set up your life to see you through forever,’ enlarged and spangled with doodles. Obviously I glimpsed the theme.

I felt I owed it to Gill to properly fathom his apparently obsessive babble. If death isn't the full stop that ends life's sentence, then what is it, Gill? Affirmation? Dedication? Recycling? None sounded quite like Gill's take on it. I delved further, searching for the leitmotif. Take for instance Gill's remark that without death, ‘life would be an endless collective illusion.’ Was he claiming perpetual life would leave nothing else – to do, to be, to want, to anything? He used to smile at the shared experience of incessantly barking dogs. “Wammo, just keep yapping for the sake of it, eh?”

Imminent death certainly provides a distancing perspective on life. For Gill it didn't paint another complexion, just the final touches to a lengthy work in progress. Gill always made the obvious point that living is not a dream. Why not, Gill? Where's the meaning? Gill observed, a dream only seems real until it's over. While dreaming perhaps there's no external point of reference. Only when it ends does the bubble burst. Our anything but dreamy lives experience death all the time, all around us. All deaths remain real until our own. Gill wrote, ‘Every other's death is a reference point. Ageing is our guided tour.’

According to Gill, his death simply closes his contemporaries' window on his being, reminding them of their shared experience. In this he could be at one with the Dreamtime. Gill had genuine respect for Aboriginal culture. Jade once recalled Gill's explanation that every person essentially exists forever in the Dreaming. Their eternal essence exists before and after life. Apparently Ross sniveled at the part where the spirit of the land imbues each newborn with custodianship of their birthplace. Can't win them all I guess.

Where Gill becomes more contentious is what happens to him afterwards. If his essence continues beyond death, then he asked what's the best way to live? He reasoned it's best for him to live the life he wants to last forever, as if it continues indefinitely. That's Gill's idea of the ‘good life.’ This does not necessarily mean doing or being ‘good’ for others. Gill emphasized doing or being ‘bad’ is just as much a life commitment, forever. Gill saw no need to extol the virtuous life, just the pragmatics of never living down the average of a life.

With all his philosophizing I asked myself if Gill had a strong belief in himself, a vital self-worth. Well, Gill had his doubts, like most of us. He admitted anyone can be self-justified, or indoctrinated, for better or worse. And they apparently live with the consequences. If so, that raises a concern I asked myself in Gill's stead. In Gill's terms, surely someone dogmatically excusing their ‘bad’ acts leaves that life no worse off than a saint's? His answer lies in statistics. Everyone has no choice but to measure their ‘life average’ in the context of the average of all lives around them.

If my interpretation holds, Gill would argue that the moral course of humanity cannot be avoided; the weight of numbers must guide genuine individual introspection. History provides stark reminders where perhaps true self-reflection was lacking. One of Gill's favorite quotes comes to mind: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ Women too.

Gill loved to hang it on all the shit-kickers continually fighting dog-eat-dog. I recall his kiss off: “Even if they don't get their just deserts in this life, they are doomed to endure their grubby livelihoods and lifestyles forever.” What we set up in life, according to Gill, has to see us through indefinitely. No redemption and no second chances. Rehabilitation is only as effective as the law of averages. So ‘watch your footsteps,’ as Gill used to warn. Or ‘too little too late.’

I couldn't resist running my understanding of Gill's hidden philosophy past Elsie. “Rubbish,” she downplayed. “Gill always thought he was immortal. His moralizing was incessant in the early days. That's why he went teetotal in forty-six. People couldn't stand him after a few beers. Always chortling about life and death if he got half a chance.” Then Else blinked a tear and smiled beatifically. Wammo, who'd been sitting at Elsie's feet, began to howl. I felt like joining in.

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