It's a beautiful July day in Panther territory. It's about 11.00am and the room I am in is full of natural sunlight with breathtaking views of the frosty mountains to the west. But despite this beautiful panorama, and smiling staff, this is not a place where anyone wants to be.
For I am in the hospice at Nepean Hospital. People around me are dying in their beds, heads bald (chemo) like jews in those wicked camps, morphine IVs, everything is sterile, neat and tidy. Even death is clean these days. It reflects the human condition.... and why some people on board the Titanic were dressing up to go down with the ship. Irrational, inexplicable, absolute folly... but very human.
Blank pale faces stare right through me, right through the walls, even past the mountains. Eyes that seek but will never find, I suppose the reward is in the seeking.
Nothing matters now. No mortgage to worry about, no car to fix, no itchy foot to scratch. No argument worth having, no love worth giving or receiving. The sun is setting on these patient's worlds. Hope herself has got up and left, but the living and the dying, like the descendants of abandoned family pets at Chernobyl, we are still here.
Then on a bedside table near inmate number one (only 30ish) I noticed a woolly beanie with the colours and logo of that mighty club, the Wests Tigers.
It sounds strange, but as a league fan, I took some macabre comfort at this sight. It gave us a link, however tenuous. The dying and I met without communicating. Of course it's not as if I can ask "How are you going?" The customs of polite society grip these white walls in fear.
So close to heaven or hell, slouching alone in a room of spirits and space, the bedside beanie suggests to us that at least one thing our friend wanted to take with him when he departs for the next life is his love for rugby league. That's a man's last wish, it's important and it really matters not whether it's right or wrong.
I dont see posters of players, I am reasonably sure that Tim Sheens didn't visit. Our guy is reaching out on his own to belong to his club and to the wider game.
In his life, did he govern anyone? Was he the head of a giant multinational? Did he invent the internet? Was he the first person to develop the bionic eye? Probably not.
But he was a Rugby League fan. He was me and he was you. We were dying too.
He was someone whom in other circumstances we could have chatted about Sheens, Roycey, Tuiaki, Lawrence, Payton and 2005. We could have talked grapple, chicken wings, wrestling, judiciaries, Greg Bird, forward passes, double pumping, malcolms, send-offs, SBW, Kane Cleal, Morris, Skando, video refs, Gus Gould and maybe, LU.
So we have these stories that bind us, one thread finishes, another starts and at the end of day, we are all somehow connected*.
If he was well enough, this week he might even have said something like:
"Yeah, I know the world capitalist system is in an absolute state of collapse, yeah that's important and everything like that, but what's the go with Benji's operation?"
And as fans, in the absence of malice and judgment, we could appreciate this question. It makes total sense.
Rugby league is a deeply personal thing, an escape to us, but yet it's also a place where we can come together and belong.
Why do we support this game with all of its pain and suffering, its evident wrongs and evilness?
The answer might be centred around the fact that, a guy is going to his death, but he wont be going alone. For we are all in the same grass under different skies.**
This spirituality of rugby league, us fans know that it transcends all the garbage the game continues to throw at us. And a lot of garbage beyond the game, such as politics and economics, we wantonly and ruthlessly discard.
But in a world without meaning, somehow, Rugby League stays with us to the bitter end.
May our friend sit next to Laurie Nichols for ever after. He'd best save us a seat close by as none of us are too far behind.
Death itself presents no impediment to our love of the game.
741 words above.
* Vladimir Illich Lenin once said words to the effect of "Everything is related." Lenin created the Soviet Union.
**Mangled from the motto of Sydney Uni: "Same thoughts under different stars." This links the university to those in England circa 1850 when it was built.
*** The writer was visiting the hospice for work that day. After they tell you theres nothing more they can do, they refer you to alternate therapies as the end of the line. No one seemed in pain.....all drugged up for the journey.
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