South Coast, New South Wales.
December 1980, May 2020.
When I was young, my family would go on summer holidays to other people’s houses a day or two’s drive from Melbourne. For Mum’s sake, we’d make the trip in a car hired expressly for two luxuries our Holden Kingswood lacked: air-conditioning and a built-in cassette player. Dad did all the driving, but Mum controlled the ambience. She only ever brought along two cassettes – a collection of hymns, and Kenny Rogers Greatest Hits—us kids encouraged to sing along.
Kenny Rogers was my introduction to country music and over hundreds of hours and thousands of kilometres, Kenny taught me its language of love, loss and luck, good and bad. Greatest Hits contained all the Kenny classics – Lucille, Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town, Coward of the County – but my favourite, then as now, is The Gambler. In the song, “on a train bound for nowhere” the luckless narrator meets a gambler who, in exchange for a shot of whiskey, offers a guide to living:
You gotta know when to hold ’em,
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run…
Over the years, while my mother’s faith in Christianity declined, her belief in country music only increased. She added Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson and Gillian Welch among others to her playlist. The Gambler wasn’t her favourite country song – that honour went to the Mary Chapin Carpenter/Joe Diffie duet Not Too Much To Ask, co-written by Don Schlitz, who also wrote The Gambler – but it was the one that resonated most strongly with her life.
After my parents’ marriage broke up, my mother moved to the south coast of New South Wales. Mum was born in Albury, and the return to her country roots suited her. She made friends. She was happy. I have great memories from this time of driving along the highway with Mum, singing at the top of our lungs.
But like the narrator in The Gambler, Mum seemed to be out of aces. She survived a bout of breast cancer, only to be diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer a few years later. At the time, we were told she’d live 18 months, five years at most, if she was lucky.
When it comes to cancer, militaristic metaphors abound. “Victims” are described as “fighting” cancer, until they succumb to the disease and “lose the battle”. The Gambler gave me a better set of metaphors for making sense of what my mother went through.
Every gambler knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
Mum flirted with the idea of refusing treatment, before agreeing to chemotherapy and surgery. The chemo made her lose her hair, but the surgery was far more successful than anticipated. She went into remission for long enough for us to forget that she had a terminal illness.
Every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser
Cancer treatment is an exercise in trial and error. The same chemotherapy drugs affect different people differently, and with each new treatment, you take another punt. Mum had four rounds of chemotherapy all up, plus a dose of radiation therapy.
She was lucky. Mum lived another 10 years.
Isaac Asimov wrote, “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition between the two that is troublesome”. Or as The Gambler put it,
… the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.
After surviving the January 2020 bushfires, Mum became critically ill, admitted to hospital the following month. I travelled from Melbourne to visit her, not knowing if I would see her again. I’d made a playlist for her, and on one precious day we spent together, the playlist became the framework for our conversation. With each song came stories and memories, most pleasant, some painful. Mum identified a few people she needed to make peace with, and we chose the music for her funeral. When we got to The Gambler, we both wept, recognising that Mum’s luck had run out out.
But not quite.
Mum rallied and, 10 days later, I visited her again in palliative care, where I broke the news to her that Kenny Rogers had died. We marked the occasion by singing a few of the greatest hits, joined periodically by the nurses and carers who came by her room. When I returned to Melbourne, again, I didn’t know if I would ever see her again.
Somewhere in the darkness
The gambler he broke even
But in his final words I’d found an ace that I could keep.
Against all odds, my mother lived another two months. I got to see her on another two occasions before she died in her sleep.
The Gambler was the last song we ever sang together.
Stereo Story #520