The buskers at Circular Quay were brilliant but there were only three of them.  Well, only three that we could see, could have been dozens but the crowd on Australia Day was so thick it was hard to move.  Hyde Park was even more jam-packed.

It’s disappointing if crowds are poor (“Why is everyone so apathetic, why can’t we be more patriotic, like the Americans?”) but when the crush is so great that you keep getting lost from each other, and the four-year-old is getting tired of just looking at thousands of knees (“let’s get out of here!”) you try to escape.  So we took a ferry-ride to Darling Harbour, proving once again that a ferry ride is a solution for pretty much everything. Afternoon tea and a stroll back to Town Hall Station.

So the three that we saw were the aboriginal musical group complete with didgeredoo and clapping sticks (sold CD’s), an acrobat, and that motionless guy on stilts with the painted purple painted face and cape.  All so professional, nothing amateurish or home-made about any of them.  How do you get to be a busker at Circular Quay?  Do you have to audition?  Is there some standard?  Must be, or we would be falling over hundreds of them.  After all, they apparently make quite a lot of money, especially on a day like this.

Ten years go, when Don was chaplain to the Liver Transplant Unit at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and we were living in Sydney, he threatened to go busking on Circular Quay and fill a yawning gap in the acts there.  He was going to be the True Blue Australian, with a bushman’s hat that had corks on bits of string dangling from it, and recite poetry.  (Why corks, you ask?  Well, to keep the flies away of course – traditional, apparently…) 

I’m not sure how serious he was about doing this and how much he was just trying to embarrass our son, who worried that some of his school mates might see and recognise his father. (To which Don reassured our son that he would wear a T-shirt printed “I am NOT Stewart Dufty’s father!”)  But he did save the corks and he did get me to sew the string on the hat.  And he worked hard at learning “The Bush Christening” and he planned that when he was word perfect on that he would learn “The Man from Snowy River”. That was as far as the project ever got, because rote learning had become impossible, and looking back I think that was the first sign that the multiple sclerosis –  still not diagnosed at that time – was affecting Don mentally.  He would start off confidently, “Out back of Barcoo where churches are few, and men of religion are scanty… ” and then peter out.

He used to say, “My brain has gone foggy” or more often, “I feel clouded in my mind”.  That, and the occasional loss of balance or being what we called a little “staggery” were at that stage the only signs.  Ten years ago.

Sometimes I think the multiple sclerosis is causing Don a complete personality change.  Perhaps it’s the depression which seems to permeate all day, every day, with feelings of despondency and an untypical lack of interest in life, church news and current affairs.  Perhaps it’s the lingering effects of the methylprednisolone treatment which caused such huge and volatile mood swings.  Perhaps it’s the MS itself, that causes confusion and fogginess in the brain and means he often can’t follow conversations where previously he would have relished the repartee, or get the point in jokes where previously he would have been the one to make the witticism.

So it was vastly encouraging when Don was made the target at a little exercise they did at church the week before we moved from Muswellbrook.  The only church he can get into with wheelchair access at Muswellbrook, is a sort of of ecumenical informal family service at the Anglican church on Sunday evenings.  A couple of people were secretly selected by the minister, and for each one, the three defining characteristics of that person were read out.  Everyone had to guess who the person was.  (…. This of course led naturally to the defining characteristics of Jesus, and of his followers.)

The minister read out:  “Who is the person defined by these three adjectives:  interesting, compassionate, humorous.”  A brief pause, then a chorus of several people saying at once, “That’s Don Dufty.”

Interesting?  Yes, the most widely-read person I have ever known, prides himself that whoever he meets, he can immediately find a point of contact with that person and talk about their area of interest.  But nowadays he can’t read (bad eyes) and often loses the point of an article when I am reading it to him (the MS).

Compassionate?  Yes, in fact his whole ministry was grounded in compassion, and he has often found himself on the outer — yes, even in the church!  — because of his championing of the underdog.  But nowadays the debilitating condition means we are both wrapped up in our own problems and not so aware of others.

Humorous?  Definitely — that dry humour and the quirky unexpected remarks were part of an inimitable style.  But nowadays the sharp wit has gone and it can be hard for him to follow even the most obvious humour.

And yet, for people who have only known him over the past few years, he was instantly recognisable by those three adjectives.

Very reassuring, that little exercise.  What it meant to me was, that all the difficulties and changes brought about by the multiple sclerosis are nothing but an overlay, and he is still the same person underneath it all.  That the defining characteristics are still recognisable.  That there is an unchanging core at the heart of a person.  That the qualities that made Don be Don, do still define him even when buried and hidden by the changes made by this insidious disease.

Multiple sclerosis affects the brain too.  We don’t see it in MS sufferers as easily as we see the loss of mobility or loss of vision, or slurred speech, or lack of coordination — so we tend to overlook it.  Most MS patients suffer some sort of mental problems ranging from slight memory loss to confusion or real dementia.

Don has bouts of confusion, and for years he has confessed to moments where his brain goes seriously “foggy”.  Sometimes he forgets things like our phone number or which town we are living in, and will get upset and despairing when he has to stop in the middle of a sentence because he has lost his thread, or can’t remember words.  Other times he seems to be sparking on all fours and is as sharp as ever.

So tonight at church when he was asked for one last message or comment, I crossed my fingers anxiously.

“In all my years in ministry,” said Don, “I’ve learned that the one quality we as Christian people need to have is hospitality.”

You could see eyebrows raised, dubious.

“Hospitality,” he went on,  “means welcoming the stranger, opening up yourself, offering yourself.  It means being prepared to take a risk with people, it means preparing your life to welcome others and include others.  It means following the example of Jesus in the kind of open hospitality he showed to everyone he met.”

The minister neatly tied up the whole concept with the reading for the day, “I am going to prepare a place for you, and get everything ready for when you come” (John 14).  He concluded, with a nod in Don’s direction:  “Jesus embodied true hospitality.”

So I need not have worried.  Don has never come up with the trite predictable comment but nearly always something slightly off-beat, and always fresh and original.