The Godfather: Peter Corris on phantom pain
My maternal grandfather Robert Kennedy was a Scot hailing from the north of the country, possibly from a fishing community. Somehow he managed to get training as a chef. A story in the family mentioned Europe – Belgium – but there are no details. Some time before World War I he emigrated to Australia.
It’s not clear whether his wife and their two children born in Scotland accompanied him or whether, as many did, he waited until he was established before bringing them out. This course seems likely because for a time he worked as a cook on the paddle steamers that carried cargo and passengers on the Murray River and its tributaries, suggesting a single existence. Five children were subsequently born in Australia and he worked in various Melbourne hotels for the rest of his life apart from a spell, home-based, in the Catering Corps of the 2nd AIF.
He was elderly when I knew him, long retired and living with his wife in a sleep-out attached to the house belonging to one of his daughters and her husband in Parkdale, a beachside Melbourne suburb. He was bedridden, having had a leg amputated due, it was said, to circulatory problems incurred as a result of standing for long hours in hotel kitchens. My family paid fairly frequent visits to Parkdale and I used to sit on his bed and chat with him. He spoke quietly, with a strong Scots accent, which I grew accustomed to, and he was kindly to a shy, gangly, bookish youth. I’ve forgotten most of what he spoke about apart from the riverboats and something of his ailments. He delighted in quoting solid slabs of the verse of ‘Rabbie’ Burns and I’ve retained a liking for Burns. I wish I’d asked him about the nautical-looking tattoos, much faded, on his forearms. Did this suggest a stint in the navy or the merchant marine? I’ll never know. One thing stuck in my memory: he complained of feeling pain in the leg he no longer had – a phantom pain.
All this is a preamble; late in August I had the second toe on my left foot amputated – a minor operation involving only an overnight stay in hospital. It had, due to poor circulation resulting from my long-term diabetes, become ulcerated and infected down to the bone and was not responding to some weeks of intensive treatment.
Being me, I made up a limerick:
There once was a fellow named Pete
Who lost a toe from one of his feet.
As he said to his wife,
It’s a very hard life
When you cannot get through it complete.
You can guess what comes next: I’m waiting to see whether I experience phantom pain in the lost digit. I asked the surgeon about this and he said it happened to some people, not to others, and it was impossible to say in advance. It’s early days; so far so good.