The Tattooed Flower was inspired by my father, who passed away in 2003. The book recounts the holocaust story he told me after he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, a history he had buried from us, in order to make a new life in Australia. But it's also about how that telling changed our relationship and how his illness changed both of us.
Before the diagnosis we'd been like most fathers and daughters - we talked easily and often, but not about the things that really counted. Only when he was diagnosed in 1998 and I realised I was losing him did I take the time to ask him about himself. And only once he was forced to face his own mortality did he see the importance of answering my questions.
A few weeks after my father was diagnosed he came to me and my brothers . He didn't want to waste the little time left to us crying. He wanted to talk. So he flew all of us, my mother, my 2 brothers and I, and our children, to Fiji where we spent 9 nights, over 25 hours, listening to his life story. We sat in my father’s thatched hut on the sand, my father on the double bed next to my mother, us kids perched on chairs and on the pull out sofa, listening, taping and scribbling notes.
His story held a lot of surprises. We knew he’d survived concentration camps but didn’t know what he’d seen. We knew he'd lost his parents and a brother but he’d never told us how they’d died. He told us everything. He told us about the trip in the cattle train to Auschwitz and his first experience seeing death. He told us about the hangings and the hunger, the death march and being separated from his sisters and mother. He hadn’t told us these things because they weren’t part of his new life with us. Having been welcomed into the country by smiling, Australian faces, he'd decided that the war had been an aberration and that people were, in the main, good and kind. So he'd disconnected from the past as a way of moving forward, covering his number tattoo with a flower, because he didn’t feel like a number any more; he wasn’t a victim.
But now he was dying and it was time to tell his children who he was; time to warn us not to be victims. Or victimisers. Or bystanders. Being a witness to his wisdom, I knew I had to pass on those lessons. I took all the tapes we'd made and had them transcribed. Then I began to write. I'd send my father each chapter and he’d comment on it, answering any new questions I’d thought of, and adding memories as they resurfaced. We’d talk, and later when he couldn’t talk because of his tracheostomy tube, he’d send e-mails answering my questions.
The more I knew of him, the bolder the questions became…when did you first make love? what are you scared of? do you believe in the afterlife?… I think I learnt more about my dad - and more from him - in those last years of silence than I did when he was young and fit and vocal.
People say that writing is solitary. For me it was the opposite. Writing The Tattooed Flower opened my father and I up to each other. I got to ask him questions a daughter would under normal circumstances never ask a father – because she doesn’t think to, or is too embarrassed. Learning my father’s history and writing it down bound us together.
And learning about my father, also helped me understand who I was, because we’re all products of our parents and their upbringing. We don’t just share their eye colour and curly hair; we share their outlook on life, the way they approach the world, their strengths, talents and weaknesses.
The book was meant to be a memoir for family and friends. It was only later when I saw how bravely and graciously he was living with his illness did I write my observations; the alternate chapters - the other story of survival: the story of how my father lived with Motor Neurone Disease and what he taught me about the importance of family and how to die without fear or regret.
Though my father didn’t survive death, he did survive his illness - not by trying to cheat or avoid death, but by using the time left to him as an opportunity to deepen his relationships and grow as a person. Motor Neurone Disease had stopped my father walking, talking and feeding himself, but he still considered himself a lucky man. He had his wife, his kids, his friends and great memories. And that was enough to keep him going, enough reason to get up each day and take his medicines and withstand the discomfort of his disease.
This book was important to my father. He wanted his struggles to inspire people to live their lives, appreciate their families and not fear growing old. He wanted people to know that death could be a time of growth too. And for me? I guess I needed to know that in leaving, he had inspired people; that there was some point to his dying, some upside. I needed to believe that some of what he’d learnt through living his life and facing his death, might help others. Writing the book helped make sense of the illness.
And then he died, and on his deathbed (I suppose it was just me trying to make him smile, giving him something positive to take away with him), I promised I’d get his story published.
So here it is. To me the book was a gift. I hope in reading it you gain as much as I did from writing it.