I have a thing for motels. Out of all the choices we have today, I find these plain, predictable buildings a comforting way to be away from home. So as I lay in bed at the Beaumaris Bay Motel, harrowed by fantasies of death as I slept, and gasping for air when awake, at least I was in familiar surroundings.
Embarking on my book Flight Lines I took among wildlife literature as a guiding light The Great Soul of Siberia, Sooyong Park’s quest for the Siberian tiger. Park’s philosophy was that nature was to be observed and not directed. He sentenced himself to life hidden in a little hand-dug bunker, snowbound for months beside a wildlife trail on a remote mountain range, in exchange for minutes of tiger.
I was in pursuit of fleet Arctic migratory shorebirds – not waiting, near frozen, with the nagging fear that a big cat might crash through the roof. The hardest trial that life had given me on my research was to fall prey to mosquito swarms. Then I tumbled down the steps of a metastatic lung cancer diagnosis that would lead to a reckoning in a Melbourne suburban motel.
In pursuit of my particular bird, the grey plover, I roamed through the seagrass soup of Gulf St Vincent, South Australia, to the wide flats of Broome’s Yawuru Nagulagan/ Roebuck Bay and Tasmania’s Robbins Island. I began to learn of the plover’s character as I watched it work above the tideline and flash away in alarmed flight: silver-grey and black in its wing-pits. I had seen a small flock that scattered like storm-blown leaves, and countless numbers on China’s coast of the Yellow Sea. I came to hold near my heart an unassuming and watchful bird, capable of stout nest defence and extraordinary feats of endurance: nonstop migratory flights of 7,000km or more.
It was on my return from China that my fall began, like a series of headlong dives down flights of stairs. First the primary and then a spectral collection of secondaries, the statistical probability that I had 18 months to live, rapidly sharpening pain, head-jolting painkillers, the burn of radiotherapy, chemotherapy knockdowns. Even two of my teeth went, taken in case my future treatment might include a drug that could leave an infected jaw in agony.
Yet I was lucky. I was surrounded by Australia’s first-class healthcare. On top of that I had medical friends and relatives to explain my plight, the love of my wife, Sally, and others. At her urging I tried to keep thinking about my birds; their living freedom. I remembered the fine grace of the grey plover in hand, and the flights that I had seen. Their endurance over time and space. I couldn’t write sensibly, but I could think, and nothing was more important to me than finishing my book.
So under treatment I set a date for a trip to Melbourne to speak to Australian shorebird research’s best-known leader, Clive Minton, and to Terry Barter, widow of Mark Barter, the man who did most to reveal these birds’ vital dependence on the Yellow Sea. Sheer bull-headedness meant I timed the appointments during a chemotherapy cycle and boarded the plane dizzy after a gruelling scan. That’s how I wound up at the motel a few streets away from Minton’s home.
I had little sleep – and it was accompanied by lurid painkiller-induced dreams. I’m sure at one stage I was actually in a rowing boat on a fast-flowing River Styx. I woke breathless and thought about how to make it through the hot day ahead. It was a walk to see Minton but a long drive through Melbourne’s east to see Terry. She had had a fall and broken a shoulder, and yet would see me. I would go.
Minton, a father to all, was concerned about me but dealt efficiently with questions I had already written down. I made it back to the motel for a rest, and then grimly drove the hire car out to Barter. She and her daughter managed my flagging self as best she could. Later I listened to the tapes and heard a high, slurred voice asking questions: me.
That night in the motel I slept better and drove to the flight home where I promised not to do such a thing again. But after that, my writing world kept picking up. I had wobbled back on to a road of research, and began to think that I might get well enough to regain an abandoned goal: reaching the grey plover’s Arctic breeding grounds.
Seeing my bird at its nest on the tundra would mean completing a circle of life, no matter what else happened. So much of Flight Lines turned out to be about tantalising goals.
There was also an extra hope. Soon I would begin a new treatment called immunotherapy. It meant a periodic infusion of a drug that lets my own infection-fighting T-cells go to work on my particular cancer. I am about to begin my 50th cycle.
Flight Lines by Andrew Darby is out now through Allen and Unwin
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