On Thursday May 16, 2019, as her soulmate, Bob Hawke, was struggling to breathe, consumed with pneumonia, Blanche d’Alpuget lay by her husband’s side, eager to soothe his distress, when something strange happened. “I started to get the pneumonia and he started to get better. His face became pink again and he was feeling brighter,” says Blanche, holding back her tears. Not wanting to make Bob worse again, and feeling decidedly crook herself, Blanche jumped in the car to consult her acupuncturist.
“She took my pulse and said, ‘How did you get here?’. I said, ‘I drove’. She quickly replied, ‘I’ll drive you home, you’ve got no pulse, what have you been doing?’ I said, ‘I’ve been lying down beside my husband who’s dying’. She said, ‘you mustn’t do that, you are giving all the energy of your body to him’.”
Back at their house in Sydney’s Northbridge, Blanche returned to Bob, the man she first met in Jakarta in 1970 and ultimately married in 1995. Twenty-four hours earlier when Bob had been poleaxed with excruciating pain in his torso, the doctor had told Blanche, “this was probably the beginning of the end” for the 89-yearold. But could Blanche have delivered a reprieve for the love of her life?
Alas, no. “I went back and I didn’t lie down beside him, we just held hands ... This was two hours before he died,” she says, her voice shaking a little. Bob’s close friend, politician Craig Emerson, and his partner, Tracey Winters, were also at the former Prime Minister’s bedside when, at 5.04pm, he took his last breath.
“Craig placed two fingers on his neck and shook his head. With astonishment, the three of us felt intense uplifting joy,” writes Blanche in the final chapter of her definitive new book, Bob Hawke: The Complete Biography, a compilation of her Hawke works. It includes an update of her political study, Hawke: The Prime Minister, and a new final section filling in his last nine years.
Labour of love
In April, Blanche had been commissioned to create “one volume covering Bob’s whole life”. But when she started writing, she had no clue that within three weeks her husband would be dead.
“I was really hoping he would make his 90th birthday [on December 9]. I had started planning a 90th birthday party in my head. But we never know the time and the hour. When he died it was very fast,” she says. Bob died just two days before the general election, in which he had hoped to see a Labor government elected. “He was going in his wheelchair. He wasn’t going to postal vote. So he ended up not voting at all,” says Blanche with a sigh. “He would have been very disappointed with the result.”
In those final months Bob was happy that Blanche was updating the biography, but was of little help. “By that stage he was very sick. Because he was in so much pain, he was taking oral morphine and also Fentanyl patches so he was awake and alert for only about four or five hours a day. So, it wasn’t something I talked to him about. I just went ahead and did it.”
When Bob died, the book took on a new urgency. As the country mourned it was clear they needed a tribute to their hero, and who better to give it than the woman he loved so completely. But there was a personal toll. “It was a hell of a job writing about his final years and his death. When I first wrote it, it nearly killed me,” admits Blanche. “But by the time I’d rewritten it five times I could do it without feeling I was going to fall on the floor.”
Blanche is at times philosophical, certainly spiritual and definitely still in shock as we talk in her new apartment high above Hyde Park in central Sydney. She moved in a few weeks ago and is finding her feet, which she admits will take some while. Blanche purchased the property off the plan in 2015. In her mind this was to be the perfect downsizing unit for the couple, right in the heart of the city.
She and Bob finally sold their mansion overlooking Sydney’s Middle Harbour in March. They had lived there all their married life and Blanche tells me the new owners said the couple could stay there until February 2020 for just $2.50 a week.
Blanche’s plan was to move with Bob to the new city pad, but in the end it didn’t work out. “It was walking distance to his office for his secretary so it would have been wonderful, but the big problem would have been he could not have smoked cigars,” she explains. “They’re not allowed in the building or on the balcony. When I found that out from the body corporate rules I told Bob, ‘you’ll have to go downstairs to the park to smoke’, and he said, ‘that’s it’ ... he would only leave Northbridge in a box and he got his own way,” says Blanche with a sad shrug.
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