When your world gets invaded by the Freeloader, a lot of things go to hell other than your health. The Bear describes it as a giant 'detour' sign erected in your path; wherever you thought you were going, you can just damn well think again. Life has other plans for you.
For the best part of a year, we were both consumed by my cancer. The Bear had to do my share of the work around the farm as well as his own, on top of trying to take care of me. Certain things just couldn't happen.
And then there were the floods; three of them, an unprecedented number for one summer. Along with the inconvenience, they delivered us a little present- one that we couldn't deal with at the time. I was just too damn sick, and the Bear was just too damn busy.
Ironically, given my condition, the gift was of the toxic and uncontrollably multiplying variety. Let me introduce you to salvinia molesta, the cancer of our waterways.
It's the closest thing you'll find to the Freeloader in the world of plants, an introduced aquatic pest which flourishes in our hot, humid conditions to the point where it can double in area in three days. It forms a thick mat over the surface of still water, pushing tightly against its neighbour with roots entwining till it's curving upwards with the pressure, growing outwards till there's no room left to grow.
Smothering everything underneath.
It kills lagoons.
When we first arrived here, both our lagoons looked like that. Jools and the Bear and I laboured hard back then to clear at least the smaller one, in the hope of luring back some of the local bird life. We live in a wetland, and the birds should be plentiful and spectacular- but many don't appear unless they can access still, healthy water in relative privacy. Our dams were just too open, but the small lagoon was a haven- if only the water was visible.
Salvinia's a bastard to get rid of. You have to remove it manually. It's heavy, exhausting work. It took us forever last time, just to clear this small pool.
But in the weeks after we finally lifted the last piece of sodden, fragile weed off the surface, a small miracle happened. One by one, lured by the safety of a clean pond surrounded completely by trees, the birds appeared.
At first it was just the normal locals, like this yellow robin, happy to have a quiet place to bathe.
Then the herons got word, by instinct or bush telegraph- who knows? They appeared first at the lagoon, and as they remained unmolested they'd become more confident and swoop across the lawn to check out our dams as well. Almost every morning we'd see them stalking along, eyeing the mosquito fish then stabbing at them with laser accuracy.
Many others came- honeyeaters, wrens, friar birds, all chirping and splashing and enjoying the cool water through the heat of summer. But nature saved the best for last.
With a flash of brilliant colour amongst the trees, the azure kingfisher made his entrance.
We never saw him until he moved; somehow the burnt umber and cobalt disappeared into the shadowy backdrop of the trees. But as he got more cheeky, he too graduated to the dam, allowing my brother near enough to photograph him properly with the aid of a telephoto lens. And then the glory of his shimmering costume, till now seen only as a darting flash of brilliance in flight, could be captured under lights.
We fell in love with him immediately. He became more and more bold, and when we strung a rope across the dam one day we were delighted to see him adopt it as a vantage point for his fishing.
Eventually he turned up with a mate; once I was treated to the incredible sight of him competing with another male for his girlfriend's attention, hopping and twirling and raising his iridescent wings on the end of our wharf in a mirror-image pas de deux with the enemy, while Madame preened indifferently on a nearby log.
But then, the Freeloader. The floods. The salvinia.
My lack of energy after treatment finished depressed me at first. Then it made me angry. Everywhere I looked there was something that needed to be done urgently, and yet I was chained to my lounge chair by lethargy. I'd walk past the small lagoon, filled to overflowing by floodwater, and see the floating fragments of salvinia that had washed in from the larger pool upstream. They were few and small at first, manageable, and I'd think I must get in with the kayak and clean those up. It had taken me months after we cleared the lagoon, circling it and picking out any stray piece that had surfaced, to be confident it was clean. I knew how long it'd take to get back to that stage if I let it go.
But I couldn't do it. I simply couldn't. My body refused to obey me.
By the time my body was up to the task, the mat of green was complete. I was furious. And the kingfisher was gone.
Focus outside yourself.
The mental pressure of serious illness is tremendous. Nobody prescribes tools to deal with that. The doctors are too busy with surgery and poison infusions and radiation and hormone tablets and god knows what else to deal with your head as well. Maybe they'll toss you an antidepressant afterwards, if you still have the capacity to ask.
Focus outside yourself.
It helped me when I was waiting for the results of tests, noticing other people around me going about their business, making it my task to praise them where praise was due and taking heart from their smiles. No matter how ill I was, I could still bring pleasure to other people if I could only stop focussing on myself for a moment.
And in that moment, I could feel joy again.
But by the end of treatment I was beaten down. I was having trouble thinking of anything but my own frustration, my own inability, the thousand little things I used to take for granted that I could no longer manage without pain or exhaustion- or, indeed, that I could no longer manage at all.
I was just too tired to think of anything outside myself.
But that lagoon- that damned lagoon. It kept niggling at me. Spring came and was without its usual brilliance; the kingfisher was gone, and even the rainbow bee eaters kept their distance, swooping overhead chirruping but never coming down to dance on our lawn.
Perhaps if I just started... and paced myself... I could find some open water for the kingfisher. Just a little bit every day.
It could count for part of my exercise.
I focussed on the kingfisher.
I tried using the pitchfork and rake, as we'd done the last time, and quickly realised that my arm wasn't up to it. The weed, spongelike and packed with moisture, was far too heavy. I was exhausted in minutes. I had to find a better way.
I could wade into the water, fill a milk crate piece by piece, and drag it onto the bank to drain while I filled the next one.
Painstaking... but it was all I could manage.
For two hours. Ten crates a day.
Piece... by piece... by piece.
For the kingfisher.
At times as I stood there in the water, repeating the simple action like a counting of the beads, it became a place of deep peace for me. My mind would wander gently through unrelated scenes, as though I was dreaming. Once it seemed that each sodden lump of dripping weed was a fragment of my cancer, so slowly and painstakingly attacked, the whole process never-ending as I strove to keep ahead of its implacable increase, with recurrence always a possibility despite my pains.
Yet, in the whole scheme of things, barely significant.
To the universe, this one lagoon was as nothing. There were other azure kingfishers, other clear still pools for them to fish in.
But it mattered to me. My life mattered, and this particular bird mattered. This had become his home, his breeding ground. By my quiet homage, I could restore order to his world.
In my mind's eye, I could see him already, zooming from one side of the water to the other like a bright-feathered dart. I imagined him there many a time as I worked. I could see him.
Bungawalbin. Bundjalung for place of the waterlilies. Standing on Aboriginal land, waist-deep in a lagoon strangled by a whitefella's imported madness, I was kingfisher dreaming.
It took me two and a half weeks to see a difference.
At first, I didn't dare look at the big picture; it was too overwhelming. As I took away a patch of weed, the huge remaining mass would sigh, relax, spread out to cover the hole.
I could easily have given up. But the longer I went on, the more stubborn I became.
It's just like chemo, I thought, my back aching as I bent again to reach the pieces floating away from me on shallow water. If I stop, what's the point of what I've done already?
So I kept at it, a little every day. And then, two weeks in, I started to see the mosquito fish.
Almost transparent, barely two centimetres long, they swarmed in the water around my hips as the weed broke up.
This is what he comes for, I thought. He can see them now.
A few days later, a strong wind sprang up and kindly pushed the loose weed to the eastern end, away from the tangled mat I was working on to the west. At last I could see what I'd done. I was barely halfway, but there was a wide stretch of clear water.
And the day after that, as I came down to the water's edge in the late afternoon, a spatter of cobalt splashed against the olive palette of trees.
I wondered for a moment if I'd dreamed it. But as I looked up into the trees, there he was.
Velcro-dog stepped up to my side then, sniffing curiously at the water's edge. When I looked up again there was only the gentle bouncing of a slender branch to see, and a bright patch of joy in my mind.
I stood for a little while, hoping he'd return, but it wasn't to be. I looked over my work then, realising that my job was far from over; if I stopped now, the lagoon would be choked again within a week. I sighed, scoured the trees again. Turned away.
I'd be back again in the morning.
And as I headed up the bank, a high-pitched squawk stopped me in my tracks. High in a wattle tree above the lagoon, two king parrots flashed their scarlet chests at me and squabbled over the blossoms.
There are more joys to be had than kingfishers, if I can only take my mind outside myself and dare to dream them.