“When the time comes I’ll go to the big circus in the sky”

Dagwood the Clown is in hospital on dialysis. He’s still hilarious. But he’s beautifully blunt when I ring and he tells me that he’s in the last chapter of life. He just doesn’t know how many pages are left, writes Rebecca Levingston.

Apr 24, 2024, updated Apr 24, 2024

Dagz (David Bissell) answers the phone with the same warm wit that he’s floated through life with for fifty years. Doctors never thought he’d make it to his half century birthday.

In fact, when he and his identical twin brother Peter were born with cystic fibrosis, their parents were told the boys might not survive toddlerhood. They defied medical odds and were both gifted double lung transplants as young men which gave them longevity and laughter. Together they entertained kids at parties for years as Peebo and Dagwood. Devastatingly, Peter died in 2020.

The show must go on… and for Dagz it’s been a wild time on the stage of life.

He survived the pandemic, a bout of cancer and is like a viking when it comes to fending off viruses. Hospital is a familiar place for Dagz. He’s been admitted to Prince Charles Hospital at least 175 times. They really should make him the King.

He deserves a crown but instead he has oxygen tubes and 28 medications a day to keep him alive. He needs multiple new organs in case you have any spare. He’s still cracking jokes.

“I”m hooked up to a machine that looks like Dexter from Perfect Match.”

I hear beeping in the background and ask him about the dialysis. He explains the permanent catheter in his chest is washing his blood out. He thinks of it as ringing out his kidneys like a sponge. It’s exhausting. And he now has it three times a week for up to five hours. 

In the middle of our chat Dagz politely asks someone for a couple of biscuits and cheese. And a cup of cordial. Little treats. The contrast of his simple requests with the serious and sometimes confronting conversation we’re having is deeply moving.

Dagz lists what’s happening inside his body. Pneumonia in his right lung. Heart’s not working properly. Cirrhosis of the liver. Kidneys on the blink. Pancreas packing up.

He jokes that the oncologist is chasing him. At one stage, so much had gone wrong he forgot that he’d had colon cancer. “Oh shit, I did too… “ You gotta laugh he says. And he means it.

Dagz gives regular updates from his hospital bed about his health along with food, comedy and fingernail colours. His nails are salon painted and share his message of love. “Smile Check” he often says to his family and friends who are rallying around. Just as a way of getting people to smile, even when you don’t really feel like it. 

“My mind is still strong, but the reality is my poor body won’t sustain life.”

“I take it one day at a time… sometimes I can’t see myself making it to next week.

“How come I didn’t cark it when I was sick last year? I don’t know the answer. I just live for those moments where I’m pain free and try to find some comfort.”

Listening to Dagz on the end of the phone line is beautiful. He’s brave. He’s honest. He’s funny. He’s kind. He’s grateful. And he’s not scared of dying.

“When my time comes, I’ll get to see Peebo and Tonya. That’s my hope.”

Tonya is his sister who also had Cystic Fibrosis. She died at 27 in 1998.

Dagz says he does’t know for sure what happens when you die but he chooses to believe there’s a heaven where you see your loved ones again.

“Maybe there’s a big circus in heaven and this life is just a rehearsal?”

I ask about his parents, Bobby and Narelle who’ve buried two of their children and now support their beautiful boy as he drifts in and out of intensive care. They’re strong …  although his mum isn’t a fan of his painted nails but she knows her showpony son.

I ask Dagz if there’s anything else he wants in life. Time is the answer.

“If I won lotto tomorrow I couldn’t enjoy it. I can’t go overseas or buy a Lamborghini.”

“Time is precious, you can’t buy it.”

He’d love to travel again, but the doctors are talking more about a trip to palliative care.

Dagz isn’t ready for that move. He recently got a superannuation payout and is using the money to buy gifts for his loved ones. Including a phone for his niece Millie who describes her uncle as the closest she can get to her Dad Peebo.

Ever the stylist, he also still buys gorgeous clothes. Hospital fashion he calls it. He says the parcels arriving give him happiness. And that’s a grin he can share with everyone.

To have such courage and whimsy when life has been so precarious, is a dazzling combination. Dagz reminds us all to laugh, be silly, create memories, appreciate the sunrises and the sunsets.

“You don’t know how long your next chapter will be.”

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