I was trying really hard to maintain a steady voice. “I’m so sorry sweetheart” my Mum said into the phone. “It’s okay it’s okay” I repeated, to what end I don’t know, as things were just about as far from okay as they could possibly be. My Mum was ringing me from my childhood home to tell me that my Dad had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and likely had less than six months to live. It was the C word. The diagnosis was grim. There was to be no happy ending or valiant battle narrative. The disease would take him, sooner rather than later.
My world collapsed from under me.
The pain I felt was immediate, visceral. I howled into my pillow and couldn’t get respite from my feelings of despair. I took a week off from work (which is unheard of for me) and lay in bed staring at the ceiling. I became physically ill and was unable to even see my Dad in case I risked his already compromised immune system. Instead I lay in bed and sobbed about my Dad’s missed opportunities; never to retire and travel how he had wanted, never to watch my 5 year old daughter grow up and go to school, the fact he was leaving my Mum, was leaving my brother, was leaving me.
After a week my small family rallied. My brother and I set up a regular roster of visiting him at home. My Dad, such is the man that he was never took to his illness laying down. In the last months of his life he installed additional powerpoints in their home so Mum could replace the wood burning stove with an electric heater. He threw out years worth of tax documents and detritus in order to save us the trouble of clearing these items out after he was no longer with us. He fixed cars and cooked roasts and walked as much as he could. And during this time I drove ‘home’ two to three times a week and just spent time with my Dad in a way I hadn’t since… well probably ever. So we talked.
It wasn’t the conversations you think you might have with a dying person (or as my Dad called it in an odd clinical terminology, “limited lifespan”). We didn’t dissect old disagreements, or ‘make peace’, or cry about lost opportunities. Instead we ate a lot of Chinese food. We watched Ms 5 playing. We talked about politics and cars and my work. We tried desperately to be happy in the face of a reality that was devestatingly sad.
And sometimes we were happy. I know he enjoyed watching my daughter play with her bubble rocket on her 5th birthday. We laughed and joked and shared stories while we ate that chinese food. My brother and I sent our parents to Broome for a week for a much-needed holiday and while he was sad about the limitations his failing body placed on him I know he enjoyed it immensely. My brother and I enoyed even more the fact that we could gift that to him. He came back invigorated, and entertained us with stories of his younger days. He enjoyed telling these stories and I appreciate that I got to hear them.
I watched him like a hawk during this time, surreptiously as he hated a fuss. I watched for new and developing symptoms but he was horrendous at being a patient and never made this process easy. However his medications appeared to be working after a time. Blood tests revealed that he had stablised to an extent since his diagnosis, that his condition, while not having improved, had not gotten any worse. My brother and I kept up the regular roster of visits, under the guide of normalcy, but I started to relax. I knew the end was near-ish, but not imminent.
The flashing of my phone woke me up. It’s a grotesque cliche to say (with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight) that I knew, but when I saw the missed call on my phone at 2 in the morning, there was only one thing it could be. When I called Mum back I learned that my Dad had suffered two seizures at home in bed, and had been taken by ambulance to casualty. He was dying but somehow we never saw it coming.
We drove down to my home town an hour away to sit with him in the hospital. From the hospital he was transferred to a palliative care ward. Here he lived for a further 2 days, although he never regained consciousness. I will not speak of his and our time in that place here, except to say it was not the end I would have hoped for, however it was dignified and quiet, and in in the end peaceful.
I can never do this story, or my father justice. Partially because this is the story of his death, and not his life. His story is not mine to tell, although there are fragments of this that exemplify the whole. He was an electrician who prided himself on his attention to detail. He was a quiet man who had no patience (a trait I inherited), and wasn’t one for shows of emotions. He called my brother “boy”, myself “girl” and my Mum “woman”. He was pragmatic and until the end wanted to be useful, even though though he already was in ways he didn’t understand. In these last months he cooked and cleaned and vacuumed and looked after everyone (to the chagrin of the nurses), which was his way of showing that he loved us. He could never really articulate his love for us, as is common with men of his generation. But he showed us with everything he did, and continued to do, even while staring death in the face.
Dad died almost three months to the day of his diagnosis, in that palliative care ward. It was October 25th. It was early in the morning and my Mum was with him. It was really sunny that day. We went to MacDonalds for breakfast. These facts are etched in my mind as if they are significant. I want them to be significant because it was the day my Dad died and that is siginifcant to me in a way that it never can be for other people. The problem is that death happens, but people still need to eat, and put petrol in the car, and make vegemite sandwiches for 5 year old girls. It seemed grotesque that life for some can just continue on as normal, while for others that life ceases to be. It seemed disrespectful to my Dad to be eating, and even laughing while he was dead. Is dead. He’s fucking dead. and I drank a Soy Hazelnut latte at a MacDonalds.
We buried my Dad on October 31st. Dad had already decided on some of arrangements to be made for his funeral. Amongst these were the two songs he wanted to have played at his service. Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ was one of his choices, which I knew gave him a great amount of joy.
Dad loved music, some of the stuff you would expect for a man of his generation (like Queen) and a lot of stuff you wouldn’t (he loved the Triple J Unearthed CDs). You will never know my Dad, not many can really say they did. He was intensly private. He was really funny, but very cynical. He didn’t trust this government (a sentiment we share). He loved his wife and kids, and his 5 year old granddaughter. He thought his son and his daughter were the smartest and most capable people he knew. I thought the same of him. I love him. He was my Dad. He will never be replaced.
It is now a month since he passed. I am not sure how I should feel at this juncture but I know that it doesn’t seem any easier. The pain is as intense as the day he was diagnosed with that wretched illness. I want to lie down and cry. I want to scream into the wind that it isn’t fair and he doesn’t deserve this, but who did? Who does? Instead I will keep walking, one foot in front of the other. It’s what he wanted for me, for all of our family. It’s hard. It’s really fucking hard. Sometimes the pain is so raw it’s like a flesh wound or a bloody bone. There is a yawning chasm in my chest where he used to be, and I didn’t really know how bad that pain was until his death was imminent and then he was gone.
This is the second song my Dad chose to be played at his funeral. It was his message to us, and it is what I know I must do.
Goodbye Dad. I love you.