I was getting ready to go out when the phone call came. I never went. I heard the words. Crossing the Tasman Sea didn’t soften them. After the usual civilities – my sister’s manners are always impeccable – she told me what I’d known.
“Dad died yesterday Joanne,” I’d never been able to get her to call me Jo, and all I could think of was how irritating that was. A discussion of the funeral arrangements followed. Who would be there, who wouldn’t, the main reason for absences being most of his family and friends were already dead. It was a relief when she hung up.
The general household chaos that was occurring around me felt good. It formed a buffer against the pain. Preparation as defined in the dictionary is the state of being ready, fit, equipped. I’d prepared for this since I’d seen Dad a few weeks ago.
It was a surprise visit. An idea had been constantly circulating; the noise of it keeping it alive in my head. So I listened, and flew to see him. Later I was glad for the noise and that I’d listened. It was the last time I would see him.
His skin was like rice paper. Frail looking and dry to touch, I was scared it would break under my hands. Dad had never been a big man, but he was a Dad, and my image of him was imbued with all the associations I’d ingested about fathers. Fathers are there to protect, therefore they must necessarily be strong. Although the years had tempered these ideas, I was in no way ready, fit or equipped for the image of him in that hospital bed.
We’d had an odd relationship. We didn’t get to know each other till I was a teenager; he was the result of a family not preoccupied with closeness. Formal, distant, and cold were words that others have used to describe him. But something in me, in us as a unit, broke through the atmosphere he had surrounded himself in.
Loving, gentle, and funny were some of the words I associated with him; demanding and a pain in the arse had at times been uttered as well. He was however, my first love.
Those four days I spent with him were the ropes that later pulled me up from a hole of sadness. As fragile as he was, cancer had dominated his life for months now; it was from him that the strength came. Sitting there beside the bed, I was the weaker of the two. I raged at the circumstances until my body warmed with the anger; I fought tears and too often left the room with my loss.
It’s not dignified to die like that. He hated being like that. I hated him being like that. No longer able to eat more than a teaspoon of ice cream, or make it to the bathroom, he was still able to point out the idiosyncrasies of the old guy in the next bed. Years of being involved in raising my own family had dulled my perception of Dad. It was good to be reminded.
My sister and her husband arrived for their scheduled visit the second day. She immediately began to rearrange. Her first stop was the bed, hands smoothed the covers, and fingers knotty with arthritis surprisingly deftly folded the sheet to sit uniformly over the blanket. Seemingly not content with that, the bedside cupboard was her next stop, to be followed by the tray over the bed. Propelled around the room, she marked her territory. She made her point, establishing possession of Dad and his illness; I stayed seated in a chair back against the wall.
We sat in that room, exchanging information about the state of our lives. Bragging about the good and hiding the bad behind a veneer of half-truths and evasions. I bit down on my tongue to keep the smile inside when I noticed Dad moving, ruffling the bedclothes. His eyes told me we were smiling at the same joke.
Why is it that some feel the need to treat the dying as if their brain was already dead? My sister and brother-in-law talked about Dad, talked over the top of him, as if he was intangible. When they began to tell the story about Dad on morphine one day, my teeth started to hurt; I’d been grinding them together.
About how he’d been found crouching under the bed, convinced that things were out there, out there to get him. The look on Dad’s face said they had told this story before. We’ve all got one story like it, where we’ve done something that makes your stomach flip and clench when you rehear it. I was too much of a coward to tell my sister to shut up.
My sister has a busy life, and her schedule demanded her presence elsewhere. This left Dad and I free to do anything within the confines of his room. So we talked, we talked about the past, we talked about the present. But each time Dad began to mention the future, I found some way of avoidance. Going to the toilet worked, so did dropping something, or needing a drink.
I knew he was going to die; I’d finally managed to get an answer to the question I kept asking everyone. How long has he got? Nobody wants to answer that one. Finally I found someone.
“If you had left coming for three weeks, you’d have been too late,” she was curt but truthful. Yes, I knew he was going to die; I just didn’t want to talk about it. I wasn’t ready, fit or equipped to talk about it.
There was however, what my father wanted. Brittle, tired, with veins showing through his waxy skin, at 86 he was still tougher than I was. Sitting beside him, he laid his hand on mine. It rested so lightly I wanted to push my hand up into it.
“I’m tired Joanne. It’s enough, I’ve had enough,” he never took his eyes from mine. Just like when I was young and he had to make me understand why Mum died, or why I had to change schools. As if, he could pass that understanding on to me through a look.
“I want it to end, to finish. I need it, I want to go,” he said.
When the call came that day, I wasn’t ready, fit or equipped to lose him. But I was prepared to let him go.
In all fairness I would like to say my sister is a wonderful woman. I was hurting at the time, and fear and loss can make your perception of a situation skewed. She did a fantastic job looking out for Dad, and often throughout my life – looking out for me. But this piece is important to me, so here it is.