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Losing Les


His name was Martin Lesley Foster but to his friends he was just Les.

I first met Les almost eight years ago when he moved into the Housing Commission flat opposite the cottage I was then renting. The flat’s previous tenant, a seriously disabled young man named Mark, had died suddenly barely a week earlier and the Department of Housing had wasted no time replacing him with the equally disabled middle aged man who was soon to become my friend.

Les and I had several things in common. Both mixed blood Aborigines who could pass for white in most situations. Both with bipolar and a raft of auto-immune disorders. Both struggling with suicidality. Both with a cynical, self-deprecating sense of humour. But Les had far more problems than did I.

Epilepsy, diabetes, a heart condition, chronic back pain, failing eyesight … Although Les could shuffle short distances with the aid of a walking frame he was essentially wheelchair-bound. Nonetheless I have no hesitation admitting Les was generally better humoured and more socially engaged than am I and he soon found a place in the tightly knit community of our old-fashioned suburb.

For the first few weeks we would have brief chats when we bumped into each other in the street but it was his dodgy personal computer that drew Les and I together. I have a long background in IT but Les was proud to call himself computer illiterate, barely able to start up his PC to run the handful of vintage computer games someone had loaded onto it for him years earlier. The standard of computer repair shops around Newcastle isn’t good and many are not above exploiting elderly and isolated people, so when his sound card packed it in I insisted on doing the repair work for free. I was able to replace the card from the box of spare parts I kept from earlier PCs I had scrapped and took the opportunity to optimise his system for the games he played as well as installing a few new ones I downloaded for him (Les did not have internet access). It was while I was doing this work we discovered our shared, dark sense of humour and our ease in each others company. By the time Les had a properly functioning computer we each had a new friend.

I soon learned Les’ life had been defined by tragedy.

He never told me the full story of his early childhood but I know he was often undernourished and had been passed around various relatives, living for some years with an unrelated foster family. Although pretty sharp he’d had minimal education and went from school to intermittent homelessness, picking up a little income from odd jobs when he could.

When he was nineteen he met the love of his life, prompting Les to clean up his act. He took a panel beating course and got his first regular job. His proposal was accepted and within a few years Les had a wife, a mortgage and beautiful twin daughters. Les finally had a centre and purpose to his existence. But it was not to last.

When the police came to his workplace and asked to speak to him Les first assumed they were going to inquire about some equipment that had recently gone missing. When something is stolen police usually interrogate Aborigines first.

They weren’t there to accuse him of something. They were there to tell him about the car accident. His three year old daughters died at the scene and though his wife seemed to be recovering at first she succumbed to complications about a month later.

Les’ life descended into a maelstrom of mental illness, alcoholism, homelessness, suicide attempts and intermittent forced hospitalisation that was to last over twenty years. By the time his grief had subsided both his mental and physical health were ruined. There was no prospect of him getting regular employment again.

The landlord sold the cottage I was renting about five years ago and I was forced to move away, but I still dropped by to see him almost every week. When he was at home that is. Increasingly my visits to Les were in hospitals and medical rehabilitation centres.

The last few years had been particularly hard on Les. His vision deteriorated to the point where he became legally blind and was unable to use his computer. His epilepsy got worse and the increasing levels of medication needed to control it brought increasing side-effects with them. He was unable to control his pain or get a good night’s sleep and the black dog was constantly snapping at his heels. On the other hand he remained cheerful towards others and his sense of humour never abandoned him.

A few months ago Les announced he had a girlfriend for the first time in over thirty years. Christine lives in a neighbouring flat and has recently escaped an abusive relationship. After years of bashing and being stolen from, Les’ generosity and gentleness were just what she needed. Neither of them are healthy people and there was no question of them going dancing or heading off to the Gold Coast for a dirty weekend together but it was touching to see them sitting quietly, holding hands in their shared garden area or helping each other shop for appliances after a power surge had burned out most of the electrical equipment in their flats.

It was a mild heart attack three months ago that signaled the beginning of the end for Les Foster.

While he was recovering he fell out of his hospital bed and ruptured his bladder. Restorative operations were only partially successful and Les was now plagued with increased pain and recurrent urinary tract and kidney infections. He came under increasing pressure from medical authorities to give up his flat and move into a nursing home – thereby losing his independence, his friends and his new lady love. After more than two months in a rehab centre Les was fed up. He told his doctors if they did not let him go he would kill himself. Les is not someone to bluff about such things.

When Les got home eastern Australia was in the midst of its worst spring for allergies in living memory. As well as Newcastle’s ubiquitous coal dust the air was full of pollen and bushfire smoke. A couple of days later Les had his worst asthma attack for decades. It turned out to be the worst one of his life. The last one of his life.

I knew it had been a bad attack but didn’t realise how bad it was. I continued to plan for his 60th birthday next Thursday when I intended to take Les and Christine out to a restaurant to celebrate. I’m not much of a drinker – I have less than a dozen standard drinks in an average year – but sharing a beer with Les on his birthday had become a bit of a tradition and I was determined to find a type he’d never tried before but would probably like.

When I heard he was out of intensive care I began ringing the hospital to talk to him about arrangements for his birthday and to ask when would be a good time to visit him. But every time I phoned he was ‘sleeping’.

As I am not his next of kin I could not get any information about his condition but after three days of him ‘sleeping’ at all hours I had a dark suspicion that things were not as they should be and decided to visit without getting his permission first. My first sight of him confirmed my fears.

Les was not sleeping, he was comatose. He was not hooked up to the usual array of monitors you would expect to see on a seriously ill patient – just a saline drip and an oxygen tube. He had not been removed from intensive care because he was recovering but because he was not expected to recover.

Hospital staff were not legally permitted to tell me his prognosis but a ‘coded’ conversation with a sympathetic senior nurse told me what I already knew. Les had suffered multiple organ failure and had only days to live.

Martin Lesley Foster died this morning, shortly before dawn. He got what he wanted. He was able to remain independent and socially active right up to the last week of his life. When Death finally came she was far more gentle than Life had been to him.

Today the sky weeps. The first good rain we’ve had for over three months. The fires are out, the dust has settled, the air is fresh and clean.

Farewell Les Foster. I’m going to miss you.
I already do.

From → autobiography, hurts

  1. Rexie permalink

    You are a very kind man. I usually feel a special kind of happiness when I encounter kindness.


    • Thanks for that Rexie.

      At times like this it’s easier to remember the opportunities for kindness that you missed and now will never regain.


  2. I’m sorry to know that.. Really sorry to know that.. May his soul rest in peace.. he’ll be happy to see his daughters playing there..


    • Unlike me, Les was a Christian who believed in the afterlife and he once told me he expected to see his family again.

      I hope he was right and I’m wrong.


    Check it out :)>>
    The luckiest person,,whose name is in both of the awards 🙂


  4. I’m sorry for your loss. May he rest in peace and see his family again in happier times.


  5. Dead Ned's Head permalink

    So….how have you filled the space that Les Foster once held
    open? Been a whole year…Les could be one of the five people
    you’ll meet on the way to Tin Pan Alley McBeal…


    • Les wants you to know that was no ordinary coma: it was a genuwhine
      eroto-comatose lucid death posture with eyes wide shut.


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