19 June 2010

A kooky visitor

A few days ago, when I sat down to write Feathered visitors, about the birds that visit us regularly, I was surprised to find I had no photographs of a bird we hear almost every day, though we don't see him as often as that. That bird is the kookaburra, an Australian icon, also called the laughing kookaburra because of his curiously raucous birdsong.

Then today, just as A and I were coming up from the lower garden where we'd gone to pick a few oranges for tomorrow's breakfast juice, we were surprised to see a fat little kookaburra resting on an overhead branch quite near the back porch.

These birds don't usually hang around near the house, preferring to spend their time in the branches of the tall gum trees down in the paddock and up along the edges of the road. I think this year one family was roosting every night in the row of small bushy trees that our neighbour has planted as a hedge along the fenceline that divides our properties. I would hear them there every evening at dusk, noisily calling out the end of another day. But even when they are singing from the highest branches of gum trees across the road, we easily hear them. Theirs is not an especially beautiful song, but it is peculiar and distinctive among Australian birdsongs. And the cackle of kookaburras never fails to bring a smile to my face, sounding as it does as if the birds are having a boisterous quarrel.

A couple of years ago I had a close encounter with a very fat specimen. I was turning over the rich soil in this newly constructed vegetable patch. Sackfuls of horse manure had been spread on the new beds and left to rot over several months. And as I turned the rotted manure into the topsoil, scores of juicy big worms appeared. Not long after I started the job, I noticed a large kookaburra perched in a nearby tree, watching me, obviously uncertain whether to risk diving down for a feed of worm. I picked up a large worm and threw it onto the gravel path alongside the garden bed. The kookaburra immediately flew down and pounced on the worm. The he flew up to the sit on one of the bamboo tomato towers in the next plot. I continued turning over the bed, throwing the bird a worm now and then. He didn't catch them in mid-air, as the butcher birds do whenever I toss them scraps of leftovers. But he was quite comfortable being fed by me for nearly an hour. Don't look for the bird in this picture, though. As soon as I went up to the house to get my camera, he disappeared!

Up close, the kookaburra really is a most magnificent fellow, not as splendidly coloured as his smaller kingfisher cousins, perhaps, but thickly plumed, and as he often sits hunched over in a little ball he looks more like a child's fluffy woollen toy than a bird. He's well known as an early riser, too. Often he's the first bird to sing at the crack of dawn. In fact, if a family is nesting or roosting in a tree that has a view of our house, and for one reason or another I get up before dawn and switch on a light, the kookaburra will mistake my lit-up window as the dawn's early light. And sure enough: a short sharp chorus of kookaburra laughing will start up right after my light goes on, and stop when I turn it off. Because of that, plus the bird's slightly bizarre looks and strange guttural song, I can't help thinking of the kookaburra as being slightly dopey. Even so, he's always welcome at our place.

17 June 2010

Partners in caring

Today is a cold wet day here in Queensland. Of course, 'cold' is relative. It's about 17 degrees Centigrade (64 Fahrenheit) and there's no wind at all. So I can hear North American and Tasmanian readers snorting in derision! But it did rain last night; the gauge says 22 mm – just enough to bed down my new mulch and provide a good drink to the grapefruit and oranges that are near to ripening. But this morning it's still damp out and there's hardly any sun, which is not a typical winter day here in Paradise. So we are feeling hard done by.

Except for this: I am home ALONE for the first time since A came home from hospital this time last year. Until today, except for one four-hour session each week when a Blue Care carer has come in to spend time with A while I go off somewhere, A and I have spent every waking and sleeping hour of the year in each other's company. And I have never in all that time been home alone. It has to be a testimony to our deep affection and great friendship that A and I have managed to get through this post-operative year without any eruptions that I can recall. But much of the credit for this has to go to him – to his easy-going nature, his willingness to accept change and his refusal to give up trying to get on with all those intellectual pursuits that have made him who he is. Even when, in the first few months after his release from hospital, he could not yet get to his feet without assistance, he would spend hours every day reading, relearning how to form letters and practising his writing, singing along to favourite songs and practising his speech.

This week A began a six-week program of rehabilitation at Eden Rehabilitation Centre. He'll go twice a week, for four hours a day. He's an in-patient during these sessions, so the program is covered by our health insurance. Focussing on 'Falls Prevention', the sessions include physiotherapy, occupational therapy and various other therapies tailored to meet the needs of the four people participating (three elderly women and A!) It's about a 15-minute drive for me to take him there, and the 8am starting time is a challenge for late-risers like me – though no problem for A, who easily gets up at 6am, which is what we both need to do to be ready in time. But except for one hour once a week, I'm not expected to participate in these 12 half-day sessions. So for most of A's time there I am free to do whatever I like. Today I decided I would come back home and just be here – alone.

Solitude has always figured high on my list of indulgences. The informally negotiated terms we agreed when A and I started living together more than 30 years ago included an acceptance that neither of us would give up following individual pursuits and chasing our own dreams. For A, this meant implementing a plan he was already formulating before we linked up, to give up his secure arts administration salary and return to freelance theatre work. We made sure to get a mortgage on our first home approved before A's resignation, because at that time banks were reluctant to consider anything but the male breadwinner's salary when making decisions about mortgages. Mortgage secured, though, A quit his job in administration and resumed work in theatre and scriptwriting.

Some years later, when my career development depended on an interstate move, there was never any question that A would agree to this. His being freelance made it easier, but at his age then (58), finding new outlets for his freelance services was not easy. Ten years later, when my consultancy work meant more overseas travel, A might well have been reluctant to make more changes at a stage of life when most people are well set in their ways. But when the time came to make a decision, he enthusiastically wrapped up his professional activities and made a graceful transition to supportive house-husband.

Being 17 years older than me probably made it easier for him to give up work, but it was late in life to take on the job of running a household, especially in a developing country! Even so, A tackled that with dogged persistence and great good humour. His experiences dealing with plumbers in the Philippines, where clients were expected to buy and supply all the necessary parts for any job before work could begin, are worthy of a separate post! (In the end, the fact that our flush toilets functioned at all was due more to A's handiwork with bits of metal and plastic – and rubber bands! – than to local plumbing expertise.)

So I continued doing aid work – in the Philippines, Laos and Vietnam – and A continued to manage our domestic life. Sometimes this meant setting up house for a few months in a hotel room, with lots of negotiation about such things as better reading lights, additional pillows for reading in bed, a second desk for A! Inevitably, when the time came for departure there would be heartfelt farewells with staff, thanks mainly to A's being on such good terms with everyone. Cleaning girls would give us gifts, as well as vice versa, and we would find ourselves at weddings and other family events with the families of young hotel managers and others whom A had befriended. In one two year assignment, we never again had to stand in line at the state bank's currency exchange office after the girls working there adopted A as a surrogate grandfather.

Over the years of my various assignments, A has helped to train local scriptwriters for educational TV, helped senior secondary students in Laos to direct a film as part of their introduction to media, and made market ladies giggle in gleeful expectation every time he would alight from a tuk-tuk to shop for the week's provisions. Now, those same qualities that enabled him to deal calmly with situations that many his age (and younger) would have found trying are helping him to tackle the more stressful challenge of losing his ability to use language. He's a survivor, and perhaps most importantly, he is adaptable. Nor is he too proud to admit what he doesn't know or can't do. And he doesn't mind accepting help. All of that makes my role as caregiver so much easier.

Even so, in recent years we have both had to give up things that meant a lot to each of us. We've lost access to my good income stream a lot sooner than I had planned. A has lost his independence, self-reliance and the pleasure of participating actively in the upkeep of house and property. He can no longer take on the little building projects he once loved. And I know he worries about being a burden. I have had to give up work that I loved and the chance of a livelier retirement than I expected. But perhaps most of all for me, for much of the past year I have had to forego the occasional spells of solitude I enjoyed while travelling alone on short-term contracts, disappearing into my studio for days at a time or just being at home alone while A was out pursuing his own activities.

Now we live in each other's pocket, it seems. For both of us, that's a new, more conventional existence than what we were used to. Luckily, we seem to have got through this difficult year of transition to...well, who knows to what! One thing we've realised is that none of us knows what will come next in life. This year we have learned not to worry about that so much, and just to live in the present.

15 June 2010

Feathered visitors

It's about time I posted some photos of the birds that visit us regularly. I expected I'd have an abundance of photos to choose from, but in fact I didn't find that many really good photos in my bird file. Nevertheless, I'll use what photos I have on hand. And as I get better ones of any of these birds, I'll update this post. Maybe this will motivate me to work a bit harder at capturing better shots of some of these elusive but spectacular visitors.

Probably our most regular guests at the two bird feeders are small flocks of rainbow lorikeets. These birds are more plentiful at times when food is less abundant in the bush. I don't feed them a large amount of seed unless times are tough for them. But I have planted grevilleas and banksias near the bird feeders, and the flowers of those bushes are an even bigger attraction to the parrots than any birdseed I put out.

Slightly more exotic (at least to interstate visitors) is the pair of king parrots – Mr King (below) with his electric red head and breast positively glowing in sunlight, and Mrs King, a bit less flamboyant, perhaps, but in better light you would see that her green plumage is tinged here and there with touches of turquoise. They are a shy twosome, rarely allowing me to get near enough to take a good photo. And though they almost always visit as a pair, often one will sit in a nearby tree or bush, or on the back of a chair (as at right), while waiting for the other to feed.

Just as lovely as their showier cousins are the delicately toned pink and grey galahs. We don't get them too often, and it's probably just as well because they can get through a plate of birdseed pretty quickly. Large flocks are a menace to farmers, of course. But it's hard to think ill of anything as pretty as a pair of cooing galahs.

Speaking of menacing feeders leads quite naturally to thoughts of cockatoos. We have both the sulphur-crested white and the yellow-tailed black cockatoos at our place, though I've only seen the black ones down by the dam and never had a camera handy at the time. More common are the white fellows. They usually feed high up in my African tulip tree, whose giant seed pods they rip open and then drop from a great height. And every year they devour most of nuts on my pecan tree before I get any. But now and then one or two birds – sometimes five or six – will come down and raid the birdfeeders. Lucky they aren't aggressive. That big beak could do a lot of damage.

The last parrot I should mention is the dear little pale-headed parrot, an extremely timid visitor who comes alone or sometimes with a mate. Everything about him is delicate – colour, song and eating habits.

A family of frogmouths often used to spend the day sleeping in one of our trees. The bird gets its name, I guess, because when he opens that huge mouth, supposedly to frighten predators, he does look very much like a frog. But usually, he just sleeps the day away, posing successfully as a dead branch. It's months since we've seen a frogmouth in any of what used to be their favourite trees. But we have seen a few dead ones on nearby roads. Unfortunately their habit of eluding predators by keeping still isn't much use in the face of oncoming cars.

Not nearly in the same beauty stakes, but probably one of the most glorious songbirds hereabouts is the pied butcherbird. (Check out the songs of this and 39 other Australian birds at Birds in Backyards. The butcherbird featured there is the grey one, and our Queensland variety is black and white, but the song is the same, to my ear.)

The butcherbird is so called because of his eating habits and diet. Finding himself with a surplus of 'meat' (such as large insects or even small snakes), he will 'hang' the leftovers in a V-shaped fork of two branches, or on some protruding piece of branch or stem, ready for his next meal.

I once saw one of 'our' butcherbirds use that lethal beak to dislodge a little micro bat from a snug spot up behind one of our porch rafters, where the bat was sleeping away the day. The bird then chased the disoriented bat around the verandah for a few minutes, finally 'catching' him and flying off somewhere to enjoy this treat. Prior to this I didn't even realise these tiny bats were living up there.

I can't talk about birdsong without mentioning the inimitable eastern whipbird. We are lucky to have at least one pair of whipbirds who visit us regularly – especially after lots of rain, when they patrol the well-protected banks above and below our house several times a day. There, close plantings of various shrubs and small trees offer the protection these birds like to hunt in. But other than sticking to these shady enclaves, they are remarkably unconcerned about us coming near.

The difficulty in photographing whipbirds is that they rarely stay still for more than a few seconds. Travelling almost always in pairs, the showier male and his olive green partner bob around amongst the branches, often dropping suddenly to the ground to stir up dead leaves and mulch in search of the insects they favor. I have also seen one pair feeding on the little red berries of an asparagus fern, so they must be omnivores. They keep in touch while moving about via their hauntingly beautiful song, which is actually a duet. The first whiplike part is uttered by the male, and the two short notes at the end are the female's answer. There is also a little muttering chatter they make in between songs, which I find particularly attractive: "I'm right here", it says. "Are you still there, too?"

Another regular visitor is the large white-headed pigeon. I sometimes worry about the chains that support this birdfeeder when several of these fat beauties land there at once. Their size may have made them a target for hunters in earllier times, but they don't seem to be bullies. Often I see one or two of them waiting in overhead trees while the boisterious rainbow lorikeets eat their fill. And as soon as I approach with a camera, off they go, in a great flutter of their large wings.

I wouldn't be sad if this next visitor turned his back and abandoned our garden for good. He's the native turkey, and I'm sure he has a role to play in the Australian bush. But he's not very welcome in most backyards and gardens – even those based on native plants. And you can't see it here, but he has great big feet that can rake up a cubic metre of mulch in one afternoon, or tip over and break a big ceramic feeder. Once you've allowed a male turkey to build his massive nest in your yard, as we have, the measures you'll have to adopt to discourage him from coming back to the same place every year are all illegal.

Equally messy visitors, but somehow more acceptable, are little pairs of wood duck that adopt our back verandah every now and then for a week or two at a time. One year a pair built a nest under a bush alongside the swimming pool, but something, probably a monitor lizard, got the eggs. I try not to encourage the ducks because their bathroom manners are atrocious. But while she lived with us for a year, Mum was very fond of them. She would sit out every day with her little pot of grain, waiting for them to call by for a snack. I think they still come looking for her.

12 June 2010

Mulch good enough to eat

It's Friday and the kiddos arrive this evening for the weekend. That's always good motivation to finish up a few tidying tasks that have lingered on through the week.

First, there's half a trailer-load of 'hoop fines' mulch to be spread. It should be just enough to finish the second terrace on the northern side of the house. The top terrace contains my prolific lime tree and some gardenias as well as my faithful old rosemary. The second terrace has bird-attracting native shrubs. I've checked a few websites and it seems that with the addition of blood and bone, hoop fines should be fine around all of those.

In fact, this is not the mulch I planned to buy when I went down to Doonan Sand and Gravel last weekend. I went looking for curly hoop to top up a rather steep bank alongside the road, where I renew the mulch around my lilly pillys every year or two. Curly hoop lasts longer and keeps the weeds down OK. It also sits well on sloping sites because the pieces of bark intertwine and 'stay put'. Doonan didn't have the exact type of mulch I wanted, but a 1-inch hoop seemed OK for the same purpose (why do we persist in measuring our mulch in inches when we've been metric for 40 years?)

Unfortunately the hoop-fines bin was right alongside the bin containing 1-inch hoop. So when I went into the office and asked the lovely lady there to load up my trailer, I may have said only 'hoop'. She sent her obliging son off to do that. She and I chatted on for a while about how nice it is to have obliging children around! And by the time I got back to the trailer, it was already half full of hoop fines, not 1-inch hoop! Her obliging son and I discussed how best to start over (emptying a trailer is a lot slower than loading it!) But then I realised my level front terraces could use the extra lift provided by a richer mulch, so I bought the 'fines' after all. And I'll go back for the 1-inch hoop as soon as the trailer's empty. The mistake was as much my fault as their's, so they really needn't have given me a discount! But my! my! what a lovely mix this is: reminds me of a chocolate-coloured shredded wheat! Don't you just love much!

08 June 2010

Back on (blog) track

I'm back! Of course, I've been here all along. We both have – A and me! But we've been engaged in a furious round of medical and allied health appointments, as well as participating in two different sets of aphasia clinics, each lasting several months – one in Brisbane (therefore that's a whole day's commitment each time) and one closer to home on the Sunshine Coast. Then A began a series of weekly physiotherapy sessions at the rehab hospital where he was a patient following his hospitalisation in 2009. What with running around to all these places and helping A in the routine tasks of daily living that he hasn't been able to do without aid since he fractured his shoulder in a fall in late March, I have been just too busy to spend much time here on blogging.

We are still seeing various doctors about a problem with A's kidneys, a condition probably exacerbated by all the antibiotics that were required to save his life from that terrible post-surgical bone infection. He may need a minor surgical procedure to insert a stint into one kidney to alleviate that problem, but I'm assured this is a minor procedure, one I hope will require only local anaesthetic.

So things are getting back to 'normal', or what we've now come to accept as normal. A's shoulder bone is finally healing – though we had a big scare after two months when one doctor suggested the fracture wasn't healing and so might need some kind of surgical intervention. But a specialist bone doctor put our fears to rest, saying he could definitely see new bone forming. And now we can see evidence ourselves that the shoulder is getting better.

This morning I heard a yelp from the kitchen, where A was busy unloading the dishwasher (that in itself another sign he's getting better!) I was briefly afraid he'd done some damage or fallen again. But it turned out this was a yelp of joy, because he'd just been able for the first time since his fall to raise his arm high enough to hang up the pots from last night's dinner!

This week is the first week in months that we are able to spend almost every day at home. All we have is one doctor's appointment and one physiotherapy session. Oh, and a Film Society screening on Wednesday evening (The Eclipse). As a result, I've been able to spend the first two days of this week in the garden. From just one small section of garden bed on a terrace above the swimming pool, I've cut out a whole trailer-load of a terrible new vine-like weed that has sprung up in the past year (don't know the name, but it has awful bean-like fruits so will probably sprout again; I will need to be vigilant). A has spent the first two mornings of the week at his new pastime – drawing. We are retired, at last!

Incidentally, doesn't our new pergola look great? Can you imagine any better use of the top of a 40,000 litre rainwater tank? Now watch this space and soon you'll see a few other scenes from my newly weeded garden!

About me

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I started this blog in 2009 when I became a full-time caregiver. My husband had been diagnosed a few years earlier with primary progressive aphasia. Over the next four years until his death in 2013, we went on a journey of discovery about this rare condition. My blog is about what I learned, how we both coped and how the journey deepened our love and appreciation of each other. Allen’s journey is over, but mine goes on.