Well versed in tragedy

Poet Dennis Haskell. Picture: Robin Kornet d427801
Poet Dennis Haskell. Picture: Robin Kornet d427801

While the Cancer Council hears of many women fundraising for women’s cancers, it is rare to hear of a husband doing so.

Professor Haskell has dedicated all funds from his upcoming poetry collection called Ahead of Us (Fremantle Arts Press) to research for ovarian cancer.

His wife Rhonda worked at UWA, as did Professor Haskell before he retired.

A Guildford resident, he says his wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2006, although her undiagnosed symptoms had been worrying her since a year earlier.

‘They were not able to identify the cause of her stomach cramps until she had an MRI,’ he said.

He said many of the poems were in his head for six months before he had time to write them down.

‘We were dealing with chemotherapy and hospital visits and we came to know the hospital very well,’ he said.

Rhonda Gaskell was 59 when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006.

She passed away in 2011.

Professor Gaskell then made a pilgrimage to the North of the line in Norway, a place called Narvik, where the couple had spent time as young backpackers.

‘It was a pilgrimage I felt I needed to make on my own and it was a strange experience and very testing,’ he said.

‘But it was good for writing.’

Rhonda Gaskell was nursed at home in palliative care for the last six months of her life.

He said when he received the phone call to tell him she had passed away, he ‘put the phone down and screamed to the house’.

He had taken Rhonda to hospital because she was unwell, but neither of them realised it was the last hours of her life.

‘I had been there so often, it was so familiar to me and I eventually went home and had been in a deep sleep for one hour when the phone call came.’

‘We were so naive, we didn’t realise.’

Professor Haskell writes of his wife ‘with your wisps of hair disappearing as gently as breath’ and then after her passing he writes:

‘I washed my hair with your shampoo as it to get a bit of you on me.’