5 min read

Shut the f--ing gate

Shut the f--ing gate
Share this post

The Grumpy Old Doctor, aka GOD, was a solo GP in a small country town for 32 years. He’s now in his seventh year of working as a rural and remote locum across Australia. His stories take the form of letters to his daughter, Julia, in Sydney.

Dear Julia

This morning 94-year-old Beryl told me, “It takes a lifetime to work things out, doctor, and you will still always be left with one or two conundrums.” I can’t remember what we were talking about at the time, but she’s right: there are many questions without answers. I have always wanted to know where birds go to die. Has anyone ever seen a budgie curl up its claws and fall off the perch, or a sparrow have a heart attack on the wing and drop out of the sky? Do magpies find their way back to the comfort of the nest when their time is up?

“Road kill!” is Kevin’s answer. “Hit another three galahs on my way here this morning. Don’t think anything will ever kill Nigel, though.” Nigel is a cockatoo and Kevin is a Vietnam veteran worried about dying. “I keep thinking my heart is going to stop. I’ve had an angiogram—the specialist said he unblocked one artery with a stent, another one’s got a little bit of shit in it, and the rest are all right. Which is all very well, but what about my pacemaker? Everything’s going flat this week. I put new batteries in the remote on Monday, the ones in my hearing aid last no time at all, and I had to jump-start my car this morning. Pacemaker could be next.” 

I reassured him that an annual check provides an accurate assessment of his device’s longevity. “Won’t waste time worrying about that then. You know, after Vietnam, I never used to think about dying, but Tina’s put the wind up me. She was never once crook in the 37 years we were together. Came home from the pub to find her asleep in front of the telly—My Kitchen Rules, she loved cooking shows—and couldn’t wake her up.” I murmured my sympathy. 

“We had a pretty fiery relationship, argued a fair bit. It’s been 12 months now and I still hear her voice every day, loud and clear as a bell.” I began to explain something of the grieving process. “That’s not the problem, doc,” he interrupted. “It’s Nigel. Had him 20-odd years and he’s picked up a couple of Tina’s favourite expressions. Every night, when I get home from the pub, it’s ‘Squaaaark! Drunk again ya’ bastard’, and whenever I go out I’m reminded to close the front gate. Not polite about it, either, says it like he really means it. If I die at home, Nigel will be shouting at me to ‘SHUT THE FUCKIN’ GATE!’ as the undertaker carries me out.”

Harry has seen enough of life and is anxious to pass through the pearly gates. “I don’t know who the bloke up top has got on the drafting race, but I’m an old, broken-mouthed wether and it’s time I was culled.” 

Loneliness and physical decay are getting to Harry. “I always said I’d be happy on the farm as long as I was still able to breed a few sheep and yell at a dog, but old age is a bastard. Spend all my time tryin’ to stay alive or staggerin’ round trippin’ over stuff I should have picked up yesterday. I’m no good in the pissin’ department, I’ve developed an untrustworthy bowel, my glands are playin’ up and I feel lousy. Everyone I went to school with is dead. Macca went over the rise last Easter, Mick Flick finally slipped his hobbles after three miserable years in the nursing home, and we lost Mappo and Long Ron in the pandemic. I’ve got more friends in the cemetery than out and it’s time for me to join them. Never married, so there’s no succession planning to worry about. I wish I could just fall off the perch.” 

Ida went quietly and quickly. She was sitting on the perch when she died. It was 35 years ago and still the best death I have seen. A farmer’s widow in her mid-80s, Ida brought the discipline of farm life with her when she retired to town and lived by a strict routine. She always locked up her chooks at 10 to six and called her son at five to, before taking in the local news. The alarm was raised when she failed to make that call. 

I found her sitting at the kitchen table, glasses on, head bent over the paper spread open before her—Monday’s Bendigo Advertiser, the classifieds. She was checking the hatches, matches and dispatches. The television was on, showing the weatherman forecasting clearing showers over the next two days, then fine and sunny later in the week. Ideal for a funeral.

Fran returned to the nest to die. She was on duty at the local hospital when I was born and was still there when I returned 30 years later. By that time, she was the nurse in charge and I was the town’s GP. We worked together for 20 years and came to understand and trust each other implicitly. 

After her retirement, late-onset diabetes and strange abdominal pain lead to a CT and the discovery of a pancreatic mass that Fran, having seen the dark side of surgery and chemotherapy, chose to ignore. Two years later her ritual of a pre-dinner chardonnay was interrupted by a massive stroke. I arrived before the ambulance and, while her son was outside making phone calls, we had 10 minutes to sit and commune in companionable silence. I signed the death certificate 24 hours later; she waited for all her children to come home and say goodbye.

We had stopped delivering babies locally many years before Fran’s death and the hospital had undergone renovation. The room she died in was once the maternity suite. I saw her life end in the same place that she saw mine begin more than 50 years earlier. A circle had been completed and there seemed no point in going around again. I left and became a wandering locum.

You and I have a lot in common, Julia. We dislike cats, don’t enjoy musicals and are afraid of heights. We will never know where all the birds in the world go to die and we cannot tell when or where our own lives will end. I’ve seen enough to know that the Grim Reaper does not come softly for those, like Kevin and Harry, who worry, wish and wait for him. 

Despite my shortcomings, Annie doesn’t shout or swear at me and we won’t have a talkative cockatoo on hand to issue last-
minute instructions; but there’s no need to worry. Having been brought up on a farm, I won’t have to be reminded to shut the gate when I go.

Love, Dad

Names and places have been changed to protect privacy. Some of the dialogue is colourful, but all is authentic. None is intended as medical advice.

This article was featured in Galah Issue 08: Home