Poetry collection ‘Ahead of Us’ presented at Fremantle Arts Press to raise money for the Cancer Council

Dennis Haskell has
Dennis Haskell has

LOSING your wife to cancer is a devastating event to live through but retired literature professor Dennis Haskell has tried to make meaning from the sadness.

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 towards research for ovarian cancer.

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

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 Haskell was 59 when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006.

After her death in 2011, Professor Haskell made a pilgrimage north to 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.’

It was the end of the line when Professor Haskell was there in 1971 and he said he was surprised to discover on his return, that it was still the end of the line.

Rhonda Haskell 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,’ he said. ‘We were so naive, we didn’t realise.’

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

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

The book will be launched by Fremantle Arts Press in 2016.