AMID life, John Simmonds was thinking of death.

If he believed the television screen in the corner of his room, life was all smiles and blue skies. It was vibrant, and action-packed and fast-paced with happy endings. And here he was in a wheelchair, a paraplegic.

John Simmonds, tired of television, would look out of his window at the birdbath positioned in the centre of the garden lawn.  Over the years he increasingly looked to the birdbath, looked away from the television set that was a constant symbol of what life was supposed to be, a life he couldn’t share. The manifestation of life at the birdbath should have also caused Simmonds pain because it was robest and free-flying and without the strait-jacket that was his existence, but he felt no distress when he looked at it, felt no bitterness or self-pity. The birds and their actions in fact eased his creeping loneliness, his creeping despair.

After his accident, he had never been short of company to help him through the day. It seemed that someone always wanted to call, chat and joke and bring a bottle of wine. He had no need for the spectacle of the birdbath then, its pleasant distraction from the reality of what his life had become. His friends kept his mind off his private agony, too. Although he couldn’t walk, couldn’t visit the office they once all shared, the gossip they brought about the people there and the wider world made him feel a part of things, part of the bigger picture. Life hadn’t forgotten him, hadn’t passed him by.

There were even outings to restaurants. They still laughed about the incident on the night they all went out to a cheap Italian restaurant staffed by students. After the meal Simmonds had placed a white wine bottle he had used as his urine incontinence drain on the table, intending to take it with him as he always did. A waiter had swept it up, thinking it was wine left over, and one of Simmonds friends had to snatch it back; the student was about to put it in the fridge and take it to a party. The waiters and waitresses had to be told . . . 

The story of the bottle of urine kept Simmonds and his friends amused for weeks and when they had left, and he was on his own with only the television programs for company, he would ponder how little it took to raise his weak spirits, and raise a weak laugh.

Over time the stream of colleagues and friends, and the bottles of wine they brought, had gradually dried up, as did the excursions to restaurants. Did anyone really want to have dinner with a person in a wheelchair, with a wine bottle at their feet? And who could blame them for not coming to his home? They must have felt they had exhausted all the stories, all the gossip. They had also exhausted their capacity to display sympathy. The laughter about goings-on in the office had become forced smiles now, genuine sympathy had become pity. Who could blame them for not coming, or at least not coming so often?

John Simmonds had been one of them once, part of that vibrant thing called life. He lived and loved, perhaps to excess, until that moment he had taken excess to extremes.

He would laugh at it all during his better moments, laugh at the phrase he had coined himself, “talking excess to extremes”. When he had first said it, with former colleagues gathered around his bed, they had all laughed out loud and said Simmonds had not lost his touch for words, he was a wordsmith through and through. What they did not say, did not add, was now there was no outlet for his trade.

Simmonds had been a journalist, a fine one, working in his later years as a sub-editor and ace headline writer.  He had also been a drinker, and driver, and one night he had set out with too much drink aboard to drive home. He lived on the outskirts of town, in the country, and on the way home he had realised his headlights were not working properly. When he switched them on full beam, the lights faded. Some motorists might have slowed so they could drive within the dipped beam. Not Simmonds, with drink on board, and the desire to live life at full speed, to live life “in the fast lane” as he would have written in a headline about his own fate.

Simmons was seeing if he could drive by moonlight. The journalist had pressed his foot to the accelerator,  confident he would be able to spot any danger in good time, be able to apply the brake in an instant, even try a handbrake turn if the situation demanded it. It was not to be. The junction that marked the end of the road he was driving on, a road he thought he knew backwards, had come too quickly. Before his brakes took hold, a wall on the far side of the T-junction rushed towards him. They say in a crash you see everything in slow motion but you can’t act. Simmonds didn’t see a thing, only the brick wall one minute and then a white hospital wall and ceiling the next.

He learned later the car had hit the wall, pivoted on its nose and Simmonds had gone through the windscreen and been thrown into the road. Miraculously he did not have a mark on his face, no cuts, no bruises. Only the car had rolled over him and his back was broken. Simmonds would never walk again, would have no control and feeling in his body below his hips.

Simmonds now compared his predicament to the five stages of dying - denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Simmonds had read about them in a book once, in the days when he could walk, and now he complained they all applied to him. He might disagree with the acceptance part, though. He was in a wheelchair, unable to walk, and he wasn’t prepared to accept it. He wanted out, not from the wheelchair, which was an impossibility. He wanted out of life. 

For the time being at least he had a mental release; the birdbath and the antics of the birds attending it on sunny days when the spray from their dunking and diving and dipping filled the air with droplets of sun-lit water pearls. This was a life removed from the television set in the corner of his room, a life without exaggeration or gloss, that Simmonds thought somehow mirrowed his own. A life with good days and with bad, with joy mixed with misery and pain when, for the birds at least,  the goshawk came to call.

All this joy and pain, but did the birds at the birdbath know hope?

He had once known hope, and the loss of this most indefinable of human conditions was what dropped him into despair, and made him think that death was better than this thing that posed as life.

Hope came immediately after the car accident that had crushed his spine. He had faced his tragedy with resolve, he had become a cliche of the indomitable human spirit, he had put on a brave face, he was a battler, a man of courage. The real test was to come, however, when he realised he would never walk again, despite all the talk of miracles and advances in medical science. He now confronted his own mortality, planning to be the instrument of death itself. It had not become a question of courage, it was in fact the easy way out, but it was the mechanics and logistics of arranging his own death, and the red tape involving death, that was proving most difficult.

John Simmonds had drawn up a plan for a sympathetic friend to wheel him to a cliff-face, leaving the paraplegic there to release the hand-brake of his wheelchair. The friend had chickened out on the day. Then there were the sleeping pills stored over the years, but his doctors reduced his supply. And then there was Dr Death and his suicide kit, but it needed someone to administer it, and no one would come forward.

It was while John Simmonds considered his options, tired of all those people diving and swimming and running and making love on satellite television, that he had looked anew at the birds coming to the birdbath.

As the seasons changed in his Hobart backyard, so did the birds that came to visit, part of a bird migration that ebbed and flowed through the garden, in the way John Simmonds hoped life would ebb and flow through his legs. He had become so interested in the birds that he augmented the birdbath with a bird table and his housekeeper supplied this with a small pot of honey, fruit and seeds each day, when she replenished the birdbath with water.

The honeyeaters, unlike the birds that came and went with the seasons, remained all year, sometimes chasing off new arrivals. At the same time one of their small flock provided a look-out for the goshawks, emitting a far-carrying alarm cry when one appeared that birds of all species knew, and all birds were warned.

John Simmonds learned from watching his avian friends that the essence of a bird’s existence was one of struggle and survival; the rigours of a single day had to be endured whatever the cost to greet a new day. Anything beyond - like a thimble of honey placed on a bird table as a treat - was a bonus.

Television had been John Simmond’s contact with the human species beyond his friends’ company at weekends, but he now knew that it distorted life, threw up extremes, the extremes that had fuelled his own life before his accident. The television said life had to be lived to the full, but it was a life of exaggeration. He used to dream immediately after his accident that if he could use his legs again he would be a jogger, using motion to the extreme like everyone seemed to do on television. But he had changed is mind since discovering the daily bird spectacle. John Simmonds now told his friends he would merely walk and observe all about him. He would take his time and take in all that he had missed before.

Watching the birds at the feeding table, John Simmonds observed there was a pecking order of sorts, but it was benign without bullying by bigger birds, an order of priorities rather than status or greed,  like in the human species.  A good life at the human bird table would be one with a secure, steady source of income to provide food and shelter for the family. A good working day would be one without hassles, after which you retired to a big, comfortable chair in the evening, with a loving partner and children who were healthy and strong and intelligent enough to listen to the lessons of life you passed on to them.

Lessons of life were important for both birds and people, and John Simmonds had delighted in the honeyeaters teaching their offspring to fly, to seek out nectar and pollen in the bottlebrushes, and to sing. That was real life, and that was the life the birds at the bird table and birdbath lived.

John Simmonds had given so much thought to committing suicide, and the elaborate plans to achieve his objective,  that he had sometimes lost sight of the objective itself. It had become a game, a selfish one because it drew in his remaining friends who did not want to play.  His friends finally backed off from aiding his suicide attempt in any way when he suggeted a suicide bomb inspired by what he saw on the television news. No one was foolish enough to buy the chemicals with which to make an explosive.

After this deranged idea, John Simmonds did not go back to the drawing board of death. He went back to the birdbath and took a refuge there. Watching the birds one morning he remembered a honeyeater he had hit once in his car before his own accident, a bird with broken and limp wings that had struggled in his hands, a bird that refused to die, a bird that refused to accept its fate.

Perhaps the honeyater had hope, a desire to see what tomorrow would bring and it was better to wait and see than to die.

The bird gave John Simmonds strength, not in body but in mind, to carry on. Life was about surviving, getting by and it was no less of a life for it.

Don Knowler

Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!

Number 26 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler