As you know, I love my orange Penguins. Adore them. A book for $10? I’m in. I don’t read the blurb, if I don’t already own the book, that’s good enough for me.
So when I saw a Penguin edition of an unfamiliar book by one of my most beloved authors, Bryce Courtenay, I snapped it up. I didn’t give it a second glance, I just bundled it up with about 10 other little Penguins and marched up to the bemused saleslady.
‘Quite a collection!’ she might have said. ‘Going on holidays?’
‘Umm, no…I’m just a huge fan of Penguins…’ (Don’t judge me, woman.)
So my beautiful bundle of brightly coloured books slipped into my bookshelf, perfectly straight with not a crease on their spine. I gave the Courtenay a miss for a while, assuming it would be a great story like everything else he has ever written. I figured it would be a good book to while away time, a wonderful tale to consume with a glass of wine in the long evenings after my final university assignment was submitted. Its title, April Fool’s Day, had me envisioning another of his classic witty, humorous and touching tales of life in South Africa or Australia, well-researched yet fantastically fiction.
Always read the blurb.
Damon Courtenay died on the morning of April Fool’s Day.
I don’t remember a time when one sentence, on its own, immediately bought tears to my eyes. One sentence, standing alone without the details of a story to surround it. When you love an author it is easy to view them in the context of their writing, and so I always envisioned Bryce Courtenay as a sort of combination of his characters, a sort of amalgamation of Peekay/Nick Duncan/Simon Koo/Jack Spayd with a little bit of Jessica’s grit and determination thrown in. A tough, manly character, quick to get into trouble but even quicker to get out of it. I certainly never imagined the depth of heartache that my favourite author lived through while creating such wonderful fiction for me to read.
I read this entire book over the course of about two days, devouring it as Courtenay tore my heart out. The book is a completely autobiographical account of the life of his youngest son, Damon, who was born with haemophilia. We begin at the end, with a devastating snapshot of Damon’s final moments. Courtenay then takes us back to the beginning, to the birth of this beautiful third son, a gorgeous baby who would change their lives forever.
Prior to reading this book I had basically no knowledge of haemophilia as a condition, apart from a vague recollection that the last Tsar of Russia had a son who was a haemophiliac. When I thought of it at all, I pictured a tiny cut that would not clot, letting blood indefinitely. I certainly had not envisioned a painful condition that causes internal bleeding, triggered by anything as minor as a bump on the elbow. Courtenay educates us about the condition in minute detail, the incredible pain and anguish borne by his youngest son so stoically. As Courtenay describes him:
Somewhere along the line…Damon must have decided to be what Brett later referred to as ‘supernormal’ and to carry his physical disadvantages with so little mention that he feigned surprise when anyone bought the matter up. Being normal, I now realise, was a full-time job for him. To seem like everyone else Damon had to work like hell to cover his considerable pain, his anxiety, and above all, never, ever show the slightest sign of self-pity.
This book, however, is not simply a father’s account of living with a haemophiliac son. Damon was born in the mid-sixties, at a time when the medical system was viewed with awe and deference by the people who needed it.
Doctors…were the high priests of the social temple. They responded, for the most part, by being bad tempered, intimidating, ill mannered and pompous.
The result of this was that a doctor’s word was viewed as gospel, unquestionable and final. Courtenay takes us through the life-altering blunders that the medical system continued to make with Damon, undoubtedly shortening and damaging his frail life. At the age of seven his doctor had him fitted for a leg brace, which resulted in his knee joint fusing and the leg severely atrophying. Naturally, no one was held accountable, a life-altering error brushed under the carpet.
But it is the horrifying revelation that Damon, aged 17, contracted AIDS from an infected blood transfusion that is the hardest to read. Back in a time when AIDS was emerging as a worrying epidemic, doctor’s continually neglected to test blood-donors for the disease. This resulted in over 50% of haemophiliac’s contracting the disease throughout the 1970’s/1980’s in Australia. Yet again, it was swept unapologetically under the carpet by the hierarchy of the medical community, as an unfortunate and unavoidable side-effect of their work. Courtenay describes the initial conversation with their son’s doctor, a conversation in which they were told that Damon was HIV positive but that it was nothing to worry about, there isn’t any cause for alarm.
The third heart wrenching aspect of this book is the descriptions of Damon living with AIDS, and the social stigma that the disease evokes. A stigma that followed Damon to his final moments, when a nursing sister at the hospital shows surprise that Damon has a female de-facto partner, as Damon’s kind were not supposed to have female partners. During his last days Damon asked his father, through a haze of morphine, to write this book: not a self-pitying account of Damon’s own struggle, but rather a fight against the ignorance and fear and discrimination that surrounds this disease.
“Dad, I was too young and, in the end, too weak to write about all this…But people must be told about AIDS. Ordinary people must understand it’s just something that happens. That it’s not wicked or a punishment and that it needs a lot of love.”
Naturally, as with any life, there is far more than darkness and depression bound up in this book. Courtenay worked closely in writing parts of it with Damon’s beautiful girlfriend, Celeste, a woman who devoted her young life to the mighty Damon. The sections of the book written from her point of view are enlightening, sanguine and devastating, all at once. The story of their lives together is beautifully touching, happiness found amongst the heartache of Damon’s poor health. Courtenay also includes sections written by Damon’s mother, Benita, as well as sections written by Damon himself.
There is only so many ways I can say heart-break. Yet that is what I felt as I read through this book: a dull, throbbing pain in my heart and my stomach, that one person could experience so much pain and continue to survive. Yet this book is in no way self-pitying, it is honest, revealing the story of Damon’s life with all its heartache, and happiness, and hope, and human emotion. For anyone to write this story with so much humility is astonishing, to write the story about one’s son, even more so. For me it was a book of perspective, an education and an revelation, opening my eyes to aspects of the world that I hadn’t even considered.
It is a love letter, written for Damon by those who loved him.
The lovely smiling image I have of Damon will remind me that love is an energy – it can neither be created nor destroyed. It just is and always will be, giving meaning to life and direction to goodness. Our love will never die.