One of the greatest legacies my dad gave me was a sense of humour.
Unfortunately, our time together was relatively short; he died in 1974 when I was 17. However, it was long enough to instil in me a love of the ridiculous and later, a realization of it’s ability to build resilience when faced with life’s adversities.
Some of the funniest people I’ve ever known have been my colleagues in palliative care. Seems incongruous doesn’t it? Dying’s sad. But dying can be funny too. For those not in the profession I don’t mean any disrespect but sometimes there’s a set of circumstances, even some dying words that can cut through the heaviness like a magic wand and release the pent-up valve of the vigil. It’s moments like these that carers and staff bond and always remember.
I had a precious moment when I was caring for my mum as she was nearing the end of her life. She was at home, virtually bed bound and becoming more confused as her sodium levels dropped. Thinking the end might be near I called the local priest to anoint her knowing that in her more lucid moments that is what she would have wanted.
Propped up in bed with the soft glow of dimmed lights reflecting off her pink bed jacket onto her face transformed her somehow. The wrinkles were gone, the frown was relaxed as she stared beatifically up at Father Ben now standing by her bedside reciting the prayers.
I wondered what she was seeing and for that matter what she was hearing as she wasn’t following the familiar prayers. Her look suggested another world and for a moment I thought the three of us were going to levitate.
Then she spoke. ‘You’d make a really good priest’, she said to Father Ben.
He smiled and carried on but I had to turn away.
I spluttered into my hand trying to stifle an explosion of spittle. Fortunately, she was oblivious to me and my momentary lack of control. I realized where she was coming from, she had mistaken Father Ben for my brother-in-law who a moment before had been standing in the same place. Mind you they looked nothing like each other and there was at least a 20 year age difference. Mum hadn’t ‘caught up’ with the interchange and thought my brother-in-law was reading her some prayers!
It was funny. That unexpected moment of humour was magic. I’m sure it helped me carry on just that little bit longer with her care at home. A moment I’ll never forget.
For families/loved ones caring for the dying it is a roller coaster of emotions and for palliative care staff it is an art in travelling with them on their journey and knowing when to guide them and to offer the appropriate advice and information. I have found it an absolute privilege to be there with them.
In my research into the family history and with a general interest in all things medical, I couldn’t resist applying for the inquest reports for a couple of my forebears.
They were both sudden deaths, and I was curious as to know the circumstances.
First, was the inquest into the sudden death of Edward BOWES (c.1828-1891), one of my great-great-grandfathers.
Edward BOWES, (in blue below) emigrated from Tipperary, Ireland as a 26 year old, arriving in Sydney on the Nepaul on 25 March 1855. His sister, Johanna, was already in Sydney. His father, also Edward BOWES (1801-1874), was a retired policeman. He arrived in Sydney on the Edward Oliver on 25 Nov 1856 as a widower with his remaining 6 children.
The Edward BOWES in question, married in Sydney shortly after his arrival and spent most of his life in Victoria. He had 9 children and was widowed in 1877. His wife Catherine KEEGAN was only 48 at the time of her death. It was history repeating itself as his father had been a young widower with a large family too.
Edward BOWES (c.1828-1891) was found dead on the 10th November 1891 at the home of Mr Nott. Below is a transcript of the policeman’s report I accessed via microfilm when the Public Record Office Victoria was in the CBD way back in 1989 when I first started the family history:
I beg to report for the information of the Coroner that about 930 this morning the dead body of a man named Edward Bowes was found dead in his room by Edward Nott of 376 Burnley St, Burnley the deceased was stopping at the above address and was last seen alive by Mr Nott about 930 PM last night when he went to bed deceased seemed allright then deceased has been complaining about his heart for the last week he has been working for Mr Nott as Traveller and generally gets up about 8 o’clock AM Mr Nott not seeing him about at 930 AM this morning went to his room and found him on the floor quite dead there is no marks of violence on the body.
Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) VPRS 1920 Inquest Deposition Files. Accessed on microfilm at PROV 8 Nov 1989.
Along with the amusement I found in the degree of ‘deadness’ of poor Edward BOWES was the names of the policemen involved:
Constable DUMBLETON wrote the report and it was signed off by his Sergeant in Charge, Sergeant McCOFFIN.
The names tickled my funny bone and reminded me of the bumbling Keystone Cops.
Author: No inference intended as to any particular behaviour of the Richmond police in the 1890s!
Next, the inquest into the death of Richard WINTER (1849-1932), a brother of my great-grandfather, William WINTER.
Richard was the fifth son of Edward WINTER and Honoria TANCRED, the original emigrants from Ireland who I have mentioned in earlier posts.
I was able to access the hard copy of the inquest earlier this year at the Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) in North Melbourne (below) after ordering it online.
The Reading Room of the PROV is very quiet. It’s like a library. Everyone has their heads down, trying to decipher aged, musty, primary documents.
Richard WINTER was a farmer at Nine Mile, near Wedderburn, Victoria. I don’t know much about this branch of the family but I suspect gold may have taken the WINTER brothers, Edward and Richard, further up the Calder Highway from their birthplace of Keilor.
Richard was the only child of Edward and Honoria WINTER to live past 8o. And he was the last of the 9 children to leave this mortal coil. His mother, Honoria, died when he was 7 and his father, Edward, died when he was 20.
The reports to the coroner describe a warm, homely scene; family and neighbours sitting around the fire in the kitchen of Richard WINTER, listening to him tell a story.
Some stories just have you riveted. Hanging on every word. And that seemed to be the case on the evening of 31 May 1932.
Richard WINTER, who was now 82 years of age, had no doubt gathered some good stories over his lifetime. And he’d probably perfected the nuances of suspense in the telling. However, the lapse in his timing on this occasion became uncomfortably long as one visitor, William GILLETT, a eucalyptus distiller, describes in his report to the coroner:
I was tickled. Perhaps it was the quietness of the PROV reading room that made the mental picture of the cosy kitchen scene more comedic than it was. Another local visiting that night reported the same details as Mr Gillett; he too thought Richard was acting out the story.
I had to stifle a laugh. I wanted to tell someone, Hey, listen to this! But it wouldn’t have been appropriate.
Richard WINTER obviously had a talent for transfixing his audience and maybe he used some theatrics in his previous storytelling. But what a great way to go, surrounded by your friends and relatives. A shock of course but better than the result of an accident.
I’ve found a couple of reports in the newspapers accessed through Trove of accidents Richard WINTER was involved in that could have ended his life sooner:
On 4 February 1895, on returning home from the funeral of a fellow pioneer in the area, Richard’s trap overturned and he broke his leg. Accidents involving upturned buggies/traps were not uncommon and Richard was lucky his injuries weren’t more serious.
He followed up the incident with the Korong Shire Council, requesting compensation for his broken leg as he believed the non removal of a stump in the road was the cause of the accident.
He was obviously annoyed with the council for not fixing the roads.
I don’t know whether the council came to the party.
Another incident involved Richard’s mule and a pick:
STRUCK BY A PICK
Wedderburn, 24th December
A Richard WINTERS had a narrow escape from serious injury yesterday. While digging in a hole…..deep a pick was accidently dropped on his head by his mule a……wound being caused. Dr Taylor inserted several stitches in the wound.
A pick? Dropped on his head by his mule???
What sort of mule ‘picks up’ a pick?
Richard WINTER had a couple of close calls but was lucky.
Oh yeah, I forgot to say that both these gentlemen died of heart complications. Nothing suspicious.
Considering they both had pre-existing heart conditions it’s a pity their deaths had to go through the coroner’s court. Unfortunately, for Richard, his doctor had left the district and he hadn’t seen the new local doctor who certified ‘life extinct’ in the last 6 months so he wasn’t prepared to write the death certificate. A situation that can still arise today. So, a good reason to keep in touch with your local doctor.