My Father’s Comb

This piece appeared in the Melbourne Age in January 2003

Of all the paraphernalia that hung around my father’s bedroom thirty years ago, the item I remember most is his comb. It was tortoiseshell, and had an amazing amount of ‘stuff’ wedged between each tooth…just where the teeth met the jaw.

Months of accumulated Bryllcream, ‘Bardsley’s Tonic, dandruff and whatever else had formed a sort of grey sludge that never seemed to shift. My sister and I would look at the comb and marvel. How could anyone use such a thing? Didn’t he ever wash it? Was it alive?

Yet every New Years Day, without fail, the comb would be washed. Dad would perch over the concrete laundry tub with a small nail-brush and scrub the thing. In our childhood memories, the ‘cleansing’ seemed to take the best part of half an hour, yet childhood memories aren’t always accurate.

As we prepare to enter another year, little benchmarks about the past 12 months tend to spring to mind for us all. These are the little memories that help us mark the passage of time. My father’s cleansing of the comb was a benchmark for my sister and I; a pivotal memory we can’t forget. My daughter’s first school play was an enormous benchmark for her this year. My friend talks about his retrenchment as if it was his coming of age; his rite of passage. For another friend, it was her son moving out of home and living with his girlfriend. Little boy no more.

For me, this new year marks the sixth year of my father’s dementia…a disease that not only robs sufferers of their history, but of any small landmarks that helps them distinguish the years, celebrate or lament their passing and prepare them for the coming year. For dementia patients, there are few memories and few benchmarks.

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia generally are on the rise in Australia. The experts tell us that these conditions of old age are expected to rise by up to 250% over the next 40 years. Unfortunately it seems that being able to live longer and possess stronger physical health doesn’t always mean that our mental health will keep pace.

We first noticed dad having trouble driving. The Chrysler Sigma would suffer immensely from having both the accelerator and the brake pedal pushed at the same time. He’d forget to indicate and at one stage, completely forgot where he was going and needed to ask me why we were driving. God knows how many times that happened when he was driving alone.

Then were the fits of anger…anger yelled to the world after years of suppression; anger desperate for a voice. The voices were always inappropriate and misdirected. Sometimes at his wife, sometimes at me, sometimes at my young daughter, sometimes at the garden. On thinking about it, perhaps they were appropriately directed after all. It was the vitriolic expression that shocked us.

After a year it was the constant ticks, the incessant scratching of an imaginary piece of dust or crumb on his clothing. He’d also relate stories about this man or that who’d come through the house the night before. He’d always laugh at their boldness, and he’d always comment on their physical appearance. They were always fat.

Later on, through several bouts of bronchitis and an episode of pneumonia, he lost his ability to walk and talk. He hasn’t spoken for a year now. He sits, head down, dressed in his grey work pants as if he just stepped out of his shift at Grace Bros. His wife, desperate for normality, often props the newspaper on his lap as if he’s reading. Dad looks down for a while and then begins to scratch at the letters. It’s anything but normality.

As 2003 dawns, perhaps it’s time to consider our own benchmarks a little more. To reflect on the important personal events that marked the passing of the last 12 months. To ‘measure out our lives’ while we still can.

Reflection on the pros and cons of the year gives us a template for the next, yet while reflection is important, it’s also the documenting of these benchmarks that is necessary.

The onset of my father’s dementia meant that our family lost an individual’s memory; a resource we all desperately need as we approach curious middle age. This memory contained much of our family story; a story important to us all and a story we’d only dipped into a few times.

Questions my family would now dearly love answered can never be answered. We have some photographs, a few medals, sports awards and our own childhood memories. Yet our story begins at chapter seven, not at chapter one as my father would have told it.

So rather than settling down on New Year’s Day to a good book, it’s perhaps the best time of all to begin our own book; to record even briefly the events and lessons that made 2003 great or disastrous for us as individuals or collectively as families.

The grammar need not be brilliant and the spelling can be lousy. It’s the documentation that’s important; the action of making our memory accessible by all at a time when our memories are still lucid. On thinking about it, perhaps the hangovers of New Year’s Day make it a bad choice for many. Thursday may be a better day to start.

Contemporary fashion has spelt the end of the comb. Its popularity went west with Brylcreme and Bardsley’s tonic. Instead my modern bathroom cabinet boasts a number of brushes…several of my partners and one of mine.

My daughter, who seems to collect brushes and hide them in her bedroom, never touches my tatty thing. My partner avoids touching my brush at all. If she ever does its to put it way below in the cabinet so others can’t see it.

So this New Year, after writing a few lines of the family story, I think I’ll reinstate a 30 year-old benchmark and give my brush a rinse. It may be hidden forever among fluffy toys and tweeny cosmetics, but it will probably make us all very happy.

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